Richard Henrich finds his own measure for happiness
There’s something about the laws of physics that freaked Albert Einstein out. Certain particles can be related – “entangled” is the term physicists use – such that no matter where they are relative to each other they go through changes together, instantly and completely. He called it “spooky action at a distance.”
There is no fully satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon, but one of the most comprehensive – though implausible – is the “many worlds” theory. Basically, it says that each entangled particle is both itself and, in another universe, the other particle, and we are seeing them both. In fact, the theory says, there are an infinite number of other universes, each one representing a different version of the set of possibilities which make up this universe.
Thus in many of these universes, the Spooky Action Theatre Company, which has struggled heroically to remain on its feet since its first production in 2005, would be defunct. In some of them Richard Henrich, the company’s only Artistic Director, would still be developing real estate in New York, or using his linguistic skills in the foreign service, or teaching comparative literature at the University of Buffalo. And Spooky Action would never have been born.
In this universe, however, the Spooky Action Theatre Company survives, and will be producing Einstein’s Dreams, the first show in its new 16th Street digs. Previews began June 2.
You probably remember Spooky Action. You may even have been to some of their shows. They’ve done some awfully good work, such as their fun version of Alice in Wonderland penned by André Gregory (of “My Dinner with André” fame), about which DCTS’ Ronnie Ruff enthused, “A visual feast…Without doubt you will not see more energetic and artistic movement per square foot anywhere in DC this spring” and their clever noir staging of Eric Overmyer’s Dark Rapture (about which DCTS said, “with this production, Spooky Action shows itself to be a company which bears watching – and, more importantly, a company whose productions deserve to be watched.”) They’ve also done some things that were notso hotso.
Over the years they’ve been nomads, producing when and where they can. For a while they had a policy of free admission, and thereafter passed the hat. (They took in about eight dollars per attendee, Henrich says.) They’ve had shows before nearly-empty houses. For the past two years, they’ve hardly produced at all. Now they’re comfortably ensconced in the basement of a Church which had rejected them five years ago, swaddled in the safety of a three-year lease.
The choice of buildings may be unconsciously symbolic. The Universalist Church at 1810 16th Street NW is the only one of its kind, the main Universalist Church having merged with the Unitarians in 1961. The 16th Street Church, which at one time was the religion’s national headquarters, stubbornly upholds the Universalist doctrine that God would never be so cruel as to create a person knowing that he would go to hell, and thus that we are all destined for salvation. This combination of persistence and optimism may be what is needed to keep a company like Spooky Action alive.
Certainly Henrich specializes in swimming against the current. Born in Clarence, New York – a second-ring suburb of Buffalo – Henrich says his family would have been horrified by his early theatrical leanings. “Coming from a middle-class family in the Midwest, theater was not very respectable. A professional career in theater was unthinkable.”
He was an unusually bright and facile student, and soon found himself enrolled, first at Nichols, the Buffalo-area prep school (famous graduate: Christian Laettner, the former Washington Wizard) and later at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He had a particular gift for languages and became fluent in French. He also fell in love with theater, and this secret passion guided him when he began his college career at Yale.
“I took a French major because I was very advanced already in French and it was an easy one for me, and that meant that I could spend a great deal of time doing the extracurricular theater work I wanted to do.” Yale’s drama school is the best in the country, and though Henrich was not enrolled in it his extracurricular theater group had plenty of support, including a drama school professor who served as their director. “We had pretty good resources,” Henrich says, “and we put on pretty good productions.”
Sometimes they were pretty good. And sometimes, Henrich says, they were “transformational.”
“I think the first time it hit me was in my first year there we were doing a production of Threepenny Opera. I had a small part, but it was a big cast, a big-scale production. The entrance, at the top of the show, was people filtering in from all different directions. And my entrance included starting at the top of a two-story circular staircase that went to a grid, and coming down to the stage, and we’re all singing a big company piece as we’re doing this…and it was like the rest of my life ceased to exist. Only this play – and this play is so wonderful, so perfect, that I said ‘this is really life. I’m finally at where you receive your full potential, for a little while anyway.’ And I didn’t really understand why I felt that way, or how I felt that way, but it was so. It was something I really wanted to hold on to and recreate, for myself and for other people.”
What Henrich experienced was, ultimately, a sensation. “It’s a feeling like you are finally living at your full potential as a human being. Your senses are super-sharp, you’re aware of everything that’s going on around you, and many things are going on around you at the same time but you’re aware of them all, but it’s not stressful that so much is happening. You feel very calm and in control, fitting in with everything around you that’s happening. It’s a feeling of clarity and belonging. Your adrenaline is going, your endorphins are going, you feel great. In sports, it’s being in the zone.”
After that he left the zone – graduated from Yale, went to New York City. He had picked up German and Latin, and so he decided to do his post-graduate work in comparative literature at NYU. “But it was cover,” he said, “for my interest in theater.” He needed the cover; his family, he avers, would not have understood. “They kind of accepted the idea that I might be a professor somewhere. It wasn’t wonderful but it could be worse. It could be theater, for example.”
It was, in fact, theater. He took an apartment in the East Village, and “there was a lot happening there, in theater….for a while the famous movie director, Nicholas Ray, whose most famous movies was “Rebel Without a Cause,” was crashing at my apartment. His career had taken a big dive and he just couldn’t get work. But he was still an incredible person…I knew people from The Living Theatre. In fact, one of my classmates from Yale had joined The Living Theatre, and had gone down with them to South America where he was imprisoned in Brazil for several months. He also crashed at my apartment and his buddies from The Living Theatre were coming in and out. We did some readings together….” He also worked with some associates of Sam Shepard, out of St. Mark’s in the Bowery, Shepard’s old company.
This stream of creative energy exacted its toll: Henrich ditched his PhD program in comparative literature in favor of a Masters in English, which he got quickly so that he could leave the University and go up North to write plays. That didn’t go so well. He came back to New York and did what many people with a theater background and a Masters Degree in English do. He became a carpenter’s apprentice. “I really loved that,” he says, shaking his head in wonder nearly forty years later. “I found I had good skills.”
He certainly did. He became a drywall contractor, and then a general contractor, and then a developer, buying and selling buildings. He got in on the NYC loft development craze, in which unusable warehouse space suddenly became co-op and condominium space made available at high prices. He made some healthy money – and hated it. “By the early 1980s I was completely burned out,” he says. He was working from sunup into the night, and after he went to sleep he dreamed about work. Worst of all, he wasn’t doing any theater – he wasn’t even seeing theater.
“I made a radical change,” he says. “Two radical changes. One, I got married. Two, I moved to Bangladesh.”
His new wife, Marjorie Koblinsky, was a public health professional, and Bangladesh was where the action was. For Henrich it was a little less appealing. He got into the business of distributing English-language media for expatriates, but to nourish his soul he agreed to become the Artistic Director of the local expat theater. He also learned Bengali, and acted in Bengali-language productions. The experience helped him make up his mind about how to live his professional life. “I realized…that this is what I intended to do,” he says now.
His wife’s tour ended, and she found a job with the Ford Foundation. They went back to New York, and Henrich threw himself into theater – working and taking classes. He did some work with the avant-garde troupe, The New Rude Mechanicals, and learned the practices of “poor theater” – that is to say, theater done on a shoestring. Then his wife got a job in Washington.
It was 1989. “I said, man, I just got a leg up,” Henrich recalls, but when he got here “I was thrilled. It was still pretty open-ended. The competition was not so intense.” He found work quickly. He was cast at a Folger production of The Tempest as Antonio, understudying Ed Gero, with Emory Battis as Prospero. When Gero got a movie job and left for a week, Henrich found himself on stage with Battis and the rest of the fine cast. “I thought, man, I have arrived, this is great,” he says.
He had. He got in on the ground floor with two new companies, Washington Shakespeare Company and Signature. He performed in the outlaying areas – the Shakespeare Festival in Pennsylvania, for example, and the Delaware Theater Company. He made theater. He made art. He made everything but money. He remembers a particular show at Washington Shakespeare, where the actors were paid a percentage of the box office. It was not successful.
He decided to turn Equity – which had its own costs. “As an Equity player you get paid better, but you don’t necessarily have as many offers. As an Equity actor I was doing some shows that I really enjoyed, but not as many as I wanted to do.” It was an unsatisfactory experience, made worse when he and his wife split up.
Henrich remarried, and his new wife, Anne Henrich, a Competitive Intelligence consultant to corporations, offered him some advice that he decided to take. “‘If you’re not happy with the parts being offered to you, start your own company!’” he remembers her saying. “Little did she know – little did I know…” He looks off into the distance.
Spooky Action was an extraordinarily ambitious project. Henrich started it by himself, with no other investors, no other stakeholders to bring their own particular skills to the mix. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he says, chuckling. “But you know, I figured that one of my objectives in starting the company was to show that you could do good theater without spending a million bucks.”
The new company spent considerably less than a million bucks, although “I was surprised by the extent that you do have to take on significant expenses if you want to do something of decent quality,” he says. They performed in the Mead Theatre Lab in 2005 and 2006, and then tried for space in the Universalist Church. “We went pretty far along. We had architectural plans; we had contractors lined up; we had work; we had donors; this was all starting to happen – and then the Church Board at that time decided it was just not ready for that. To have a theater in the Church.” They moved to a space at Montgomery College instead.
For a while they charged no admission. They performed, and passed the hat afterward
Henrich says it made sense from a business standpoint; they were taking in $8 a head (as opposed to $10 under the ticket system, after you take into account all the freebies to paper the house and the cost of having a ticket-taker, tickets and the like) and the free admission was creating a buzz that brought people to Spooky Action. The actors didn’t like it, though. “[They] felt slighted. They said, ‘you’re giving our work away for free. That’s not right. People should understand that they need to buy tickets as a way of supporting the theater.’ And I thought that argument was compelling….Theater is hand-made, and every time it’s made new. Every time you do it requires the artist to be there and be making it.” A ticket to a Spooky Action show costs $20 now.
It wasn’t exactly poor theater, but it was modest. The black box seated fifty – perhaps seventy-five, if the audience was sufficiently undernourished. The shows were long on implication and imagination, though short on special effects. And Henrich thought he had an ace in the hole – a brand new site waiting for Spooky Action.
“I learned that [Montgomery College] had plans for building a wonderful new $25 million performing arts center with a big stage but also a really cool black box. And this was kind of held out as a carrot for us to stick with Montgomery College and eventually we’d move to this new facility. The unfortunate thing was at the time the move was to happen and the building was finally done…the college underwent a huge transformation where the President and one of the first Vice-Presidents were summarily cashiered by the Board of the College…and I was told that they just could not accommodate our theater for the foreseeable future.”
Spooky Action was a nomad again. For nearly two years it barely produced; were it not for Carter Jahnke, a local actor who specializes in Beckett, it might not have produced at all. Jahnke did two one-actor Becketts, Krapp’s Last Tape and The Lost Ones, and a brief Beckett two-hander, Ohio Impromptu, with Henrich. Otherwise, there was nothing.
Henrich tried hard to stay in Montgomery County – he had an $18,000 grant from the County that he would have to surrender if he left – but in the end he returned to the Church which had jilted him before.
The Board was now comfortable with the idea of a theater in the basement, and Spooky Action is in the process of turning the space into a proper place for plays. There will be snacks, Henrich promises, and he hopes that someday he’ll be able to use the Church’s commodious kitchen to prepare more complicated meals. Audience members will enter from the back, through the leafy embrace of S Street NW.
They will be seeing Einstein’s Dreams, an adaptation of an Alan Lightman novel by Kipp Cheng and Director Rebecca Holderness, done in collaboration with Burning Coal Theatre of North Carolina. It is a story, in part, about what it is to have a genius as your parent, and what it is like for a genius to father a child.
“It moves me,” Henrich says, “and I don’t know why.”
Of course, that’s the story of theater in general – being moved, and not knowing why. Not knowing why, for example, that Henrich, a linguist and successful developer, was moved to give all that up to shepherd his little theater through a field of adversity to the sanctuary of a church. Or why Jason Lott, a lawyer, chooses to act; or why J. Fred Shiffman, a successful businessman, chose to act; or why David Ives, an editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, left that publication to become a playwright, or why Richard Seff left a fabulously successful career as an agent to return to the stage, or why the person who shares my home office spends night after night speaking in incomprehensible jargon to computer specialists in order to keep this site running.
Perhaps they have been entangled in some sort of experience – an experience, say, like Henrich’s, when at the top of that staircase he realized he was being everything he could possibly be – and that thereafter they do the same unselfish things, in the advancement of the same remarkable art.
Perhaps we are seeing spooky action, up close.