Art Beat Greensboro this weekend
Art Beat Greensboro, an event celebrating the music, theater, dance and art of the Gate City, opens this week. Special guest Peter Coyote, an actor, activist and writer, will read Peter and the Wolf and “The Gift of the Magi” with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and screen some of his films. For a full list of events, visit artbeatgreensboro.org.
I interviewed Coyote via e-mail about his acting career, his writing and his San Francisco activism, which predated the Summer of Love.
Amy Kingsley: How do you know Dmitry Sitkovetsky, the music director at the Greensboro Symphony?
Peter Coyote: Dima, as I call him, and I met over twenty years ago in London, through a wonderful mutual friend named Francis Bacon who has since passed away. We took to one another immediately and have been fast friends since. Dima told me that he was going to be doing a piece in Greensboro that required a reader, and would I be interested. We both thought it would be fun, and a way to subsidize a visit, which is an all-too rare occurrence for us.
AK: Before your acting career took off, you studied writing in San Francisco. Did you continue to write while your show business career developed?
PC: I often tell people that I am a writer who makes his living as an actor. I have never stopped writing, and now that I am getting older, am shifting more and more attention to writing – a book at the moment, but also screenplays and essays.
AK: When did you decide to undertake your memoirs – Sleeping Where I Lie – and why?
PC: Sometime around 1989 I wrote a piece about the sixties. A publisher friend named Jack Shoemaker (Counterpoint Press) saw it and suggested that I expand it. I worked on it off and on for nearly 10 years, delving back into memories and old journals; interviewing friends; basically trying to use the book itself as a vehicle to make sense of that entire period in my life.
AK: What was your involvement with the anarchist-performance group the Diggers during the 1960s?
PC: I was not the person who started the Diggers, though I was there very early on. Two people entered the orbit of the San Francisco Mime Troupe – Emmett Grogan, a brilliant and charismatic actor, and his childhood friend from Brooklyn, Billy Murcott. Somehow, under their influence, Peter Berg, Kent Minault, Judy Goldhaft, Nina Blossenheim,, David Simpson, Jane Lapiner and some others began pushing the idea of “radical” theater, off the stage on onto the streets. We wanted to use our improvisational and intellectual skills to push people more rigorously than a play would allow, to consider concepts like private property, consumer, owner, store, etc. The Diggers became the vehicle for doing just that. The Diggers lasted about three years, before morphing into the larger Free Family. At a certain point the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco, where we were living, was simply overrun with runaways and looky-loos, and we had other things we wanted to do rather than minister to their needs all the time. Besides, many of the functions that we started – free-food, free medical help, etc – were taken over by other people, so most of us moved out of the city onto the land to begin exploring alternate economies.
AK: Have your politics changed much since your Haight-Ashbury days?
PC: My politics have not changed much since the sixties, but I am more patient, more aware of how good people can disagree, and more aware of how slowly social phenomena change.
AK: Do you have a candidate in this year’s election?
PC: I campaigned in seven cities for John Edwards, who for my money was the candidate with the clearest view of the problems and the most practical and precise solutions. The media made short work of him (he was an anti-corporate candidate after all, and the media is corporate-controlled). Between Obama and Hilary, I favor Obama, but I’m too old to be lonesome for a hero, and don’t expect that simply electing a new president will change all that much.
AK: While you’re in Greensboro, you are going to be screening your film Bitter Moon, which was directed by Roman Polanski. What was it like to work with him?
PC: I have unqualified respect for Roman, arguably the most gifted man I’ve ever worked with. I was frightened every single day, because his mind was always so far out in front of my own; he was more clever, more perverse, more convoluted and I felt as if I were always running to catch up.
AK: Do you have any big projects on the horizon?
PC: Well, I’m at work on a book: Twelve Things We’re Afraid to Know: …and why not knowing them is killing us. A very hard-but-fair appraisal of the current political and social situation, dedicated to the proposition that if you misperceive a problem, there is no chance of fixing it. Many of our social institutions are so far removed from how we’ve been taught that they’re supposed to operate, that people have lost track of the situation we actually find ourselves in. To oversimplify, it’s easy to say, “We love our children.” However, if you look at the facts, you can see we don’t. We don’t educate them; we don’t insure them; we don’t see that they have ample medical coverage; we don’t protect them from overly-sexual advertising imagery that shapes them to believe that the “hottest” people get the greatest mates, stuff, and lifestyles and everyone else are “the grunts.” We’re toxifying the air and water that they breathe, and causing epidemics of autism, asthma and non-verbal learning disorders as a consequence. We don’t pay for the best teachers to teach them or the best people to run day-care. So perhaps it’s time that we either admit that we don’t give a hoot about our children, that we’d rather make money and buy consumer goods, or, change the situation so that we act as if we do care.
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsleyat firstname.lastname@example.org.