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One Show and a Window on History

 

"WE HAD THIS PLAY TO DO AND THERE COULD BE NO PUBLIC ASSEMBLY, NO ADVERTISING OF ANY KIND."
—Norm McPhee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




Norman McPhee ’63, ’65 MFA was back in town recently. He couldn’t miss the 100th anniversary celebration of the Caine Lyric Theatre. Since leaving USU, in fact, McPhee has missed very little in the theater world. It has been his life, his love, his muse; once it produced a front-and-center seat to events that would redefine the global political landscape. Theater did that.

From 1969 to 2001 McPhee gave all he had to Wisconsin’s Racine Theatre Guild. He did a little of everything, of course, including serving as its managing/artistic director. Alongside community partners and loyal guild members, McPhee helped put Racine theater on the map, where it rests today as one of the top successes among some 4,000 community theater guilds in the United States.

In fact, during McPhee’s tenure, the Racine group went from its original, 200-seat home — which, at various times, had served as a church, headquarters to a fraternal organization, home to Saturday-night boxing matches and wedding receptions (usually separate weekends) and as ground zero for the Racine Racing Pigeon Club. “They had built a loft so they could launch and recover pigeons,” McPhee said, “that’s how we got the fly system into the theater” — to what is today a custom-built facility, a $1 million budget and an audience of 4,000 annual-ticket holders.

But in 1991, McPhee found himself a world away from Racine, Wisconsin, stuck in Soviet Georgia, which was struggling for independence.

A few years earlier, at the World Amateur Theatre Festival held in the Netherlands, McPhee had brokered a theater exchange program with a Georgia troupe. Friendships had blossomed and the Georgians had already traveled to the United States twice as part of the deal. But logistically it was exhausting: language barriers and host families to find, even the FBI to placate (under “show-must-go-on” concessions, McPhee had been obliged to offer his guests additional “unobtrusive” staff members to serve as agent/bartenders and agent/ushers during the Georgian productions). Still, such international opportunities proved to be career-anchoring experiences, “because of the camaraderie that was built through the art,” said McPhee.

But at the close of the Racine Theatre Guild’s second trip to Georgia under the reciprocal agreement, history took over. The group had finished its run of Foxfire, and McPhee was just about to begin an additional 12 weeks on a directors’ exchange to present an American play using Georgian actors. He and the Georgians had chosen Still the Mountain Wind, an original play written by USU graduate David Wright. With the venerable Vosco Call directing, McPhee and others had actually participated in the show during an earlier run at the Lyric Theatre in Logan, before USU became inextricably tied to the venue. And the play seemed the perfect fit for his new friends.

“When I first went to Georgia, at least to the Caucasus Mountains, I thought I was in Utah,” the Logan-grown McPhee said.

But as McPhee was seeing his troupe off on its return home, chaos broke. “There was all this confusion going on at the airport,” he said. “Everybody in Georgia was very, very upset by what was on the news.”

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had been kidnapped by hard-line Communists. The military was trying to take control of the government.

“They were very worried in Georgia,” McPhee said, “because Georgia is a rebellious state, always has been. They had already had a standoff with the Russians in Tbilisi, the capital city, earlier that year.”

McPhee was genuinely afraid for his departing troupe, and its members for him. But the Georgians told McPhee “not to worry,” that if things got too wild, they could always take him and his brother-in-law, Jerry Allen — another USU graduate, who was to stay as McPhee’s scene designer and assistant — to safety beyond the Turkish border.

“It was always ‘not to worry,’ with them,” McPhee said, ‘no problem.’”

Still McPhee admonished members of the Racine Theatre Guild to call him as soon as their plane arrived in Warsaw. But with the uprising, all the phone lines in Georgia had been severed. “I never heard from them again for six weeks,” McPhee said.

Only later did he find out that, an hour into the flight, the Racine group made an unexpected landing on a military base somewhere in Russia. The plane didn’t carry enough fuel to make it to Moscow. McPhee also later learned that, when they finally did make it to Moscow, the group’s Georgian translator felt he owed his U.S. friends a sightseeing tour. With tanks blocking the roads and military vehicles everywhere, he talked the Americans’ way into Red Square, where the remaining souvenir vendors welcomed their only customers of the day with open arms.

Back in Georgia, McPhee was hunkered at his host’s home in the country, the property of which bordered another Russian military base. Helicopters ferrying troops into Georgia seemed incessant, and it reminded McPhee of his time stationed on North Island, in San Diego, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the Georgian countryside, McPhee fruitlessly tried shortwave radio to find information about what was happening. He couldn’t contact Allen because his brother-in-law was in a completely different area with another host family. Ground travel was out of the question. There was nothing to read, no television to watch — not even McPhee’s favorite programs of the Moscow Opera or the Bolshoi Ballet — and there was no public assembly allowed of any kind. Some Georgian citizens demonstrated with pitchforks and shovels, bats and clubs; 12-year-old kids carried rifles. The country was simply shut down.

But McPhee still had his USU play to do. He also became comfortable with the thought that,  “well, you know, I’m here in history.” So he grabbed a video camera with two American flag decals on it, put on an NBC T-shirt he happened to have, and followed a Japanese film crew everywhere it went. “I shot everything,” he said. “I eventually gave all the footage to CNN.”

Through it all McPhee and Allen found ways to continue rehearsing the play. But time was running out on their 12-week stay.

“We had this play to do and there could be no public assembly, no advertising of any kind,” McPhee said.

It was then that his Georgian directing counterpart called the local chief of police, explained that he had an American director staging a play of “no political significance” and couldn’t they allow just one performance before he had to return to the United States?

Permission was eventually granted but only under the stipulation that the play must begin at 5 p.m., use no advertising, and that the performance must end, with everybody off the streets by 9 p.m., “or they will be shot on site.”

By then some phone service had been restored and McPhee’s friends in the Georgian theater troupe started phone trees, calling everyone they knew. By 5 the evening of the performance, some 250 people made their way through military blockades to forget about things, if only briefly, through
experiencing the USU-influenced Still the Mountain Wind.

“That was an amazing and very emotional moment for me,” McPhee said.

The Georgian troupe later added the play to its permanent repertoire. But for McPhee, all the work and all the stress, all the politics and all the life-threatening danger came down to a single performance — followed by that military curfew, more skirmishes here and there, more gunfire, more explosions, more breaking glass, and an early flight the following morning.

“At 4 a.m. my host thought he’d keep the car lights off and go very, very slow,” McPhee said. “I said, "KEEP THE LIGHTS ON and go slow; we want to tell them that we’re coming!’”

One show. One life forever changed.

At a blockade before the airport, the car McPhee was traveling in was searched, his passport scrutinized. But when the searchers were told that he was an American director, traveling to Moscow en route home, one more thing happened that McPhee will never forget.

“The Georgians had a great affinity for the United States. So the guy checked my passport, gave it back to me, stepped back from the car and saluted me,” McPhee said. “He said, ‘Please sir, don’t think ill of Georgia.’”

Theater did that — when Norm McPhee sat at a window on history.

— Jared Thayne ’99