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Isabelle and Roy

A chat with the president and chairman of the board of the American Theatre Wing. logo
There are a couple of misconceptions about the American Theatre Wing that the group's president, Roy Somlyo, would like to put to rest. "There's this strange perception in the industry that the Wing is a rich woman's toy," he says. "The other notion is that the American Theatre Wing owns the Tony Award trademark but otherwise has no input into the awards. I think we've begun to dispel both of those notions."

Before joining the Wing's staff two years ago, Somlyo had been a theater and TV producer and spent 30 years in various positions on the Tony telecast. He had the unenviable task of following Isabelle Stevenson--a beloved figure in theater circles--as Wing president; Stevenson remains active as chairman of the board and was honored at a black-tie benefit fund-raiser at the Waldorf-Astoria on April 10.

Individual memberships are available to theater lovers (women and men, rich and otherwise) who want to support the Wing's many service projects. Stevenson and Somlyo spoke with recently about the Wing's activities in this, its 83rd year as part of the American theater community.


"Working In The Theatre" Seminars

Every spring and fall for 27 years, the Wing has put together panels of top theater pros for its televised "Working in the Theatre" seminars, broadcast five times a week on CUNY-TV (Channel 75 in Manhattan). This season's spring panels will be taped on April 25 (a playwright/director/choreographer seminar featuring Lynne Taylor-Corbett of Swing!, Richard Nelson of The Dead, Becky Mode of Fully Committed, and others); April 26 (a production seminar featuring the creative team from Aida), and April 27 (performance seminar featuring Cherry Jones, Adam Pascal, John Shea, and others) at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue. (For information, call 212-765-0606.)

"People recognize me constantly and say, 'I love your seminars,' " Stevenson says with a laugh, "even when I don't want to be recognized because I look like a bag lady! The seminars are a wonderful archive of theatrical history--everyone from Arthur Miller to Paula Vogel has come on to discuss their work. They're wonderful, articulate people, and it's always a fascinating exchange of information."

In the past year, Somlyo has reached agreements with Visa to distribute hour-long edited versions of the seminars to libraries and schools nationwide, and with PBS to transmit them via satellite to 1,400 colleges.


The Tony Awards

As Somlyo alluded in his comment about misconceptions, the Wing and the League of American Theatres and Producers have equal voting power on the Tony administration committee, an arrangement that has not always been harmonious. As for the oft-maligned Tony telecast, to emanate this year from Radio City Music Hall on June 4, Somlyo says, "I think there's excitement in the industry; I'm not sure Contact is a shoo-in. I wouldn't be surprised to see closed shows like The Dead and Marie Christine in there. That makes it a totally different telecast for us. We're not going to put on [scenes from] closed shows. We may have to give them something to support their nominations, but there's no reason to put on a closed show when you've got The Music Man and Kiss Me, Kate and other shows that are still running and vital."

In Isabelle Stevenson's view, it takes a great season to create a great Tony telecast. She admits that last year's round-robin recitation of lines from nominated plays was "very confusing," but insists, "I still think it should be done--and it can be done." Drama highlights from her 46 years at the Wing were James Earl Jones performing a scene from The Great White Hope in 1969 and Linda Lavin doing an excerpt from Broadway Bound in 1987.

Stevenson would like to see Off-Broadway included in the Tonys, but notes that "it's very difficult with the unions and the producers. I've always hoped that we could recognize the best Off-Broadway production in a season, based on a recommendation from critics."


Outreach Projects

Many of the Wing's traditional service projects are currently being evaluated and expanded. Somlyo finds hospital outreach programs particularly effective. "People in adult care facilities have very little entertainment," he notes, explaining that the Wing's hour-long performances have grown in number from 150 to 750 a year. "Dozens of hospitals want our performers to come in. On Valentine's Day alone, we had 11 units out in AIDS centers, seniors' homes, and hospitals.

Although after-school theater programs have met with resistance from some community organizations "who are very possessive about their schools," as Somlyo puts it, a new "readers' bureau"--which sends performers into schools to read stories that kids then turn into plays--has been a big success. As he notes, "If you really want to build a generation of theatergoers, you have to start with the lower grades."

Stevenson points with pride to the Wing's record of providing theater-training scholarships for high school graduates. "It means so much to get letters from young people who say they couldn't have finished their education without us," she says. "I hope that the [benefit] dinner [in her honor] will establish a scholarship for every year that I've been at the Wing."

As she looks to the future, Stevenson challenges the theater community to find ways to make seeing shows more affordable. "I think there should be more specials: family prices on certain nights, senior citizens on certain nights, singles' nights. We need to get adults back in the theater and show young people how exciting live theater is. Then, when they're grown, they'll say, 'Let's go to the theater,' instead of to a rock concert or a ballgame. Theater is one of the most satisfying things for the mind, the soul--for everything!"

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