Ralph Lee takes the stairs whenever possible. At 84 years old, he climbs six flights from his own apartment on the 4th floor of WestBeth Artists Residency to visit a friend and collaborator on the 10th floor. There’s not a bead of sweat on his forehead, not even a hint of a gasp. He might as well have been twiddling his thumbs.
That, however, is something he would never do. Ralph is so consumed by his art that even the mundane aspects of life fit into his creative process in a holistic way. He is the archetype of an artist: someone who has decided to dedicate their life to the act of creation. He is someone who has forsaken the comforts of a nine to five and retirement at 65, which presumably fulfills the dream of never having to work ever again and finally getting to live. His work is his life and his life is his work. For this reason, WestBeth honored Ralph Lee as its Icon during the month of April.
It was a full house the night of the ceremony, with every seat taken, and still, people were standing in the back of the WestBeth Community Room. It’s understandable considering the man of the hour’s celebrity. A mask maker and theater director, Ralph Lee’s credits include Broadway, Saturday Night Live, and the auspicious honor of having founded the Village Halloween Parade in 1974, which today draws 600,000 participants and two million observers each year.
Friends and colleagues who were invited to speak on his behalf shared stories of their experiences with Ralph. An actor, who has worked with him for 10 years, described his astonishment when a performance of an outdoor play had to be cancelled due to rain. Ralph cut the tension of the theater company by appearing shirtless, in cutoff jean shorts, and declared, “I’m going for a run!”
That theater company is, by his own estimation, Ralph’s greatest creation. For over 40 years, the Metawee River Theater Company has put on outdoor performances upstate in Washington County for people, adults and children, of limited financial means. These audiences, many of whom have never experienced live theater up to that point, are surprised and delighted, moved and inspired by actors inhabiting larger-than-life sized phantasmagorical puppets. More often than not, these plays are inspired by ancient folklore that provide fertile ground for communicating the universal truths that Ralph sees as his mission to pass on. He is currently working on a play based on an Indian fable that tells of an unlikely friendship that springs between a crow and a rat.
Though climbing six flights of stairs isn’t enough to wind Ralph, the trek from his seat to the podium, after a night filled with compliments and reverence, leaves him breathless. He offers his humble thanks as he stares into the faces of his WestBeth neighbors, each and every one of them also incredible artists, and particularly into the beaming smile of Casey Compton, his partner in life and work. He mutters, “I think I gotta get to work now.”
The next WestBeth Icon will be Gwen Fabricant, a painter, who devotes her life to capturing scenes from nature “with a distinctive use of light and gravity.” You are invited to the ceremony, which will take place on June 7th at 7:00 p.m. in the WestBeth Community Room.