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High Rent Blues

Several New York nonprofit theatres—among them Circle Repertory Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre, the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Roundabout Theatre Company—are confronting urgent real estate problems. For some of these companies, a crucial issue is space—finding enough room to accommodate growing audiences and expanding programs. For others like Soho Repertory Theatre, which was evicted from its home of nine years on June 30, and Theatre for the New City which faces a drastic rent hike on its three-theatre space in the East Village, the bottom line is money.

“We’ve turned to the city for help,” says Soho Rep’s co-artistic director Marlene Swartz. “We’re concerned about the effect of skyrocketing rents on our future as well as on the future of New York City’s nonprofit arts movement as a whole.” In addition to appeals to city agencies, the theatre is launching an emergency fundraising campaign to enable it to relocate for a 10th season. The vacated Mercer Street space is being turned into a recording studio.

TNC is also negotiating with several city agencies to find a new site. The theatre, which produces more than 40 new plays annually on a budget of about $250,000, moved to its current home on Second Avenue in 1977, after beginning in 1971 at Westbeth by the Hudson River and performing in an interim location on Jane Street.

“In each case,” says TNC development director Harvey Seifter, “we took an abandoned or derelict space, put a lot of money and time into renovating it, and converted it into a viable theatre complex. We were an essential part of upgrading the neighborhood, which has then turned and priced us out.”

Bess Myerson, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, has gone to bat for TNC in the crisis, praising the theatre for its contribution to “the quality of life and economic health of its neighborhood.”

On the other side of the coin, there have been nine off Broadway theatres newly built or extensively renovated during the past six years, among them the dance-oriented Joyce Theatre and the Second Stage’s McGinn-Cazale Theatre, a former gymnasium. Two more are under construction. The Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York calculates that these 11 new theatres represent an increase of more than 30 percent in the number of 100- to 499-seat houses in the city.

Hang On, Gorky 

At age 26, Peter Sellars is already notorious for his startling interpretations of classical works, including a Mikado set in modern-day, high-tech Japan, and an Orlando transposed to outer space, via Cape Canaveral, Fla. In addition, he has recently undertaken the iob of artistic director at the Boston Shakespeare Festival. Nevertheless, Sellars finds time to continue directing at other theatres—and even taking on some of the writing and adapting responsibilities of his unusual projects.

Hang On to Me, which recently completed a run at the Guthrie Theater under Sellars’ direction, combines Maxim Gorky’s Summerfolk with the music of George and Ira Gershwin, moving the time and place of the play to contemporary America. Gorky’s story of idealism, loneliness and social malaise among 26 middle-class professionals gathered at a rented country villa takes on new poignancy in its modern-day setting, and with Sellars’ addition of such Gershwin standards as “Lady Be Good,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and “But Not for Me.” In the Guthrie production, Sellars and music director Craig Smith attempted to restore the music’s original harmonic structures which have been neglected over the past 50 years of cocktail lounge and “pop” renditions. The translation of the Gorky work was a new one, by Sellars and Maria Markoff-Belaev.

The cast of Hang On to Me included Mark Baker, Eve Bennett-Gordon, Roy Brocksmith, Werner Klemperer, Carmen DeLavallade, Priscilla Smith and David Warrilow. The production opened the Guthrie’s 1984-85 season, which continues with The Three Sisters, running through July 22 under the direction of Liviu Ciulei, followed by Tartuffe, opening July 26 and running through Sept. 2.

Goodman Revamps

After two years of extensive planning, the Goodman Theatre has announced major restructuring of its programs, beginning in fall with its 1984-85 season.

Replacing its mainstage and studio seasons will be two new producing entities: the New Theatre Company and the Goodman Series. The New Theatre Company will be an ensemble of approximately 15 playwrights, actors, designers and directors. Its first season will include three new plays written by the company playwrights for the company actors. Two playwrights, David Mamet and John Guare, have already been selected, and will be joined by other company members still to be chosen. Although the New Theatre Company will reside within the Goodman for its first season, plans call for it to move to a separate 300-500 seat facility in another location. Its productions are being underwritten in part by Beatrice Foods Co.

The Goodman Series, formerly the Goodman Mainstage, will present five plays in a season running from October through July. As in the past, it will be a subscription series and feature well known, often large-scale works. Two plays for the 1984-85 season have already been chosen.

Candide, the musical adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler with music by Leonard Bernstein, will be the first musical the Goodman has produced since 1978. Lonne Elder’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men will feature the return of the Negro Ensemble Company to the Goodman, to continue a relationship begun last season with A Soldier’s Play. Douglas Turner Ward and other members of the original cast recreate their roles.

Other plans for the theatre’s 1984-85 season include the continuation of its Merrill Lynch Dance Series, which will feature the Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, Hubbard Street Dance Company, Feld Ballet and Merce Cunningham, as well as a variety of special events.

Language as Emblem

The three member company known as A Traveling Jewish Theatre likes to stress that its aim is not to revive Yiddish theatre or recreate traditional works. Rather, it hopes to create a new Jewish theatre, accessible to people of all backgrounds. Since 1977, Corey Fischer, Albert Greenberg and Naomi Newman have been writing, composing and performing a repertoire of plays which have now been seen throughout the United States and in 14 countries around the world.

On July 1, A Traveling Jewish Theatre completes a four-week engagement at the Boston Shakespeare Company, where it has been performing The Last Yiddish Poet, a journey back to the flowering of Yiddish poetry in New York in the 1920s and to the Holocaust. The play is performed predominantly in English, by two comic characters who treat the Yiddish language as an emblem of all that is in danger of being lost from the Jewish culture.

In addition to touring, the year-round, San Francisco-based group teaches, produces the works of like-minded artists—and of course, works on new pieces. Its next play, to premiere in January 1985, will be a collaboration with innovative theatre artist Joseph Chaikin.

Brecht Meets Farquhar

For its final offering of the season, the Denver Center Theatre Company chose a little known play by a master. Brecht’s Trumpets and Drums, an adaptation of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, revolves around English small-town society and the military at the time of King George Ill and the American Revolution. Farquhar’s original was submerged in the intrigues and social affectations of Restoration Comedy. Brecht, on the other hand, presents the themes of hypocrisy in the military brazenly, making it a brittle satire with contemporary overtones. The Denver production, which ran through the beginning of June, was only the second staging of the work this country has seen, the first being a 1968 version at New York’s Roundabout Theatre. The recent production featured a cast of 31 and a new score composed and orchestrated by its director Barbara Damashek. Here, Sergeant Kite, played by W. Francis & Walters, rolls into Shrewsbury to raise recruits for the “Redcoats.”

New Plays, New Plans

New vear’s celebrations are beginning early in Malvern, Penn., as the People’s Light and Theatre Company moves into its 10th anniversary season with productions of eight new plays and new grants totalling more than $300,000.

The Fourth Annual New Play Festival at People’s Light will present six one-act and two full-length plays, divided into four programs and playing in repertory through Aug. 19. The full-length plays include Terri Wagener’s The War Brides, directed by People’s Light veteran Abigail Adams, and Gary Slezak’s Malek’s Dependents, a world premiere concerning the collision of values that results when a Chicago liquor store owner tries to marry his daughter to a rich businessman. Among the one-acts on this year’s program are The American Century by Murphy Guyer, a perennial People’s Light actor and director whose play Eden Court is scheduled for a New York production this fall; and Lover’s Leap by Dick D. Zigun, directed by the company’s playwright-in-residence Louis Lippa.

In September the theatre moves into its 10th season with new-found funds and ambitious artistic goals. A $275,000 grant from the Mabel Pew Myran Trust and a $40,000 challenge grant from the Chester County Foundation will enable People’s Light to begin assembling a resident company, which in the first year will include five actors, two playwrights and one director. According to the five-year plan devised by producing director Danny S. Fruchter and the board of directors, the company will eventually swell to 26 members, including resident, guest and associate artists.

The remainder of the funds will be earmarked for the next two seasons’ operating budgets. It is hoped that additional money raised in the theatre’s recent capital campaign will be used for the building of a new complex in the vicinity to open in the spring of ’85. Plans are to include an expanded Second Stage, complete administrative offices, classrooms, rehearsal space and extended lobby space.

Two Drifters

David Rabe’s newest play remained without a title almost until opening night at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in late March, because, according to a theatre official, “Rabe feels that once vou attach a title, the play is set in cement.” The title he finally decided upon for the tart exploration of Los Angeles show business life and its bankruptcies was Hurlyburly—hardly a “cement” appellation. Inspired by Rabe’s own experiences in Hollywood, Hurlyburly sported a cast crammed with actors who understood its milieu well, each one having worked extensively in the Hollywood movie world. Last month, the play—under the direction of Mike Nichols and with its original cast including William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken and Sigourney Weaver—moved to New York’s Off Broadway Promenade Theatre. Rabe is still at work on the script, which ran more than three-and-a-half hours at the Goodman and was pared down to three when it began previews on June 5. Here, Hurt as a burned-out and drifting casting director places a comradely arm around his divorced friend, played by Keitel.

He Writes the Songs

Sarasota’s Asolo State Theater recently opened its summer season with a new musical version of America’s favorite—and longest running—melodrama, The Drunkard, complete with a new score by Barry Manilow.

The original play, attributed to actor/stage manager W.H.S. Smith, was first produced in 1844 in Boston as a serious indictment against the evils of strong drink. As the Temperance movement gathered steam, three Broadway theatres—including P.T. Barnum’s Moral Lecture Museum—brought the story of the widow, her chaste daughter and the dastardly lawyer Cribbs to New York, producing it throughout the 1850s. In 1933, just as Prohibition ended, the melodrama was revived in Los Angeles where it enjoyed the longest run in the history of legitimate theatre, playing to packed houses of now hissing and laughing audiences through 1962!

Today The Drunkard is pure spoof—a lighthearted evocation of America’s Music Hall days, complete with broad, Delsarte-style acting, an adapted book by Bro Herrod and new musical numbers by Manilow which include “Don’t Swat Your Mother,” “Good Is Good” and “Garbage Can Blues.” These are augmented by singalongs of old favorites and traditional songs. The Drunkard, directed by Cash Baxter, is running in repertory with Rashomon and The Importance of Being Earnest through July 29.

Dance Floor Feud

Located in the center of America’s coal fields, Theatre Arts of West Virginia was conceived in the late 1950s to produce two summer outdoor productions. Since that time, it has grown to include a touring wing known as Theatre West Virginia and a traveling puppet troupe, and has produced classics, contemporary works and original pieces. But each summer, in the breathtaking outdoor setting of Grandview State Park in Beckley, the company continues to present those two summer productions for which it was created. Hatfields and McCoys, left, is the story of the famous feud that began in the 1860s and led to 40 years of bad blood—some say it rages on today. Honey in the Rock is the story of a mountain family torn by the Civil War. Both plays combine traditional music, dance and storytelling and run in repertory through Sept. 1.

All the Bases

With an ambitious duo of plays underway in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre and the record-breaking A Chorus Line still safely ensconced on Broadway, the New York

Shakespeare Festival continues its emphasis on new works and American premieres at its downtown homebase, the Public Theater.

Recently completing a limited run at the Public was Found a Peanut, a new play by Donald Margulies, directed by Claudia Weill. This sharp look at a group of children in the backyard of a Brooklyn tenement in 1962 featured an adult cast playing all the roles of the pre-teens. Cast members included Peter MacNichol, Robert Joy, Robin Bartlett and Evan Handler.

Still running after a late-May opening is The Nest of the Woodgrouse, a U.S. premiere by Soviet playwright Victor Rozov, under the direction of NYSF producer Joseph Papp. Set in contemporary Moscow, the play revolves around a Soviet diplomat and his family. The title derives from the woodgrouse’s temporary deafness during its mating ritual, and in modern Russian argot, refers to a person who is hard of hearing metaphorically as well as physically.

Papp discovered The Nest of the Woodgrouse several years ago while traveling in the U.S.S.R. where the play was in rehearsal in Leningrad. His production completes the Shakespeare Festival’s trilogy of Eastern bloc plays, which also included Vaclav Havel’s A Private View and Janusz Glowacki’s Cinders.

Featured in the cast of The Nest of the Woodgrouse are Eli Wallach. Anne Jackson, Mary Beth Hurt and Phoebe Cates.

Getting to Know You

Over the past 11 years, the Organic Theater Company of Chicago has become best known for its unusual company-developed works—and its very long runs. The improvisationally created E/R Emergency Room, still running at a guest theatre in Summit, Ill., has become the longest-running play in Chicago history, and will be the basis for a CBS Television comedy series this fall, starring Elliot Gould. The company’s new piece, Angry Housewives, recently settled into its home theatre for an unlimited run of its own.

The genesis of Angry Housewives differed somewhat from that of E/R and the Organic’s previous success, Bleacher Bums, in that it originated at another theatre—Seattle’s Pioneer Square—a company that shares many of the Organic’s goals and methods. Organic artistic director Stuart Gordon recognized the affinities between the two companies and initiated an informal exchange: the Pioneer is currently producing E/R, and Gordon, along with the original playwright, composer and director, have mounted the midwest premiere of Angry Housewives.

The musical comedy takes its name from a rock band formed by four women as a money-making scheme, and the score by Chad Henry combines rock, punk, jazz and traditional show music. It was conceived as a short-term musical piece by co-founder and artistic director A.M. Collins for Pioneer Square’s annual Follies, but became a long-running success.

Says director Linda Hartzell, who has been with Angry Housewives since its beginnings, “Within several minutes, you know each woman in the play as profoundly as if you’d gone through her refrigerator and medicine cabinet and spent the day together chaperoning a class trip.”

Go West

Three quintessentially American plays fill the bill of the fourth annual repertory festival at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, running through Aug. 19. Wild Oats, in a new adaptation by James McClure from John O’Keeffe, brings the 18th-century farce across the Atlantic to America’s Wild West. Hitting the road, above from left, are Mark Blum, Thomas Oglesby and Mark Harelik, under Tom Moore’s direction. Also on tap are Arthur Miller’s American Clock, staged by Taper artistic director Gordon David son, and Moby Dick – Rehearsed, Orson Welles’ dramatization of the Melville novel, directed by Edward Payson Call. A company of 22 actors has been assembled to perform the wide variety of roles in the three plays. Festival sets are by Ralph Funicello.

Adding to Williamstown 

For the first time since its inception, the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s second company—known as Other Stages—has its own theatre. Dubbed the Extension, the new space is located next door to WTF’s mainstage, Adams Memorial Theatre, and its inauguration this summer is part of the theatre’s 30th anniversary.

The intimate, 99-seat space features flexible seating and a thrust stage, making it particularly appropriate for staging new works. “By its nature, The Extension places emphasis on the text and on the acting,” remarked WTF artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos. “Lighting and sound will be the only production elements.”

Under the direction of Psacharopoulos and associate director Austin Pendleton, Other Stages activities are coordinated by Kay Matschullat, Christina Gianelli and Carol Klein. This season marks another landmark for Other Stages which has just become a professional company by employing members of Actors’ Equity as well as non-Equity artists. It is hoped that the opportunity to perform with professionals will contribute to the growth of the young actors who continue to be the backbone of the second company.

Other Stages will perform four new works by new and established playwrights at The Extension this summer, in addition to presenting readings of works-in-progress on Saturday afternoons at the Clark Art Institute.

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