The Boston Globe Magazine
August 31, 1980

   Robert Brustein's American Repertory
Theatre Comes to Town Dramatic Presence

By: Linda Lewis

"Can we at least cut off the moustache?"

Black-bearded actors, members of the American Repertory Theatre (ART), stood on the stage of Harvard's Loeb Theater during a dress rehearsal of Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General.  They were having trouble making themselves understood through the furry stuff.

"These beards need a lot of work," said Stephen Rowe.

"You can leave mine alone," said john McAndrew.  "I don't mind it.  It reminds me of my grandfather."

Both Stephen Rowe and John McAndrew moved to Boston last year when Robert Brustein moved his thirteen-year-old Yale-based repertory company - actors and directors, playwrights and designers, production managers, and a publicity specialist - into the cool soil of Cambridge.  By the time they hit this late rehearsal two-days before the play was to open, Rowe and McAndrew had, in two months' time, been in four out of the four plays ART had mounted in its first season.  They were tired.  And wondered about the choice of the director Peter Sellars, a 22-year-old Harvard undergraduate.

"Sellars knows what he wants visually, but he doesn't understand actors," said Richard Grusin, who graduated from the Yale Drama School in 1979.  "We've had no direction. He hasn't let us help him or each other.  We haven't been allowed to give to this production, and it has been unrewarding."

The older actors and those who had big parts disagreed.  Max Wright, who gave an unforgettable performance as the desperate, foolish mayor, Anton Antonovich Sknoznik-Dmukhanovsky, loved working with Sellars, as did Jeremy Geidt, who played Osip, the pragmatic, peasant servant of the Nobody who is mistaken for a Very Important Somebody.

"I think it's a gas," said Geidt.

Marianne Owen, the mayor's eager-greedy daugher, said that she found her own key to the scenes with her mother, scenes in which she competes slyly for the attentions of the inspector general: "I remember being in the back seat of the car with my little sister and finding ways to torment her without giving my parents in the front seat a concrete reason to punish me. I thought Sellars had a lot of good ideas, but you have to come up with your own ideas too."

The other women in the play (called actors these days, not actresses) gave Sellars credit not only for wonderful, zany ideas but for picking up on spontaneous bits of business that looked good enough to keep.  As Owen toyed with a bright red feather boa, Sellars saw that she made one end of it seem to be a lap dog and told her to keep that in.  When Mark Linn-Baker, the file clerk mistaken for the inspector general, prepares to take a powder and is hooked to a cable to make a vertical getaway, the same feather boa draped around is neck suddenly looked like wings.  "Flap it and keep it," said Sellars.  Linn-Baker crossed his ankles demurely and waved a flapping goodbye as he disappeared skyward.

As ART does it, The Inspector General is an enormously complicated production.  A skyhook, trap doors, cables that haul scraps of scenes on and off again (a perky here-it-comes again pineapple, twenty feet high; a preposterous salt cod, elephant-sized, pendant above the stage; the mother- daughter duo on a divan) made entrance and lighting cues hard to grab.  The action jerked forward like organ-grinder music, lacking rhythmic dynamic.

To fil the huge space of the Loeb's performing area requires more material - lumber and fabric, plaster and wire - than most resident theater companies can afford.

Because its sophisticated equipment - elevators, electric winches, computerized lighting systems - demands expensive mantenance and trained specialists to run, the Loeb has always been considered a problem theater.  Experts at ART say it will take pthem a couple of yeas to train people, students presumably to work all the gadgets and at least that long to learn how to design for a space that gobbles money.

At 1:00 p.m., after many hours of starting and stopping, the director announced a ten-minute break.  "Then, ladies and gentlemen, we run through the last act from the top."  Terrible groans.  Dramatic agony.

Robert Brustein sat in the darkened auditorium and watched his colleagues at work.  "They complain but they do it.  It was when they showed what they could do with this play, under these difficult conditions, that I realized they could do anything. They've become a community."

As artistic director of ART, Brustein has the final word on what appears on the stage, but his presence at the rehearsal seemed in no way to cramp young Sellars' style.  Brustein took over only once, altering the last line of the play to make absolutely certain the audience understood.  Gogol's gentle satire of provincial mendacity had been translated into purposefully peculiar, convoluted Russian-echoed English for which they might not be prepared unless they read the program.

Although Brustein said little, his presence was obviously welcome.  He is clearly fond of many of the individuals in the company, and they are respectful and sometimes affectionate with him.  He checked Linn-Baker's safety harness and talked with the stage manager about securing a cable-hung door that seemed to have plans of its own.  His audible enjoyment of some of the clowning seemed to encourage the perpetrators to greater feats of foolery.  Asked whether he harbored a secret passion for low comedy of the English music hall variety, he said, no, it was American burlesque he was crazy about.

Sight gags abound in ART productions and The Inspector General is full of them.  To an outsider, the whole scene that night seemed slightly hysterical, chaotic, nothing like ready to be seen.  The principal actors were stil calling for lines.

"My God, we've had eleven days of rehearsal for this one instead of the usual six weeks," said Geidt, who slid into the seat next to Brustein.  Geidt has been with Brustein since the group began as the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1966 and they are close friends.  "Considering all the problems, Bob, things are in remarkably good shape, " Geidt said.

During "tech" week, before an opening, when the actors and designers and stage manager and director come together to polish what they hope will be a gem, it often looks chaotic, they explained.  And this production was riskier than most.

"The primary function of the theater," says Brustein, "is to serve talent, even when that talent is unruly and disorderly." His choice of Sellars as the director of The Inspector General, a choice some thought shrewdly political (how better to placate Harvard undergraduates who may have felt put down by what seemed at first to be Brustein's steamroller?), was, said Brustein, on the merits, and Sellars "the most talented young director I've seen in years."

The Globe's Kevin Kelly agreed.  "Peter Sellars' version of Gogl's The Inspector General ... is absolutely brilliant.  As the fourth play to join the American Repertory theatre's inaugural season at the Loeb, The Inspector General is, by far the boldest, the most inventive, and the most fascinating."

"Sellars ... seems to have thrived working with the ART's professionals.  Their self-assured individuality complements the impersonal quality this Inspector General shares with much of Sellars' work to give it unity and plentitude of intelligible detail," said Scott A. Rosenberg in the Harvard Crimson.  Elliott Norton, in the Boston Herald American, pronounced it visually "brilliant, bizarre and strikingly beautiful" but as comedy "lacking in humanity," as farce "strained and labored," and as satire heavy-handed.

And other critics liked it not at all, found it a muddle, "undisciplined ... gibberish."

The mixed reaction pleased the company.  "If we're considered a house full of hits, we're not doing our job," Geidt.  Owen said she was glad to see people walk out because it meant they were being given something that was hard to deal with.  She continued, "It's been incredible for us to see full houses every night.  We didn't have this in New Haven.  Here, there's a built in elite audience, sheltered, middle class, innocent.  It drives me crazy.  This place is safer than New Haven, and it's too self-satisfied.  I can't place where I am.  There's a numbness out there.  I wonder at what point a person makes a decision to stop accepting information that might change him."

Owen is one of seven graduates of the Yale School of Drama, class of 1979, who joined the company last year.  She is not sure whether she will return to do more than one or two plays during the next season, despite her satisfaction with many aspects of the ART connection.  "It's a talented, committed group, dedicated to an ideal.  Somehow the chemistry works. There's very little bitching.  The people who matter, the really first-class actors, never stop working, and that's an unusual thing. In this profession, there's a lot of phone it in,' take the easy way go for the things that have worked before."

Elizabeth Norment, another of the Yale graduates, also believes in the idealism that permeates the company, but she feels it is the younger actors who wave these banners most vigorously now.  "We want to work here because we want to develop our craft.  Repertory training is very exciting."  She hopes to be cast "against type," to be pushed hard.  This year she has been dealt a marvelously mixed hand - the Night's Dream a mother who is no better than she ought to be in Terry Won't Talk by Mark Leib, a sharp-tongued mob boss in Brecht's Happy End, and an incongruously poignant petitioner, the locksmith's wife in The Inspector General.  She will be back for more next year.

A repertory theater, like a dance company, is more than the sum of its parts. Knowing each other well, its members are able to support each other's strengths.  Trusting each other, they allow themselves to be pushed off balance.  They know they will be caught.  Actors who have worked together over long periods of time, who are physically and philosophically in tune with each other, speak more than the words of the characters they portray.  As with fine orchestras, a fine theater company may acquire a singing tone all its own - a sparkling coloratura, a sensuous alto, an intellectually muscular bass.  But the fun of repertory is in the sandwiching - ham on wry, you might say.

The country is littered with dead repertory theaters.  (A former ART, started by Eva Le Gallienne with Margaret Webster and Cheryl Crawford in 1946, failed within a year.)  Eyes too big for stomachs seem to have caused most of the disasters.  At the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where there were twenty-two thousand season ticketholders and an advanced sale of over three hundred thousand for the opening season, in 1965, sales have fallen off and the board, frightened, has taken over more of the program decision-making than many artistic directors would honorably allow.

Believers in regional resident repertory theater point to the Guthrie, the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the Arena in Washington, the Alley Theater in Houston, and to Trinity Square in providence as examples of cultural vitality, variously expressed.  Each has its own quality - ACT, rather like an English company, specializes in costumed classics ("Cuckoo-clock acting," says Brustein), the Mark Taper in sentimental, domestic drama.  ("They haven't discovered the eighties.")

The Arena, Trinity Square, and Joe Papp's Public Theater in New York "sometimes do provocative things," according to Brustein.  He is one fussy man.

Among the theaters that have made it the formula seems to be classics (Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, Ibsen) plus American playwrights (O'Neill, Williams, Miller), a none-too-difficult Brecht or Beckett, maybe a musical, and, on rare occasions, a new play by an unknown author.

ART will produce more new plays by new playwrights than most of its theater cousins and will be more experimental, more musical, and possibly more intellectual.

It will go on taking different sorts of chances, including financial ones.  Money from sources that might otherwise have been tapped for the operating deficit at the Loeb had been directed toward putting on As You Like It for free in Boston and bringing A Midsummer Night&s Dream a dazzling and elaborate delight, into the Wilbur in October.  It is risky to assume that Boston theatergoers, who are famously hard to please, will love them in large enough numbers to cover their might costs.  It is, after all, many years since Bostonians bloodied themselves grabbing for tickets at the box office.

That is the sort of spirit Robert Brustein and his colleagues are after.  What's more, they think they can get it.  There is, in the offices and corridors of the Loeb, a strong whiff of communal vanity that seems to come from an overwhelming conviction of importance.  Bostonians, they say, deserve the best and could use some classy, creative shaking up. Perhaps they are right.  There may just be, in fleshiness, flashiness, sexiness, wild glee, cruel satire, and tragedy, the sort of energy that could be adapted to local purposes.

Because continuity is important to the company and to the audience, which comes to enjoy seeing familiar faces in different roles, Brustein works hard to get his actors to stay.  He cajoles, dangles interesting parts, sings the chorus he sang at Yale about an actor's responsibility to develop the art of the theater.  He tells them again and again, that professional growth is best achieved by working in a repertory theater.  The actors do not disagree.  Despite the temptations of Broadway and Hollywood ("I would do television only if I were desperate," says Richard Grusin, with the fervor of the converted), despite their doubts about working, always among friends or in an institutional setting as elaborate as Harvard most of them will be back next season.

For Rich Grusin, Elizabeth Norment, and Marianne Owen, who had only students' stakes in New Haven, the move to Cambridge was both logical and realtively easy.  For others in the company it was perhaps more complicated.  The Yale connection had soured: Kingman Brewster, former president of Yale, had appointed Brustein Dean of the Yale Drama School; his first act was to start the Yale Repertory Theater.  G. Barlett Giamatti, Yale's new president, would not renew Brustein's deanship on hands-off terms, which meant that for thirty-five of Brustein's loyal associates, it was time to pack up and go.

Jeremy Geidt put his New Haven house on the market and found another one in Cambridge.  His wife Jan, who has done a staggering job in the press office of ART, unpacked, put the two girls in school, found a dentist and baby- sitters, and made the beginnings of a new life.  For the Geidts, and others, it felt like coming into a flower-filled meadow after a hard climb up a rocky slope.

Among the group of actors who have been with Brustein for a long time, there has been considerable strain.  Max Wright, the flustered, onion-breasted Thisbe of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the frazzled mayor in The Inspector General, has a family in new York City that will not consider moving to Boston.  Carmen de Lavallade, the shining Titania of A Midsummer Night's Dream, feels she has imposed on her New York-based husband quite enough.  While she loves her work at ART, she knows she cannot afford to commute from one city to the other several times a week.  Mark Linn-Baker, otherwise known as Puck of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Terry of Terry Won't Talk, and the mistaken Inspector General, says his agent wants him in New York right this minute.

"Agents are our enemies," says Brustein, but because he understands the pressures on the actors, he tries to keep the doors open, hopes the local Wright, de Lavallade, and Linn-Baker fan clubs will settle for periodic appearances.

From the point of view of the customer, it seems a pity to be losing some of the strongest members of the company just as we were coming to know them and count on them.  That no doubt is in the nature of the business - acting is the least stable of professions.  Brustein, who conducts auditions in New York, Boston, and elsewhere several times a year, says there is a huge pool of talent out there, eager for employment in ART.  This year several Boston actors will join the company as well as three new graduates of the Yale School of Drama.

From the point of view of an actor in the company, there are advantages and disadvantages in the repertory experience.  In raise of variety, Geidt says, "You can get very bored and very lazy in a long run of a single play."

And real money is not to be had in a repertory company.  A small part in Hollywood nets more than half a year's work, night after night, on the stage.  On the other hand, there are a lot of out-of-work actors sitting around New York and Hollywood doing crossword puzzles.

The "one big family" aspect of repertory work is to some a plus and to others minus.  Geidt says familiarity forces them to do unexpected things just to surprise each other.  Owen says they like each other too much to push each other hard or to be as critical of each other as they should be.  There is, among the younger actors, a certain amount of healthy discontent that is expressed, always in terms of the ideals they have been taught.  The self- confidence they have gained at Yale and in this year of being full-fledged members of a troupe gives them leeway to disagree with stated policies or to "indicate gaps between policy and implementation.

Even for actors who cannot make ends meet in the theater, the experience is so gratifying that they are unwilling to make "sensible" choices aobut work in other professions.  "This is a crazy way to make a living," says a woman who has acted in Cambridge and Boston for years and would like to audition for Brustein.  "When you know you're doing it well, it is the most wonderful feeling, like being on a bike - the power you're using is more than yourself and yet you're making it happen.  It is as if you are a magnifying lass and the energy that comes through you is refracted, sent out to the audience.  I love it because it's an art that uses everything that is in me, everything I know and feel, my mind and my body."  If acting is also a service to the community, she implies, that is gravy and not the source of the satisfaction.

Perhaps because they hear so much about serving the theater and serving their own talent, the actors of ART may tend to think of themselves as overworked and under appreciated public servants.  Why, they wonder, are they knocking themselves out juggling flaming torches, trying to please people who seem to take their devotion for granted?  "The theater," says Brustein, "has an obligation to get under the skin of an audience, to connect with what's bothering them."

During the opening night intermission of A Midsummer Night's Dream, professor Harry Levin, who has been an avid enthusiast of theater at Harvard since his undergraduate days in 1929, expressed his astonishment to Harvard president Derek Bok: "Derek, do you realize there are fifty-eight people (actually twenty) on the stage being paid Equity wages?  How do you do it?  Bok, laughing said he wasn't responsible for any wages at all, or, indeed, for any production expenses, just for a portion of the cost of running the Loeb.  He beamed like a boy who had been given a wonderful, life-size toy.

It seems perfectly clear at ART that a vigorous resident theater should be one of the measures of urban merit and that the lucky community that possesses this vital mechanism should be prepared to keep it well oiled.  When the company came here they knew Boston had a reputation for stinginess in its support of the arts, but somehow they thought it would be the exception.  They have been disappointed.

"Frankly, I'm shocked," says Burstein.  "In many ways this is a primitive country.  Every year I have to explain again why the arts are important.  It has to do with the imagination.  There are areas of human activity that are beyond the natural, where nothing is given, where you can be surprised.  This what inspires.  Artists give us hope."

In the golden robes of Theseus, duke of Athens, Brustein appeared on the stage of the Loeb this spring in order to make his point appropriately - in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives airy nothing
A local habitation and an name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That, if it would but apprehend some joy;
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear.
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Live performances of music or dance or drama not only bring us joy but teach us about our fears, show us ourselves, stir, reveal.  Since revelation suggests a change in perception, revaluation may follow.  Drama that speaks forcefully and directly serves a a catalyst and has a powerful potential for change.  Creativity in one area sometimes sparks creativity in another.

Burstein has made these arguments repeatedly, and he will go on making them to as many groups as he must as often s seems necessary.  Although he says he is a bad money-raiser, he has a reputation for being the opposite.  On the right stage, he is utterly convincing.

In a speech before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in February, Brustein said that without the performing arts, no university is complete, that theaters and concert halls are the essential living libraries "where the works of drama or music find their true, significant form."  While he admitted that academics who valued professionalism in the humanities often preferred amateurism in the arts and seemed, sometimes, so buttoned up in habitual criticism that they were unable to surrender to joy, he said he was an optimist.  He saw the collaboration of a great university and a lively theater as beneficial to both humanist and artist.

In presenting himself and his company to Cambridge and to the larger Boston community, Brustein has, so far, made all the right moves.  He is an appealing man, tall, serious, urbane, with just the right proportion of drive to lay. He loves living and working in Cambridge and says so, often.  He carries the major responsibility for this huge and complex venture alone.

Norma Brustein, the wife he adored, died two months before they were to leave New Haven.  Her loss stunned him.

Brustein speaks the local dialect.  A graduate of Amherst and Columbia where he taught, he has convinced Harvard to let him give courses in drama for credit, something many thought would never happen.  When he talks of a graduate school of drama, needed to feed the company and the wider theatrical community with well trained actors, designers, directors, dramaturges, and administrators, he speaks of sponsorship by a consortium of colleges and universities and avoids pressing his scheme with a reluctant Harvard administration.  He is warmly grateful to Harvard's president, Derek Bok, for welcoming him and for making the Loeb available.

Putting on As You Like It in Boston's City Hall Plaza this summer, with the active blessing of Mayor Kevin White, has given the company and Brustein a tremendous lift, as has the prospect of filming A Midsummer night's Dream for nation distribution on the Public Broadcasting Service.

For all the right reasons, Brustein has had a good press.  He was, himself, a member of the profession and has written theater criticism for the new Republic and for the London Observer.  His books have spelled out his philosophy and commented on the drift away from excellence, as he perceives it, under the present leadership of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and have put him in a very visible position as a spokesman for uncompromisingly high standards.  He wants ART to be judged by those standards and appreciates knowledgeable evaluations even when they are negative. "This is the most intelligent audience I have ever seen," he says.

It does not worry Brustein or Robert Orchard, ART's managing director, that at least five or six thousand of last year's thirteen thousand subscribers had not renewed their ART membership by the end of May.  "Fifty percent resubscription is terrific," Orchard says.  "And we haven't begun to solicit new subscriptions.  Loyalty? We've got it," Burstein adds.

In this initial period of mutual sizing up, ART is still in the process of making clear what it is and what it is not.  It is not, first of all, a commercial theater.  It is not, according to Brustein, a platform for "realistic domestic drama" for "soap talk."  That sort of thing can be done just as well elsewhere.  It is not a jumping-off place for Broadway or a stopping-off place for stars.

Among those who choose not to renew their subscriptions there may have been some who misunderstood what it was they were buying, but others believe they are withholding blind-faith support for reasons of artistic inadequacy: "Too much slapstick."

"Theatrical effects do not make up for lack of content."

"They mumble.  Gielgud doesn't Mumble.  Olivier didn't mumble."

"I'll go to some but not all.  Why should I commit myself in advance?  I'll see what the critics say, first."

On the basis of Brustein's reputation at Yale and from all that is known about his dedication to imaginative work, ART may be expected to take big risks in the years to come.  "The greater the risks we take," says Orchard, "the better off we are.  You simply cannot predict what will sell or what will win long-term rather than short-term support.  If you systematize artistic choices your ender them inartistic."

Although he is aware of the need to balance sass and security, he keeps his hands strictly off the artistic decisions.  ART is run by its artistic director - Brustein - not its manager, not a board, not a bunch of marketing experts.  What has happened to many repertory theaters, where creative imagination takes a back seat to business strategies, will not happen here.  There will be little talk of a "need to speak to a bnroad spectrum of the population" or "therapy" or "input from the community."

Although Orchard is worried about the status of the challenge grant for which they have applied to the National Endowment for the Arts because of Brustein's "problem about shooting (his) mouth off," he would think it dangerous to suggest that sails be trimmed for political reasons.  Trimming production costs, however, is another matter.

Asked if he though they had overextended themselves, he said it was possible.

Although he claimed that for the size of the operation the personnel is "skeletal," there certainly are a large number of people whose livelihood depends on its success.

The basic decision to be big, to operation on a grand scale, was dictated by the size of the group that wanted to stay together when Brustein left Yale.  "It would have been foolish to disband after thirteen years of working together, when we were just getting to where we had always wanted to be."  Besides, says Orchard, if they succeed, they contribute to the quality of life in this community.  That is his principal argument when he approaches foundations and corporations in his quest for the $1 million that is needed to cover costs not covered by box office.

"We affect the ability of the business community to attract the best of the young professionals, to whom the quality of life in Boston matters."  He says that he is astonished that this line so far, has been relatively ineffective.  Local resistance to show business swagger is understandable.  Bostonians point proudly to their long-time patronage of schools, hospitals, museums, and musical organizations.  They do not care to be told, yet again, how tight they are with money, and they do not need to buy credibility for cultivation the way some other states do.  Less dependent on the opinions of others, better pleased with themselves, importuned by hundreds of needy, worthy, dedicated organizations, they are in no hurry to toss more than small change into the hats that are being passed.

Hats have been passed for repertory theaters before.  There are at least a dozen local theater groups and plenty of Equity actors who perform regularly, and some of them, no doubt, offer plays that are politically and socially riskier than those that are likely to be seen at ART.

Like many other resident theaters, ART has to make a choice between modest and free versus ambitious and obligated.  The more modest a theater, the less able it is to take advantage of top talent and to improve the technical quality of its work.

For the more successful theaters, financial considerations become a bigger and bigger burden and the risk of becoming commercial is greater.

Last year, like a betrothed couple in an arranged marriage, Brustein and Boston were inclined to be well disposed toward each other on the strength of advance notices.  Now that the honeymoon is more or less over, the serious business of establishing a "meaningful relationship" must begin.

While problems that may have been brushed under last year's red carpet have become apparent, it is clear that the community and the company want the marriage to last.  "When people say to me, as they have, 'We're so glad you're here,' I think it means "We need the theater.'  That kind of hunger I'm devoted to feeding."

Brustein and ART have the best chance in years ot accustom Bostonians to the theatergoing habit.  Perhaps, in three or four years, like Quincy Market regulars, we may wonder how we did without it.