Still Imagining The Imaginary with Ruth Maleczechby Matthew Paul Olmos
I was fortunate to spend two years (2008 – 2010) in the Mabou Mines/SUITE Resident Artist Program where I was mentored by co-Artistic Directors Ruth Maleczech and Terry O’Reilly. It was a transformative time in my life, so in 2013, shortly after Ruth’s passing, I added an epilogue to this essay I’d written during my residency, and it was published by New York Theater Review. It was, in Jody Chistopherson’s words, a “time-capsule.” Now, several years later, it is a special honor to write about Ruth again, this time looking forward: as her daughter, Clove Galilee, picks up the reins on a project she and her mother had been working on before Ruth’s death.
In January 2016, Mabou Mines and Trick Saddle (Clove and Jenny Rogers’s theater company) will present a co-production of Imagining the Imaginary Invalid, a wild and theatrical take on Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, in which we go backstage as the cast prepares the set and tries to rehearse. “As the audience watches the action unfold,” explains Clove, “ballets spring from costume settings and scenes devolve into arguments about art, money, and health, as the performers struggle to create something in the wake of the loss of a leading player.”
Clove may be taking the reins of her mother’s final project but she was, from the start, at the core of its inception. Back in 2011, Ruth was hospitalized after her cancer returned, having metastasized to her bones; a titanium rod had to be inserted to keep her bone from breaking. Undeterred, Ruth went through six weeks of physical therapy so she would be able to return to her third-floor walk-up in Greenwich Village. According to Clove, “Ruth did not like to sit still; immobility depressed her.” To keep her spirits up during this time, Clove recommended The Imaginary Invalid to Ruth, feeling the prospect of a new project would give her strength. Clove also made sure to mention how it was Molière’s final work, which he performed on a chamber pot as he was also partially immobile from illness, as well as that Molière actually died from tuberculosis directly following the fourth performance. Ruth’s interest was piqued.
Clove and Ruth began brainstorming how they could do the play, and soon Ruth invited dramaturg Valeria Vasilevski and Mabou Mines co-Artistic Director/designer Julie Archer to join them. One idea was to use Ruth’s apartment so she could perform from her bed; they envisioned hospital curtains and ballets in the hallway. Soon, Ruth got strong enough to return home, where she began researching Molière the person—his longing to be a dramatic actor despite the laughter that always accompanied his inherently comedic stage persona; his stutter; his roots in commedia dell’arte. Meanwhile, the collaborators found parallels between Mabou Mines and Molière’s own company, Illustre Théâtre, a precursor to the Comédie-Française (a state theater in France with its own troupe of actors that has been around for almost three hundred and fifty years). Both Clove and Ruth began to see their project in a much broader focus; their intent was to approach it in the same method as Mabou Mines first used back in 1971: no director, just collaborators.
Fast forward to May of 2013. Mabou Mines was preparing to tour Lucia’s Chapters, starring Ruth, to Norway. The night before the flight, unbeknownst to her company members, Ruth went to the emergency room where her doctor told her she would be unable to travel. Ruth deemed it her choice and went anyway. According to Mabou Mines co-Artistic Director Sharon Fogarty, “Ruth was in pain offstage, but onstage her performances were explosive, intense, and searing while keeping her killer sense of humor. She ripped it up.”
A month later, back in New York, rehearsals were to begin for a workshop of Imagining the Imaginary Invalid; five days before Ruth had to check herself into a hospital. Clove and Sharon debated canceling rehearsals, but “rehearsal was sacred to Ruth,” says Sharon. Then, as if the stars aligned—or perhaps it was just Ruth’s determined heart—she was released from the hospital and present for first rehearsal. Together a team of collaborators went to work: Clove, Ruth, Valeria, and Julie; actors including Brian McManamon, Christianna Nelson, and Joe Tapper; as well as several ballet dancers from New York Ballet Theater and the Met and classical musicians. For the workshop performances, Ruth carried her oxygen bottle onstage, but still, as Sharon described, “charmed, entertained, and challenged the audiences with Moliere’s pointed truths.” In the middle of the final presentation, Ruth collapsed into a chair backstage and whispered to her daughter, “I think my career in the theater is over.” Clove remembers it as a surreal moment, as she was trying to block her mother from the audience so she could catch her breath. However, Ruth believed in always being in touch with the moment at hand; she used to say to Clove, “Words are just the code for what’s going on inside.” And so Ruth just sat, trying to figure if she could finish the performance or not, just as Molière might have done in his own time.
She did finish the performance, and afterwards the company celebrated that they had made it through, having balanced rehearsing and caring for Ruth with her unpredictable health. Sharon recalls Ruth offhandedly saying to her that she might not be able to ultimately play the role, but that the project would happen with or without her; she even offered casting options for her replacement.
Two months later, on September 30, 2013, Ruth passed away in her sleep. Friends and family gathered the following night at Pangea in the East Village to toast the legendary artist. And in the new year a larger memorial was held for the theater community in La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater.
Clove was devastated; it took some time before she was able to see any light at the end of losing her mother. And then one day she woke up with an intuitive feeling that Ruth had visited her in her sleep. She wrote on a piece of paper, “Ruth is my fuse,” and pasted it to her wall. Clove then gathered the company to see how they felt about her stepping in to helm the piece, to which everyone was onboard; she also enlisted her artistic partner Jenny Rogers, Ruth’s daughter-in-law of twenty-five years, to continue adapting the script as Jenny has a keen ability to capture Ruth’s voice.
In preparation, Clove researched how different cultures honor the loss of a leading performer, and Jenny incorporated some of these rituals into the new version of the script. While the original structure was kept, Jenny wanted to integrate some of who Ruth was into the piece. “Anyone who ever witnessed one of Ruth’s performances bore witness to her presence and amazing ability to be ‘in the moment’, so the adaptation shape shifts, constantly calling attention to the present moment,” explains Jenny. Also new to this draft are discussions about sickness and health more specific to Ruth’s.
In Imagining the Imaginary Invalid, Christianna Nelson plays Angelique, who falls in love amidst her father’s illness. According to Christianna, “There is some very vivid language in the Imaginary Invalid about bodily functions. It's funny--and Ruth enthusiastically embraced the humor—but it's also heartbreaking when you think about that kind of sickness happening to your own body or the body of someone you love.”
While the script continues to evolve through rehearsals, and Ruth’s roles are now played by Marylouise Burke, the company all feels Ruth’s presence very much in the room. Brian McMannon, an actor with the project since the beginning, says, “There’s a history embedded into the fabric of this piece. It pays homage to Ruth in many ways. As we examine Molière and his relationship to his own company we look to Ruth and her relationship to Mabou Mines. It feels something akin to a spiritual homage to company and artistic creation, celebrating the theater and reacting to the adversaries of illness, pain and death.” Christianna says, “Ruth is the piece. Her life force is infused in every part of it. She and Clove conceived the piece while facing her mortality, and this work is her immortality.”
As the full production gets closer, Clove talks to her mother often, for inspiration; she says Ruth responds in dreams, daydreams, or through other people while they talk. Ruth’s continuing presence sends Clove into wonderment about the nature of ideas. “How do you show the idea of following impulse—someone gets inspired by costume sleeves they are being fitted for and that leads to a jewel of a dance; a seemingly random door slam cues a song; an argument about how a scene went in rehearsal provides the impulse to only perform the subtext,” says Clove. “These ideas are all part of Ruth’s singular technical style and genius—a river of emotion and impulse; a childlike delight in discovery mixed with a master’s understanding of the intersection of text and performance; a love of words, words, words; a tragedian, a comedienne.”
Though the circumstances of discovering, planning, creating, and now presenting The Imaginary Invalid, were not all by choice, what this production has accomplished on a logistical level is the sort of process one rarely finds in the United States; one that takes its time over years to find itself, that allows itself to begin as one thing but then evolve into another. “My experience as an actor up this point has been almost exclusively with a standard 4-week rehearsal process,” says Brian. “I was three years younger when we began our work on this piece and I have changed, and of course the world has changed.” This is something Ruth had often experienced while working in Europe and lamented wasn’t a practice in the U.S. As she once told me, “While theater in other countries is supported by city or state, it can be harder to explore things here.” So it is fitting that Clove, together with Jenny and their company Trick Saddle, have teamed with Mabou Mines to do the work that Ruth most admired, that of exploration. Christianna says, “You just don't get to do theater like this anymore--theater has mostly turned into something else. But I feel that after working with Ruth, I know a little more about how to go about making this kind of work. And I want to help make it live on.”
So, while it has taken great heartache and strength from so many to put the Imaginary up, as Sharon notes, if they hadn’t, “Ruth would be furious.”
Imagining the Imaginary Invalid, a Mabou Mines and Trick Saddle production, presented by La Mama, runs January 21 – February 7, 2016 (1/25 opening) at the Ellen Stewart Theater, LA MAMA ETC. (66 East 4th Street, Manhattan). For tickets and more information, visit http://www.maboumines.org/productions/imagining-imaginary-invalid.
ContributorMatthew Paul Olmos
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS is a three-time Sundance Institute Fellowship/Residency recipient, New Dramatists Resident Playwright, Center Theatre Group LA Writers Workshop Playwright, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Black Swan Playwright, Princess Grace Awardee in Playwriting Awardee, and the inaugural La MaMa e.t.c.'s Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Awardee as selected by Sam Shepard. Also an Ensemble Studio Theater lifetime member and two-time Resident Artist at Mabou Mines/Suite as mentored by Ruth Maleczech. His work has been seen both nationally and internationally and is published by NoPassport Press and Samuel French. For more information, visit matthewpaulolmos.com.