On Sunday, I completed the run of Amadeus at Round House Theater. It was a terrific run and a great production. After the show was over, I was in the dressing room and a note came backstage addressed to me. Usually notes herald a friend in the house asking to meet to say hello in the lobby. Not that day. I opened up the paper and read the words from someone who identified themselves as a former student of Mark Rothko and inviting me to speak about him at my convenience. I was so moved and stunned. What are the chances of that happening? It was the perfect transition from the Amadeus project to Red.
So today, I went to visit Roma Laks Kaplan, a sculptor who lives in the area. I didn’t know what to expect, but was met by an elegant and handsome woman, who welcomed me into her lovely home. I was immediately struck by the paintings and sculpture that filled the space. We sat down and enjoyed a glass of iced tea, which several hours later became a lovely glass of wine.
We got right down to the talk of Rothko. I learned from Roma that she was a student in his class at Brooklyn College back in the early fifties. She described him as a dedicated academic who possessed great and broad knowledge of the history of art and also a great empathy, particularly for her. She thought that was due to the fact that she grew up in Poland in the thirties when it was part of Russia. Although Jewish, she was raised speaking Polish and heard her father read Pushkin and other Russian literature. She shared Rothko’s Jewish heritage, and felt that because of that and having survived the war in Poland (something she demurred to discuss in any detail, too painful to recall) he had a particular connection with her. The students of the class referred to her as Rothko’s pet, because of the empathy he showed toward her above other students in the class. Rothko, she said, was a great drawer, and she remembered Rothko coming over and looking at her work and drawing over it to show her how. She recalled being furious about his desecration of her work, ruing the fact that she didn’t keep any of the samples of his doodles on her work.
One thing she recalled that I found fascinating from an acting point of view: Roma remembered that Rothko’s shoes were habitually unlaced most of the time, his feet bursting out from them. She though that was an effect of his alcoholism. I will have to try that choice for the show.
I spent the remainder of the day getting the tour of her home and all of her pieces of sculpture. Beautiful studies of nudes clearly influenced by Rodin. Figures emerging from clumps of clay, some bronzed. Although art was always a topic of discussion for her as a child, she actually graduated from Brooklyn College as a psychologist, and only later in life, returned to her passion as a artist. Later, her husband Howard arrived, a retired scientist, now turned print maker.
Roma spoke of their passion for Italy, spending time there in a studio working on her art in Tuscany. Both she and Howard gave me a window into the era of the New York art scene. She herself has studied dance with Martha Graham and the lived in Greenwich Village at a time when all those incredible artists (Rothko, de Kooning, Pollack, Jimmy Ernst, etc.) where at their prime. What a day. I hope that we will meet again. Thank you Roma, for your hospitality and insights of this surprising and complicated man, Rothko.