“Street” Life: Doric & Me

Posted: May 8, 2011 in Broadway, Culture, Entertainment, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized

I had never really heard the term ‘Off-Off-Broadway’ until I was about eleven years old, and only learned it because I was leafing through a copy of New York Magazine and saw it in the listings. Thus, being a very inquisitive little person who was dying to be a serious thespian, I started doing what little research I could within the limited confines of the Queensborough Public Library’s Rego Park branch. Needless to say, I didn’t learn much, other than the fact that there were little theatres scattered throughout New York City where new playwrights and new directors were producing plays with unknown actors, some of whom could easily go on to be the great stars of tomorrow. One name that kept coming up again and again was Theater for the New City, which at the time was located on Second Avenue and Tenth Street. And so, after three summers spent studying Musical Theatre at the Usdan Center on Long Island, and then getting my first professional job as a founding member of the TADA! Youth Theater in 1984 (and aging myself out of the company by the following summer when I turned seventeen), I was beyond thrilled when I opened a copy of Back Stage and saw a casting notice for Theater for the New City’s summer season of street theater, where a musical would be written organically and then performed on the streets of New York throughout the five boroughs. I auditioned, I got in, it wasn’t just the first time I was being paid a little money regularly but also got rehearsal pay, and I made some wonderful friends that I’m happy to say are still close, like Scott Lilly, Marian Rich, Stephen Landsman, Ellen Korner, Michael Naishtut, Joel Marks, Michael-David Gordon, Victoria Linchong, and Dan Kelley. But more than anything else, that was the summer I really learned of the foundations of Off-Off-Broadway, and of wondrous places with the intriguing names of LaMama, the Living Theatre and the Caffe Cino. I sat at the feet of actors who had really been there and lived through it, people like Joe Davies and Margaret Miller and Amber (no last name), and soaked up every bit of knowledge I possibly could. And being a member of the company also afforded me the marvelous opportunity to see the work of some of the greatest Off-Off-Broadway playwrights of any generation, including Ron Tavel, Maria Irene Fornes, and Sebastian Stuart. I was also already familiar with a playwright named Robert Patrick, because I’d seen a production of his play Kennedy’s Children on PBS and it fascinated me that it was written entirely in monologue, so I picked up a copy at Drama Book Shop and absolutely devoured it. (It would be a few years before I really understood what it was about, but I loved it from the start).

A year later, TNC lost their lease but acquired a new space a block away, the site of the old First Avenue Market building at the corner of Ninth Street. The first step of the exodus from the old space to the new was the day hundreds of us volunteered to move everything over there, and of course I went along because, to me, this was a chance to be a part of theatre history. What struck me was one gent in particular, a middle-aged fellow in a snappy T-shirt who had a certain delicacy to his movements but muscles like an ox, who was effortlessly carrying very heavy boxes out to the street. I had no idea who he was until he made some jokey remark to somebody and the person replied, “I’d slap you for that, but I forgive you because you wrote Kennedy’s Children,” and I nearly dropped the sound board I was carrying. “You’re…you’re Robert Patrick?” I asked timidly. He smiled and said yes, he was, and I spent the rest of the day following him around like a lovesick puppy and tried making as much small talk as possible.  In retrospect, Bob probably wasn’t particularly happy about having this teenager yapping at his heels all afternoon, but he was very polite about it. Near the end of the day, he said, “You know, you should meet Doric if you don’t already know him. I have a feeling you guys would really get along well.”

I asked, “Who’s Doric?”

He replied, “Doric Wilson. The playwright. He’s not here today, but you should really meet him. And read his play, it’s called Street Theater. I think you’ll love it.”

So the next day, I took myself to Drama Book Shop to ask if they had a copy. They didn’t, it was out of stock, but if I took myself downtown to A Different Light, I could probably find it there. I did, I found it, I read it, and I thought it was one of the most powerful plays I’d ever read. This was at a time when I was really coming to terms with my sexuality; I’d been more or less out of the closet since I was eleven and I was always pretty obvious, but until I read Doric’s play I was never really conscious of the whys and wherefores, and certainly not of the normalcy of why I felt the way I did, fetishistically or otherwise. He wrote it with such fearless abandon that it literally came close to warping my mind, and from that day forth I became a serious devotee of Doric’s work. And told myself that somehow or another I would most certainly meet him one day.

A couple of years later, after I discovered the Five Oaks supper club on Grove Street and immediately settled in to become a regular fixture there every night, I struck up what became my now-infamous friendship with the great actress Shirley Stoler. Once we’d graduated to the point of my visiting her at her apartment on West 17th and talking about anything and everything for hours at a time, one day out of a clear blue sky she said to me, “You know, I really think you should meet Doric Wilson. He’d probably dig you. Your energy is so similar to his, and you both have such reckless abandon. I don’t see you guys being involved romantically or anything, but I think you could be great friends.” I said that it was a funny coincidence, because Robert Patrick had told me three years earlier that he thought Doric and I should meet. She said, “Well, you see? Great minds think alike.” We never really brought it up again, but it was interesting to me that she’d say that.

Now we jump to 1993. Francine Trevens, a lovely lady and tremendous theatre publicist, whose daughter Nina just happens to be the founder and artistic director of the TADA! Youth Theater, was throwing her annual New Year’s Open House at her apartment in the West 30s and invited me to come. Of course I needed no persuasion; I hadn’t seen Nina in years and I knew she’d be there, and probably some other very interesting folks. And there were; one of them happened to be Victor Gluck, who had just completed his tenure as a critic for Back Stage, and was not only a very nice man but turned out to live a few blocks away from me in Rego Park. But about an hour after I got there, a new wave of people showed up. One of them was a tall, burly gentleman in a leather jacket, with gray hair and a marvelous face but a very softspoken voice, who looked like he could decimate a motorcycle gang with one solid punch. He looked at me sort of semi-seductively, and I looked at him (I hope) the same way, and I went over, outstretched my hand and said, “Hi. I’m Andrew Martin.”

He smiled and said, “Hi, Andrew Martin. I’m Doric Wilson.”

I nearly died. “You’re…who…what did you say?” He repeated it, and I glued myself to him, telling him how much I loved Street Theater, that I was good friends with Shirley, that I’d once had the pleasure of meeting Robert Patrick, that I’d worked at Theater for the New City, and everything else I could think of. And he was, I daresay, absolutely entranced with me. We spent the next two hours talking about everything from Ionesco to our favorite flavors of ice cream, and had the most marvelous time. And then, when the sky outside the windows started turning dusky, he said, “I’m going over to the Spike. Wanna join me?”

I gulped. The Spike? THE Spike? The SPIKE? I knew all about the Spike, and had been dying to go there one day because I’m into certain things that I knew would jell with the men who populated it, but I was scared stiff (in more ways than one). And also, I knew I wasn’t dressed for it; I was wearing a sportsjacket and slacks and a turtleneck sweater. I expressed all of that to Doric, and he said, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be with me. Nobody’s gonna bite. Unless you want them to.” So we said goodnight to Francine and Nina, got in a cab, and went downtown.

Once inside, and seeing all the leather-clad butchies, when my eyes adjusted to the darkness I was actually amused by the fact that the jukebox was blaring “I Woke Up In Love This Morning” by the Partridge Family. Doric ordered us some gins, and then started unburdening himself, telling me about how tortured his childhood was in the Pacific Northwest, how he always felt that New York was where he belonged, and how hard it sometimes was to separate the public Doric Wilson from the private Doric Wilson. And, in one of the few times of my life I’ve ever done this, I simply sat and listened and didn’t say a word. And it became very clear that there was no romantic attraction between us, but that was fine. About an hour later, some cute guy came in, fixed his eyes on Doric, Doric fixed his eyes on him, and I excused myself and left, after giving Doric a big hug and a smooch and telling him that I hoped we’d always be friends. He said, “Of course we will. We should have met years ago.” I never called him, he never called me, but something told me it would be OK.

About a year later, a friend of mine called me. He was involved with a theatre company called InCoAct (short for In the Company of  Actors), and they were producing an evening called Magic Time: Plays from the Caffe Cino at the Greenwich Street Theatre. It would be short plays by Lanford Wilson, Robert Patrick and John Guare. And since I was such good friends with Shirley Stoler and she’d been such a big part of the Caffe Cino, could I possibly call her and ask if she’d like to attend, because the cast would love to meet her and know that an actual legend of the Cino was in the audience that night. I called her, explained all this, and she said, “Yes, but I have a few conditions. You’ll have to come get me in a cab, bring me back in a cab, and I won’t do it alone. Call Bob Heide, and also call Doric Wilson. These are their phone numbers.” Now, I already knew Bob Heide from the Five Oaks because he hung out there all the time, so I had no problem with calling him, but for some reason I was a little shy about calling Doric. I called Bob, who absolutely agreed to take part and that he would bring a lady friend who also acted at the Cino from time to time. Then I nervously called Doric. He picked up the phone and said hello, and I said, “Ummm…hi, Doric. This is Andrew Martin. I don’t know if you’ll remember me, but we met at Francine Trevens’ New Year’s party last year, and then we went to the Spike, and…” and he said, “Stop, you silly boy. Of course I know who you are. What’s this about?” So I told him, and he was delighted by the prospect of not only seeing the plays done once more on a stage but of hanging out with Bob and Shirley. That night is still, to this day, one of the proudest of my life. I was so delighted to be part of it and to have brought these people together, who were as overjoyed to see each other again as the cast was to see them sitting out there in the first row. And Doric spent the whole evening being a playful clown with me, making angry faces and then laughing, and then at one point, at the reception afterwards, sidling up behind me as I was eating a fruit salad and coyly whispering, “Yeah, that’s right, boy. Get those big lips down on that beautiful fruit. Yeah, boy. Show the fruit you mean it. God, that fruit thinks you’re so hot,” which almost made me choke on a chunk of peach.

Last summer, the summer of 2010, I was privileged to see Doric for the last time, when he was selected to receive a Golden Pineapple Award, at the Cringefest at the Producers Club on West 44th. I walked in, bumped into Charles Busch and his partner Eric Myers along with Julie Halston and said a big hello to them, and then Doric grabbed me from behind and pulled me to him in a big bear hug. We had a few drinks and a lot of laughs, and I was so, so happy for him that night. Since that time, we e-mailed back and forth constantly, and he kept sending me notices about his theater company, TOSOS, but I never really had a chance to catch any of their productions because the timing was always unfortunate. Then, a few months ago, I asked him if I could possibly interview him for the book I’m writing about Shirley, but he said he really didn’t have very much to offer, he really only knew her as a character who was on the scene but the truth was that they weren’t really that friendly. I also made it a point to regularly read his blog, at doricwilson.blogspot.com, where as recently as a month ago he was singing the praises of Harvey Fierstein and Christopher Sieber, in the regrettably-closed Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles.

This morning, I woke up and logged on to Facebook to learn that Doric died in his sleep yesterday, while taking a nap before a reading of a new play at TOSOS. I pray that he went quietly and didn’t suffer, and I wish that I’d had one last chance to say goodbye, because he touched my life and my soul in a way that I’m not sure many would understand. But I also know, as sure as I’m sitting here typing this, that he’d be the first to say, “Stop, you silly boy. I’m not worth crying over. Just make sure the Times spells my first name correctly. The last time, they put an H at the end.”

Alas, poor Doric. I knew him. Well.

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Comments
  1. Beautiful, thank you.

  2. Glenn says:

    Beautifully written. I’ve just been sort of stunned all day since hearing the news – your piece brought tears to my eyes for the first time. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. DORIC WILSON’s last interview (in 2 parts) may be seen at [FOURTEEN] on this page: http://robertpatrickpersonal.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/videos-of-interviews/

  4. Michael Naishtut says:

    What a moving story Andrew. thank you for posting.

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