by Ray Sikorski
DALLAS, TX AND MARIN COUNTY, CA – It’s nice when you know what you want to do with your life.
When other kids were playing kick the can in his native Queens, New York, ninth-grader Fred Curchack was directing Eugene Ionesco’s The Leader. “I’ve had a strong desire to do theater since I was quite young,” says Curchack, now 61.
Performing Arts High School in New York was a natural choice, and then on to theater degrees in college. But really, nothing is quite so simple. At age 19, a close friend of his committed suicide. Curchack, distraught, dropped out of college and retreated to a remote house in the mountains of Pennsylvania. There, he did yoga and meditated, searching for answers. He found solace in the legend The Life of Milarepa, about the Tibetan poet/saint who spent his life trying to undo the consequences of murders he had committed. Milarepa ultimately became enlightened, helping people with his teachings and entertaining them with spontaneous songs.
“I did yoga and meditated naked in zero degrees on the top of this mountain in Pennsylvania, in my own 19-year-old inspired fashion,” Curchack says, citing Milarepa’s story as a great source of consolation and inspiration.
In the years that followed, Curchack embraced a life of creativity and performance, developing dozens of solo and ensemble pieces – comic, cutting edge, weird, insightful – and garnering hosts of awards. These creations have always gone hand-in-hand with a deep searching, both within and without. He’s studied Japanese Noh theater, Indian Kathakali, Balinese Topeng, African drum and ritual, Native American dance… Is there a goal, or some kind of destination?
“If you really try to look carefully at the journey you’re on, you’ll sure discover that there’s no goal,” he says. “I mean, you can say ultimately I want to get to Moscow, like Chekhov’s Three Sisters, but it’s inevitably self-deluding.”
He says he’s tried to stay true to things that are alive to him in the moment, at the time of creating the work. Of course, there are broad topics to which he often returns. Mythology is one of them. While Curchack often returns to myths in many of his pieces, he takes a confrontational approach to them. Rather than be carried along by misunderstood or unexamined myths, Curchack sees them as a starting point.
“And the aim of that isn’t just to be a mischievous monkey, but to liberate oneself in the course of working with the material; to see one’s life reflected in the material, but also to use it as a point of departure rather than a place that you get stuck.”
In a version of A Midsummer’s Night Dream in which Curchack used ventriloquist dummies from the Howdy Doody and Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney television shows to act out a huge number of roles, Curchack confronted not only Shakespeare’s use of myth, but also the way myths are traditionally treated in theater… and the way they’re treated by people in their own lives. For Curchack, that meant addressing what was at that time his foundering marriage. The dummies embodied his own childhood fantasies and dreams.
“So I was confronting a kind of infantile attitude towards relationships that I thought was still holding me back in my life,” he says, explaining that he thought the play would be a liberating experience for things that were causing him pain. He says it was a funny performance, and the audiences howled from beginning to end.
“People laughed and laughed, but it was a confrontation with myself. It was hard. Kind of dark material.”
Curchack divides his time between Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas-Dallas, and Northern California, the home of his partner and frequent collaborator Laura Jorgensen. For over 30 years he’s premiered most of his new works at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater, including a new, musical take on The Life of Milarepa, the epic that inspired and consoled him so many years ago.
“Now it’s over 40 years later, and I have a much different relationship to those texts. I’ve learned a great deal more about what they represent.”
Fred Curchack’ will perform in his play Monkey: Quest to the West on Sunday, May 24 at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, California. The performance is open to the public, and there is a $10 suggested donation. Call (415) 383-3134 for showtime and directions.
Ray Sikorski wrote and directed his first one-act play in 1988, and his second 20 years later. He is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.
Additional articles by Ray Sikorski incude:
- Tatyana Borisovna: theater as a labor of love for Ukranians and Russians
- Fikret Seditoglu: keeping Turkish theater alive
- Ledoh: coloring the world-body-space of America with butoh