Address to the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society in Celebration of the Third Annual Zelda Fichandler Award
Thank you so much, Jonathan, for your gracious introduction and your ongoing work as artistic director of California Shakespeare Theatre. And congratulations on being the inaugurating recipient of this Award. I feel at home here in the Kreeger with my tribe of artistic directors, directors and actors and other theatre folk from around the country. I look forward to speaking with you.
This Award was launched to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, and was the brain child of the Society’s President, Karen Azenberg, who flew in from directing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to be with us; Laura Penn, our Union’s dedicated Executive Director; and Tom Moore, who flew in on his own steam, having become—to top his directing career—a trapeze artist!
It would take an aerialist to see the full implications of the Award, tracing as it does the impulse born some sixty years ago, to make a thing that would help our fellow humans to know themselves, to fathom more deeply the chaos that is our world, and, in the presence of each other, to shine a spotlight on the delight of being alive. That thing acquired a name—a rather awkward name I must say—“the not-for-profit regional theatre.” The Ford Foundation had first suggested “residential theatre,” but we protested, it sounded like a home for young girls. Whatever the name, we love it because it is where we have found an opportunity to work, to grow, to experience the deep pleasure of making a contribution through the artform we’re committed to. And to avoid spending our brief candle searching for a place where we could be of use, the deepest need of every human being.
Of course, I’m deeply honored to have my name attached to this Award. I have my Steuben glass apple from Tiffany’s, my gilt-framed certificate, and my medallion from President Clinton, which I’ve put on a chain and tried to hang around my neck, but it’s too heavy for that. But this is something else again. This represents a story—a history. It celebrates the past, a vibrant present, and promises an evolving future if we stay with it and solve our problems as we’ve always solved them—with tenacity, imagination, and hope: and if we can continue to be tough in the service of something that is tender.
I want to say what we all know, but what I want you to know that I know. I was there at the beginning, and am lucky enough to still be here while many are not, but I was not the founder of this movement. The idea for our kind of theatre was there ready to be found at a particular moment in our history, post-World War II, why just then is not entirely clear. For some reason, among Arena’s first acting company in 1950 were young actors George Grizzard, Frances Sternhagen, Pernell Roberts, Dorothea Hammond, Ned Beatty, Tom Bosley, and Philip Bosco, all either out of universities, back from the war, or had moved to this area, all ready to come to work for $55 a week. A few years later came Jane Alexander, Melinda Dillon, Roy Scheider, Halo Wines, Richard Bauer, Robert Prosky, Dianne Wiest, Howard Witt, Max Wright, Mark Hammer, Terry Currier, at a salary more appropriate to their talents.
There are form-givers in every new style of art, form-givers in new scientific inventions, new medical discoveries, new technologies. There may seem to be just one in front but, like seeds under the snow, they emerge in small clusters and, if the plants are strong, they become widely absorbed into the culture.
So, then, I’m the chorus in Henry V, and for that I’m very proud to have this Award in my name. You recall it’s the Chorus who enlists the imagination of the audience to “imagine if we speak of horses that you see them,” and, “into a thousand parts divide one man.” Well, I’m your man, and there are a thousand men and women with me. More than a thousand. Many thousands. I think of them, I knew and know so many of them, I feel their presence. The founders: Joe and Gordon and Tyrone and Nina and of course Margo, who was truly the first; and Jules when Amy Irving was still crawling around on the kitchen floor when I met them; and Herbert, his partner, and all the others who came after them – using these founders as a model or finding their own way, each with his personal individual nature, his own inherent style and view of the world. And all the actors through all the years, all the directors – architects of our work – and all the designers and stage and production managers, administrators and artisans and board members, and fundraisers, and so on and so on, and so on – who have made this idea concrete. So many thousands. There’s hardly room for me on the stage. I should move away and give room for the others, and in my mind I do.
Tony Kushner, never a man of tentative words, writes that the work we began “led to one of the most significant developments in American theatre history, perhaps it’s most important 20th century development.”
Just think of it. Nobody was looking for us, peering through the window, watching for us to come to relieve the boredom and unawareness of their lives. It was we who had to teach and persuade them to want what we wanted to give them. And we had to insist on it for their own good, but, really, for our own, if we were honest enough to admit that. Sometimes it still feels like we’re selling a bill of goods to an over-scheduled public – texting and e-mailing away – but mostly we’ve been successful . . . Nobody called us, but we came.
Margo Jones was already an iconic figure when the American National Theatre and Academy set up an appointment for me with her in their offices in New York in the early 50s. Out of respect, I had bought a new, lightweight blue knit dress and a snazzy hat with a big floppy brim. My white gloves were a duplicate of Jackie Kennedy’s and my high heels made me walk very gingerly. I found Margo atop a desk, her legs dangling in her sandaled feet, wearing a casual summer short-sleeved dress and a ribbon in her hair.
I asked for her advice, any advice. She said, “There isn’t a lot to say, just follow your heart and you can’t go wrong.” A pause, then she said “If you have a million-dollar idea, you can raise a million dollars.” I asked if I was on the right track, and then came the prophecy that appeared later in her book, Theatre in the Round: “I dream of 40 of these theatres all around America, that’s what we need to have.” She didn’t live long enough to see what happened, but it happened as she said it would. It did grow to 40, and now it’s over 1,000.
What drew us to the way we went? What was the vision, the inciting incident? Actually, there was no incident, no high drama, there was simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things, a tilt of the head, a revolution in our perception. We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. We thought there had to be a better way, and we made that up out of what was lying around ungathered and, standing on the shoulders of earlier efforts in America and examples common in other countries, we went forward, some of us starting small, some like the Guthrie, big.
Theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists.
The fabric of the thought that propelled us was that theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art. Perhaps we should simply call ourselves art theatres. What do you think?
There’s an expressive word, I believe it’s Sanskrit – and the word is apava – that translates as “the effective means to make a vision concrete” or workable or real. Our apava, strangely enough, turned out to be the nonprofit corporation. Some of us might take that fact for granted, but we shouldn’t. It’s the basic reality of our existence. Before nineteen hundred and fifty something, theatre was excluded from the benefits given to science, universities, charities, the church, opera, and maybe dance – but not theatre, because it made a profit. We knew that without the nonprofit blanket we could not exist, for it allows us to receive gifts and grants and to be free of taxes on tickets.
Here’s a story with a happy ending. On behalf of Arena Stage, I wrote a long document to the Department of the Treasury, supporting theatre as an instrument of education – e-ducere, to lead forth – from not-seeing to seeing; not-knowing to knowing; from darkness into light. And therefore, deserving of tax relief. The document happened to land on the desk of an Arena subscriber! And was read into the Congressional Record. We’ve been nonprofit ever since; actually, our profit is simply of a different kind. I don’t know if that essay was in any way determining, but if it was, perhaps I’m entitled to my name on this distinguished award. . .
At any rate, we still have issues to ponder and resolve in order to keep moving forward. Reading a number of your Award applications, which I found most interesting, I know you’re thinking about these, as am I. Here are half a dozen thoughts about the path forward. These are personal to me. You don’t have to agree.
First, we must take our gaze and any preoccupation away, away from Broadway, from which we took our leave many years ago. If they want what we discover, nourish and perform, that’s okay, though if we have acting companies, we will lose them. But Broadway must not invade our house and take over our home. Always: he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Next, a theatre institution, in and of itself, is an artwork, a collaborative artwork whose principal artist is the artistic director. The artwork is not truly alive until it meets its audience, so that we absolutely want and must have the audience with us, responding with their imagination and belief. But it is we who choose and create the work. Neither Picasso nor Beethoven asked anyone what they wanted to see or hear. That comes from deep within each individual artist. The artist may be lonely or feel unsure of, or inadequate to, what she is making, but she must cling to her integrity – her wholeness – and see it through. Being an artistic director, like growing old, is not for sissies. And smaller theatres are easier.
New plays are, of course, central to our repertory since they come from the very time of our lives, and funds to produce them are at the moment more available than for other needs. Foundations have their cycles as do styles in fashion. But the world classics must remain alive in the present for our contribution to be complete. We are as we were and always will be, and deep truths about our misplaced love, our lust, our foolishness, cruelties, hunger for power, and dread of death are imbedded in these great plays, which turn their faces to us as the world turns. I so deeply believe this, I can’t imagine myself with a repertory that discards the classics as passé or doesn’t explore how cultures other than our own view the human experience.
As I watch the performance of Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Center by Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, Cate Blanchett, artistic director and actor in the company, I am struck again by the cohesion and spontaneity of a group of actors who continue to train and play together over time. The level of freedom within control was unparalleled. We have here our own citywide company of actors who meet up with each other in the important theatres now working in DC. They might enjoy exploring and growing together with a master teacher, as their schedule allows. Australia’s permanent company numbers only nine. It doesn’t take the forty actors (or more) in the European model to set the style and tone of an acting company.
The audience comes into the theatre with today’s newspaper under its arm, and popular culture in its eyes and ears. The artistic director has to live straddling two realities: the unique imaginary world of the play; the other, the real world beyond the doors and who is living there, within range of the theatre’s voice. All theatre is political - the Latin polis, of and about the people. And the artistic director has to read her texts with that in mind and construct her seasons accordingly.
Our theatres are responsible for the future of the art form. The leaders in all areas of the work must pass on what they know. To train and teach, to involve young people in the work, make available to experienced professionals opportunities to expand and deepen their talents, is an organic aspect of our mission. The theatre is a natural place for growth, as different generations learn from each other. This sense of continuity remains a fundamental definition of our institutions. Time is a long river and we’re floating with it.
We must deepen our commitment to create artistic homes for artists, that was part of our promise – not hotels, homes - and the artists must feel that the institution was created for them, to cradle their work, to put them at the center. The problem of sheer survival has given to the institutional aspects of our work – the getting and spending – too much weight, and somehow we need to rebalance this. I would name this our central issue going forward.
I’m omitting a consideration of our financial problems, though I ponder them all the time. Especially the price of tickets, which is a form of censorship, saying who comes in and who stays out. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s New York five-play series sold out at $250 a ticket with a $50 surcharge – $1,500 for the series. None of my friends were able to go. In our own theatres, do we really want to imitate USAir and raise prices incrementally as seats gets scarcer? Do we absolutely have to do this for survival’s sake?
I hear that audiences are dwindling around the country. If that is so, I ask this question: could it be, in part, that the imaginative scale of our work is bowing to meet the budget’s needs? If so, we must not let it happen that way. We must remember that – within reason, within the outer borders of possibility – the risk must be taken because we are in love with the project and must do it and because it’s always the art that makes the money. Always and forever. That’s what I’ve found personally to be true, that’s what we affirmed at the beginning, and that’s why we’re still here, despite all the struggles.
Vaclav Havel, playwright, poet, dissident, politician, currently first president of the Czech republic, speaks about hope. And I close with his words:
Either we have hope within us or we don’t. It is a dimension of the soul, and it is not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world, or estimate of the situation. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.
Hope, in this deep and profound sense, is not the same thing as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good.
And I think that speaks to all of us.
Thank you so much for your presence and your attention.