Edward Arthur “Van” van Aelstyn passed away peacefully on May 23, 2018. He was at home and two of his children were by his side. Van had a rich life as a theater director and actor, professor of English and film, editor, and activist.
Van was born on July 18, 1936 in Price, Utah to Edward Leslie van Aelstyn and Dixie Moore Babcock. He overcame several severe illnesses as a child, including polio. He attributed his survival largely to the loving devotion of his step grandmother Paula Gehrke Moore, for whom he named his first daughter. His father was a public health doctor and his mother a social worker. They later settled in Kelso, Washington, where Van was joined by his sister Catherine Mueller when he was six. After his parents divorced, Van attended St. Martin’s, a Catholic school in Lacey, Washington (now St. Martin’s University). He graduated in 1953 at the age of 16 and attended the (Catholic) University of Portland where he earned a B.A. in Philosophy in 1957. There too he deepened his love of theater. At one point he and some college buddies – John Chrisman and Edward Cameron of UP, and Richard Kennedy of Portland State University – got jobs as extras in a touring production of What Every Woman Knows with Helen Hayes.
After graduating Van moved to San Francisco where he planned to enter the seminary at the (Catholic) University of San Francisco. While waiting for the term to begin he acted in a play at USF and there met Carole Cynthia Mulder who was in a her first year of a nursing program on a full scholarship. They fell in love and quickly changed their plans, marrying in May 1958. They moved to Los Angeles where Van worked for an insurance company and played speed bridge with colleagues during breaks. In June 1959, Van’s first child was born, Edward Carel van Aelstyn. (He is understood to be the 16th Edward van Aelstyn; the family tradition has been to name the first son Edward with the middle name that of the mother’s father.)
Insurance was not Van’s game though and he soon entered graduate school at the University of Oregon. It was there his next three children were born in quick succession, Paula Frederika Bush, Nicholas Wolfgang and Philip Maximus van Aelstyn. Van earned a Doctor of Arts in English and American Literature and Linguistics but he was best known for activities outside of the classroom. He assembled and conducted a 17-piece orchestra, and he was the editor of the University’s Northwest Review. Van transformed the Northwest Review into a leading literary voice, publishing numerous noted poets, including Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Robert Creeley, Charles Bukowski and others of the Beat Generation. In writing of Van’s term as editor, David Schneider wrote, “Possessed of an excellent academic record, van Aelstyn also displayed native curiosity, absorptive openness, and enviable spine.” In 1964, the Northwest Review was targeted by the conservative Portland newspaper, the National Eagle, which prone to using all capitals. The issue that caught their ire included one of the first interviews with Fidel Castro published in the U.S. (by former Congressman Charles Porter), though it was the allegedly antireligious poetry of Philip Whalen that really incensed them (which was ironic as the poet later became a Buddhist monk). A campaign was launched to kill the taxpayer-funded journal. The Oregon State Legislature twice summoned University President Arthur Flemming to testify about it. Despite letters of support from prominent poets and the formation of a Faculty Committee for Academic Freedom, Flemming removed Van as editor and gave responsibility for the journal to the Faculty Publications Committee. When that committee promptly reappointed Van as the editor, Flemming suspended the journal altogether.
This led Van, along with Jim Koller and Will Wroth, to establish the independent Coyote’s Journal. In the preface to The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, Philip Whalen wrote about the difficulties that he had getting published, including this aside: “I must add here the fact that one magazine, Northwest Review, and its editor, Mr. Edward van Aelstyn, were suppressed, censured, fired, and investigated by the authorities of the University of Oregon, the Oregon Board of Higher Education, and the Oregon State Legislature because some of my work was published there. It was this trouble and bother that resulted in the founding of Coyote’s Journal, and, later, of Coyote Books.” Van’s son Philp Maximus was named for Philip Whalen and Charles Olson’s epic poem Maximus.
Toward the end of his graduate studies Van took a job at a nearby school teaching an introductory Shakespeare class, something he had not done before. In working to stay one step ahead of his class he developed a profound love for Shakespeare, and that flowered into the calling for which he came to be known best: teaching and performing Shakespeare.
In the fall of 1967, right after the Summer of Love, Van became an Associate Professor of English at San Francisco State College (now University), mostly teaching Shakespeare. Van threw himself into the dynamic cultural life of San Francisco during that tumultuous time. In 1969, he joined a union-led faculty strike in support of a student strike to which College President (later U.S. Senator) S.I. Hayakawa had responded by marching in columns of police in riot gear, militarizing the campus. The striking faculty were fired. They later successfully sued to regain their positions, but Van did not join the suit. In 1971, he moved with his family to a remote cabin in the mountains fifteen miles from Fort Jones, California. He planned to complete his Ph.D. dissertation and write a book. A few months later, on a clear fall day with snow on the ground, on a day when both Van’s mother and her husband and Carole’s parents happened to be paying a surprise visit, the cabin burned to the ground and everything was lost, including Van’s manuscript. The kids were sent to live with grandparents and friends while Van and Carole struggled to regain their footing.
For the next six years Van wandered and searched for his way, with his family regathering in various groupings in various locations. They first landed at Lincoln Beach, Oregon and later in Newport, Oregon, and still later in Boulder, Colorado, where Van studied Tibetan Buddhism under Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche at the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University). In 1973, Van organized a national theater festival there that brought together, among others, the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Bread & Puppet Theater of Vermont (based not far from where the Merry Pranksters’ bus Further came to rest). A bit later, Van headed to Los Angeles to try his hand at writing screenplays. His main ambition was to see a movie made of Andrew Garcia’s Tough Trip Through Paradise. Later he found his way back to San Francisco, and there he and several friends formed the Birnam Wood Theater and Music Company dedicated to performing Shakespeare. He had found his calling. Birnam Wood put on numerous memorable productions in Golden Gate Park and The Intersection for the Arts.
In 1977, Van moved to Newport, Oregon, where he ceased his wanderings. He worked for a time with the Oregon Coast Commission for the Arts, which had hired him based largely on his proposal to form a theater company. That he soon did, forming the Red Octopus Theater Company with several friends, including some veterans of Birnam Wood. In addition to forming a theater company, Van and Cel Crane formed a family. In 1980, Sophia Cecile Jupiter Hernandez was born; she and Cel’s two other children, Joël Crane Miles and Mariah Jones, were soon joined by Luigi Korfix and Angelina Dixie van Aelstyn. Van supported his family by working the graveyard shift for many years, first as a janitor at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (where he rejoined his old college buddies, John Chrisman, Ed Cameron and Dick Kennedy, a janitorial staff with quite a collection of degrees and publications) and later as the desk clerk at the Sylvia Beach Hotel (rather fitting as the hotel is devoted to literature).
Ten years after arriving in Newport Van joined the faculty of the Oregon Coast Community College when it opened its doors. He taught English and film until shortly before his passing some thirty years later. Just about his only regret during his final months was that he was unable to complete his final film course. Van and several friends also later formed Teatro Mundo, which was renowned for bringing shows to Oregon State penitentiaries. During his more than 41 years in Newport Van directed, acted in or inspired numerous shows and taught, mentored and inspired numerous students.
Van’s approach to theater was unique, as were his productions. He was proud to call his work amateur, noting that the root of the word is love. He did this work with and for love – most of all, love for people. Van persuaded countless people to act for the first time. His work was of and for the community; it was not about glorifying stars. The programs listed only the members of the company, reflecting the ethos that the show was a collective effort. His Shakespeare productions were anything but stale declamations of revered texts. Van worked with the actors to make the language flow naturally with the rhythms of modern speech. Live music, often original, was an integral part of many shows. The focus on live actors speaking naturally combined with live music, fluid choreography and simple but suggestive sets brought the productions to life in the here and now. The audience too was an essential part of the experience for Van. We were all in this story together, and through it we might each have our eyes and hearts opened. It was Van’s practice to end shows with the cast on stage joining in a heartfelt and open-throated call of “Ya Fattah!” This is an Arabic phrase meaning “O Opener of the Way,” and is used in Sufi practices which Van had studied in Los Angeles. It has been described as being used when one needs a little push, to be said with a concentration on the heart center to open the heart to the next chapter in one’s life.
Van was always politically engaged, never hesitating to express his strong views, advocating especially for peace and in defense of the planet. His advocacy was not limited to writing letters to the editor on national and global issues. For example, when he learned of students having personal or financial problems, he would raise funds or advocate for justice or do whatever was needed, always in a spirit of solidarity, not charity. He supported the efforts to fight the spraying of pesticides and herbicides in Oregon forests. One expression of his solidarity with this cause and its victims was that for years Red Octopus opened its shows in the barn at Carol Van Strum’s farm in Five Rivers. Van demonstrated that “enviable spine” throughout his life.
Van was an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and discriminating appreciator and supporter of the visual arts and music in addition to theater and literature. He and others of his generation in Newport did much to revitalize the arts scene there. That said, perhaps his favorite art form was culinary. Van loved nothing more than to enjoy a good meal while conversing with friends. He also was a passionate sports fan, football and basketball in particular, and he enjoyed games – mostly cards (bridge, pinochle, hearts), military games, chess and Boggle, a game he rarely lost as he drew on his study of linguistics.
Van organized his final passage with the same focus and intentionality that he brought to his theater productions. With the assistance of his youngest, Angelina, he wrapped-up his affairs and hosted a series of visits – with all seven of his children, two of his grandchildren, his former wife Carole, his former partner Cel, and many old friends. He spoke on the phone with those he could not see. He was at peace and loving to all right to the end. He frequently described himself during this time as “a good Buddhist boy,” the phrase a wink to having been a good Catholic boy, and indeed he made sure that his passing was in accordance with Tibetan Buddhist practice. Still, one suspects that Ya Fattah! was on his final breath, as he opened one more door both for himself and those he left behind.
Van is survived by his sister, his seven children and seven grandchildren: Aaron Carl Bush of Sebastopol, California, Micaela Marie Garner of Davis, California, Hannah Katarina van Aelstyn of Edinburgh, Scotland, Isaac John Carel & Diego Eduardo Amilcar van Aelstyn of San Francisco, Zoe Diane & Liam Ulysses van Aelstyn of Petaluma, California, and Erin Olivia & Maxwell Logan Miles and Paloma Cecilia Hernandez of Seattle.