Joel Gersmann changed my life. Now he's dead.
He would make a great Broom Street play. The wild-haired maniac with a Jersey accent who seemed to believe the world would be a better place for having to put up with him, and was probably right. Joel Gersmann was a life worth talking about even if you've never heard of him, or his amazing theater, and I've invited friends and family to contribute good stories to this blog (more to come). Here's an email I got last week from Mark Thomas in Madison:
Pete - My relationship with Joel - other than seeing his plays - was to answer the phone when he called for Annie. Usually she wasn't home. I'd ask if he wanted to leave a message, and he'd say "Tell her to call Joel". This happened hundreds of times, I probably never said fifty word to him face to face.
The last time I remeber seeing Joel in the co-op, he turned to Annie with a lear and said "If you were younger I'd fuck you right here!" Annie replied "No honey, if you were younger".
Joel was the kind of person that makes it so much fun to live around here. Thanks for writing, Pete.
For Minneapolis people to imagine the figure Gersmann was in Madison, picture a combination of Al Milgrom and Steve McClellan, and have him write voraciously literate book reviews while DJ-ing obscure classical, Arabic music, or whatever else obsesses him on community radio. Gersmann was a rare combination of big and small. He was kind and mean, he loved high and low. He learned ancient Greek to read and adapt The Odyssey for one stage comedy (Ulysses, Won't You Please Come Home), and based another play entirely on excerpts from Cosmopolitan magazine.
These links only begin to tell the story: Joel's death makes the New York Times, Dean Robbins's cover tribute in Isthmus, with links to other good stories, "Joel Gersmann. A name often followed by the phrase 'that fucker'", Various Madisonians remember Gersmann on this Isthmus blog, a Cap Times news item, Joel Gersmann dies at 62, A State Journal tribute, Not exactly famous last words: one of Joel's last, typically cantakerous voicemails, An appreciation: Gersmann's vision needed his courage, Dyskeptic's obituary, and a thread at the Isthmus message board. Ditto these older articles: Off-off-off-off-off Broadway (cached article from Madison Magazine), Joel on the Overture Center, and Another Rob Matsushita memory of Joel. I wish I could have attended Joel's funeral just to hear people talk about him.
Joel Gersmann directed me in a play when I was in middle school, Clara Reeve (1982), which he adapted from an obscure novel set in Victorian times. He was very sweet to me, which amazed many who knew him. (He could be a storming asshole.) Joel couldn't believe that I transposed the play's theme song ("I Dreamt That I Dwealt In Marble Halls") by ear on piano--he could read music easily, but couldn't play by ear. His enthusiasm for other people's talent could be boyish, and he drew out (or provoked) the best from them.
Gersmann's '70s Broom Street taught me that a foot could be a phone, that five actors could play 20 characters, that art meant absolutely anything goes. He seemed to write dialogue as rock and roll, and I remember him timing his shows with a stopwatch to make sure the verbal-musical trains ran on time. (We did one rehearsal of Clara Reeve as fast as humanly possible, which was kind of surreal.)
The Gersmann plays I remember most seized on taboos, slapped them around some with tasteless satire, then somehow extracted uncommon insight and humanity from the story. The one that lost Broom Street its National Endowment for the Arts grant, The Chicken and the Chickenhawk (1990), was actually a plausible and sensitive rehearsal of the relationship between a Dilbert-like man in the closet and a male adolescent hooker. Elsewhere, Gersmann lampooned Vietnam in Action Comics (1978); jogging in Running (1979); horror in The House of Mystery (1980); Appleton in Houdini! (1981), a glorious musical that deserves to be revived; Christ and Westerns in The Jesus Gang (1984); the Doors mythology in Light My Fire (1984), way better than that Oliver Stone movie; "PC" academia in The Case of the Nazi Professor (1994); Trotskyists and fascists in Nazi Boy: The Story of the First Skinhead (1996). He played pioneering gay activist "Radical Harry" Hay this year, and I'm sorry I missed that.
Joel also made way for great work from others: Marty Mulhern's Favorite Son (1980); Danielle Dresden's Signalized (1982); Star Olderman's Boxcar Bertha: Sister of the Road (1982); Tracy Will's Packer Glory (1984), another big hit; Paul Wells's Vampire Stewardesses from Hell (1990); Rick Vorndran's I Am Star Trek (1995) and Please, Please, Please Love Me (1996) and Michelangelo, Renaissance P.I. (1997), and many more I'm forgetting. The early plays were my introduction to avant garde, before I got into punk rock. If Joel's definition of great art was that "you walk out changed," that's how I felt after those performances.
Broom Street has never staged the same play twice. The company has never staged plays that had previously run elsewhere. Admission is cheap (it was $6 for years, though that might have gone up). The actors work for free. The only concession to audience comfort (and Joel fought this, as I remember) is the presence of cushions on the otherwise backless and austere wooden bleachers. (I suggest theater goers arrive in groups, then lean against your friends' knees behind you.) Broom Street is designed to provide, in other words, an intense but temporary experience.
I always left the plays energized. I'd love to hear all the coversations continuing out to the bar afterward. (Which play was it, again, where the actors kept going after all but one audience member had walked out, and then, when that last guy left, followed him out onto the sidewalk, performing the play behind him? Somebody help me out here.)
I hope the theater keeps going without Joel. It's bigger than his personality, which is saying something.
Joel is not there (email and poem by Nate Beyer)
Things I have to thank Joel for (at Tracy G's blog)
Costumes are for losers (Rick Vorndran remembers Joel)