As directors, the two are practically polar opposites. Des McAnuff’s passions are rock-and-roll and working-class politics, yet his theatre work is invariably lucid and beautifully controlled. Peter Sellars, who is immersed in classical music and formidably well-read, makes theatre that is flamboyant, idiosyncratic and frequently outrageous. What they have in common is a drive to synthesize, to bring opposite ends of the spectrum together in terms of both style and content.
McAnuff and Sellars are two of the youngest artistic directors in the American theatre. As talented stage directors, they are working on the front lines of contemporary culture, and as second-generation artistic leaders, they are bringing fresh energy and critical insights to the not-for-profit theatre movement established 30 years ago in this country. Together, they are seen by many as the most forward-looking element on the theatrical horizon.
An American citizen raised in Toronto, 32-year-old McAnuff co-founded New York’s four-member Dodger Theater Company in 1978, has directed a number of plays for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and currently heads the La Jolla Playhouse in California, which recently completed its second season. Sellars, 41, who came to prominence as a Harvard undergraduate when he directed The Inspector General for the American Repertory Theatre’s inaugural season, graduated to national notoriety when he was hired as the original director of Broadway’s My One and Only, and handed a $136,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation all in the same week. After one year at the helm of the Boston Shakespeare Company, he was appointed last June by Roger Stevens to head the American National Theater Company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
If both are creative synthesizers, McAnuff and Sellars also share a tendency to overreach, the biggest limitation for each director. McAnuff’s subversive production of Romeo and Juliet at La Jolla, which was not about star-crossed lovers snatching a night from eternity but about rich kids whose lives are ruined by their parents wealth, traveled from 16th-century Verona to today’s California by way of a time-warp design concept that was more confusing than clever. And when directing difficult classical-music pieces such as Handel’s Orlando (American Repertory Theatre) and Peter Maxwell-Davies’ The Lighthouse (Boston Shakespeare Company), Sellars often seems to be communing with the compositional structure of the score on a level too deep for most audiences’ comprehension. For young artists, though, thinking big seems to be a forgivable flaw.
The careers of McAnuff and Sellars have converged only once, but the occasion was a doozy. Invited by McAnuff to inaugurate the La Jolla Playhouse’s first season in 1983, Sellars mounted Brecht’s rarely performed The Visions of Simone Machard, the story of a very young girl who reads a book about Joan of Arc and is inspired to do her part to light the German occupation of France. Often dismissed by scholars as unfinished or uncharacteristically patriotic, the production revealed it to be one of Brecht’s great plays, particularly in its depiction of the power of art to inspire acts of moral courage. Sellars’ typically spectacular production baffled many in the audience; when one scene took place on a catwalk directly overhead, a man down the row from me exclaimed “Now I’ve seen everything!” Yet at intermission, when that same man kept asking his companion “What’s it about?” another spectator leaned forward and patiently, eloquently—more eloquently than I could have—explained the basic themes of the play and the distinction between its dreamlike and realistic elements. I will never forget the production—or the reminder never to underestimate an audience’s intelligence.
McAnuff’s nerve in opening his expensive, new theatre in a conservative community with something so strong and difficult—and Sellars’ insistence that theatre have a vision of itself and its society—have linked them in my mind ever since as young leaders of today’s theatre.
We met for this interview one Sunday morning in early November. McAnuff had just flown in from Los Angeles (where the La Jolla Playhouse’s production of the Randy Newman cabaret show Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong was playing) for negotiations with New York producers concerning Big River, the musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn he first directed at the American Repertory Theatre and again at the Playhouse this summer. Sellars was on his way back from Boston—where he had scouted locations for a forthcoming adaptation (to be developed with The Wooster Group) of Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony—to his new base in Washington, where his first season at the Kennedy Center begins this spring. Ronald Reagan had just been re-elected, and the presidential campaign weighed heavily on all our minds.
People who work in the theatre are basically thinking about the problems of the world, pointing them out, suggesting solutions for them. How do you feel working in the theatre at a time when young people at least seem to think there’s nothing wrong with the world?
Sellars: You mean the pod-people Republicans, the 18-to 25-year-olds who just spawned, who have no minds, we don’t know where they came from?
McAnuff: We must talk about where they did come from, because we have something to do with that.
Sellars: The only advantage of theatre is that it is the art form par excellence that mitigates against selfishness. You have to go into a room with lots of other people, and you have to sit there for two, three, maybe four hours and think about someone else, so you get outside of this little world of you and your friends. Now that a lot of people don’t go to church, it is the only chance to come together in one room and collectively care about someone else. If you think of art as a kind of biological survival mechanism, then just as sports keep the body able to do more than get around town, art does that for the mind and the heart.
And our skills definitely need to be sharpened in that direction. This whole election has proved that theatre has not prepared people to deal with issues. All theatre right now, I mean the entertainment industry, has concerned itself exclusively with the presentation of surfaces.
Reagan’s goodtime campaign was emblematic of the crisis in theatre in which you frequently can’t get people to go to a show if it’s serious. I mean, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a dyspeptic evening if ever there was one, is “the new Pulitzer-Prize winning COMEDY,” right? That’s what the ads have to say. The minute you would hint that it’s not a COMEDY, well, then, who would want to see it?
McAnuff: You know, we’ve helped create this, though.
McAnuff: The theatre. During the ’60s, American writers and artists felt compelled to deal with the Vietnam War. Without that cause, that sense of mission, there began to be more and more emphasis on style as opposed to substance, image as opposed to meaning or content.
Sellars: Things being pretty.
McAnuff: Pretty pictures, and also the murder of language and the destruction of text. Unfortunately, along with this came to some extent the murder of ideas.
It seems to me that what’s been going on with education is linked to what’s going on in the theatre and in the country. In a technological society, the notion of specialization is very attractive. Look at any paper’s ads for private schools—every one will mention computers. It won’t talk about the arts, won’t talk about the humanities, it’ll talk strictly about computers. Increasingly, we’re getting generations of young people who have not been given the vocabulary to appreciate art, music. Therefore, they’ve lost interest. They have no way of making the connection at all, they’re not equipped.
In a sense, we’ve perpetuated that by discouraging ideas onstage and replacing questions either with simplistic ideological statements or simply images, pictures, laughs. We need to turn it around. We need to be discussing issues onstage. Just like in the campaign, we need to be asking questions, encouraging people to think, to accept the fact that they don’t have to sit there and like it necessarily, they can make up their own minds. There needs to be content in what we do. The times in which we live demand it.
Sellars: One of the great crises of theatre is that of courage—frankly, this younger generation has been terrorized into thinking that unless they stop everything and devote all their energies to getting ahead, they will be nowhere. The thing about theatre is that it can offer genuine solace and deal with the deepest fears that people have. Most productions don’t have the courage to face that. Look at the most political theatre that ever existed, that was everything we say we would like, that was the moral center of the community: the Greek theatre. Those plays go after incredibly sharp and powerful political points of view. Not just “War Is Bad,” not big thumping obvious liberal platitudes—they probe the incredibly painful little corners where the flesh is so tender that it’s inflamed immediately and deal with the most extreme level of terror. Women suffered miscarriages during The Oresteia! It was terrifying.
That’s one reason horror movies are especially popular at this moment. People want to find an outlet and an acknowledgement for this level of terror that they’re living in. The theatre spends most of the time having actors put out cigarette butts in ashtrays, living off borrowed energy from TV. Rarely does acting in theatre approach that level of terror that it does in movies, that it does in a rock concert. Just sheer blinding force that makes you say, “Wait a minute—what contains this?” People aren’t getting that from theatre, so why would they go?
McAnuff: Also, young people are being told that security depends on something other than social justice, which is just not true. Historically, if you step on somebody’s face, eventually they’re going to bite your foot. There’s no notion of looking at the world from anyone else’s point of view. That’s not only unhealthy, it’s dangerous. The world is becoming an extremely complex place, and we have an obligation to understand how systems function, exactly as Shakespeare did in his histories, with these tetralogies that cover masses of time and try to see what the structures were. How people climbed the ladder, what the relationship was between religion and politics, the idea of starting a foreign war to take the heat off the domestic situation—these things are still happening in Washington as we speak.
The theatre should be exploring not only psychologically but also politically, morally, spiritually. And we can’t be snobs about it. It’s extremely important to get people like Bruce Springsteen in the theatre. When he screams “Born in the USA!” there is absolutely, in that audience, a sense of the pain and the responsibility as well as the power that goes along with that. It’s a lucid emotional thought that is not happening in the theatre.
“Taste….strikes me always as a dangerous word. Taste is the very thing that led them in the 19th century to create happy endings to tragedies. I don’t think you can poll an audience. You’ve got to do what you believe in.”
You both grew up at a time when television and rock-and-roll were much more popular than theatre. What was it that converted you?
McAnuff: When I was a kid, the notion of doing rock-and-roll to make money was extremely tempting. The thing about theatre is that most people are not doing it to make money. They’re usually doing it either because they’re terribly vain or because they genuinely have questions they want to ask, and they want some sense of communion. That’s what makes the entire experience good. That and the lack of censorship. When I was quite young talking to record company people about writing songs, there was a format you were delivered. You were told which subjects were popular. In the theatre, it’s unlikely that anybody’s going to try to stop you from making a statement or asking a question.
The other thing is that it is real life. Unlike television, you’re not trying to lock in a moment. The difficult thing to learn about directing is that you’re not in control. It took me a long time to stop struggling to make a certain moment happen the same way over and over and over and to get excited by the notion that that actually is real life, and that if the temperature goes up 10 degrees, it’s gonna change. It is real. It is flesh and blood.
Also Hair turned me on to theatre, I’ll be perfectly honest about it. Not that I was particularly wild about that score, but at least it sounded something like the music I was playing. Up until that point, I think my notion of musical theatre was probably The Pajama Game. Which is not a bad show.
Sellars: I love Pajama Game!
Peter, what was it that turned you on?
Sellars: My real interest early on was reptiles and amphibians, going out on canoe trips with pillowcases and collecting snakes. Then when I was in fifth grade in Pittsburgh, one of my close friends had a brother in the eighth grade, an incredibly cool guy who apprenticed at this marionette theatre. I thought, well, if he apprenticed at this marionette theatre, okay, I’ll do that. That was it. I knew nothing about theatre before that. My whole interest was outdoors.
You’re both working in places where the audiences are very different than they are in New York. How does the audience affect your choice of plays, the style of plays you can do, the relationship to the community?
Sellars: I’ve been reading these Flannery O’Connor essays, and there’s one I’ve been quoting all week. It’s about book burnings, what’s acceptable in the eighth grade classrooms, parents getting upset, and so forth. Ms. O’Connor takes a hard line. She says literature of a certain quality must be permitted, and whether it expresses the opinions of a group in the community is not the issue. “This [literature] will perhaps not be to their taste. That is too bad,” she says, and this is the last sentence of the essay: “Their taste, however, should not be consulted. It is being formed.”
Our job is not to run back and forth with a thermometer. Our job is to be leading. Taste is formed by what you read and what you’re exposed to, so if you only expose audiences from here to here, that’s all they will know. If you decide to expose them to a wider range of possibilities, then they begin to have the apparatus to face that wider range. It inevitably takes a little while to be digested and comprehended, but instead of deciding, “Oh, I guess they don’t like that and so we won’t do that again,” you respond by saying, “Next time it won’t appear so foreign.”
McAnuff: We tend to think of audiences as one giant fat person, a kind of lump, this huge mucous membrane spilling over all the seats, that has one attitude, one point of view, one taste—which strikes me always as a dangerous word. Taste is the very thing that led them in the 19th century to create happy endings to tragedies. I don’t think you can poll an audience. You’ve got to do what you believe in and usually it’s not as if you have a lot of choice. I usually end up doing what I need to do, and if I try to please other people, I can’t do it, or not very well. On the other hand, it’s extremely dangerous not to listen to the audience as individuals.
The other day when Dario Fo was asked how he gets away with doing “dangerous” theatre in Italy, his response was that the audience gives him permission. His company has an audience it relies on to suggest, “Why don’t you do a play on this issue, on that issue?” I found this idea fascinating and luxurious and completely alien to America.
Sellars: Because in America, audiences are not told they own culture. Culture is something that’s owned by a museum, and they’re allowed to go in and see it a couple of hours a week.
McAnuff: We don’t even like to accept that we have a culture. England has a culture, France has a culture, not us.
Sellars: Exactly. Which is why I really do want to rush to the defense of the maligned word “taste.” In America the operative word again and again for what people are being served is tasteless, both in that it has no flavor and that there is no higher notion of the difference between a good idea and a cheap, tacky gesture. I do feel taste is important. Aesthetic knowledge is like scientific knowledge. The issue in art, as in science, is accuracy. We have come to have a body of knowledge that enables us to say—and taste really is a crucial factor in this—that a painting is good or bad. There are reasons, and you can be relatively exact. There is a level of attainable exactitude. In drama, that is the issue: this is closer to the truth, and something else is farther from it.
How are you able to use your position as artistic director to express your taste, to apply your aesthetic knowledge, in a way you weren’t able to as independent workers in the theatre?
McAnuff: For me, it doesn’t just have to do with my own work. I never had trouble directing the plays I wanted to direct or working with many of the people that I wanted to work with. However, I rarely knew what else was happening elsewhere in the institution, and I became aware that everything—marketing, development, the price of a ticket, the logo for the theatre, the poster—all that has a profound effect on the work you’re doing. Running a theatre means I have a say in all that, plus it’s a chance to get people together whose work interests me. Frequently, they’re nothing like me. Actors like Bill Raymond and Priscilla Smith, Ben Halley and Amanda Plummer, a playwright like Robert Coe, a designer like John Arnone, they all come from completely different backgrounds than I do.
This has been the next phase for me, trying to unite all the exploration that’s gone on in the theatre over the last 20 years. It’s not about dictating artistic policy, either. The way Peter and I do Shakespeare is entirely different, I suspect, yes? But when I invited him to La Jolla, I didn’t tell him what play to do, nor did I want him to do it the way I would do it. What we share is something other than style and form. We share an interest in content and the times in which we live, we have similar feelings and frustrations, and that’s what almost everyone who’s come to the Playhouse has in common.
What about you, Peter?
Sellars: Your own theatre, as Des said, is a way to keep the people in the room as interesting a group as possible and gradually to create something I think is very important now, a body of work. These things aren’t just shots in the dark. Having your own theatre, you can emphasize this point. Each production is another contribution to what is really a long-term discussion, which leads to a point of view and a direction and, I would like to think, a mainstream again in America. Right now there are all these splinter groups—Broadway is a splinter group. There is no mainstream.
My task, and I think Des’s task in La Jolla, is to reinvent the mechanism. Is there a reason why there are five weeks of rehearsal and not eight? Is there a reason a play has to run 30 performances, or maybe does a play want to run five performances, go away for a while, and come back again later for 20 performances? The whole system of the opening night, the reviews the next morning—is this in fact a growth procedure for a delicate and tender thing? No.
The thing to remember is that the difference between a good show and a bad show is how everyone is feeling. We’re some of the luckiest people on the face of the earth because we’re earning our living doing something that we supposedly like to do. The irony is that at any given moment most people in the profession are unbelievably depressed and are doing work that they consider beneath them. Even people who are doing well right now in the American theatre are incredibly demoralized. Nobody feels as if things are particularly good right now. Our task is to reinvent the mechanism of production.
How has running your own theatre limited your freedom to work?
McAnuff: Having a permanent base in a beautiful location, I thought there would be periods when I wasn’t directing when I would have some time to write, to teach, to get to know another community. What comes as a great surprise is that there is very little time. The actual day-to-day work, the office work and dealing with fundraising and the board of trustees, is extremely time-consuming. And money is a very, very big part of it. I never had to be responsible before to make sure those actors got paid and that there were patrons out there contributing to the theatre. In those areas I’m very green. I’m not as wily and as efficient as I’m sure Joe Papp is. Our generation needs to become responsible in those ways and learn from the older dudes who’ve been doing this.
Another thing I keep thinking is that if indeed theatre is a collaborative art form, it seems to be that collaborative leadership makes a certain amount of sense. Now, whenever you make this argument, people will immediately say, “It always takes one person!” It comes from our obsession in this country with kings, the great leader who’s going to solve all the problems. This is, in my opinion, utter nonsense. I’ve yet to meet the guru who can make it all happen. We put too much responsibility on these people we call artistic directors. It makes much more sense to share it, which I believe is the way the Royal Shakespeare Company was developed and became a gargantuan institution.
Peter, what about you? I remember when you were doing your Beckett/Shakespeare/Chekhov evening at the Boston Shakespeare Company last year, your eyes were practically spinning around in your head.
Sellars: At that time I was directing under conditions I would not have accepted at any other theatre in America. Because it was my theatre, I was telling myself, “You will direct with this much rehearsal, with this much money for the set.” There was no one else to yell at. That takes its toll. At the same time, I’m perfectly imperialistic and 19th-century about this—I think there should be a director. A show needs a director.
McAnuff: I agree with you about productions, Peter, but I’m saying why necessarily one artistic director and not three? I am, as an individual at La Jolla, functioning quite successfully—but I had the pleasure of being in another situation where I functioned equally successfully with three other individuals.
Sellars: But my guess is that when three people are there, it’s because that’s the way the company grew. You can’t make three people the head of this existing thing.
McAnuff: I don’t think it should be imposed on any company more than you should go “Wham, bam, here’s a rep” either. Still, we have to try to moye away from the expectation that we’re going to be enlightened dictators.
Sellars: The terrible crisis of being a director is the ease with which massive egotism sets in. You’re convinced you’re doing something no one else can do, which of course is preposterous. Eventually you learn that your position is chief janitor, and your job is to see that there are enough towels in the men’s room.
McAnuff: There never are.
“The most embarrassing thing about being a director is how much credit is heaped on you for other people’s ideas.”
When you come up against a brick wall and you have problems you can’t solve, who do you go to? Do you have mentors?
McAnuff: I go to Peter. We’ve had some extremely good conversations about running theatres. We don’t look to each other for a great deal of experience in that area, and that’s an advantage because we don’t run the danger of falling back on habits. John Hirsch has been helpful to me. Alan Schneider was extremely helpful to me. I’ve had conversations with a lot of other artistic directors—Gordon Davidson, Liviu Culei. You’re crazy if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on in other institutions, because the same problems are bound to come up at some point.
Sellars: I am incredibly dependent on—and wouldn’t dare announce a season—without consulting a few people who are very close to me. Joann Green and Tim Mayer come to mind immedlately. I get a lot of credit for things that began as their ideas. The most embarrassing thing about being a director is how much credit is heaped on you for other people’s ideas.
McAnuff: That’s the key, if there is such a thing, to a good director. It’s not about coming in with a bunch of preconceived notions and forcing everyone else to glom onto them. I still try not to make anybody do anything he doesn’t want to do. I believe that if an artist does not believe what he’s doing is the best choice, then it’s very difficult to do a production.
Sellars: See, whereas sometimes I go right against that. Sometimes I just couldn’t care less.
McAnuff: You’re a little Hitler, I know.
Sellars: In my experience the most terrifying thing is the theatre of “friendly fascism,” where nobody’s permitted to disagree—everybody smiles sweetly at everybody else and thinks the most horrible things. I think every idea has to be subject to the most violent range of disagreements. People should be able to be very blunt with each other if they think something’s stupid. Right now a lot of things are on stages where you wish somebody in the room had just spoken up and said, “Puh-leese, what are you talking about?” If the answer was, “You’ll find out what I’m talking about in three weeks, do it anyway,” at least there would be some burn in the actor, and you’d feel it.
Both of you have gotten a certain amount of acclaim as young directors in the theatre. Has that been good or bad? Do you worry about being a has-been when you’re 40?
McAnuff: It’s a big mistake to worry too much about what people say about your work. If there’s a lot of negative reaction to a production, you can get so busy defending yourself against that criticism that you don’t take the time to sit down and criticize the work yourself. Positive criticism can have the same effect—it can fool you into thinking
that areas of the work you’re not satisfied with are okay. Both are great dangers. It’s also a mistake to look back on your own work and put it down. The work I did at 23 I couldn’t do at 32. But I’m not in despair about this age in the theatre or my own age. It’s a damn good time to be in one’s late 20s or early 30s in the theatre. There’s a lot of work to be done. I think I’ve just started.
Sellars: And I’m now waiting to start.
Don Shewey is a journalist and theatre critic who writes for The New York Times, The Village Voice and other publications.
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