Tuesday, January 4, 2011

RIP Alumni Omar Shapli

Sadly, alumni Omar Shapli passed away on December 29th. An Egyptian-born, American-raised Korean War veteran, Omar Shapli dropped out of the University of Chicago after falling in with the theatre folk who eventually founded Second City. During his time at The Second City, he wrote six revues as an ensemble member from 1963-1965. He has written, directed, and acted in numerous plays in Chicago and New York, creating a principal role in Mac Wellman’s Crowbar and, more recently, appearing as Polonius in Richard Schechner’s production of Hamlet.

While teaching his craft at NYU, CCNY, Williams, Emerson, and Dartmouth, he has attempted to preserve his sanity by writing poetry, some of which has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Café Review, Main Street Rag, New Orleans Review, and Small Pond, to name a few. He was married to the dancer-choreographer Tryntje Shapli and has three sons.

For more information about Omar Shapli.


  1. Omar part 1.

    It was only recently that I learned of the sad 2010 passing of Omar Shapli, with whom I had studied and worked, and am prompted by those memories to offer a very belated but heartfelt remembrance.

    Unlike so many in academia ( it's hard to picture him as an “academic”, however technically he may have fit the bill), he functioned in varied and often incongruent capacities: teacher, director, wit, raconteur, writer, mentor, theorist, bar buddy, left wing provocateur and coffee house intellectual, and perhaps most indelibly to me, the largest single contributor to the profits of Heineken Brewing Company. With Omar, those categories meshed so seamlessly that one didn't often know which was the default status. It didn't matter. It was Omar, and whatever you brought that day, he was there.

    In numerous meandering discourses he would unpretentiously reveal the breadth of his knowledge, which was more impressive for being gained, not through endless matriculation, but through the processes of a thirsty, absorbent mind. Much of that lore he consigned to us on many lubricated evenings, where in sudsy thunder the world's knotty challenges were met and, at least to us, subdued. The stickier the issue, the more muscular the deliverance. When occasion required, he would aim one of his stylish epistles – he was perhaps more than anything else a writer --- at whatever bureaucrat or other miscreant had traduced his sense of fairness or reason. He had, in spades, a talent for waggishly exposing the folly of opponents' views, not that he was always right, just always funny, knowing as he did, that humor in the service of argument can be as lethal as a stiletto. His varied cultural references ranged from classical music to classic film, and though I chose to think that I would have discovered the richness of the latter on my own, he provoked my interest with his steady quotes from this or that masterpiece, most notably “Casablanca” (“I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on”, etc.), which due to his prompting I finally saw, and which like the Grand Canyon did not disappoint.

    It seemed fitting that his forte, at least when I knew him, was as an instructor of Theater Games, a wacky improvisational genre that contrasted refreshingly with the ordained “traditional” approach and its clannish patois (it's hard to imagine him brandishing words like “objectives”, “motivation”, and other marks of election). For him, and for his students, performance was in the most constructive sense, fun, and who better to pilot the process than a man who was in large and constructive measure, a big kid. The games exercised an under-used but potentially powerful theatrical muscle that had atrophied in the shadow of more conventional methods, but which produced not only classroom hysterics, but often viable original material. From this idiom he fashioned several theater pieces; some worked, some did not. But the failures were those of overreaching rather than artlessness, occasioned as they sometimes were by his partaking of liquid solace.

    He had his eccentricities, and as so often with the gifted, those quirks could be charming even as they misfired. I remember his attending a party (non-costume) wearing a Russian muzhik's blouse that made him look like he'd stepped out of a production of Boris Godunov. But such was his relationship with students that I didn't hesitate to tell him that he looked mildly absurd. And I always suspected that his grand and often-twirled mustache was worn partly to enhance his minor resemblance to the young Joseph Stalin --- with whom, be assured, there were no other similarities

  2. Omar Part 2.
    Among his stubborn drives was to mount ambitious pieces based on major persons and events in American history. In this, he would tend to overreach in a noble, but ultimately bootless attempt to wed quirky techniques to such weighty themes. (It would be another decade before “Hamilton” would successfully use a modern, non-traditional idiom to express a classic American tale.) In a perhaps predictable irony, his most satisfying work derived more purely from the games and improvisation that were his essential metier. These were the audience pleasers, devoid of highbrow designs but unburdened by them as well.
    The last images I saw of him were on a website that showed him reading his original poetry in a Greenwich Village cafe. It seems that in the succeeding years he had built a reputation as a respected poet. It didn't surprise me that his creative energies extended into later life. And it was good to see that the event was well attended by many of his former students. But the images had a sobering side: he did appear much altered. If I had passed him on the street that day, I wouldn't have known him. Some people change little, some change more yet remain familiar, and a blessed few seem to change not at all. Omar may not have been fortunate in the above ways, but was in so many others.
    As these memories assembled, I heard the poignant coda of James Taylor's “Fire and Rain” floating softly through the air. I picked up on the words ---- “but I always thought that I'd see you again.” Indeed, with Omar I'd always thought that I would. But it was not to be. Yet I think it would have given him wry satisfaction to know that I was writing this in the kind of watering hole (drinking Heineken, no less) where he used to grandly hold forth, and to know that I was acknowledging the imprint he had left. Every great, or even good teacher leaves something. He left more than most. And so, Omar, good night.