Theater News

Brustein’s American Theater

A theatrical giant maps his view.

Robert Brustein
Robert Brustein

As founding director of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory Theatres, Robert Brustein has supervised well over 200 productions, acting in eight and directing 12. He has written 11 adaptations for the A.R.T., and is the author of 12 books on theater and society. Here he speaks with Gideon Lester, the A.R.T.’s resident dramaturg.

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.


TM: You left Yale and founded the A.R.T. in 1980. What was the most significant change in the new theater?

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: I feel a certain amount of pressure, though I don’t allow myself to acknowledge it. We try to choose the best possible plays available for each season–including the best new plays, though our audiences are more attracted to classics.


TM: Is it becoming increasingly difficult to find strong new American playwriting?

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?

BRUSTEIN: I’d ask it to start supporting theaters rather than individual productions. Modern audiences only go to shows that critics tell them are worth their money–understandably. Nowadays you could buy a few shares in IBM for the amount you spend on a Broadway show, when you consider the cost of parking, restaurants, and the babysitter. But if people wait for a mega-hit before they buy a ticket, they no longer have an ongoing relationship with the stage. The best audiences are those who go to a theater where they’ve already seen other plays performed by many of the same actors. They understand the relationship between the plays, and they observe the actors growing–they become part of the process of theater itself.

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Closed: June 11, 2000