Barbara Vann, Medicine Show Founder and Artistic Director, Passes Away

Barbara Vann, Medicine Show Founder and Artistic Director, Passes Away

With profound sadness Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble, one of New York's longest-running experimental theatres, announces the death of co-founder and artistic director, Obie Award-winner Barbara Vann.

Medicine Show held a memorial in its theater at 549 West 52nd St. in Manhattan on Oct. 19. Barbara died peacefully surrounded by loved ones on August 26 following a brief illness.

Born Barbara Kutner, in 1938 in Brooklyn, she was a true product of New York. After graduating from Mt. Holyoke College in 1959, she plunged into New York City's arts scene, becoming a founding member, in 1962, of The Open Theater. Under the direction of Joseph Chaikin, it was perhaps the best known and most successful avant-garde theater of the day. When it dissolved in 1970, she and fellow Open Theater member James Barbosa (who preceded her in death in 2003) founded Medicine Show, naming it after the traveling horse and wagon shows of the Old West, the first completely original American theater form. She ran the theater continuously for 45 years, carving out a path not often available to women at that time.

Through the years, Barbara's Medicine Show work spanned a wide variety of styles and themes, including Bound to Rise, based on the Horatio Alger story, for which she won an Obie for best direction; reworkings of Alfred Jarry's Ubu plays; her own adaptation for the stage of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (which The New York Times said was "interpreted with imagination and understanding"); her new translation of Jean Genet's The Balcony; and her original vaudeville piece Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Porter, which weaved Cole Porter songs into Shakespearean tragedies to hilarious effect (the New York Post's Clive Barnes called it, "Delightful, delicious, delovely... joyful mayhem").

Barbara was listed in Who's Who in America: The Avant-Gardes, Platinum Edition; The Yale Drama Review cited her direction of the first production of Frank O'Hara's play Houses at Falling Hanging, thought lost until 2005; and The Best Plays in America anthology included many of her works.

Barbara also was a respected teacher, leading master classes at more than 80 universities throughout North America and on five European tours. She taught longer stints at Smith and Amherst Colleges and Yale and Colgate Universities. In 2012, as one of the few Open Theater artists still working, she created the only record of its famed acting exercises by one who was there, in the form of five-hours of workshops available on DVD.

She is survived by her daughter Regan, grandsons Thomas and John, and actors, designers, musicians, theater technicians and of course countless audience members who laughed and cried as they took so many journeys through her works.

Pictured: Barbara Vann as the Devil in George Bernard Shaw's DON JUAN IN HELL from a 2014 Medicine Show production. Photo by John Quilty.

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