There aren’t too many of us who can say we found our calling in life right from the get-go, but for Donna Blue Lachman, a free spirit if ever there was one, recognizing her passion to become an actress, an artist, was as simple as child’s play. “I grew up in Skokie and my mother was an actress. She was in the USO and she used to act out scenes for me and my sister. She’d stand in the living room and perform and she could even cry on cue! She pushed me to pursue it, saw that I loved it, and put me in a theater class at age 4. I was the star of my first grade play,” remembers Lachman, leaning back in a wicker chair at her Three Oaks, Michigan home, her curly mane flowing over the edges.
It wasn’t long before Lachman reached in deeper, felt around the periphery of what was possible in theater, started to explore new possibilities in theater. “In high school I started getting weird. I was a cheerleader but it was the `60s and I wanted to do experimental theater. I went to Shimer College in Mount Carroll, Illinois, a small school of 200 freaks and it was very hip and creative and wild.
“Phoebe Snow was my college roommate and she and I were very tight, even until she died. All I wanted to do was read about avant garde theater. I backpacked all over the world to study with directors I’d read about. I journeyed in Poland, I lived in Haiti and studied voodoo and went to Kathmandu in Nepal and studied the roots of theater,” she says as if it is nothing, as if everyone goes on such travels to seek what they love, to find the core of their being.
But it wasn’t nothing. It was setting a foundation, one that would be realized when she returned home. “I came back to Chicago and I figured my odds of landing a great role in a great play in a great theater were small, so I decided to start my own theater, the Blue Rider Theatre in Pilsen on 18th and Halsted which we, my pals and I, had for 14 years from 1986 to 2000.”
It was at this theater that Lachman wrote, directed, and performed in her own productions, working together with fellow actors and artists and creators. It was here that she won the prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award for her portrayal of Frida Kahlo and she was nominated for an Equity Award for her performance of Family Secrets. She was awarded research fellowships to write plays, so she hit the road again, traveling to Venice to research her one-woman show on Peggy Guggenheim, and to Mexico to research her show on Frida Kahlo she directed with Mary Zimmerman. She also won an Emmy for her work on television as host of Free for All Chicago, a syndicated show where Lachman traveled around the streets of Chicago in a golf cart to educate viewers on all they could do for free around the city. “It was a very popular show, it was a gas! It ran for about two years and I got to interview everyone I ever wanted to meet in Chicago,” she says.
Lachman says that she closed her theater because she just felt it was time to move on. Her landlord had raised her rent and she was feeling burned out after years on the same stage. She longed to live the country life—farm-fresh eggs down the road, basil and blueberries in her back yard, and a home full of photos and art, a testament to her connection with many friends all over the world.
“She got a position at LaLumiere School in LaPorte directing their theater program, which she did for a number of years. “I loved it. I love working with high school kids,” she says, and she continued this work at other schools in the area over the years. She welcomed friends and strangers alike to her home for retreats, to her four acres of gardens, pines and still, sweet air on the Galien River—the campfires, the night-time swims, and all the insightful group conversations. All the while, Lachman continued to write and perform herself, portraying strong women at the Acorn Theater, strong women like Kahlo, Guggenheim, Rosa Luxemburg, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, and especially herself.
It was after Lachman went through a period of her life that was fraught with upheaval that she pulled inward, letting the weeds take over, killing all the perennials and covering the 66 blueberry bushes. Her marriage ended after 12 years, and the gardens that Lachman and her husband had tended together, cultivating with their hands, was left to go wild. Lachman simply didn’t feel emotionally able to give to the earth when she was struggling to mend her own heart. Broken. “We gardened a lot here and we welcomed guests here.
“When he left, I left the land. I didn’t feel like tending to it. It got more thorny and overgrown but I kept working, kept doing plays at the Acorn, and in Chicago...,”and kept teaching.
“Last May I looked around me and asked, what should I do? And it seemed like the land answered, ‘If you take care of me, I’ll take care of you.’ It was like a thunderbolt! This has been my home for more than half of my life,” she says with an understanding that comes only after deep sorrow and serious introspection.
It has been six long years since Lachman has held a retreat on her land, but this summer and fall, Lachman is once again opening her home to women and renting out the property for weekends and other retreats. She realized that it is too gorgeous not to share.
“My neighbors have come to help and have pruned all the blueberry bushes; my brother is schlepping the heavy stuff, and we’re recovering plants that have been buried for years! I love the country. I’ve always loved theater and the country, but now I really see that this space has been so healing to me for so many years, like the Giving Tree, so with such a full heart I am taking care of this land.”
Lachman has been hosting retreats on her land since 1987. Hundreds of women have been there and have never forgotten it. Many come back. “Each retreat brings some sort of a transformation for all of us. When you have strangers come and they bond, it’s magical. Anytime you have someone open up about their lives, they get feedback, insights, and we all see how connected we are to each other. Compassion comes from knowing about someone else’s life. Discussions on retreat are like no other conversations, anywhere. There are meals and fires and yoga and art and wine and visualization and silent times to which are so rare in most of our lives. It’s a balance between being outward and having fun, and looking inward,” she says.
The place where theater and retreats collide is a natural place for Lachman. “People often ask me how my life in the theater connects to the retreats. When I begin to direct a play, or lead an acting or improvisational workshop, usually none of the participants know one another.
I have to guide them through a series of exercises to get them not only to work well together, but to ‘get’ each other. By get, I mean, to stop, to look, and to listen. When we’re all in a circle, instead of running our own thoughts about what we want to say, I ask them to stop; to hold those thoughts. We look at them. We see their gestures, their body language, we look them in the eyes.
“And we listen. We listen to what they are saying, or what they are not saying; what is easy for them to say and what is difficult. All without judgment. And then comes the compassion, the desire for them to break through their fears and their limitations, because those are not that different from our own. In theater, you are only as good as your partner. Life should be like that too. Retreats help us step away from our lives, to clear the fog. My friends and I often say that we can see solutions so clearly for others, but not so easy for ourselves. We begin to understand that things don’t happen to us—they happen for us.” The healing power of the land and of fellow human beings is a powerful thing indeed.