Jack “Mervie” Schimmelman, a theatrical director who was more than that — a visionary artist, restlessly determined to grapple with issues and ideas on the stage right up to his very last days — died on Nov. 5 on Martha’s Vineyard after years of medical complications, throughout which he never gave up a singular determination to make art.
“Jack was a sensitive, loving, very talented and supportive brother. When our parents divorced, Jack was 13 and I was 10. He was the big brother who looked after and supported me in those difficult years. I remember him playing baseball, and went to all his games. He was one of the fastest lefties in his league, and was considered the Sandy Koufax of Forest Hills.
“He was very handsome as a teenager, and had many friends, male and female. One very close friend was Howie Elson, and they maintained their friendship through the years. Jack was always fun to be with. He was intelligent, unique, and inspiring, and could hold a conversation about anything. He attended Hunter College, and graduated with a B.A. in theater.
“He was an uncle to my two daughters, and lived on Long Island only minutes away from us. He enjoyed spending holidays and special occasions at our home. My daughters thought he was very funny. He attended their bat mitzvahs and brought much joy to them. Jack traveled extensively, and wrote about living a bohemian existence in a cave in Greece. He also spent several years in London and Paris. He loved French culture and French food, and spoke French fluently with a Brooklyn accent.
“In the early ’80s he founded the Sea of Life Theater in New York, where he staged original productions combining drama, music, and dance, influenced by Meredith Monk, who he admired. He was a man of big ideas, and his productions addressed issues and ideas that could not be contained by a single discipline. As a director/creator, Jack synthesized dance, vocal improvisation, minimalist sets, and poetic overlay, combining the archetypal with the super-specific. Jack never interpreted the stories of others. He was a true original.
“After becoming a surrogate father to Dasha Koltunyuk, he realized, as he wrote, ‘that there is no business in this show business, so I became a legal secretary’ to help support Dasha. All the while he continued to write on the issues of the day, as well as poetry and fiction. He wrote a novella, ‘Tales of Crete’; a memoir (more or less), and worked on a novel, ‘Satori in Brighton Beach (or How I Found Redemption on Barrow Street).’ He also wrote a creation myth for children titled ‘Circle of Fire.’
“In his later years he wrote for the Huffington Post, often championing idealistic causes, and profiling creators he admired, including Art Garfunkel, Kate Taylor, Island artist Rose Abramson, and his beloved Dasha.
“Jack had visited Martha’s Vineyard off and on before moving there permanently in 2012 for the final years of his life. During this time he began to develop a vision for a Vineyard-based performance piece called ‘1854,’ inspired by a petition from an Island abolitionist group of Edgartown families who were asking the federal government to enable the continuation of a congressional debate to abolish slavery. Jack saw this piece as not merely a site-specific opera written and performed by Island artists and musicians, but also as a community organizing effort. He said, ‘My aim is to enable this piece to be embedded in the cultural life of the Island. In that respect, I hope to make it a part of one semester’s curriculum in the local high school, and to present small parts of the performance in some of the island libraries.’
“‘1854’ was Jack’s evolving vision. As he researched the project and spoke with Island groups about the story, the focus of the piece grew into an ambitious work about tolerance, acceptance, and love. He poured every bit of his dwindling energies into it. His Facebook page proclaimed on Nov. 5 this year that ‘moving forward, “1854, A Folk Opera,” will officially be known as “1854, An Island Musical.”’
“Jack Schimmelman died the same day.”
Jack is survived by his daughter, Dasha Koltunyuk of Manhattan, New York, his sister Elaine Marcus and niece, Amanda Marcus of Wantagh, NY and his niece Jillian Marcus of Boynton Beach, Florida.
A memorial of Jack’s life will be held on December 12 at the Anchors Council on Aging building in Edgartown at 1:00.
Donations in lieu of flowers can be made to continue production of his work-in-progress, “1854- An Island Musical.”