Renowned playwright, Shantigar founder Jean-Claude van Itallie dies at 85

  • VAN ITALLIE

For the Recorder
Published: 9/20/2021 7:27:50 PM

Playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie, who established the Shantigar Foundation in Rowe as a center for theater, meditation and healing, died of pneumonia on Sept. 9 in Manhattan. He was 85.

One of the founding playwrights of the experimental theater club La MaMa in Greenwich Village, van Itallie was also an actor, director, teacher and translator. He was known around the world as the creator of such works as the trilogy “America Hurrah” and the play “Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

Van Itallie was born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1936, his obituary states. His family fled the Holocaust in 1940, coming to the United States via France and Portugal. They were saved in large part by the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, Aristide de Sousa Mendes. The van Itallies were among the thousands of Jews to whom the consul issued exit visas despite the orders of his superiors.

“We were saved. We were extraordinarily fortunate,” van Itallie said in a video interview last year with his friend Didi Goldenhar.

His stockbroker father quickly found work in New York, and young Jean-Claude was brought up speaking both English and French. His immigrant history gave him lifelong empathy for refugees and made him feel a bit of an outsider in placid Great Neck on Long Island.

After graduating from Harvard in 1958, he moved to New York City and studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse. He was quickly drawn into the off-Broadway experimental theater scene. He worked frequently at La Mama and also wrote for Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater.

His many plays included “Bag Lady,” “War,” “The Traveler,” “Light” and “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (or “How Not to Do It Again”).

Most recently, in 2019, Andrea Clearfield’s opera “Mila, Great Sorcerer,” to which he contributed the libretto, was presented at the Prototype Festival; and his play “The Fat Lady Sings” debuted at La MaMa.

“I wrote plays about tearing down facade, feeling that somewhere something wasn’t being said, some fear was not being expressed,” van Itallie told Goldenhar in the video interview.

His family acquired land in Rowe in 1946. It became his adult home in the 1960s. In 1992, van Itallie established the Shantigar Foundation on Davenport Road, which serves as a center for theater, meditation and healing.

Shantigar has attracted myriad artists, teachers and performers over the years, in large part because of the connections and the vivid personality of its founder.

“He brought so many luminaries up there,” said friend and Shantigar board member Rosemary Quinn.

In addition to helming Shantigar and writing plays, van Itallie directed performance, writing and meditation workshops at Naropa, Princeton, Yale, and other universities and retreat centers.

He also worked with local companies, including Pilgrim Theatre in Conway and Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, according to Quinn.

Van Itallie didn’t write only plays. He produced books as well, including “Tea with Demons” and “The Playwright’s Workbook.”

Marcia Gagliardi of Haley’s Publishing in Athol relished working with van Itallie on “Tea with Demons.” In recent months, the two discussed her publishing a new novel by the prolific writer.

“Our mode here is collaboration, and (‘Tea with Demons’) was a wonderful exercise in collaboration,” Gagliardi said. “He was very acute. ... He was very funny.”

According to his obituary, van Itallie is survived by his brother Michael (and wife Marion), stepmother Christine, niece Jessica, nephew Jason (and wife Uma), and the next generation of the family.

In addition to being a loving family member, the playwright had a large capacity for friendship. Deb Katz, his neighbor in Rowe, explained that after her husband, Fred, died in 2005, she and van Itallie “carried each other.” He regarded her, her daughters and her grandchildren as a second family.

Katz appreciated van Itallie both personally and professionally.

“He could be very funny and very charming, and also impossible,” she said with a laugh. “He was willing to risk a lot in terms of what he created, to wake people up.”

Asked what people in Western Massachusetts should know about van Itallie, she thought for a minute.

“I think they know him as this eccentric guy who lived up on the hill,” she mused. “They should know about his generosity and his kindness and his helping people.

“And that he created this place where there are workshops that the community was invited to participate in and share,” Katz added.

Memorial celebrations will take place in the spring at Shantigar in Rowe and at Café La MaMa in New York City.

Tinky Weisblat is a writer and singer who lives in Hawley. Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.




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