Theater history is being made right this moment on Lafayette Street: the Mabou Mines production of Franz Xaver Kroetz's
Through the Leaves is being revived at the Public Theater. Doesn't sound like much? Maybe not, but
the seeds of change are often tiny. The Obie-award-winning production, which stars Ruth Maleczech and Fred Neumann under the direction of JoAnne Akalaitis, premiered in the winter of 1984 at the Interart Theatre. An attic on far West 52nd Street is exactly the sort of out-of-the-mainstream location where you'd imagine a famous but still struggling avant-garde theater troupe to do a distinctly uncommercial work like Kroetz's brutal, working-class romance about a middle-aged specialty butcher and her
construction- worker boyfriend.
Now Through the Leaves is opening a new season -- the first of a new decade -- playing at the Newman, the largest space in the Public Theater. And its 52-year-old director is no longer just a brainy cult figure, no longer a member of Mabou Mines (after 20 years with the company, she resigned in June), but Joseph Papp's handpicked choice to succeed him as the head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, the largest not-for-profit theater institution in the country.
The announcement in the New York Times on May 29 rocked the theater world. Not only was Papp taking on Akalaitis as "artistic associate," but he was also giving three young directors -- 35-year-old George C. Wolfe (whose plays
The Colored Museum and Spunk were among the Public's few popular successes in recent years), 34-year-old David Greenspan (who directed Kathleen Tolan's
Kate's Diary at the Public last fall), and 30-year-old Michael Greif -- each a theater at the Public to do a season of plays of his own choosing. As the news sank in, the same question echoed on phone lines across town and coast to coast:
Is Papp really handing over the reins to JoAnne Akalaitis? What does this new arrangement mean for the future of the New York Shakespeare Festival? For the future of Joe Papp? Of New York theater? Of American theater?
Why Akalaitis of all people? Yes, she has worked at the Public Theater for years, but usually in the context of Mabou Mines, the theater collaborative she cofounded in 1970 with Maleczech, Lee Breur, and her ex-husband, Philip Glass. Some of the work was well-received, most notably
Dead End Kids, her multimedia, Faust-goes-to-Three-
Mile-Island history of nuclear power that had a long run in 1980-81. But a lot of it was pretty arcane. (The press had a field day yukking it up over sculptor Michael Hurson's play
Red and Blue, a dialogue between light bulbs.) And her last show at the Public was
Cymbeline, her first Shakespeare, which got savaged by the critics -- and everybody knows how important good reviews are, even to a cynic like Joe Papp. Besides, Akalaitis is an avant-garde director. Does she really want to be a producer? When it comes right down to it, how much autonomy is Papp willing to give her and the other three directors? How long is this arrangement really going to last? And who the hell is Michael Greif, anyway?
The grapevine certainly had plenty to buzz about all summer. Reactions ranged from admiration and giddy approval to deep suspicion and cynicism, much of it based on extended exposure to the mercurial ways of Joseph Papp. "I think it's a good move, a bold move," says the literary manager for a major American theater, "and I'm willing to place a bet in a sealed envelope that they'll all be gone by next June."
"I think she's a terrorist," says an American theater VIP. "She's destructive of institutions. When she directed
Leon and Lena at the Guthrie, she discovered that Honeywell was one of the backers, and she dressed the villains in white workclothes with the name Moneywell written on the back. She wanted the Guthrie to dedicate their production of
The Screens to the PLO. The Guthrie decided they wouldn't, so she put the dedication in her bio in the program. She looks for what's going to provoke and bring difficulty to the organization."
"The good thing is that they know each other, JoAnne and Joe. It's not a case of some idiot board bringing in Anne Bogart or Peter Sellars and then wondering why they're doing what they're doing," says critic and dramaturg James Leverett. "But it's nothing that's going to solidify in one year."
"I was surprised, though not because I thought JoAnne was an unusual choice," says Garland Wright, who took a similar flying leap four years ago when he went from being a fine freelance director to running the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. "She's got all the cliche qualities that people assume artistic directors have to have -- organization, administrative skill, leadership abilities, the ability to bring it all together in time. But the real fact is that organizations are personal things, and the chief quality you bring is personality. Hers is unique and individual, and that's what qualifies her to do it.
"Actually, I was impressed with Joe, to be honest," Wright adds mildly, setting a new standard for understatement. "He's always had the capacity to surprise."
The most surprising thing about the turn of events at the Public Theater is that Papp has addressed the issue of succession at all. It's difficult enough, both emotionally and practically, for the head of any organization to face the task of naming or at least cultivating a successor. But Joe Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival himself 36 years ago, in a Lower East Side church basement. He fought its famous battles by himself: going nose-to-nose with Robert Moses over keeping Shakespeare in the Park free, getting the city to buy the Astor Library building and lease it back to him for $1 a year as the Public Theater, etc. And he has made himself virtually synonymous with the organization, using his personality to sell the Shakespeare Festival and its productions. Not only that, but through his outspoken advocacy of various social and political causes he has made himself the individual most identified in the public mind with theater in America.
For Papp to contemplate a life for the New York Shakespeare Festival beyond himself would require a great amount of honest, soul-searching selflessness. So for him to say, as he did when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago, "The direction we're going in now is preparing for JoAnne Akalaitis, at some point when I'm no longer the head of this theater, to actually become the artistic leader" -- well, it's a major landmark.
The decision to hire three directors and give each of them a theater is, Papp says, a more recent development in his long-term planning than naming a successor. But it also contributes to the sense that he's in rehearsal for retirement. In some ways, it's an even more immediate indication of his willingness to relinquish (some) control and to welcome the exercise of somebody else's taste besides his own.
Why make these changes now? It's no secret that the New York Shakespeare Festival has been undergoing an identity crisis in recent years. What made Papp the most exciting theater producer in the country, when he hit his stride in the mid-'70s, was his ability to juggle Broadway showbiz, serious plays that don't make a dime, and free Shakespeare in the Park. But he hasn't been able to keep all his balls in the air lately. Except for
The Pirates of Penzance and The Mystery of Edwin
Drood, his Broadway excursions in the last decade have been expensive debacles, worthy plays but foolish moves:
The Human Comedy, Serious Money, The Secret Rapture. William Finn's
Romance in Hard Times and Todd Rundgren and Joe Orton's
Up Against It, the two costly pop musicals he produced last year in hopes of picking up the
post-Chorus Line slack, fizzled on the launching pad.
Where the Public once had virtual first-pick on scripts by terrific new writers (e.g., David Rabe, Ntozake Shange, Wally Shawn, David Hare, David Henry Hwang, etc.), today it has much more competition from major theaters around the country, increasingly attractive to artists disinclined to brave the treacherous financial and critical climate in New York. These theaters' employment of the major directors of the day has also put a crimp in Papp's style of producing Shakespeare; he often has to settle for third- or fourth-choice directors, which explains why so many of the productions are pointless and mediocre. And Papp can't help but have noticed that Lincoln Center Theater has stolen the New York Shakespeare Festival's thunder as the hottest theater in town. The Lincoln Center model -- low-key, creatively active artistic director (Gregory Mosher); savvy, bizwise producer (Papp's former partner Bernie Gersten); a core group of resident artists (David Mamet, John Guare, and, until recently, Jerry Zaks); exciting literary and casting departments (under Anne Cattaneo and Billy Hopkins, respectively) -- is one that Papp must surely have studied closely when conceiving the new configuration of the Public Theater.
It was advantageous -- though not, according to Papp, influential -- that there was funding available specifically for this kind of unprecedented change in programming. Last year the Andrew Mellon Foundation's Rachel Bellow, who has been described as "the guru of fundraisers right now," sent out a letter to the artistic directors of 26 not-for-profit theaters inviting them to submit dream-of-a-lifetime proposals in which money would make a difference in the direction of their theaters. One of 18 theaters accepted, the New York Shakespeare Festival got $330,000, which will cover -- at least for a year -- the salaries for Akalaitis and the three other directors.
It's undeniably a creative (rather than headline-grabbing or box-
office-minded) decision for Papp to make. He's done great things and could easily rest on his laurels. But he is genuinely restless. He's an old dog who at least wants to learn new tricks. He'd probably be offended at being called an old dog. At the very least he'd prefer to be called an old underdog.
When I first heard the news, I couldn't help noticing that Joe Papp had hired a woman and a group of three men that included an openly gay man, an African American, and two Jews. Was that intentional?
"Not at all," says Papp. "But that's a pretty good range, don't ya think? I could have gotten three other people. There are three or four other people around like that, maybe, not more. It just so happened these were the people at the time I decided I needed a new infrastructure here."
Many people in the theater suspect, though, that there is a more urgent reason behind the restructuring of the Public Theater than simply Papp's getting inspired to remold the Shakespeare Festival's image after the closing of
A Chorus Line. For years Papp's health has been a subject of discussion in theater circles -- not out of sensationalism or morbid curiosity (well, not just out of morbid curiosity) but out of a concern for his well-being and for his theater, exacerbated by the fact that has refrained from acknowledging it in any way.
Talking about people's health in print is something of a taboo. AIDS has made things worse because the issues are so loaded. People legitimately fear that if their illness is made public, they'll lose jobs; theater is such a freelance world that it's easy for employers to say, "Let's not hire him -- what if he gets sick?" When someone really high-powered is sick, though, contingency plans do need to be considered. A lot of Broadway deal-making screeched to a halt a few years ago when Bernie Jacobs, the wily, saturnine head of the Shubert Organization, suffered a distressing mental breakdown. The Shakespeare Festival had to deal with numerous crises over AIDS casualties from Wilford Leach, who for several years played a big part in developing musicals for the Public, to
Chorus Line mastermind Michael Bennett to the Ridiculous Theater's Charles Ludlam, who was just about to direct his first Shakespeare for Papp. Then there's simply the issue of human compassion. The saddest thing about Ethyl Eichelberger's shocking suicide was that, because he chose to keep his illness secret, many people who loved him dearly didn't get a chance to let him know.
At least among themselves, people on his staff refer quite matter-of- factly to Papp's serious illness. "There was a scare several years ago, when everyone got freaked out," says a longtime employee. "This was never discussed, but for a while there was the sense that doing the whole Shakespeare roster was his way of ending it, of putting a bookend on it. He never discussed having cancer with his staff. It has nothing to do with worrying about raising money for the theater. It's about mortality. It makes him vulnerable in a way he doesn't want to be vulnerable. It was interesting to see the way he handled
The Normal Heart, because he's always hated plays about illness. He doesn't want 'poor Joe,' that sympathy you have toward the ill."
When I brought up the subject of his health and its influence on the changes at the Public, Papp would only indicate...well, this is the way the conversation went:
"The effort is not a new effort, and it's not based on my demise. I don't think I'm gonna die tomorrow."
Everybody wants to know, though, what is the story with your health?
"You see me here."
Yes, but I also understand that you have cancer and that there have been times in recent years when you've been very ill.
"No, I've never been ill. I've never been very ill at all. [Slight pause] I've had certain things I had to attend to, but I'm not very ill, and my life is not at stake."
Having had "certain things I had to attend to" may well have contributed to making an older, wiser, more forward-looking Joe Papp. In any case, the reorganization at the Public seems like a noble effort on Papp's part to cure himself of some bad habits as a producer. He's been known to be heavy-handed and interfering at times, which he cheerfully admits. "I see directors' work sometimes, and I know they're going the wrong way. In the old days I used to come in and take the play away, fire the director. What you do is antagonize the cast. You undermine their confidence. You'll never win. So now I let well enough alone and make suggestions only down the road before opening the play."
He may not be as blatant as he used to be in firing directors, but he finds other ways to annoy artists. Last spring he had discussions with Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, about directing Denzel Washington in
Richard III. Falls would have been an excellent choice, young, tuned into pop culture (in a smart way), but after his first meeting with Washington, shortly after the actor won his Oscar, the star told Papp, "This is my first Shakespeare. I need an English director." Exit Falls, enter Stratford veteran Robin Phillips. "I was naive," says Falls. "I thought Joe was calling the shots but it turned out he'd given Denzel director approval." For the record, Papp denies this account; both he and Falls say they're still eager to work together.
In recent years Papp's favorite way of dealing with productions he doesn't like (read: shows that got bad reviews) is cutting short their runs, as David Schweizer found out as the director of Marlane Meyer's
Kingfish. That play opened last December and was expected to run through January 21; after the mixed-to-negative reviews came out, Papp decided to close the show New Year's Eve, as though it were a Broadway show that'd flopped. Sure, he had gambled and lost huge sums of money on
Romance in Hard Times and Up Against It. But who can blame the artists for feeling like they suffered for someone else's mistakes?
Especially when you've had as long and loving a relationship as Papp has had with Elizabeth Swados. Last spring he held off reviews of Swados's
Jonah until two days before the show was supposed to close. When the
Times gave it a good review, Papp told Swados he'd extend the show; later the same day he changed his mind. I happened to see Swados the day after
Jonah closed, and she was not a happy camper. It reminded me of the time I ran into Wally Shawn on the street. Papp had just decided not to produce the musical he had commissioned from Shawn and his composer brother Allen, a weird, sexually explicit, but fascinating show called
The Music Teacher. "He's alienated every other playwright in town," said Shawn in that piping, fun-to-imitate voice of his, "and now he's alienated me!"
Of course, that was before Papp produced Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon (twice, with an English and then an American cast). Shawn will return to the Public this fall to perform a monologue he has written about his recent visits to Nicaragua. And he'll probably have other plays done at the Public. Same goes for
For this new structure to work, Papp will really have to change. And is change really possible?
"I'm moving toward institutionalizing in a more complicated way something that was really the personal idea of an individual -- that's me," says Papp. "I make all the major decisions as to what plays we do, what directors we hire. We agree on casting with the directors, but I'm at the center of it. Can't help that. It's the way it is.
"The press has been a little confusing," he continues. "JoAnne is not taking over the New York Shakespeare Festival. As long as I'm here, there's only one boss. But she is becoming involved in the festival, and she's being -- what's the word? Not shaped..."
"Groomed. Terrible word to use for her. I'd never ride that horse! Even though she works with an artistic group, with Mabou Mines, she's always been a lone wolf. She doesn't know how to run an institution yet. I told JoAnne, 'You're gonna have to help me, see. This is in my blood. I built this from the ground up.' I said, 'My whole desire is to prime you for the time when you can begin to run the institution.'"
What does that mean, concretely? Akalaitis has already been set to direct Henry IV Parts I and 2
in repertory (beginning January 22), but aside from that, what future role will she have in selecting plays she doesn't direct? "The kind of plays we do will begin to have a subtle change. It will not happen in one year. It'll take a few years. I'm doing a new play by Caryl Churchill on Romania
[Mad Forest], we're doing this thing on censorship [Indecent
Materials] -- we'll always have plays of this type. I want to do David Hare's new play, but he doesn't want to bring it to New York because of Frank Rich. Too bad, because he's one of the best. I'm building a relationship with John Patrick Shanley; I probably will do his new play. I like those writers. That's not exactly JoAnne's taste. So I think the line will begin to alter.
"I said to her, 'Everything is negotiable that you want to do.' She mentioned a certain director she wanted to direct this play. I won't mention his name, but I would never hire him again because he walked out on a show. I'll mention his name, I don't give a damn, Woody Woodruff." (Just before the opening of Sam Shepard's
True West in 1980, Robert Woodruff resigned and Papp took over as director, which caused Shepard to issue a statement denouncing Papp and the production, sight unseen. Ouch!) "If I had my choice, I would say no. But I said, 'If you like him, I'll put no obstructions.' I could have said absolutely not. She's interested in the new play by Squat Theater. I could have said, 'They shit onstage, I don't want them, I don't want any shit on the stage.'" (Squat has done all kinds of wild things onstage, but defecation isn't one of them.) "If I can say Squat Theater's negotiable, that's giving her quite an opportunity."
Interviewing Papp is a trip. He likes to perform, and even if he's looking at you across his Great Man Desk, sometimes his eyes stray away, as if he's playing to the balcony. He doesn't suffer fools gladly; his eyes glaze over, and his tone of voice can freeze water. But he loves to laugh,
and he can be surprisingly vulnerable and nervous at times. Nervous about what? Approval, of course. That's easy to forget, when a titan of industry has as many awards, hit shows, honors, and glories as Papp has had. He's given his whole life to his theater and his artists, and he never feel sufficiently appreciated. He just wants to be loved -- is that so wrong?
He's also hilariously forgetful. Sometimes conversing with him is like playing Password. Listing the actors he has a "very strong personal relationship" with, he mentions Kevin Kline, Bill Hurt, and "uh, the guy who played Coriolanus..." Christopher Walken? "Chris Walken, gorgeous actor!" Discussing his newfound interest in Restoration comedy, he says he was inspired by seeing
The Way of the World in London, starring "Olivier's wife, what's her name..." Joan Plowright? "Joan Plowright! I've known her for years." Comparing JoAnne Akalaitis to another figure whose leadership was based on artistic rather than administrative skills, he says, "She gonna have to be protected by other forces around her, like what's his name, the choreographer...not Baryshnikov, the guy who died...the older man, the Russian..." Balanchine? "Balanchine had nothing to do with raising the money. He was a pure artist."
Hmm, Balanchine. What a fascinating model for Papp to conjure in relation to JoAnne Akalaitis. With the New York City Ballet, Lincoln Kirstein built around Balanchine an organization that catered not to the lowest common denominator but to the highest aspirations of the art form, on the assumption that the best work will not only find the audience it deserves but be sustained by that audience. Does Papp have the same faith in Akalaitis?
"The thing that was most meaningful to me in relation to the continuation of this institution, is that I wanted to make certain there's someone in command who has an unmovable point of view about society," he explains. "When I say unmovable, I mean that she is a radical. Aesthetically she's radical. Even though everything she does has a political cast to it, she's fundamentally not an ideologue. That gives me great security, thinking of the future of the theater.
"Also her interest in classics is very important," he says, "not because of 'the great wonders of the past,' but to me that gives a richness to a theater. And she's an older person. She's in her fifties. She has a certain obsession with the theater, which guarantees the energy that it takes to run the theater. I said, 'Don't you want to go to Broadway?' She said, 'No, I don't. I just love the theater.' She said it with such wonderment and such truthfulness that I almost cried."
In the hierarchy of the New York Shakespeare Festival, few people have ever had the opportunity of being number two, never mind future leader. There was a time, long ago, when Gerald Freedman held the title of artistic director, and for a while Stuart Vaughan directed for Papp so regularly that he was considered a de facto
second-in- command. But most observers, including those who work for him, assumed that Papp would have to be dead and buried before discussion of his successor could take place in public.
"For the last eight or 10 years, there's always been talk about who would be there after him," says Morgan Jenness, who worked in the play department from 1982 to 1988 and remains an unofficial ear-to-the-street for Papp. "Des McAnuff [artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse] was the scuttlebutt at one point, and for a while Max Stafford-Clark [artistic director of the Royal Court in London] was being bandied about. But Joe was very closed about it. Words like successor and heir apparent were never used; it was more like future involvement and artistic associate."
The one person who came closest to being proclaimed next-in-line was Wilford Leach. Though hardly the most creative or dynamic director who ever worked at the Public Theater, Leach did a good job with Wally Shawn's
Marie and Bruce and Galt McDermot's musical The Human
Comedy, and he executed a number of high-profile, high-concept productions such as Meryl Streep and Raul Julia in
Taming of the Shrew, the all-black Mother Courage adapted by Ntozake Shange, and Linda Ronstadt's operatic debut in
La Boheme. Most important he successfully staged Papp's biggest
post-Chorus Line moneymakers, Pirates and Drood, first in Central Park and then on Broadway.
Understandably, then, Leach's untimely death from AIDS in 1988 at the age of 59 came as a severe blow to Papp. "Joe loved him so much," says a Public Theater staffer. "In our Christmas cards a few years ago, Joe enclosed this poem he'd written called 'To Wilford Leach.' I don't know how to describe it. It was an amazingly sentimental, rather maudlin eulogy in which he said, 'The sun has gone back in...How could you have left us?,,,My heart cries out for you.' It was so startling, when
I read it I just put it back in the envelope and put it in my desk."
Papp confirms that Leach "would have been the next person. He was an extraordinary director and a great person, great man. I loved that man." And he admits that he's been actively seeking a successor for the last five years. "I'm 69 years of age. You can't run a theater forever. I began to think about this really seriously when I turned 50. How does this continue? Or does it continue? We're negotiating now a lease with the city which may go up to 99 years. Why should I care what's gonna happen 99 years from now? But I do. It isn't that I want to extend myself.
If I'm dead" -- if I'm dead in 99 years? -- "I'm dead, I'm gone. You know how much effort it takes to create an institution in this city, a theater that has any longevity? It's too valuable."
When he gets going, Papp reminds me of the late critic and man of the theater, Harold Clurman, who could turn a cocktail party, a rehearsal, a lobby at intermission into an occasion for oratory -- long-winded, maybe, but always passionate. It's a muggy, overcast Friday afternoon, and Papp is overdressed in a tan summer suit and tie because he has a meeting later with an NEA site reporter to discuss his grant application for next season, "a grant I'll probably have to turn down anyway." He's an impy guy; he likes to tease. In order to avoid giving his spiel twice in one day, he had originally invited me to sit in on his meeting with the NEA person: "I told her you were a very sensitive guy.
[Beat] I lied." Trying to reschedule, I asked him if the weekend was sacred. "I'm Jewish!" he replied. (Oh, really?) "So that takes up one day. Sunday I'm going to a wedding, and then I have a meeting with a famous novelist who shall remain nameless." Without a pause, he continues, "Okay, I'll give you a hint. Who's the most famous Latin American novelist?" Thinking politics, I guess Vargas Llosa. "Close. Who's one of the two most famous Latin American novelists?" Marquez. "Very, very close.
[Stage whisper] That's it!"
Another thing you can never forget about Joe Papp: he's still as starstruck as a little kid. When he started seriously seeking a successor, Papp claims, "I wasn't looking for a star particularly. But I wanted someone who was well-recognized, who first of all would be an artist but also had the administrative and organizational sense to operate a theater of this scale." The first person he asked was Mike Nichols, who directed the legendary 1976 production of David Rabe's
Streamers for Papp, as well as E.L. Doctorow's 1978 Drinks Before
Dinner; he turned it down. Next Papp approached Jerry Zaks, who staged the brilliant production of Christopher Durang's
The Marriage of Bette and Boo at the Public in 1985 and later Larry Shue's 1988
Wenceslas Square. He said no, as did James Lapine, who has directed
A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale for the Shakespeare Festival, as well as his own play,
Twelve Dreams. Papp even tried to get Zaks and Lapine to work together. "Both of them were extremely interested but couldn't commit," he says. "You know, you have to really want a theater. They didn't." Nonetheless, both directors will maintain a relationship with the Shakespeare Festival; Zaks will direct
As You Like It in the marathon, and Lapine The Merry Wives of
I ask why Papp hadn't considered people who have experience running theaters of their own: McAnuff, for one, or Robyn Goodman and Carole Rothman of the Second Stage, or Hartford Stage Company's Mark Lamos.
"I was looking really for someone who hasn't had that experience, someone fresh and individual that I know and have worked with. With all due respect to everybody else, I can't think of anybody that could measure up to [Akalaitis] outside of [Nichols, Zaks, and Lapine]. Even compared to those guys, she has that original mind. They do some excellent work in a very clear-cut vein, but I like some of the imperfection of her work. There's a certain roughness to it. It's risky."
Is Papp willing to share the risk inherent in Akalaitis's work over the long haul? Or will the whole deal be off after the first round of bad reviews? It's not a question he enjoys hearing. It makes him nervous.
"A lot of these critics hate her. I know that now," he mutters with a grim, I'm-a-big-boy-I-can-take-it bravado. "I don't have to wait for her reviews."
Why do the critics hate JoAnne Akalaitis? Her Cymbeline wasn't that bad. This was the multiracial production starring Joan Cusack and staged as an eerie Victorian fantasia. It's a difficult play, and Akalaitis chose to accentuate rather than iron out the wrinkles; to make matters worse, the production was not uniformly well-acted and unfortunately cast in some roles. I was among those who balked at the scene where Cusack as Imogen mistook the headless body of a black actor for that of the blond actor playing her boyfriend. But the score was Philip Glass's best since
Einstein on the Beach, George Tsypin's hallucinatory set was a marvel, and if anything the production suffered from too many ideas rather than too few. I wished I'd been in on the dramaturgical discussions, which is more than I could say for the three-stars-and-a-million-yawns
Julius Caesar or the yet-another Midsummer Night's
Dream-as-a-romp. Yet Frank Rich's scathing review in The New York Times
basically questioned Akalaitis's right to work in the theater.
It isn't just critics, though. I've detected even among her peers a strange hostility toward Akalaitis that seems clearly born out of ignorance. Since most of her work has been performed either out of town
(Newsweek's Jack Kroll was the only major New York critic who bothered to see her staggering five-hour production of Genet's
The Screens) or in limited runs at small theaters, many people who know her name simply have never seen her work. (That's true of many so-called avant-garde artists, including Elizabeth LeCompte, Anne Bogart, Irene Fornes, Karen Finley...hmm, maybe a little sexism at work, too?)
It may have hurt Akalaitis's reputation that The Photographer, staged as part of BAM's Next Wave series and probably her most visible work aside from
Dead End Kids, was a glum, expensive mess. But I also get the impression that people feel intellectually intimidated by her work, imagining it to be "cold" or "harsh" or "impenetrable." When I mentioned to a friend that Papp had named Akalaitis to be his successor, his reply was, "Well, I guess we won't see any more narratives at the Public Theater!" And I suppose reciting the list of works she's directed -- Beckett, Colette, Kroetz, Genet, immigrants, Mormons -- could make some people want to stay home and put
Tequila Sunrise on the VCR again.
But that's a fundamental misunderstanding of her work. Her thoughtful, quirky theater is the equivalent of the movies and books that intelligent people crave -- Wim Wenders and Gus Van Sant, Robert Stone and Cynthia Ozick. It's not for everyone, maybe. But there's an audience for
Twin Peaks as well as Cheers, for the Kronos Quartet as well as MC Hammer, for Alice Walker as well as Judith Krantz. Likewise, there's an audience for Akalaitis. I sat next to a couple of married professionals at
The Screens who told me they weren't Guthrie subscribers because they found most of the plays there boring. "I wish they'd do more things like this," said the wife.
Akalaitis's attitude toward the audience is anything but condescending. Speaking about the audience that Mabou Mines generally gets at the Public, she once told me, "If we get a good review in the
Times, we get a whole other audience of what I call 'the real people.' They're interesting and they're very hard to perform for because they're not used to certain kinds of forms. I see them fall asleep, get bored, walk out, be horrified. I'm not putting those people down; that's who I do theater for."
The revival of Through the Leaves at the Public probably won't be scrutinized as heavily as Akalaitis's forthcoming
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. But as the first show in her historic new residency, it has symbolic value and aptly represents the best aspects of Akalaitis as an artist. The author is European, little-known here but famous in his native West Germany; his austere theatricality and class-conscious vision of domestic relationships suggests an unlikely hybrid of Beckett and Brecht. Yet Akalaitis sets the play in our midst, in Queens here and now. "This is a very simple, linear play," she says. "It's not fancy. It's not conceptual. There's no slides in it, or movies. There's no distance within the performance style. It is direct in the way a Chekhov play is direct."
Furthermore, Through the Leaves demonstrates Akalaitis's genius for collaboration. Doug Stein's starkly stylized but recognizable set plays a major role. Yet as always in Akalaitis's work, the performances are central. The ferocious intimacy that Ruth Maleczech and Fred Neumann achieve in
Through the Leaves illustrates the value of a director-actor relationship that goes back 20 years. Kroetz saw the production in Israel and proclaimed it the best ever. "He was so gracious," Akalaitis recalls, dazzled. "He kissed Ruth's hand."
Another reason people may harbor a hostile and/or ignorant attitude toward Akalaitis is that she is extremely press-shy -- partly out of a conviction that theater should be experienced rather than documented, and partly because she deeply resents the attitude common among critics that artists are errant schoolchildren to be graded rather than creative individuals who might have something to teach. Even when arranging to be interviewed for this article, she voiced a sentiment many artists feel but few express quite so directly: "I don't care about the
New York Times. I don't care about The Village
Voice. I hate them all, and I'm being perfectly sincere when I say that."
"JoAnne has all the makings for a huge snafu, if she lets the darker, more doctrinaire side of her personality reign," says someone who knows her well. "The wonderful thing about her is that she operates from a gut level instinctively. The awful thing about her is the same thing. She's a Chicago street kid; she comes out punching. She doesn't act very well in public. That could screw things up. Joe can be charming,
lovable, handsome, sexy. JoAnne is none of those things. She's very direct. She's also very insecure. She has to trust you to act in any way but defensive. If she's being groomed, she sure has to learn from him how to be that kind of public figure -- it takes a combination of showmanship and tremendous savvy."
As a producer, the American Repertory Theater's Robert Brustein has had his patience tried by Akalaitis. The production of John Ford's
'Tis Pity She's a Whore she staged at the Goodman Theater last spring was originally supposed to be mounted at Brustein's theater in Boston, where Akalaitis had previously directed Genet's
The Balcony and Beckett's Endgame (a brilliant but controversial multiracial production set in an abandoned subway station -- Beckett denounced it from Paris). On
'Tis Pity, they couldn't agree on casting. "She wanted Jesse Borrego as Giovanni, and I auditioned him and confirmed the worry I had that he had no classical training," says Brustein. "We're running a conservatory up here, and I couldn't justify casting someone most of whose experience was on the television series
Fame. We agreed to disagree, and there were no hard feelings from my point of view, but since I've heard that she's been calling me a racist." (Asked if there were hard feelings between her and Brustein, Akalaitis says, "I hope not." Will she direct there again? "Probably not.")
Nonetheless, Brustein the critic is a champion of Akalaitis. Reviewing the much-maligned
Cymbeline, he reprinted what he'd said about the Tempest her fellow Mabou Miner Lee Breuer once directed for Papp: "Instead of savaging it and other productions like it, we might reflect on why the most violent reactions are usually directed not against what is conventional, mind-deadening, and banal, but rather against those very rare occasions when an artist dares to risk, and fails through a surplus of imagination and invention."
It's too bad Akalaitis is so skittish about interviews because when she does talk about herself and her work she's fascinating. Her range of acquaintances and tastes is much wider than people might imagine. And people who think of her as this stern avant-gardist, this formidable intellectual, might be surprised to hear her refer knowingly to Billie Holiday and Ann Miller, John Lennon and
Star Trek. And she loves movies: Fassbinder, Godard, Resnais, Kurosawa. She's very smart but totally down-to-earth; if you asked her what she loved most in the world besides her children, it would probably be a toss-up between theater and food (for years she supported herself and her family by cooking in a restaurant).
And she's funny to boot. When we met on a steamy Saturday afternoon at the Yemenite restaurant in the East Village where she has all her business meetings, I ask her where exactly Yemen is. "I don't know," she says, ordering a glass of white wine to face her first New York interview in four years. "I hardly know where Pennsylvania is."
Born into a devoutly Catholic Lithuanian family, Akalaitis was a premed major at the University of Chicago; she was studying philosophy at Stanford when she started directing. She quit school at 22 and moved to San Francisco where she met Maleczech and Breuer, took acting classes, and did happenings. She abandoned San Francisco for New York, she once told
The Drama Review, "because I wanted to act in regular plays and become a famous actress and make a lot of money." She studied with Herbert Berghof and Bill Hickey, among others, but she didn't care for the Method; her most pertinent training came from Joyce Aaron of Joseph Chaikin's Open Space Theater and from Jerzy Grotowski. When Philip Glass got a grant to study with Nadia Boulanger, he and Akalaitis moved to Paris where they started working with Breuer, Maleczech, and actor David Warrilow. These five repatriated to New York in 1970, and the rest is Mabou Mines history.
After acting in Beckett's Play and Come and Go, as well as three of Breuer's "Animations"
(Red Horse, B. Beaver, Shaggy Dog), Akalaitis made her Mabou Mines directing debut in 1976 -- at what is now the movie theater at the Public -- with an adaptation of Beckett's radio play
Cascando. It won an Obie Award, as has practically everything else she has directed for Mabou Mines:
Dressed Like an Egg (1977), Southern Exposure (1979),
Dead End Kids (1980), Through the Leaves, and Kroetz's
Help Wanted. She staged Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense
tour, in return for which David Byrne contributed to the original score for the film of
Dead End Kids.
After her well-received 1981 staging of Kroetz's Request Concert at Interart, Akalaitis embarked on a new career directing large-scale, ambitious, collaboratively exciting productions at theaters around the country. Along with
Endgame and Genet's The Balcony (set in Central America with music by Ruben Blades) at the A.R.T., she staged
Green Card, her own collage-play about immigrants in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A.;
The Screens and Buchner's Leon and Lena (&
lenz) at the Guthrie; and Tis Pity She's a Whore at the Goodman, in which one of the very few set-pieces was a freestanding wall with one word written on it: CUNT. At the Public, in addition to
Cymbeline, she directed American Notes by Len Jenkin, whose 1981
Dark Ride at Soho Rep was Akalaitis's last performance as an actress.
Leaving Mabou Mines, she says, "seemed very organic. I had come to the end of a cycle in my life in relation to that community of people. It was not acrimonious. I left at a particularly nice meeting, a meeting where we weren't fighting about anything."
When Papp approached her last December, "It was so overwhelming, it seemed impossible to me," she says. "I never thought of myself in a role like that.
I never wanted it." Two things made her reconsider. "One has to do with being a grownup and taking responsibility. Things are really tough now, and somehow some of us -- or all of us -- have to put ourselves on the line and not have things so easy. Also, it seemed very refreshing to take this on because I didn't know anything about it. I'm coming from a point of total innocence, which I want to keep."
Two years ago Akalaitis was thinking of leaving theater. "Seriously. I was going to, I don't know, become a caterer or something like that. Because I didn't understand what it was I was doing in theater. It wasn't that I was disillusioned. It didn't make sense to me. I think I was getting a little cynical and a little fatigued. Then I directed
Cymbeline. I'd never directed a Shakespeare play. And that completely turned everything around.
It was a real epiphany. Shakespeare is the greatest teacher. After being involved in a deep, profoundly spiritual way with a great teacher, I felt completely reborn and refreshed. I went on to do
The Screens, and I felt, 'Okay, I can do that, too. I can walk into a room with 50 people and say, "Let's do
it."' That feeling has continued, and I feel -- without being pretentious -- I feel tremendously creative. I eagerly look forward to the next problem. So feeling powerful as an artist allowed me to think about being powerful in other ways in theater."
Was the job at the Public appealing as an opportunity to do more Shakespeare? "No, no. It has to do with changing my life. Why shouldn't I change my life? I was perfectly happy doing what I was doing, going from one great play to the next, out of town, in town. I thought I had the best possible life that anyone in theater could have. Then something else came into my life, and I felt, why not? Why? Why not? The answer to why is why not."
What practical concerns did she have? "Well, I don't have an answering machine. And I have a terror of institutions. I have a dread of walking in the same door day after day. Wherever I've been, I've always been outside the institution, even with Mabou Mines. I know that sounds rather romantic but it's also authentic." Does she feel that taking this job means she has to alter that? "No, I actually don't. It's very good for me to have a mistrust and apprehension about institutions. It's very good for the institution. It creates an energetic tension between me and the place that I'm at. It's something I cherish and that has always worked for me."
Suddenly she exclaims, "Isn't that nice!" My food has arrived, a dish called mlawach, a kind of Yemenite pancake that she recommended and shows me how to eat. "This is a baked egg, you tear off a piece of this, dip it in the salad, and you'll have a ball!"
We talk about the scripts she'd like to see done at the Public. In addition to Squat's
Killing Time, there's Len Jenkin's Poor Folks' Pleasure
and John Guare's Moon Over Miami. She and Papp have discussed the possibility of her restaging
Tis Pity at the Public as well as -- extraordinary notion -- doing
The Screens at the Delacorte in Central Park. And Papp is definitely eager to join the consortium of producers (Mabou Mines, Walker Arts Center, University of Utah) behind Akalaitis's next magnum opus,
The Mormon Project, which recently had a workshop production at the University of Florida.
She got interested in Mormons "by accident," after reading an article in the
New York Review of Books. "It's very important material, for a couple of reasons," she says. "It's about a time in America when there was this religious fervor that was political and energizing and sort of pure even when it was misled. Then it's about the evolution of this particular religion, Mormonism, which is the only surviving indigenous American religion and how it reflects the delusion of our time -- very politically conservative, racist, sexist, homophobic, everything. It's like our dream religion! And at the same time there are some really positive things."
Such as? "Community. It goes back in the best sense to the conservative traditional American values, which are about community, closeness, family -- things that all of us New York artists don't have much of in our lives. I feel like an anthropologist whenever I go to Utah. I could be in New Guinea standing around with a bunch of people covered with mud. Except that they have 1950s hairdos."
Aside from directing her own work, Akalaitis has no preconceptions about what else she'll be doing at the Public. "This first year everything is in place, so it's a learning year. It needs to be me understanding what it is to be involved in a more intimate way with this institution." As far as the other three directors are concerned, she'd prefer to think of herself as their peer rather than their superior. "I don't want to be in a position of supervising anyone. It feels too, you know, academic. They don't need anyone to oversee them. Those words like 'oversee' or 'supervise' -- they're loaded. They describe a certain kind of activity that's been abhorrent to me in theater."
But isn't it part of running a theater to go to dress rehearsal and give notes? "See, I think this is a very natural thing for people in Mabou Mines. The genius of Mabou Mines was that a whole bunch of people were empowered to really think creatively about all the aspects of the theater -- production, aesthetics, script. It didn't always work. But there was a real methodology that developed around that, and the methodology is you say what you think. That's not such a mysterious thing."
I ask Akalaitis, as I had each of the other new appointees, if she had asked for or received any assurance that this new arrangement would not turn out to be one of Papp's bright ideas that gets abandoned at the first bad review. Like them, she said no. "There is no guarantee," says Akalaitis. "I could go to Joe next month and he could say, 'Oh, I've changed my mind.' Which doesn't mean I wouldn't be furious or pissed off or indignant. But it's sort of the name of the game.
"The great thing about doing theater," she says, "is it's all change. It's always changing. The actors change it every night. I just wish more of that dynamic were in the running of institutions. That it wasn't about 300 people saying, 'Well, this memo went out on Friday about what we're going to do four months from now, and we can't change it.'"
She gets up and goes to the bathroom. When she comes back, she's itchy to leave. She has an appointment with the costume designer for
Henry IV. But she was just thinking. "In all this stuff, you have to follow theater. It's like the woman in
The New York Times who made the cookie."
"Did you see that a couple of weeks ago? This woman, whose husband went into a nursing home, didn't know what to do for money, so she made a cookie. She perfected how to do this cookie, and she went to Bloomingdale's and sold a cookie. Then she went to all these places on the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, and now she's got a business. And it's great. And she said, 'I follow the cookie. I let the cookie lead me.' And I thought, 'That's what I do. I follow the theater.'"
Village Voice, September 25, 1990