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Remembering Larry Life
Chris Colcord remembers the controversial Chair of the IPFW Theater Department
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
For hundreds of people in the Fort Wayne theatre community, the news wasn’t just shocking and sad, it was incomprehensible. Larry Life died? I got the word about 7:30pm, and flatly refused to believe it: There’s gotta be some mistake here. Larry didn’t die. I figured at any minute I was gonna get another call saying, Sorry, Chris, we got it wrong. Didn’t mean to freak you out. Larry’s fine. But the call never came. And when I got to the Arts United Center, I saw a couple of friends—theatre friends, people I had been in shows with that Larry had directed—I took one look at their faces and knew immediately, irrevocably, that it was true. What seemed unthinkable had become stark reality.
There were a lot of impromptu wakes that night in Fort Wayne, at homes and students’ apartments, at Hall’s and Henry’s, as people tried to make some sense of the terrible news they received. See, while we rationally know that we’re mortal and bound to die, there are just some people that are so large we can’t imagine them leaving us. They are fixed points in our universe, constant and unalterable. And in the Fort Wayne theatre world, for over three decades, Larry was that guy.
Not that he made it easy. I spoke to a lot of shell-shocked people that night and I recognized in many of them the same painful, troubling emotions that I was experiencing—loss, sadness, and tons and tons of unresolved feelings of guilt. Like many of Larry’s friends, I had once upon a time been very close to him, and, like many of his friends, I had also had a serious falling out with him, so strong that I vowed never to speak to the man again. There are some people so polarizing that you either love or hate them—Larry was the first person I had ever encountered that I couldn’t help loving and hating. I wished I could have resolved some of this before he died but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: life (and Life) just ain’t that easy.
I only mention my personal history with Larry because I know it’s fairly typical of a lot of people. I met him in 1986, back home from college, and he cast me in “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s blistering and passionate drama about the AIDS crisis. I was immediately captivated by the ferocity of Larry’s commitment to the piece—this was clearly Larry at his best, directing a topical, controversial play that dealt with a number of important issues. The production had a galvanizing effect on me, one of the two or three acting experiences that I will never forget. Larry helped me feel welcomed into a community of theatre artists, and I made great, lifelong friends during the run of the show, friends I still get the privilege to work with from time to time.
And personally Larry could be a blast. After rehearsal it was on to Hall’s or Henry’s, for drinks and uproarious, bitchy gossip. This could be great fun for a while. And then, shockingly, it wasn’t fun at all. One night, for no apparent reason, Larry absolutely lit into everyone at the table, a complete and savage ad hominem attack, one that left me hopelessly bewildered: What’d we do? And then, just as quickly, it was over. One of my friends pulled me aside later and told me not to take it personally, that it just happens sometimes. I tried to shrug it off, but after two or three more of these public explosions, I finally said, To hell with this. I’m done with this guy.
And I’d see him in public after that, and I’d be cool and impersonal and polite, with my arms crossed in front of me, and he’d lean in and whisper something so filthy and sidesplittingly funny that I’d burst out laughing in spite of all my steely resolve. And then, invariably, he’d say, “You know, I’ve got a role that you’d be perfect for” and I’d shake my head and whisper to myself, “I’m not gonna let him talk me into this, I’m not gonna let him talk me into this”. . . and then I’d let him talk me into it. And three weeks later I’d be onstage at IPFW, killing myself to do right by him, hoping I’d get his approval somehow. The person I swore I’d never speak to again. The mind is a crazy place.
On Saturday I caught a lot of people trying to canonize Larry, and I couldn’t really hold it against them—sudden, shocking death is always the great distorter. But try to think how Larry would have responded to the news of his sudden sainthood—the curling smile, the wicked laughter. Larry wasn’t a saint, and no matter how hard he sometimes tried, he wasn’t a devil either. He was somewhere in between, in the gray area, where the—what do you call them?—human beings hang out.
A memorial for Larry Life has been scheduled for Thursday, February 22, 6pm, at the Embassy Theatre.