To fully appreciate the history of the Annual John Lennon Tribute it’s helpful to know a little about the Theatre Within Workshop and its founder, Alec Rubin.
Alec was a director and a therapist, a primal therapist to be precise. It was a powerful combination. As a director, he used primal therapy techniques to help performing artists access deep feelings and develop raw autobiographical material for the stage. The Workshop, which he founded in 1962 (and was originally known as Theatre Of Encounter), served as a theater lab and an informal performance space.
When I joined the group in 1979 there was a photo of John Lennon as a five year-old hanging in the studio. It was actually the back cover of John’s Plastic Ono Band album, which John wrote and recorded soon after his experience in Primal Therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov. The album, which had been a favorite of mine since it was released in 1970, was adored by workshop members. We saw ourselves as having embarked on a similar path as John. He was a hero to us, not because he was a Beatle, or because he was a rock star, but because he was committed to shining a light in the dark places within himself and authentically sharing his journey.
Fast forward to the summer of 1981: John had been senselessly murdered the previous December and we were planning a reading of a new play: Show Me The Way To Strawberry Fields. (Alec was the director and I was one of the actors.) The play was about the impact of John’s death on two couples in crisis.
About a month before the scheduled reading the playwright got cold feet and pulled the script. But the publicity was already out and our impulse to do something to remember John was strong. So Alec and I decided to pull together a John Lennon Tribute, a gathering of actors, musicians, dancers, poets and friends.
The Finale for the 34th Annual John Lennon Tribute. Featuring Debbie Harry, Marshall Crenshaw, Ben E. King, david Johansen, Kate Pierson and more.
All I remember about that first Tribute is how sad it was. We had never envisioned it as an annual event, but it felt healing to come together over John, so we just kept doing it.
For many years we flew mostly under the radar. That all changed in 2004 when one of Yoko’s assistants saw a blurb about the Tribute in the Daily News. I soon received a note from Yoko herself inviting me to contribute an essay to a book she was working on called Memories Of John Lennon. That, combined with Alec’s death the following year, served as a major turning point. The Tribute has changed a lot since then, evolving from a small workshop production to a professional concert attracting acclaimed artists from Jackson Browne to Debbie Harry and fans from far away places.
Along the way, the Tribute has raised money for many local and international charities. In 2007 we brought WhyHunger and Yoko together, resulting in the still flourishing “Imagine There’s No Hunger” Global Initiative. In subsequent years the Tribute raised money to build music schools in the Third World and support Hurricane Sandy relief in New York City.
In 2014, we launched The John Lennon Real Love Project, a songwriting workshop for children undergoing long term medical care at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. In 2015, we moved the workshop to Gilda’s Club NYC, which provides free support programs for those whose lives have been by cancer. In 2016 we provided a special workshop series for 5-12 year-olds who have lost a parent to the disease. Also in 2016, we launched a new workshop series in Zen meditation, “Imagine Peace, Practice Peace,” which we continue to provide for cancer survivors and family members.
So here we are, 37 years down the long and winding road. John’s songs and the message he expressed are timeless. “It’s the word: Love.”
That’s what continues to inspire us.