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Remembering Edward Payson Call

Updated: Feb 13, 2023


We lost one of the great ones. Edward Payson "Ed" Call. At PNT we have a few Call alumni. Paul Perri, John Lee, Ivar Brogger, and we often get caught before a rehearsal starts fondly recounting tales of working with him.


I started my fun with Ed as a first semester grad student at University of Minnesota. We'd heard that "Ed Call from the Guthrie!" was coming over to direct "Servant of Two Masters"! The whole department turned out for auditions, and as Billy Levis had to work on his doctorate the part of Truffaldino fell to me.


I later heard that after three weary days of watching auditions Ed had turned to his eager, student Stage Manager and asked "are there any more funny people?" The SM replied, "Well you've seen all the Mcknight Fellows and theater grad students and undergrads...." and Ed said, "Yeah, y'know I don't really care if they're in the theater department. I need funny people."


On the first day of rehearsal, 6 foot Ed addressed the cast. One arm folded across his chest, the other hand over his eyes which pierced intently through the fingers, and in his gravelly "just woke up" voice. "Now this play was written by Goldoni, and, it says, in the style of 'commedia dell arte'. I'm not really sure what that means. I know it was supposed to be very funny. I know when you say it to an actor they go like...this!" (He leaps into a wide, balletic stance, half crouching, arms extended like a cheerleader, wide-eyed and grinning.) "I know it's not that. And I'd like for us all to use this time to explore it together."


We proceeded to have a wonderful experience, finding equivalents to what the anarchic, hellzapoppin feel of the Italian comedians might have been. At one point I was still trying to find Truffaldino and Ed said, "Y'know Leo Gorcey from the Bowery Boys? Maybe he's like him". Bingo. We even based our beat up pants, sneakers, suspenders, and round beanie on Gorcey's.


 

This was the Fall of 1970. That summer Ed had directed "Julius Caesar" at the Guthrie. It had been my first show to see there when I'd arrived in Minneapolis. I was astonished. The motif Ed chose was a Latin American/ Aztec village, with a huge set piece ot Bob Pastene's (Julius Caesar's) head center stage like an Easter Island monolith. Billy Grivna played a tourist snapping pictures as he climbed over it. At one point Charles Keating, the Anglo/Irish actor playing Marc Antony in a loin cloth leapt to a six foot platform to face the crowd onstage for "Friends, Romans, countryman" (Irish accent) with his rear flap exposed to the audience in the left hand aisle. I thought "Well that must be an awkward view..." At another point, Guthrie Voice and Movement Coach Fran Bennett led several "villagers" (McKnight Fellows) in an Aztec dance honoring the dead ruler. I, fresh out of Notre Dame, left the theater thinking, "Well, Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore."


Later I heard that Ed's production was the talk of the town. Everyone was abuzz about how bizarre the production was. Bob Pastene was not happy. Reviewers were not happy. Ticket sales poor. Much discussion. Much controversy. As close to a flop as a nonprofit gets.


I, of course, was oblivious to the political nuance. And so, at our "Servant" opening night party in an off-campus apartment, holding beers, I asked casually, "Ed, what the hell was that Aztec Caesar all about? Wow." There was a sudden freeze. Pin drop silence. Cigarette smoke hovering. Everyone, faculty, doctoral students aghast that I had mentioned the one topic everyone had avoided for weeks. After a huge pause, Ed gravelled, "Yeah. Pam and I were planning a trip, and I was reading a book on Guatamala at the time. Ya gotta be careful what you read when you're directing."


Ed left the Guthrie that year, eventually to start the Denver Theater Center. I had lunch with him a couple of years later when I was on tour at Elitch Gardens. I said, "I hear you did Caesar again." He said, "Yeah! And this time I got the first part right!"


 

I got to work with Ed again a bit later at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. I'd moved to New York and had just returned when my agent called, "Ed Call's directing at Long Wharf and he's been looking all over for you. Get over to TCG (where the auditions were). It's his last day. He's says if you show up you got the job." The actor's dream. I went over.


He said, "We're doing O'Neil. The Sea Plays." And so we went to New Haven. Ed had his old Guthrie partner in crime, the brilliant designer Jon Jensen, to do the sets. The scenes of these moody one acts - Moon of the Caribees, Long Voyage Home, Bound East for Cardiff, and In the Zone - were either on deck or in the seamen's quarters of the S.S. Glencairn, and Jon had built a magnificent Chinese Box of sets that changed from play to play, mast swinging over the audience, decks morphing into cabin walls, traps to below deck, while the tech crew and acting "sailors" transformed the small, open stage before the audiences' eyes. The word even went out "Don't leave for the intermission! The scene change is part of the show!"


The first day of rehearsal we gathered around the grey cafeteria tables and looked at each other. Ed had dug into the back alleys of New York and Los Angeles to find the grittiest group of actors - and me - that might be assembled as a sea crew. There wasn't a straight nose in the bunch. Joey Tillinger, the Associate Director, said, "Well this is the butchest cast we've had in a long time!"


Ed was a wonderfully visual director. He had stage managed for Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the best interpreter of Shakespeare and one of the most visually-gifted directors of the 20th Century. Ed had learned how to make theatrical pictures. It was said of Guthrie, and to some extent of Ed, that if you, as an actor, wanted to know how important he thought your speech was, take a look at where he's put you on stage. If you're standing on a box, center stage, with everyone looking up at you, he thinks what you're saying is important. If you're standing in the moat, facing upstage, best just get on with your lines as fast as possible. Ed wasn't keen on your motivation. That was up to you. He hired you, so go do it. He was concerned with other things.


One of the characters I was playing was a no-named wharf rat he'd invented to give some life to the lengthy scene changes. My job, smudge faced, dressed in ratty overcoat and flat cap, was to walk around the audience with handbills for an imaginary bar, "The Main Brace."


At one point in the rehearsals, apparently a Long Wharf subscriber who was a dentist, had offered his services to "rough up" the perfectly orthodontured teeth of today's actors. Ed was excited. "Lance! Do you think your guy would have a gold tooth?! Wouldn't that be great!" I hated to disappoint, but said, "Ed, I think I'm supposed to be a kid wharf rat who's living behind a bar and eating out of the garbage. I don't know where he'd get the money for a gold tooth." Ed growled, shook his head 'Yeah. You're right. Never mind", and went on to the next actor, "Richard! Do you think your character would have a gold tooth?!" His enthusiasm and curiosity were inspiring. I later heard that at that point in his career he was fascinated with Eugene O'Neil and was offering his talents anywhere they were producing him, to continue his exploration.


I say he was a visual director, but it was organic, authentic to the text. One afternoon, I was sitting in the darkened house at Long Wharf, watching the rehearsal of the death of the great, handsome, 6'3 "Yank" in "Bound East for Cardiff". The cry goes out that "Yank had fallen from the mast!"


We watched these burly, rough men we'd come to know, gently carry Yank into the fo'castle and clear the long table to carefully lay him down on a piece of canvas sail. They knew he was going. With great emotion, Yank said his last and died, the men standing round him. The lights surrounding the edges of the stage dimmed, leaving only the central table illuminated. A lonely sea chanty is heard.


Ed, from the house, quietly directed the six actors around the table, "Now, Richard and Peter, one on either side, slowly fold his arms. Good. Slowly. Now straighten his legs. Slowly. Now each of you quietly take hold of the piece of canvas in front of you. And when I say "go", I want all of you to take one wide step back, snapping the canvas. Got it? Okay. Ready...and "Go". The men stepped back at once, snapping a four foot ring of white canvas around the body. This once powerful, rugged, American was suddenly diminished into a reverse-closeup, becoming a tiny figure with arms folded, surrounded by white, to be wrapped and slid into the sea he'd lived in all his life. It was, I think, the most affecting and simple theatrical effect I've ever seen. And it came out of the imaginative interpretation of Ed Call.


We shall miss Ed. But not the idea of him. It may have been years since we've been in touch, but we all continue to be touched by him, by his sense of "theater", his dedication to the project, the playwright, the interpretation. And we'd all drop whatever we're doing to work with him again. And we will one day. And maybe "get the first part right." - ld




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