Tom Key as Buckminster Fuller: the theater of the ravenous mind

While writing his book “Nine Chains to the Moon,” Buckminster Fuller casually included an interpretation of Albert Einstein’s theories. Fuller’s publisher balked.

“There are 10 people who understand Einstein,” Fuller was told. “I looked up the list: You’re not on it.”

Fuller mildly suggested that the publisher send the manuscript to Einstein and have the physicist check it out. Einstein approved, and that communication resulted in a meeting of the two men, who may well have been the only two people who each understood the other. “Young man,” Einstein said, “you amaze me.”

Listening in on a conversation between Einstein and Fuller — as if we could eavesdrop on Socrates and Plato taking tea — is just one of the charms of the one-man show “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe,” performed by the titanic Tom Key at the Theatrical Outfit and opening Thursday, Oct. 1, in previews.

The 90-minute drama ranges through the life and mind of one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century, and is staged as one of the hundreds of lectures that the indefatigable Fuller gave in the last decades of his life. He died in 1983.

Fuller is best-known as the creator of the geodesic dome and for designing ultra-efficient, low-cost, aluminum-sheathed “dymaxion” housing (a combination of “dynamic,” “maximum” and “tension”). But his resume — poet, architect, author, systems analyst, inventor, environmentalist, social critic — reflects an omnivorous curiosity about the world, and a comprehensive approach to studying it.

He originated the terms “synergetics” and “spaceship Earth,” and sought to describe how systems — such as the environment — perform in ways not predicted by the individual components. He frequently spoke and wrote in his own invented language, coining such terms as “tensegrity,” a hybrid of “tension” and “integrity” that denotes a structure in which shape is maintained by tensional behavior of the members.

Playwright D.W. Jacobs, co-founder of the San Diego Repertory Theatre, attended Fuller’s lectures as a college student at the University of California. He immersed himself in the man’s voluminous writings and collaborated with the Fuller Estate to create the one-man show.

Key said Jacobs was successful in translating Fuller’s omnidirectional language into words for the common ear. “Somebody like me who got no farther than Algebra 2 — if I can grasp this and get caught up in it, certainly the audience can,” Key said.

Speaking as he sipped coffee at a downtown diner near the Theatrical Outfit’s home theater on Luckie Street, Key was just catching his breath. Post-rehearsal, he appeared to be vibrating, as if he was just coming down from a Fuller-induced buzz. “I need to calm down a little more,” he said with a smile.

The 65-year-old Key, who has been artistic director at the Theatrical Outfit for 20 years, seemed most energized by Fuller’s essential optimism, his conviction that effective design strategies, computer guidance and “executive vision” could easily end world hunger. “If someone wants to be excited by hope, they’ll be so glad they met Buckminster Fuller,” Key said.

The idea for the show began with the Theatrical Outfit’s managing director, Lee Foster, who saw a production in San Francisco at the urging of a friend, and realized it would be perfect for Key.

She had seen Key in his solo dramatization “C.S. Lewis on Stage” and recognized his horsepower as a one-man showman.

For his part, Key said, Fuller is “the most challenging, labor-intensive role I’ve had in 40 years of doing theater.” Key said he began working on the play in June, spending three or four hours a week just memorizing lines. He joshes that learning new material can actually grow new dendrites in the brain, so for him the show is a defense against any onrushing senility.

“This was part of my homework assignment from the universe — to do this.”

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