This article originally appeared in Isthmus on July 1, 2005.
Joel Gersmann, artistic director of Broom Street Theater, loved to get a reaction from his audience. He did so one last time on Friday when he suddenly died of heart failure at 62. The reaction was shock. An era had ended.
Gersmann ran his low-budget, high-intensity theater for 36 years, featuring original plays by himself and his local acolytes. Operating out of a converted garage at 1119 Williamson St., Broom Street was like nothing else in Madison. Gersmann exulted in his anti-establishment status, making a fetish of "anti." He set himself in opposition to mainstream theater, to audience expectations, to the nation's conservative drift. He pissed off his share of people (not to mention arts -- funding agencies) with his provocative takes on sexuality, religion and politics. He sneered at other theater companies in his talks before Broom Street productions, assuring audience members that he would never spoon-feed them the conventional wisdom.
And yet Gersmann's plays did have their own conventions. You always knew you were going to see a particular kind of blunt satire on a bare-bones stage, with actors playing multiple roles (and even playing props). The trappings of traditional theater, such as character development and catharsis, were intentionally absent, all the better to emphasize ideas. At their best, Gersmann's plays were politically trenchant, raucously funny and wildly inventive. They were also loud, wordy and in your face -- much like Joel Gersmann himself.
With his beard, beret and merry-prankster laugh, Gersmann was one of Madison's last true characters, harking back to the city's fabled 1960s-70s counterculture. He was eccentric in his reading habits (see sidebar), eccentric in his personal style and eccentric in his choice of dramatic subjects, from pedophile priests to Nazis, from asthma to abortion. He marched to the beat of a different drummer, and it was sometimes hard to follow him down that path.
But Gersmann never cared if you followed him or not. He just kept marching. And along the way, he created a Madison institution that stands as a testament to one man's vision. For all Gersmann's cynicism about life in the U.S., that vision was ultimately idealistic. Broom Street Theater kept telling us -- screaming at us -- that art matters. That ideas matter. That political resistance is possible. That unconventional thinking is possible in a world cowed by commercialism.
"I don't like theater where you kiss the audience and hug them and make believe it's groovy," Gersmann once said.
Yeah, we noticed. You'll be missed.
Excerpts from Gersmann's Isthmus interviews
"I'm not interested in the audience. I don't care what they think, because often they don't think. I stage theater for myself."
"[Other Madison theater companies] don't care about what I do, and I don't care about what they do. So we're even. My point of view is that I have nothing to learn from the other theaters in town because their work is so provincial, so traditional. I have nothing to learn from another production of Fiddler on the Roof."
"Literature in theater is dead. I haven't read a play in 15 years. I find plays are boring."
"I cried when I got the letter [from the National Endowment for the Arts, which ceased funding Broom Street in the 1990s]. I became terrified; I was outraged. I cried because I'd given a good deal of effort to keeping up good relations with the Endowment and showing how hard we were working and how original our work was. But the truth of the matter was that the Endowment wasn't interested in that. They wanted something that was politically correct and expensive."
"Real art, when you see it, you come out changed. And most Americans these days can't live with that uncertainty. The younger generation is alienated from the arts, and the artists who are left sell out to commercial interests."
"Every so often I get an idea that some people understand, and that's about all I can hope for."