A conversation with playwright/director D. W. Jacobs and performer Rick Foucheux
If you haven’t read the work of Buckminster Fuller or seen it explained in R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, you might doubt whether watching one solo performance could totally transform how you see this “Spaceship Earth” and yourself and your fellow inhabitants. We invited the two men responsible for bringing about the DC production of this remarkable piece to talk with us.
Why this play and why now?
We are clearly at a point in history where we need to rethink and re-“feel” what truth means in the larger world and in our local worlds. We must revisit history’s best thinkers, feelers and doers, but as an invitation to do our own feeling, thinking and doing. As we head deeper into a vast range of catastrophes, it’s important to reconnect with those people who had such powerful faith in the creativity of the little individual to tackle the biggest problems.
As we understand it, you first heard Buckminster Fuller speak at a lecture in Santa Barbara. What sort of impression did he make on you at the time?
He reminded me of my Mormon grandfather, J. Ward Green. My grandfather had been a Bishop. He was a strong walker, good posture, neatly dressed, thin hair, a big dome of a head. Something in the stillness of Bucky’s stance, alternating with intense scurries to the chalkboard to demonstrate, all of that reminded me of a testimony meeting combined with lecture demonstration. Americans love testimony, whether in court, church, TV, or on the street corner.
Did you realize then that there was something theatrical or stage-worthy about Fuller?
No. I don’t think so. There was, however, something powerful in his presence. That planted a seed that grew for decades, and then germinated into the idea for a play almost 30 years later.
Tell us something about your brother Steve, to whose memory this production has been dedicated.
As a child, he taught me art, sports, dragged me through museums. He studied at the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He pulled me into the lectures that Bucky was giving there in 1968. During the summer of the previous year, we worked as waiters at the Marriott Motor Hotel at Twin Bridges, on Old Jefferson Davis Highway. It’s now an empty field, quite near the Crystal City theatre. We lived in South Arlington, and spent our days off in the National Gallery of Art.
We often sat and stared at Dali’s huge canvas of The Last Supper. Only last year, I drew a connection between the dome structure in Dali’s painting and Bucky’s geodesic structures. I hadn’t seen the painting in decades. I wrote to Bucky’s daughter, Allegra, and she confirmed that Bucky and Dali had a strong connection.
Did you continue to study his work?
I orbited into and away from his work for decades. In the 1980s, his books showed up on remainder tables in bookstores, and Critical Path was published. That book made a huge impact on me. In 1995, I was Artistic Director of San Diego Repertory Theatre, and Peter Meisen (GENI) came into my office to rent our theatre for a Centennial Bucky birthday celebration. The theatre was booked, but they found out about my interest in Bucky and drafted me to direct the opening night ceremony. I also met Bucky’s daughter, Allegra, at that time, and I got to know the Bucky videos and transcripts created by her husband, Robert Snyder. Almost immediately, I got the idea for a one man show that would mix lecture, movement, dance, song and testimony. It took five years to research and write it.
What have you learned from Buckminster Fuller over your lifetime?
Critical Path was published around the same time that I read Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. They both taught me pretty much the same thing: each individual has the obligation to hold to his own individual sense of Truth, in interplay with all the other truths at work in the world. Each individual must make his own connection to truth. This was the same thing my Mormon parents taught me. They weren’t happy when my older brother and I left the church, but they respected our decision.
What sources did you use to put the play together? Have you been able to read any of his Dymaxion Chronofile?
I did not work with the Chronofile directly. It was in storage, being readied for transfer to the Stanford libraries. I worked with Robert Snyder’s Buckminster Fuller: An Auto-Biographical Monologue/Scenario as a starting point, and then branched out to all the published work, picking things up here and there. Bucky’s grandson, Jaime Snyder, also sent various and often obscure video tapes my way.
What have you learned as a result of writing this play?
I can’t put that easily into words. I’ve learned that some ideas come with an imperative. They demand that they be developed, shaped and brought out into the “real” world. Your life changes radically in the process of doing those projects of turning a creative idea into a physical realization. It’s not always easy. It often has its way with you. It brings its own gravitational inevitability.
Buckminster Fuller’s legacy is very much present in the work of the Buckminster Fuller Institute and its yearly $100,000 challenge, Operation Hope.
The Challenge has been an amazing way to bring focus on a whole range of people wrestling with the task of reconciling creative inspiration with the practical realities of “making the world work for all of humanity.”
Before you turned to theater, you studied mathematics, science, literature, international relations and political geography. What happened?
The short answer: I fell in love with an actress. The longer answer: I discovered that theatre was tied to literature, art, music, movement and action. I had always been a big reader, but realized I was pretty naive about the full range of world literature. I was very skilled in high school mathematics and science. I decided to head into the territory where I felt most ignorant – poetry and dramatic literature. In my freshman history class, I learned that testimony comes from the word testicles. To swear oaths and truths, we once put our hand on something more personal and less symbolic than a bible. Theatre comes from a word that means a place where things can be “seen.” That word refers to physical sight, but I also believe the theatre lifts a veil so that we can peak into the unseen and unsuspected. Theatre is distinctly suited to exploring inner and outer realities – all the entrances and exits, all the shifting relationships in time and space. Bucky was a generalist, as was my father. Bucky, in a sense. gave me permission to go into theatre, as did my father. My dad would have liked me to become a lawyer like him. However, he realized quickly that theatre was my particular path to study, play and work with “everything in the world.”
Some people may think this play is like going to a lecture, and they may not be sure about that. What would you tell them?
It’s a lecture-dance, an entertainment for mind, body and brain. I had the idea, but wasn’t sure about writing the play until Allegra told me that Bucky, in his heart, really wanted to be a song and dance man. He couldn’t sing. He couldn’t dance. That fascinated me – here’s a brilliant global mind and creative force, but he really wanted to sing and dance. The play is very much Bucky’s song and dance, and he works to teach each of us how to find our own song and dance, to give an ear to what Thoreau called the “different drummer.” I’ve been startled at how broad and diverse the audience is for this play. Bucky always thought children were his best audience. If you bring your old worn-out self into the theatre, you might walk out with a child’s fiercely awakened curiosity. Bucky believed we’re all born geniuses, and are simply de-geniused at an early age. In the middle of the catastrophes of 1968, Bucky cut across all the Us-versus-Them thinking, and made us feel deeply that the biggest problems could be solved, and that we each had a unique role. We need his highly disciplined creative spirit more than ever.
What’s next for the play?
In January, it’s going to the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard. Bucky was kicked out of Harvard twice, once for spending a whole year’s allowance on a party for chorus girls! He was later readmitted, and then, later, again kicked out, but this time for studying what he wanted to study, and not the assigned homework. He later received an honorary chair from Harvard. It will be fun to take him back to Harvard once again.
What personal challenge do you think people take away after seeing the play?
I’ve always wanted the audience to walk away from the play with the distinct feeling that their lives have been handed back to them. The huge creative force of their life sits in their own lap. We must review our conditioning and face up to the creative imperatives that will come calling at our door.
Award winning DC actor Rick Foucheux is playing Buckminster Fuller.
What impression did you have of Buckminster Fuller or his ideas before you undertook this role?
I was only slightly familiar with Fuller, having “come of age” in the 60’s and 70’s when he was something of a guru to the “counterculture.” I knew of the domes, the necessity for futuristic thinking. And I was intrigued by the artwork of his Time Magazine cover in 1964.
Now that you have inhabited his shoes, what are your thoughts on him as a human and as a teacher?
I wish I had paid closer attention back then, so he compels me to pay closer attention now. I’ve never been a math or science wiz, but I’ve found his embracing of the human experience incredibly eye-opening. After his epiphany, he appeared to be incapable of a negative thought – and he thought a lot. All outcomes could be translated into a positive effect for humanity – IF we were able to maximize our thinking and realize the power we have as individuals.
Have you been changed by this experience?
Yes. I now realize I not only have the opportunity but the obligation to “think in a cosmically adequate manner.” It goes beyond each of us playing our part to increase goodness for the whole – that in itself is not exclusively Fullerian – but that we can satisfy ourselves individually by acting like we are connected.
For this particular role, the playwright was also the director. What challenges did that create, if any? In what way was it an advantage?
A writer directing his own work can be problematic, but Doug (D.W. Jacobs) was completely open to new thoughts coming from all his team. He served as a Fuller “tutor” to me, and I’d like to think some of my questions and roadblocks even prompted him to rethink some things about the script and the show. And he was amazingly patient with me.
Talk about your favorite moments in the play.
It’s fun to see the smiles of the audience when the “toys” come out, and I start playing around with the vectorflex. They really seem to take delight in those visuals. And toward the end of the play, when we begin to not only hear but feel Bucky’s appeal for a more thoughtful world, it’s a privilege to be his mouthpiece.
Your recent performances have been extraordinary, even judged against the high standards set by your previous productions. Have you been doing anything special recently to up your game?
That’s a bit of a loaded question because it would require me to agree with your kind words. And I’m a very harsh critic of myself. If my work succeeds in reaching the audience in a memorable way, I’m thankful to still have the energy for it combined with whatever maturity of thinking may be taking place. I feel very fortunate to have the chance to do this work, and to be doing it in such a sophisticated theatre town as Washington.
What’s next for you?
In the 2010-11 season I’ll be Artist in Residence at Theater J. We start with a compelling political drama, Something You Did, in September; The Odd Couple in November (I’m thrilled to be playing Oscar opposite J. Fred Shiffman’s Felix); and then The Chosen, Aaron Posner’s adaptation from the Chaim Potok novel. Theater J’s production of The Chosen is as an invited company in the new Arena Stage Fichandler Theater.
— You have only this week to see R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe. The show closes July 3, 2010. Arena Stage is offering DCTS readers the chance to get one free ticket with the purchase of a ticket. To take advantage of this 2-for-1 offer, call 202 488-3300 or order online. Use promo code BUCKY241.–