Fred Gaines, playwright and teacher, dies

72 year old Fred Gaines will be remembered as a playwright, a collaborator, and a champion of theater.

Gaines died yesterday morning at his home in Appleton, Wisconsin after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

Gaines, who earned his PhD in Theater at the University of Minnesota, was a writer in residence for the Children’s Theatre Company for several years under the artistic direction of John Clark Donahue. It was while there he wrote adaptations for “A Christmas Carol,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “King Arthur” and “Oliver Twist,” among others.

Donahue remembers Gaines as a kind and caring soul who gave himself over to theater projects wholeheartedly:

I always believed a playwright should be associated with the theater company and the process, not alone at a desk but in the trenches making theater. And I presented that idea to Fred and he embraced it wholeheartedly. He embraced the company, and as a result we got beautiful writing with great theatric viability. And he would work with the human clay of actors, not just the ideas drawn from the literature. He was inspired by the energy of actors like Bain Boehlke, Wendy Lehr and others.

Bain Boehlke, now artistic director of the Jungle Theater, performed the role of Ichabod Crane in Gaines’ “Sleepy Hollow,” and Scrooge in Gaines’ “A Christmas Carol:”

He did just a fabulous adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” and of course he’s from the old days, the 60s and 70s, when theater was taking off here. He was a major player in that as a playwright.

In a book titled “Five Plays from the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis,” Gaines expounded on his view of the rold of a playwright, stating “theater must be a sharing of ideas or it becomes presumptuous.”

Too much time is devoted to the playwright’s vision… I don’t think that playwrights are prophets, but I hope that they are accurate and that they have access to their emotions. I think that the techniques a writer uses aren’t much different from those a sculptor might use.

Too often writers and directors feel that they must just be themselves, express themselves in their productions and the uniqueness of the production will carry it. That’s nonsense. When we met to talk about plays, we constantly spoke about the play in terms that revealed our debts. We talked about creating a setting like Rackham’s illustrations, we talked of creating a specific moment onstage like that created by a particular ballerina in a particular performance; we talked of music that would evoke in the audience (as it did in us) the memory of childhood carols.

These are borrowings. Not plagiarisms, but borrowings. We took the images of other works and let them work through us, let them reemerge in a coloring that was our own. That’s the only way theater can work. If any part of the theater machine becomes selfish, a vehicle for personal dictatorship, then I think the theater is hurt by it.

Director Gary Gisselman remembers Gaines as a mix of “Eric Bentley and Bill Holm, all wrapped up into one.” He says Gaines was a great intellect who felt a deep love of the land. His family had a farm, to which he would invite staff to work on plays.

We worked on a number things but most closely on Oliver Twist. I’ve known Fred as an actor and a playwright and as a friend. He was always so generous with the collaborators. He didn’t have a huge ego, not to say he didn’t have strong ideas. When Polanski’s “Oliver Twist” came out a few years ago I got a note from Fred saying “Ours was better.”

In 1977 Gaines joined the staff of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he taught theater. Former student John Middleton wrote a touching tribute to Gaines back in January, which you can read here.

After Gaines’ retirement in 2000, he continued to teach as a volunteer in the Outagamie County Jail, the Oneida Reservation, Renaissance School for the Arts and Central High School, all in Northeast Wisconsin.

On March 4, Gaines sent out his last “Chemo-newsletter” in which he wrote about his decision to stop the chemotherapy. That decision was announced in a previous e-mail, titled “Turning Inward.” This last e-mail was titled “P.S.”

I saw in myself (and in others) a physical turning inward, a hollowing in of the shoulders as if we were trying to hold and protect something at the center of ourselves and I know there’s some truth in that – our heart is there, the lungs that carry our life blood is there and, in a different way, our sense of ourselves. “Stand up, Freddy.” “Attention!!” “Let me see how that shirt fits you, honey.”

When we were growing up together in Grand Island, the Catholic and protestant churches felt like different institutions. We were – we protestants, that is – greatly ignorant of the people who went to the cathedral. When I asked Judy at lunch which of the saints it was dedicated to, neither of us was sure but decided on St. Mary’s. It was a building that dominated our small town and few of us entered it who did not belong to it. When I first saw; representations of the Bleeding Heart of Jesus, there it was, at the center of the image, a heart, a flame, life, and it is that, perhaps, that we try to cover when we round our shoulders to keep the cold from our source. My source remains the same, not the centuries old ikon that good Catholics kept in their homes, but in the love between all of us.

Great words to end a life on.

A memorial for Fred Gaines’ family and friends will be held this coming Saturday at 11am at Cloak Theatre inside the Lawrence University Music Drama Center.

Thanks to the University of Minnesota Press for permission to reprint the excerpt from “Five Plays from the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis.”