The Pearl of Sullivan’s Travels

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Last year’s announcement that Shepard Sobel would step down as artistic director of Off-Broadway’s Pearl Theatre Company, which he and his wife, actress Joanne Camp, created from the ground up starting in 1984, signaled a basic fact of life of the nonprofit theater: founders leave. Sometimes they leave before they want to, as in the case of the late, great Joseph Papp at the Public Theater so many years ago; and sometimes they leave when something in them tells them to. Sobel and Camp chose the latter; now they’re enjoying a well-earned relocation in Albuquerque, knowing they’re missed here in Gotham.

No matter the circumstances, of course, succession plans are always touchy topics. Especially in longtime artistic leaders who come to embody a theater’s ethos, there is a kind of perverse security in the unbroken chain of command. Boards, skittish entities that they tend to be, can sometimes be pacified by known quantities — less concerned with passing crowns than preserving thrones. Directors and actors — and, if new works are in the mix, playwrights — naturally enjoy partaking in being extensions of a continuous history. If so-and-so can lead the company for such-and-such many years, they may think, why wouldn’t I wish to be a link in that chain? And there’s nothing wrong with that — it means the artistic leader is doing something right. But change is also a good and necessary step in evolution, and it can be rough. Fortunately, Sobel proved that his succession plan was as classy as his leadership. Indeed, the fine example being set by the Pearl’s new artistic director, J.R. Sullivan, is a case study in how leadership can pioneer a legacy as surely as preserve it.

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Still, Sobel left the Pearl at a fiscally precarious moment for the nonprofit theater world — and also at the moment that the company, after less years of productions at 80 St. Marks in the East Village, made a dramatic move uptown to New York City Center.

Sullivan, who officially took over as artistic director last August, is proving to be a pragmatist as well as a classicist. He is also a realist: In a New York Times interview last October, he revealed a multipronged approach to management and programming as befitting a quickly shifting artistic and philanthropic climate. One priority, wrote the Times, is placing the Pearl “on a more secure financial footing,” and that meant dropping the number of productions from five to four. In addition, the Times reported that Sullivan “plans to examine what the Pearl’s dedication to ‘the classics’ means.” He also said the following: “I have to stabilize things, grow the audience and reinvigorate the company.”

So what, exactly, do all of these things mean?

In a conversation with Sullivan, who directed the Pearl’s current production — Stephen Jeffreys’ adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, running through March 28 — he revealed himself less armed with his own answers but disarmed by own questions; he knows only time and patience bestow wisdom and foresight. Equally fortunate, Sullivan is one of the most widely experienced, gifted journeyman directors in the country. Prior to succeeding Sobel, he was associate artistic director of Utah Shakespearean Festival; he also ran his own company in Illinois from 1972 through 1994. Even including scores of productions around the nation (including five at the Pearl), however, doesn’t mean that New York and the era itself aren’t different animals.

As Sullivan well knows, the Pearl’s singular asset is its extraordinary acting company. It’s their sense of cohesion, of collaboration, of aesthetic ease from the current Hard Times to last month’s revival of Shaw’s Misalliance to, next up, a revival of Frank D. Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses, that gives the Pearl its sheen. The question is where the future will inevitably take the company — and what specific plans Sullivan is developing in order to get it there.

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I read some of the pieces written as you were taking over the Pearl, including the profile of you that ran in the Times, and I was struck by your comment about needing to “stabilize” the company. It is only a few months into your tenure and the economy is still terrible. So, you’re still stabilizing?
There are enormous challenges, generally — the same challenges, the same litany, you hear with any theater company. All of the nonprofits are dependent to one proportion or other — earned income against contributed income, and both are down, with the fact of contributed income being down being felt especially right now. While support still comes, it comes generally at a lower level. So, yes.

You’re coming into a perfect storm, one might say.
Yes. The only thing I can do is commit myself and lead on the basis of artistic excellence — that’s primarily my role and that’s what I have to dedicate myself to and continually find not only in myself, but in leading the company, whether as director of a production or how I construct casting and the rest. It’s believing, too, that artistic excellence is the raison d’etre for any and all support for the Pearl. It’s the company’s work that excites and inspires support; there’s energy in the event itself; there’s the work having ramifications in all other areas. The second thing for me to do is learn how the company has been fashioned up until this point in all of its details organizationally, and, working with our managing director, to shape the company as may befit the economic climate and the times.

Does artistic excellence mean something different in an economy this terrible?…
No.

…Because audiences do need different things at different times. When times are really bad, when we’re going in to a war, s say, there’s the old nostrum that audiences need escapism — or, in good times, it is a moment when society might take a breath, see something new refracted in the classical repertory. If one wants to construct any of those arguments, of course.
Well, I think that’s generally true, except one would always add “except when.” Look the Great Depression and all the remarkable things that were going on, or Our Town‘s success in 1938. I think the beacons of great works of art, in the theater or in dance or in music, shine their own lights and they attract their own attention. You can go mad trying to prognosticate and outguess what audiences need.

And people have.
And, of course, people have. I’m not fixed on any particular kind of play and I have pretty wide interests. Finding balance to seasons that have, for example, good comedies — types of comedies — is something I’m genuinely interested in. But the bigger challenge is supporting those plays with the talent and production they require. I knew I wanted at New York City Center to put a higher emphasis on scenic elements. I also think there’s a higher expectation there, and I know that affects both the actors and the audience. Whereas, in the East Village, maybe less is generally accepted as more. Also, classic theater and small casts are terminologies that don’t often find intersection. There’s no Shakespeare in this particular season because, but for a few comedies, most of which the Pearl has produced recently, you need 17 or 18 actors to really do them right.

The Pearl also cut back to four productions. I’d think that would allow you to maximize casting.
But we expanded performance weeks. Whereas we’d have six-and-a-half-week runs at 80 St. Marks, now we have eight-and-a-half-week runs at New York City Center.

Another challenge.
Yes — because you’re more vulnerable if a show doesn’t really land.

How did the decision to lower the number of productions affect programming? In other words, did you intentionally pick, say, Shaw’s Misalliance because you felt it bespoke an eight-and-a-half-week run? As opposed to a more obscure play like — going back two seasons — William Saroyan’s The Cave Dwellers or S.N. Behrman’s Biography?
I picked Misalliance because I love the play. This current season, too was kind of shared pick with Shep and I; there we had different combinations of plays, and were in close consultation because I was still at Utah finishing up my associate work there. So, when Misalliance came up, I jumped because, as I say, I love Misalliance. I also felt — I knew — there were good parts for the existing company. I’d brought Dan Daily back to the company fold because I wanted him to do John Tarleton — and also John Cleary in The Subject Was Roses. And I knew with the play that I had a good shot filling those weeks up at City Center.

Sean McNall and Robin Leslie Brown in "Hard Times"

By programming The Subject was Roses, are you nearing a redefinition for “classic”? If a person asked, “When is the Pearl going to get away from dead white male authors?,” what would you reply?
We all have a general notion about “classic” because of our schooling. It’s sort of Shakespeare, sort of Restoration. It’s all European. It’s, by and large, by dead white guys. We can’t do much about what we’ve received in the canon and how it got there and the centuries-old bias over who was suitable to be a writer. What we do with it now is the question. But I have no agenda in this at all — and hopefully no prejudice. To me, I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I’ve talked in other interviews, obviously, about it. What is a classic? I’m not about making a new definition. But I am about what it is to be a “classic” at the Pearl and what it means to be a “classic” for the Pearl’s audience. What is “classic” for me? I guess I would say it has to do with looking at those works that are of the great tradition of the theater — expanding the view to include non-European works and being open to the present. And, by the present, I mean trying to step beyond what is generally regarded as the “classic.” How, from earlier centuries, it refers specifically to works in the American theater, for example, that had a hand in changing how the theater was going at the time, what new directions it took, what new views became possible. These were people who, like Shakespeare, were riding the crest of a wave and did the work that brought about change: what O’Neill represented in the 1920s; what Miller and Williams represented in the 1940s; what Albee represented in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

–and does today, too, as Mr. Albee would tell you.
He would. It’s about how the theater of derision in Europe was melded into the Off-Broadway movement. That, to me, has relevance in the classic sense.

Would the Pearl do a Shepard play?
I would think so. A work like Buried Child or Fool for Love or some of the seminal Shepard.

How esoteric, then — not that Shepard is esoteric — can “classic” be for the Pearl? Can the Pearl do a Susan Glaspell play? The American canon is still largely neglected beyond, say, what the Mint has done. Would you do a Tom Eyen play?
It would have to be an especially advantageous fit in the way the rest of the season was constructed, let’s put it that way. Somehow the theme and the concerns of those plays would work into the canon of the rest of the year and would also work individually, and would carry forth a relevance that the rest of the season was establishing to the audience.

I’d like to pursue this a little bit further. Say the Pearl broadens what is “classic.” It seems then there’s the problem of audiences not knowing the work and perhaps then resisting it. What I’m getting at isn’t unlike what Todd London writes in Outrageous Fortune: If it isn’t the new play by Sarah Ruhl, sorry, it isn’t going to be produced. The Pearl does such great dramaturgical outreach — are there ways you can innovate further how you educate your audiences?
It’s not something in the plan or on the agenda right now – until it happens. But I am keen to have American work in most seasons, if not every season.

Do you feel industry pressure to include American work?
No, it’s just an interest of mine. I think it casts such a favorable light on the American theater. I think we have such a profound insecurity complex when it comes to theater, and I believe it’s an interest that’s shared. I’ve experienced it personally with Biography and more recently the Pearl’s productions of Williams’ Vieux Carre and Hellman’s Toys in the Attic. But also, this aspect of what is “classic” has to do with language and plays of complexity and depth in their language construction, in the poetic, how the poetic connects to the visual in the production entity itself, the script being just one element of things. It’s the beginning element, but not the all-important one — until the script gets into the bodies and performances of the actors, it’s not a production, of course, obviously. Our work as directors is to make the production entity a worthy carrier of the initial brilliance. I don’t believe, therefore, that Shakespeare will always work just because it’s Shakespeare. I don’t believe any of these plays will work just because we call them “classics.” I think classics have to be invigorated and energized by contemporary sensibilities — but that is not to say conception, exactly. It is to say production approaches that are vital, rich and can do everything in the language that the company is geared toward and has trained for over years of working together. And then there are the audiences, which are keen on the company’s success. You know, it’s a wonderful thing to have an audience where there’s a will for you to succeed. That’s not always the case. Audiences can often be, Show me why this is a wonderful play.

As a director, do you ever get spooked — where you’re feeling fairly secure in what you’re doing and then, halfway through, you realize the play is something other than what you thought it was?
I always get spooked a little bit because I respect plays so much. I also want to be sure that I answer this as well and as sincerely and candidly as I can. I believe I know what I’m doing. But I hope I don’t fall prey to a certain bluff ego about it. It’s healthy for a director in a room to say “I don’t know the answer to that,” as it’s a creative process and because the process is collaborative. I also think it’s important, when you don’t know something, to get to know the answer. You have to be firmly in control, in charge, and have a very, very good idea why you’re doing a work and what you’re doing with it. When I read a script, one of the first things I respond to is a certain rhythm, a certain immediacy of its effectiveness, a certain impact that has to do with the present in the work, and, certainly, that sense of scene as you read it, that sense of visual and hearing so you can truly imagine it. When those things happen for me, I think I’m onto something. Attention to detail is crucial. And the truth is absolutely crucial. For them — the actors —

— the actors will know if you’re not.
They’ll always know — and so will you — if there’s a bluff going on. That’s such a challenge in these works. There are many obscure things in these works in the first place — things aren’t so obvious, things that didn’t reveal themselves, things you didn’t recognize in the first, fourth, 15th or 18th reading of a play. There are things that suddenly emerge in early previews. That, after all that time, after all those weeks in rehearsal, there are things you didn’t quite see before the audience helped you see it — well, that just astonishes me and that thrills me.