To pay tribute to Alan Schneider’s unique career in the theatre and to share remembrances of him, The Acting Company, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, and Theatre Communications Group hosted a memorial service in his honor on May 22 at Circle in the Square in New York City. Excerpts from the tributes delivered at the service appear on these pages.
W. McNeil Lowry
Former vice president for the humanities and arts, The Ford Foundation
Among countless things, I celebrate Alan Schneider for his mind and for his passion. The bond between us was one of mutual intensity—it was a surprise to him, and ultimately a delight, that there was more than one way to be compulsive about theatre or the other arts.
Pessimism, most of you know, was frequently voiced by Alan, as also by the contemporary playwrights he dwelt most upon. But he let us know that the determination to go on meant even more coming from such a context. In the 40 years I knew him, his sempiternal pessimism about the state of the theatre was totally belied by what he did.
To me Alan Schneider was one of a select few who genuinely enjoyed the honors, the little successes of others. Whatever dogmatism or arrogance he was capable of sprang from his absolute certainty that he knew what an author meant, going by something the rest of us, including the critics, were only guessing at. It was his passion, his restless mind, which denied his years, and now turns some of us into fathers bereft of a son.
Alan was for me teacher, director, mentor, friend. He taught me discipline and professionalism—which started with promptness at rehearsals. I remember during rehearsals of The Country Girl at Arena Stage, I was a minute late getting back from lunch. (I was playing a young director not unlike Alan Schneider.) Alan looked at me. Then he left the theatre, walked a block to the corner, looked up at the clock on the corner, came back and had a tantrum—he really blew his top. He had a script in a spring binder and he threw it—it hit on the spring, and the script flew all over the stage. I was frightened, and put in my place. We finished the rehearsal, and when it was over I apologized for being late, promised it would never happen again, and asked him if I could use that piece of business in the play. He let me steal his piece of business, and even loaned me his trenchcoat to wear for the part.
Alan’s life was the theatre and his family—Jean, Vicki and David, his “islands,” he used to call them. His energy was frightening, his intelligence was awesome, his dedication was ferocious. I am grateful for what he gave me. I lovingly salute his life.
Alan was known as a great believer in the written word, and a great encourager of writers. I can’t count the number of times he called to say, “When are we going to have a new play from you? We’re waiting, Mike.” It’s the “we” part that I loved. It conjured images of some great good theatre world out there waiting breathlessly for your next play. Alan had a way of making it seem to matter that you wrote for the theatre, that your work had a public importance, that you were part of a time and a culture that was listening, and towards which you had an obligation to tell your own kind of truth simply.
This is an odd time we’re in now. Small virtues are held up for emulation, empty triumphs are celebrated. It is difficult to find examples to live by. Alan’s consistently high standards of professionalism and his determination to stand by what he believed to be important represent to me a kind of courage that’s needed more than ever right now.
Tne thing I remember about Alan is his attitude toward injustice, which all of us who work in the theatre have had to face. The first time I ever worked at Arena Stage was, in fact, the first time I’d ever worked in the round—I was used to a proscenium. As any actor who’s ever done this can tell you, it’s rather tormenting at first; you have to open up on every side because the audience is all around you. I was going crazy, and I stopped in the middle of a scene. Alan was way in the back of the theatre, checking the acoustics, and I shouted out, “Who invented theatre in the round?” He shot back, “The Marquis de Sade!” It was as if to say, “Enjoy it, make the most of it.” That was reflective I think of his overall attitude toward injustice.
Artistic director, Yale Repertory Theatre and ONeill National Playwrights Conference
“A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.” Emile Zola wrote that. Alan Schneider was forever presenting me with works of art that had inflamed his passion and aroused his volatile creativity.
Yet I experienced him most often in square rooms across long or short tables, where the concerned and the knowledgable meet to share information about theatre art and theatre artists of the world, and to urge—no, with Alan it was demand—that those who should pay attention do so, and that those who can, give time or money or acknowledgement to assure artist maintenance, and to assure that artistry is shared. Such rooms are “give-back rooms,” where those who care enough give of themselves to ensure that art flourishes. While the world knows him best for the many plays he directed in all parts of the world, I know him best for the dynamic of care and concern that he engendered in those back rooms.
Alan had a nose for the new, a compulsion to experience it, and a generosity that would not permit him to rest till he had shared his discovery with us all. Whenever I found myself in some remote, unlikely corner of the world, looking at a newly discovered theatrical presentation, I found myself looking around for Alan. He was usually there, or was coming—most often he had already been there. And most certainly you would hear of that person or event at the next meeting, or encounter that work in another part of the world, often directed by Alan Schneider.
I seldom saw Alan when he didn’t ask me about training. One of the things I admired most about him was his sense of himself as a link in a chain: the whole chain was no stronger than he, the theatre was no more capable than he; he had to be excellent or the whole was damaged.
Harold Clurman said, “Let us all become artists unto ourselves. Let us think of ourselves as works of art.” It is a prescription to heal many wounds. Alan’s life was a work of art: all the many bits formed a beautiful mosaic of a man linked to the past and reaching out with every fiber of his being to experience the Now, while demonstrating to the younger the tools which will shape the future for us all.
Alan was a doer and a mover and a shaker, a man of enormous courage. We owe him.
A few nights ago, attending a revue called Paris Lights at the American Place Theatre, I heard this bit of convoluted poetic sentiment: “I would rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.” Alan, I think, would have made a lousy dancing master—in that ridiculous baseball cap, those space shoes, his glasses, with that glare of fierce intellectual intensity, he would not have cut a graceful figure. But he heard some rare birds sing. And he interpreted those songs for clods like you and me. We owe him.
Alan, I’ll buy the next round. And now that you’re in, I hope the water’s fine.
It’ll be fun to join you, after a while.
Alan loved words. He thought the words of a playwright were sacred. He didn’t believe in abusing words by adding your own. When I played Kattrin in Mother Courage, he told me not to beat the drum on the actors’ lines—he wanted those words to be heard. And he also told them to try not to speak while I beat the drum because those were Brecht’s words, too.
He believed in large choices, in the importance of the language of the body. When I was working with him on Antigone, and as Jo in The Lady from Dubuque and as Kattrin, each of those characters had to have her own physical as well as verbal language. The choices had to be clean, and concise, and large, with no apologies for them. Sometimes I was able to get a note from him that said, “You got it right, for the first time.”
Producing director, Arena Stage
“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” That was spoken by Alec Guiness as Richard Ill, opening the Stratford Ontario Festival Tent in the summer of ’53. As we sat in the audience together, Alan squeezed my hand. He took such childlike delight in the achievements of others, such joy when someone, anyone, anywhere, could make it happen.
He squeezed my hand the same way when he came to see Candide at Arena last June and bee-lined around the building, peeking into all the spaces to see what was going on. He took such joy in it all.
It was the joy, I think, that made him sleep well at night after what might have been the ravages of the day that kept the rest of us awake. Alan’s demons always went obediently to sleep at the appointed hour, calmed I think by the pleasure of knowing they had served a good cause and deserved the rest.
We opened two theatres together—both times it was a race to get the building there ahead of the production—did 40 productions together, turned Our Town into Russian in a two-day, non-stop session for simultaneous translation at the Moscow Art, scurried around Moscow and Leningrad with a group of 71 people and a monkey from Inherit the Wind, did victorious battle with Madame Furtseva, then Minister of Culture, to open up additional performances for theatre people who had been unable to get tickets, heard and made speeches, saw reporters, went on television, went to late parties and sang and danced—and Alan was the only one who was never tired. He was endlessly frustrated, endlessly dissatisfied with the resistances, large and small, of that universe—but the boundless joy in it all kept him from fatigue. I envied and loved him for that limitless creative energy.
Last year at the first public dress rehearsal of the Beckett plays, a light cue went wrong and he stopped the rehearsal and spoke to the audience. “I’m going to stop and get this right. I hope you’ll stay with me.” He was irritated—his eyes flashed and his nostrils flared and he crushed his cap in his hands—but he was also affectionate and teasing and present with every bit of himself. And he was going to stick with it until it was the way it damn well ought to be.
In an unremitting battle with Murphy’s law, that if something can go wrong it does, Alan made things in the theatre the way they ought to be more times than anyone I have ever known. People think this is about something called “standards,” but it is really about the man himself. Alan raised our national theatrical standards not out of any abstractions of “professionalism,” or richer is better, famous is better, more is better, but out of what he believed in and what he saw. Wherever he worked—a school, a resident theatre, Off Broadway, on Broadway—he had but one aim: to uncover the vision living inside the play by the most vivid theatrical means available, so that others could see it with him.
“Oh oh oh six o’clock and the master not home yet, pray God nothing happened to him crossing the Hudson River, if anything happened to him, we would certainly be inconsolable and have to move into a less desirable residence district.” That was Frances Sternhagen, a glorious Sabina in the 1952 production of Skin of Our Teeth at Catholic University. Franny told me later that Alan suggested she play the opening monologue like someone going down a steep hill on a bicycle with no hands—and no brake. From this, I first latched on to how much more evocative images are than instructions to release an actor’s imagination, and I’ve never stopped using and exploring the idea that Alan first put into my head.
The sound of billiard balls clicking offstage, randomly ricocheting off each other in the ballroom scene of The Cherry Orchard, masterfully blowing open the text: “You do nothing, Fate simply flings you about from place to place, and thats so strange—isn’t that so?”
Fate simply flings us about.
Alan always believed this to be true. Like two good Russian souls, we had many talks over the years. But whatever the specific subject matter, and whether it was funny or sad, his encompassing theme was always that life is unpredictable. And that forces were at work we could neither count nor counter. He answered them back with his sweetness, his compassion, his love of young things—people, or theatres, or simply a new day. And with the gusto of his creativity.
There was something he used to say often: “Well, what are you going to do?!” he would ask. It wasn’t meant to be answered, it was said ironically, lightly, drily, it was a way to wind up a topic that seemed to have played itself out. It had as subtext: Well, what now? What’s the next thing? Let’s get on with what’s still left, with whatever else has to be done, or looked into, or discovered, or fixed up, or turned upside down, or made into something else, or put there on the stage. It was the other side of his awareness of the Infinite Caprice within all things. It was deeply connected to his sense of life.
“Well. what are you going to do?!”
What are we all going to do?
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