Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 2000

“The success of the human experiment on-board Spaceship Earth depends greatly upon individuals having access to tools which empower them to see the Big Picture and take strategic action.”

Science fiction? Academic treatise? Theatrical agitprop?

None of the above, really.   It’s the global thinking of inventor, philosopher, architect, engineer, individualist, mathematician, poet and cosmologist R. Buckminster Fuller. Local actor/director Doug Jacobs was so smitten by the words and works of Bucky Fuller when he heard him speak in Santa Barbara in 1970 that he never quite got the ideas out of his mind.   “His presence was astonishing,” Jacobs recalls. “Then I picked up one of his [28] books, and I was sucked right in. It was like Alice going down the rabbit hole.”

In 1995, when Jacobs was still artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre, he watched agile, rubber-limbed comic and Shakespearean actor Ron Campbell work magic playing all the roles in “A Tale of Two Cities.” Still a confessed “Fuller fanatic,” Jacobs realized that Campbell had similar physical characteristics to Bucky in his later years (he died at 88 in 1983). “He has a lot of his rhythms, his lean and strong physicality, similar mannerisms. Both were illustrators, both like fast cars, both used to sail.”   It was a match made in heaven.

Using Fuller’s words and copious writings, Jacobs created a one-man show for Campbell, “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe” (at the San Diego Rep, March 25-April 23). “His work is a very powerful mixture of politics and poetics,” Jacobs explains.   “It’s a poet’s job to clarify the world, expand our awareness, and re-energize ourselves. When you do political theater, there’s a point at which you back off and say, ‘what are we trying to do, save the world?’ I realized that I’m working on a project where the through-line is to save the world. That’s the through-line of Fuller’s life.”

During a period of workshops before the world premiere, Jacobs and Campbell met with Fuller’s daughter, Allegra. It was a daunting challenge for Campbell to playing a real person.   But after one workshop, Allegra came up to him, clutching his arm, tears in her eyes, saying ‘You were Daddy.’  

Fuller was extremely farsighted, both literally and figuratively. He was one of the earliest proponents of renewable energy sources. His dymaxion map was the first to show the continents on a flat surface without visible distortion — a one-world island in a one-world ocean. He’s best known for the invention of the geodesic dome, the lightest, strongest, most cost-effective structure ever devised.   He coined the term Spaceship Earth, to help us band together and see the Big Picture.

But in 1927, at age 32, Fuller was on the verge of suicide. His first child had died, he had a newborn, he was bankrupt, discredited and unemployed.   Suddenly, he realized that his life belonged to the universe, not to himself, and he devoted the next half century to his ‘experiment in individual initiative.’ He was hellbent on discovering what it would take to “make the world work,” that is, to provide adequate food, energy and shelter for 100% of humanity to enjoy a high standard of living. He firmly believed that the actions of the individual create positive social change.

All this history and mystery finds its way into Jacobs’ theater piece. The setup is an evening with Buckminster Fuller. ” He never prepared,” says Campbell. “He just wanted his thoughts to flow.   It was like the ultimate improvisation; all he had to go on was the universe. He was incredibly inspirational. But what he wanted to inspire was your personal integrity, your personal responsibility to save the world.

“‘Don’t do what everyone else does,’ he said. ‘Find something you see that needs to be done and do it.’   It seems simple, but it gets so deep and complex. For me, it’s like improv, too. Though I have a set script, I’m trying to get ideas across, rather than how the character feels. After the workshop, people were buzzing.   They wanted to talk about the universe, not the play.

“The audience gets to go on this Mr. Wizard science ride with me. And all of a sudden, we’re talking metaphysics and getting people to do something about the world. It’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.

“Some of this stuff is like interpreting Shakespeare. ‘Love is omni-inclusive.’ ‘There is no up or down.’ ‘The wind doesn’t blow, it sucks.’   You can scratch your head till it bleeds with some of these things. When I had to learn one plus one equals four, that was hard to wrap my mind around.

“Bucky was a poet.   He also had a quirky sense of humor.   There are a lot of laughs. Part of it is that the universe is kind of a funny place.   There’s a silliness to it. Underlying it all is a man who was willing to just wonder. We want people to walk away from the theater with the sense that we’re all sharing this planet, we’re all crew-members on Spaceship Earth. We spend every day thinking about one thing at a time. For 1 1/2 hours of this piece, we’re going to challenge, ask, cajole and nudge the audience into thinking about everything.”

©2000 Patté Productions Inc.