A Remembrance of Theater Artist Paul Dervis: Embracing The Incomprehensible
Personal salutes to theater director, playwright, and critic Paul Dervis, who died at the age of 67 on June 13.
Paul Dervis, Playwright Extraordinaire, Man of the Theatre and Boulevardier, Poet, Director, Critic, Teacher, Artistic Director, Host, and Loving Family Man, died suddenly and unexpectedly in Portland, Maine, while yet in good spirits and expecting more innings. If discussions of life ever became too serious, Paul would quip jokingly in his strong, distinctive rising voice, “Look, it’s a terrible gig, but it’s all we got..!” Paul however, had a powerful love for and enjoyment of life and people, family and friends, which he was not shy to express.
Born February 28, 1955, in Boston, Paul was a graduate of Tufts University. He co-launched (with Francis Hill) Playwrights Preview Productions, founded and ran the Alley Theatre in Cambridge, and ran Theatre Redux, which toured to Canada, and later founded the New Ottawa Repetory Theatre, in Ottawa. Paul wrote over 30 complete plays, and was very fond of one acts and new plays in general; he gladly mentored many writers and more often than not wrote sympathetic, fully dimensional roles for women, which he was proud of. A friend recently said fondly, Paul could make theater if he had nothing more than sticks, coffee, and actors.
Even without the sticks and coffee, quipped another. Paul is survived and mourned by his wife Pamela Walker, and daughter Esmé Dervis, (Ottawa) granddaughter Dianne Dervis, and grandson Tyler Dervis. (Old Orchard Beach, Maine). He was predeceased tragically by his daughter Kimberly (mother of Dianne and Tyler, and daughter of former wife Jennifer), and also predeceased by his brother Peter. Paul nonetheless would say often in recent years, regarding the shortness of life, warmly and sardonically, “Oh bla dee, oh bla da…” in a sing-song way.
Paul especially loved to see his daughter Esmé, in Maine and NYC, in Boston, and on trips to Disney. He put her in his plays early on, and was very proud of her studying at McGill, living in Montreal, and her steady love of life. He is mourned by other close friends and family, in particular Susan Staples, and Tara Dolan Wright, Leni Parker, Drogheda Woods, and a large circle of colleagues in the theater world, as well as by the dedicated members of his theater company in Portland, Storm Warnings Theatre Company, which he founded to focus on new work. Paul had favorite writers with whom he worked repeatedly over many decades, such as Israel Horovitz, Richard Vitere, and David Gow, sometimes visiting a play repeatedly in development over years or even decades. (He directed the premiere productions of a number of Horovitz plays.) Paul had new plays ahead to direct, which he was looking forward to, and was always setting up readings in NYC, and was a regular film critic for the Arts Fuse. He was a formidable supporter and advisor to many, with deep and resonant insights and ready encouragement. So well known and loved at his regular coffee shop, where he wrote daily, that his appearance outside the door queued the order of his favorite coffee before he reached the counter. Told he could not survive on coffee alone, he would say, “I have a banana in the car.”
Paul loved NYC tremendously and also Montreal and Boston, among other cities. He was always ready for an adventure and loved to drive distances, loved the journey in all things, as much as arriving. A very adept host on TV, Paul caused guests to open up about themselves, and in person had the unique ability to see and appreciate a person, on a number of levels at once, to make people feel deeply seen and known, a rare gift. A huge sports fan, and prodigious and seasoned sports card collector, he was a world class CFL fan, Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics fan. Paul could tell you who won any year’s World Series instantly, the names of all the US Presidents — even the boring ones — and a whole lot of anything and everything to do with theater, film, writing, and literature in steady depth.
Given Paul’s love of life, no doubt he might be sad to have left early, but might also be laughing loud and hard, as a skilled dramatist and iconoclast, at the sight of his own character — taking a hasty and unexpected exit, stage left. Paul lived with few regrets, and embraced a life that suited him, for as long as it would have him. We can only hope on his way out to the cosmos Paul finds time to stop in at his favorite coffee shop, to have a strong java and a smoke, give us one last belly laugh, and tell us in his great raspy bell of a voice just how much he loved us all, because we so much loved hearing it — as truth- — from Paul.
— David Gow
Way back in the last century, I was the resident theater reviewer for Citizen Group Publications, a company that put out a number of weekly community newspapers such as the Boston Ledger, the Brookline Citizen, and the Allston-Brighton Citizen. Citizen Group papers focused on local news and local events. This included local theater productions, and back in those days, there was a profusion of them. The Real Paper’s revered theater maven Arthur Friedman used to joke that in other cities, people would look down in their basements and discover rodents; in Boston, they’d look down to find theater troupes performing there.
Even my going to small Boston theaters two, sometimes three times a week wasn’t enough to cover all the stage action going on in Beantown. So I was glad to hear from the chief editor that I’d soon have an assistant joining me in my coverage.
Shortly after getting this news, I received a phone call from that assistant. His name was Paul Dervis. During a brief over-the-phone intro, Paul told me that he was graduate of Tufts with a degree in Theater. His palpable enthusiasm for the stage came through even over the phone. I thought he would be a good second reviewer for the papers.
Before our conversation ended, Paul invited me to his place for dinner. Within a week, I made my way to the smallish apartment he shared with his then wife, Jennifer. The meal itself was a simple affair, but the dinner table conversation was a rich smorgasbord of topics. We talked about theater, of course, and the state of Boston journalism. But we also delved into sports, music, films, and favorite eating places in the Boston area. We also took up the obvious question of how Jennifer and Paul had met, and compared Jennifer’s hometown of San Francisco with Boston.
I found Paul to be one of those individuals who could connect with others very quickly. With us, it helped a lot that we shared the same interests. We were both ardent fans of the Red Sox and the Celtics. And Paul had the ability to ease quickly into friendly conversations with new acquaintances. During my first meeting with Paul, it seemed as if we were picking up on a long-running conversation. Jennifer seemed to be somewhat shy, but that was probably because Paul came off as so strong and opinionated. (I didn’t mind that latter trait because he and I shared most of those strong opinions.)
When Paul started writing for the Citizen Group newspapers, he proved to be an enthusiastic and reliable reviewer. At first, I assigned him shows I was not that interested in covering or when I had to choose between the press nights of two equally appealing shows. After a short time, we developed a good partnership. If there was a production he was particularly interested in reviewing, or that I thought was a play or playwright Paul had more affinity with, I asked him to cover that show. Sometimes I would go along as his plus-one; at other times he’d be my plus-one at shows I reviewed.
One show that Paul had to review was a production of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck that I had adapted and directed. It was my first quasi-professional directing, and I realized during the long rehearsal period how much I had to learn. Paul’s review was critical of several of the performances and the technical muffs, but he was very kind to my adaptation and direction. In fact, I came to feel that he gave my work more praise than it deserved. I always meant to ask if he was expressing his honest assessment or just afraid of offending his supervisor. I never did get to ask him.
During our time working closely together as theater reviewers, Paul and I occasionally floated the idea of starting our own stage company. For me, this was one of those ventures you always talk about doing some day, but never actually get down to. Paul, however, was much dedicated to this idea. One day he phoned me and announced that he’d found a great venue for us to put on theater — a pub on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood.
This was entirely Paul’s initiative, and I was chuffed to see our pipe dream about to be turned into reality. Paul recounted how he had approached the pub’s owner and found him enthusiastic about the idea. The pub owner claimed that he often traveled to London and while there, he would visit London’s small theaters frequently. When I went with Paul to discuss the project (especially the logistics) with that owner, doubts quickly sprouted about this fellow’s enthusiasm for the venture. For one thing, he couldn’t name a single show he had seen on his “many visits.”
I shared my misgivings with Paul, but this seemed to be of little importance then: at the end of the meeting, we had a deal to put theater on in the pub every Monday and Tuesday evening starting in late September, right after Boston’s many schools returned to action.
We performed in the pub basement. Wedged into one corner was a small stage where live music was featured on weekends. There was a rudimentary lighting system, but it was able to provide good effects despite lacking a central lighting board. The best thing about the venue was that there was ample seating. The space was filled with tables and good sight lines to the stage. Our first show was scheduled to do a four-week run, with those two weekly performances.
Paul and I quickly agreed a good show to open with, as well as a perfect fit for that space, would be a program of Harold Pinter’s sketches. We chose nine of his most theatrical sketches (many of Pinter’s sketches were written for radio and served best in that medium) and went to work making this a solid production. We dubbed our new venture the Boston Fringe Theater Company, in deference to the venerable London fringe tradition.
We managed to quickly put together what I still think of as perfect casting for the show: two men and three women, five different types and sizes who blended beautifully to capture the full potential of Pinter’s sketches. I directed five of the sketches, Paul did four, including the most psychologically convoluted of those short comedies.
Paul and I were also the techies for the show. As noted, effective lighting effects were a possibility, but you needed four hands, working deftly, to pull those off. The two of us squeezed into a small cupboard of a space and worked literally shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, twisting knobs to get cross-fades, mood changes, and pinpoint blackouts. When the slow fade to dark came down on the last sketch our audiences broke into applause. Paul and I would shake hands or raise our fists in triumph. We and the actors had achieved something entertaining, something moving, something … special.
The shows drew fairly well, and the audiences were pleased with what we presented. The only problem was that the pub itself was not reeling in enough money from our audiences. My suspicions about the pub owner proved accurate: his only interest in pub theater was boosting alcohol sales on his two slowest nights of the week. The typical audience members for our shows would come in, order one drink, enjoy the hour of the performance, and then leave. As we wrapped up after a show, the pub basement looked abandoned.
As we began our third week, one of the waitresses warned us, “You guys are in trouble.” She revealed that the owner was quite unhappy with the low liquor sales our show produced. Shortly after that the first audience members shuffled in, took their seats, and placed their orders: three cups of tea. Fitting for watching comic British sketches, but toxic for our relationship with the pub.
As we were setting up for the Tuesday evening show, we were told this would be our last performance there: the owner wanted us out. Even though we were scheduled to perform for one more week – on our posters as well as in listings in the Boston Phoenix and the Real Paper, our stay at the pub came to a blunt and unceremonious end.
With a slightly revised cast (two members had other commitments), we then reopened the show at a Mexican restaurant in Cambridge. Though La Piñata’s owner was sympathetic and supportive, the space was not at all congenial for performance. The lighting precluded any special effects, and audiences were usually there for the tasty Mexican fare, not Pinter. We finished our scheduled run there and started looking for another venue.
The next stop for the Boston Fringe Theater was the Nucleo Eclettico in Boston’s North End, and the show that we put on there, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was the apex of the theater company. Joe Egg was a play that Paul had been itching to produce since his college days, and he actually managed to recruit one of his former professors from Tufts to take on the male lead.
The direction for this show was entirely in the hands of Dervis. While he had shown talent as a director with the Pinter sketches, Joe Egg demonstrated his theatrical brilliance.
I handled the show’s PR, but there was very little PR needed. The press reviews already sold the show. The Boston Phoenix’s headline reflected the enthusiasm: “A Perfect Three-Hour Egg. ” The laudatory notices, and the fact that Nucleo Eclettico was a small space, meant full houses for almost every performance. We were now riding a high tide. If our production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was the apex of my collaboration with Paul, the next show was clearly the nadir. It was also the end of our association.
Paul had chosen another of his favorite scripts, Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair to direct. I had chosen one of my own plays, a two-hander set in London, to direct. For our third production, we settled into our fourth venue, an art gallery on Newbury Street. We even changed the name of the company to The Gallery Players, hoping that the gallery might become a full-time home.
The show proved to be a star-crossed venture from early on. Paul had chosen one of the very talented actors from our Pinter show for one of the three roles. The character is Irish, which is important in the piece. But the original actor left the project early in rehearsals and he was replaced by an actor who simply could not manage a credible Irish brogue. The script was changed to accommodate someone with a wobbly English accent, which threw things off a bit. Other problems soon arose, and Ruffian was a huge comedown from Paul’s triumph with Joe Egg.
My growing conflicts with Paul created other problems for the production. Admittedly, some of the troubles between Paul and me stemmed from the fact that I had already decided to move to London. So I was making preparations for the transfer while dealing with assorted issues connected to the upcoming departure.
But it was much more than that. Paul and his crew were not showing what I felt was the due respect and consideration to my two actors, who were younger and short on experience. But they were talented and quite committed. By the time we opened, there was a clear split between the two casts. Paul and his performers would head out together after a late rehearsal or a show, while my actors and I would go out somewhere else. Then one of the essential elements in our set, a mattress, was put out in the backyard without our knowledge and got soaked in an overnight rainfall. I was incensed. (I still don’t know who was responsible for that discourtesy.)
By the end of the run, communication between Paul and me had deteriorated to clipped questions and answers, with none of the easy amiability that had characterized our relationship years earlier. An outside observer would hardly guess that we had ever been good friends in a tight partnership.
After the very flawed (and sole) production of the Gallery Players, Paul was able to find a space in Inman Square that had once been the home of Boston’s top improv group, The Proposition. He was putting on another pet project, Look Back in Anger. Even though our last production together had ended with a clear undertow of rancor, I invited Paul to the going-away party a longtime friend was throwing for me. He said he couldn’t come because he had a rehearsal scheduled that evening. I took that as meaning he just didn’t want to attend and left it at that.
Then, just before my departure from Beantown, Paul entreated me to come and review his Look Back in Anger for the Boston Ledger. He even put aside opening night tickets for me. I told him I would try to review the show if I could find the time. I still had a number of things to attend to before my move to Europe, and I had an invitation to spend a few extra days in New York before flying out from there. I didn’t show up for the opening night and was off to New York shortly afterwards.
When I left, I felt sure our relationship was completely severed and would never be restored. Years later, while I was living and working in Singapore, I did a Google search on Paul Dervis and saw that he had become somewhat successful as both director and playwright in several cities, including New York. But at the time I made no attempt to contact him.
However, just over three years ago, I again started thinking about Paul and all that we had shared. The acrimony that had festered during the last production we’d worked seemed rather insignificant with the passage of so many years. I did another Google search, then trawled Facebook. Fortunately, I quickly found Paul on Facebook, sent a Friend request, and we picked up our relationship once more.
Most of the last three years, we kept in contact through Facebook posts. We had one extended phone conversation where we did the catching up you’d choose to keep off the too public sphere of social media. At the end of March, Paul suggested I phone him so we could have another extended talk. He gave me a window of opportunity to call, but I missed it. I assured myself I’d call him again before long. I never got that chance.
On our Facebook posts, Paul and I rekindled the easy amiability that characterized our old relationship. It was as if we had been out of touch for only a couple of years rather than decades. We had running exchanges that included witticisms, ping-pong punning matches, and jocular jousts. All the things we used to do way back in our day.
We had always shared a wry sense of humor. We both gamely conceded that the world was a crazy place, that we were all irredeemably flawed in some way, and that the best way to make it through the treacherous journey of life was to maintain a ready store of humor.
One of Paul’s last Facebook posts appeared on the evening of June 1. It was an unusual post … for Paul. What was strange was the image: an orb, seemingly the Earth, filled the right side of the photo while a brightly shining star gleamed out of the left side. The text was atypically short: “STILL HERE …”
I didn’t read anything significant into this message. I thought it meant Paul had been quite busy with a new theater project or something like that. He was telling all his FB friends that he was still alive and kicking, although he hadn’t posted in a while. Less than two weeks later, Paul was gone, and now ,when I go back to the post, he was most likely signaling a struggle with health issues that had become serious. He wanted to let us know that he was still with us, and that he was putting up the good fight.
For many of us, Paul is still here. We’ll remember his voice, his smile, his ready laughs, his engaging stories, his enthusiasms, his strong opinions, and his readiness to express them. And they will remain with us.
In one of Paul’s Facebook posts he quotes the renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: “The world is not comprehensible. But it is embraceable.” I think that sentiment nicely captures the way Paul looked at life. He knew this strange world was not comprehensible, but he embraced it and life with deep affection and an eager heart.
Richard Lord is a writer, editor, and educator. His play The Boys At City Hall (set in Boston City Hall) had a critically successful run at the Man in the Moon pub theater, London, and was subsequently broadcast on BBC World Service, where it was a BBC Highlight of the Month. His 12-minute play, Exchanges, won Best Play, Best Actress, and Best Actor awards at the first Singapore Short & Sweet Festival in 2007.