Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What does Harvard want?

It's a question worthy of Freud, of course, particularly when it comes to the A.R.T. As everyone knows, that theatre company is still looking for an artistic director. But has anyone really said aloud that the two candidates so far approached - James Lapine and Anna D. Shapiro - are both unusual choices, and rather strangely opposed? Both are essentially from the commercial theatre, with some academic connections - very slight for Lapine, true, but Shapiro is a professor at Northwestern (she teaches Graduate Directing there). Lapine is a librettist and director of classic Broadway musicals, and closely associated with Stephen Sondheim and William Finn, while Shapiro is known for psychological realism, and directing several premieres at Steppenwolf (the latest of which, August:Osage County, is now a hit on Broadway). Both, of course, are very talented and highly accomplished people; but it's hard to imagine a job profile which would encompass both. You could argue that the two choices do indicate Harvard's interest in returning to some contact with the world of successful, commercial theatre, and rejecting the insular "avant-garde" clique of Anne Bogart (who for a time was a candidate), Peter Sellars, and their ilk. But beyond this, judging from Lapine and Shapiro, the field is essentially wide open. Perhaps that's as it should be, but, then again, perhaps that's not as it should be - particularly given that, not to put too fine a point on it, both candidates turned the job down. I'd hazard a guess that one reason both said no is that the search committee - and Harvard itself - has no clear idea of what they want in the job; and until that gets straightened out, something tells me the post may remain unfilled. In the meantime, who's planning the next season at the A.R.T.? Gideon Lester?


  1. I gather from a few people, and from Geoff Edgers' reporting when Woodruff was not renewed, that what they really miss is Robert Brustein's uber schmooze capabilities.

    On another blog a few weeks back I commented:

    Although, the ART might be looking for something a little more conventional. Also a little younger. The Huntington, across the river, just signed Peter Dubois. (I was thinking the ART would be looking more along the lines of Kate Whoriskey.)
    The ART's demographic has actually been trending younger and they probably want to keep that up.
    But there are so many factors in play:

    First off, they miss Brustein's schmoozing ability. Woodruff was a relative hermit. You need somebody who, if not exactly willing, will at least commit to the cocktail circuit. Nicholas Martin at the Huntington is an excellent example from recent years.

    A theatre pulling in the director of the current Broadway Smash August: Osage County is like a college nabbing the QB coach of the current Superbowl Champions as their head coach. It goes a long way with the recruits.

    You bring up a great point. In my day job I work in recruiting, and I am very familiar with candidates turning down top jobs when they sense the organization is in flux.

  2. Hey Art - as usual, interesting comments. Just a few more thoughts. As for the ART's demographic "trending younger," this is probably because Woodruff began to style himself as a rock impresario (long, I think, a private fantasy of his, as well as of many in the Boston press!). But this is probably something Harvard wanted to stop. It's one thing to want a younger demographic, quite another to restyle Harvard's repertory theatre as a franchise of Avalon.

    As to your point about schmoozing, which I think is a good one, it's worthwhile to point out the following: great schmoozers are usually forgiven for being weak artists, but great artists are rarely forgiven for being weak schmoozers, at least at Harvard. Let's be honest: Robert Brustein was a very poor artistic director for most of his term, but everyone forgave him that because he was a superb schmoozer, as you say (and, of course, few reviewers were willing to accurately assess the last "national" critic left standing). Woodruff's "triumvirate," I think, was supposed to address this problem, but evidently it didn't address it enough (the remnants of said triumvirate, of course, also cause one to ponder what strange power dynamics might still be in operation over there).

    And in the end, this whole episode has perhaps been an eye-opener for Harvard, which has long been drunk on its own prestige. I mean let's be honest - would you give up Broadway for Harvard? Would you give up Steppenwolf for Harvard? I wouldn't, and neither would any real theatre person worth their salt. It's almost touchingly naive of Harvard to imagine the contrary.

    But this awareness leads to another unfortunate thought - the A.R.T. had relevance, for a while, because in the late 70s and 80s an academic vogue - treating plays conceptually - had some real-world relevance. That time has long since passed, however; mainstream culture absorbed what it wanted to of this stance, the Talking Heads disbanded, and the academic "director's theatre" promoted by the A.R.T. became artistically moribund. It still is. Harvard's post, however, is most attractive to people within that academic circle - which, alas, Harvard is trying to transcend. Ay, there's the rub, as they say.