Celebrating Stan Edelson

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Cambridge Center for Adult Education's picture

Celebrating Stan Edelson at CCAE

By Michelle Baxter

Cambridge theater director, playwright, and acting teacher, Stan Edelson, 87, who played a significant role in the 1960s experimental theater movement and the women's liberation movement, will be recognized for his 58 years of teaching community-based theater at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE) in Harvard Square. The CCAE recognition party for Stan will be held on Dec. 1, 2016, 7-9:30 pm, 56 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA (Spiegel Auditorium).

Stan began teaching at CCAE in 1959 and is still teaching here today. As a teaching artist, he highlights issues of social justice, gender roles, racial and cultural diversity. In the 1960s and 1970s, Stan played an instrumental role in the experimental theater movement in the Boston area. He and his then-wife, Bobbi Ausubel, were the founders, playwrights, and directors of the social change-oriented Caravan Theater. Their plays focused on the emerging political issues of the time: the anti-war movement, racism, gay liberation, women’s liberation.

Stan and Bobbi were integral in helping the Second-Wave of the women’s movement take hold in the Boston area when, in 1966, they co-wrote/directed the first US play inspired by the modern feminist movement, How to Make a Woman. Their groundbreaking play shed light on oppressive gender roles and cutting edge topics, including the sexualization of women, rape, and the trapped housewife. After each performance, Stan and Bobbi led women's and men's consciousness raising groups, some of the first ever held in America.

The Caravan Theater started with a grant from American Friends Service Committee in 1965 and was based at the Harvard-Epworth Methodist Church in Harvard Square until it closed in 1979. Because of the key role Caravan Theater played in the early women’s movement, its archives are housed in Harvard’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.


MB: When did you begin your acting career?

SE: It was through the Cambridge Center in 1959/60. I was teaching visual arts. Joan Blanket, who worked at the main office, told me that there was a community theater rehearsal at MIT and that I should go and check it out. I had never been to the theater before - never saw plays. I grew up in New York City and only saw movies. I was intrigued by theater and went to MIT to watch the rehearsal. After the rehearsal, I went to the director and asked if I could be of help. It was an Anton Chekhov play, The Seagull. Actors were making sounds and movement; it was like a little world going on before me. The director handed me the script, and I asked her, why are you giving this to me? She said, see this part? I want you to come back tomorrow and play that part. She did not audition me or anything. She thought I fit the part of the character physically.

I went home to read it over and talked to my wife [Bobbie Ausubel]. I asked her, what should we do? Should I take that part on or should we put on our own theater? My wife and I decided that we would start our own company. This happened in 1959/1960, which was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. My wife and I were interested in the movement. We gathered people who would be interested in starting a theater group. It was about 6 people of diverse backgrounds and races. We did not know what we would do, but we were going to do something. We started pitching ideas and that’s when I decided to write a script. I never wrote a script before but knew that this was important to do.  

We would go to picket lines and ask people if they would be interested in being in a play. We ended up creating a play about the Civil Rights Movement. It was mostly good propaganda, educational. We performed them mostly in the Boston area in churches with discussions to follow.

Is this when you and your then wife, Bobbie Ausubel, started the Caravan Theater?

In 1965, during the summer, voter registration was taking place in the South, and I talked with Bobbie that we should get involved in this. Behind 42 Brattle was the office of the American Friend Service Committee (AFSC). I went to them and asked who was in charge of college age recruitment for AFSC for social justice. He said a lot was happening in North Carolina around the issue of voter registration. I told the AFSC member that we were doing some theater around here, and he said that he thought that was an interesting idea. We ended up working on a project and that is when we began the Caravan Theater.

The first two years of Caravan Theater, in 1965-66, we had a caravan. We rented  a school bus for the summer. We took out seats, added a platform bed and built a portable stage and bleachers. We had the whole theater in the bus with 20 acting students from all over the country. We lived and worked together. The students never complained. They loved it. It made me feel that theater was like family.

How long did you run the Caravan Theater?

14 years. We were political and avant-garde. We did not know much about theater, so we would do anything we could to be more open to non-traditional ways of creating. The idea of making theater seemed to be a direct way of putting forth good ideas. I felt the visual arts were fine but not good enough and did not do enough. Theater was the best way to address issues.

In the 21st century, we continue to grapple with these same issues with civil rights and social justice. How do you talk with your students about performance, theater, and social change? What kinds of lessons or teaching do you impart to your students to address this issue through art?

I found out how liberating theater can be. Playing other characters in various situations opened me up to knowing that there is a larger world other than my own. Issues of the day can be dramatized and made into important art. When you take acting classes, you are doing a personal liberation. You are allowing yourself to be much freer, expressive and open to ideas and ways of living and being. I don’t always link this to social change; rather, to social liberation.

What is theater to you?

A chance to be expressive. When I see students sitting in the room, waiting for me, I get energized. I get emotional and say to myself that this is great!  And that starts me off.

How important is the audience?

Very important. Theater is different from film. In theater, you are playing to an audience. Their energy comes back to you if you get them involved in what’s happening on the stage; it gives them energy, and they give that energy back to you. It is a collective effort.

What’s your favorite part about teaching at CCAE?

I like the warm-up. It allows students to be free. I like any part of the theater process when I can create. I like improvisation.

As a teaching artist have you ever been challenged? What were some difficulties in teaching?

The question is how to survive; that’s the real question. I started off as an artist - that got me on the road, but artists had a tough time to get by economically. The biggest struggle was how to get by in the arts. That’s why teaching became the means to make some money, to manage, and still do your art.

What would you tell theater practitioners today? What advice would you give them with regards to performing or directing? What do you think they need to know based on your experience?

Some theater directors are pretty rigid and have a structural way of doing things which does not allow for openness. I feel that you must be open and make sure you learn all aspects of the theater: set design, lighting, etc. To know it all is better than specializing in one area.

I find theater humbling: it brings you to your knees in a lot of ways. You make a great point on being open and present and in the moment and in doing so, you are able to focus, listen, and feel.

You raise a good point. That’s a big part of it, especially when working on a play. You have to listen to the complaints, resistance, the arguments, and not put it down. You have to embrace the challenges.

Cover illustration by Meghan Zaremba