Fifty Years: An Oral History

by Diep Tran

in American Theatre magazine

Post image for Fifty Years: An Oral History

[Photo: Billy Budd at Trinity Repertory Company.]

“Tell me a story.” That was what we asked a handful of artistic director across the country. Why? Because the theatres they are in charge of are turning 50, a momentous number that shows the resiliency and longevity of the American theatrical landscape.

The institutions celebrating 50 years are South Coast Repertory in California, Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island, Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, Seattle Repertory Theatre in Washington, Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky, Hartford Stage in Connecticut, Kansas City Repertory in Missouri and the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota.

In American Theatre magazine’s December 2013 issue, two stories focus on 50th anniversaries: “The Necessity of Anarchy” by David Dudley, about Bread and Puppet Theater’s 50th season, and “You Had to Be There,” detailing the very first production at the Guthrie (more on that below).

As an addendum to the December issue, a few artistic directors from those august theatres share some pieces of history, and memorable moments, with us.

Curt Columbus, artistic director, Trinity Repertory Company

Our theatre in the late ’60s started something called Project Discovery and it was meant to be a transformative education program. There were three project theatres, in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Rhode Island. We’re actually the only theatre that’s still around. For our founding artistic director Adrian Hall, it wasn’t his first impulse to do theatre for kids. What he did was show them adult theatre.

There’s a lot of folklore involving nuns from the Catholic school bringing kids to these shows with naked women swinging on a trapeze over their heads. One of our former Project Discovery students, who’s now in his 50’s, said that he remembered being on the bus after the shows, with all of the nuns in their habits, and the kids are riding home in silence thinking “We’re never going back there again.” And a couple of months later, they were all riding to the theatre on the buses.

So it’s an interesting part of their history. It’s also tied to our performance style, because Adrian would present really challenging texts. For example we did Herman Melville’s Billy Budd [during the 1968–69 season] which was really wordy. In the beginning, the production couldn’t grab their attention. So Adrian said to the props person [here he does an impression of Hall’s Texas accent], “Do you know that canon you got over there?” (It was for set dressing.) “I want you to make it fire and I’m going to turn it on the little fuckers and fire at them.”

So the kids would come in, and they’re these high school kids talking, and someone would point the canon at the audience and fire it at them. And the kids would scream and the show would begin. That kind of in-your-face attack would always be part of Trinity Rep’s vocabulary. And I love that it came out of the desire to make young people listen to theatrical text.

We still do very in-your-face work and that’s part of the reason, because we reach about 30,000 kids a year and we need to make them listen. And it’s always fun to shoot a canon at an audience [laughs]. I actually did that for my production of Cabaret [in 2009]. The MC turned a canon to the audience and confetti came out. We’ve played many times with that cannon.

Marc Masterson, artistic director, South Coast Repertory

It started in a restaurant. During dinner at the Copper Skillet, founding artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson, fresh out of San Francisco State College (now University), drew up a plan on a napkin and called it the Four Step Program.

“The first step involved not just banding together a theatre company, but creating an identity,” Martin told me. “The second was to find a home that we could convert into a theatre. We’d tour first, and then establish a beachhead. The third was to either find a theatre, or a building we could convert, that’d be big enough for us to attain Equity status. The fourth step was to find or build a theatre that would be our ultimate home, which would be capacious enough to stage full productions.”

As for the name, many suggestions were put forward. David finally spotted a business sign for “South Coast Shipyard.” “The theatre’s final name wasn’t decided as much by acclamation, it was just the least objectionable name,” he said.

They had no money, no resources, no rehearsal space—other than David’s garage—and no means to contact an audience in Orange County. All they had was the newly minted name.

The first production in November 1964 was Molière’s Tartuffe. Fifty years later, in 2014, SCR will take audiences full circle with a production of Tartuffe, directed by Dominique Serrand. It caps a season of five world premieres that represent each of SCR’s five decades and its commitment to new works.

SCR’s new works roster includes:

•  286 commissions

•  187 playwrights commissioned

•  56 current commissions

•  66 commissions produced by SCR

Not bad for the back of a cocktail napkin!

Jerry Manning, artistic director, Seattle Repertory Theatre

[Editor’s note: An Iliad, produced in 2010 at Seattle Rep, was a one-man take on the Trojan War. Seattle Rep commissioned the play from actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson. Below, Jerry Manning details a memorable moment from that production. Pictured: Hans Altwies in An Iliad at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.]

[Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson] are old friends, old collaborators. So An Iliad was an act of faith, and sometimes faith is a good thing. We did a workshop, we did a series of readings on that play, we produced the world premiere here and it has gone on to be one of the most produced plays in the country. I remember going to closing night. It was sold out, and there was this incredible moment at the end of the play when Hans Altwies left and the door shut behind him, and there was silence in the audience. When Hans came out again, there was a wave of response that hit him like an avalanche. He happened to spy me in the balcony, and he sort of tipped his hat to me, and I started crying.

That’s what it’s about—to be able to have a hand in making something like that. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

Peter Schumann, founder and artistic director, Bread and Puppet Theater

There are quite a few stories, I have to pull them out of my hat now. I don’t know where my hat is…. I must tell you that the theatre’s activities in the U.S. started earlier than the Bread and Puppet Theater. In 1961 when me, my wife Elka and our two kids came to the States, I went to the Merce Cunningham Studio [in New York City] (I had seen their work in Germany), and the Living Theater happened to be in the same building. In that same studio, I bought an old organ. Somebody told me there was a carpenter who was selling it. They were wooden organ pipes, very hard to blow. I went to the Living Theater and invited many people to play the organ pipes, with me conducting them. It was so hard, they took in a lot of air and people almost fainted doing it.

It was an interesting piece of work, and it was part of what the Living Theater was concerned with, which was a piece called the General Strike for Peace, protesting the atomic race. And the General Strike inspired me to make the Dance of Death. I had done that dance in Germany. And Richard Tyler, the super in my building, and his friends were my company for the performance.

I knew my super, Richard, because he had known of an apartment that belonged to Claes Oldenburg, who was moving. And Richard was the super of that building. So we moved into a fourth-story apartment between Avenue C and D on East Fourth Street.

We performed Dance of Death in Judson Church. That was in the spring of 1962. It was the first thing I remembered doing in the States. That first performance, I asked members of the audience to sit as judges of the dance. We put masks on them, and asked them to sit above the proceedings of the Dance of Death. And in that process, a couple of my best masks disappeared! They went with those people. [laughs] But I experienced that again and again. And that’s alright. Many more can be made.

Joe Dowling, artistic director, Guthrie Theater

The opening night of the Guthrie Theater on May 7, 1963, with a production of Hamlet, is shrouded in the usual mythology of golden memory. In the mists of time, the evening has been deemed a triumph, an opening to beat all openings, a new beginning for American theatre. The coming together of the finest director in the English-speaking theatre, Tyrone Guthrie, a brilliant and rising star George Grizzard as Hamlet, and with theatrical legends Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as part of the company, was seen as a major event in the evolution of American regional theatre. Indeed, the expectations for that spring night couldn’t have been higher (although the reviews turned out to be, in the hallowed tradition of euphemisms, “mixed”)

Tyrone’s account of the evening tells the story from a slightly different perspective. In his book A New Theatre, he recalls that, “the thermometer that evening had leapt up 20 or 30 degrees. Instead of ordinary agreeable May weather, the midsummer heat seemed suddenly to have been switched on. In addition to being sickeningly nervous, we were all sickeningly hot.” Realizing that a four-hour uncut Hamlet would be a strain for this audience, he mused that what they wanted was “a bullfight, or a belly dancer going too far, or two heavyweights bashing the daylights out of each other.”

What Tyrone’s humor masks is a sense that, no matter what the play is, no matter how good the production was, such an occasion was bound to be more important than the performance. One dedicated supporter remembers that her biggest dilemma was whether she should wear long white gloves to the theatre!

But what most people remember is the excitement of seeing a modern-dress Shakespeare, with Guthrie’s signature staging on a Tanya Moiseiwitsch set, in a brand new Ralph Rapson designed thrust-stage theatre. While the heat of the night and the length of the play may have fazed them, the Twin Cities audience took the new theatre to its welcoming bosom (with hooting and hollering aplenty at curtain call). And 50 years later, in a brand new building, the enthusiasm is still evident and the support undiminished.

Susan Cash_Handler by Jane Martin directed by Jon Jory_6th Humana FestivalLes Waters, artistic director, Actors Theatre of Louisville

[Editor’s note: This story was told to Les from Marilee Hebert Miller, who was associate director at Actors Theatre from 1981 to 1998. Pictured: Susan Cash in Handler. Photo courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

Zan Sawyer-Dailey, the current associate director, was company manager for ATL’s 1988 engagement at the USIA American Theatre Today exhibition in Warsaw, Poland. One of the plays that Actors Theatre presented in repertory was Jane Martin’s Handler, which required a live snake. First, the company had to find a suitable snake for the play, then check all regulations for getting the snake into Poland, then convince an airline to allow them to carry it on board. All of this took hours of telephone conversations before departure—and the “rehearsing” of two snakes—before we were cleared for Judy (the snake’s stage name) to travel abroad. All went well for ATL’s 140 performances in Warsaw.

Then it was time for the return journey. Actors Theatre inquired about possibly contributing Judy to a local zoo, but that was not permitted, so Zan packaged her up in the carrying case and proceeded home. It was in John F. Kennedy Airport that she approached her last hurdle: At U.S. Customs, they asked her what was in the box. “A snake” was the honest answer. And it was at this point that the officer decided that he needed a supervisor. Zan assured him that the transport papers were in order, and she relayed the fact that the flight had arrived late and she would miss her connection to Louisville, and maybe she could just leave the snake with him!

That did it. Zan and the snake passed through customs at record speed and Judy returned to her home in Louisville, with exotic stamps on her carrier and considerable professional credits on her resume.

Jacques Cartier, Hartford Stage

[Editor’s note: Hartford Stage’s present artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, is busy opening A Gentleman’s Guide of Love and Murder on Broadway and could not respond to our queries. Luckily, Jacques Cartier, founder of Hartford Stage was available. Pictured: Ralph Straight and Charles Kimbrough in The Tempest at Hartford Stage.]

I founded Hartford Stage 50 years ago. At the time I called it the Hartford Stage Company, in admiration of the English Stage Company in London. Here are a few of my memories of those early years.

We began in May 1963, before there was the internet and e-mail. I was isolated from fellow artistic directors, only vaguely aware that there were others. Of course I knew about the Guthrie, which was opening then. And when a couple of fellows came to my office looking for advice and information in preparation for the start-up of their theatre in New Haven, which they were to call Long Wharf [which opened in 1965], I was made aware that I had a companion right down the road. But we kept to ourselves. We stove piped! Were we colleagues? Or rivals?

Later I learned about TCG and discovered they offered a casting service. But even with their help, I made some odd choices. It was in rehearsal for The Tempest [during the 1964–65 season]:

Me, to an older actor playing Prospero: “What’s that noise?”

The actor: “Do you hear clicking? Like castanets?” I nod. He covers his mouth and turns away. “That’s my teeth doing the ‘Danse Macabre.’” (Sob) “I’ll never learn all these fucking lines!” He begins to cry.

Later, after he left town and we opened with a different actor, he storms into my office, drives my back into the wall and begins to recite his lines at top speed. When he sees that I’m convinced he knows them, he stops. We shake hands, hug and he leaves with his head held high.

Sometimes though, good things came out of casting troubles.

“Sorry, I’m just not up to it,” read the note slipped under my office door on the first day of rehearsals for Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid [during the 1964–65 season]. It was signed by the actor slated to play the lead. What had we done to scare him off? Cut to a hasty call to a recent classmate: “Are you available?” He was, thank God, and only one day of rehearsal was lost and a new member of the company was gained, a member who will become invaluable and, ultimately, my successor as artistic director: Paul Weidner.

I’m happy we’ve kept going and going, for 50 years now. I hope the next 50 are as interesting.


Diep Tran is assistant editor at American Theatre magazine. She comes from the sunny land of California. When she is not writing about theatre and seeing theatre, she watches television shows about glee clubs and zombies. Her Twitter handle is @DiepThought.