Saturday, April 9, 2011

Yesterday a question was answered and normally the answered question is a reason to celebrate or at least to be relieved that Ignorance has met its match temporarily. However, in this case, the question was: What makes Art possible in the modern United States? People will suggest artists themselves, obviously, working away for little material reward. Or patrons, those with wealth enough to spare some for their passions and sometimes those passions include theatre or painting or dance. The enthusiastic public, of course, why else do we do it? I have the double privilege of knowing the answer to the question and of having been the beneficiary of that answer. I also have the terrible misfortune to have been told that what, or who, makes Art possible in this country has gone from us. She was Melissa Hines, and I know that she made Art in this country possible because we will feel the lack of her drive and her determination immediately. When I first worked in theatre it was in the administration of a wonderful place by the name of The Empty Space, a legendary spot in Seattle that did what all good theatres do: tottered on the brink of extinction while producing work to make the gods weep. Partly because I was young and drank a lot the years at the Space were among the most joyous of my life. I took tickets, I swept floors, I ran the box office and then I did something truly stupid, I decided to cross the divide and become an artist, first as a dialect coach then as an actor and finally as a playwright. In all those years the rock upon which the Space survived was Melissa Hines who was the Development Director or, as I like to think of that position, beggar-in-chief. No one could write a grant the way Melissa could; no one thought so deeply about the reason theatre mattered to a community; no one made a potential patron understand why his or her donation mattered the way Melissa did.

She was much more than a grant writer and an intellectual presence. She baked cookies for the crew on all-nighters as opening approached, she hammered scenery, she swept the lobby, she changed light bulbs that were blown, she was always the last to leave and the first there. While I was faceless in the bar across the street (oh, the Comet, how I loved you) Melissa was tapping away at the very first of what were then known as word processors, the Selectric reserved for fancy letters, not quite obsolete but headed the way of the fountain pen. I rarely saw her flustered, almost never heard an angry word from her. This may have had something to do with her drinking prodigious amounts of coffee. I mean chain drinking coffee. When it was discovered that the Empty Space spent more money on coffee than on new play development I remember thinking, well, that’s Melissa dealt with but what is everyone else drinking? I do remember once when she finally demanded that her vast array of responsibilities be acknowledged in some way. Theatre has a simple way of rewarding people: there is never any money and so a new title has to be invented. This explains the vast number of associate thises and assistant thats. The managing director of the theatre, a great friend, couldn’t believe that even Melissa Hines was complaining, surely this was the end of civilization as we knew it? I suggested that Melissa be given the title, “Melissa Hines: Genghis Khan, Ruler of the Mongol Hordes”. He put this to Melissa, she laughed and left it at that. There was, though, more than a touch of respect in my suggestion because no one I knew then or have known since has ever done as much for the likes of me as Melissa Hines. My various jobs in theatre were subsidized by the money she raised, various buildings in which I worked were rebuilt and paid for by patrons persuaded to give by her dedication and relentlessness. She eventually took over the management of the Space and, in spaces around Seattle, the theatre continued to produce very fine work and I was lucky enough to be in a couple of productions under her leadership. There were still cookies being baked, Melissa still wielded a broom on occasion despite her having the title she had wanted and fully deserved. In her spare time (ha!) she translated and adapted Moliere and saw her work produced. Now, like the Empty Space Theatre, she is gone and our world is smaller and darker and more pedestrian than it was. I shall raise a glass in the Comet Tavern when next I am in Seattle and remember that once that glass was filled with beer partly paid for by Melissa Hines.


MP said...

They were wonderful times. I've been remembering and remembering all the fun we space cadets had during those heady years. I find myself wanting to see folks from that age I guess. I'm sad that it will probably happen as a result of such a huge loss but I hope I'm lucky enough to re-connect with some of the mememories and the folks who created them.

Brian Branagan said...

I'm grateful that you found the words that I'm still struggling to form. Melissa was a friend, a mentor and an inspiration. What impressed me was how deeply and broadly she felt her commitment to the artist and the arts. Let me know when you make it back to Seattle, John, and I'll raise a glass with you at the Comet in Melissa's honor.

Rochelle Flynn said...

John, it was so good to read your comments. I'm the person who inherited the box office from you when the "The Space" had the beautiful Merrill Place location. I can only echo your wonderful words. Melissa was great to work for and with. She always treated all of us as colleagues and made us want to be there. For me, she was the epitome of what it meant to be a "theatre person". She will be sorely missed.