Who is Roger Copeland and why is he saying those uncalled-for things about Chekhov?
Whether or not you recognize Copeland’s name, you’ve probably had the opportunity (as an American Theatre reader, a TCG conference attendee or a consumer-at-large of theatre commentary) to react to his arduous, intellectually stimulating and sometimes disconcerting points of view about art and the artists, dead or alive, who make it. Copeland made his debut as an AT essayist in Oct. ’89 with “Imagination After the Fact,” a richly referential defense of theatrical fiction as a kind of rehearsal for the challenges of real life. The phrase “It’s only a play,” that essay implied, is dismissive and inane and ought to be retired. (Sorry, Terrence McNally.)
Copeland also contributed critical profiles of some of his favorite artists—playwright Eric Overmyer (July/Aug. ’87), director/choreographers Martha Clarke (June ’88) and David Gordon (July ’96); and puppet-meister Julie Taymor (Dec. ’10), whose print encounter with Copeland led to a news-making onstage matchup at TCG’s 2011 National Conference in Los Angeles, Taymor’s first public appearance after her tumultuous exit from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. That conversation lit up social media with remarks about the artist’s feistiness and the interviewer’s obtrusively bare ankles.
Copeland kept up his provocative theorizing in “Art Against Art” (July/Aug. ’89), about the visual arts world’s long-standing feud with the theatre; “Don’t Call the Post-Mod Squad” (Nov. ’93, reprinted in 2009 in the American Theatre Reader), about the fallout of the culture wars; and “A Room of His Own” (Oct. ’01), wherein he called for a major reevaluation of Harold Pinter’s career and legacy in British theatre. There’s more Copeland to catalog, but this list has probably jogged your memory—and paved the way for the writer’s long-harbored (if mildly heretical) assertion in this issue that Chekhov, not the Bard, is the dramatist best equipped to connect us to the world we actually live in now. It’s vintage Copeland, which is to say it locates portents for the future in the uncharted nuances of our artistic past.
Should you find Copeland’s thesis a tad speculative or abstract, there’s remedy in Chicago journalist Kris Vire’s hefty lead interview with longtime Goodman Theatre executive director Roche Schulfer. As he surveys four decades of growth and change in America’s theatrical second city, Schulfer acquits himself as a paragon of practicality and equanimity.
Farther along in the issue comes a trove of varied coverage: There’s managing editor Suzy Evans’s revealing Q&A with “accidental director” (and on-purpose actor) David Hyde Pierce; Evans’s group encounter with the creators of the Broadway-bound father-daughter musical Fun Home; and critic Isaac Butler’s analysis of the new anti-realism, cleverly couched in realism’s trappings, wherein this month’s complete play script, Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, earns some well-deserved explication. Never let it be said that American Theatre provides readers with nothing substantial to mull over.