Brustein's American Theater
A theatrical giant maps his view.
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 greatest difference was aesthetic. The Yale Repertory Theatre is housed in a deconsecrated church, and we never required much in the way of scenery. We currently inhabit the Loeb Drama Center, a beautiful, huge space that needs to be stuffed. I am at heart opposed to elaborate visual effects that can smother the drama, but here they are necessary to fill the stage.
TM: Over the past 20 years there has been as much scenic experimentation on the Loeb Stage as in any theater in the country.
BRUSTEIN: We soon ran into Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, and we know what they require! Increasingly we attracted directors who were interested in exploring the visual aspect of theater.
TM: During the years you were at Yale, many other regional theaters were forming permanent acting companies, almost none of which exist today. What has caused the demise of the resident theater movement?
BRUSTEIN: It has been the direct result of the collapse of the National Endowment for the Arts as a significant funding force. These theaters had to find their subsidies elsewhere, and most of them turned to preparing plays and musicals for Broadway. This made them no different than the commercial theater, which is designed for an audience of tourists and people on expense accounts, where producers choose their productions to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The dumbing down which has been a feature of every aspect of our culture for 20 or 30 years affects the theater in the same way, for the same economic reasons.
TM: Three years ago I heard the director Peter Sellars say that the most exciting thing that could happen to American theater would be the total withdrawal of state sponsorship, because the ensuing shake-up would clear out a lot of dead wood.
BRUSTEIN: It's been happening for years already, and there's nothing exciting about it. The shake-up just made everyone more commercial. The box office rules when subsidy is withdrawn.
TM: Do you feel yourself to be under these pressures at the A.R.T.?
BRUSTEIN: No, there's a plethora of good writers. Very few are in the pantheon with O'Neill, Miller, and Williams, although I think David Mamet is on his way to joining them. But many contemporary dramatists have great style and talent--Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tony Kushner--and I'm becoming increasingly excited by young writers like Adam Rapp, whose Nocturne we're premiering next season. We always have good playwrights; what the American theater lacks is responsive audiences. Walt Whitman said that great poetry needs great audiences, and we haven't developed them. When it comes to new plays, audiences have failed us. I know it sounds elitist to say that, and it's much more politic and democratic to pretend that playwrights have failed the audiences, but I see an enormous amount of talent in this country that isn't getting the attention from audiences that it deserves.
TM: Why do you think that is?
BRUSTEIN: American audiences have turned off the theater because they have so many riches: movies, the Internet, television, DVDs. Technology has always been our gift to the world, but although we've contributed to feeding the body, we don't recognize the importance of feeding the soul. It's perfectly possible for us to sit in our living rooms and create an entertainment center with beautiful resolution and all the latest gadgets, but we're becoming moles in holes. Aside from the church and the synagogue, the performing arts are the only means we have to make contact with each other. When you sit in a theater, you feel the huddle and bustle of people; you're part of a society, responding to what you're watching. A spectator functions like another actor in the company, interacting with vocal and physical responses, but moviegoers are expendable. You can show a film without a single person in the audience; you can't perform a play that nobody sees, because the audience's response is vital.
TM: What would you ask of an ideal audience?