This week, longtime Live Arts artistic director John Gibson resigns from his lead role—a gig that afforded him command of the city’s most prominent local theater, where he first began work 18 years ago. During his time at Live Arts, Gibson directed more than a dozen plays; five of his shows rank among the 12 most popular in Live Arts history in terms of attendance, totaling 12,767 audience members.
The cast and crew of Live Arts’ 2004 production of Angels in America, Act One, with director Gibson (second from left).
Gibson as Ebenezer Scrooge in a Live Arts production of A Christmas Carol.
John Gibson (with the cast of Gypsy) leaves the Live Arts stage after 18 years of work. “But will it always, in some form, be Live Arts?” Gibson asked when he first anounced his resignation in May. “Yes. Of course.”
Throw in Gibson’s work on the Live Arts Gala and his annual season announcement monologues and you have a body of work as distinctive as the man himself. I asked a few local performers to share their experiences working with Gibson and their thoughts about the imprint he left on each show.
“You learn how to really be in the moment, because that’s pretty much where he lives…It’s what I used to call the Evil Genius Theory—the idea that he had this secret plan all along. And I used to have that. And I remember there came a shift in my relationship with John and I realized, ‘No, he doesn’t have a plan. He’s just figuring this all out as he goes along.’
“One of my favorite moments with John comes from a show that I was not involved in…Live Arts set The Visit out by the coal tower, and performed it out at the coal tower. Which was perfect John Gibson, because it was at once inspired and brilliant, and logistically a nightmare, and a pain in the ass to pull off.
“There’s this one point where the two main characters are walking through this forest, discussing their plight…[Gibson] had the two leads walking around, and the rest of the cast members took the positions of trees holding up open umbrellas. As the scene went on, the people holding up umbrellas descended very slowly into crouches, with the umbrellas open before them.
“By the end of the scene, these people are now crouched with these umbrellas over them, and this character casually makes a comment about the mushrooms on the ground. And you suddenly realize that these trees have turned into these mushrooms. It was really, really cool.”
“His biggest contribution to Angels in America, Part One was that the play had some really difficult things for amateur community theater actors to do—that took a lot of trust in one another. That was, at least in my opinion, his biggest contribution—creating that sense of trust among his actors so that we felt like we could do and say the things that we needed to do and say. That was through exercises he created and his personal techniques.
“We rehearsed for that in the Living Education Center, and they have this round room. And we spent hours in that room, with no corners you could hide in. We spent a great deal of rehearsal time in there. Creating the atmosphere where people could do and say and commit and be daring when it, for me, far exceeded anything I’d ever done.”
“I wore many hats in A Streetcar Named Desire. I was originally the producer, and was assistant stage manager when needed. I understudied two small ensemble roles as well.
“We did this method that he’d just heard about, where the actors recorded their lines, and then we would play them back and nonverbally work through the scene. But it wasn’t just mime-act the scene, it was whatever the words made them feel as far as moving and acting with each other. As an actor, you sort of get attached to that book in your hands before you get it all memorized. To put that down and just work with the words—especially with someone like Tennessee Williams, who writes such beautiful language—that was a really cool experience.
“I think everyone likes to dive in with John.”
“One of the things that I loved about working the last two shows with John [Sweeney Todd and Gypsy] was the fact that, with Sweeney especially, they really utilized all of the stuff he’d been working on and towards. I don’t mean this pejoratively at all, but all of his tricks, all of the things he loved to do.
“The night he staged the opening prologue [for Sweeney Todd]…Everyone kinda comes out and stands and Sweeney Todd moves the light around. That was really amazing. We had no idea what he was coming up with, and when it all came together, we all went, ‘Well, that was creepy!’
“The other thing is that moment where Sweeney and Anthony are singing their opening number, and that ladder came down behind them, like the prow of a ship. I love the way he staged that.
“He’d come up with stuff, try it and if it didn’t work, he’d just throw it out and come up with something else. I talked with him about that a little after Sweeney. He said Sweeney was easy for him, because everything he wanted to do was right there, and he just followed his instincts on all of it.”