The Wisdom of Theater Elders in COVID Time

These artists remind us of how multivalent the theater is, how many solutions there are to the crises of funding, isolation, censorship and personal voice.

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The timeless Roberta Maxwell in Carey Perloff's production of Tom Stoppard's "Indian Ink." Photo: Kevin Berne.

Despite the fact that the adjective most often appended to the COVID-19 crisis is “unprecedented,” the catastrophe it has presented is not the first existential blow to live theater, nor will it be the last. With that in mind, within the first few weeks of the pandemic lockdown, I attempted to rediscover, from those older and wiser than me, some of the best thinking about how to navigate difficult times in our field. Inspired in part by Bay Area artist Erica Chong Shuch’s “For You Productions” (specifically an imaginative “Artists and Elders” project she launched), I began a weekly and sometimes daily “pandemic practice” of calling my theater elders. Sometimes I have come armed just with love and greetings, sometimes with a list of questions. I have asked many of them to help me understand how they made decisions and moved forward at times when they were presented with loss of funding, of livelihood, of the right to speak, of audience, of the will to continue. Sometimes our conversations happen on the phone, sometimes on Zoom, sometimes on email, sometimes via handwritten epistles. It has turned out to be an extraordinary experience.

The context for my exploration is obvious: we live in a country in which wisdom is routinely ignored and there is little value placed on a knowledge of our collective history. This is particularly true in the theater, a transient art form that is always so caught up in the pressing needs of the moment — “Finish the play!”; “Tech the show!”; “Raise the curtain at 8PM!”; “Engage the audience!”; “Move on to the next one!” — that we rarely archive our work or take the time to reflect upon what we have created and why. We rush headlong into the next commission, the next production, the next season, the next funding round. When Todd London’s compilation An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art was published by Theatre Communications Group in 2013, it was the first time that many in our field had ever read the manifestos and founding statements of those visionaries who created the nonprofit theater movement in America. No wonder we so quickly forgot their precepts. No wonder we are so adrift at the moment, as we cope with financial ruin and calls for a more equitable field. No wonder it’s so hard to find leadership when we need it most. In forgetting the shoulders upon which we stand, we have trouble finding our own ground.

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My “elder artist” calls have been subjective and not representative of anything other than my own personal history; I’ve simply reached out to people who have meant something to me during my creative career, including Olympia Dukakis, Seret Scott, Giles Havergal, Sue Yung Li, Philip Arnoult, Roberta Maxwell, Philip Kan Gotanda, Peter Riegert, and my mother, literary critic Marjorie Perloff (who is still astonishingly prolific at 88 and with whom I talk almost every day). Everyone longs to be needed. The people I called were and will always be artists at heart, which means they are problem solvers, used to the pressure of making creative decisions in tough circumstances.

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Giles Havergal and Barbara Oliver in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.” Photo: Kevin Berne.

Giles Havergal, who lives alone in a flat in London, was my first port of call — I was concerned that he was by himself and feeling adrift. Far from it: as soon as I got him on the subject of his early days running the Glasgow Citizens Theater, he erupted with a font of ideas. The Citz was bankrupt and rudderless when he inherited it; Giles described a first season “in which things were sort of ‘OK’ but frankly creatively dull.” That led to a second season in which the artistic leadership decided to follow their own unique aesthetic desires, no matter what; to see if the work could be so particular and passionate that the audience would finally come around. This is indeed what happened, and Giles talked passionately about what he thought was “irreducible” about making theater and how critically important is the individual voice of the artist. “No more ticking boxes!,” he exclaimed. “Only do what you’re most passionate about” but “always tempered with what you feel would interest and amuse the audience.” Giles was definitive that understanding and staying in dialogue with one’s audience was the key to success — not pandering or hectoring, but engaging, educating, inspiring, amusing, intriguing the public enough that they’ll keep coming to support the work. “The audience will know it when they see it,” he insisted. “Our productions tried to enhance as well as serve the amazing texts and make them ring out for Glasgow.” This was a highly complex alchemy that took vigilance, flexibility, humility and a certain sense of humor. Crucially, Giles was also never afraid to “go small” — if the theater was broke, he’d come up with some highly imaginative solution like a four-person Travels With My Aunt performed in store-bought suits with no scenery and a few balloons (it was one of their biggest hits). Or they’d take over a corner of the Citizens lobby and turn it into a studio theater for 50 people. “Bigger is not always better,” he reminded me. Don’t be arrogant. Be nimble. Use your imagination.

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Olympia Dukakis in an “Electra”-fying performance.

Olympia Dukakis described a similar path of discovery, both as an actress and as co-artistic director for 19 years (alongside her brother, Apollo) of the Whole Theater in Montclair, NJ. Her answer to the question of how to find your “north star” when the public, the funders and the press are telling you to follow other kinds of precepts is one I found extremely moving. She became most animated when describing the crucial necessity of facing one’s public every single night, often without even having gotten out of costume, no matter how hostile and difficult the conversation proved to be. In fact, the most deeply moving part of my first Zoom with Olympia was the reading of a Lorca poem about audience. The call didn’t start well. I’d caught Olympia on a bad day; she was feeling anxious and tired and, once on Zoom, her daughter Christina told me that she wasn’t sure her mother was up to it. I understood — this is an exhausting and scary time to live through. “OK, let’s just see each other’s faces for a moment,” I asked Christina. So she set up the monitor where it was comfortable for Olympia, and she and I looked at each other for a long time, trying to overcome the separation of Zoom and time zones. After a few long moments, we began to laugh, we opened our arms to each other, we blew kisses, we got tearful, we got quiet. Then I asked her if I could share something she had read on the occasion of the reopening of the earthquake-damaged Geary Theater in January 1996 (when I was artistic director of American Conservatory Theater). It was a Lorca poem that I knew she had treasured:

The poem
the song
the picture
is only water
drawn from the well
of the people,
and it should be given back to them
in a cup of beauty,
so that they may drink,
and in drinking
understand themselves.

As I began to read it, Olympia’s eyes lit up. But when I got to the fourth line, she stopped me. “Not ‘only’!,” she exclaimed. “There’s no ‘only’ there. It’s ‘The poem/the song/the picture/is water/drawn from the well of the people…’.” She then proceeded to recite the poem herself, several times. It awakened in her something very deep. She began to talk about what it meant to try to understand yourself, about what role art can play in helping us to truly see ourselves, to connect to the mysteries of our inner lives. Olympia has always called actors “ministers of the interior,” because they plumb the depths of the psyche and return to tell the tale on stage. That Lorca poem reminded Olympia of the commitment she’d made, throughout her career, to connect actor and audience in one shared universe. She told me she felt that the only thing that mattered in a post-pandemic universe was the ability of human beings to reconnect in an honest and intimate way, without defensiveness or agenda. Even if it was only 10 people. The goal was not for actors to pander to audiences, but to give them sustenance in hard times, such that they could drink from the “cup of beauty” and, in doing so, to understand themselves.

In a subsequent call with Olympia, we wrestled with what happens when there is controversy in rehearsal. “I have controversy in my DNA!,” she exclaimed. “I’m Greek! You have to fight for what you believe! It’s not personal! And you don’t always have to admire everyone equally. You have to tell the story of the play. I don’t mind if it gets rough in the room — it’s okay. That’s what rehearsal is for.” She is still nothing if not fierce. Talking with Olympia reminds me of how timid we have become.

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The great ambassador: Philip Arnoult.

From Philip Arnoult, the intrepid globalist whose Center for International Theater Development (CITD) has helped thousands of artists over the past three decades to connect to counterparts across borders, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe, came the genius idea of “Countdown Theater.” I caught him on Zoom in his first-floor “bunker” in Maryland, where he was trying to stay safe. When I asked his advice about the future, his bright blue eyes immediately lit up. Philip is never at a loss for invention. His idea was a new structure for theater companies, in which one would raise five years of financial support for a small group of artists. Once the money was raised, the clock would start on this “Countdown Theater” and creative work would begin. The impulse for the work would shape how the process was set up — a project could take years to evolve or it could happen overnight. Audiences and artists alike would understand that this group would do their utmost to make meaningful and exciting art for exactly the five years that the funding held out, and then the group would cease to exist. In this way, the artists would focus exclusively on making art and not on fundraising and all the other administrative headaches that derail our creative thinking. It would permit a “pod” of artists to work safely together in post-pandemic times. “Dissolving after a creative explosion is good!,” Philip exclaimed. “No institutions, no season, and whatever you bought or acquired over those five years, you’d give away at the end of it. You would always pay it forward to the next group of artists.” I found that notion incredibly liberating. As we got a little giggly towards the end of our long Zoom, Philip also said: “My final recommendation would be to immediately get rid of the pernicious ‘mission statement’. What’s a mission statement? It’s military: ‘Go to the top of the hill and kill people.’ Who needs that?” He insisted that artists should simply follow the work, whether that be pop-up projects or long-term explorations. Trust the creative instinct, not the corporate promises. Get rid of boards. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.

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Past, present, future: Roberta Maxwell.

When I found actress Roberta Maxwell, she was sheltering in Palm Springs, CA, where it was 117 degrees. But she was as unflappable and trenchant as ever. I first reconnected with Roberta when I directed a Zoom reading of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — reading all of Chekhov on Zoom with a wide range of incredible actors has been another soul-saving pandemic activity. Right after the reading, Roberta and I embarked upon a meditation on Chekhov’s lasting value. “Late night thoughts,” she wrote me, sometime after midnight. “This afternoon, for the first time after the many times I’ve visited the Vanya household, I realized that the center of the hurricane of ego and desire and despair are the small beating hearts of Waffles and Marina. Humanity. Late illumination. Oh Chekhov. Thank you.” Many weeks later, when I did a Zoom with Roberta one-on-one, I asked about her perceptions of bias in the theater, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the current reckoning for social justice. Our conversation included a long talk about anti-Semitism. Nearly 50 years ago, Roberta played Jessica in the short-lived but legendary Arnold Wesker play Shylock — the subject of Wesker’s unforgettable book The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel, about which I am deeply curious since I am writing a book on Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. (I’ve been curious as to how the fact that they were Jewish affected their lives and work in postwar Britain.) Once Roberta got going, events from 50 years ago leapt into her mind as vividly as if they’d happened yesterday. She described Wesker’s “outsider” status as a Jew at the Royal Court; his insecurity in relation to the broader swath of successful English playwrights; and the endless suspicion about Jews in England that she became aware of while working with him. She laughed about the impossibility of getting Wesker to rewrite, although she was quick to add that what derailed Shylock’s Broadway run was not the script but Mostel’s untimely death. “Zero could’ve read the telephone book twice, before and after the intermission, and audiences would’ve thronged,” she chuckled. This led to a chat about the complex collaboration between directors and writers (in this case, between John Dexter and Wesker); about the toxic pressure of commercial theater; about how different it felt for Roberta to finally land in a company like the Stratford Festival; and about what we both learned about beauty and precision from working together on Stoppard’s Indian Ink in 2016.

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Philip Kan Gotanda
Philip Kan Gotanda with Lysley Tenorio and Sean San Jose. Photo: Kevin Berne.

There are so many more stories. From Seret Scott, I learned about her time making outdoor protest theater in the South in the 1960s, and about doing Waiting for Godot in a field with an audience member standing directly in the middle of the performance. Peter Riegert described how emotional it was to perform two Pinter one-acts on the Geary stage the night after 9/11, when he felt our community’s profound need both to come together and to laugh, and suddenly understood what was necessary and urgent about live theater. Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda has been meditating on his own identity as a Japanese-American at this moment in American history. Every day there are fewer and fewer Japanese-Americans; “we are demographically dying…I’m doing Latin,” he told me ruefully. He longs to work on the lives and crises of other communities, to find the human truth that connect us all. “Even while exploring a highly personal Japanese America, I wanted to look at more, thus intersectionality,” but he knows that’s a complicated proposition in today’s very siloed culture. So he’s quietly considering what his voice is now, and what stories he wants to be telling, realizing that this is an eternal question that every artist has to answer over and over again.

A toast to Kraus and Proust: Marjorie Perloff.

A cautionary tale in this moment of “fake news” and Trumpian language came from my mother (a Viennese refugee), who urged me to read the work of Austrian satirist and journalist Karl Kraus. Kraus exposed the degradation of language at the height of Nazism in Austria, and the courage it takes not to succumb to coercion or to the “normalization” of fake speech. (As I write this, our President is on the news describing the two “beautiful world wars” we have endured.) With my mother, I’ve also been savoring Proust, whom I am finally reading for the first time. I’m astonished by how hilarious I am finding it, and how psychologically astute; I find myself shuddering in recognition at behavior I didn’t know I exhibited until I read it in Proust. Each time I get to a new section, my mother seems to remember it perfectly, not only the events described but the feelings she had when she first encountered Proust’s complex epic. Her memories have led me to understand that art has, in Anne Bogart’s words, a mysterious kind of resonance that stays with you long after the moment of perception — a resonance that you’re not always aware you’ve held on to until something triggers the memory. Which is why in the final analysis, art is not primarily instrumental but intuitive. In other words, you don’t always know what artistic gesture is going to last until it floods your mind years later. The Proustian madeleine, over and over again.

While my personal conversations with elder artists have been going on, I have also become addicted to the Segal Talks being held every day on Facebook Live. These in-depth interviews, led by theater scholar Frank Hentschker and sponsored by the CUNY Graduate Center, explore “making art and making sense in the time of Corona.” Frank deserves a medal for this project; I’m sure his remarkable and provocative conversations will be an essential document of COVID-19 history. Through his interviews, I have encountered artistic elders whose work I revere, such as Richard Foreman, Eugenio Barba, Woodie King, Jr., and Jean-Claude Van Itallie; and contemporaries like Anne Bogart, Peter Sellars, and artists from Martinique to Israel, from Mozambique to Iraq. They all keep reminding me how multivalent the field of theater is, and how many possible solutions there are to the same crises of funding, isolation, censorship and personal voice. Many of these artists started small, many have stayed small, and most managed through sheer force of will to avoid being sucked in by the anodyne corporate creep of commercial and institutional theater. It helped that most of them came of age when rents in America were cheap and social media was yet unknown; thus, live gatherings in small spaces really mattered. Listening to these artists speak has reminded me that the well into which we can dip in times of crisis is deep and nourishing, even though problems of power struggle, destitution, suspicion of the arts and political polarization have existed throughout time and are unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Last week, the urgency of reconnecting to the wisdom of the past was beautifully articulated by Lawrence Wright in a mid-July edition of The New Yorker, in which he describes the poet Petrarch’s discovery, just before the plague came to Verona, of a cache of Cicero letters in the Cathedral library. Those letters opened Petrarch’s eyes to a lost beauty and lost form of expression which he longed to resuscitate, as inspiration for his own troubled times. His promulgation of those letters helped spawn the Renaissance. In the same way, I continue to hope that ongoing conversations with the artists who have come before us will somehow help fertilize the new American theater as we try to find ways to emerge from the catastrophe of COVID-19.

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Carey Perloff
Carey Perloff recently completed an acclaimed 25-year tenure as Artistic Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, an artistic journey documented in her award-winning 2015 book Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater (City Lights Press). Known for innovative productions of classical plays from many cultures, and for nurturing new voices and new forms of theater, Perloff is celebrated for her collaborations with Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, for ambitious multi-disciplinary commissions such as A Thousand Splendid Suns and Tosca Café, for her lifelong commitment to actor training, and for championing women’s leadership in the American theater. Perloff recently directed Ghosts with Uma Thurman (WTF), Private Lives (Stratford), Colm Toibin’s Pale Sister (Gate Theatre, Dublin), Suns (Arena Stage) and Merchant of Venice with Seana McKenna (Calgary). Also a playwright, Perloff’s work includes The Fit, Kinship, Higher, Luminescence Dating, and her new play Bastiano or The Art of Rivalry, written on a Bogliasco Fellowship. She is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts and des Lettres of the French government, holds an Honorary Doctorate from University of San Francisco, and an Honorary MFA from A.C.T.