‘Meet Me (Again) In St. Louis’: 1996 alum Nicholas Tamarkin
Before becoming a Washington University freshman, Nicholas Tamarkin had performed in two Tony-nominated plays, one during his freshman year and another during his junior year of high school. He had acted in Paris and Berlin, met Al Pacino and Paul Newman, and gone to Kevin Bacon’s wedding.
“Wonderful, fantastic, lovely, lucky,” Tamarkin said about those experiences between the ages of 14 and 22 that led him to Broadway, to regional theater, to the BBC and even to legendary Arthur Miller.
During that time, he also realized that the A-list lifestyle might not be particularly sustainable. In some ways, the glossy glow of the famous names and the famous places was akin to the one derived from “dating a cheerleader,” as he joked. A young Tamarkin came to the understanding that, behind the bright lights of the mainstream theater scene, there was the space to question whether there was any art burgeoning at all.
In looking for satisfaction from life and art, Tamarkin has tried regional theater, writing, directing and even teaching at Michigan State University for two years. His career has been, according to him, a topsy-turvy ride, and one that, after more than a decade, once again has found a good pit stop in St. Louis. He is now back at Wash. U. in the doctoral program for comparative literature. He also works as director of development in the St. Louis-based Upstream Theater, an experimental company that has become his artistic home.
“The motto of [Upstream Theater] is ‘To move you, and to move you to think,’” Tamarkin said about the small theater company founded in 2004. Within the St. Louis theater scene, Upstream is known for its raw and uncomfortable shows. Tamarkin just finished working in “Helver’s Night,” a two-character play about a mentally disabled man who becomes fascinated with the regalia of a political movement uncannily similar to the Nazi regime of World War II.
The process of creating theater in Upstream is “organic,” according to Tamarkin. Most of the work that is presented is in translation from Polish or German. The scripts are ambitious and sometimes “imperfect,” and the company members come together in a hazy process to find what each member of the company can contribute to the understanding of the script.
There is a rich variety of experiences that color the theatrical process: Upstream works, for example, with an Iranian-American musician and a Mexican mask maker. Two years ago, Upstream also worked with the Serbian community in St. Louis for the production of a Serbian play, looking constantly for community engagement. Apart from Tamarkin, other members of the Wash. U. community are involved with Upstream Theater (or the other way around). Philip Boehm, artistic director of Upstream, is the husband of Elzbieta Sklodowska, professor in the romance languages department.
Tamarkin believes that Upstream Theater should be accessible to Wash. U. students. As director of development at Upstream Theater, he hopes to make a move toward a closer contact between students—in a constant process of fascination and discovery—and a theater that is deeply rooted in its creative process.
“We can get into art museums with our Wash. U. IDs. We should be able to see strong, evocative, consciousness-raising theater for five, six bucks,” Tamarkin said.
Tamarkin hopes to return once again to teaching in the future, considering that helping young men and women in a process of discovery is highly satisfactory. In the meantime, his time in St. Louis offers him an interesting combination of experiences.
“Coming back to St. Louis, seeing people are still into Mama’s Pot Roast, trying to figure out to how to work within a Ph.D. program and, most importantly, working with Upstream Theater and just helping people make their art,” Tamarkin said with a smile.
It seems that for him, coming back to St. Louis is not quite full circle, but just another interesting twist in an exciting life spiral.