(a personal history)
Nov. 5, 2015
Earthlight was a New Age theater revue company that I started in April of 1969 and ended in April of 1972. The original members included Jane Richardson, Sheila Cohen (later Rachel Lovey), Robin Mide, Wendy Blakely, Jean Morris, Dale Picciano, Darlene DiDomenico, Carlos Corujon and his monkey Celeste (the baby in our production of Alice Tripping in Wonderland), Paul Gloss, Tylar Gustavson, Miriam Iron, Gil Martinez, Steven Smith, Peter George, Sally LoGalbo and David Starr Klein
In the fall of 1968 I returned to NYC after a two year stay in L.A., where I had started The Realization Theater which led to be being hired as Artistic Director of the Century City Play-house by David Sheehan, performed with a comedy group called The Committee and taken a film course at UCLA during the summer of 1968. My film won first prize and I was offered a scholarship to attend UCLA Film School. After three days of intense meditation as to whether to start training for a career in film or go back to NYC to pursue a career in theater I opted for the latter. There is an indefinable psychic power in the immediacy and simultaneity of the experience of live actors and the audience that just cannot be achieved in film. And, although film was the more practical choice my main interest was psychic, metaphysical, transformational. So I sublet my house in Hollywood and moved back to the Big Apple.
No sooner had I arrived in NY than my decision was ratified by attending performances of Hair, Paradise Now by The Living Theater, The Serpent by The Open Theater and various short pieces by The Polish Mime Theater. I also was turned onto the seminal book In Search of A Poor Theater by Jerzy Grotowski of The Polish Lab Theater, read Robert Heinlein’s book Stranger in a Strange Land, met Swami Satchidananda and studied dance with Anna Sokolow, the original director/choreographer and co-creator of Hair. By this time I had fallen in love with an actress named Jane Richardson (whom I met at Paradise Now). Jane an I went to hear Satchidananda speak at the Universalist church. During my last years in college (Columbia), at graduate school (Sarah Lawrence) and the two years I spent in L.A. I had explored many different religious, spiri-tual, mystical and metaphysical paths, systems, etc. but had not found anything that remotely encompassed the increasing awareness I was developing of a state of consciousness that trans-cended my own thoughts. After his talk I managed to approach Satchidananda as he was leaving the building. I asked some now forgotten question and, as he started to answer me, I could feel him become aware of the expanded consciousness with which I was perceiving him and suddenly, as if he had turned a switch in his head, his eyes seemed to light up and his awareness seemed to spread out into infinite space. Jane and I were sold and became students of his.
By now I had a vision of a theater company that would have all of the pizazz, spontaneity and commercial appeal of Hair, the immediacy and ability to break down the “fourth wall” between actor and audience of The Living Theater, the precision and striking inventiveness of The Open Theater, the mystical magic of The Polish Mime Theater, the rigorous physical and psychic dedication of The Polish Lab Theater and the unique improvisationally derived comedy of The Committee. I intended to make real Michael Valentine Smith’s (Stranger in a Strange Land) efforts to advance the perceptual evolution of humanity through unique theatrical performances.
I then sat down to write material as a starting point for such a company. Needing a place to work and perform I prevailed on some Columbia friends to let me use a storefront social club they called Tree House Two. Jane Richardson and I put out a casting call to audition actors for the new troupe and began workshops and rehearsals. The ensuing performances were extremely effective and had excellent feedback from the club members and guests.
By this time it was April and I was broke and was looking through the Village Voice for a job when I saw Elliot Tiber’s ad for a summer barn theater for free. If I was going to develop a world class theater company on the level of The Open Theater, The Living Theater and The Polish Mime Theater it certainly would be beneficial to get the performers out of the city to a place where we could work intensively together with minimum distractions and form a communal theater com-pany that eventually would be the basis for an entire tribal arts complex. So I called Elliot to make an appointment to go up to White Lake and got my friend Paul Johnson to drive me and Jane up there.
What we discovered was a large run down structure composed of a new barn built onto an old barn on the property of the El Monaco motel. Elliot offered the space for free to anyone who would built a theater there and rent a six bedroom Victorian nearby for $800 ($3200 today) for the season. $200 up front. I turned to Paul, who had a good job working at a publishing company and asked him if he would like to rent a room in the house for the entire summer for $200. He agreed. I gave Eliot the money and that was the beginning of Earthlight.
When I got back to NYC I got some of the Tree House Two group to commit to going up to White Lake to do a traditional summer stock season, while developing our own material and advance whatever money they could afford for initial expenses, including constructing a theater. To round out the group we did another casting call. Eliot had given us permission to move up there immediately, which some of us did. To select a name for the new company Jane, Robin and I threw the I Ch’ing coins. I don’t remember the hexagram or lines we got but it gave us the image of light coming out of the earth hence … Earthlight.
About eight of us moved to White Lake immediately to begin construction. At first the locals were a little suspicious of us for, although we weren’t hippies, we had a little bit of that look and were actors. However, when they saw how dedicated we were and how hard we worked they began showing up to help us build, give us tools, lumber, expertise and became our first audi-ences when we opened on June 13, before the tourist season had started. The theater was extra-ordinary. We had a proscenium with a balcony where the old barn was and a thrust stage into the new barn which was surrounded by padded bleachers five rows high seating about 100 people. We did five productions in repertory of fairly well known material (in order to attract an audience) but which lent themselves to experimental performance techniques: The American Dream by Edward Albee with The Beard by Michael McClure, The Balcony by Jean Genet, Alice Tripping in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll as adapted by me, Camino Real by Tennessee Williams and an original production at the end of the season with a variety of short stylized pieces written by me and created in collaboration with the ensemble which we arbitrarily called S.E.X. since it was the end of the season and we needed to build up as much capital as we could in order to continue.
In mid July I read that the Woodstock Festival had lost their space in Walkil and needed somewhere to go … quickly. I approached Elliot Tiber and asked him if he knew the city council well enough to get an okay to do the festival in White Lake. He said he did and got back to me the next day, saying he had spoke to some people and it was okay. I then called Woodstock Ventures and spoke to Ticia Agri who told me that Mike Lang wasn’t there but put Stan Goldstein on the line. I gave him the information and Elliot’s name and phone number for Mike to call and the rest is history. Not only was the presence of the Woodstock people at the El Monaco good for our business but since they were impressed by the quality and originality of our work they hired us to create some performances for the Festival. Jane and I were also able to convince them to bring Satchidananda up to do the benediction at the start of the festival. Being a performer and director I knew how important it was to be able to sense the vibes of an audience and be able to direct it this way and that. The only one I knew who could possibly do that with 50,000 (which became 500,00) people was Satchidananda. His appearance with us on the stage was the reason Woodstock became such a mellow, communal, peaceful experience.
Our summer season was extremely successful. We were sold out every performance, and booked a few performances of The American Dream at local resort hotels and a slightly toned down version of Alice Tripping in Wonderland at a few summer camps as well as the performances at Woodstock. We bought an old school bus, refitted it with storage below seating platforms, added a roof space and planned to relocate to L.A. where it was cheaper to live and create a performance space. Before leaving, however we did one performance of S.E.X. at the Open Theater in NYC wanting to showcase this new company to the NY theater world and hopefully find a backer. Since that didn’t happen about ten of us got on the bus and headed to L.A. But we had sparked the interest of a booking agent named Sarah Lukeman of the Harry Walker Agency who would become pivotal to our future success.
When we arrived in Hollywood I immediately rented a four bedroom house and arranged for us to rehearse and perform late shows Friday and Saturday nights at Bob Graham’s Radio City Music Hall West, after performances of The Kindred, his excellent avant-garde theater group. Thanks to an excellent review in The Hollywood Reporter
“someone will eventually realize just how brilliant they are … they perform with precision and an immense verbal adeptness” – Tony Lawrence
We were sold out every performance. I also booked as into a large multi-room night club called The Climax on Thursday nights.
Then an old friend, Marian Marlo, mentioned that a designer friend of hers, John Weideman, had just bought a two story building on West Washington Blvd. (now Abbot Kinney Dr.) in Venice, CA mainly to store architectural pieces he had collected and might trade us use of the upstairs loft for labor in helping him fix the place up. And that’s exactly what happened. In December we rented three small houses next to the building and began turning John’s loft into a theater. At that time we were joined by an extraordinary technical artist named Jim Gaine who from then on did all of our lights and sound. Jim managed to create an extraordinarily effective lighting system using only household dimmers, which he mounted and wired on a big piece of plywood and an array of ordinary spot and flood bulbs with clip-on gel cases, barndoors and snoots. Gil Martinez, Robin Mide, Sally LoGalbo and a few others decided to go their own way and we added some new actors, Barbara and Rick Pieters, Greg Stone, Ellyn Diskin, Doug Fowley, Richard Williams and Steve Wheller.
A painter friend of mine named Alan Hart started hanging around our theater, watching our rehearsals and was very excited about the whole artistic commune concept that we were creating and wanted to contribute something. Since Alan was a brilliant painter, I asked him to paint a multi-purpose backdrop for us which would work for all the different theatrical pieces we were doing. I wanted it done on two sets of three-panel folding screens, 8 ft high and 3.5 ft wide, which could be easily folded up and stored in the storage cabinets we had built into our bus so that we could take the backdrop on the road and quickly set it up in any theater we were playing in. Alan was very excited about the project. He saw it as a really important contribution to the mind opening experiences we were creating. So he stretched his big canvases, hinged and built supports for them, moved into the theater and began to paint at night, sometimes all night. He became fascinated with how the different lighting set ups changed what he was painting. Jim Gaine got into it with him and the two of them would be up there all night creating different backdrops for different moods all in the same painting. Other people began hanging around the theater and we always found something for them to do in exchange for some food and reassurance that they had a place in the world.
Within a few weeks Earthlight opened in its new home and was an instant success. Meanwhile Sarah Lukeman used the Hollywood Reporter review, our success at Woodstock plus her own recommendation to book a performance for us at Northwestern University outside of Chicago … in January … for $1,000 (a lot of $ in 1970). But Chicago? … in January? (brrrr) … for an L.A. troupe? … for just one performance? Well, it was our first college booking and we had to do it. Richard Williams, who was in charge of the bus, made sure that all its systems were in tip top running order … especially the heater. We folded up Alan Hart’s backdrop and off we went … on a 2,000 mile pilgrimage to entertain and enlighten the students and faculty of Northwestern University. I think we pretty much drove straight through, stopping only for gas and bathrooms. We had food and drink on the bus and, like a reverse pony express, we kept switching drivers of the same big blue EARTHLIGHT emblazoned horse that kept moving on eating up the miles across the heartland of America. Fortunately three days food and lodging was an additional condition of our contract (as we subsequently did for all our touring contracts).
The heart of our host must have sunk when she saw this bedraggled, grumpy and FREEZING group of new agers stumble off the bus. But after a good dinner, a nice shower and a good night’s sleep, the next day we were raring to go as we entered Cahn Auditorium, the 1,000 seat theater in which we were going to do our magic. We had never performed in a theater this size before and we knew that this would be the big test of the effectiveness of the innovative theatrical concepts we had created. Fortunately I had included two full days of exclusive access to the theater the day before and day of the performance in our contract (which would subsequently be included in all other touring contracts). So we had time to restage our show for these enhanced surroundings and Jim Gaine had time to convert his lighting plot for our mickey mouse system into a computerized plot for a state-of-the-art lighting system. He had a full crew to help him since I included that in our contract.
Come the time of the performance everyone was bristling with energy like race horses at the starting gate as the house lights slowly dimmed.
“Nearly 1,000 people were baptized Sunday night at Cahn Auditorium, and the medium was neither fire nor water. It was Earthlight … the best parts of the Second City, The Committee, Hair and the Living Theater are embodied in this young, fluid, and really together company.” – The Daily Northwestern, Larry Kagan
We had ‘arrived.’ We had succeeded in creating the sort of evolutionary theatrical experience Michael Valentine Smith had in Stranger in a Strange Land, an experience that worked on intellectual, aesthetic, emotional and metaphysical levels. We were on our way to becoming one of the most accomplished New Age theater companies in the country. The ride home, with a few dollars in our pockets for a few meals and motel rooms (since I had requested part of our payment in cash the day after the performance) was exhilarating.
We returned to L.A. with a renewed sense of destiny. We now knew we had achieved what we had set out to do. We had created a unique contemporary theatrical troupe that had the power to generate immediate and total, intellectual, emotional and mystical experiences.
I saw Earthlight as a theater concept modeled on the image of rock bands, a group of performers you would go to see not knowing exactly what was going to be performed, doing some old favorites and constantly creating new and varied pieces people had never seen before. The pieces ranged from 30 sec. to 12 min. long and I would decide on “the set” usually by the last Wednesday rehearsal at home or a week before we left on tour. I was constantly tinkering with the order of pieces and making meaningful and aesthetically pleasing transitions from one piece to another. All the reviews from 1969 – 1972 seem to be of the same show but were actually of many different shows with constantly changing material.
With the ecstatic review from Northwestern, as well as those from the L.A. Times
“nothing less than pure essential theater … they never assaulted, offended, pornographed. They simply enacted, and served some of their avant-garde competition a reminder of what modern theater is all about.” – Frederic Milstein
and the Hollywood Reporter, Sarah was able to book us a four college spring tour at the increased rate of $1,500 per performance, which provided us with a little financial cushion as well as some additional rave reviews to help Sarah book a big tour for the fall. I asked her to book that tour in two parts: northern colleges en route from L.A. to NYC, a three week layover in NYC and the second part: performances on the southern route back to L.A. I wanted the time in NYC so that we could showcase ourselves to the elite of the theater world and attract backing for a full scale opening in NYC.
There were two things I realized Earthlight would need to become a commercial as well as artistic and metaphysical success. One was comedy which I had learned to create in my work with The Committee” and the other was music which I learned from Hair. We already had the comedy since two thirds of our shows were either “ha, ha” or droll comedy. So far we had been using recorded music of various sorts to accompany or transition between pieces. Some pieces such as “Boxes” were entire mime stories set to a song (as I had learned from the Polish Mime Theater). But, as fate would have it, a rock band named Pure Love and Pleasure began hanging around our theater and I let them perform after the shows on Friday and Saturdays and use our theater to rehearse when we weren’t using it. They were very good, very theatrical, possessing the dynamism and lyricism of my favorite bands such as Sly and the Family Stone and Credence Clearwater Revival.
So one day I asked them if they would be interested in becoming a part of Earthlight to give it the musical dimension it needed to become commercially successful and provide us all with a living and an outlet for our creative and metaphysical energies. The band had put out an album that didn’t do too well and their record contract had expired so they were kind of on the skids when I offered them this opportunity. They were extremely excited by the idea. They had the kind of gospel rock energy I liked and I knew would raise the Earthlight performance to a new level. I picked out about five of their songs to integrate into the show in various ways and imme-diately sat down to create or alter pieces that would segue smoothly in and out of the songs. The band, mainly John Allair, a composer and key board player who knew all about show music and opera and classical and ballet, came to most rehearsals and composed various sorts of background music for various pieces that would blend or contrast suitably with the music of their songs. The two lead singers, Peggy May, a Joplin-like belter with a really good voice, and David McAnally, kind of a young Joe Cocker who made up in feeling what he sometime lacked in vocal ability. The drummer was Jacque Forman, bass/composer Rob Moitoza and guitar/composer Bob Bohanna.
This was a bit of a gamble given that we would now have to stretch our budget to cover the expenses of four musicians, two singers, two roadies and a truck with the same fees we were getting without them. But I knew that having our own world class rock band was going to be worth the risk and sacrifice (e.g. no motels).
The reactions to the new look of Earthlight with Pure Love & Pleasure at our theater in Venice was phenomenal. Not only were we sold out, but we added a Wednesday night performance and raised the ticket prices to help secure the additional capital we needed.
The first major performance was at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois. I sat way up in the last seat of the balcony in the packed twelve hundred seat theater so I could take in the totality of the energies on stage and in the audience. It was phenomenal … the best theatrical performance I had ever seen, fascinating, thought provoking, entertaining, dynamic and inspirational. Michael Valentine Smith would have been proud of us. After a few other college performances we arrived in NYC where fellow Satchidanandans Steve and Argaten had arranged for us to perform for two weeks at the Gracie Square Theater, an intimate arena theater on the upper east side. I had become an expert at expanding and contracting our staging to suit the venue in which we were performing. Peter Max did the poster and program cover.
Our two weeks were sold out after a number of good reviews …
“Earthlight is meant more as ceremony than as entertainment. It wants to turn its audience on and the evening I saw it, something obviously touched the audience beside the actors’ hands.” – NY Times, Mel Gussow
“The director seems to have achieved a near-perfect balance of theatrical “tightness” and free-form expression … the audience finds itself completely drawn into the action and comes as close to enjoying a total theatrical experience as it is ever likely to get.” – Phoenix (Queens College), Pat Henry
“… the result is trusting and joyful, yet nevertheless intense … much of it is funny, much is poignant, and although all of it is precisely orchestrated by director Allan Mann, nothing seems forced … one leaves Earthlight a little more hopeful, refreshed psychologically and physically.” – Washington Square Journal (NYU), Don Shirley
… and a number of offers poured in. The troupe left to finish the southern leg of the tour, returning to L.A., while Jane and I stayed in NY to negotiate a deal and find a loft for some of us to stay in.
Earthlight opened off-B’way at the Garrick Theater on January 20, 1971, received other rave reviews and ran through April. Jim Gaine got a NY theater lighting credit and Stan Goldstein (from Woodstock) did the sound. But this success was bitter sweet for me. Only four of the original White Lake troupe were still with the company and my dream of an artistic tribe that would stay together, buy some land, raise families and sponsor other artistic ventures was slowly fading into the mists of empirical reality. And to put the final cap on it there was an acrimonious dispute over business terms when we finally had to put something on paper in order to open the show in NY.
Earthlight had never really been a democracy. We had always discussed everything on a regular basis and then I would make the final decision. We were becoming financially successful, not only supporting the theater but almost providing a living for the members. I gave out money each week to all the members and covered occasional extraordinary expenses. However, when it came time to put this arrangement on paper many of the group balked, even though I had created a provision that anyone who had been with the group over a year could take half of an equal share of our money with them if they left. Not wishing to create bad feelings between me and the group right before our NY opening I offered a compromise under which we would have mutual veto power so that I couldn’t do anything that a majority of the group didn’t approve of and they couldn’t do anything I didn’t approve of. When that was rejected and animosity against me reared it’s ugly head I went to see Swami Rudi, an American swami who was also a business man, a rug importer and owner of an antique shop on lower 4th Ave. with a chapel in the back where he conducted Kundalini yoga sessions. Rudi was a tough guy and advised me to hold my ground since Earthlight was primarily my creation and would not exist without me. Whether or not that was good advice I don’t know, but my lawyer agreed, so I told the group that if they still wouldn’t except my offer, we would cease to be a communal enterprise, I would “own” Earthlight and, in addition to their salaries, the band would get 40% and the actors 16% of any profits from the show and ancillary rights. And that’s what happened.
It was absolutely devastating to me. Then after the show had been running for about two months Pure Love & Pleasure got a new manager who wanted to take them out of Earthlight, get them a house in the country where they could just work on their music, etc. I couldn’t believe they would do that … after Earthlight had pulled them out of obscurity and resurrected their careers. I had the rights to their music … but not to them. They agreed to find us a replacement band and teach them the music. The only one who actually did that was John Allair. I think he wasn’t in agreement with leaving Earthlight. Then other people began to leave and I replaced them with excellent, auditioned NY actors. By the end of the run Earthlight was just Jane and I. We had a spring tour coming up in Washington state and Northern California, so we decided to sublet our NY loft for the summer and experiment with working out of Berkeley California. We put all the music on tape and went on tour with just five other salaried performers in order to build up our capital resources.
In Berkeley I teamed up with a composer named David Cohen who had worked with Country Joe and the Fish, recruited new actors, created mostly all new material for a fall tour and an opening at the Charles Playhouse in Boston
“… the kind of experience that is rare in any theater … a verbal brilliance that suggests what Pinter or Joyce might have done if they had been born in this country.” – Harvard Crimson, Sim Johnston
As fate would have it, Jane and David fell in love and they both decided to leave Earthlight to create a band with her as the lead singer. And that was about it for me. Jane’s departure was more than I could handle. But Earthlight had a spring tour coming up and I needed to make some money so I collaborated with a brilliant composer named Joel Mofsenson to change all the music, rehired some of the NY actors I had worked with, gave my NY loft to Jane and David and went on a final college tour in the spring of 1972, winding up back in L.A. with no idea of what I was going to do, realizing that my initial peeks at Enlightenment, were far too limited to deal with the infinite complexities of what Lao Tzu calls “the ten thousand things”* of the ordinary world.
*Tao Te Ching
On the evening of August 28, 2009 I sat in a movie theater and watched my magnificent Earthlight creation trashed before my eyes and millions of others on the big screen in Ang Lee and James Schamus’ movie Taking Woodstock. They represented Earthlight in a totally fictitious and ridiculous manner. I’m not a good enough writer to express what I felt watching that shock-ing insult to myself and all the other Earthlighters who brought the world not only the Woodstock Festival, with Swami Satchidananda, but also some of the most extraordinary theatrical experiences audiences have ever had anywhere at any time.
That was the beginning of my decision to start thinking about assembling materials for THE EARTHLIGHT PLAN: a stage revival, a video recording, a book, and possible feature film. I have finished a revival script, unearthed some recordings of the songs, gotten a lot of pictures and videotape, reviews, etc.
Anyone interested in assisting with and/or investing in this effort may contact me at Allan@Earthlight-Theater.org