I thought I knew my Madison-area history, but until last week I’d never heard of Dr. E. Reid Gilbert, who half a century ago started a school outside of Spring Green to teach mime — a silent art of movement and gesture — and made it, briefly, the epicenter of mime instruction in the United States.
“The school has taken on international prominence in the last two years,” wrote Don Davies in the Wisconsin State Journal in 1977. “Spring Green and the Valley Studio have become not only the hub of comprehensive mime education, but its international publications as well.”
Gilbert, who died May 28 at 91, opened the Valley Studio six miles south of Spring Green in the Wyoming Valley in 1969, nearly a decade before the launch of the area’s much more famous, and enduring, American Players Theatre.
“It was something of an arts commune,” says Craig Jacobsen, who today serves as event coordinator for the Wisconsin Historical Society. Starting in 1975, Jacobsen spent four years at the Valley Studio as a resident apprentice.
“It was beautiful a place,” Jacobsen says. “Almost mystical. To have the opportunity to come and live with 30 other people and participate in the cooking, the building of stages, and be immersed in something other than traditional theater forms. I studied pantomime. I studied ballet.” Other classes included mask-making and improvisation.
Gilbert — Reid to friends — grew up in the mountains of Appalachia and was a Methodist minister as a young man. In the late 1950s, Gilbert went to New York City to study for a master’s degree in religious drama.
“He was told he needed stage work,” wrote the art critic James Auer in a 1972 profile of Gilbert.
Auer noted that this led Gilbert to France, and six months of mime lessons with Etienne Decroux, who taught the celebrated French mime Marcel Marceau.
Although mime became a passion, Gilbert’s artistic interests were wide-ranging. He taught theater and wrote plays and books. He came to Madison in the early 1960s to study East Asian theater with UW Professor A. C. Scott. Gilbert eventually met Robert and Derry Graves, a Spring Green couple who would have an outsized impact on the area over the next 50 years.
Robert Graves was then president of the Uplands Arts Council, which had a theater and studio on Highway 23 between Spring Green and Dodgeville. He’d formed the council at the suggestion of Robert Gard, who was soon to publish a landmark text, “The Arts in the Small Community.”
“The arts are for everyone,” Gard wrote. “They are not reserved for the wealthy, or for the well-endowed museum, the gallery. … The people, if shown the way, can create art in and of themselves.”
According to Jacobsen, Gilbert — studying for his doctorate with Scott in Madison — met Robert Graves and began doing mime workshops out in the Wyoming Valley, gaining an appreciation for the area’s natural beauty.
“This led to Reid saying, ‘Gee, I’d like to stay in the valley,’” Jacobsen says.
A Madison pathologist and arts supporter named Dean Connors owned property in the area and offered its use to Gilbert — the Valley Studio and Wisconsin School of Mime opened in 1969.
Valley Studio may have reached its apex in 1976, when, according to Gilbert’s obituary, the New York Times called it the “center of mime training in the U.S.” That year also marked the arrival in Spring Green, at Gilbert’s invitation, of Thomas Leabhart, who had studied four years under Decroux and become expert in corporeal mime, a less comic and, according to some, higher art than pantomime. Davies’ 1977 State Journal article suggests Leabhart became artistic director at Valley Studio.
But in 1978, Leabhart left the Wyoming Valley and established his Corporeal Mime Theatre in residence at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.
“It swallowed up a lot of the limelight and took the wind out of the sails of Valley Studio,” Jacobsen says.
Money concerns, rarely out of mind for arts groups, were also pressing. In 1979, Gilbert told The Capital Times that Valley Studio was having a “real cash flow problem.”
How bad was it? During the 1978 Wisconsin gubernatorial campaign, Gilbert had loaned the bus that Valley Studio used to take its mime troupe to performances to candidate Lee Dreyfus, who generated abundant publicity — and a winning campaign — with his “Red Vest Whistle Stop Special” bus tour.
Jacobsen recalled, “One day Reid said we had to gather in the front yard. A bus pulled up. Lee Dreyfus was on top of it. That was our mime bus.”
By March 1979, Gilbert was asking the campaign for $4,000 for the bus — which had been stored in Stevens Point — prompting the Cap Times article.
Later that year, according to Jacobsen, “Reid had to relinquish the Valley Studio.”
In the 1980s Gilbert taught drama at Ohio State University. Later, while living in Tucson with his partner, Barbara Banks, he began writing books, including a novel, “Shall We Gather at the River,” a story collection, “Trickster Jack,” and a youthful memoir, “The Twelve Houses of My Childhood.”
And the Valley Studio lives. Jacobsen is part of a private Facebook group of 109 former Valley Studio students, instructors and staff.
One of Gilbert’s books, “Valley Studio: More Than a Place,” gathers reminiscences of students whose lives were enriched by this remarkable creative center.
“A warm, wonderful document,” Jacobsen says.
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