The Austin Chronicle

A Commitment to Playwrights

The Life and Legacy of David Mark Cohen

January 23, 1998, Arts

Compiled by Adrienne Martini

David Deming, David Mark Cohen, and Connie McMillian

I wish I didn't have to write this piece. I wish I knew that I would see David Cohen at the next theatre opening or Critics' Table meeting. I wish there were a way to make David's death disappear and I could write another story, one that won't make me cry. Unfortunately, this beggar can't ride. David Mark Cohen, Austin theatre critic, writing professor, award-winning playwright, and all-around good guy, was killed the first night of Chanukah, 1997, on his way to Oklahoma. I-35 claims another one, one with roots sunk deep into this community. David was associate chair in the UT Department of Theatre & Dance and head of its MFA Playwriting program. He had helped build the Texas Center for Writers. He and playwright Emily Cicchini had just founded Austin Script Works, an organization devoted to developing local writers. He was a fine writer himself as well, both an award-wining playwright and a theatre critic for The Texas Triangle. His love of this community, as well as of theatre itself, is evident in the depth of his work and his strong relationships with those around him.

Why will I miss David? It is so hard to define the exact impression that his existence made in my life. All I have are amusing stories with great personal meaning, but they fail to sum up who he was and why I loved talking to him. He was my ally, we had similar aesthetic sensibilities and common ground on which to disagree. And we would disagree, but his arguments made mine stronger and taught me the value of my own voice. David's excitement was contagious, his love for a show could stream out of his eyes, convincing anyone listening that missing it would be a crime.

It is a crime that it is neccessary to put memories on paper at all, that David is no longer around simply to talk with. Some of these words come from David's memorbuch, a bound collection of stories and memories from his friends and loved ones that will be presented to David's parents and his partner Steven Tomlinson. Others were created for this mini-memorbuch, a small collection of thoughts to tell the wider community who David was and how much he will be missed. - Adrienne Martini

Joseph Skibell

Writer, author of the novel Blessing on the Moon and the play Our Own Dear Uncle Anton's Abandoned Story Cycle

The First Time I Saw David Cohen

David Cohen walks into the Mainstreet Bakery in Taos, New Mexico. The year is 1983. (What a sweet tense, the present tense.) I'm working behind the counter. Because I'm a writer, I have very few useful skills, and I'm waiting tables. Besides, my girlfriend owns the place.

David is dark, bearded, in a red polo shirt. He sits at the counter. He tells me he is diabetic, but wants a nice big piece of chocolate cake, which I serve him. (Didn't my Uncle Buddy, also diabetic, occasionally need sugar?) We start to talk. David tells me he is a playwright. I tell him: I'm a playwright. He tells me he's at the Wurlitzer Foundation, an artist colony here in Taos. I say: Yeah, I was at the Wurlitzer. David tells me he's working on a screenplay. I tell him: I'm working on a screenplay.

So we decide to swap plays. I give him a one-act called A Mind of Winter. He gives me Baby Grand. We meet for coffee at the Caffe Tazze, to discuss the plays, about a week later. Neither of us likes the other one's play. But our friendship has begun.

The Last Time I Saw David Cohen

I'm driving up and down Congress Avenue, unable to find the restaurant. It's November 1997. I'm bad with directions and can't remember if it's North or South Congress, and the actual name of the restaurant isn't on the sign, although - I find out later - it's painted on the window.

By now I'm very late. I park the car a few blocks away. I run into the restaurant and greet my old friend David Cohen and my graduate school professor Jim Magnuson. They invite me to sit, which is what I'd like to do, but before I can sit, I have to get change, for the meter. I break a few dollars at the cash register, rush back the two or three blocks to the meter, run back to the restaurant, and try to insinuate myself as gracefully as possible into a conversation that has been going on for 40 minutes without me.

At one point, David asks me where I've applied for teaching jobs. I name various universities. He seems to know each school and whether it's worthwhile teaching there. I remind myself how lucky I am to have him as a friend, as an advisor, someone to kibitz with.

We order and eat, but because I was late, the whole timing of the meal is off. David and Jim are both ready to go much earlier than I am. In any case, I have a plane to catch. After breakfast, I walk David to his car. It's a nice pleasant autumn morning. He's wearing a blue workshirt, tan slacks, a hat with a bill. He opens the trunk of his car, shows me a Chanukah CD.

"It's not very good," he says, "except for one track. It's Kiddush, but not like you've ever heard it. A wild keening sound. You've got to hear it. The first time I heard it, I thought, `What is that? What is that wailing? Is that Kiddush? It is, it is Kiddush!'"

He gives me a published copy of Steven's latest monologue. Proudly, sweetly. He lets me know, "Steven, I'm sure, would love to hear that you've read it, and what you think." We hug each other. He gets in his car and drives away. I dash to my car, rush to the airport, make my plane.

In Between

In the 14 years I knew him, David Cohen and I lived in the same city three times. Our paths seemed to constantly cross. We were friends in Taos first, then in Los Angeles, and finally in Austin. We kept touch during the other times, when he was in Charleston, and we were always grateful and happy to see one another. Ours was a complicated friendship, long-standing, mutually supportive, pleasantly competitive, brotherly in every sense.

One thing about David: He was always and only himself. He could be exasperating, prickly, bristling, dismissive at times. But he was also radically generous, present in his friendships, giving with his help, his advice, his time. He had an eager, almost childlike love for good company and good friends.

Once when David was visiting Los Angeles, he came over to our house for dinner. I remember he brought a jar of Texas salsa as a gift. When I mentioned to him that I was considering graduate school, he told me about a new interdisciplinary writing program being funded by James Michener at the University of Texas, of which he was to be a part. He said, "Oh, it would be perfect for you." I applied to the Texas Center for Writers and was accepted into the first class, and my life has never been the same.

During that same trip to Los Angeles, David visited Amparo Garcia, another writer in our class at TCW, who was also living in Venice, our neighborhood, at the time. Later, the three of us joked about David visiting all of the future Michener fellows, bringing us each a magic jar of salsa, enticing us to Texas, like the pied piper.

But for me, it wasn't a joke. David's friendship changed my life, and always, always for the better. I'm certain I'm not the only one. Many of us, I'm sure, can trace the source of our success or our happiness or some of our friendships back to the remarkable David Mark Cohen. His life was a gift. May his memory be for a blessing.

Cyndi Williams

Playwright, author of American Arcana, produced by Austin Script Works

First, David Mark Cohen was this critic who had written a couple of kind reviews of my work, so of course I thought he was the only critic with any sense. I carried his review of my FronteraFest '96 entry around with me, in which he said my piece was "the best writing of the week," right after his comments about a Shakespeare piece, so I could show it to people and say, "See, I write better than Shakespeare."

And then, David Mark Cohen was suddenly a part of my life, when I was asked to become a founding core member of Austin Script Works. I quickly grew to love David. I loved the way he talked to people about their writing, the way he could challenge and question without patronizing. I loved meeting at David and Steven's house, where there were always fresh flowers and sparkling water. I loved the way David hugged me, when I came in and when I left. I felt so welcome. Writing has always been a terribly emotional task for me, leaving me exposed and frightened, and David made me feel safe. The idea of being "mentored" always offended me, but I wanted David to be my mentor. I loved him even more after reading his play Nantasket. A beautiful play, and a loving tribute to his family.

If it weren't for David, my play American Arcana might never have been produced. He was there through the entire grueling process; he watched many rehearsals, made intelligent suggestions, and he kept reminding me it was good work.

There is nothing complicated about how I feel about David. I put him on a pedestal; he was my champion. I miss him terribly. I hope someday I can do for someone what David has done for me.

I still can't quite believe I live in a world without David Cohen. In a few short months, he became a huge influence in my life. He encouraged me, he challenged me, he helped me believe in myself. He made me feel special. And surely there are literally hundreds of people who would say the same thing about David, that he made them feel special. Now I believe in heaven, because where else would David belong?

John Walch

Current playwright student, author of Craving Gravy

It wouldn't seem right if anything I ever wrote for David Cohen wasn't rewritten at least eight times. So I've rewritten this and will continue rewriting it long after it's in between the covers of the Chronicle, because words cannot capture all I'd like to say about David. It's forever incomplete; forever in need of rewriting.

David was my mentor, advocate, sparring partner, adviser, and friend. He helped me through three years of graduate school. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had such a caring person to help guide me through these formative years.

As a mentor, David was always unconditionally supportive of my work and allowed me to write in the style and on the subjects I found most compelling. He was uncommonly tolerant in this respect, and I believe that the variety of work that has come out of UT is a testament to David's open-mindedness. This does not mean, however, that David pampered me or any of his students. He was nurturing, yes - but no pushover. Once the piece was written, he did not shy away from asking tough questions and challenging me to take the work to the next level. David was particularly adept at intuiting how far I was willing to go with a piece and guiding the work to explore those boundaries.

David's contributions extended well beyond the classroom. He was an unparalleled advocate of both his students and the playwriting program at the University of Texas. His commitment to the playwrights was evident in his sponsorship of more new plays than I care to imagine. David cared deeply about the program and the students. He was always searching for ways to make both of them better. Throughout graduate school, I grew tremendously as a writer and a person. Much of that growth is thanks to David Cohen.

I will miss David's warmth, wry sense of humor, dedication, insight, and - most of all - his friendship. I will deeply miss his presence, but know that his spirit will live on in me and the students he taught.

Robert Schenkkan

Playwright, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Kentucky Cycle

I'm having a really tough time with this. It seems to me we were just on the phone yesterday, talking about the latest craziness in the department and me making another visit to Texas. It seems like just yesterday we were standing beside the fountain and you were introducing me with so much pride and so much love to your partner Steven Tomlinson, ("Isn't he a dish," your eyes said) and talking about your trip to Europe.

I don't get it. Who wrote this script anyway, where the hero dies off in the first act with so much left to do, so much left undone? Some kind of post-modernist bullshit. Cheap shock effect. I want a rewrite. I want a new ending.

Thank you for making me feel good again about my work. For making me feel that my voice was unique and that I had something valuable to share with your students and in doing so, reminding myself of why I started writing in the first place.

Thanks for being a good friend and a colleague.

I miss you.

Emily Ball Cicchini

Playwright, author of Becoming Brontë; co-founder of Austin Script Works

David was my artistic mentor... but he never wanted that job. He was more comfortable talking about our friendship, and how, maybe, he was "sort of like my brother, but never, God forbid," in that David-being-coy-tone, sitting in a booth eating lunch at Martin Brothers, "a father figure." Still, he never knew how much his guidance and approval swayed me, how much I trusted his taste and opinion and instincts. He coaxed me from a bored and spoiled actor into a persistent and skilled writer, and showed me the meaning of "world-class." He was world-class in everything he did. He led an active, open, and affirming life - a life to be admired and celebrated. Maybe there's some kinda meaning in all this - in a spiritual sense. Maybe it's our jobs as artist/playwrights to create it. David had more plays in him. Many, many more plays. Which doubles the responsibility of us, his former students, to make new work that shines. For he was, and will be, part of our work. None of us can create meaning in a vacuum - so we must together seal the wound his absence makes. Please come to the memorial, everybody. We - I - will need you there.

A memorial service for David Mark Cohen will be held Sunday, January 25, noon, in the McCullough Theatre on the UT campus.

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