We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I start to write on Aug. 16, Arena Stage’s 35th birthday. I have brought my notes with me, they are spread out on the big bed in a smallish hotel room on the Strand in London. I have already seen two plays at the National Theatre, one at the RSC, another at Stratford-on-Avon and got here just in time to enjoy, though jet-lagged, the opening ofJohn Houseman’s production of The Cradle Will Rock at the newly done-up Old Vic. The rain outside closes in my thoughts of companies, beginnings, economics, governance, the endlessness of the tasks, the nature of growth and change, leadership, the problems ahead, the distance come, signaled by the number thirty-five. The lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets are fresh in mind, for I used them in my opening remarks to the new/old acting company, which, on year-round contracts for the first time, assembled at Arena on July 2 to begin a summer of exploratory work before rehearsals late in August.
The words of Eliot move me. They seem to pierce the exact moment of this birthday and pin it down. They speak not only to me personally, but to the nature and needs of a movement that began over three decades ago and now, middle-aged and in some turmoil, seeks redefinition, seeks to “know the place.” I hear them—in a way that is both inspiring and practical—urge all of us who are a part of this movement, first, to get on with it and second, to go back to find it.
With curiosity, I reread the program note for our opening production, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, Aug. 16, 1950. I want to check out what was on our minds then, to test the present against the past:
Arena Stage plans to bring to its audiences the best of plays both old and new as well as worthwhile original scripts on a permanent year-round repertory basis. Local in origin, it was founded in the belief that if drama-hungry playgoers outside of the ten blocks of Broadway are to have a living stage, they must create it for themselves. Arena Stage was financed by Washingtonians—students, teachers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, government workers, housewives—who love theatre and who want to see it flourish in the city in which they work and live. Its permanent staff of distinguished actors and technicians, many of whom have come to Arena Stage via the stages of other cities, now all call Washington their home. Arena Stage invites your participation in the excitement of the first production of Washington’s playhouse-in-the-round.
We (Tom Fichandler, my drama professor Edward Mangum and I) had raised, via a series of meetings with like-minded community members, $15,000 for stock in a regular profit-making corporation, set up a Voting Trust arrangement to be sure we retained artistic control, collected a cadre of actors and helpers through auditions and interviews and from among friends, and converted an old movie house in a slum area of Washington to a 247-seat theatre-in-the-round. (We wanted the symbolic intimacy of that form and to save money on scenery.) With our “investors,” we scraped the chewing gum off the seats, hung the lights, laid the carpet, painted the walls, scrubbed the johns, and on a budget of $800 a week set out to achieve our goals. I ran the publicity campaign to open the theatre, designed the sets that were built in the alley, helped in the box office, directed seven out of seventeen shows we did that first year, slept many nights on the carpeted stage floor and, along with Mangum, made $65 a week.
The actors made $55, and from there the pay scaled to zero. We put on 55 productions—nonstop, without a break—in the five years at that first location, had many successes and sometimes played to under a dozen people, on several occasions had a bank balance of under $100 and ended up the five-year period with $25,000 more than we started with. The actors doubled in brass as well as brought forth new roles every two or three weeks in a range and variety that remains vivid for me still. The rest, as they say, is history.
A recent interviewer asked me what made me think it would work and I said, truthfully, “I was young, I had no doubts, I was sure people would respond. Believe me, we didn’t do any marketing surveys.” In the early fifties, I read Margo Jones’s book called Theatre-in-the-Round, in which she outlined her dream of a nation with forty (sic!) resident, professional companies performing new plays and classics and I knew that she, the mother of us all, could not be dreaming in vain.
This is not only “My Story.” It is the story of several of us who began theatres way back there when. Most importantly, it is the story of our heritage, even those of us who began life later, on a grander scale. I do think we were the only theatre to experience life—for seven years—as a so-to-speak “profit organization,” an experience I have never regretted, and the only theatre to pay its own way, on box office income alone, for 15 years. That gives me a special edge when I have to explain to newcomers why our theatres have to be nonprofit.
When I read our initial program remarks—to be called in a later, more evolved time a “mission statement”—I am astonished that they prefigured most of the potential as well as the pitfalls that our movement was (is) to achieve and would encounter, is encountering. Most of the themes and, implicitly, the counter-themes are there: “audiences”; “local in origin”; “plays old and new and original scripts”; “permanent”; “repertory”; “outside of Broadway”; “create it themselves”; “financed by the community”; “where they live and work”; “permanent staff’; “distinguished actors and technicians”; “Washington their home”; “participation”; “excitement.” And when I reach back through the years to our initial organizing principles and the labor of the earliest years, I find some real wisdom there: the need for artistic control; the need to take responsibility for one’s own vision; the value of an ongoing collective; the centrality of an acting company; the fundament of contact between play and playgoer, of a continuing dialogue with the audience; each individual theatre being a part of a whole theatre; the ever-presence of budgetary tension and of the success/failure see-saw; the primitive yet sophisticated power of selflessness and faith in the dream. In our innocence, in our knowing yet not-knowing—Eliot’s
Quick, now, here, now, always—
a condition of complete simplicity
(costing not less than everything)
we sketched in with fairy-tale boldness the outline of the whole story, the principal characters and the underlying themes.
How far we have come! We should allow ourselves our amazement and our pride, if only for a moment. The size of the achievement is not diminished for me even here in London, across the bridge from the National Theatre with its three stages (although the Cottesloe is now closed for budgetary reasons), its five companies each with about seventeen actors, its elaborate and for the most part splendiferous physical productions held in repertory and brought back at will, its heavy subsidies and affordable ticket prices, its bars and buffets and bookstalls, its intense and responsive audience queued up in the hopes of a returned ticket at the last moment. Progress is a snail that jumps. Our growth has seemed to us slow, so very slow, as fretfully, sometimes exhaustedly, we have hung on to existing circumstances and waited for the next transformation to occur, either to us (private foundation support in 1957, the coming of the NEA in 1966) or, aggressively, with our own hands (building theatres, devising subscription plans, forming companies). But, in objective truth, ours has been the fastest-growing art form in history.
Thirty-five years ago there was Broadway and the Road. Today, there are more than 250 theatres (What would Margo think?) of varying shapes and sizes and styles, and our national theatre no longer operates within 10 blocks of Broadway but across 3,000 miles of melting-pot America. While the level of work and the extent of enterprise and courage vary greatly from theatre to theatre, and no single theatre as yet stands as a pinnacle of artistic achievement, the overall sense is of individuality, energy, quest and growth. Our many theatres now offer more employment weeks to actors than does Broadway, gradually year-by-year realigning work patterns away from New York and changing the way actors can lead their lives and make their living. Community after community has had its hunger for live theatre responded to or even awakened for the first time; taste has been elevated, discrimination sharpened, life itself enriched through the perception of life-made-into-art. People have come to want their theatres and their arts and will pay money—in taxes, at the box office and in contributions—to have them.
A career in the theatre, though hardly a sure thing, has come to seem plausible (even noble, to certain enlightened parents). In these few decades the arts as a profession, and theatre high among them, have lost some—not all, but certainly some—of their historic aura of aberration, dropout-ness, illogic.
The proof has been in the pudding: Most of the gifted actors in the country have come the resident theatre route and could not have evolved without the continuity and stretching that years of on-the-boards experience provided; many of them come back from films and television to stretch some more and test themselves against the demands of a classic role and a breathing audience. And where would our writers be, and our directors and designers, without these congeries of work places, these sites for experimentation and development? Would we, indeed, even have this enviable pool of American talent without these places?
One wonders where these artists would have gone to see their work evolve, to become who they are. For Broadway has been priced out of the market for risk-taking and, irony of ironies, has come to take so for granted its dependence on regional theatre “product” and talent that it points the finger at us when we don’t come up with enough of it.
I clipped a front-page article from the May 20 New York Times headlined, “Broadway Economic Season Is Called Worst in a Decade,” to keep as a symbol and a sign of the times. One of the producers, asked for an explanation for the slump, cited the high cost of road tryouts of musicals and, then, the failure of the non-commercial theatres—which have been able to “provide Broadway with a stream of notable plays”—to do the same in the area of musicals, Broadway’s staple money-maker. “The nonprofit theatres have never paid attention to developing musicals,” the spokesman said. “There’s no place for young directors, young songwriters, young singers to learn. In addition, few non-commercial theatres can afford the stagecraft demanded for contemporary Broadway musicals.” Do you hear the gigantic turn-around, the wad of social history stuffed into that complaint?
The achievements that I list are obvious and well-known and have been listed before. I list them here again on this birthday, as a taking-off point and a surround for other thoughts. And as an admonition (to myself, first of all) that we not take for granted the fact of it, the very existence of it, and the transformation it—this movement—we have made in our cultural landscape. Our theatrical world will never be the same again. The changes were radical, we committed a revolution that is irreversible, and attention should be paid to that.
What is particularly remarkable to me, looking back for one moment more, is that it took place without models, from within. We had no teachers except the environment, our own mistakes and each other. We did have each other (Mac Lowry put us together 25 years ago and TCG has kept us there). And we had some good gleanings from the outside that were crucial. I recall how astonished I was in the mid-’50s by the craft level at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario and how deeply our production standards were influenced by my visit there. And also how much we learned from the Berliner Ensemble’s trip to London in the mid-’60s—both about the repertory actor (Ekkehard Schall as both Coriolanus and Arturo Ui) and about the physical aesthetic—Brecht’s “Reality is concrete.” I can still visualize the long, silent moment at the beginning of the Moscow Art Theatre’s production of The Cherry Orchard as the family, back from Paris, re-embraces the house. As a director and a producer, I was opened to a totally new level of possible stage behavior. It changed our work.
But chiefly, and especially in our organizational forms and institutional development, we had no models. We taught ourselves out of our own impulses which, made into deeds and thus objectified, taught us back what to do next so that we could stay alive and progress. It has been a revolution made of many and diverse feelings and viewpoints, all discharged more or less simultaneously (in the eye of history, 35 years is but a blink!)—a kind of collective artwork, like a quilt, a “something” truly surprising, truly unique. As we grapple with current ambivalences and try to solve our problems, we should not forget where we started and not diminish what we made.
We experience and read about “artistic deficits,” a term which evidently first appeared in a report by the National Endowment for the Arts last year. An artistic deficit represents the distance between what one would want to do in one’s theatre and should do there, and what one can afford to do; it is the shadow betweenintention and reality. The term has come into wide acceptance very rapidly as a term whose time has come. It names our disease. It seems to explain our feelings of dissatisfaction and longing for something better. It says what ails us.
And, of course, it is true that our theatres are underfunded and our artists underpaid. And it is true that in order to remain solvent some theatres pull in their horns in terms of predictability of repertoire, size of casts and production costs, and channel funds into fund-raising rather than onto the stage. And the art itself suffers and we fail to meet our own standards and, feeling that it is time for a ripening, we rail against our fate or become weary and say, “If not now, when?!?” And surely there is a positive correlation between Art and Money and our complaints are justified (“Art needs comfort, even abundance,” wrote Tolstoy). The current episode of our national story, told in numbers, is discouraging indeed. With expenses up 71 percent over the past five years and, despite record attendance and box office income, a doubling of the economic deficit last year alone, is it any wonder that we have this sense of our reach forever exceeding our grasp, and seek to find our salvation somewhere in that interlocking system of economic/artistic deficit? ft is logical to do that and it feels right.
Without minimizing in any way the seriousness of our economic situation and its direct effect on our power to produce art at the highest level, I think we must look into other areas of our being, where the problems may be less immediate, less visible, less easily identified, but potentially even more corrosive. For while poverty of means can, of course, lead to poverty of ends—and often does—still, courage within can sometimes prevail over negative forces without, passion over penny-pinching and “four boards” over an extravagant set. At least for the time being. And over the longer haul, who knows? Times change. Someone may come to rescue us or we may think of something on our own. Artistic deficits have been with us from the beginning. They seem more painful today because we are older and feel we should be “There” by now. But what if there is no “There”—at least in our lifetime?
Be that as it may, no theatre can ultimately survive the dry rot of institutionalization, the absence of versatile and committed actors, timid and visionless leaders or a troubled, unresolved relationship with its forces of governance. Let’s speak about these four hazards of our middle years.
What our early, innocent “mission statement” omits is any reference to the fact that we were about to create an “institution” or, indeed, that such a mechanism might be necessary to do the things we intended to do. We simply didn’t think about it. I suppose we knew about institutions (schools, prisons, families, museums), but we didn’t think we were one of those. We thought we were a theatre, something else again. Who could have imagined 35 years ago how elaborated all this would become—that one day we would live in our own building, make five-year plans(!), have a budget hovering around $7 million, write grant applications and hardly know ourselves for all the baggage we had collected.
At the time, we proceeded very simply and directly: “What needs to be done?” was followed by the direct doing of it, preferably by someone who knew how but, if necessary, by someone who learned it as he/she went along. It is not that we were naive. We were tough and smart and painstaking and we would not be stopped. We set up a box office and ran it well, informed and enticed a public, paid our bills and wrote our contracts, selected and hired actors and directors and designers, put together a repertoire that was exactly the one we wanted and made a myriad of difficult decisions—both artistic and managerial. But out of poverty and out of our early evolutionary position we saw a simpler connection between needs and filling them. And from these needs to “each according to his ability” seemed a logical and direct route. Such evolved concepts as job descriptions or even discrete jobs, departments of this, that and the other, tables of organization, etc. could then not even be projected. And while this was a hectic, often misshapen and, in the end, impermanent way of doing things, it did, I must confess, hold its own kind of magic.
There was never any question of what was of primary concern, which way the arrows of energy were directed; the work on the stage was central and we lived, breathed and slept (no, we rarely slept!) with that in mind. And there were surely no communication problems—all you had to do was stick your head out and yell. Also, although everyone suffered overwhelming fatigue, for about the first 10 years (until we moved into the newly built Arena building) we felt that we could hold the whole animal in the palm of our hands and touch it directly. I remember the sensation of knowing—both empirically and philosophically—everything at once: the sentence and the story, the pebble and the beach, every corner of our little world. When I speak of “institution-as-artwork,” I find that my clearest image comes from these earliest years when things were most frantic and yet most whole. They serve as a reference point for maintaining a sense of unity within the theatre as it is today—175 people; three stages; the divesting, sharing, delegating that is essential for running a large, theatrical institution.
Unless we get it right, this “institution business” is going to kill us. Something began to feel uncomfortable around the end of the ’60s, but by that time the thing had already happened to us; by the time we looked up and noticed, it had been done to us, we had already been institutionalized. No, I’m not saying that right: I exaggerate the degree of passivity involved. In point of fact, we were not force-fed. We wanted what we got, we just didn’t realize where it was taking us. We vigorously, implacably tracked down our subscribers, making a kind of fetish of the yearly subscription brochure; feverishly raised money for new buildings and, using ingenuity, skill and new knowledge, built them; with zealous alacrity we developed and engaged administrators, P.R. people and business managers; we added the concept of production managers as our artistic leaders got more involved in fund-raising and the like (still later, we added the concept of associate directors and literary managers/dramaturgs as theatres grew and artistic directors got still more involved in fund-raising and the like); we created development departments to meet economic deficits (later they were, in some instances, to grow as large or larger than the artistic staff); and, in general, we poured a lot of money away from art and into making more money in order to make art. Quite recently, we computerized. Computer technology, someone said at a recent staff meeting, holds all our operations together. I suppose he’s right….
In 1967, I spoke about our mood on a panel called “The future of the Resident Professional Theatre in America”:
Push, promote, maneuver, advertise, finagle, operate. The story of our lives. “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers”….I think we will not be overwhelmed only if we refuse to give ourselves up, only if we can experience ourselves as autonomous. For me this means leaving the wheeling and dealing to others and going back to where I came from, to the theatre as an art. And we may be overwhelmed anyway. But, then, let them take us while we are doing our own work and not at a fundraising dinner. It is not a personal thing at base. It is a matter of whether we are, after all, to be theatres or constructions that put on plays as against ones that manufacture washing machines.
We must achieve a sense that some real power resides in us within the very art we make, and not altogether within the techniques of manipulation, marketing and promotion with which we tend, in the battle for survival, to become over-absorbed.
Later, in 1969, in an article entitled “Theatres or Institutions,” I articulated a personal feeling that I believe was shared:
In my own mind now these two words exist in a kind of uneasy tension, a kind of dialectic opposition, where once they seemed to me to be one and the same word. It seemed to me until quite recently that when a theatre finally stopped being on the way to what it was supposed to become and actually became it, then it would be an institution…. But it has not turned out this way. A seduction is what it really was, a leading-from-the-self. I wonder why.
The artistic director of a large regional theatre wistfully, ironically remarked to me a few months ago, “They wouldn’t even notice if I disappeared—the administrative machine would go on grinding. No one would stop to see that there was nothing in the grinder.”
But I am speaking too negatively. I should not leave this idea with so sullen a view. Our institutional structures are necessary to us. Compartmentalization, specialization, clear and clean procedures and good personnel policies, a strong middle as well as top management structure, the best of promotional and development techniques, budgets that define and defend values and provide guidelines for growth as well as survival are all absolutely essential to us. It isn’t 1950 anymore, and our budgets aren’t $800 a week; we have heard other voices and lived in other rooms since that time. You can’t go home again and no one wants to.
On the other hand we do want, do we not, to avoid the tail wagging the dog or—a worst-case situation—the tail becoming the dog? We do want our institutions to organize themselves around the spiritual/aesthetic life they exist to nurture and not have that life made subservient to the demands of institutional paraphernalia. We are acquainted with the notions of foreground and background and first things first.
A theatre is the enclosing, the enfolding of an idea—a vision—something imagined that has the possibility of finding concrete embodiment. It is simultaneously an imaginative act and a place. When the institutional machine ceases to support the imaginative act and begins to encroach upon the place; when it constricts rather than releases the flow of creative energy by its labyrinthine demands, its busy-ness; when the accumulation of resources, the dissemination of information, and the marketing of the “product” take more focus and absorb more power than what we are making and the conditions under which we make it, then the institution must be dismantled and reconceived along better lines. An institution cannot have a life of its own, be a thing in itself. Its life is derived from the animating Idea, and each and every one of its actions must flow from this Idea and contain a piece of it. When we say that “the business of art is art and not business,” we don’t mean that there is no business in making art (surely, there is!) but that the function and purpose of the business is not itself, but the making of this art. If we fail to get this crystal clear, the institutions we created will become blind mechanisms (the trend is already clear in a number of theatres) instead of sentient organisms, and eventually they will petrify and crumble due to the absence of living tissue. An active recollection of our origins can help us to “know the place” in a new way.
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
I write now from New York. My apartment overlooks Washington Square. From the windows facing fast I can just see Broadway where the new building for the Tisch School of the Arts is located. I’m currently chairing the graduate department of acting there. I have had a longstanding interest in the American actor: the growth and development of the professional actor and the training of the young actor. I am interested in their inner technique (how to produce living behavior), their physical technique (voice, speech, movement), and no less in their mind, psyche and how they see themselves and the part they are to play in shaping the American theatre, for worse or, hopefully, for better. And I’m interested in the connections among these three aspects. I’m grateful for the fresh outlook this new post is providing me.
“See that the players are well bestowed.” Indeed, we must. The actor stands at the center of the art of theatre and always has. Before there were literary forms at all, when there were only rituals and embodied myths, it was the actor—the en-actor—who performed the deeds, represented the human situation and stood in for those who, like himself, were seeking to find out who and why. The theatre is and always will be a special place—a differentiated, imagined, moral place—that a society sets aside in order to examine all that fascinates it and all that it seeks to understand. We are endlessly curious about our world, and especially about ourselves. It seems a biologic necessity, a means of survival even, that we ask the questions and act out even what is unanswerable. A society without a theatre is a society that is in the process of disintegration.
Theatre: Teatron: a place for seeing. Camus wrote, “If the world were clear, art would not exist. Art helps us pierce the opacity of the world.” In his struggle for his own truth, in trying to pull away the life-mask, the actor lets us see ourselves. Through his ability to be himself and yet walk in the footsteps of another, to show himself and still be faithful to the truth of another, the actor teaches us who we are. The theatre can make do without anything but the actor.
So why do we deal with him or her in so desultory a fashion? The theatre of our beginning took for granted that the actor came first and therefore that the company came first, because the company is the natural habitat of the actor. No one taught us that. It seemed to be simple, organic knowledge and we just acted on it. Perhaps it came from what we knew of the Berliner Ensemble, the Moscow Art Theatre, Shakespeare’s company or Moliere’s, or from our own idealistic attempts—Eva Le Gallienne’s Repertory Company and the Group Theatre of the ’30s, for example.
In the early years of the ’50s we chose plays that suited our particular company, assigned roles with the growth and development of our individual actors in mind, cast to the furthest, not the nearest, limits of an actor’s talents (with very little “cosmetic” casting from the outside) and looked upon our companies as our greatest asset. While some of this might have been adventitious (we wanted the productions to “look good” and we were short of money), I recall our choices as being more purely motivated. The fact that young actors played older characters and that so-and-so who “just wasn’t the right type for the role” played it anyway proved itself out. At least for us at Arena. And not only were major, individual talents developed by these choices but later, when actors moved on to other work, the whole American theatre became enriched. I have carefully checked myself out. I’m not looking at the past through the blur of revisionist remembering.
The output of a theatre is always more than the sum of its parts. Its level of expressiveness (I prefer this phrase to that other one, “professional standards,” which I find elusive) depends most of all on releasing the energy and creativity of a whole group: on shaping and sending out a collective consciousness, in a general sense, as in “the spirit of the collective,” as well as specifically, in an interpretation, a viewpoint toward any single production. Since a play is its own world and since the chief ingredient of any world (fictive or real) is the pattern and timbre of its human interrelationships, the interior meanings of the play stand a better chance of being revealed by a group whose members know each other, relate well to each other and have found a way of thinking together, playing together (a play is play) and approaching their tasks in a mutually understood way, have a common vocabulary. That is to say, by an acting company. At the same time, the individual actor always develops best within a continuing group.
It is sometimes quite astonishing to see the flowering that can take place when failures can be outlived, successes are not blown up out of proportion to what life can consistently offer, continuity is assured, casting is sometimes offbeat—for the benefit of the actor, not the management—and friendly faces permit experimentation, a “what-the-hell” attitude toward work that everyone really knows is very serious, and a de-emphasis on quick results.
I wrote an open letter to Robert Prosky in 1978, the anniversary of his 20th consecutive year as a company member at Arena Stage. I spoke about his achievements, about the roles he had played, about the way that he worked. Then I spoke about his personal life, his wife and three sons, and about other sources for his evolution over the two decades into a major American actor. Here is something from this letter that relates to the development of the actor within a permanent, company situation:
Since it is life that we show in the theatre (sometimes I think we play variations on only one theme: that we are all more simply human than otherwise), life is what the actor has to know about. And no actor can show more than is in him to show. The actor’s talent is fed by his life or it dries up and grows thin. You have grown fuller and fuller with your life. You say you came to Arena with three suitcases, intending to stay eight weeks. Your stay expanded into 20 years, and there aren’t enough suitcases to hold what has happened to you, what you “own.”…
I think you have evolved into who you are because you have had a creative home and the opportunity for the continuous exercise of your skill.. . . You have been able consciously to structure and layer your abilities in a way not given to many actors in this country. From play to play, from season to season, it has been possible for you to experience and to examine the building blocks of your craft—its laws of inner technique, aspects of physical embodiment, and the relationship between the two—in a systematic and progressive way. And not only to experience and examine, but also to incorporate and use—immediately, not later, when the learning has already cooled. You have had the privilege to be the continuous and conscious maker of your own instrument. What is so destructive about discontinuity in an actor’s life is not simply that it eats away at his sense of self, his ego, which is the raw material from which all else is made, but that he is prevented from “getting it all together.” His body forgets from one experience to another what it has found out. And it is hard, if not impossible, for him to accumulate enough knowledge about himself and about his work to reach the peak of his powers and stay there. His creative bursts tend, then, to be sporadic and in mid-career one wonders what he could do if he had the chance. You have avoided the waste of discontinuous creative work.
Despite the advantages to the actor (and therefore the art) of continuous, creative work, all kinds of justifications came forward over our long, middle years for the virtual abandonment—except in a few key places—of the company idea: the audience got tired of the same faces; actors just wouldn’t stay, the lures of TV and film were too overpowering; productions were shortchanged by limited casting possibilities; it was cheaper to job in actors for each production, and money was needed to build up the administrative machine and especially to raise funds for sheer survival. All were justifications with some truth to them. The Devil can cite Scriptures. But whenever a real commitment was made to the idea of company and to the individual actor, the actors stayed. (Christopher Morley once said, “There is only one success—to spend your life in your own way.” There are numbers of actors who agree.) And because they stayed, the work of that theatre gathered momentum and opened up, expanded beyond itself. Again, the proof is in the pudding.
The best move the National Endowment for the Arts ever made was its recent Ongoing Ensembles program, which seeks to retrace an earlier time when work centered on an acting company and, by extension, the artists—playwrights, directors, designers, trainers, artist/administrators—who surround that center. Like monogamy, the acting company is now “in.” The terms of the grant were stringent, yet 51 applications were received in the first round and another largish number (I think around 28) in the second. Something was bothering the folk out there about the nature of the work and the feeling-tone of their work/lives. The Theatre Program picked up on this negative national mood, or helped to spotlight it, turned it around and made a change in the dominant method of production in this country a real possibility. That’s good.
More must be done to weave our past creatively into our present and on into the future. The kind of training program we had in the late ’60s, for which our actors were not ready but now are, needs reinstituting at several theatres; actors need to have more involvement in the running of their artistic lives—at Arena they already have a large say in the roles they play (often choosing one over another that runs concurrently), and the right to refuse any role, but they should have increased input into what plays are done. Guaranteed year-round salaries (just instituted here, thanks to the Ongoing Ensembles grant) should become more the rule than the exception. Actors are observant and they care about their institutions in an overall way. With some creative thought, they could and should be brought more fully into the working operation of the theatre, even beyond those areas that management might at first think appropriate or of concern to them. I recommend periods of exploration and sheer process, freed from focus on a specific production, as enormously enlivening to a company. The Arena Stage just spent six weeks of summer in this way, three of those weeks in residence at Colorado College both teaching and on our own group search, and now, back in rehearsals, the benefits can be felt in the more improvisational, more open nature of the work.
Twelve years ago our company took two productions to Moscow and Leningrad on a three-week tour. It’s not the only tour we’ve taken, but it was special because ofthe company tradition ofthe Russian theatre. It was (would you believe it?) in Moscow and then Leningrad that we first saw ourselves as we imagined we might be, where we were first recognized as an ensemble of artists with our own style, our own viewpoint. And there has never been that same kind of acknowledgement since. Perhaps in the next 12 years, if there are enough companies and they are strong enough and speak loudly enough in their own voices, America will catch on and catch up. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
I said that the theatre can make do without anything but the actor. I don’t want to retract that statement, but I must confess it to be a more ideological than practical truth. In the complex theatre world we live in, someone has to chart the course and steer the ship. We call the person who does that by various names, the most frequent being “artistic director.” It is a title that can send a shudder through the body of any gifted, sensitive, insightful, responsive, politically minded, knowledgeable, curious, growing, searching, young (or middle-aged?) director who is exactly the right candidate for the job, but who really wants to spend time on the stage with a group of actors evolving the life of a play and not dissipate physical and psychic energy planning one season after the other, gathering up and retaining artists, overseeing the work and developing the talents of others, informing, educating, exhorting and stimulating a board, and representing a theatre to its own members, its community, its world. Gather together a group of artistic directors, succumbed personal artists, all of them, and you have gathered together a group of weary, tormented humans who suffer from the Jimmy Durante syndrome: “Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go and yet you wanted to stay and yet you wanted to go… ?“
Stay, some of us do. Although there has been of late such a fever of movement into and out of and among theatres that the American theatre scene has come to resemble a South American country living out its political destiny! I happen to have on my desk the June and September issues of American Theatre magazine, and under the heading “Entrances and Exits,” one can perceive at one fell swoop the contemporary theatre scene in all of its uneasiness, shifting patterns and causes of complaint. This is surely not the way it was in the old days. In the old days, the theatre was its artistic director. It was the artistic director, propelled by a vision of burning (and blinding; it was not the time of farsighted five-year plans!) intensity, who brought the theatre into being, assembled the meager economic and physical resources (in our case the theatre was a $1.98 cardboard file-box for many months), persuaded into existence a small board, and collected or already had available a group of artists ready to set out on a journey of undetermined length to a vaguely determined destination. The artistic director had no contract as such, only one with him/herself and that was unwritten and, therefore, binding, more or less until death do us part. “Poetry attaches its emotions to the idea; the idea is the fact,” wrote Matthew Arnold. In that sense, our theatres were poetic.
There are still a few theatres left of that original kind. But the more typical situation is that a second or even third generation of leadership heads the theatre, and that he or she has been brought there by a board of directors and has been commissioned, as it were, to create an artwork for the community. Commissions, know, are a viable way to bring artworks into being—history shows us that—but for many reasons the analogy tends to break down in the instance of theatres/institutions. In the first place, the new artistic director usually doesn’t begin with a clean canvas; there is usually a sketch, there may even be a fairly elaborate design inherited from the past, and a number of clear-cut expectations as to pattern and shape. Since an artwork has to start from an internal impulse, a personally held view of a portion of reality, the commissioned artist begins the labor already at a disadvantage.
In the second place, any artist needs a clear run on the artwork and needs to follow his own nose as it develops. Renewing a contract every two or three years, over “evaluations” by the board as the artwork progresses, input coming from all over the place (in one instance, a publicity department sent a memo to an artistic director criticizing the proposed list of plays and suggesting alternate titles that would better suit seasonal needs and the interests of group sales, and look better on the brochure), and kibitzing along the unending route to completion of this piece of art (about subscribers: don’t lose them; about money: take in more, spend less; about repertoire: be daring but hang on to audiences; about failures: by all means have them, but only two out of eight)—none of this is conducive to a sure hand or a free play of instinct, both necessary to the creative process. And in the third place (which may be the first place), the board, despite its care and concern, might have selected someone from the wrong genre altogether; they may have picked an action painter when what they really meant to have was an abstract expressionist or a representational artist whose specialty was landscapes. After a while, the discrepancies and divergences become obvious either to one party or the other or to both, and separation, usually very painful, becomes the only way out.
I am describing the nature of things, how things are. The pressures are real on both sides. However, since the artist is primary to the artwork, which is to say, we can’t have a theatre without an artistic director and, indeed, the theatre derives its life from within him or her, it seems that we should scrutinize with great care and revamp where necessary this “commissioning” process, starting from its inception and following it all along the way. I think there is no going back to our beginnings here. Because of current economic pressures, I doubt that there will be many new theatres starting up from scratch with the old insistence, the old do-or-die. And because of the very fertility of the field, born out of the success of the movement over the past decades, there are so many seductive opportunities out there that turnover in leadership is bound to remain the prevailing mode and a persistent problem. The closest we can come to perpetuating our personal visions, those of us who came down on the side of “feeling that you wanted to stay,” is to train our successors from within the institution we are still making.
I received a letter from a distinguished management consultant firm outlining the criteria for selecting an artistic director for one of our major theatres:
- Appropriate scale of work
- Commitment to, and experience with, classics
- Ability to develop a resident ensemble of artists
- Long-range planning and vision and ability to lead the board
- A personality and style suitable to institutional leadership, especially as it relates to developing the ensemble and community support.
I think these are excellent criteria and I wish with all my heart that they are met by an available visionary who will leap forward to take up the challenge. I hope it is not inappropriate or too forward of me to add to these five points, or to flesh them out. With this man or woman, young or older, American or from the world at large, I would like to share these suggestions, born from my own long journey.
People have more power over their own lives and the lives of others than they think. This power is not necessarily theirs but comes from the idea that inhabits them. (Margo Jones put it this way: “If you have a million-dollar idea, you can raise a million dollars!”) The world has more cracks in it than substance; more or less everything and more or less everybody are constantly slipping through them. If you marshal your ideas clearly, know as much as you can know about what you want, your foothold will be strong. Until you are sure enough, put up with the pangs of aloneness. If you have a friend or two with whom you can share your doubts, you are blessed. Boards, foundations, the community at large will not be smitten by your doubts (to them, they will look like more cracks in the universe), even though they may be the most creative thing about you. Know your position inside and out; when it is ripe, share it.
Also, know your territory. Incorporate into your vision deep, experiential knowledge of its tastes, hungers, presences and absences, past, dreams, pocketbooks, proclivities and, of course, its theatre board and especially the president of it. If the knowledge, when incorporated, despoils the vision, don’t go to that place, go somewhere else or do something else. There won’t be time to change things very profoundly. The long run doesn’t exist anymore.
Hang on to your obsession for dear life. If they pry it loose from you with their caution and precautions, you have lost and become a functionary. In order to lead you have to be a leader, which is to say, someone obsessed with a vision that propels you over and under all obstacles and through the inevitable periods of despair and fatigue. If “other considerations” begin to tip the scales away from the permeating vision (except, perhaps, in the very, very short term), the battle has been lost; you just haven’t gotten word.
Be a genius. If you aren’t a genius, try harder. No board would dare encroach upon Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Stanislavski or Balanchine. If you try and still can’t be a genius, be a strong, committed working artist. If your work is original enough, yours enough, it is unassailable. But even this won’t be sufficient. You must also stand firm with it. You must hold to your point of view, your way of seeing things, and compromise only in the scheme, in the details. If you permit open spaces around the center of the impulse, other forces will rush in and occupy them.
A necessary though seemingly antithetical demand is that you make your own all the conditions and circumstances that other people see and that, indeed, are there. The constrictions of budget must be felt as your constrictions; only then will you not resent them and retain the power to burst them open. The recalcitrance of the audience; the difficulty of assembling a repertoire that satisfies both you and your associated artists, as well as your audiences; the hazards of limited time for rehearsal and contemplation; the unending demands made on you as the head of an institution—you must feel them as coming not from outside yourself but from within, or they will deplete you to the point where you are powerless to manipulate or change them. Claim the place, with all its problems, as your own. Face up to the fact that you don’t have five years to prove yourself, the world is moving too fast and things cost too much. You have to deliver the goods—produce—in the present tense. In an interview this summer in The Washington Post by drama critic David Richards, Liberace was quoted as saying, “With out a show, there’s no business.” That’s tough, but it’s real. Artistic directors should not expect coddling because that expectation won’t be fulfilled.
And, if you possibly can, come in with collaborators, artistic associates with whom you have worked before and who share your vision. The job is now too complex to be a one-person show. And learn to plan. Live in the moment, as if you are an actor on stage, and plan as if you were the director of an opera company. Rub your belly while you pat your head.
“These things being subscribed to, you may, by degrees, dwindle into—an artistic director.” Given an inclination to take it on, plus the requisite touch of fire, artistic leadership can be taught and learned. It’s no longer a mystery. I have been urging for 20 years that a training center be organized for artistic directors, funded by a foundation and probably based at a university. A combination of study and apprenticeship could provide us with six or a dozen people groomed for the hazards and, yes, the exhilaration of making an artwork of an institution. As it is now, we are doing too much reshuffling of our existing leadership resources and dampening the possibility of reaching the highest artistic achievement in any one place, or, one can hope, any two or three places. Or four.
Back in Washington now, I look for the July/August issue of American Theatre which contains Peter Zeisler’s editorial entitled “A National Agenda.” I am interested in reading again what he has to say about the increasingly important role of the board of trustees over recent years in view of greater responsibilities both for fund-raising and for hiring artistic and managing directors for the next generation of their theatres. Zeisler states that participants at a recent meeting of representatives from the various arts disciplines unanimously identified the relationships between staff and trustees as the most pressing problem facing arts institutions today, and notes that we are still exploring the role of trustees in their governance. He also lays the groundwork for a project to develop a “national artistic agenda” for the nonprofit theatre: to hammer out goals and examine the ways in which barriers to artistic growth can be overcome. In the September issue of the magazine, trustee Suzanne Pestinger is quoted: “Share with us your ideas, beliefs, visions. Educate us so we can help.”
I am moved by this sincere and heartfelt request, and it should be responded to in full measure. And I empathize with the heavy burdens placed on the shoulders of theatre trustees who volunteer their time and concern, often at the expense of their own work and private pleasure, for an endeavor that, after all, does not stand at the center of their lives as it does ours whose profession it is. I salute and thank them. The demand, again and yet again, for more and yet more money for expanding artistic needs must be wearying indeed. And holding in one’s hands the very definition of a theatre institution through the choice of an artistic or managing director must surely be experienced as awesome.
But the responsibility to raise money and the responsibility to find new leaders do not take care of describing the relationship between staff and trustees or the increasing importance that relationship is coming to have. Underneath these responsibilities, and affecting them, lie other matters—questions of attitude and feeling that should be probed and illuminated. If we can do this creatively, perhaps we can improve upon what exists. Perhaps a deeper understanding of our separate positions would lighten the burden on both staff and trustees. My remarks are made in the spirit of exploration and not final wisdom since I, too, am in changing waters.
Arena does not have a “money board,” and given the choice of that kind of board and the other, I prefer it this way. The board, many of its members hard working and deeply caring, has limited fund-raising capacities in a city notorious for its lack of philanthropic yield; the development department of the theatre has always borne the main responsibility for closing the deficit gap. We chafe at this a little and wish the board could do more. And so do they. But both Tom Fichandler and I believe that a theatre is most artistically free in this society when it can earn as much as possible by its own devices—box office on the regular season, special events, interest on reserves and investments, royalties and the like. We account for 75 percent of our expenses in this manner. For years the theatre management, with only one or two minor exceptions, has balanced the budget and showed a surplus, sometimes quite a hefty one. We have been fortunate enough and, yes, insistent enough to do the repertoire of our choice and although, because of enormous competition in the city, we don’t have as many subscribers as a number of other theatres around the country, we play, fairly consistently, to around ninety percent of capacity. From the trustee point of view, the theatre has not posed a lot of problems, it pleases me to say.
Tom and I have been the sole leaders from the beginning, so the question of continuity has not been a weight upon the board. Indeed, we both feel it our responsibility to provide choices for our own successors in order to maintain the Arena tradition to which both board and staff subscribe, and that was recently elaborated on, in joint deliberation, in our mission statement. Further, we have been, if anything, over-assiduous in sharing our “ideas, beliefs, visions.” If nothing else, I am a talker. If talking can do it, the board knows what Arena stands for, what it needs and means to do further and how much it will cost. The staff has also provided the future thrust of the theatre: Our five-year plan contains motion and intentionality, it is not just a chart of numbers concocted to satisfy one funding instrumentality or another; it is ours, the theatre’s, and it is subscribed to by the board, which has taken shared responsibility for its fulfillment.
Where, then, is the rub?
In 1959, Jacques Barzun wrote, in The House of Intellect:
Many directors of corporate foundations and some university trustees handle money for research and education not as if they were engaged in a nonprofit enterprise, but as if they were engaged in an enterprise that was failing to make a profit. In other words, they do not see where the actual profit lies. It being intellectual, and they not, it is to them invisible.
Replace the terms “corporate foundations” and “universities,” and note that Barzun says “many” and “some” (we all have trustees who are intellectual), and that’s a statement worth pondering. I suggest that, still, after decades of empirical proof, it has not been accepted—viscerally accepted—by boards of trustees, however much it has been hammered at, however much it is intellectually “understood,” that Not-for-Profit is really a benign and affirmative idea and not a negative and death-dealing one. And that to be not for profit is less defining than to be for something else: something more transcendent than economic profit and in another category altogether; a mode of human transaction entirely other than the one about money. I wonder if this attitude can ever be dug out from the subconscious of our governors—lawyers, doctors, accountants, builders, businessmen—whose daily lives are lived elsewhere and in another way. “As a man lives, so is he.” (One does not want to typecast here: There can be skinny butchers, homely lovers, left-wing millionaires, and politicians who write poetry. Nonetheless, I share what I have experienced.)
I would be overjoyed to find a trustee (am I not sending out strong enough signals?) who, on some one issue, would position himself on the other side so that we could switch and have a fresh look at things. I am able to take his position and often do; why is he not able to take mine? I wait expectantly, hopefully, for that Special One who will plead with me to consider lowering ticket prices, or raising salaries of underpaid technicians or non-competitively paid middle managers, or prod me to expand our playwrights’ wing or our advertising budget, or to take the company on tour, or to spend more on the artistic product. But the pressures back and forth are always predictable, they never surprise. The tug-of-war is played over and over again in just the same way. Art against money, how much nonprofit is too much?, us against them, our eyes raised up in aspiration, theirs cast down to the bottom line in anxiety and imminent dismay. They are for us and for our dreams. And in locked combat over the Good, they often come over to join us. But why will they not embrace the First Principle: that it is the Art that makes the Money (earned income at the box office and “unearned” income in more intangible ways)? Does it not feel to them, in the deepest places of their hearts, that—when all is said and done—the nonprofit really costs too much? We use the term “partnership.” Can we truly be partners across this philosophical divide?
I admire greatly the statement made by Chloe Oldenberg, trustee from the Cleveland Play House, at a TCG national conference in Costa Mesa last spring: “If we can’t raise questions of ethics and aesthetics with you, we might as well go out and raise money for the American Cancer Society, where everybody agrees that it’s a good thing to cure cancer.” I admire it because it shows involvement in the deeper issues, a concern for the things that even money can’t buy. However, I understand, a bit sadly, the limitations in such an exchange of thought. For aesthetics is our business, our profession (ethics, I suppose, are a shared concern). Surely we are open to discuss them with you and even to be affected by what you say—all subjects should be open to discussion. But trustees must understand that while we can come together for a time on such issues of our profession, ultimately we must become separate. Just as we cannot, in this brief lifetime, understand the ins and outs of your particular profession, ours, too, has its special province.
And after we discuss aesthetics, we must go back to the theatre and put them to work, following our own way, often a lonely and blundering way, but one with its own underlying laws and interior logic.
Taking this a step further: We need help and advice on many things—the law, investments, buildings, contracts, many things. Finally, though, a theatre is a self-contained organism, a creature in its own right. And by now, usually an effectively adaptive one. For survival, our work must be tough-minded and precise, both in its artistic and its managerial aspects, both with time and with money. Boards must trust our competency, for it is there, and demonstrate that trust by not taking on responsibilities that they need not take on. The idea that artists are playful children, whimsical creatures of the night, has long outlived itself.
To go back to Chloe Oldenberg’s statement: Curing cancer is certainly a priority. But would it not be helpful if each trustee felt that “everyone agrees it’s an (equally) good thing” to know ourselves and our world through the formal constructions of art? Please support us because we matter in the abstract—matter extravagantly and immeasurably—in the long, evolutionary process of mankind; support us because we are an instrument of civilization; and for no smaller or more personal reason.
A board tends to think more of the future of the institution and to be terrified of its death. A theatre tends to think more of its present and that it will only die because it is ready for it and should. This is another great philosophical as well as psychological divide. The board wants to squirrel away resources against the winter. The theatre wants to use them now, thinking that if they are used well, there is a chance of a perennial spring. I suggest that the board’s way of thinking is contradictory to the world’s oldest wisdom, which teaches us that if we are not fully alive in this very instant, there is no life at all. I say to our board that risk-taking is not a line item in the budget but a style, an attitude toward living, but no one hears me and that makes me sad. Perhaps I am not saying it well enough.
A 1965 Rockefeller Board Report on “The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects” states:
Good business brains and performances are essential to the successful operation of these organizations, but more than these are required, for the problems are unique. Artistic judgments defying business calculations enter at every step.
Bottom-line thinking doesn’t always get to the bottom of things. An artistic director lives in dread of getting out of touch with his/her subconscious sources. An institution is a work of art: feats of deliberation, strategy, craft and cunning derive from powerful, unconscious motives. I have said what I think artistic directors should do. If boards of trustees could offer up their trust, especially on key forward moves and, of course, totally on artistic choices, perhaps the great divide would narrow.
Bertolt Brecht tells us in The Caucasian Chalk Circle:
Everything should belong to whoever is
best for it—
Children to the motherly, so that they shall
Wagons to good drivers, to be well driven,
And the valley to those who will water it
and make it fruitful.
The board must be accountable to the community for the honesty and integrity of its theatre, for the perpetuation of its leadership, for its overall policies in the broadest sense and for resources of all kinds, including funds, to assist it in its stability and growth. But “the sand takes lines unknown.” The board must also support the elusiveness of the creative enterprise. If there is to be a partnership, it must be one of the spirit as well as of the pocketbook.
How we, at 35, resolve these four questions—the one about institutions, the one about artists and especially actors, the one about artistic leadership and the one about staff/trustee relationships—will determine how we will look five years from now. After 40, someone said, a man is responsible for his own face.
In the 35 years since Zelda Fichandler cofounded the Arena Stage, where she continues to serve as producing director, she has directed many plays, including The Three Sisters, Death of a Salesman, An Enemy of the People, Six Characters in Search of an Author and the American premieres of the new Eastern European works Duck Hunting, The Ascent of Mt. Fuji and Screenplay. Her Inherit the Wind toured to Moscow and Leningrad in 1973, and in 1980 the company performed her After the Fall in Hong Kong. She also serves as chair of the Acting and Directing Department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Numerous awards granted to her and to Arena Stage under her tenure include the first Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award given to a company outside of New York, the Margo Jones Award for “signficant contribution to the dramatic art through the production of new plays,” the Brandeis University Creative Arts Citation in Theatre, the Acting Company’s John Houseman Award for “commitment and dedication to the development of young American actors” and, most recently, the 1985 Common Wealth Award for distinguished service to the theatre.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!