E. GARD, THE
[NOTE: X and Y are people who will read quotes in character. They are seated with scripts, simply joining in, conversationally, on cue].
Maryo: The year was 1948. My phone rang. Wakelin McNeil, 4-H Ranger, was on the line.
X: There are 9 people from rural
Y: I wish I’d known they were coming today. I’m pretty busy.
X: One of the women has 13 children.
Y: A farm woman with 13 children has time to
X: She’s here.
Y: All right, I’ll see them right now. Where?
I found the 9 people in a hot room that looked out on the slope down to
Y: You are like a group of my neighbors when I
kid down in
X: You remind me a little bit of a neighbor of
Y: Why did you come?
X: I don’t know exactly. Except that we’ve heard that you want people to write about their own places and the folks they know well. I think I could do that.
Y: Tell me about
yourselves. Where did you come from and
what kind of
And then began one of the most incredible experiences I ever had. These 9 persons stayed at the University for three
days; and every day about in
the morning we would start talking together.
And as we talked our lives and the struggle in them emerged to
against the whole fabric of our native places; and as we talked, hour
hour, a kind of fantastic play that was like life itself began to
emerge and to
encompass us all within its spaceless and formless self.
There were times when we would speak, not as
ourselves, but as imaginary characters that grew from our talk of
events that were as real as the earth itself.
The whole affair was a kind of dramatic ecstasy in which we were
the actors and the audience, the dancers and the music.
When the three days were over, it was as though a kind of dream had ended, with no more explanation than that with which it had begun. Then we awoke suddenly and realized that we had hardly mentioned the processes of writing at all and that, instead of a partly completed manuscript tucked in pocket or purse, we had only a confused but terribly exhilarating sense of something that had stirred our lives.
Y: I have met with hundreds of groups like this one, and I have seen hundreds of plays, but I have never had a deeper sense of theater than we have had together.
X: I think it was because we all had something to express, and we did express it, and maybe the memory of it is somehow better than the written play.
Y: I wish there were more persons like yourselves.
X: Mr. Gard, there are hundreds and thousands of rural men and women who live on the land and love the land and who understand the true meaning of the seasons and man’s relationship to man and to his God.
Y: If that is so, the plays they send to me don’t reflect such an appreciation.
Maryo: She replied that she thought one reason the plays reflected little poetic appreciation of the area was because everything was made to seem too complex, too technical, too difficult. She said there must be a great, free expression.
X: If the
people of Wisconsin knew that someone would encourage them
to express themselves in any way
they chose, if they knew
that they were free of scenery and stages and pettiness that plays we
so full of, if they knew that someone would back them and help them
wanted help, it is my opinion that there would be such a rising of
expression as is yet unheard of in Wisconsin, and it would really all
be a part
of the kind of theater we had had these past three days, for the whole
expression would be of and about ourselves.
from Gard, Grassroots
Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in
“Of and about ourselves.”
This moment, 60 years ago,
was when the
Wisconsin Rural Writers Association was conceived.
Literally, within just a few years, thousands
of people in
But while this is a neat
story, here in
And the reason? First, there’s the all-important context
I was asked to tell you a little about both. Let me start with the man, and then show you what a perfect fit he was for the context of the Wisconsin Idea. In fact, I’ll have to move back and forth between man and context, for they are inseparable. I hope that when I’m done, you’ll see where the School of the Arts came from, you’ll see why it makes such sense for you to be here this week, and I hope you’ll have a few ideas to take back home with you.
So who was Bob Gard? Well, Gard was a storyteller. So, it seems only fitting that I tell you some little stories. Each is, of course, an illustration of something very important that I believe he stood for. Each is a metaphor.
First, let me tell you about my tenth birthday. I had four friends over and my folks were very mysterious about what was going to happen. When my friends arrived, we were led to the back yard. Three large pieces of cardboard had been propped up against trees – they read, Act One, Act Two, Act Three. We were told that the name of the play was to be “The Diamond in the Corn.” We were provided with a big piece of quartz. We were provided with a box of old clothes. We were told that we had one hour, and that all of our parents would be over to watch the play at . Of course, we invented and produced and performed a play. (To wild applause, I might add.)
Another vignette. I am now, maybe, 13 years old. Often,
over dessert, my father and I would get
into punning contests. But no ordinary
puns. No, the rule was, the pun had to
be on a
X: Who was that girl I saw you with last night?
Oh, Claire? [
X: Hey, hiker! Did you go on the luxury walk?
Maryo: No, I went on the uhcono muh- walk. [Oconomowoc]
Hey, waitress! Where's my soup?
Soup? Here y'are!
A third vignette. Sundays, or Thanksgiving Days, watching the
Green Bay Packers with my dad. As in
Next vignette. My best friend was Becky Herb, and her father was a very prominent physicist. Over beer one night, I remember my dad asking Mr. Herb, “Well, now, Ray, what do you think about power?” Ray Herb looked kind of stunned for a moment. But this drew the humanist and the physicist into a far-reaching, lengthy conversation that plumbed the meaning of what it meant to be a human being, a conversation that lasted long after Becky and I fell asleep in our chairs.
My dad kind of looked like Abraham Lincoln.
He really did. He was cast as
Why do I tell you these stories?
The birthday party story illustrates his principle that anything, however ordinary, is the raw material for creative response. Whatever the circumstances – a birthday party, selecting your wardrobe for the day, interacting with your friends, discussing zoning in your community – there is good material there, and it’s our responsibility to see that this situation is taken “through the creative, above the ordinary,” as he said in 1969, which adds a dimension of understanding, of significance, that it did not have before.
Those dumb puns! Life growing up was about
Because the Packers are not just a football
team. Their name, the Packers –
talking about Meat Packers, you know: the name of the team was an
homage to the
working people of
The story about Mr. Herb, the physicist? My father believed that no idea was too big for human beings. “Power” wasn't something that belonged to scientists or social scientists. “Power,” like God, or meaning, or humanity, or beauty, is a big idea, worthy of discussion, and he passionately wanted all of us to talk about the biggest of ideas.
And finally, noting his
Now I need to switch to telling you a little about the Wisconsin Idea and the arts. But remember as I do so the five little vignettes, because the fit is a perfect one.
When I was growing up, I
also saw how little
my dad was home. Perhaps that's one
reason I'm a community arts person by heart and by profession today: to
dad, I had to accompany him on some of his trips, and I did. He was utterly driven by the Wisconsin
That was a grand and
conceived in the early 1900’s by Governor Fighting Bob
X and Y - “oldest station in the nation” -
Maryo: - to deliver
classes to people. That was the impetus behind correspondence courses
were invented in
X: Whatever the people wanted or could use, I favor bringing to their doorstep, whether it be philosophy or sanitation, literature or labor relations.
So the Wisconsin Idea was broad, and was all about service, putting the experts to work to serve the needs of the people. In the arts, President Van Hise said:
Y: I would have no mute, inglorious
During the 1920’s, Professor Edgar Gordon of the Music Department – Pop Gordon they called him – put this idea into action, crisscrossing Wisconsin by train, helping people form community singing societies. Pop didn’t stop at inspiring singing in person; he also was the original Singalong Man, broadcasting songs on the radio for home singalongs.
Theater was especially
vibrant in the early
X: One tree for every performance. And if the producers wish to give really good measure for the use of the play, it is recommended that they conclude the evening with a community gathering, with community singing and dancing, and a discussion of the things which their community needs. [quoted in Grassroots Theater, p 15-16]
And we thought that WE invented community-building through the arts!
There was a Bureau of
at the University, within Extension, and the Bureau worked with groups
Y: There’s a gap somewhere in the soul of the people that troops into the theater but never produces a folk drama… The arts are vital, if in the years ahead we are to master instead of being mastered by the vast, complex and swiftly moving technical civilization. [quoted in Grassroots Theater]
And art, too!
During the 1930’s, there was a Dean of
Agriculture named Chris Christensen. He
had a vision, totally in keeping with the Wisconsin Idea, of turning
X: I feel very definitely that education in
our agricultural colleges must
be broad and
include many things beyond
those methods and practices used in making money. Our
educational process needs to deal with
good literature, art, music, history – the cultural side of life
– as well as
the practical training for better farming.
An understanding and appreciation of art, I believe, is an
phase of an enriched cultural development among rural people. [Schmeckebier, Laurence,
With this perspective,
Dean Chris thought
that an artist-in-residence for the
Y: If you feel the significance of the life, the design builds itself. The feeling inherent in the life of the world cannot be ignored or trifled with for the sake of theory. [Mathiak, Lucy, “Bringing Life to
By learning to see, by painting through their own eyes and hearts, rather than by some textbook method, people created remarkable pieces – on paper, board, on any surface at all. This, too, grew into a movement, initially the Rural Art Project, then the Wisconsin Regional Artists. About the same time, 1936, “Let’s Draw!” went on the air on WHA, and thousands and thousands of young Wisconsonians got their first art lessons via the voice of Mr. Schwalbach.
Bob Gard was totally
bitten by this Wisconsin
Idea bug when he came here in 1945. He
was determined that there would be no mute
Driven by this vision, he became a Knight of the Wisconsin Idea, working backstage at the University, which he has described in Grassroots Theater.
X: The backstage of the
Do you remember the story
we started this
talk with, about the writers workshop for the 7 people held in 1948? After the Tall, Gray lady had
the possibility of an expression “of and about ourselves,”
Gard, and his staff
of two, invited anyone in
Y: It was with some dismay that we found our mailboxes loaded each morning with manuscripts. To the horror of my already overburdened small staff, over 1000 poems were sent in a few days time. There were short stories, too, and a few plays. The curious thing was that the material was, for the most part, excellent. For a while, until I could get special help, we were all reading innumerable manuscripts every day, at lunch, at dinner, at night, and all of us would usually be walking from this to that task with several rural life poems or stories or plays sticking out of our pockets. [Grassroots Theater]
In its first year, the membership of WRWA surpassed 1,000, with regional chapters in 8 counties. Gard was driven to help people write. Everyone who ever met him has exchanged at least one story in which they'd been babbling along, Gard looking off into the far distance, and all of a sudden, in the middle of a sentence he'd interrupt and say, “Mike, there's a book in that.” “Maryo, why don’t you write that up.” “Miranda, I think there's a solid little book of poems there.”
After his death, my mother had me go through my dad's library. There were scores and scores of books there, and most had inscriptions in the flyleaf:
X: “If everyone you have
helped had sent you a
copy of their published works, your library must be floor to ceiling on
sides, filled with books you have inspired.
Thank you for your help and encouragement.”
“You are, by your very being, the quiet
activator of my endeavors.” Connie
Conrader, Author of Blue Wampum. [inscription]
X: “Especially for Robert Gard: his creative writing class at College Week for Women was my first stepping stone.” Fran Sprain, authors of Places & Faces in Marquette County, Wisconsin. [inscription]
Y:“This must be your sixtieth volume of appreciation from grateful young authors, but I hope it is a credit to your sympathetic patience, deep perception, and unlimited optimism. Thank you for all your help. I hope you approve of this book.” Gratefully, Chuck Mark, author of Run Away Home. [nscription]
In his library there were
books on insects
X: The hope was to develop in this state a
worthy homegrown literature of the people.
The writers were to be the people themselves, the folks from
towns and crossroads scattered from the lakeshore to the
Gard was a writer himself,
especially wrote about
Y: This is a book
filled with the present and the past, which achievement and failure,
for a state which I have made my own. It
is about land and wind and people who came seeking the meaning of their
and it is about me who also came seeking the meaning of mine… I hope that within this book a person –
myself – and the land –
By 1970, the
arts extension program had hit its zenith. Twenty-eight
artists in Extension with mandates to do Wisconsin Idea work in all of
arts: to assist community and liturgical dance programs, to work with
school bands or rock-n-roll bands or the
state's Youth Symphony or organists in rural churches or Norwegian Folk
Fiddlers or African drummers; to help strengthen community theater and
drama; to continue Curry’s work of the Regional Art Program; to
support the Regional Writers Program, and
including, to found and nurture the School of the Arts at Rhinelander. Gard's Wisconsin Idea Theater inspired people
throughout the state. The “Theater” was not a place, but
rather, it was a
vision. A vision of
Y (sings): It’s known as a Hodag, oh it’s frightening
Hodag, but enlightening
Soon the world will hear the fame of it
What’s the name of it
Hodag, it’s bewilderin’
Hodag, keep your children in-
Side, because it’s rushin about
And it might get out
It’s 10 feet long and covered with hide
Unless I’m wrong it’s 4 feet wide
Mean and ugly and fit to be tied
Wait’ll you see it, you’ll be petrified…
Peterson, Dave, “Hodag!” 1967
Yes, even the
“Hodag!” song hearkened back
to President Van Hise worrying that there might be a “mute,
X: In terms of American democracy, the arts are for everyone… As art activity is developed, the community is re-created. The vital roots of every phase of life are touched. As the community is awakened to its opportunity in the arts, it becomes a laboratory through which the vision of the region is reformulated and extended .[Gard et al, The Arts in the Small Community]
So here it all
comes together. The Wisconsin
Idea and the personality of Bob Gard.
Abraham Lincoln and Robert LaFollette’s and Charles Van
Hise’s and Bob
Gard’s passionate belief in democracy: government of, by and for
with the arts playing their part in making this vision real. The Packers – the team owned by the
unable to be severed from its community.
The birthday party – creative vision in the most ordinary
events. The conversation with Mr. Herb
always thinking big. And ah, those puns
– it’s Wisconsin, always Wisconsin. The
person and the Wisconsin Idea and the place, inseparable.
I want to close with Gard's words, written in 1969.
If you try, what may you expect?
X: First a community, Welded through art to a new consciousness of self:
A new being, perhaps a new appearance.
Y: A people proud
Of achievements, which lift them through the creative, above the ordinary.
Maryo: A new opportunity for children
To find exciting experiences in art, And to carry this excitement on
Throughout their lives.
X: A mixing of peoples and backgrounds
Y: A new view
Of hope for mankind and an elevation
Of man, not degradation.
Let's close this talk together, for it is “of and about
ourselves”: Repeat after me:
And a sense that here In our place....... (now let's do this again, but you shout out the name of your place)
here in _______________
We are contributing....
To the maturity of a great nation....
If you try....
You can indeed...
the face and
the heart of