A tribute to Carolyn Holzman

By Martha Ullman West

How little we know them, these artists who gladden our hearts and feed our souls, I thought a week ago. I was sitting, sadly, at Carolyn Holzman’s memorial at Holman’s Funeral Service, listening with an SRO crowd to heartbroken yet frequently funny tributes by family, friends and colleagues.

Carolyn Holzman drinks tea for Do Jump. Photo: Mike Renfrow.What I do know about Holzman, who died of a heart attack at 55 — too soon, much too soon — on August 5th, was that thirty years ago she could send me into paroxysms of laughter as a member of Do Jump! Extremely Physical Movement Theatre. I don’t need the photos posted here to remind me of her, hanging from the ceiling of the Echo Theatre, a maniacally gormless expression on her face, in that mad tea party Robin Lane called Out of Context, in simultaneous defiance of gravity and gravitas.

Or in Power Lunch — made long before women named the glass ceiling that would keep them from rising to the top — everything tailored about her except her hair (her hair was inevitably part of performances, it seems to me), toes in wrinkled pantyhose pointed at the floor, seeming to be rising straight to the top, but warily.

In short, I knew her as a member of Do Jump! in its early days when Lane took serious issues and used them to make fun of human foibles, aided and abetted by Holzman as well as Janesa Kruze and Holzman’s dear, close friend Laurene Reiner, who led the tributes with what she called “a little speech.”

Reiner thanked us for coming: Holzman’s students from Portland State, where she had been an adjunct professor in the theater department since the mid-Seventies; members of the dance and theater community (Josie Moseley was there, as was Susan Banyas); friends and colleagues from her days with Do Jump!, Robin Lane, Poppy Pos, with whom she often collaborated on costuming; many people I couldn’t identify who turned out to be her family; and her husband, Chris Cooksey’s, family, several of whom also spoke. I had no idea she had married her Reed College sweetheart, in an old-fashioned marriage of mutual support and mutual devotion. Or that she had enormous expertise in rehabilitating old houses, or, if it comes to that, that she loved Jello because she thought it was beautiful.

But I found myself nodding in agreement as Steiner spoke of her as a practitioner of physical comedy, first in Portland Mime Theater, then in Do Jump: “[She] was one of those fully engaged, committed performers, always aware of everything that was going on during a performance on the stage.” And Steiner recalled a moment in Lane’s Never My Head, a complicated piece in which one set of performers stands on a long, raised platform, and another set is placed below with yards of cloth stretched in the middle so that all the audience sees is the heads and feet of the performers.

“Carolyn loved the intricacy and the precision needed to pull the piece off properly,” Steiner said. “Because you had to keep the head lined up with the feet just right. She was tireless in her pursuit of just the right balance of physical perfection and performance élan. She would be standing above me on the platform doing her head thing and I would be below doing the feet thing, and all of a sudden I would feel this small but somewhat vise-like grip on my shoulder as she maneuvered me into better alignment. All the while she would be committed totally to the acting needed to complete the illusion. … I was lucky enough to be able say I was once the feet of Carolyn Holzman.”

That professional commitment extended to her teaching, a role in which I did not know her at all, so I’m grateful to Steiner for describing it. Just as she gave Do Jump! the full force of her creative spirit (look at old programs, alas undated, and you see her listed as designing costumes, and rigging, as well as performing), at PSU she performed every function of getting a production up on stage, including lighting design, direction, and costuming — no mere movement coach was she. And circumventing budget constraints by drafting her visual-artist husband to create set pieces.

From her sister, who also spoke, I learned where a lot of that creative energy came from: a childhood spent playing dress-up, putting on plays, and creating extra holidays for gift-giving, not to mention receiving, called Greediness — at least I think that’s what they were called; I was sitting in the back and it was sometimes hard to hear. A slide show of photographs told us much, as well, of Holzman’s sheer love of life, of her presence in the moment, as we remember from her performances on stage.

Carolyn Holzman in "Power Lunch" for Do Jump. Phoyo: Mike Renfrow.I asked Robin Lane to send me some nuts-and-bolts information about Holzman’s involvement with Do Jump!, knowing full well that hard precise facts aren’t really the coin of her realm, but she sent me something much better — the description below of Holzman creating the character of a rat, in a one-performance show that Do Jump! did to celebrate the history of Echo Theatre:

“The rat was going to be the lead celebrant. Carolyn made a great rat costume. I asked her to bring a paper bag with some champagne and a glass so the rat could make a toast. She showed up with a paper bag and started pulling out hand-made photos and trinkets. She (the rat) told me of the deep personal meaning of each miniature possession, from baby rat pictures to lost baby rat teeth to favorite pieces of junk and miniature models. Out of that paper bag Carolyn pulled out a detailed and magical world fleshing out this brief giant rat’s character in a way few people ever get to understand. I sat there in awe, watching Carolyn sitting in the middle of this small rat universe; using her rat hands with her nose twitching she pulled out some final piece of rat treasure and gobbled it up. A few minutes later she was gracefully flying through the air on a trapeze.”

“Movement tells a story,” Holzman told her students.

It certainly told hers, and how lucky we were to have learned a part of it by watching her onstage, and to have had it expanded by those who knew her best, under these unluckiest of circumstances. I keep thinking, if I look very hard up at the sky, I’ll see Holzman, leaning down through a cloud, halo askew, eyes slightly crossed (did she ever know how to use her eyes!), tossing a wacky smile our way.

A link to Carolyn Holzman’s obituary.


PHOTOS, from top:

  • Carolyn Holzman drinks tea for Do Jump. Photo: Mike Renfrow.
  • Carolyn Holzman in “Power Lunch” for Do Jump. Photo: Mike Renfrow.