Peter Zeisler began his career as a Broadway stage manager and theatre administrator. With Oliver Rea and Sir Tyrone Guthrie, he founded the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis, which opened to great fanfare in 1963. Prior to his 23-year stint as executive director of TCG—from 1972 to 1995—he was co-president of the TCG board (with Nina Vance, 1968-71, and then Arvin Brown, 1972).
I was born in New York City. My grandmother was a concert pianist, and when she’d teach concert tours in Europe, some of the time we went with her. As a boy I used to go to plays by myself. My parents didn’t dissuade me. The only thing my father said was, “For God’s sakes, don’t be a lawyer,” because he was one. He didn’t care what I did as long as I wasn’t a lawyer.
My mother used to give me a dollar on a Saturday morning, and I would go out for the day. I would spend 25 cents for lunch—which was a Nedick’s hot dog, orange juice and a donut. The subway was a nickel. I would go to Gray’s Drugstore at 43rd Street where they had cut-rate tickets for 55 cents. This was long before the TKTS booth, and I would buy a matinee ticket. I went every Saturday.
I was in school plays, but I never studied theatre—I studied economics. Big mistake. That’s what drove me into the arms of theatre. I spent my sophomore year in college, before I went off to the war, at a stock company in Providence, R. I., with a marvelous man named Francis Fergusson, who was head of the drama department at Bennington College. Brilliant man. We ran a winter stock season there.
During the war, I was the intelligence non-com for a dear, sweet, cuddly man named General George S. Patton. I loved him so much that when I was back, after the war, I was working the night shift at Scarff’s on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street, and I would always pick the Times before I went home. I lived on 145th Street. One morning there was this marvelous headline that George Patton had been killed in an automobile—an Army truck had rammed his jeep. So I got home and I wrote this brilliant letter to the New York Times suggesting that the driver of the truck be given a Congressional Medal of Honor for conduct above and beyond the call of duty. Two days later, the FBI was at my door.
I had that opinion for a number of reasons. My favorite was that I was his supposed intelligence non-com and we were billeted in this enormous barn in France as big as a football field. My desk was twenty feet from him. Every morning he would say to his hermaphrodite chief of staff, “Get the Jew sergeant up here.” Then it would be “Sergeant Zeisler reporting to the commanding officer, sir.”
After about two weeks of this, I got pretty bored, so one day I said, “Jewish sergeant reporting to the Aryan general, sir.” I was court-martialed.
Another time I got into trouble, I was marching this platoon along the road in North Cantwood, Texas, where you never saw a black soldier because they’re always at the other end of the camp. I was a corporal at that time, and you take the salute for the platoon as they’re marching along. We’re waddling down the street, and at the top of the road there’s this black colonel. Oh, my God, I hadn’t seen a black sergeant, let alone a black officer, but he was a doctor, and I gave the only decent salute I ever gave in the Army. I got back to my barracks, and I was called in for the company commander who wanted to know, “Why I was saluting a nigger?” I said, “Well, I was told in the Army you salute the uniform and not the man.” “We don’t salute niggers in Texas.” And I was broken to a private.
I remember when we were parachuted into France and we were supposed to make contact with the Belgian underground. We weren’t allowed to have maps. So we had this astronomy course, but it bored me, and I didn’t really pay any attention to it. Lo and behold, a few months later, for reasons unbeknownst to mankind, they made me the platoon leader. Well, we could only travel at night. We would hole up in a farmhouse, and we walked only by night for about two weeks, and suddenly I saw a road sign. It was not in any alphabet I knew. It turned out we were on the border of Czechoslovakia. I had walked for two weeks in the wrong direction, by which time I was declared missing in action. I crept back to France, I made it to Belgium. By this time the Belgian underground had given up on me. For reasons I’ll never know, I wasn’t court-martialed. It was my sense of direction. To this day I have none.
At a later time I ended up in a camp. I was in civilian clothes and I had a Dutch passport. I was shot by a 10-year-old kid and put in a concentration camp—a little playground they called Dachau. They never found out I was an American, because I was bilingual in German. They didn’t know I was an American. They didn’t know I was Jewish. I wouldn’t be here if they had. When the war ended, the Americans took over and liberated me.
The Refuge of Theatre
After the war, I went back and finished at Columbia. My first job was the Barter Theatre of Virginia, where I spent two summers. Then I came back to New York and tried to get a job. By some lucky fluke, I heard of a theatre company that was being started by radio actors down in the Village. They were building a theatre called New Stages, which later became Circle in the Square Downtown. I built that bloody stage myself.
The first play we did turned out to be an enormous hit, The Respectful Prostitute, by Jean-Paul Sartre, and it moved to Broadway. We did a road company to Chicago where the archbishop tried to close us down, because Sartre was on the Index, and he succeeded. Chicago is very tough on the fire laws because of a fire there in the First War. The set was a big scrim and the fire marshal comes along with a blowtorch and points it right at the scrim and says, “Is this fireproof?” Of course, it destroyed the scrim and we couldn’t open. It was at the theatre which was torn down to make way for the new Goodman Theatre—the Harris Theatre.
I became a production stage manager on Broadway at age 26. I did 20-22 Broadway shows. In 1950. it was the middle of the [Senator Joseph] McCarthy silliness. I was in a play called Affairs of State at the Royale Theatre. The Royale, the Majestic, the Golden, all share this common alleyway. South Pacific was at the Majestic right next door. The stage manager at South Pacific was a friend of mine, and very often, particularly on matinee days, we would all stand in the alleyway getting what little sun there was. One day, Jules said, “Did you get this telegram to put on the call board about the Hollywood Ten going to be at the Diplomat Theatre tonight inviting all the theatre companies to come?” “I said, “No, I didn’t.” He said, “Well, I got it, I put it on the board.” I got back to my theatre and it had just arrived, informing my company of the meeting.
I put it on the call board, and my company manager, who had been very busy picketing Judy Holiday’s movie outside the movie theatre two blocks away on behalf of Catholic war veterans, instructed me to take down the telegram. I said, “I’m not going to take it down. I’m not telling them to go, but I think they have a right to know.” What I didn’t tell him was that if they didn’t go, I’d break their arms. This was on a Saturday, and on Monday I was given two weeks’ notice. That effectively blackballed me. I did not work for a year and a half.
The one show that was dearest to my heart was the original production of Candide, which was really like running the United Nations. It was directed by Tony Guthrie, sets by Oliver Smith, book by Lillian Hellman, music by Lenny Bernstein, costumes by Irene Sharaff. It just went on and on and on. Absolutely top-drawer. We get to Boston on the tryout and we know we’re still in trouble, largely because Tony has directed a farce and Lillian, dear Lillian, who had never done a musical before, was trying to do Ibsen. The two just didn’t mesh.
There’s a scene in Candide of an auto-da-fe taking place in Spain during the Inquisition. Tony had directed a pretty gruesome scene. Just after the last preview, I get word from Cardinal Cushing, the guy that married the Kennedys, that he would like to talk to us and would we come to his monkery the next day. I knew obviously why he wanted to see us, and we walk in, and the first thing he has to say is, “How do you like playing at the Colonial Theatre?” Which is the preeminent Boston musical theatre. It’s also the oldest theatre. It’s absolutely jewel. We said we loved it. He said, “You know, it’s very old.” “Yes.” “I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but there are fire hazards in that theatre.” We said, “Oh, we didn’t know that,” because a play had just left the theatre and another one was following us, so I didn’t know how serious these fire violations could be.
Then he allowed that the auto-da-fe scene really had to be toned down. It was sacrilegious and it was vulgar. Tony said he would think about it. Going back in the cab, he and Lenny are thinking of ways that they can make the scene worse. They asked me, “Can you find five pudgy eight-year-old boys by tomorrow that we can get to run across the stage naked followed by monks?” At which point, Lillian Hellman, this great libertarian, blows her stack. She’s in the front seat of the cab. She said, “I’ve waited 10 years for a hit. Don’t play around. We’re going to tone down the scene. I want a hit.” So much for political convictions. We didn’t tone it down.
Before opening night in New York, in the middle of the Boston run, we went to this not very bright young lady producer, saying we needed more time out of town before we came to New York. She said, “We can’t do it.” Now, when Tyrone Guthrie, Lenny Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, say to a producer, “We need more time,” you damn well get it. She would not give it to us. So we knew the play would not work. Opening night, I’m standing in the back of the Martin Beck Theatre with Tony, and I was pretty disgusted. He said, “You know, I don’t think I want to work in New York anymore.
I said, “No, I don’t think I want to either.” He said, “Well, think about what you want to do and write me.” Six months later, he went to Ireland. He told me to call him, so I did. Mrs. O’Brien, who was the postmistress, was also the telephone operator, answered, and the operator in New York said, “I have a call from New York for Tyrone Guthrie.” “Oh,” she said, “nonsense,” and hung up. She didn’t believe anybody would have called him from New York. I finally got through to Tony. He invited me to come over. I had an idea, which I’m still sorry we never did. I wanted a transatlantic company. I wanted a company half English and half American, and we’d play six months in New York and six months in London. But he hated London and didn’t like New York very much, so he said no to the idea. He said, “Why don’t we do a theatre outside of New York?” And that’s when the Guthrie was born.
Founding the Guthrie
The three of us—Tony [Guthrie], myself and Oliver Rea—wanted to start a theatre. We didn’t want the East Coast, because we didn’t want the New York critics comparing us to commercial theatre. Brooks Atkinson, the revered drama critic at The New York Times (I wish we had him back), had just done a tour of the United States looking at theatre, and we had lunch with him, told him what we wanted to do. Where did he think we should start this theatre? Brooks, who was the most modest man in the world, said, “I can’t tell you where to go. But I do a weekly column on Fridays, and I’ll put it in the column that you’re planning to start this theatre, and we’ll see what happens.” Well, he did that, and within 10 days we had responses from about 15 cities, all wanting to talk to us about starting a theatre.
I wanted the theatre to be in San Francisco, because I love the city. We went out to San Francisco and the mayor, who was a cretin by the name of Christopher, was convinced that Tony was an Irish liquor salesman. All through the interview Christopher kept saying how much he liked Irish whiskey. We didn’t go to San Francisco, but actually four years later we went to Minneapolis and opened with considerable success. San Francisco realized they had blown it, and that’s when they invited the old ball to come from Pittsburgh with ACT to San Francisco.
They had a strong intellectual and artistic history in Minneapolis. We did some research and found out that there were more subscriptions to Harper’s magazine and The Atlantic Monthly in Minneapolis per capita than any other city in the country—this was 1960. They had a good second-echelon symphony; they had a very good regional art museum. It’s a strong Scandinavian community with a great respect for the arts and a great respect for learning. Most important of all, there were ten 35-40-year-old men who desperately wanted the theatre there and made a commitment that they would stick with us and raise the money. All the other cities, these elderly potash walked in the room and we knew they’d write the check and we’d never see them again. We were all smitten by Minneapolis, but none of us had gone through a winter there, so we didn’t know.
We wanted a classical repertory theatre. New plays were being done in other theatres, but nobody was doing the classics. We also wanted an open stage, which was really unheard of in this country. There had been one at the Stratford Festival in Canada but none in this country. We wanted a stage that was going to rely not on scenery but on costumes and lighting to do the scene changes. Finally, we wanted to prove that we could do highly professional work outside of New York—that you didn’t have to go to New York, that you could do it locally.
The actors were not hard to get because of [Tony] Guthrie. Actually, Hume Cronyn called me and said would we be interested in he and Jessie [Tandy] coming out for that first season. They all wanted to work with Guthrie. The technical staff was much harder to get. We got some from New York. There were three of us. Tony directed at least two of the four plays a season. He was really the deciding factor on the repertoire. I was in charge of all production elements. I did the casting, I oversaw the shops. Oliver did the front-of-house stuff. I did everything back of the proscenium, except we didn’t have a proscenium. Oliver did the publicity.
At the end of the first season, we had gotten a considerable amount of publicity. When we opened we were on the front page of The New York Times. That week’s Life magazine said, “Miracle in Minneapolis.” You had to be blind not to know this theatre had opened. I was walking down Madison Avenue and I bumped into Leland Hayward, the preeminent New York producer and my ex-boss. “Hi, Peter. How are you? Say, how’s that summer-stock theatre? Where is it, Milwaukee? Indianapolis? Where’d you say it was?” That’s how provincial New York was.
The classic repertoire was really a great unknown to American actors. When we started the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, in ’55, I interviewed over a thousand actors in New York for that first season. My first question was, “What was the last Shakespeare play you’ve done professionally?” None of them had ever done Shakespeare professionally. A few had worked at the Old Globe in San Diego, but otherwise they hadn’t done any Shakespeare since college. You can’t scratch an actor now who hasn’t done Shakespeare any number of times. There’s a total change.
Once the Guthrie and a few other theatres started to examine the classic repertoire, actor training changed radically in this country. Before that, actor training consisted of learning how to sit on a sofa and hold a martini glass. There was no voice work, no movement work. It was all realistic modern drama. Suddenly, enormous physical demands were being made on actors. Suddenly it became necessary to have voice work and movement work in the training programs that there’d never been before. The not-for-profit theatre really started at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the Alley Theatre in Houston. But the Guthrie was the first large company. We played in rotating rep, which nobody else did; we had 47 Equity actors, unheard of in this country; and we were doing work at a very high technical level. We had designs by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, one of the premier designers in the world. That, I think, demonstrated that you didn’t have to be on 44th Street.
What was it like getting the community on board? Well, we did coffees over a five-state area, meetings, to explain what the theatre was and to hopefully get them to subscribe. It was very, very hard work. We had a number of obstacles. In the first place, we were building an open stage, which nobody had worked on before. It was very hard for actors to get used to it. I remember explaining to Hume Cronyn when he was still in New York that it was really going to be very hard work, and he looked at me very condescendingly, as if, “You know, Peter, I am a professional actor. Don’t worry about it.” At the first dress rehearsal of The Miser, he turned to me and he said, “You told me it was going to be hard work. You didn’t tell me it was this hard.” Because on the open stage you have to project really 180 degrees, and it’s very hard for actors. It takes enormous concentration.
I stayed at the Guthrie for nine years. I outlived everybody else. Tony had left. Oliver had left. I was getting pretty tired. Also, it became increasingly evident that the actors really did not want a company. They did not want to commit to staying in Minneapolis. They’d come for a few shows, maybe even the season, but my idea of a permanent company was not going to work. I didn’t want to do show-by-show producing. I felt it was time to leave.
On Diversity in the Theatre
I’m dismayed because I don’t think we’ve gotten very far. This is now April of 2001. If you pick up the New York Times this week, you can see about the riots in Cincinnati. Good God, it’s the same thing we went through in ’63. Nothing has changed. We have a black Secretary of State, so we think everything is all right. Nothing’s changed; it’s just tokenism.
In the first year at the Guthrie, we had an Afro-American Horatio in Hamlet. I think the total black population of Minneapolis in 1963 was fourteen people. Nobody could understand how we could have a black Horatio. We could have half the cast of Hamlet black now in Minneapolis and nobody would think anything of it. In that sense, progress has been made. We now have many more actors of color than we did then. One of my terrible stories was a young actress, who should be nameless, who I brought to Minneapolis in 1965. I talked to her in New York about coming out there, I warned her that this was a very white city, she was not going to see any black people on the streets. Was that going to bother her? She said, “No.” She stayed with me for four years. She was an uncommonly good actress. A few years later I talked to her. She came back to New York and could not get work in white companies because she was black. Couldn’t get work in black companies because she talked English, white English. The terrible schizophrenia.
The world now is full of very good African American, Chinese, Japanese actors of all ethnicity, but there’s still a…it’s still we/they. You don’t see many. You don’t see artistic directors of theatres who are black. One, maybe two.
The Birth of TCG
TCG was started in 1961 due to one man, W. McNeil Lowry, who was vice president at the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation, in 1957 or ’58, had made a statement that there were going to be five areas of concentration for the Foundation in the coming years, and one of the five was the arts and culture. Well, my God, nobody had ever said the arts were important in this country before, and suddenly the Ford Foundation, then the biggest foundation in the world, was saying this was one of their priorities.
A very funny thing happened. Suddenly Lowry was deluged with applications. Everybody was going to start a not-for-profit, because that was going to be supported by the Ford Foundation. He realized very soon that his little staff really couldn’t handle all this, and he came up with this brilliant idea of starting an organization to be run by members of the profession that would set priorities and weed out the incompetents, and that way hasten the development of not-for-profit theatre. And he gave a three-year grant to start Theatre Communications Group. The Ford Foundation was the sole supporter of TCG for 10 years.
Mac called me into his office and said, “You know, we can’t keep funding TCG forever. If you want us to continue participation, you’d better write a proposal to me.” So I went home and I wrote this brilliant proposal about why it was important, blah, blah, blah, and I gave it to Mac, and he liked it. I said, “Now, Mac, all you’ve got to do is find somebody to run the goddamn place.” Mac said, “I’ll only fund it if you’ll run it.” So I had really dug my own coffin. So I went there in 1971, together with Lindy Zesch, whom I stole from the National Endowment for the Arts.
A very interesting thing happened in the ’50s and the beginning of the’60s, sociological, really. After the war, cities throughout the country were really tired of relying on the Northeast to provide them with culture, and they wanted their own. At the same time, remember that in 1950 there was no professional baseball team west of St. Louis. There was no football team west of, I don’t know where. Suddenly, to be big league, all these cities had to have their own, and among the things they had to have was a professional theatre. That was the mark of a big-league town. Look magazine had a series of most little cities in America, which were the big-league cities, and to be a big-league city you had to have a baseball team, you had to have a professional theatre. They all had symphonies, so that didn’t count. That really started the not-for-profit theatre. Then, a few years later when the NEA started, the government started to recognize theatres, not really support them, but recognize them—that really changed the landscape.
When I first took over as president of TCG in 1971, it was really a club of 16 white theatres. It was a very small club. It did not reflect the diversity of the theatre, either color or anything else. I formed five panels to meet and try to find common denominators. There was a resident theatre panel, a black theatre panel (there were no other minorities that had theatre at that time), an experimental theatre panel, a professional training panel, I can’t remember the fifth. So it goes back to that far.
We also pushed for play publication. We saw it as essential, as commercial publishers were not doing plays so it was harder for playwrights to get published. It’s a common misunderstanding in America—that plays are not literature—and we wanted to rectify that. We were trying to get widespread circulation of plays as literature, not as plays, and also as a way of helping playwrights. We hoped it would be a kind of sensibility—raising where theatre would be thought of as a serious art form. We started doing general theatre books, books on design, books on criticism. It’s not only become a very important revenue stream for us, but I think it did help the profession.
The magazine was originally a four-six page mimeographed thing, but we outgrew ourselves. We started the magazine as a way, hopefully, of making the general public aware of the theatre as an art form and not just about show business. I don’t know how well we had succeeded with that. I know that everybody in the theatre reads American Theatre. I don’t know how many people not in the theatre read the magazine. I have no way of knowing. You can get it at the newsstands now. I tried very hard to get it as a course adoption in drama schools, but was singularly unsuccessful. It seems to me, for anybody in a drama school, that should be required reading.
You’ve got to remember that TCG always has to walk a very narrow line. We can’t preach and we can’t dictate. All we can do is offer alternatives. By 1985, the theatres were pretty well established in their communities. The administrative and the building, the institutional building, was pretty well completed. It had been done, really, at the expense of the artistic advancement, because it had all gone to the institution up until that point, most of it. The Artistic Agenda Project was trying to do something about equating the balance, and we had meetings all over the country for artistic directors to talk amongst themselves. It was important that they be isolated from their trustees or their staff, just the artists themselves talking about what their priorities were and what their problems were, in the hopes that we could start programs that would assist them.
Out of that came a book called The Artistic Home, which was really a response to trustees saying to us over and over again, “Just tell us what you need. Nobody tells us what you need.” Well, this book was a compilation of those meetings and it was written by Todd London and it was edited by Lindy Zesch and it had, I think, a very serious effect. It did make trustees see what was needed and hadn’t been provided before. It also helped foundations establish priorities.
Marian Godfrey, who was the arts director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, read The Artistic Home. As a result of that, she invited us to make a proposal, which was the National Theatre Artist Residency Program, which is still going to this day, but with money from Pew. It’s a program which brings individual artists together with institutions over an extended period of time. Once the theatres gave up on companies—which to me is the big tragedy of a not-for-profit theatre—then there was very little ongoing influence of artists on the institution. They weren’t there long enough. We were trying to address that problem by making it possible for artists to make extended commitments to institutions.
For instance, when we started the Guthrie, partly because of working in rotating repertory, but also because of my insistence, designers had to be there for the entire rehearsal period. Designers balked like hell at this, because they didn’t want to stay that long. They had other projects they wanted to do. If you’re going to make a commitment to the theatre, you have to understand the theatre. You have to understand the company. Well, by the end of the second year, they were all committed to this, but it was a new process for them. They weren’t used to being part of the institutional fabric.
Aside from retiring from TCG, I guess the greatest achievement was getting everybody talking. The experimental theatre people began to talk to the resident theatre people. The resident theatre people began to talk to the minority theatre people. Playwrights and designers began not to feel so hostile toward the institutions. I think we started a dialogue. On the other hand, I wish we had broken more racial barriers. I wish that somehow we had been more effective with the government in the matter of artistic governance, artistic policy. Unfortunately, with the present administration, that now is just an idle dream. But I hope before I die I see some administration that thinks the arts are important.
Funding for the Arts
Ironically, the highest level of funding that the National Endowment of the Arts ever received was during the presidency of my great and good friend Richard M. Nixon, and that was only because he thought he found a cheap way of getting the liberals off his back. If he funded the arts, maybe they’d leave him alone. No, we didn’t leave him alone. But after him, the funding went down and down and down, until now it’s virtually nonexistent.
Did the Kennedy administration give money to the arts? Well, the Kennedy administration created a kind of aura in Washington, an aura nationally about the importance of the arts. Pablo Casals played at the White House. It wasn’t that they gave us so much money, it’s just that they were very supportive. Congress was not very helpful. There was this one fantastic congressmen, Sidney Yates from Chicago, who was our champion for 20-odd years. Every time one of those no-neck monster Republican congressmen would try to close the agency, Sid Yates somehow would pull us out of the fire. Unfortunately, he died a year and a half ago.
Certainly in the present political environment with this Bush or his father before him, neither of them, I think, have ever been in theatre in their lives. I don’t see any immediate hope for increased government support, unless they want something. But I don’t think they’re going to want it bad enough.
The thesis sometimes presented is that when the federal government or any kind of place of authority announces that the arts are worthy, it sets a tone. Conversely, when they don’t say the arts are important, which this administration is certainly doing, the private sector has a perfect reason not to support it. When the government doesn’t support it, why should they? After all, corporations are not in business to support the arts. Corporations are in business to make money. A few of them historically have been quite extraordinary to the arts, like Dayton Hudson in Minneapolis who pledged five percent of their profits to the arts. But that’s very, very few.
The NEA during the ’80s made me sick to my stomach and then finally very angry. What happened when private foundation money started to shrink—only because the private foundations had other priorities—theatres, all art forms were more dependent upon the Endowment. At that same time the Endowment’s income started to shrink. What happened was that all the art forms started to lobby individually, and since we were the only service organization not in Washington, we were at a distinct disadvantage.
The American Symphony Orchestra League, the largest of the not-for-profit service organizations, hired a lobbyist, but only to deal with symphonies. Opera America, which dealt with the opera companies, was about to hire a lobbyist, and I decided to blow the whistle. I called the symphonies, the operas, the dance companies together, and I said, “This is silly. This is going to be civil war, because Congress is going to get very confused when they’re getting different signals from different disciplines. Let’s start an organization where we deal with all of us together.” And we started the American Arts Alliance as a result, to deal with the Capitol, the White House, and the Endowment. It was a time when, despite Sid Yates, the congressman who I mentioned earlier, Congress was becoming increasingly hostile. We were not very successful.
Artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work was considered obscene, had their individual artists’ grants eliminated. I honestly don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg. Whatever it was, it wasn’t Robert Mapplethorpe. He had nothing, he was dead by then. It was an exhibition of his work. But whether it was the NEA Four how much of it was their defiance and how much of it was just poor judgment, but they sort of threw their more radical work in the face of the Endowment, and the Endowment had to respond in some way. I’m not saying I blame them, but I think there were other ways of getting their message across. The Endowment, in their usual magnificent cowardice, just cut them off and started censoring them. It was a terrible, terrible period.
Did they censor individual artists? Yes, because largely out of housekeeping needs, they were spending more time on a grant to an individual than a grant to a company. So they just got rid of the individuals on the grounds that they didn’t have the staff to handle it, which really wasn’t true. Since they handled novelists and poets, they could handle individual artists. They didn’t want to.
TCG objected as mightily as we could. Unfortunately, there was not a uniform action among the five performing arts disciplines. Some of them were too afraid that their own grants were going to get cut to stand up. But I must say that TCG board was marvelous in backing me and letting me scream my head off. I don’t think it did any good, but they knew that we were pretty prickly.
The State of Theatre Today
I worry a little about the state of artistic growth today. I think that many theatres are operating “slightly pregnant”—they’re hiding behind a not-for-profit rubric, but they’re really doing commercial work. I see less and less involvement on the part of many theatres toward their communities or toward the vision of their artistic director; instead they’re making decisions based on the absence of funding. They are trying to develop work that they think is going to transfer to New York and make a bundle. The not-for-profit theatre started as an alternative to the commercial theatre. I’m beginning to think pretty soon we may have to start something as an alternative to the not-for-profit.
I think in the past five or six years the financial problems of the theatre have become much greater. I also think there has been a lessening of commitment on the part of the artists towards these theatres. I told you earlier that one of the main reasons I left the Guthrie was that the actors demonstrably did not want a company. They didn’t want to stay in Minneapolis. More and more I don’t think actors want to make a commitment to the theatre; they want to make a commitment to fame. They want film or television, and they’ll work in the theatre when they can, but it’s not all that important to them. There are not that many actors anymore who will work exclusively in the theatre and who are really committed to the theatre. After all, when your government doesn’t honor you, when your status in society is not particularly elevated, why in God’s name should you do otherwise? It’s a societal problem. I had the great good fortune of living in England twice over an extended period of time, and there actors could appear in a play on the West End at night and shoot films and shepherd them during the day. There wasn’t that damn 3,000 miles between, where you have to do one or the other. You could do both.
I would urge young people to get a good humanistic background before they start to specialize in theatre. It’s not a kinetic art form in the sense that dance or music is; those are disciplines you have to start at age six. But you have to have a mind before you can start to be an actor, and I think that takes a kind of maturity. I would love to see actors go through college, then start theatre. You’d end up with an awful lot of middle-aged Juliets, but I’d rather have that than what we have now. The focus has changed. I’m shocked to see that in two or three of the most prestigious acting schools now they give courses in how to do auditions. They give courses on how to do commercials. In other words, the focus is no longer just on the theatre; the focus is on entertainment. That’s being slightly pregnant.
Bob Brustein asked me to teach at Yale. I had never taught before, and to my amazement I loved it. I liked it very much. I taught management. Outside of Barbara Hauptman, who’s now head of the Directors Guild here in New York, not many of them stayed with the profession. One of them is a big rock producer, John Sher, but not many of them stayed.
I was lucky enough to have a Fulbright scholarship to England in the ’50s. I got to know the Peters—Brook and Hall—very well. Peter Hall invited me—I had just finished at Stratford, Connecticut, and he knew that, and he invited me to come down to Stratford, England. They were going to have a weekend retreat for the directors, and did I want to join them and talk about the next season. I really didn’t want to do this, because I didn’t want to hear, “We’ve got to find a part for Eddie,” or, “Jamie is pissed off about the part she had last year.” And I said, “No.” And he really pushed me into coming.
It was an absolutely extraordinary weekend. It started off—this was eight of the directors of the Royal Shakespeare at the time—with Peter asking what was the most important thing that happened in England in the past year. And there was the discussion of political, economic, social conditions that had occurred on a very perceptive level, not just headlines. The next morning he asked the same about Europe. That afternoon, he asked everyone to discuss what arts events in the past year had influenced them. And it was into the third day before they started talking about what plays they were going to do next year, what was relevant to do.
It all presupposed an enormous intellectual knowledge on the part of these directors, which they had, because you don’t study theatre at Oxford, you study literature, you study philosophy. There’s no theatre department. You don’t learn that up-left is the weak entrance, but you learn how to think and you learn how to synthesize and that’s why they’re good directors. Unfortunately, I find here more and more you learn that up-left is a weak entrance.
How will the theatre react to the cyber age? I hope not at all. I think one of the great mistakes the American theatre made was to end its political influence. It gave it up in favor of CNN. Remember that in the ’30s and ’40s it was the theatre which was the social force of the society. Unfortunately, along came television, which could in twenty-four hours take that away from the theatre, and the theatre stopped being the voice of the world. We’ve got to get back to that. The theatre is the only art form that’s going to deal one-on-one. It’s the only art form that can affect a person’s intellect and heart at the same time. It’s that personal connection which makes the theatre exciting, and we tend more and more to forget that.
The marvelous thing about the theatre is that—when I worked on Broadway, I did a number of very long runs, and the only thing that keeps you going in those long runs is that no two performances are ever the same, depending upon the audience. It is the reaction of that audience to actors that will stimulate the actor. That’s what makes an audience excited, is knowing that they are hearing and seeing and feeling this actor who’s 30, 40, 50 feet away from them. It’s the immediacy of it. And you’ll never get that in any other art form.
Everybody knows what a not-for-profit theatre is now. I’m just impatient and I’d hoped that we would have dug deeper than we did dig. But I still have hopes. I mean, you get a playwright like Edward Albee, which everybody wrote off ten years ago, and you see his rededication, there’s a phoenix. I think theatre is ready for a rebirth.