Where’s B? An appreciation of Byrne Blackwood

Where’s B?

The two summers I was Byrne Blackwood’s assistant in Tent Theatre, I was asked the question “Where’s B?” literally countless times.  Most of the time my response was, “Who knows?”

He was peripatetic darting in and out of many places. I quickly learned that keeping up with him was futile.  As long as he was where he needed to be, when I needed him to be there, I would shrug my shoulders and go about the tasks at hand.

I first became aware of him through Tent Theatre commercials I would see while visiting my grandparents in Northwest Arkansas.  He was always game for whatever the commercial called for that year.

In college, as a non-theatre major, I first met him when I served on the campus Performing Arts Series Committee, which he chaired.  I was intimidated/awestruck the first time I walked in and saw him.  But his smile and relaxed persona put me at ease.

It was through those committee meetings over a few years, and his work producing the entertainment for the annual Founders Club dinners, that he and I struck up a friendship. Once he found out I was from Arkansas, he would tell me about times he had served on Arkansas Arts Council or NEA panels reviewing proposals from the Arkansas Rep or shows he had worked on at the University of Arkansas.  During rehearsals for one of the Founders Club dinners, he and I first talked about me being his assistant during Tent that summer.  As with most who’ve been in Tent, it was some of the hardest work and some of the most fun I have ever had in a job.

We mainly solved the world’s problems in our conversations those summers, but I also loved to ask him about past SMSU shows.  For pretty much any title I could dig up and mention, he would have a story about something wonderful or something awful.  I especially loved his tales of the USO tours with Irene Coger.  He gave me access to his files of past productions which was heaven for a theatre historian and researcher.

But that was B.  He knew how to find a person’s talent and encourage ways for it to grow – whether as a designer, technician, actor, director, or researcher.

B was, at heart, a designer.  And what a designer!  Going through photos of so many shows over the years, I have even more respected his talents. He did not have a single style. He was comfortable in so many different periods and genres.  What united his designs was B’s sense of detail and service to the script and director.   I loved hearing his stories, especially when there was some dishing.  But even when he was critical, he was never cruel.  And even though he would fight for his vision, he was also a generous collaborator.

As a professor, I had him for only one class – American Theatre History.  His quizzes were difficult (who thinks to remember the color of a newspaper mentioned only in a stage direction?) but his lectures were entertaining and informative.  He would freely admit some of the assigned plays were atrocious but would explain why it was important to read them.  Each day was entertaining.  People did not skip the class for fear of missing quiz points, but for fear of missing a great lecture by B.

A few years after leaving campus, I was in the TKTS line in Times Square on a Sunday morning.  I look back, and there was B about fifteen people behind me.  I first thought, “There’s B.”  And then I thought, “Wait a minute! I am not seeing him in Springfield or even Little Rock, I am seeing him in New York!”  He was up there to see shows and friends.  Neither of us had lunch plans so we went to lunch together.  It was as if time had not stopped.  He was his witty, charming, opinionated self.

And that is how it was with him. Whether I would see him at a Tent reunion or some other visit to Springfield, he was always B.

And the thing I loved was that everyone who knew him felt the same way.  He had boundless energy and love to give to everyone. He did not share himself with just a select few.  The Tent audience members felt like they knew him as well as his longtime friends and colleagues did.

So now, “Where’s B?”

In some place of light and creativity and warmth and love surrounded by some of his dearest friends and former students.  And he is probably wearing shorts.