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 in 1936 in Price, Utah to Edward Leslie van Aelstyn and Dixie Moore Babcock. His father was a public health doctor and his mother a social worker. They settled in Kelso, Washington, where Van was joined by his sister Catherine Mueller when he was six. Van attended St. Martin’s, a Catholic boarding school in Lacey, Washington (now St. Martin’s University). He graduated in 1953 at the age of 16 and attended the University of Portland where he earned a B.A. in Philosophy in 1957.
Van planned to enter the seminary at the University of San Francisco. While waiting for it to begin he acted in a play at USF and met Carole Cynthia Mulder who was in a her first year of a nursing program. They fell in love and married in May 1958. They moved to Los Angeles where Van worked for an insurance company. In June 1959, Van’s first child was born, Edward Carel van Aelstyn. (He is 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.)
Soon thereafter Van entered graduate school at the University of Oregon. There his next three children were born, Paula Frederika Bush, Nicholas Wolfgang and Philip Maximus van Aelstyn. Van earned a Doctor of Arts in English and American Literature and Linguistics. He also edited the University’s Northwest Review and transformed it into a leading literary voice, publishing Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Robert Creeley, Charles Bukowski and other poets of the Beat Generation. In 1964, the Northwest Review was targeted by the conservative Portland newspaper, the National Eagle. The issue that caught their ire included one of the first interviews with Fidel Castro in the U.S. (by former Congressman Charles Porter), though it was the allegedly antireligious poetry of Philip Whalen that was their main focus (which was ironic as the poet became a monk). The State Legislature twice summoned University President Arthur Flemming to testify. 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 a faculty committee. When that committee promptly reappointed Van as the editor, Flemming suspended the journal.
Van and two colleagues then founded Coyote’s Journal. In the preface to The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, Philip Whalen wrote: “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.”
Toward the end of his graduate studies Van took a job at a nearby school teaching an introductory Shakespeare class, something he hadn’t done before. In working to stay one step ahead of his class he developed a profound love for Shakespeare, which 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. He threw himself into the cultural life of San Francisco at that 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. The striking faculty were fired. They later successfully sued to regain their jobs, but Van did not join the suit. In 1971, he moved with his family to a remote cabin in the mountains near the Oregon border; there he planned to complete his dissertation and write a book. A few months later, on a fall day with snow on the ground, when both his mother and her husband and Carole’s parents happened to be visiting, the cabin burned to the ground and everything was lost, including Van’s manuscript.
For the next six years Van wandered, with his family regathering in various locations. They first landed at Lincoln Beach, Oregon and later in Newport, Oregon, and then 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. Van later tried his hand at writing screenplays in Los Angeles; 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.
In 1977, Van moved back to Newport and 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 Red Octopus, 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 and later as the desk clerk at the Sylvia Beach Hotel.
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. Van and several friends also later formed Teatro Mundo, which was renowned for bringing shows to Oregon State penitentiaries. During his 41 years in Newport Van directed, acted in and 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. 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. If 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. He also supported the efforts to fight the spraying of pesticides in Oregon’s forests. One expression of his solidarity with this cause was that for years Red Octopus opened its shows in the barn at Carol Van Strum’s farm in Five Rivers.
Van was an enthusiastic and discriminating 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. Still, perhaps his favorite art form was culinary. Van loved nothing more than to enjoy a good meal 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 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.
There will be a memorial celebration and show at 5 P.M. on Saturday, July 21, at the Newport Performing Arts Center. For more information, please see https://www.edwardvanaelstyn.com/ . To honor Van, his family asks that contributions be made to the scholarship fund established in his name at the Oregon Coast Community College: http://www.oregoncoastcc.org/foundation/van/