By the time Wendy Ishii arrived in Fort Collins nearly three decades ago, she already had an enviable reputation in theater as a director and actor. She had run a respected acting company and appeared to critical acclaim in classic plays. Once settled in Fort Collins — where she moved with her then-husband, scientist Doug Ishii, who had secured a job as a professor at Colorado State University — she created Bas Bleu, a small gem of a theater that began life in a warmly intimate space in Fort Collins’s Old Town and moved to the larger Gidding Building on the corner of Pine and Willow twelve years ago. Last night, Ishii accepted the 2018 Henry Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theater.
Talking to Westword, she laughs, remembering Doug Ishii’s response when she told him she was opening her theater with a Samuel Beckett double bill. “He said, ‘Honey, how stupid are you? First you name it Bas Bleu, so no one can say it or knows what it means. You put it on Pine Street so no one can find it. You have 49 seats, so you have no hope of breaking even. And you are opening with Samuel Beckett, who — if people do know who he is — they hate him.’
“I said, ‘We’ll see if they want us here.’ We opened to rave reviews and had to extend the run.”
Several artists have worked with Bas Bleu over the years, including supporter Tom Sutherland, best known for having been kinapped by the Islamic Jihad in Beirut in 1985 and held until 1991. He both acted and helped the company financially. But it is Ishii’s own performances that are the most memorable feature of the theater.
Five years ago, she mesmerized audiences in The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s account of the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Vanessa Redgrave played the role on Broadway, but, according to New York Times critic Ben Brantley, the actor’s emotional power didn’t communicate Didion’s quiet reserve and pained emotional numbness well. Ishii, too, is capable of huge gusts of passion, but as Didion, she gave what Westword described as a “quietly penetrating performance that withers the soul.” Her portrayal of the Angel in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was very different. In that role she hovered above the stage emitting such monstrous flights of ego that they threatened to blow the entire audience out into the street.
A week and a half ago, having just closed a successful production of Equus, Ishii had to cope with a flood at the theater. “We were getting a new roof,” she says. “The roof was a hundred years old; we always had buckets backstage and mops at the ready. There were still gaps, and the monsoon came so quickly... . It’s getting fixed now.” A restoration company brought in fans and dehumidifiers, and within a week, the building dried out, though workers are still checking for moisture under the stage.
Westword caught up with Ishii to talk about her work and the award.
Westword: Tell us a little about your background, how you got into theater, work you've done in the past.
Wendy Ishii: I was born in Scarsdale, New York, where our next door neighbor, Walter Winchell, used to pick honeysuckle for my sister and me to eat from the hedge between our houses where it was too tall for us to reach. My early memories are of getting in big trouble for making and eating mud pies made with a dozen eggs stolen from my mom’s kitchen, and road tar rolled into little balls. We moved to Mercer Island, Washington, when I was five, where I got in trouble for convincing some neighborhood kids that we could all fly if we jumped out of the trees we had climbed up via our stilts, and also for rolling in a patch of poison ivy at Camp Sealth, since I was sure I was immune. (I was!) When I moved to California in fourth grade, I got in trouble for hiding inside a mannequin’s bridal dress so I could spend the night in Macy’s after closing. The guards found me in a heartbeat. Whether these escapades fostered a fondness for risk-taking that later led to Bas Bleu, I don’t know. My family moved to Vermont when I started high school, and that is where my love of literature, theater and music took hold, both at Leland and Gray Seminary and then Marlboro College. Both of these schools were small with very dedicated, passionate and knowledgeable faculty who gave a lot of individual attention to students.
You're known for your work on Samuel Beckett. How did that start?
I started out hating Beckett’s plays. My fault, not his. At Marlboro, my mentor in theater, Geoffrey Brown, asked me to do Happy Days as part of my senior plan of concentration. I tried to read it and adamantly refused, saying, “I am not playing some fifty-year-old woman stuck in a mound of dirt trying to read her toothbrush!” Then about ten years later, in New York City, noted film, theater and television director Peter Miner told me he would love to direct me in Happy Days. I said, “Is that the play about the woman in the dirt? I hate that play!”
Fast-forward: We moved to Colorado, and Eva Wright and I started Bas Bleu. Due to several unexpected life events, we thought the theater would never open. But several friends and patrons had embraced our idea of a small salon theater and donated significant amounts of money for the renovations. I knew we had to do at least one show before we closed forever. My new colleague at CSU, Laura Jones, had remarked that the space reminded her of the Beckett Theatre in New York. She had also done her doctoral thesis on Alan Schneider’s work on Beckett’s plays, and one day she mentioned to me that famed actor Morris Burns had the perfect face and voice for Krapp’s Last Tape. So I rang Laura and asked her if she would like to direct the inaugural and only play at Bas Bleu Theatre if I could badger Morris into doing Krapp. She said, “Yes, but that is a one-act. Why don’t you do Happy Days?” I gasped. Three very different directors in three very different chapters of my life had seen my potential for playing Winnie. I took a deep breath and said, “Yes.” That little word transformed my life. It was through working on Happy Days and my complete trust in Laura that I began to know, love and become addicted to Beckett’s plays, the physical, emotional and psychological pain required notwithstanding. There are always copious tears, laughter, hand-wringing, frustrations, despair, sheer terror, and utter joy throughout the rehearsal process of every Beckett play I’ve done. I would, nevertheless, be content to do no other role for the rest of my days, and happily die in Winnie’s mound still trying to read that old toothbrush and proclaiming, “Another happy day,” while sinking into oblivion.
That was some 26 years ago. Since then, we have done several more Beckett plays: Footfalls, Come and Go, Embers, Ohio Impromptu, After the Fall, Not I, Eh Joe, and Beckett’s Women. We have been fortunate to garner high praise for our work from the international press, been written up in several books and journals, won numerous awards, entered into the Beckett Archives, and invited to perform at international festivals and conferences in Canada, the U.K., Israel, Australia, South Africa and Northern Ireland. Many prominent Becketteers have championed our work, including James Knowlson, OBE (Beckett’s only authorized biographer), Ruby Cohn, Linda Ben-Zvi, Eric Prince, Stan Gontarski, Christopher Beckett and Edward Beckett, among others.
Describe your philosophy and goals as an artist.
My passion is theater. I think stories are what change the world. Theater is a place that fires the imagination. It is a celebration of life and man’s capacity. Our vision in starting Bas Bleu was to create an artistic and cultural center where bold and adventurous works of art could be explored. Owning our building and having a small 99-seat theatre allows us to take risks not always possible in large or rented venues. Bas Bleu is modeled after the eighteenth-century European literary salons known as the “Bluestockings” (or Bas Bleu), whose members fostered animated conversation about politics, art, theater, music and works of literature. Our mission is to present outstanding theater that inspires both audience and artist in an intimate salon setting. We sometimes present lesser-known plays, or flawed plays, or commission new plays, that may not have broad box-office appeal, but that deserve to be seen, challenge our artists, or tackle important sociological issues. Our space allows us to hold post-show conversations with creatives and panels of experts. These often lead to spirited debate, emotional catharsis, compassion and a deeper understanding of topics such as homelessness, resilience, gun control, stroke, suicide, Alzheimer’s, grief, religion, right-to-die, as well as sharing information about theater craft.
After New York, do you find working in a smaller city like Fort Collins frustrating or inspiring or both?
I love working in Fort Collins. This community has embraced Bas Bleu in a way I never could have imagined. The generosity, trust, talent and commitment of our patrons, boards, staff, artists and volunteers has kept us going for over 26 years.
As with nearly every community theater, our biggest challenge is financial stability and sustainability, and not being able to pay our artists a reasonable stipend.
The demise of high-quality arts coverage in the print media is also a very real frustration. When we opened, we used to get regular features and reviews in five newspapers. That has dwindled down to almost zero. Trying to get the word out to patrons, especially those who do not use social media, is extremely difficult.
Looking back, are there things you're most proud of, failures that still make you wince, utter surprises?
I am very proud that due to the profound belief in our mission of Tom Sutherland, who gave us a magnanimous seed pledge, and the broad support and generosity of our community, we were able to successfully raise $1.5 million for Phase 1 of our capital campaign. This enabled us to purchase and partially renovate the historic Giddings Building as our permanent home. We were the lone pioneers on “the other side of the tracks” in what has now become the thriving River District.
I live by Sam Beckett’s words: “Next time, fail better” and “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
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Some years ago, on a visit to Fort Collins, the legendary folksinger Odetta said to Elizabeth Elliott, founder of Opera Fort Collins, “Only you and Wendy would think of starting an opera company and a salon theater out here on the prairie.” Both are still going!
How do you feel about the Henry Award?
I was quite flabbergasted when I got the call. It is wonderful to be recognized for something that you love doing and which you are passionate about. I am deeply honored, humbled and so very grateful to all who made this happen.
For more about the Henry Awards, go to the Colorado Theatre Guild's website.