Pavel Dobrusky: 1956-2013

by Molly Smith

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,In Memorium

Post image for Pavel Dobrusky: 1956-2013

Oh Pavel.

Wildman of the universe, you who actually did make magic happen in the theater—it seems strange to have you gone now.  The theater got a little smaller with your passing…

I first met Pavel through Roberta Levitow many years ago.  I was at Perseverance Theater in Alaska and Roberta thought his crazy focused brilliance might be a match for our scrappy theater company.  She was right.

The first production Pavel designed for us was MACBETH and we played with the idea that Macbeth’s killing of the king was the first true murder.  Different from warfare—this was a quark in the system.  Our Banquo was Gary Waid, a Native American actor, and once he was murdered, the play quickly jumped forward in time as the actors became more and more armored to protect themselves.  Pavel had the idea of using fishing line to create a world of shimmer—he was always amazing about using objects already in our world and we had a lot of fishing line and many volunteers.  Eventually, people tied over 10,000 lines and created a gorgeous wall that Lady MacBeth did her mad scene against. The lighting was spectacular—he was a sceneographer and sometimes designed the set, lighting and costumes although his lighting was often genius. I told him I thought he’d designed the set because of the lighting he saw in his head…

He was from Czechoslovakia and escaped in 1983 to Germany and then America. Watching his country fall apart informed all his work. Pavel worked as an assistant for Svoboda and learned the rest from theater school and life. He always said that imagination is the true freedom.  He lived it and believed anything in the theater was possible.

Later we built theater pieces together beginning with WONDERLAND, our take on the political system of America and the fall of the Berlin Wall created through improvisations with the company.  Our theater building couldn’t hold all these ideas and we wanted the audience to be Alice falling through the rabbit hole so we rented an airplane hanger and moved the audience around on big rolling bleachers. The fire department closed us down one night until we incorporated a fire drill into each performance—anything was possible including a big car carrying the military and a horse too because why not?
 GENESIS was the first chapter of the bible and we followed it as exactly as we could.  God pulled Adam and Eve out of the mud and the theater became their playground until Eve ate the apple and all of us, audience included, were thrown out of the theater to the back yard under a circus tent where Cain and Abel were and Noah and the Ark which was often played in the driving rain, this being Juneau, a rare northern rainforest. And the audiences loved it…

He was fearless around space.  I often thought of him as an architect; he loved molding and manipulating a space, giving himself larger and larger challenges to solve.
 One of the biggest was THE ODYSSEY, created with 7 writers, 7 designers and 8 actors playing Odysseus from a classic Odysseus with a brown beard to a Yu’pik subsistence hunter to a huge blond white woman who took the stage by storm as Odysseus when he comes home.  This was the time of the great Exxon Valdez oil spill and when he went to Hades, he found all the animals there in the middle of an oil slick. Pavel removed all the seats on two sides of the theater and played the play against a back wall we’d never used before.

He impacted designers and writers and actors and a whole swath of audiences who knew they were watching and experiencing something very exciting whenever Pavel came to town. We talked into the wee hours of the night about the difference between metaphor and symbol. He was as wild in his personal life as he was in the theater staying up all night drinking, trailing women after him—one I remember howling on the street outside my house because she knew Pavel was there.

He taught me about the imagination and the infinite playground that is in the brain, the true freedom.  He taught me about being playful and pushing every boundary that was there.  He taught me that ideas are to be stretched and pulled and tossed around. I’ve always liked ‘big’ and ‘more’ and he even pushed that edge, constantly taking a whole theater out of its comfort zone—and we willingly went with him.

When he came to Arena Stage, he designed plays like AGAMEMNON AND HIS DAUGHTERS, ALL MY SONS and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, each in the iconic Fichandler Theater, a large space in the round.  He was a master there too and in AGAMEMNON it was a huge cube in the middle of the Arena that would sink and rise as we moved from act to act—lit gloriously from within.

Decades ago he told me he didn’t think he’d live past 40.  Well, he made it to 58 and our loss is big.  But his imaginative powers live on as you can see through these productions and countless others created in America and overseas.

There is no one quite like him. We shall not see his like again.


Molly Smith has led a re-invention of Arena Stage, focusing on the creation of the new Mead Center for American Theater as well as major artistic changes. Arena Stage is a center for the production, presentation, development and study of American theater. Molly has been a leader in new play development for 30 years while at Arena Stage and at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska, the theater she founded. She has commissioned or championed numerous world premieres and directed over 75 productions. Ms. Smith’s directorial work has been seen at Arena Stage, Perseverance Theatre, the Shaw Festival, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Trinity Repertory Company, Tarragon Theatre and the Centaur Theatre.

  • Kenneth Shareef

    I had the pleasure of work with in the late 90′s as a budding stage actor… so much respect for his cutting-edge artistic vision.