BWW Exclusive: Des McAnuff Pens Tribute to Late Collaborator Robert Blacker
On Friday, August 30, the theatre community lost dramaturg Robert Blacker, who passed away suddenly at the age of 71. Longtime collaborator Des McAnuff, who worked with Blacker at La Jolla Playhouse and Stratford Shakespeare Festival, writes a tribute to his friend below:
Robert Blacker devoted half a century of skill and artistry to the theatre and I had the great privilege of working with him for much of that time. I can honestly say Robert was the keenest mind I've encountered in my North American travels. His knowledge and passion will be sorely missed by the many talents he fostered.
Robert was born and raised on a farm in Allentown, Pennsylvania where he developed a knack for "encouraging young things to grow," to quote Dolly Levi. He entered Cornell University as an Engineering student. Thankfully, he became painfully bored with his fellow classmates and switched majors, eventually entering the field in which he would flourish. His background as a student of science gave him a meticulous command of detail that informed his chosen area of study: literature. Initially he wanted to become a writer himself, but modestly decided that he was better suited to serving other writers. His imagination was set on fire.
Robert became Dramaturg Extraordinaire. There are a number of definitions of 'dramaturg:' literary advisor, critic, researcher, editor, and Bob was all of these. More importantly, for all of the theatres he worked with, he was a kind of institutional philosopher. While he could organize exhaustive bits of information and articulate a vast array of paradoxical elements on any given project, his true gift was that he had a knack for understanding the whole. He could grasp the overview of a play or production and keep everyone else on course.
When he started on staff at The Public Theater in the 1970s, he made a conscious decision to work in as many departments as possible so he could gain a working knowledge of the entire organization. He worked in the Box Office, the Business Office, in Stage Management, in the Prop Shop, and finally, in Play Development, where he became an invaluable member of that remarkable team. The department was run by Lynn Holst and Gail Merrifield, who also happened to be Mrs. Joseph Papp. Bob's desk was about twenty feet from Joe's and this put him at the hub of one of the most vital organizations in the history of American Theatre. The Public was not just a theatre, it was an entire theatre scene. Bob not only had access to writers like John Guare and David Rabe, but to the great directors of that era as well, and Avant Garde companies like Mabou Mines with Lee Breuer and JoAnne Akalaitis. Perhaps most importantly, he gained access to the plays of William Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. It was this lofty training ground where Bob's creativity took full flight.
The first Shakespeare that Bob worked on as Dramaturg was my production of Henry IV Part 1. At the beginning of our work together, we were forced to invent our own approach to text analysis out of sheer need and relied heavily on common sense to come up with an investigative approach. We eventually coined the phrase "sleuthing" as a way of describing the analytical text work we did for many weeks in advance of rehearsal and that continued throughout the whole process. Robert Blacker was the first person to be given the title of Dramaturg at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre. Mr. Papp always considered himself the Dramaturg on any given production and it's testimony to Robert's talents and erudition that he was recognized in that way.
Over the next few decades, Robert continued to develop a methodology that explored the text of Shakespeare's plays. The great director Michael Langham was adamant that these plays were meant to be performed and not simply read. In order to be truly comprehended, the text needed to be spoken aloud. Robert spent just as much time in rehearsal as at the library. It was his work with actors on verse drama that led to his brilliance in working with writers on new plays and musicals. His advice was never prescriptive with any artist. He would offer up three ideas with the expectation that the writer would invent and adopt a fourth.
Robert went on from The Public to reinvent The La Jolla Playhouse with me, where he served as Dramaturg and Associate Artistic Director for fifteen years. During his tenure there, he shepherded through dozens of new scripts and supervised many other productions of classics. He went on as Artistic Director of the Sundance Theatre Lab to develop more new plays over the next several years. He came with me to The Stratford Festival of Canada as Dramaturg where, for six years, he once again worked on classics and fostered new play development, leading to the birth of The Foerster Bernstein Program which serves as an incubator for Canadian playwrights today. In addition, he taught playwriting and Shakespeare Studies at Columbia, Iowa, UCSD, and the Yale School of Drama, where he helped launch the careers of literally hundreds of theatre students. His work in the American Theatre is a formidable, if invisible force.
Robert left The Public and La Jolla feeling he'd accomplished what he could. He was less sanguine about his exits from Sundance and Stratford, believing there was much more to be done. Happily, this gave him the time to create his last project, his book "Shakespeare in Three Dimensions," published by Routledge in 2018, which is an essential guide to text written for practitioners.
If you were lucky enough to be one of Robert's friends, and he had many, you basked in his wit, his insight, and his boundless compassion over expansive phone calls and long dinners. Like Pistol, Shakespeare's beloved eccentric, he valued more than anything simply to "discuss."
In his biography, Bob Dylan points out that theatre artists practice their craft in the eternal present. If a 60-year-old teacher has a 20-year-old student and that student at 60 takes on a 20-year-old student, we're only ten steps from Shakespeare himself. The theatre just lost a critical link in the chain, one who's been vital to our generation and the generations to come.
Des McAnuff is a two-time Tony Award-winning director and former Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival. Broadway: Summer, Doctor Zhivago, Jesus Christ Superstar, Guys and Dolls, Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention, Jersey Boys (Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Musical), Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays (Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event), Dracula, the Musical, How to Succeed..., The Who's Tommy (Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Director), A Walk in the Woods, Big River (Tony Awards for Best Director, Best Musical). Selected New York: Fetch Clay, Make Man (NYTW). Opera: Faust (Met, ENO). Film: Cousin Bette (director), Rocky and Bullwinkle (director), The Iron Giant (producer, BAFTA Award), Quills (executive producer). He is also Director Emeritus of La Jolla Playhouse, where during his tenure as Artistic Director, he staged more than 35 productions of classics, new plays, and musicals. Under his leadership, the Playhouse received the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater. Raised in Canada, he was a part of the Toronto alternative theatre scene in the 70s. While at Stratford, he directed multiple productions including A Word or Two, The Tempest, and Caesar and Cleopatra (all starring Christopher Plummer), Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Twelfth Night (starring Brian Dennehy), ...Forum, As You Like It, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. In 2006, he received the prestigious Julia Hansen Award for Excellence in Directing and in 2011, he was honoured with a doctorate from Ryerson University where he attended the Theatre School. In 2012, he was awarded Canada's esteemed Governor General's National Arts Center Award and the Order of Canada.
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