William John Aupperlee: A haiku life in art and set design
"You know, if I lose the rest of my eyesight, I won't need 90 percent of the stuff in my house anymore."
Bill Aupperlee told me this in a tone that contained absolutely no resignation, fear, or rancor. It was declared matter-of-factly, and with his characteristic tone and subtext of "I wonder what will happen next, and what I can do with it?" This is the identity of the true artist, where they are often ahead of their own time, never mind everyone else's, imagining their next creative journey through being fully present to their own experience.
In brief, Bill has lost the sight in his left eye due to a condition that made a detached retina impossible to reattach, and his remaining right eye may meet the same fate.
The "90 percent of the stuff in (his) house" is his massive art and theatre library, a collection of beautiful paintings, many by local artists such as the late Brian Sweetland; his personal retrospective of his own art, from portraits to landscapes to photographs; the puppets he made for the puppet theatre he got for Christmas when he was 6 (his "pivotal year" on his creative path because he saw The Ten Commandments and Mary Martin in Peter Pan); beautifully framed mementos of accolades, awards, articles, and drawings of his sets; exquisitely arranged collections of objets, one of clear glass vessels placed so they catch the light at different times of day and fling their insouciant sparkle into the room. His home has a myriad of places to rest one's eyes to generate inspiration through beauty. Meanwhile, his creative life forges ahead unimpeded as he self-generates one project after another and keeps getting invited to do things in different mediums, usually simultaneously.
Nothing is ever left to languish or jettisoned to incompletion. At least, nothing I have ever seen in 18 years, which is only a portion of his prolific, creative lifetime. The portfolio he lent me for this article's research attests to that. Through it, I was introduced to parts of Aupperlee's life I never knew about. In one section there were two reviews of "All the Queen's Men," and he had juxtaposed the reviews so that the not-so-enthused and glowing paragraphs were beside each other on the page, his sense of fun engaging with the chance to send himself up. Aupperlee is a unique duality: a prodigious talent supported by an indefatigable capacity for work and joy - "I'm the kid who walks into the barn filled with manure and asks, "Where's the pony?'"
I met Bill 18 years ago within 48 hours of when I moved to Manchester from New York City. I auditioned for "The Passion of Dracula," the Fall show that he was directing for The Dorset Players, and got the part. Within the first couple of rehearsals, I realized I had lucked out with the sheer quality of direction I was receiving. I also wondered why this guy wasn't using Tony awards as doorstops. Aupperlee decided early on that he was happiest working in a small theatre in a small Vermont town. He made the conscious choice to live where he recognized he could be the best of himself. That decision served to nurture and grow his dense creative history. Even with the daunting schedule of the Dorset Theatre Festival's 5 shows in a short summer season, he thrived.
When his 26-year stint there came to an end, Oldcastle Theatre was more than thrilled to fill in the blank: "Dorset's loss is Oldcastle's gain," Eric Peterson, Artistic Director, said at the time. He continued to design sets for other theatres: Interlakes Theatre in Meredith, N.H., the San Pedro Playhouse in San Antonio, Texas. Projects in painting, writing, and photography were always simmering on the back burners, rotating around to the front ones as he finished a theatre project. Aupperlee has a rare ability to time manage and multitask his creative banquet, all the courses served up in their right time and place.
I saw Bill's latest set design last Friday night at Oldcastle Theatre: "Grandma Moses: An American Primitive," a two-hander play by Stephen L. Pouliot. This is only the second time this play has been performed -- it hibernated for 20 years in a desk drawer. It is just the sort of project that galvanizes Bill, because he experiences his life as one big treasure hunt. Two stained old coffee mugs propping up Grandma Moses' painting board that served as her easel caught my eye: "Those are the details I like to do in sets," said Aupperlee. "The set is home to all the parts of life lived by the characters."
The set had the quality of being alive in its own right. It had that anticipatory hum to it that I recognized from his other work as it waited for the actors to inhabit it. At the back, there was a triptych with a collage of Grandma Moses' paintings glowing and inviting us in. At the intermission the audience wandered freely through the set, looking at everything, gazing at the painting collage; it proffered that sort of welcome and invitation to an organic exchange. It embodied the gift of taking the disparate from many sources, making it all flow into places and times, evoking feelings and memories, vivid and inchoate.
Reading the credits, I recognized local names who had lent Bill various rugs, pieces of furniture, and who had been fonts of information for this play: Arthur Jones, the Gilbert Family, Marion Waldo McChesney, etc. He has cultivated many "X marks the spot" resources that love and trust him with their family heirlooms and art because he cherishes them during their time on the boards as he would his own.
Aupperlee experiences his set designs as tangible haiku, where the precisely chosen objects and furniture, arranged with an exacting intention inspired from deep exploration of the play's text, allows the actors and the audience to ride that magnificent Hokusai wave of melded imaginations. Eric Peterson, who directed Grandma Moses, told me: "Bill doesn't design so people wind up ‘whistling the set' when they leave the theatre. He always wants to serve the play, and the actors have to be comfortable with the set. Once, we were having trouble with a set, and we called Bill. He came in, had a look, made three quick suggestions for changes, and it was done. He has a brilliant eye, he is enthusiastic, has a wonderful sense of humor, and is an extraordinary talent. He is just great to work with! We want to use local talent, so it is an added bonus that Bill lives here in Vermont." The last three years have brought deep and sustained changes to the "living set" of Aupperlee's personal life. He has become his mother's primary caretaker. He sees this as being a growth phase, where he is constantly creating and adjusting the boundaries between his mother's care and the energy and time he needs for his creative journey to continue to realize itself. Since he doesn't know how long he will have the sight he has left, he is conscious of how every moment is precious and transformative.
"Wow," he exclaimed, "This was a traumatic thing that happened to me (losing the sight in one eye)!" His life force remains undimmed and he has made it a personal mission to raise people's awareness about having their eyes checked. In the midst of being present in so many facets of his life, there is a solidity and surety that radiates from him. The ground Aupperlee walks on (and traverses with his beloved dog, Snoopy DeMille) is his sense of self as a creative being exploring this gift of life. It's a true terra firma that has evolved with love, humility, care, and hard work.
"The greatest compliment I receive is when people come up to me after a show and say, ‘I loved how you placed such and such a thing where it was,' and that object was never there as part of the set!" he said. "Then I know that the set allowed the power of their imagination to open up and fill in a blank, to create another piece of the play's world on the stage."
There is a series of lines in Grandma Moses where the character of Dr. Otto Kaillir, the gallery owner who shows Grandma Moses' paintings, describes his experience of her work: "I am astonished by her use of color, her capacity for joy -- (there is) harmony, wit, a sense of fun." Hearing those lines, my inner voice responded to the synchronicity: "Yes! And that's William John Aupperlee, too!"
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