How does one celebrate as major a force in the American theatre as Alan Schneider? There is simply too much to say. Alan was, as the French say, an homme du theâtre. The theatre was his passion. Rather than serving as a stepping stone, it engaged him totally. Besides his seminal work with Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee, he often directed the plays of Thornton Wilder and in the process acquired some of Dolly Levi’s matchmaking skills and her tenacity. He used them tirelessly to produce work of new and important playwrights, because he relished the challenge of “unexplored territory.” Like a blacksmith, he forged work into happening over and over again.
Alan was a colossus who strode through all worlds of the theatre. While he achieved worldwide fame as the director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway, he continually returned to the nonprofit theatre to do much of his work. In addition, his commitment to teaching took him from Catholic University to Juilliard to the University of California at San Diego, and he was to have assumed new teaching duties at Columbia University this fall.
He never stopped working. He was responsible for more than 100 productions in the American theatre, including more than 40 at Arena Stage. He had fruitful associations with many of our leading theatres and was co-artistic director of The Acting Company when he died. He was winner of both Tony and Obie awards, and the list of his landmark productions is extraordinary. In addition to the American premieres of plays by Beckett and Albee, he directed Preston Jones’ Texas Trilogy, Michael Weller’s Moonchildren and Loose Ends, and he introduced American audiences to Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and The Collection, as well as Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. His production of Our Town for Arena Stage toured the Soviet Union. His acclaimed Beckett Festival starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy marked a high point of Jules Irving’s Lincoln Center Repertory Company. This season, he had four productions running in New York alone, and his two evenings of Beckett plays are part of this summer’s Edinburgh Festival schedule.
Alan was my friend for over 35 years. We worked together in the commercial theatre, at the Guthrie, and on countless panels and boards. He believed in a “theatrical community.” He always shared. Helping young directors was very important to him; he engaged a young director to serve as his assistant on each of his projects, and was very proud of those he had been able to help. His sense of sharing—and caring—caused him to be among the founders of Theatre Communications Group. Active in its work for over 20 years, he was its president at the time of his death and a contributing editor to this magazine. In the inaugural issue he said—and it can well stand as his testament:
“That caring minority which still depends on the theatre for at least a portion of its sensuous and emotional sustenance is gradually growing, and will continue to grow—if only the theatre does what it alone can do: make its audiences experience the essential nature of the living of life.
“Along with the rest of our society, the theatre will go the way the world goes, with a bang or a whimper. Presumably, it is still the theatre which can suggest to us, a few minutes ahead of the journalist or the politician, which way that is going to be. The theatre is fundamentally poetry, not prose. And our playwrights are poets who can read the shapes in the sands ahead of the rest of us and form the tremors we don’t even know we’re feeling into sentences and speeches.”
Alan’s extraordinary mind was capable of ranging from the loftiest concerns of mankind to the smallest details of theatrical realization. “Alan stories” are legion. My favorite concerns the pre-Broadway tryout of Robert Anderson’s All Summer Long. Having previously directed the play at Arena Stage, Alan was relentless in striving for perfection as he redirected the play. I was the stage manager of the production and tried valiantly to cope with his eagerness. Naturally, at the first dress rehearsal there were still many problems with Jo Mielziner’s set of the exterior of a riverfront farmhouse in the South. At one particularly trying moment—when nothing was working—Alan scurried up on stage and picked up a handful of pebbles. His frustration at the vagaries of the dress rehearsal were echoed in his question: “Peter, are you sure these pebbles are Southern?”
Alan’s work with new playwrights and avant-garde plays literally changed the face of the contemporary American theatre. He believed in serving the playwright. About directing, he said, “I’m very definite about what I want to do, but at the same time I’m most pleased, in the end, when nobody knows I’ve been there.”
But we do know he’s been here, because he has left behind a legacy that will carry forward into the future of our art form. What he cared about most was the American theatre, and there is virtually no one in the theatre today who has not been touched in some way by his work. It’s up to the rest of us now to carry on his beliefs and his passion for the theatre.
As Hume Cronyn said at Alan’s memorial service, “We owe him.” And we will miss him.
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