“Character is like a tree, and a reputation is like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” So said Abraham Lincoln, that American president so lethally intertwined with the realities of the theatre. Defining character is, of course, an essential function of theatre—but it has long since been at the heart of American politics and identity as well.
What is the “American character”? It’s a question that director Michael Donald Edwards has been asking himself since he first arrived in the States from his native Australia in 1978. Now in his eighth year as the producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla., Edwards has been asking that same question of his theatre and of his audiences. The query—and some provocative answers—come via the director’s five-year American Character project, now well underway.
Edwards came to the U.S. to study directing at University of California–Los Angeles and then joined the faculty at University of California–Santa Cruz, where he was eventually tenured as a professor. There he acted as the artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, but his professional directing (and a growing interest in directing opera) convinced him to resign his position. After several years freelancing across the country and back in Australia, he became associate artistic director at New York’s Syracuse Stage. However, it was a brief stay, as an opportunity presented itself to helm Asolo Rep, arguably the largest residential professional theatre south of Atlanta.
History surrounds the Asolo; it is written into the theatre’s name. The company resides on the same grounds as the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, one of the Southeast’s most important art museums, and takes its name from the 18th-century Italian theatre housed in the museum’s collection. Transported from the small city of Asolo, an hour north of Venice, and reconstituted on the museum’s property some 50 years ago, the structure is the only 18th-century theatre in America. Before even visiting the premises, I had shown photographs of the building in my own theatre-history lectures at Florida State University, some five hours north. Asolo Rep continues to perform classical and contemporary plays in the original Historic Asolo Theater, but its main stage is now a renovated 500-seat opera house built in Scotland in 1903 and also transported to Florida. And there’s also a third space, a smaller, 161-seat contemporary stage. Perhaps it is not surprising to find Edwards, another transplant from distant shores, making his home here.
Under Edwards’s stewardship, the Asolo has embraced a wide-ranging ethos. As one of the country’s few operating repertory theatres, Asolo offers weekend visitors four different shows in rep at the height of the spring season. Classics of American drama share the stage with contemporary plays, while occasional premieres are presented back to back with new adaptations of the old. Students from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training (an MFA program under the leadership of Greg Leaming) supplement the professional company and allow the theatre to take on large-scale productions as well as more intimate work. Conversations develop around productions in strikingly novel ways, both intended and unintended.
Some of these serendipitous resonances derive from the particular cast of collaborators that Edwards has assembled during his tenure. This spring, for example, Edwards directs Frank Galati’s Tony-winning adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath at the same time that Galati himself will be directing the Irish playwright Brian Friel’s first great play, Philadelphia, Here I Come!* Former Chicagoan Galati, one of America’s most accomplished directors, was on the faculty at Northwestern University and a regular at the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre Company, but he now makes his home in Sarasota.
Setting the two pieces against each other reveals surprising counterpoints. Steinbeck’s Joad family abandons its dust-choked farm in Oklahoma during the 1930s and heads west for the promised land of California. Friel’s 1964 play, which he wrote after a sojourn at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater, depicts a young Irishman’s last day in the small town he has called home; the next morning, Gar will leave for the West, for an America imagined out of Hollywood dreams and pop songs. In both plays, some vision of the nation rises above the struggle of the everyday and draws the characters out and away. If Steinbeck’s family seeks to hold itself together at all costs—and fails tragically, again and again—for Friel’s Gar, the American dream is a gamble that fractures the family and calls the individual away from the certitudes of his past.
This is all part of Edwards’s ambitious analysis of the American Character. Now beginning its second year, the project amplifies the kind of intertextual thrill sparked by the Rep’s collision of shows and conducts its energy over a much longer duration—the project claims not just a weekend, not just a season, but the span of time in which a history might be articulated. Each play asks the essential question: What does it mean to be American?
The project began last winter with Galati’s revival of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s musical 1776, which opened a week after the contentious reelection of President Barack Obama. That work served as a clear reminder that conflict is rooted in the country’s origins, but it also gave some perspective on the toxic small-mindedness that has consumed our public discourse.
Ken Ludwig’s murder-mystery farce THE GAME’S AFOOT basks in the nostalgic glow of the 1930s and is overstuffed with secret doors, mistaken identities and the twists and turns that are the staples of the genre. Everything works out just fine, and if we’re surprised it is exactly in the way that we expected. When I returned to the theatre the next evening, the play’s mansion interior had been replaced by the committedly realistic living room of Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s hypothetical sequel to Raisin in the Sun. Sitting side by side in the same space—each set taking turns in the wings offstage—all kinds of productive frictions emerged. The faux secrets and dueling egos of Ludwig’s fluff grated against the hard economic and racial conflicts of Norris’s comic drama.
I spent my Sunday at the matinee performance of David Ives’s Venus in Fur, staged in the Historic Asolo. The architecture of the theatre’s past acted as a constant reminder that Ives’s popular play—in which a writer auditions an actress for a part in his adaptation of a work by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (a progenitor of S&M and devoted celebrant of the sexual power of dressing up and tying down)—is about the very nature of theatrical performance. Under Tea Alagic’s pitch-perfect direction, the play began in a stilted manner that had me thinking back to Ludwig with some reluctance, yet it quickly became apparent that this was an intentional prodding of my own desire for realistic characters. With a nod to the seductive theatricality of Jean Genet, the question at the heart of the play became: How do we distinguish which character is the essential one—the role played or the player playing? Is there even a tree behind all this shadow?
It wasn’t just the excellence of the production that lingered with me as I left Sarasota; it was the framing device that set my mind in motion. I would not have thought of Ives’s play as a distinctly American proposition. And yet, what did it mean to conceive of American theatre’s founding spirit not as Dionysus, but as Venus? What was it that prompted this longing for an authentic understanding of character? The three pieces I had seen were perhaps usual suspects on the regional theatre stage, but taken together and oriented by a musical about the founding of this nation, something quite different emerged.
I set out to ask Edwards about his vision for the theatre and for his perspective on the American character.
DANIEL SACK: Tell me about how you found yourself in the theatre.
MICHAEL EDWARDS: Growing up in rural Australia, the most theatrical thing in my childhood was the Mass. I came to the theatre quite late at the age of about 19. I was doing an honors degree in English literature and wanted to be an English professor. I was dragged by a friend to be in the chorus of a student production of a rock version of Lysistrata, where we all got naked at the end of the show. I have never truly recovered. At that time, there was no way to study theatre academically in Australia, and I knew the only way I could grow as a director was by leaving. I went to England, where I had mind-expanding and life-changing artistic experiences. However, I always felt that I was something of a foreigner. I got accepted to graduate school at UCLA in 1978. When I arrived in America, I immediately felt at home.
I studied under Michael Gordon, who had been a founding member of the Group Theatre and had directed many Broadway plays and films, including two uniquely American pieces that capture the incredible span of his career—José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac and Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk. He taught me how to analyze a script and tell a story. He was the one who really introduced me to American theatre.
If the seeds for the American Character project idea were planted long ago, why did you feel like taking it up now?
When you put it that way, I realize the seeds for this project were indeed planted early in my journey in America. Even though much of my career has involved staging Shakespeare and opera (including an eight-season stint as a guest stage director at the Metropolitan Opera), my obsession with American stories has been present subliminally throughout and is now coming to the surface.
When I came here seven years ago to run the Asolo, there were a number of significant challenges. We wanted to address the stability of the organization, to make sense of the physical plans, the scene shop, housing for artists and so on. Thanks to the work of the board and the theatre’s managing director Linda M. DiGabriele—who I think of as my filter of possibility—we are now an $8-million theatre and will be categorized as LORT-B in July of this year. We have 10 incredible apartments for artists to stay in. We have a new production center purchased in 2009 [the Robert and Beverly Koski Production Center] that produces our sets and props and fills orders for theatres around the country.
But I felt compelled to articulate a guiding artistic vision for the company—something larger than the building, larger than a single production. Las Meninas by Lynn Nottage, Brecht’s The Life of Galileo and a bilingual Hamlet with a new translation by Nilo Cruz laid the groundwork for Asolo Rep as an artistically risk-taking company. Each of these productions had a strong impact on our audience. This in turn has encouraged me to continue to challenge them and take them on a journey. However, if there was a single catalyst for framing and articulating the American character as a way of thinking about our programming, it was Frank Galati’s 2011 production of Twelve Angry Men. Frank felt passionately that these 12 men embodied different facets of the American character. It was a breakthrough in my thinking and inspired a great deal of my subsequent programming decisions.
Florida occupies a peculiar place in this country. The election recount of 2000 and the Trayvon Martin case represent the darker side of America. Yet Sarasota stands as a kind of cultural oasis, doesn’t it?
Florida seems a fascinating, unsettling and baffling part of how America presents itself to the world. Michael Grunwald’s extraordinary 2006 book The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise has been revelatory for me. He captures the extent to which unsurpassed beauty exists side by side with degradation and danger. That is the story of Florida. Yes, Sarasota is a cultural oasis. It is a thriving artistic community with one of the highest concentrations of people working in the arts in the United States.
The arts are a way of framing and coping with the issues that consume us—in that way, Florida is an emblem for the entire country.
Just what do you mean by “American character”?
There is no one single answer to that question. Character is a truly resonant word. We speak of a person as having character, we speak of characters in plays and we speak of nations as having characteristics. The American character is, in a sense, nebulous—everyone feels like they can describe it and own it, but the exciting thing is that the American character is constantly being invented, expanded and reimagined. It is our job as Americans to participate in embodying and shaping it. There is a political charge to the idea of the American character, but we cannot give politicians exclusive ownership of it. As theatre artists, we have a personal obligation to ask questions about what it is and where is it going.
America is an idea, and it is constantly evolving through all its civic parts. It is an unfinished project, and that is what’s so utterly thrilling about living here.
So you’re thinking of character as a rediscovery of something we didn’t know that we already knew, or that we knew but couldn’t articulate. Isn’t that the way Freud described the unconscious?
I cannot tell you the number of people who came up to me last year after seeing 1776 and said, “I had no idea that the only way that the Declaration of Independence could be signed was by striking the Emancipation clause.” Benjamin Franklin did say we’re going to condemn future generations to sort out this problem. So really, Frank Galati’s production brought into conscious awareness the profound and painful compromise that was necessary to build the new American nation.
We have continued this work with Show Boat. Our audience responded very deeply to Rob Ruggiero’s brilliant, intimate production. Though it was written in 1927, the show has direct purchase here and now. As this utterly familiar music washes over the audience, they become aware, even if they cannot quite verbalize it, that this is their story. Their collective history is being revealed to them in a new way. It is so moving to witness Kern and Hammerstein’s fusion of African-American and white European music to create this unique form of American musical theatre.
Why did you decide to devote five years to this larger concept?
Confining the project to one year is too limiting—five years gives us the time and space to explore it. It has already become hugely collaborative. The staff, the board, many artists who work here, along with our audience, have embraced the chance to be heard and participate in the journey. It has enlarged our ways of thinking about the work and our capacity to talk about it. The five-year structure of the project demands that our artists think beyond a single show, and it encourages our audiences to come back and see everything that we are doing.
I love that you’re doing revivals of American dramas and musicals, but also staging these very recent plays from the last year or two, putting them up against each other.
Our goal is to have the new work stand up against the best of the past. You are going to see Christopher Durang and Jon Robin Baitz right alongside Brian Friel and John Steinbeck—on the same day, one after another, with the same actors playing different characters that relate to, or perhaps even contradict, each other.
That is essentially what the curatorial vision of this project is doing—providing a center of gravity around which all these plays can orbit.
Exactly right. I love your phrase “center of gravity.” I think the whole institution feels the centering effect of this project. And we are providing a kind of stability in a very unsettled America. All around us there is the toxic noise of the media, the endless babble of cable news, destroying any space for genuine ideas or articulations of true complexity. Our politics are so degraded. Yeats said, “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Our essential job in the theatre is to counteract this.
The theatre allows for genuine conversation, for a rich interplay of nuanced and conflicting ideas. The greatest of our artists in the theatre stretch the boundaries of true empathy. It’s not enough to identify with those who think and feel the way we do. We must be challenged to walk in the other person’s shoes.
I’ll give you an example. I gave Frank Galati 10 plays to read and the one that most excited him was Philadelphia, Here I Come! The play takes place over the course of one day and centers on a young man about to leave Ireland. We are all very interested in how Friel’s play opens up the immigrant story, using the Irish as an emblem for all immigrants and looking at this idea of America that motivates the exile. The connection with Grapes of Wrath is deep on many levels—it’s Frank’s adaptation, for God’s sake! And we are making it felt in the fiber of the production itself; the actor playing Tom Joad is also playing Public Gar.
And both strive for a distant ideal of America that resides in a dream of the West. It’s not an obvious connection, but the intersection shows how the immigrant experience of the Irish parallels the experience of the poor in America—both are treated as second-class citizens.
The rightness of it is being revealed in all the connections people are unpacking for themselves. I have more people coming to me with suggestions for plays than ever before. They all feel it’s about them, about their story. They want to be part of it; they want to see their concerns and issues engaged somehow.
And sometimes we need to revel in the contrariness of our many characters. Last season, Peter Amster’s transcendent production of You Can’t Take It with You was played right next to Carl Forsman’s searing direction of Glengarry Glen Ross. The same actors performed both plays back to back in the same day. One play says, “Money is not what will make you happy. What truly matters is friendship, connection, love.” The other says, “Fuck love, fuck friendship, all that matters is money.”
That’s the story of America, isn’t it? Having our cake and eating it, too. I’m curious whether you think of yourself as an Australian living in America. How has your identity as an immigrant impacted your perception of the national culture and theatre?
Every year I go back to Australia to visit my rather large family, and what becomes clear while I’m there is that I think, talk and act like an American. It is a creative duality that informs so many of my artistic choices. I’m an American, but I have the perspective of the outsider. I don’t take America for granted.
Carey Perloff [of American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco] is a dear friend and colleague. She loved 1776 last year and took the production to ACT. She finds my obsession with America fascinating and somewhat amusing. Bill Rauch, the artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has been a stimulating person to talk to for so many reasons, but especially since he’s producing an American History project, commissioning new plays in response to the Shakespeare history plays. He loves this American Character project and feels it directly resonates with what they are doing in Oregon.
What’s going to happen when this five-year project is over? Is there a Global Character project on the horizon?
We are just beginning. I honestly believe this project will organically lead to some new ideas from some new young artist. We want to make Asolo Rep an irresistible creative home for young talent. They are going to tell us where it has to go.
Arts reporter Daniel Sack writes frequently for this magazine and teaches theatre at Florida State University.
*In January it emerged that Galati’s production had taken liberties with Friel’s original script without the playwright’s permission, and the play has since been restaged in accordance with the writer’s original intent. Said Edwards, in a statement to American Theatre:
Asolo Repertory Theatre, in full cooperation with Mr. Friel’s and Samuel French’s requests, has restored the full text of Philadelphia, Here I Come! The company is currently in rehearsal and is seizing the exciting artistic opportunity to re-explore Mr. Friel’s exquisite play. We look forward to having Philadelphia, Here I Come! back on our stage on February 4, and continue playing in repertory until April 12th.