By Karen Isaacs
The four artistic directors who have helped Long Wharf Theater win acclaim during its 50 years history, looked back on that history on June 7 with moderator Colin McEnroe of WNPR.
Jon Jory(1965-67) founded the theater with Harlan Kleiman. After leaving Long Wharf, he went on to become the producing director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville and served as artistic director of the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Arvin Brown (1967-1998) was hired by Jory while still a student at Yale Drama School to work with the apprentice program and children’s theater but was soon directing plays. When Jory left, Brown took over as Artistic Director and worked closely with Managing Director Edgar Rosenblum to establish Long Wharf’s national and international reputation. Under their guidance, Long Wharf won a Tony for best regional theater. Now Brown directs a variety of television projects and series episodes.
Doug Hughes (1997-2001) had a comparatively short tenure at Long Wharf leaving after some disagreements with the board. He has gone on to a successful career directing on Broadway and off-Broadway including winning a Tony award for Doubt and he currently works with the Manhattan Theater Club.
Gordon Edelstein (2002 to present) has seen several productions move to off-Broadway (My Name is Asher Lev, Satchmo at the Waldorf) and other theaters (The Glass Menagerie); he has also worked extensively with Athol Fugard.
Some highlights of the panel:
ory and Kleiman combed the pages of the New Haven Register and developed a list of people who attended benefits for arts organizations. They then “cold” called them to raise the initial $125,000 needed to renovate the space and start the theater. When they had raised $85k they decided to go ahead, hoping that the donors would not let the venture fail.
The Crucible was the first play produced by the new Long Wharf Theater in 1965. There was no theatrical lighting for that initial production. It was summer production.
Arvin Brown had never directed a full-length play when Jon Jory asked him to direct A Long Day’s Journey into Night with Mildred Dunnock and he worried that she and the rest of the cast would guess his inexperience. When years later she learned about it, she was shocked.
Jory recounted that it wasn’t until he was in rehearsal for Moliere’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself that he learned from someone that he was using a translation geared for high school students.
The role of the artistic director and director:
“I think of myself as a placeholder for the audience,” Hughes said. As a director, he becomes obsolete once the audience is there. In shaping a season, Hughes said his aim was to make my enthusiasms contagious.”
“My job is to create an atmosphere where the actor’s artistry can flower,” Brown said.
Jory who feels that the audience was most important in a comedy, also believes that directors work on “infinitesimal” moments in a play. “You are at your peril if you become the audience.”
“You and the cast must have an original agreement on what you are trying to accomplish,” Jory said.
What Long Wharf audiences expect and complain about:
Seasons that are literate, open, honest — Edelstein. “You get complaints about everything” and referred to the scene between the puppets in The Long Xmas Ride Home and the urination in The Curse of the Starving Class.
Brown mentioned audience consternation at the ritual killing in Afore Night Comes as something that upset audiences.
Audiences at theaters like Long Wharf, Jory said have a different relationship with material because of their relationship with the theater itself. It is often almost proprietary.
Edelstein also mentioned the strong response to 16 Wounded which dealt with the Palestinian -Israeli conflict. The audience was so divided that one night two people almost came to blows in the lobby.
There is always an underground river in a play, Hughes said, and Long Wharf audiences accept that and are engaged by it.
Role of theater in society
“People are awakened to how they actually feel,” Hughes said. “The stage is a microscope which gives audiences the gift of focus. It awakens them to how they really feel.”
Violence on stage “is visceral in a way we’ve lost in other media,” Brown said. He referenced the production of Streamers which actually saw people “pass out” in the theater due to the immediacy of the violence.
Stage II opened with the world premier of Wit which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, during Hughes’ tenure.
The production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Mike Nichols (who had directed the Oscar winning film) and Elaine May, his former comedy partner. Arvin Brown directed. He recounted that the initial reading was terrific but that Nichols announced that his theory of directing was to work on Act One until it was perfect, and then the other acts “would fall into place.” So that was what they did. The result was that the last act was not performed until one of the final rehearsals.
An additional moment from that production — Edward Albee saw the final run through. Afterwards, he said to Nichols, “When you were doing the film you said you had insight into the play. [pause] I’m still waiting.”
For Hughes it was The Importance of Being Ernest with Christopher Evan Welch, Tony winner Jefferson Mays as Jack and Edward Hibbard as Lady Bracknell.
American Buffalo with Al Pacino was the moment for Brown.
Doug Hughes first saw a play at Long Wharf when he drove down from Harvard to see Lillian Hellman’s Autumn Gardens. Brown added that when Hellman came to see the show, he took her the old Leon’s; when she complained to a waitress about the preparation of a dish and told the waitress to “go back and tell the chef,” the waitress replied, “Honey, you go back and tell him.”
Jory said it was the first show, The Crucible.
For Edelstein it was getting new plays from Athol Fugard.
Although the forum lasted just 90 plus minutes, you had the feeling that the four could have gone on telling stories and discussing their views of theater for so much longer. You wanted to hear them.