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Stages: A Theater Memoir
by Albert Poland
Book Review by Bob Gutowski
Poland began gathering his stories back in the 1980s, and they take us, chronologically, from those boyhood dramatics in Indiana to a production of Pinter's The Homecoming in New York in 2007. Time and again we read about Poland's drive and zest for the game, and his clever use of what he's been givenhe sets up a tour of The Fantasticks to play colleges in 1966, starring a friend from drama schoolDavid Cryer, who'd recently played the role of El Gallo on Sullivan Street. Later, Poland will obtain Lucille Lortel's Theatre de Lys for Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford's musical Now Is the Time for All Good Men. A charmed Lortel, who ended sentences with the word "dear," told Poland her opinion of the show: "Our Town set to music, dear."
Seemingly effortlessly, Poland matures into a mover in the fringe theater, working on late '60s and early '70s shows such as Futz, The Dirtiest Show in Town, And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, and Let My People Come. We learn about the postage stamp-sized stages, the ones with overhead leaky plumbing and hostile, noisy upstairs neighbors of that era.
[He] pointed to a spot in the parking lot. "I am going now to walk with Henry Hewes [theater critic of the Saturday Review] ... When we reach that spot, I want you to run out and tell me I have a long-distance call from London." I noted the spot, and at just the right moment, I ran up to them and delivered the news. He turned. "Don't you EVER interrupt me when I'm talking to Henry Hewes!" I started to speak, caught myself, and then put my head down. Brilliant, I thought. Nutty, but brilliant.
Poland himself never comes across as particularly eccentric, which is an aid in dealing with frequently Janus-faced theater folk, though he had to become tougher skinned. Ellen Stewart, the charismatic director of the La MaMa troupe, had given permission to Poland and Bruce Mailman to include her in a book about Off-Broadway they were putting together, but after it was published Stewart chilled on the project and declared Poland persona non grata. This upset him, but Mailman calmed Poland down and told him that Stewart would one day change her mind; she'd have to, Mailman said, because "She'll need a favor."
Poland credits his not very supportive father with helping him develop some of his moxie. He writes: "By saying 'No' to every request I made, he taught me how to negotiate. After hearing my case in every possible way, his 'No' often became a 'Yes.'"
If there is anything I wish Poland had done differently in Stages it's something that I found more obvious while writing this review. I located a quote by one of Poland's colleagues that I was thinking of including, and when I went to verify who the speaker was, I could only find his first name, and this was going back for several pages. This reminded me that I did have to backtrack a few times when I first read the book in order to keep the vast cast of characters clear in my head.
This is a small quibble about a thoughtful, truthful book. Anyone who wants an ego-free overview of theater in the last part of the 20th century could not do better than to read Stages. Thanks to Albert Poland's savant-like recall, we get to vicariously experience his life in the theater as he deals with aspects of the business left unmentioned in the many other "And then I played/directed/wrote..." volumes. I say, "Vive la différence!"