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Documentary chronicles playwright’s recovery

Dan BurkhartOakley Hall III stands outside Nevada Theater during the dress rehearsal of his play Sunday.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

When playwright Oakley (Tad) Hall III imagines himself the subject of a documentary, it’s both surreal and unsettling to him.

Hall is used to being on the other side, highlighting the lives of others.



For the last five weeks, though, Hall has been in front of award-winning documentary-maker Bill Rose’s camera.




“Tad’s story is so moving,” Rose said Monday from his Palo Alto home before traveling to Nevada City for the third time in five weeks to continue shooting a documentary about Hall.

“It’s an incredible odyssey,” Rose added, “a story of transformation, a story of a resurrection of an artistic life.”

Hall founded and was artistic director of the Lexington (N.Y.) Conservatory Theatre in the 1970s. The company presented new works, some written by Hall.

In 1976, Hall received a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts while working on his verse play, “Grinder’s Stand.” The play questioned popular opinion that American frontiersman-explorer Meriwether Lewis killed himself. After a preliminary reading of “Grinder’s Stand” at a New York theater in 1978, Hall decided to revise the script.

A year later, Hall’s rapidly rising theatrical career and “Grinder’s Stand” were halted when Hall suffered severe head injuries after falling from a bridge in Lexington.

During the next year, Hall was in three hospitals for multiple reconstructive surgeries.

The six-year Nevada City resident can’t remember if he dived off the bridge, slipped, or was pushed.

He also doesn’t know how he was rehabilitated, other than through constantly reading and writing.

Nevada City poet and teacher Molly Fisk, his ex-girlfriend who lived here with Hall from 1996 to 2000, remembers him writing daily from 6 to 10 a.m.

“I moved around the country for 15 years,” Hall said. “I couldn’t get into a theater company because they thought I was a little weird, that I was missing the subject.”

Hall eventually found his way to Nevada City because his sisters Brett Hall-Jones and Sands Hall live here, and Fisk was living a few hours away in Stinson Beach.

Hall worked sporadically on “Grinder’s Stand (A Tragedy of Blood)” in Nevada City, which debuts Friday at the Nevada Theatre, in a Foothill Theatre Company production.

With the play’s premiere, Hall concedes that Rose’s documentary is now appropriate.

“This is a breakthrough for someone who has had brain injuries,” Hall said, “for the fact that I’m much more intelligent than I was after my accident. My IQ was only supposed to be 8; it’s at least at 50 now. I had an IQ of 200 before.”

Fisk thinks the documentary is wonderful.

“It’s been great to see Tad celebrated like this, which he richly deserves, and also great to see his reaction to the attention,” Fisk said.

Hall no longer acts.

“I can’t go on stage anymore because my memory’s bad. I forgot my lines on opening night a few years ago. But I don’t regret not acting. I prefer to write and direct,” Hall said.

Fisk is proud of what Hall has achieved creatively.

“After a fall that bad and so much damage, you’re never going to be the same person you were before,” Fisk said, “…The work he’s doing now is not as complex and intricate as what he did before the fall, but it has a distinctive voice, some interesting subject matter … and I think we’ll be hearing from him again.”

Hall is working on two novels: a fictional account of Lilith, Adam’s first wife; and a fictionalized autobiography of French surrealist playwright Alfred Jarry. Hall produced translations of Jarry’s plays at Lexington Conservatory Theatre and in Nevada City.

The documentary, which should be finished next year, will include dozens of interviews with Hall and his family, friends and peers. Rose will then take it to film festivals and peddle it to the Arts & Entertainment Network, PBS, Bravo and European television.

“We’re finding the people who used to work at Lexington Conservatory Theatre; they scattered around the country as actors and directors,” Rose said. “They still revere him as one of the best directors and most inspiring persons in their lives. He may have forgotten, but they have not forgotten. He’s shaped their artistic lives.”

“It does seem funny my life’s been made into a documentary,” Hall said, “because there’s a whole lot I don’t remember. It’s mine and others’ input as they remember it.”

Rose understands that his interviewees have different understandings of where Hall has been and what he’s been through.

“People feel fiercely loyal and protective of him. He is much loved,” Rose said.

Rose met Hall less than two months ago.

“It’s been such a gift – we could have had this great story and had our leading man have the appeal of a bowl of oatmeal,” Rose said, “but I was pleased to find the camera loves him; he has great presence. He has charisma. He’s very comfortable in front of the camera. You can’t take your eyes off him.”


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