THEATERMANIA: Each year you bring several European directors to the American Repertory Theatre. This season you have worked with a Russian, Yuri Yeremin, the Romanian Andrei Belgrader, and Slobodan Unkovksi, who is from Macedonia. Is there something in their work that you feel is missing from American theater?
ROBERT BRUSTEIN: We also have many American directors at the A.R.T., but my aesthetic is essentially influenced by Europeans. I've recently been reading about the strong reaction in France to American cultural imperialism. They believe that we're coarsening European culture with McDonald's and hip-hop, and they're probably right. We owe it to them to declare that we are partly a European nation, since many of the people who came here over the last two centuries were from Europe. We should not try to escape European influences any more than those from Asia or Africa. My own training is in European and American drama, and that's where my heart is.
TM: You consider the dominant aesthetic in American theater to be European?
BRUSTEIN: Yes. It was determined by the Group Theatre and later by the Actors Studio. I admire the people that came out of those institutions for creating an indigenous American theater, but we should recognize that their work developed out of the Yiddish theater of Germany and Russia, which was much more flamboyant than its Americanized expression. Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio were influenced by Konstantin Stanislavsky's System, but they reduced it to a mundane naturalism that produced few great playwrights or directors, aside from Elia Kazan. Having watched this kind of theater for years, it dawned on me that in Europe there was an extraordinary flowering of dramatic technique about which we knew almost nothing, because the Iron Curtain had shut it off from us. We had heard of Meyerhold and Vakhtangov, but for a long while we didn't know much about their successors--Andrzej Wajda in Poland; Liviu Ciulei, Andrei Serban, and Lucian Pintilie in Romania; Anatoly Efros and Oleg Efremov in Russia; and so on--directors who were reinvestigating classical texts in a fresh, imaginative manner. When some of these Europeans came to work or live in the States, they had a significant influence on American directors such as Lee Breuer, Anne Bogart, Robert Woodruff, JoAnne Akalaitis, and Julie Taymor.
TM: The A.R.T. is structurally similar to many European theaters, with a permanent acting company, an allied training program, resident dramaturgs, and productions performed in repertory. How did you originally conceive this theater?
BRUSTEIN: When I was asked to become Dean of the Yale School of Drama in 1966, I replied that I couldn't run a drama school that had no affiliation to a professional theater. My model was the relationship between London's Old Vic and the Old Vic School, which trained young actors and frequently absorbed them into the company. Many major European theaters, like the Moscow Art Theatre, have schools attached to them as a way of refreshing and rejuvenating the texture of their work. So I created the Yale Repertory Theatre, and later the American Repertory Theatre, according to a European plan. I also knew from watching the Royal Shakespeare Company in the great days of Peter Brook that we needed a permanent acting company.
TM: What are the advantages of a resident company?
BRUSTEIN: The actors work together over a period of time and learn each other's plays, as members of a great ball team learn each other's plays. An all-star baseball team is never as good as the lowest ranking team in the league, because the stars haven't been playing together. In our theater, when we've had productions with three or four stars, they've sometimes talked past each other rather than acting together. They were all giving good performances, but it was as if they were in different plays. The great advantage of a permanent company is that they're working together over a period of time, and if the actors are worth their salt, they grow and learn from a variety of directors who don't let them settle into mannerisms or easy choices.