R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe


R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe. Photo by Kevin Berne

San Diego Rep presents a truly remarkable one-man show.

By Charlene Baldridge
Photos by Kevin Berne

Back In March 2000, San Diego Repertory Theatre presented R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, the daring world premiere of a one-man show by theater co-founder D. W. Jacobs. The play was developed and premiered entirely at the Rep and became its most successful and long-lived creation, playing more than a thousand performances in Chicago, Seattle, San Jose, Atlanta, Montreal (in French) and even in Wroclaw, Poland (in English with Polish subtitles).

To commemorate the Rep’s 40th year, Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse has programmed Bucky March 10-April 3. Jacobs will direct, and Ron Campbell will repeat his acclaimed portrayal. Woodhouse says, “Our reasons for doing it are multiple. Campbell has grown in his own field the way Fuller grew in his. He’s had 15 years to ripen this character. Another is to celebrate a writer and the work he’s done on this play.”

And then, there is Bucky. Twice expelled from Harvard University, Fuller (1895-1953) is hard to define. He was an indefatigable original thinker and an architect (inventor and developer of the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion Car; two prototypes still exist), and coiner of the phrase “Spaceship Earth.” He was a poet, author and lecturer. Above all, this supremely original thinker believed in sustainability. Without that, he believed, we will destroy ourselves.

In the beginning, no one, least of all Woodhouse, Jacobs and Campbell, knew whether a play based on the ideas of one quirky man, presented in the form of a lecture about the workings of the Universe (Bucky always capitalized the word), would fly. The answer was yes.

Jacobs originally intended to portray Bucky himself, but when he realized what he had wrought (the first draft was 240 pages), he happily cast Campbell, an actor quite familiar to San Diegans for numerous roles at the Rep and other area theatres. Campbell has since gone on to international acclaim as the king of fools in Cirque du Soliel’s Koozå, with which he toured for six years.

“Cutting the first hundred pages was relatively easy,” says Jacobs. “As I recall, the last five were brutal. In the end, I‘ve not rewritten the play too much—just performed some sandpapering. The most interesting thing is that people think I’ve rewritten a lot. Ever since the Wall Street crisis in 2008, there’s hardly a laugh in the Wall Street lawyer’s speech. People sit just horrified that Bucky predicted it 30 years ago.

“The play seems to change as the world changes, so in that sense I’m pleased. The whole world is moving toward his ideas. They are beginning to see there has to be a new way of doing things. There’s a whole new spectrum of people who respect Bucky’s individuality, his thinking outside the box.

“I thought I was writing a play that would have a fierce niche market, but it turns out it crosses unpredictably all kinds of lines. I’d hoped it would do that, because Bucky did that when he was alive. Everybody came out to hear him speak—the politicians, social dropouts, the hippies, the technologists and anti-technologists.”

Among the listeners were the young Jacobs himself. His older brother was studying at the College of Creative Studies in Santa Barbara. One day he said to D.W., “You’ve got to come see this guy speak. He’s really strange.”

Fuller would stand in front of the audience and just talk, for hours and hours. Jacobs had other classes, so he’d listen to Bucky for a while, run to a class or to dinner, come back and find Bucky was still talking. Jacobs bought a few of Bucky’s books, and he was hooked. “It was like diving down the rabbit hole at that time of my life. I got really immersed and it had a big impact on me. Of all the thinkers I’ve explored, Fuller is the most comprehensive and one of the few people of the 20th century who stands like a Renaissance man.”

In the mid-90s, Jacobs staged a Bucky centennial tribute and conceived the idea for a dynamic one-man show about him, perhaps to perform himself. He received the family’s blessing, Campbell was in San Diego orbit, and that’s how it began.

After Campbell did 600 performances or so of R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, the show closed for a time. Since then, there have been seven other Bucky portrayers, including Jacobs, who admits it took him a month to memorize the text, and he spent the entire time cursing the writer. Campbell, who had not performed Bucky for four or five years, returned to the show in January 2014 at San Jose Repertory Theatre. He admits having to memorize it anew each time he’s done it.

“Ron came back with a kind of sword-like focus,” says Jacobs, who lives in the Los Angeles area and heads a theater company called Teatro Arroyo. “He’s in better shape than when he originally did it 10 years younger.”

When first interviewed by this journalist in 2000, Campbell chased her down in the Horton Plaza parking garage, insisting, “You’ve got to see this!” She followed him to the back of his SUV, from which he extracted something that looked much like a Tinker Toy with joints made of marshmallows. He proceeded to demonstrate, a la Fuller, the integrity of the triangle.

Campbell received a 2007 resident actor William & Eva Fox and Theatre Communications Group Grant for distinguished achievement. The grant took him all over the world and specifically to the National Theatre of Greece at the Theatre of Epidaurus where he performed the Shepherd in Oedipus. “The emphasis was on mask,” he says. “I’ve been doing a lot of that work—physical work, really—ever since Bucky.”

His last Kooza was in Paris on New Year’s Eve in 2013. Then he returned to the Bay Area, to live and work in a warehouse he bought while touring in Russia. Since remodeled, it’s called Soar Fest Studio and there he teaches a weekly three-hour “Actors’ Jam” and lives with his wife, floral designer Momoko Shimokado.

When we spoke again in mid-January 2016, Campbell was in Seattle playing Cecil B. DeGrille in Teatro ZinZanni’s circus show, Hollywood Nights. Lest you worry he’s only clowning, his other recent credits were Peter and the Starcatcher, an adaptation of Don Quixote (Bay Area Theatre Critics Award) at Marin Shakespeare Festival, Sherlock Holmes in a three-person Hound of the Baskervilles, and Alfie in Berkeley Repertory’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors.

He’s very proud of the Don Quixote adaptation (not based on Man of La Mancha but on the books, he emphasizes), which they did with seven actors, 50 masks and 50 characters. “The idea was, the larger the role, the smaller the mask,” he says. “The only ones that didn’t trade characters were me and the guy who played Sancho.” His mask was just the nose and cheekbones. “It’s a great role,” he says, “just like Bucky.”

Has his Bucky changed with age? “I think so. I’ve never looked exactly like Bucky. I try to take on his physicality and his posture, the qualities and the rhythms of his language, but I’m taller and perhaps thinner than he was.

“Playing Bucky is a mountain to climb each night, and I feel that at this age I climb it differently than when I was in my 20s. I feel more physically open to the audience, more physically adept (I’ve had a lot of training since I last did it). Now I’m kind of the same age that Bucky was in his prime.”

And it seems that Bucky is more than ever in his prime.