An Ideal Theater: Lincoln Center Theater

by Anne Cattaneo

in TCG Books

Post image for An Ideal Theater: Lincoln Center Theater

(Photo: Paul Kolnick. Pictured: Seth Numrich, Danny Burstein and Danny Mastrogiorgio in The Golden Boy. Learn more about the An Ideal Theater salon, and how you can participate, here. For more on the history of Lincoln Center Theater, read the Lincoln Center Theater Review issues 15 and 49-50.)

When Lincoln Center Theater’s Artistic Director André Bishop was asked to respond to Jules Irving’s entry in An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, he emailed:

“I read the Jules Irving essay: beleaguered, valiant, and from a different time. Much has changed; much has not. I really don’t think I can write about it. Quite frankly, reading it depressed me too much. He and [Herbert] Blau (for a little bit of time) and others before and after them struggled so mightily here. The demons they faced have, for the most part, been exorcised.  But my heart ached for him as I read this because God knows I understand the bewildering pressures and craziness of this job and others like it. This building would probably not be standing if it were not for the persistence of Jules Irving and his intelligence and continued optimism in the face of so much difficulty. But suddenly, years later, Gregory [Mosher] and Bernie [Gersten] appeared, set their sights on a near horizon, and cleared all the cobwebs away.   P.S. The idea of repertory, however, cast a golden glow when I read about it.”

Not a mission statement, but an all-too-true diary of a season in the life of the Artistic Director, Irving’s piece opens a door to so many ideas and issues, as do so many other entries in this fascinating book.  As dramaturg here under two administrations  (I was hired by Greg Mosher, and have worked with André since he became AD in 1992)  I have also, with John Guare, edited two issues of the Lincoln Center Theater Review devoted to the (largely forgotten) history of theater here on the plaza.

As Todd London gracefully remarks in a footnote to his introduction to Irving’s piece concerning the critical attack—or I would call it all-out war—on all the early administrations here:

“[X’s book]   ….is so opinionated and contentious that I find it almost unreadable today, at least as history.  It does, though, offer some of the sick pleasure of vitriolic attack….”

Henry IV Lincoln Center Theater October 26, 2003 Credit Photo ©Paul Kolnik New York City

(Photo of Henry IV, directed by Jack O’Brien).

The first team lasted one year.  It was led by no less than Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead, with Harold Clurman providing dramaturgical assistance.  The playwright-in-residence was Arthur Miller, who premiered his new play After the Fall with company members Jason Robards and Barbara Loden in the leading roles, in rep with his Incident at Vichy, designed by Boris Aronson, O’Neill’s Marco Millions, The Changeling, Tartuffe and S.N Berman’s new play But for Whom Charlie, starring company ingénue Faye Dunaway, with music by David Amram. As Rep company member Lawrence Luckinbill wrote for us in the LCTReview:

“I was committed to the Lincoln Center Repertory and its social vision.  People like Arthur Miller and Harold Clurman were convinced that American life could be made better by art.  I earned about $136 a week.  I was living in the Village in a one-room garden apartment.  I was absolutely, blissfully happy…..  Kazan’s disastrous production of The Changeling….convinced everybody that all the money they’d spent on this company to develop these actors was a mistake.  The critics tore it to pieces.”

Miller recalled:

“There was a remarkable hostility toward Kazan and Whitehead.  I am still unable to understand where it stemmed from.  My only clue is maybe they thought Kazan and Whitehead were Broadway people….They had completely forgotten that Whitehead had done twenty or thirty classics and had been trying to uphold some kind of artistic standard.”

Here’s Robert Brustein in Seasons of Discontent : Dramatic Opinions 1959-1965:

“The generation which Mr. Miller discredits in After the Fall is one that eventually came to control Broadway, passing off its ambition as altruism, its expediency as honesty, its avarice as integrity, its lust for fame as love of art.  Now grown fat and prosperous and exhausted, it has institutionalized the bankrupt Broadway vision in the fashionable cultural emporium of Lincoln Center.”

And this was while they were still performing in a tent in Washington Square Park! The theater hadn’t even been finished yet!  The Changeling—one of the productions in the rep—wasn’t successful.  I ask myself, was that the last time The Changeling has ever been seen in a major production in New York? And Arthur Miller as playwright in residence for the season—James Houghton at Signature would dream up this idea 30 years later and be justly rewarded for it! The power and hostility of the critics of that day is, happily, what Andre is thinking of when he writes that much has changed and a few demons have been laid to rest.

Also, no longer an issue is the discussion of that time about creating a “National Theater” and what that national theater should be.  Theaters today all over the world have abandoned the notion, and the work of many companies represents each nation—as it does here.  Finally, another challenge that has gone away:  the Beaumont was the only building at Lincoln Center built without a pre-existing institution, with board and audiences and supporters, ready to move in.  The Metropolitan Opera, The New York City Ballet, the Philharmonic had all existed previously.  Today, after 50 years, we too have an artistic heritage.

Sarafina 1

(Cast of Sarafina!)

It might be interesting for readers to learn that one legacy of LC’s founding is that we are one of only four LORT theaters in NYC, and one of three with a Broadway backstage Local 1 union contract.  William Ball, who directed the Tartuffe in the Rep’s inaugural season, is quoted in “An Ideal Theater:

“The conditions [in New York] were so awful that I nearly had a nervous breakdown.  I brought a tape recorder to hear the sound cues, and the union people said I couldn’t turn it on; it was going to cost me two days’ salary for sixteen men.  The sets were delivered without doorknobs.  In the middle of rehearsal the board of directors fired Whitehead and Kazan.  This great effort of two years, the great hope of the Lincoln Center was dissolving, and they told me to go back to rehearsal, as though nothing had happened and you could go right on creating theater.” (p. 499)

First administration of “Broadway Royalty” (I guess Clurman and the Group Theater DID perform on Broaday)  gone.  Second administration tacked 180 degrees.   In came the highly praised, radical, regional troupe the San Francisco Actors Workshop (director Dan Sullivan, then an extra in the company was the first actor to set foot on the newly finished Beaumont stage as a citizen in Danton’s Death,) which joined The Country Wife, Sartre’s The Condemned of Altona, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Alchemist, Yerma, In Three Zones, The East Wind and Galileo. It was attacked with equal vitriol.  Herb Blau, director and dramaturg, lasted one year, (1965-6) and Jules Irving carried on valiantly until 1972.  His piece in An Ideal Theater brilliantly describes his life in this hostile climate.

Joe Papp followed Jules Irving, though without the actor repertory piece, and made an artistic success with his partner Bernard Gersten for four seasons, from 1973-77. But Papp didn’t like the audiences, who he referred to as “The Viennese,” and he didn’t have a board that could support the expense of the work.  Except for one, year-long, unsuccessful administration under Richmond Crinkley, and a few short rentals (among them Peter Brook’s magnificent Carmen) the building was dark for eight years.  Theater at Lincoln Center – a failed experiment.  A bowling alley was considered, a parking lot.

I remember the key to reopening it: well, first the creation of a great board, an effort led by ex-mayor John Lindsay and others, who were simply ashamed that these two magnificent spaces, sitting next to George Balanchine’s NYC Ballet and Rudolf Bing’s Met, had been empty for so long.

VOYAGE-Group shot(Photo by Paul Kolnick of Voyage, Part 1 of The Coast of Utopia. Featuring Jennifer Ehle, Kellie Overbey, Amy Irving, Felicity LaFortune, Richard Easton, David Manis, Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup.)

But the artistic secret:   no mission statement.  No announcement.  A play was quietly produced: John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves downstairs in the Mitzi.  Quietly, because all the tickets were sold out, it was moved upstairs and then more people could get in.  Other plays were gently opened and finally, later, much later, a mission statement was found, which has been on our stationary since then.  Here it is in its entirety:  “Good Plays. Popular Prices.”  How popular?  Today we have 30,000 regular Members who pay $50/ticket and 35,000 LincTix members (21-35 year olds) who pay $30/ticket, as well as an education program that brings over 4000 public high school students to the theater several times a year who pay nothing.

Finally, in terms of vision, I would add one thing I know Gregory and Andre shared, in addition to producing good plays at popular prices:  an unshakeable trust in artists and the freedom they gave them to make their own decisions without any kind of pressure from the producing side.  Artists like that.  And they come back.

Anne Cattaneo by Sara KrulwichAnne Cattaneo is the dramaturg of Lincoln Center Theater and the creator and head of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors’ Lab.  A three term past president of Literary Mangers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, she is the recipient of LMDA’s first Lessing Award for lifetime achievement of dramaturgy. She has worked widely as a dramaturg on classical plays with directors such as Bartlett Sher, Robert Wilson, Adrian Hall, Jack O’Brien, Robert Falls, Mark Lamos and JoAnne Akalaitis.  As the director of the Playworks Program at the Phoenix Theater during the late 1970′s, she commissioned and developed plays by Wendy Wasserstein (ISN’T IT ROMANTIC) Mustapha Matura (MEETINGS) and Christopher Durang (BEYOND THERAPY). For the Acting Company, she created two projects: ORCHARDS (published by Knopf and Broadway Play Publishing) which presented seven Chekhov stories adapted for the stage by Maria Irene Fornes, Spalding Gray, John Guare, David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein, Michael Weller and Samm-Art Williams, and LOVE’S FIRE (published by William Morrow) responses to Shakespeare sonnets by Eric Bogosian, William Finn, John Guare, Tony Kushner, Marsha Norman, Ntozake Shange and Wendy Wasserstein. Her own translations of 20th Century German playwrights include Brecht’s GALILEO (Goodman Theater 1986 starring Brian Dennehy) and Botho Strauss’ BIG AND LITTLE (Phoenix production starring Barbara Barrie, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) She is currently on the faculty at Juilliard. In July 2011, she was awarded the Margo Jones Medal given annually to a “citizen of the theater who has demonstrated a significant impact, understanding and affirmation of the craft of playwriting, with a lifetime commitment to the encouragement of the living theatre everywhere.”