21 August 2009

Theatrical Continuity

The 45-year-old Théâtre du Soleil, about which I’ve recently written, will soon lose its founder and guide. Ariane Mnouchkine, who’s 70, is already planning for her retirement. She’s doing this in consultation with the company, which works much like a cooperative and has already chosen Mnouchkine’s deputy, Charles-Henri Bradier, to replace her, but it’s bound to be a wrenching experience for the troupe. Some companies have foundered after the departure of an inaugural director. Others went on but changed measurably under new guidance, and still others have had trouble finding their feet again, but managed to right themselves after some stumbles.

The Piccolo Teatro di Milano, founded by Giorgio Strehler in 1947 as one of the first cultural endeavors of post-WWII Italy, has experienced the very throes of rebirth that the Théâtre du Soleil will be facing. Strehler, one of Europe’s most renowned and respected stage directors, died in 1997 and the Piccolo turned to two men to preserve Strehler’s vision: opera house manager Sergio Escobar and the experimental theater director Luca Ronconi. Through the continuity of artists like Ferruccio Soleri (who restaged Strehler’s Arlecchino four years ago), a member of Piccolo’s company since 1958, the troupe’s been able to keep up the work Strehler began, maintaining the Piccolo as a home to the classics and the works of the great writers of the 20th century like Beckett, Brecht, and Pirandello, becoming known as the “Theater of Art for Everyone.” Unlike the work of Mnouchkine, who imprints her productions with the stamp of her unique insight and understanding, Strehler took a less innovative view of the classic plays they presented, reviving their spirits and relevance without reinterpreting their milieux or texts. The Piccolo’s current production, Trilogia della Villeggiatura, for instance, is staged as an 18th-century comedy even if the energy and dynamic of the cast is as modern as David Mamet. Strehler, and now his successors, put an emphasis on the physical work of actors--Strehler was a specialist in Commedia--and that’s in evidence in Villeggiatura. Mnouchkine re-envisioned the Greek plays that tell the story of the House of Atreus as quasi-Kathakali dramas for Les Atrides and reset Tartuffe in the Middle East. It may be harder for the Théâtre du Soleil’s survivors to perpetuate the artistic vision Mnouchkine will leave behind than it has been for Strehler’s successors to keep his vision going, but I can imagine the wrench such efforts must create in either case. Strehler guided the Piccolo for 50 years; Mnouchkine’s been at the helm of the Théâtre du Soleil for 45 years now. In the theater, that’s several lifetimes of leadership.

Theaters across the country have gone through the hardship of succession and handled it in different way, with different results. ART in Cambridge, Massachusetts, took 18 months to find a successor to artistic director Robert Woodruff (2002-07). (Woodruff, who followed ART founder Robert Brustein, wasn’t rehired when the board decided his artistic leadership jeopardized the theater’s profitability.) L.A.’s Center Theatre Group, the Seattle Rep, and New Haven’s Long Wharf all recently experienced difficult transitions or took a long time to find their new directors, or both. Seattle’s Intiman Theatre followed a different route: the board essentially accepted departing director Bartlett Sher’s hand-picked recommendation after he agreed to stay on as co-director while the untried Kate Whoriskey, who has never run a theater before (she directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined Off-Broadway this season), finds her bearings. For each theater, the matter of regime change is unique, and fraught with difficulty and risk.

I think especially of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater here in New York City when Joe Papp retired and then died in 1991. Under JoAnne Akalaitis, there was some lurching, but under George Wolfe (1993-2005) NYSF found its sea legs again, and now under Oskar Eustis, the company’s going strong. Washington’s Arena picked up pretty quickly after Zelda Fichandler left in 1991, though she was nearby as advisor (and occasional production director) and Doug Wager (1991-98), her successor, had been her deputy for many years (and a part of Arena starting as an intern in 1974). Current artistic director Molly Smith has changed the repertoire slightly, but the company remains hearty and artistically robust. New York’s CSC, in contrast, changed entirely when the board ousted founder Chris Martin in 1985 and, as far as I’m concerned, it has never been the striking, innovative experimenter it had been when I first came to New York. (CSC has had six company leaders over the past 24 years, none so far staying at the theater for more than six years.) Of course, there remains the question of whether a company should remain true to the vision of a leader who’s gone or whether it should evolve under its new leadership and if it can’t, whether it should even survive.

In his article “SUCCESSION: Declare War!” (in Directions, the newsletter of the Theater Trustees of America, Fall 1988), Joseph Wesley Zeigler, a consultant in arts planning and marketing, struggles with several dilemmas facing theaters with changing artistic leaderships. First, he wonders, “How must a theater change to allow for new leadership? Can theaters pass from original to new leaders, with other and different (and sometimes contradictory) visions?” Second, he observes that theaters “that are strong institutionally can probably make the transition with ease . . . . Theaters that are weak institutionally, but perhaps very original and very distinctive artistically, may have a much harder time--because the vision of the original leader may be irreplaceable.” Finally, opining that “permanence may not be the ultimate point, and perhaps it should not be the ultimate goal,” Zeigler notes that when one theater fades, new ones “flower.” “Is it possible that endings like these,” he asks, “are the only way to open up the arts--to clear the air, and make room for new talents? In short, is succession (and so continuation) less good than new starts?”

Small theaters face the problem of directorial succession no less than large, institutional ones. It may be less noted and, perhaps, less felt in the community at large, but the wrenching struggle and often resulting disappointment affect these artists and administrators at least as much. The heartache may be worse if it happens because of a change from an original, visionary leadership to one whose ideas are “different” or “contradictory.” Sher, in picking Whoriskey, chose a successor who he said would bring different ideas and renewed vigor to the Intiman (whose success as an institution under Sher’s directorship brought it a regional theater Tony in 2006), not replicate his own leadership. None of us likes to see a dream die, however.

The central question, however, is Zeigler’s last: Which is more important, the vision or the institution that vision spawned? Few theaters are started by administrators, and they are seldom conceived as institutions. Most theaters, from the New York Shakespeare Festival and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater Center to the smallest “showcase,” “off-Loop” or “waiver” companies all across the country, were founded by artists--playwrights, actors, and directors, usually--to fill some need. The need might have been an artistic one in themselves or a perceived one for the community in which they live. As far back as this century’s second decade, when the so-called little theater movement began, the Washington Square Players assembled to offer theater as art in competition with the commercialism of Broadway. In the late 1950s Joseph Papp began NYSF to bring classic plays to the streets and parks of New York for people who rarely saw live theater. When the Washington Square Players disbanded, the idea of “art theater” continued, expanded, and proliferated across the country. Papp’s concept has been picked up by smaller theater companies in New York and countless others around the nation; had NYSF died when Papp retired, his vision would have survived in the companies his ideas inspired.

Institutionalizing a theater so that it becomes an established entity on which several people depend for jobs and income and the continuation of which has assumed priority over every other consideration has been known to be the downfall of a few theaters. The famed Provincetown Players and the Washington Square Players both ultimately disappeared from the scene because of their own success. Having attracted critical attention, they were forced to match or surpass each successful production in the next season or close down. “Art for art’s sake,” which had been the unofficial motto of the Washington Square Players, was overshadowed by the need to meet the expectations of audiences and critics. They’d become “established” and could no longer be solely true to their original ideals and survive. In the case of the Washington Square Players, the advent of World War I disbursed most of its creative personnel, and it was reborn after the war as the Theatre Guild, essentially a commercial Broadway production company. Even had it not been for the war, however, it’s unlikely the Players could have continued as an art theater once it had become an institution. (Another repercussion of the success of the WSP was that its members, having become well-known, moved on to the commercial stage and, a few years later, the movies.)

This isn’t to argue that success is a poison pill for theaters. Allowing that success to be translated into institutionalization, however, may be the road to disaster. When the theater’s inner vision is clouded by the need to succeed in critical and financial terms, just in order to maintain a coveted position in the community, perhaps a reevaluation of the theater’s priorities is in order. As the new NEA chairman, Rocco Landesman, put it in the New York Times recently, “There are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it.” (Landesman was speaking of a financial precipice, but an artistic one fits just as accurately.) It might also behoove the critics and community leaders to reexamine why they want a theater at all and what they expect of it. Fighting to keep a theater alive just so it can occupy an otherwise useless building may, in the end, not be worth the effort. A man on total life support in the most technologically advanced hospital is surely not really alive. Perhaps it’s just his time to go.

At bottom, we must remember that theater’s an art form. Despite its commercial and institutional aspects and possibilities, it’s the art that’s its essence. When it comes time to replace a theater’s directorship, administrators and trustees need to remember why their particular theater was founded in the first place. Just finding someone who can successfully put asses in seats may be an answer, but it may not be the right answer. If a company cannot continue the artistic vision that was its raison d’être, either because a new leadership can’t follow through on the founders’ concepts or can’t find its own, equally valid ones, perhaps there’s no rationale for continuing the institution that is the shell of that vision. Preserving form with no content is the province of museums, not theaters.

[An earlier version of this essay was published as "Art and the Institution" in Directions (Theater Trustees of America, No. 13 [Winter 1989]: 9-10). It was a response to Zeigler’s column. (I also published an essay on the WSP, mentioned as an example above: "The Washington Square Players: Art for Art's Sake," Theatre History Studies no. 25 (2005): 149-72.]

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