John Wyatt: An Important Voice in APT’s History

Posted July 22, 2020

Wyatt Blog

An essay from Michael Whaley, who worked with John Wyatt on the translations of the three Chekhov one-act plays produced at APT in the '80s, and his APT legacy continues in the 'Out of the Woods' series.

When I “arrived” at APT, in early March of 1985, the translation of the first set of Chekhov One-Acts was well underway, but I didn’t meet John Wyatt until late April, when APT’s “Academy” began its pre-season six-week session for the artistic company, as well, in some cases, for its entire staff. Unknown to almost everyone who didn’t learn of and experience it prior to 1987, APT was originally created as a center for the training of American actors and theatre professionals in the production of classical theatre. The performances – up the hill only, at that time – were just one component: clearly the most “public” and memorable of the activities of the “center”, but not necessarily the most ambitious or rigorous.  

John began his association with “The Academy”, as it was called, in 1984, teaching classes in … well, the Classics. From then until the end of 1991, when the APT founders moved on, and David Frank and his team took over, John translated and/or co-directed a play every year, beginning with the Chekhov One-Acts, in 1985.  For the following season he translated a second set of Chekhov One-Acts, and, in subsequent years, Chekhov’s Ivanov and The Seagull, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, Plautus’ Comedy of Asses and Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. I was privileged to collaborate with him on the “modern” plays (Chekhov and Ibsen), not because I knew Russian and Norwegian – I didn’t – but because I had studied the plays in graduate school, had co-directed both Chekhov and Ibsen and knew something about the difference between “the language of literature” and “the language of theatre”: that which can be spoken from the stage. At the end of the ’85 season, I was privileged to serve as text editor and designer for APT’s first copyrighted publication: Anton Chekhov: Three One-Act Comedies (1986) from Players Academy Press.

John was, to put it simply, brilliant, effervescent, generous, gallant, almost childlike in his curiosity and easily forgiving of every human foible – dishonesty, cruelty and laziness excepted. He believed to his core in the rewards that virtue brings, and helped us all – some of us individually – in getting closer to it. He laughed often and unabashedly, more than anyone I’ve ever met. He was almost childlike in that way.  He loved teaching actors – really, engaging in dialogue with them – almost as if they were, for him, direct mediums to precious secrets and previous ages. And more than once I wondered if he – were there a past life – grew up at the feet of actors in the Great Theatre of Dionysus in Athens in the 5th century B.C. (I decided he didn’t, but only because he would have been equally at home with Virgil four hundred years later, or Dante in early 14th century Florence, or Jane Austen in the early 19th century.)

From 1970 to 1996 John was a professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Beloit College, where he was twice voted Teacher of the Year. Among the many community educational projects he initiated, in 1988 he founded Beloit College’s Help Yourself Program, which provided underprivileged elementary school children with innovative, creative, and free after-school and weekend instruction in elementary Latin and ancient history and culture. Called “Meet Us in Alexandria,” this curriculum innovatively approached the so-called “Classical World” from the focal point of Africa.  John came out of retirement to serve as Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture from 2001 to 2004.

In the words of one of his former students at Beloit: 

“John used to talk to us a lot about the classical idea of virtue. He told us, often, and in many different contexts, that our true job on this planet was to live a virtuous life. ‘If you live a virtuous life you will be happy,’ he’d say, looking up at the ceiling tiles. And then he’d turn on us, that funny twinkle in his eye, and add, ‘Of course, happiness will be nothing like you think it’s going to be!’

John Alan Wyatt died on June 27, 2008.

Michael Whaley
Spring Green