Walking Woodstock: River Arts Repertory R.I.P.

Michael Cristofer

Michael Cristofer

It should be raining, the flaneur thought, as he joined the little band of mourners at graveside in the Artists Cemetery. It was overcast, but lighting and thunder would have added dramatic accompaniment to the interment of an actor and director who had jumped from a window in Manhattan just days before he was to be married; a man still young, talented,wealthy, and charismatic.The gods of the theater must have had urgent need of his talents, to trick him into such precipitous flight. It was August, 1986.

The remains in the box that were to be fed to the earth were those of Rob Thirkield, who, along with director Larry Sacharow and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael  Cristofer, was responsible for bringing world class professional theater to Woodstock, presenting, through the 80’s, plays by the most challenging contemporary playwrights.

The work of River Arts Repertory in the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony was followed closely by the flaneur, who had once dreamed of becoming a playwright, but had gone no further than seeing one of his one acts produced Off-Off Broadway.


As he stood on the fringe of mourners, half listening to what people were saying about Rob, the flaneur fought off his growing anger and tried to concentrate on his encounters with Rob and River Arts. He looked around and saw many faces absorbed in making grocery lists, and a tall man he recognized as Calvin Grimm, a prize-winning painter of abstract landscapes, pushing his way through the list makers bearing a large canvas. Calvin made it to the grave’s edge just as the coffin was being lowered, and, with a grand gesture befitting aViking funeral, tossed his offering into the grave. Rob would carry a representation of the mountains around Woodstock with him on his voyage to the Blessed Isles. Whatever emotion possessed

Calvin to make this gesture, the effect was electric. This was the drama that made the burial ceremony memorable.

The flaneur recalled what Rob had taught him. The flaneur had told himself that he’d left his playwriting ambitions behind because he couldn’t abide the egos of actors, when the real reason was that he hadn’t the knack required to write plays. A good actor searched for the truth of a role within himself; acting was not about ego, but honesty. Most of us lie. The flaneur wanted to learn how to stop. He had warmed to Rob. Now he suspected Rob was dead because he had lied to himself.

River Arts was imbued with excitement and glamor. The flaneur admired the company’s artistry, ambition, and professionalism. During its 14 year run at Byrdcliffe Theater, it produced plays by Tom Stoppard, John Whiting, and Edward Albee, among dozens of top drawer choices.

Famous actors walked Byrdcliffe lanes memorizing lines. When Joanne Woodward came to play in Chekhov’s The Seagull, Paul Newman tagged along with her and hung out on the Village Green sipping a paperclad Bud.

Larry Sacharow was good looking and smooth as a matinee idol. He ran the company day to day and was the face of River Arts at its fundraising events.

The best known of the three directors was Michael Cristofer, who was a triple threat talent as playwright, director, and actor. He had gotten his own way for so long that his look was dark and demanding. The flaneur would have cast him as Bosola in Webster’s Dutchess of Malfi, a favorite character.

These three were bishops in the ancient church of theatre. Their House of Worship was indeed ancient. Built at the turn of the 20th century, it had seen art exhibits and concerts, as well amateur theater. Old timers still remembered the Turnau Opera, and it was there that the flaneur had staged five major publishing conferences with his friend John Baker, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly.

The company rented the theater (and the Villetta for housing) from the art colony’s owner, The Woodstock Guild.

At that time the Guild was property-rich, but cash-poor. The Guild needed its rental income. At a lease renewal meeting Larry Sacharow presented an idealistic plan that would not only have lowered the rent, but would make the two arts organizations partners in presenting theater in Byrdcliffe. The flaneur liked the idea, but representing the Guild, his charge from the Board was to insist on the rent. So he said “The Guild is not an eleemosynary organization.” End of negotiations.

River Arts’ final production was Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” presented at Bearsville Theater. Larry Sacharow died  in 2006.

The flaneur left the cemetery when the rain started, thinking about theatre in Woodstock. How had Performing Arts of Woodstock, and Bird-On-A-Cliff’s Shakespeare Festival managed to stay on the boards for so long? Woodstock has been a theater town since the 1920s, but it was always a “skin of your teeth, seat of your pants” affair. A definition of theater is that it lies to tell the truth. Yet audiences don’t take their seats to hear the truth, but to be entertained.

The Woodstock Playhouse offers entertainment, and for that good work may their coffers swell; but for theater that aims higher, we must thank Edith LeFever and Elli Michaels and

David Aston-Reese with deep bows of appreciation.

Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

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