Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Fifty Years in the Making
The Independent Eye Comes to Norfolk

The Independent Eye
A fascinating evening is scheduled at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk on September 30. Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller, a writing and acting duo from Sebastopol, CA, will take to the stage with readings and sketches that highlight their half-century partnership and shared career as The Independent Eye--traveling theater troubadours.

            Their appearance is part of an East Coast tour, “Riding the Changes,” a road trip to cities from Boston to Norfolk to promote their new book, Co-Creation: Fifty Years in the Making.
             Written as a dialogue, Co-Creation is a conversation between Bishop and Fuller as they remember who they are and where they’ve been.
            They’ve got stories. As a married couple with two children, now grown, they have lived a nomad’s life performing original plays across the United States into Canada and as far abroad as Israel. Theirs has been the prototype—make that “the archetype”—of the hard-scrabble life of independent theater artists in millennial America. 
           Now in their early 70s, aged but not old, they are still creating and staging their off-beat brand of bitter-sweet, absurd, comi-tragic, surreal yet touchingly real character portraits—so numerous by now it’s as if they’ve made a career as ageless twin souls portraying their own reincarnations with each other.
            At the Venue, they’ll be talking about their experiences, reading back and forth from their book, and exhibiting their unique style with performances of a pair of their sketches, one from their early days, the other more recent. They will also be signing books and offering a variety of CDs and DVDs of their work for sale.

            The evening will be a special one for me. The Independent Eye appeared at a critical point in my life and inspired me to jump into theater, something I knew I could do but, for one reason or another, hadn’t tried since early college. That was thirty-five years ago. It’s been twenty years since we last saw each other. As the go-between bringing them to The Venue, I am excited about this reunion.            Bishop and Fuller met as students at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, and married in 1960. She quit school to work while he went on to get a PhD in theater from Stanford University and begin professional life as a college theater professor. When that proved too confining, he and Fuller left academia for a full-time commitment to independent production at Theater X in Milwaukee, a collective company they’d helped found in 1969. In 1974 they left Theater X to form The Independent Eye.

            My path crossed theirs in 1977, when they moved to my hometown, Lancaster, PA. At that time I was a discontented 37-year-old editor and writer at a weekly alternative newspaper, the Lancaster Independent Press. One night at a meeting of our local men’s consciousness-raising group, I let loose my laments about creative dissatisfaction and career stagnation which surprised and even irritated some of my friends and left me feeling almost guilty for bringing it up—not really what I thought men’s CR was supposed to be about, but that’s another subject.
             That night a man was there for the first time who was new in town. He said his name was Conrad Bishop, he was an actor and writer, and, with his wife, founder of a small acting company called The Independent Eye, which had recently moved to town to stay for awhile.
             Bishop had traded the secure future of a college professor, albeit of drama, for the vagaries of a life creating avant-garde productions wherever an audience, small or large, could be assembled. He and Elizabeth (Linda Bishop then) and a former art student, Camilla Schade, who joined them in Baltimore shortly before they came to Lancaster, performed their original material at colleges, churches, schools, prisons, low-budget theaters in seedy neighborhoods, and even in private living rooms.
            Something about this guy and his story caught my imagination. Images of Renaissance troupes performing on hay wagons in town squares or in taverns or converted barns in France and Italy and Bohemia floated up behind my eyes. It seemed alluring and exotic to me. A door opened. But I wouldn’t go through it for another two years.
            I didn’t get to know Conrad then because he never returned to the group. I never knew why. But of course, like many in town, I went with great curiosity to the first local Independent Eye productions, one of which was Shakespeare’s Macbeth, an intense, fast-paced spectacle done entirely with puppets.
. Every bit of Shakespeare’s intended pity and terror came alive for me on the stage, yet no actor’s face ever appeared—only their bodies clad in ninja-style pajamas as they manipulated the life-sized puppets—a full cast of characters including separate puppets for each stage in Macbeth’s increasingly tortured descent into madness.
            I’d never seen anything like it. I thought to myself, I’d love to be part of something like that.
            Two years later, I auditioned for an opening as a fourth actor with The Independent Eye, but I was passed over. Briefly crushed, I revived. I began writing plays for an amateur theater company several of us had formed, The Susquehannock Players. Ten years and many plays later I was finally qualified to work for The Eye as an actor, appearing in several productions before our paths diverged. In 1989 I joined another group of actors to form Theater of the Seventh Sister (still producing in Lancaster) and Bishop and Fuller went back on the road, moving to Philadelphia in the early 1990s to open Old City Stage Works, their creative base for the next eight years.
            In 1994 I moved to Norfolk, and in 1999 The Eye moved to Sebastopol, a small town 50 miles north of San Francisco, where they continue to develop new work, recycle old ones, write articles and books, compose and record music, produce radio shows and videos of their plays, and make new puppets. Most impressive of all, they maintain a relationship, which is what the evening with “Riding the Changes” and their book Co-Creation are really about.
            Looking back now over those years in Lancaster from the mid-’70s to the early ‘90s, I’m reminded of how artistically vibrant they were. Lancaster is an old, small, conservative city—America’s first inland town—resting on the rigid bones of Englishmen and Anabaptists. We had community theater with its standard plays and college theater for the high brows, but there was not much cross-over or independent experimenting until the Eye came to town and raised the level of professionalism, attracting other professionals to the area who opened theaters and hired people like me who were learning the craft and becoming professionals ourselves.
            During the years The Independent Eye was there, Lancaster became a theater town. Several of us made all or most of our living at it. There were classes in all the performing arts, workshops and new plays going up throughout the year, and more and more people began to act and sing and dance and write and make theater. It was a fertile time in fertile soil, when Lancaster County raised artists as well as corn and tomatoes.
            That scene is gone, of course. Many from that era don’t do theater any more. Some have died. Some have moved on. And the opportunities have shrunk.
            But from what I hear from old-timers in Norfolk, it’s no different here. Probably it’s the same everywhere. We are, it’s been said, a nation in decline, and in such times artistic energy becomes disabled or channeled into propaganda or invective.
            And I doubt The Independent Eye would take credit for what one of my friends called “the Lancaster Renaissance.” But it really was like a Renaissance then, a fire lit that spread and burned bright for awhile before it became controlled and tempered by overseers. That’s why it gives me great pleasure to see The Eye—Bishop and Fuller—still at it, still crazy after all these years, still on the road amazing people with their off-center bicycle ride on tightrope after tightrope without falling.
            For a slice of life in the theater as it really is, come out to The Venue on 35th, 631 W. 35th St., Norfolk, on Sunday evening, Sept. 30, at 7:30. Admission is a $2 donation. Refreshments are available. Seating, however, is limited. For reservations, call 757-469-0337. For more information on The Independent Eye, visit their well-stocked website.


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