Adrian Hall, founding artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., from 1964 to 1989 and artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center from 1983-89, died on Feb. 4. He was 95. This is one of two tributes to his memory; the other, by Trinity Rep’s current artistic director, Curt Columbus, is here.
When Adrian Hall died at his family’s 150-year-old home in Van, Texas—where the population today is 2,000; it was 800 in his youth—it was after a long, lonely struggle with Alzheimer’s. Surrounded during his life by long-term collaborators, by his beloved mother and sister and nieces, by his life’s companion, composer Richard Cumming, and by his devoted assistant and former board member, Marion Simon, Adrian had expected to die surrounded by these family and friends. Instead he nursed them all to their deaths and lived the final decade of his life alone. In what I recognize as the highly unusual and resonant way his life unfolded, his longest and closest collaborator, designer Eugene Lee, died exactly 48 hours later in New England.
Lee’s passing was widely noted, of course, because of Saturday Night Live—an Adrian Hall set if there ever was one—as well as his Tony Awards for Candide, Wicked, and Sweeney Todd. The 70-plus sets and two theatres that Lee built for Hall went largely unmentioned. “It’s a miracle we met…He saved my life,” Lee once wrote in a tribute to Hall. “He took me in…He’s some kind of unusual genius…Pretty pictures don’t interest me. Adrian wasn’t interested either. Space interests me. Process interests me. In his book The Empty Space, Peter Brook says he had a set designer build a model for his first Broadway play. At the first rehearsal, he threw it all away. Adrian was like that. Adrian always had principles behind what he did. He was wildly enthusiastic. In all those years, Adrian never had an office in the building. He never had a production meeting.” Lee added, “The world at large has absolutely no knowledge of Adrian’s work. In my case, people just know me from my Broadway and TV work. The real work, nobody knows anything about.”
Hall left Van in the late 1940s and, like so many others, had a life-changing encounter with Margo Jones, the Texas Tornado and mother of regional theatre (“Leave New York!” was her motto), who discovered Tennessee Williams and directed the world premiere of The Glass Menagerie, as well as Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee‘s Inherit the Wind. As she did with Horton Foote, Jones sent Hall to the Pasadena Playhouse Hall after a year of college—his entire education. In 1959, Hall was drafted and sent to Germany, where he saw Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. Grotowski’s work was soon a major influence, as well as his new knowledge of Meyerhold. As he later said at Trinity, “It was important to me to let these people in Providence, Rhode Island, know that art—as Brecht said—ain’t nice, darlin’. It’s got warts, it’s ugly and it’s infuriating as hell. But boy, can it be outrageous. It’s the only craft that I know that has the potential to change men’s souls.”
Tall, handsome, interested in everything, Hall had a highly focused, unusual way about him—brilliant, uncensored, curious about the opinions of others and brutal at times. It was thrilling and, for many, scary to be around him. He was surrounded by acolytes throughout his career, and absolutely fearless when standing up for his beliefs.
“Being gay, well, it’s an outsider status, no matter what anyone else says, and part of me really likes that,” he said. “It keeps me on edge, keeps me aware of not being fully accepted, what it’s like being scorned and thought less of because you’re different. I identify with society’s rejects. Always have. That’s what my work is about.” His father could never accept him, but Hall recalled, “When I left home to go in the army over to Germany, I can remember, so clearly, on the platform, my father taking me in his arms and hugging me. He wasn’t usually that demonstrative. I’ll never forget the feel of his arms around me.”
Hall moved to New York in the late ’50s and began directing, and after some standard rough beginnings, where he was replaced when shows he directed moved, he began to think about working in regional theatre. In 1964, he was appointed artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in the then-depressed working-class former mill town of Providence, R.I., at a theatre without a home, and there he began his work with Eugene Lee. The NEA has just been created. Trinity Square was deserted. Twenty years later, Trinity Rep had 20,000 subscribers, the theatre’s operating budget was $3.7 million, and it employed 150 people. An audience of 173,000 supported an 11-play season featuring a full-time company of 37 actors, many of whom had moved to Providence to make it their home. Trinity Rep was awarded the 1981 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. Hall and Lee staged Dürrenmatt’s The Visit in a site-specific production at the Providence train station.
Most importantly, Hall created the Project Discovery Program with support from the NEA and the enthusiastic backing of the governor of Rhode Island, whereby every high school student in the state attended three Trinity Rep shows in each year of high school.
“The Project Discovery kids couldn’t get connected with some boring stuff behind the proscenium arch,” Hall recalled. “The little bastards were more interested in slashing the seats and tearing the plumbing out of the bathrooms. So Eugene and I just had to get at ‘em—frighten the shit out of ‘em. Make ‘em laugh and participate in action that was so fast and furious that they had little chance but to hang on or else!”
A young Viola Davis, who later got her Equity card acting at Trinity Rep, was one of those kids. She recalled: “The first play I remember was Arsenic and Old Lace. I want to say I was 14. I remember Richard Kneeland (GREAT actor) was in it. The effect it had on me? At 14, I made a personal declaration that I wanted to be an actor. I believed in its magic, its healing powers, and I wanted the ability to extract myself from this world and enter another. I was mesmerized….by the costumes, the lighting, the artists, and—this was a big one for me, coming from dysfunction—I felt I belonged. Adrian always had the ability to do that…make the community a part of the play. The actors at any given point could be a train, break the fourth wall, physically be in the audience at times. He used actors of any shape, age, and ethnicity and used them according to talent. His imagination was endless and brave. Trinity became a gathering place in a community where there were no gathering places for the whole.”
As the years passed, Hall’s approach gained its focus. He began with plays of extraordinary provocation and reach: classics, adaptations, gay plays, plays about abortion, hidden parts of American history and current events from Charles Manson, classics from Racine and Arthur Miller, new plays by Julie Bovasso and John Guare. He learned to temper the controversial with the expected, a holiday Christmas Carol, and his audience continued to grow.
He never really learned to drive, taking his his life—and his passengers’—in his unsteady hands. He never opened his mail and was in trouble more than once for not paying important bills. The Governor of Rhode Island helped him out when he was in danger of losing his home and then joined Trinity’s board. A millionaire donor from New York took allowed Adrian to pick her up at the train station in his car in a snowstorm; arriving at the theatre, she threw her sable coat in the gutter so he wouldn’t have to get his feet wet.
Hall and Lee developed a radical aesthetic; everything was stripped down. The action took place among the audience. The acting company was cross-cast ethnically, there was full-frontal male nudity, an onstage abortion. That final item, in an adaptation of the cult James Purdy novel Eustace Chisholm and the Works, brought things to a boiling point, and this is where Hall’s real legend began. He was fired by his board for this controversial selection, though it had grossed more than any other play that season. And to the amazement of artistic directors across the nation, he responded by firing his board. The staff and acting company mounted a campaign to reinstate him, going door to door, writing petitions, and the board relented.
By now, Hall and Lee’s aesthetic was complete, forged from American roots but informed by European avant-garde masters. In the 1993 book Theater to Change Men’s Souls: The Artistry of Adrian Hall, Jeannie Marlin Woods wrote, “All those scenic embellishments interfered with the spectator’s visceral emotional response to the performance. Hall and Lee reached two conclusions: 1. If the spectator is put in the position of pretending that the fake thing is real by being offered a trembling flat in place of a real wall or a rubber knife in place of an actual weapon when the action of the text offers real pain or emotional danger, the spectator is left off the hook and can retreat into a safe corner because it has been established that this is only make-believe, and 2. If the spectator is presented with a highly decorative literal presentation of reality, the images have been so completely defined by the director and his designers that there is nothing left for the spectators to do but sit back and watch the passing spectacle. S/he is therefore discouraged from participating emotionally in the event.” Ergo, in Hall and Lee’s world, “Everything would be real.”
Hall’s Holy Grail—a project he pursued from the late 1960s to the end of his life with Eugene Lee and composer Richard Cumming—was the work of Robert Penn Warren, a friend from Connecticut they called “Red.” Hall was a political animal at heart, and two works by Red Warren preoccupied him for the remaining decades of his life. Both have to do with the frailties of American democracy and this country’s poisoned racial history. The first, which was done at Trinity (and included in the student performances) was Warren’s epic poem Brother to Dragons whose subject is a little-known event: the time in 1811 that two of Thomas Jefferson’s nephews butchered a slave for breaking a porcelain pitcher. A fascinating discussion arose about adapting Warren’s poem, and then a groundbreaking dialogue about how to portray it onstage. How do you actually hack someone to death? In Hall and Lee’s production, each night the actor brought onstage a large joint of meat purchased nearby and, surrounded by the audience, actually hacked the bone apart with an axe. This was not an easy task, and the bone and flesh often flew into the surrounding audience. The results were electrifying, visceral, and real, though the means were symbolic—the ultimate Hall/Lee realization.
Adrian, Lee, and Cumming also tried for decades to adapt Warren’s great novel All the King’s Men for the stage. They worked on almost a half a dozen productions as they tried to find the heart and throughline of Warren’s fictionalization of the story of Huey Long, now so unbelievably prescient in the age of Trump. Warren’s Willie Stark, like the real-life Long, was assassinated before the damage moved to the national arena. Still, the book looks closely at America’s flirtation with totalitarianism. Or rather, looked, decades before the future we live in today. For one staging, Adrian enlisted songwriter Randy Newman, and his music became the score of the productions. Newman’s “Sail Away,” after all, is a song about a slave ship coming into Charleston Bay, and his album Good Old Boys explicitly references Long and Louisiana in a number of songs. At one point early on, I got involved in the development of the piece (I had worked with Adrian and Eugene on several Shakespeare plays at the Delacorte for Joe Papp during the ’80s), and we all broke our heads trying to crack the code of a potential play adaptation that could come in to New York.
As Adrian approached 60, he was offered the position of artistic director at the Dallas Theater Center, then in a brand new building by Frank Lloyd Wright. Feeling an urge to return to Texas, Hall endeavored for several seasons to run both huge theatre complexes at the same time, flying between cities. For a while he did this successfully, winning a second Tony Award for outstanding regional work in Dallas. But the Dallas board, theatre space, and affluent River Oaks audiences were not to Adrian’s liking; the seating closest to the stage was reserved for donors and was often empty. Eugene Lee didn’t feel that Wright understood the theatre, and successfully pressured the board to redesign parts of the space. When that was completed, Adrian gave notice at Trinity and decided to return full-time to Dallas to be nearer to his family. But after he gave an interview to Kevin Kelly at The Boston Globe in which he aired some of his misgivings about the Dallas audiences and board—supposedly off the record but printed by Kelly anyway—the DTC board fired him on the day the moving van with all his possessions arrived in Texas.
Adrian moved home to Van and his mother and sister and directed as a freelance director around the country for a year. When the artistic director who had replaced him in Dallas the year before died unexpectedly, Adrian took the position for a few years. Meanwhile his replacement in Providence, Anne Bogart, immediately fired the entire acting company who had purchased homes and whose children were in school there. Times were changing. Successive artistic directors—Richard Jenkins, then Oskar Eustis—would stabilize the theatre, but the dream of a resident acting company at a repertory theatre was gone, as it was in many other theatres across the U.S.
Eustis, now at the Public Theater, was a fervent Adrian admirer, and I include here his amusing excerpt from a souvenir book published by the theatre at a tribute to Adrian:
“I first met Adrian in 1990 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. He was appearing on a panel with Kenneth Branagh and Leon Katz, the renowned scholar and writer who headed Yale’s dramaturgy program for many years. The panel was discussing contemporary approaches to the classics, and Adrian completely dominated the proceedings, weaving a spellbinding tale of how the entire professional theatre in America sprang from the touring productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, how our field was created in the crucible of the anti-slavery struggle, how idealism and commerce had been mixed together from the very inception of our craft in the New World. It was a brilliant, voracious, funny performance. I was absolutely captivated. Afterwards Leon, brilliant, septuagenarian, cynical, said, ‘I would follow that man into hell.’ He inhaled his ever-present cigarette, paused, and added, ‘Of course, if he was teaching theatre history, we’d have to fire him.’”
The former dramaturg of Lincoln Center Theater, Anne Cattaneo is the author of The Art of Dramaturgy, published by Yale University Press.
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