A tribute to Ervina Boevé
by Tom Bloom '71
It always was about ideas when working with Ervina. It’s no coincidence, then, that the first play she directed at Calvin College was Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People – a play of ideas. Ibsen’s play challenges some of our basic assumptions about the character of a community and it contains the ingredients found in many a Boeve production – the play’s protagonist is an ethical but flawed character and, as community-centered piece, the play examines the precarious balance that exists between the individual and the community. This was the sort of play that Ervina Boeve was drawn to.
I did not see Ervina’s production of An Enemy of the People, but some years later saw a Los Angeles Actor’s Theatre production of this Ibsen play. So it was that on an April Sunday afternoon, along with twenty college students from my Intro Theatre class, I stood on the sidewalk outside of Actors Theatre waiting for the house to open. The theatre was located in a barrio section of LA, along Santa Monica Boulevard where on any Sunday afternoon a dazzling cultural promenade filled the boulevard and sidewalks – cars bumping, music pumping – Chicano and Latino children dodging pedestrians and cars - mothers watching children from apartment windows of the four level flats bordering the street while women of another sort sat in adjacent windows and beckoned to clients on the street below.
Sensing that we look quite out-of-place, our group nervously awaits at curbside for the moment we can retreat into the anonymous darkness of the theatre. A half block away an Anglo street person leans into a utility pole for stability - hard to say how old this misplaced derelict is, but with bagged bottle in hand he launches out into Santa Monica Boulevard, literally bouncing off cars as he lurches across the street. Casual conversations between the mothers in the windows cease as they turn their attention to their children below – calling out to them in Spanish to get indoors as the vagabond approaches. Meanwhile, our group responds to this scene with a litany of indignant remarks about the low-life activity that these barrio children are exposed to – but our clacking is cut short when the Anglo street person reappears on our side of the street - and he’s headed our way! As he draws closer half our group runs up the stairs into the theatre, leaving the other half to brave whatever’s coming. Too late to make a hasty retreat I turn away as the street person stops within inches of me and begins to fumble with his fly – the next moment, though, out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of him careening up the stairs toward the second floor theatre – its only a matter of moments before the ten students who first fled the street in favor of the theatre are frantically running down the steps - “He’s in the theatre!”
I take pause for a moment and consider that a few things just don’t figure; …why didn’t this street person give off an odor consistent with his appearance? Also, when we first saw him on the street whatever he was drinking more often missed his mouth, soaking the rags he wore. But I failed to detect a trace smell of alcohol on his person as he brushed past me on his way into the theatre. I began wonder if it was all was an act?
The call to curtain moved us all from the street into the upstairs theatre space where upon entering we saw our “street person” climbing over the theatre seats, harassing other audience members. The house lights dimmed and the play began - and as we entered the world of the play our menacing street vagrant assumed a new identity as Ibsen’s town drunk! At that instant, recalling our sanctimonious comments made in reference to the living conditions along Santa Monica Boulevard we, like Dr. Stockmann’s hypocritical neighbors, are implicated in central dilemma of Ibsen’s play.
An Ervina Boeve production always turned its lens upon its audience. Returning to our suburban LA neighborhood that evening we were not the same as when we left, having been graced by a transformative experience. We arrived home with our perspectives somewhat realigned – perceiving that we were quick to render judgment on a diverse central city community that made up the rich cultural identity Los Angeles. This is what Ervina’s theatre of ideas always aimed to do – to transform our perception of things.
Ervina introduced me to many new ideas through her lectures and the readings that accompanied her courses. One text that was required reading in Ervina’s History of Theatre course, Francis Fergusson’s The Idea of a Theater, continues to shape how I look at and think about the ways that theatre and drama inform us of our past and present circumstances. Fergusson’s work looks to the past in order to comprehend the present – “We cannot understand the arts ... without some more catholic conception of the art in general.” Ervina taught that behind our making of our theatre there stands a notion that the art of theatre consists of deliberate and purposeful acts. The aim of which, Fergusson says, is “…to get our bearings in our own time.”
With this in mind, I reflect back upon the moment I declared to my parents that I was intending to go into the theatre by majoring in Speech (Calvin offered only three theatre courses in the Department of Speech at that time). When I finally got up the nerve to tell them about my decision their first response was a question – “…you’re going to Hollywood?” – that being their only frame of reference to where a career in theatre led. Flashing before their mind’s eye must have been the marquee - Dutch Calvinist Boy Lost to Hollywood Babylon! But dubious as they may have been over my declaration, we were about to take a journey together that would amount to a courageous leap of faith.
Acts of courage depend upon a system of support. My parents never objected to my choice to make creating theatre my profession – in fact they were a supportive presence, witnessing my successes and failures as we collectively attempted to get ahold of our bearings in our own time.
Ervina’s Theatre History course lectures and her productions often emphasized the structural rhythm of a dramatic investigation in search of its bearings. Fergusson described this structural dramatic rhythm as a pattern of action that moves from purpose, to passion, and finally to a perception. In her opening monologue that sets her on a course of action, the character Lotty in Matthew Barber’s play Enchanted April (based upon the Elizabeth Von Arnim novel) gives voice to this progressive rhythm - and through these lines I hear Ervina speak:
"Were it only that some enchantment would step in for us all, to change what we have into what we wish for. To bridge the awkward gap between all of our many befores and afters. Because, for every after found, a before must be lost. And loss is, by nature, an unbalancing thing. More unbalancing, however, is to discover your before gone without an after having taken its place. Leaving you merely to wait and to wonder if there is to be an after at all. Or if, perhaps, waiting and wondering are your after in themselves."
I would like Ervina to know that on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles I experienced some of that enchantment.