Boston Globe Magazine
August 31, 1980
Brustein's American Repertory
Theatre Comes to Town Dramatic Presence
"Can we at least cut
off the moustache?"
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
"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
"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
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
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.
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 ...
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
do not make up for lack of content."
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
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
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
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.