Remembering John Townsend: 1959-2019

John Townsend. Photo by Hubert Bonnet
John Townsend. Photo by Hubert Bonnet

Longtime Lavender arts writer John Townsend passed away in October 2019. File photo by Hubert Bonnet

John Townsend was a passionate individual, particularly concerning theater and the performing arts. He wrote extensively; for Lavender from 1995 until his untimely passing last October. At that time, our Managing Editor, Chris Tarbox, wrote a moving eulogy, and now, at this time of Pride celebration, several friends and colleagues share their memories. 

Newly arrived in Minneapolis, I first heard of John through Twin Cities writer, Timothy Cope. In 1999, John had appeared, he said, in his two-man, one-act play, The First Noble Truth, at the Loring Playhouse. “He was as fearless a performer as anyone I’ve ever known,” Cope relates now. “Not every actor could appear naked before an audience and without any hesitation at all, simulate intercourse.” 

Performing artist/impresario Patrick Scully recalls similarly clad, though more one-on-one, encounters.

“John often seemed rushed when we interacted by email, so it was delightful when we would run into each other in the locker room at the YMCA on 9th Street downtown, where we could have a leisurely discussion about aesthetics and philosophy as we sat naked in the sauna, or catch each other up as we sweat in the steam room, me telling him about what I was up to, John often telling me about a show he recommended I catch.”

“Having both survived the AIDS epidemic, I think we both always assumed these chats would go on forever, or at least until we were too decrepit to avail ourselves of the Y’s facilities,” Scully continued. “Alas, John is now gone, and so are the rooms at the Y where we could sit naked and have civilized conversations.” 

Clothed or unclothed, John was always a presence. For noted theater critic, playwright (Beyond the Rainbow), Randy Beard, “What I particularly loved about John Townsend was his indisputable passion for theatre. He would get so excited about the performances he’d seen. It didn’t matter if they were at large, professional venues or in a 40-seat storefront. He relished the work and wanted theatres to succeed.”

“He also had a deeply held belief that theatre really did have the power to change the world, and his energy was devoted to bringing about that transformation, He not only wrote about theatre; he produced it and directed it, all in an effort to bring about social justice. He was a generous colleague and a good friend for many years.” 

Local actors Garry Geiken and Heidi Berg remember John warmly. “Heidi and I knew John for years,” says Geiken. “His unfailing kindness, his quiet enthusiasm and encouragement bestowed a feeling of belonging upon us.”

“Heidi and I will always treasure and share the very bittersweet experience that we appeared together in the last production John reviewed last October.” 

“As a reviewer,” Berg adds, “John was always very kind to me. Shows I gravitate towards tend to be challenging: new works, movement-based works, political theater. John came to nearly all of them, then wrote critically and intelligently about what he experienced. John made space for people, and his optimistically honest reviews and unfailing support of LGBT+ performance made him an icon to me long before I considered him a friend. 

“Over time [through] occasional skyway conversations, I began to really appreciate what a gift John was. His kind words made me feel special, I knew he believed in me, and I still strive to this day to earn that belief. But that was just John’s way. He had a super power of making people feel special and he used it to make the world a better place. I never was the special one, or rather we all were, and John was just making sure we knew it.” 

Dan Pinkerton, playwright, lyricist, co-artistic director of Fortune’s Fool Theatre, shared, “I knew John Townsend for over twenty years. John was extraordinarily generous; many times he promoted shows by Fortune’s Fool, and my own work as a playwright. He was also a great supporter of my daughter Ariel’s work, in shows she did with me and with others.”

“John was as good a listener as he was a talker,” Pinkerton added. “He had strong opinions, and in fact some of our discussions turned into arguments, but there was never any ill will on his part, and he was invariably cheerful the next time we met. Many discussions were cut short, because, like the theatre community’s White Rabbit, he would rush off for another appointment or to see another show.” 

I, too, relish our friendship, and was thrilled to read from John’s review of the 2013 production of my play: “E.B. Boatner’s grouping of three one-act plays titled, Changes in Time, is a leap forward in GLBT drama and transgender drama, in particular.”

As Garry Geiken says, “I just miss him and all he brought to our art and our world so damn much.”

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