Shopping Cart

Your cart is empty

Follow Us On:

Facebook: RosebudMag?ref=ts Twitter: Rosebudmag

PDF Print E-mail


The concept of Make Room for Dada sprang from Jack's passion for the Chaplin movie, The Great Dictator, made in 1940. The film, Chaplin's first full "talkie", evolves around a humble Jewish barber (played by Chaplin) who bears a striking resemblance to the Hitler-like dictator of Tomania, an apple strudel republic being nibbled by the worm of tyranny. The Great Dictator is an interesting political satire of the times. As drama, however, it wanders between romantic sentimentality, forced comedy, and preachy didacticism.


The theater Jack ran was nobly dedicated to the idea of productions in which a great variety of people of different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds could work together. Since many of the potential cast and crew were African Americans, Jack decided to transfer The Great Dictator tale to an African setting, using Idi Amin as the evil dictator, and, of course, having the same actor play the tyrant and the poor barber who had the misfortune to be a look-alike.


Some months earlier, Jack had found a writer he believed was perfect for the job. The story, as I recall it, was that the enthusiastic young man had been a wunderkind on a TV writing team. As a teenager, he had written several scripts for a TV show that featured a bionic hero who was always racing away, hand in hand with a beautiful woman, from buildings that exploded into flame behind him.


Unfortunately, the script (containing characters such as Yessir Arabfat), was even worse than the original screenplay of 1940, and Chaplin's brilliance was not there to rescue it. In addition, the playwright had imitated the entire structure of the film, almost scene for scene. The problems this created were enormous. Since the film frequently cut swiftly back and forth between the dictator's palace and the humble barbershop, the play, using almost perfectly parallel structure, had to follow suit. Early on, I had suggested that we use abstract sets that had something of the flavor of both environments, so that by shifting the lights, and having the actors "change hats" we could transform the space without changing sets. The producers, however, were determined that this should be a "realistic" play. We had to have a barbershop set, and a palace set that could be interchanged quickly. How could they achieve it? The solution had a kind of heavy mechanical brilliance. They decided to mount the stage on a revolve -- a giant wheel, the surface of which would be divided in half, with the barbershop on one half, and the palace on the other. When you wanted to go from shaving to chicanery, you simply turned the wheel and presto-barbershop became palace!


Unfortunately, the budget did not allow for a powered revolve. The massively heavy set, carrying a full-sized barber chair on one side and a bulky refrigerator (containing the red paint-splashed rubber heads of the victims of the evil "Dada" Amin) on the other, had to be moved by two people. The second "mover" had to be one of the actors, a group which, deeply offended by this inartistic addition to their duties, rotated the task among themselves. As the critical moments in rehearsal approached, the stage-whispered arguments, audible throughout the auditorium commenced: "It's your turn, damn it -- No it's not! -- Is too! -- Is not! -- We go right! -- No, left! Left!" The maneuvers were accomplished in complete darkness using often-scuffed-over marks of luminous paint on the floor and the revolve to mark positions, since if a light were used, the director complained, light would leak out onto the stage. To jazz up the complexity, a screen was added to one end of the dividing wall to show slides and create dazzling multimedia effects. Without a light to read notes, the long combination of right and left turns to various positions had to be memorized. To move the thing, two of us had to use all our strength and lean our bodies into it. When actually in motion the thing made a loud thundery noise that reminded me of earthquakes in Guatemala. It took about thirty seconds to move 180 degrees while the entire theater shook and vibrated. On one occasion the heavy casters hit a bump, causing the door of the refrigerator to spring open and rubber heads to bounce out onto the stage with unintentionally comic effect. Given the setup, it was little surprise that such screwups occurred frequently during the short rehearsal period. When that happened, the director would chip in by calling out, "Try to get it right next time, will you, Rod?"


The mills of providence grind slowly but surely. The revolve survived opening night, but Make Room For Dada died after one dreadful performance. In the spring I returned to Wisconsin, and to experimental theater there, in the hopes that maybe a little love and art would come up with the grass. Escape is possible, isn't it? In the years since, better days have arrived, but deep within me the dark cog still turns. Sometimes, often in the middle of January, I will awake in this familiar old house beside my sleeping wife, and it all rushes back to me: the cockroaches skittering across my belly, the smell of stale fried potatoes in the cold studio, the endless ache in my shoulders, the arrival in Rochester that never happens. Then lights dim in the old warehouse, and I hear whispers in the darkness: "It's your turn -- No, it's not!" And finally there are two shoulders at the wheel pushing, pushing. And then the earth shakes and there is a noise like thunder everywhere. Then "bang!" A caster strikes a stray tool beneath the undercarriage! The refrigerator door jolts open -- and rubber heads bounce across the stage.



Rod Clark, Editor