Arts & Events
Lifelong Learning” is the slogan, the motto of Berkeley Adult School, which starts up anew with enrollment on Sept. 8. Its teachers can bring an astonishing wealth of life experience to their courses, and not always what their academic or professional background might indicate. Perhaps this is something fundamental to a program aimed at students looking to renew old interests, refresh longtime preoccupations—or discover new pursuits—during or after their own vocational commitments.
I’ve met a few of these remarkable people in the course of reviewing theater, covering performing arts activities—finding out about their teaching, and something of their own lifetime pursuits.
I met playwright James Keller, who’s taught at the North Berkeley Senior Center for Berkeley Adult School about a dozen years, when an actress I’d reviewed contacted me about a very short run of an original play at the Berkeley City Club, too short to get a review in print before the show closed. Would I consider sitting in on a tech or dress rehearsal and writing about it?
I was amused by the little company’s name—Poor Players—and impressed by what I saw: a four-person cast, ranging over two or more generations, playing yet another version of that old chestnut of a theme, the Middle American dysfunctional family. I didn’t grasp, until more than midway through the rehearsal, the ironic significance of the play’s title: Leave of Absence.
It was the story of parents and a son, of the dislocation of relationship. How the wife and mother—and later, the son’s wife—try to patch together the frayed wires of communication. And how the aging mother starts, quite literally, to wander, gripped by dementia.
“I wouldn’t have been able to embark on my cycle of 12 plays about old age, of which Leave of Absence is one, except for the time I’ve spent with seniors,” Keller said. “I couldn’t have done it without knowing them. It’s a wonderful dividend I didn’t anticipate.”
So lifelong learning works both ways—and in more ways than one. “I’m a student, too, just a little ways further down the road,” Keller said.
Keller is the author of about 50 plays and adaptations, just under half of them produced—not a bad average for an independent playwright. In the Bay Area, he’s best-known for his association with the late stage director, Albert Takazakis during the 1980s and ’90s, primarily at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, but often traveling for productions. “I lived out of a suitcase, visited 33 states ... but I was being paid to work with Mozart and Chekhov!”
At The Magic, he read plays under consideration as well, recommending Sharon & Billy, by Alan Bowne, which outran the Sam Shepard plays the theater had become famous for. He also “bluepenciled” Shepard’s Lie of the Mind for staging. “Albert didn’t care for Shepard. But I insisted, and he directed it very successfully.” Later, he got a call from the famed Arena Theatre in Washington, DC. “They called it a totally different experience than the New York production and asked, ‘Can we use your version?’” But there was no compensation budgeted for it. “To this day, I really don’t know if they did, in fact, use it or not!”
Keller’s adaptations of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Heinrich von Kleist’s great comedy The Broken Jug were staged at Marin Theatre Company; his adaptation of Eduardo de Filippo’s Saturday Sunday Monday was put on by ACT. He adapted a play of his as a children’s opera for San Francisco Opera; it toured successfully for years.
He recalls a moment during preproduction for his play, Mozart’s Journey to Prague, directed by Takazakis at The Magic: “We hadn’t been able to cast for Mozart! Then a young actress came in to read for one of the female roles. When she started to speak, Albert and I looked at each other—and cast her as Mozart.
She was wonderful. And the love scene with Costanza was particularly good!”
Keller was born in Sydney, Australia, “but taken as an armbaby” out to the country, to the Murray River, the border between Victoria and New South Wales. “I’m totally a border person—and a river person; drenched in the river!” Mark Twain had once been through there by train, awakened in the middle of the night to cross the platform in his nightshirt to change to another train. “There was a rivalry between the two states; the rail gauges didn’t match!”
At 15, he went to live with his grandmother in Sydney, who wanted him to work for the attorney general’s office, as his late uncle had, after whom he was named. “I was no longer around anyone my own age.” After a couple of years, he decided he didn’t want to be a civil servant—“though I’d met some wonderful people, who said, ‘Read Samuel Beckett! Listen to Billie Holiday!’”—and embarked for Europe by ship on his 18th birthday. Due to the Suez Crisis, his ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope, entered the Mediterranean at Gibraltar, “and I saw Africa and Europe in the same moment.”
In London, he studied acting, “but I never got off on applause; I learned a lot about theater, though.” With a job in the British Museum, he spent lunch hours there—“and my passionate obsession with Egypt and Greece came to life there.” At 23, he began to focus on writing plays, with the famous Peggy Ramsay as literary agent. He became friends with well-known British and American theater folk, including critic John Lahr and actress Betsy Blair, with her husband, film director Karel Reisz. But two options at the Royal Shakespeare Company were dropped; other opportunities never quite panned out.
Urged to go to America, he visited in 1981—and returned, permanently, in 1984, because “I fell in love.” After 14 years in the UK, he eventually got a Green Card, became a citizen, even began to write plays in idiomatic American—“It took 10 years; I went through three separate Englishes!”
On a return trip to Britain, a play of his won an Arts Council prize. “Every time I win a prize, the play’s never performed!”
Keller had taught at the International Film School in London’s Covent Garden (“talking to students from 25 countries about film—a fun way to pay the rent”), and would teach poetry occasionally in the Bay Area. His introduction to Berkeley Adult School he calls “an accident.” But it took: “At peak, I taught four, five classes a week. On Shakespeare, I covered every possible aspect—on stage, film, in the Sonnets ... I’ve always been fascinated with the interconnection of the arts, so brought in visual material.” Eventually, he wrote a book as syllabus, Call the Muses Home, “from cave painting to I Love Lucy; I finally laid out my personal vision as autodidact, what I’ve done through the years. I’m not a teacher, I just articulate my enthusiasm. If I don’t feel it, I don’t touch it. And I’m not a scholar, but a thieving magpie. I take what I need, leave the rest. That’s how I’ve always been.”
For the fall semester at Berkeley Adult School, Keller’s offering a Tuesday-Thursday afternoon course in film noir, 19 films from 1939 to the mid-’60s that “show the triumph of shadows, both literally and metaphorically”—and a Tuesday morning class, “Exploring Don Quixote,” Cervantes’ novel plus five adaptations, including Orson Welles’ film, Grigory Kozintsev’s Russian movie and Graham Green’s Monsieur Quixote with Alec Guinness.
Keller said the real rewards of teaching can be subtle. Like hearing that two of his students were complimented at Anghor Wat by a guide for knowing the Hindu gods—and they replied, “It’s because of our teacher!” Another student, hearing of Keller’s disappointment at missing a Renaissance chapel under restoration during an Italian vacation, made a model of it, “with photos of the frescos inside in scale, and a sign, ‘Open for Keller’!”
“I’m humbled by these people,” Keller said, “by their little acts of kindness. I do feel what I teach has made a difference in their lives. My friend told me, ‘It gives them the possibility of closure.’”