Somewhere in the mid-1970s, when we were both students at the University of Colorado, Terry Dodd worked with a feminist theater group I’d co-founded, playing the unnamed man who absconded with a beautiful store-room dummy in Joanna Russ’s one-act, Window Dressing. My mother was dying of cancer at the time and Terry’s family was in crisis, and I remember his sensitivity, honesty and empathy during long, soul-deep late-night conversations, and how close we became for a time.
Terry Dodd, theater man for all seasons, died Wednesday of a massive heart attack. He was 64.
During his brief stint as an actor, Terry was gentle, thoughtful and appealing. As a playwright — several of his plays have been produced in the area — he evoked nostalgia better than anyone else I can think of.
As a director, he could drive actors mad with his perfectionism and the hours of work he demanded. But his productions were often profoundly evocative. He had an extraordinary sense of place and its effect on the people within it. I remember particularly his staging of Conor McPherson’s mystical play, The Weir, how he made the ghost-ridden darkness beyond the pub’s lighted windows and the existential loneliness of the patrons so real that you shivered in your seat.
Terry loved Lanford Wilson, and staged his Hot L Baltimore twice at the Barth Hotel, discovering deeper layers each time. The production reminded me of Arnold Lobel’s Owl at Home, the chapter where “Owl sits down to make tearwater tea by thinking about all the things that make him sad,” I said in my review. “The list that follows is commonplace but resonant, a group of small things that stand for all the losses wrought by time and indifference: pencils too stubby to use, spoons dropped behind the stove and lost, broken-legged chairs, stopped clocks, songs that can't be sung any more because no one remembers their words." For me, that story encapsulates the feeling at the heart of The Hot L Baltimore, which is a kind of extended tone poem about life in a seedy hotel filled with society's rejects. As I wrote in 2008, “This production enlarges our sense of what theater is and the subtle, intriguing ways in which it can speak to us.”
I cherished the note I got from Terry after the show closed: He said he and the cast loved the Arnold Lobel analogy so much that he’d bought copies of Owl at Home as a goodbye present for all his actors.
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Then there was RFK, starring James O’Hagan Murphy. Murphy’s work is always expressive, but you could sense the added meaning provided by Terry’s precise and unhurried direction.
Not all that Terry did was deep and sad. His The Smell of the Kill at the Avenue, in which three women plot to kill their husbands, provided one of the funniest evenings I’ve enjoyed in the theater.
I don’t think I’ll be able to stop looking for Terry in theater lobbies during intermission. I’ll miss his unique contribution to the scene, and I’ll miss his wit: He’s the only director who ever picked up on my idiotic joke about accepting bribes for a good review by slipping a candy bar into my press kit on opening night. I’ll miss the sexy photos of James Dean and the young Paul Newman he liked posting on his Facebook page. Most of all, I’ll miss a gentle, creative spirit and longtime friend.
There will be a memorial for Terry Todd on Sunday, November 28, at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Social time begins at 6 p.m., the memorial at 7. Find out more on Terry Dodd's Facebook page.