When Garland Wright was still a graphic-artist-turned-theater-student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he began to make pilgrimages to New York to see what was happening in American theater. His first taste of the big-time was a typical mix. In one week he saw Neil Simon's
Barefoot in the Park, the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of
Marat/Sade and Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl. "All these things existed as one world, as a thing called The Theater," Wright recalls. "For me and for the people I was maturing with, there was no discrepancy between something as deeply serious and intellectual and forward-thinking in its theatrical language as
Marat/Sade -- and Funny Girl. They were both extremely powerful experiences. So I didn't see any difference between wanting to be Jerome Robbins and wanting to be Peter Brook."
The career that Wright has blazed across the American theater in the past 15 years is one long rejection of that either-or proposition. From his earliest job at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., where he was assistant director to Michael Kahn and staged
Julius Caesar, Wright has made his name on the resident theater circuit with his productions of the classics: Brecht, Wilde, Chekhov, Pinter, Tennessee Williams. In recent years he has made a specialty of Moliere, mounting
The Imaginary Invalid at Washington's Arena Stage, The Misanthrope at Seattle Repertory Theater and
Don Juan at the Denver Center Theater Company. He has also dabbled in collective creation. In New York in 1977, he directed the Lion Theater Company's Kafka study
K: Impressions of The Trial for which he won his first Obie award, and in 1982 he mounted a production of
Candide at Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater, adapted from Voltaire by Len Jenkin and the Guthrie acting company. And in the summer of 1986 he went on retreat with the Arena Stage company to work on laboratory adaptations of Nijinsky's diaries and a book of comic essays by Florence King called
Southern Ladies and Gentlemen.
Wright supervised the Off Broadway production of Christopher Durang and Sigourney Weaver's cabaret satire
Das Lusitania Songspiel, but in general he's known in New York almost exclusively for directing new plays of two distinct varieties: the slight Southern comedies of James McLure
(Lone Star/Pvt. Wars) and Jack Heifner (Patio/Porch and
Vanities, which holds the record for the longest running non-musical play in Off Broadway history), and the mytho-poetic comic plays of Len Jenkin
(Grand American Exhibition, New Jerusalem), Harry Kondoleon
(Anteroom) and Eric Overmyer (On the Verge, which earned Wright his second Obie this year). To complete this picture of artistic schizophrenia, consider Wright's stint as associate artistic director of the Guthrie Theater from 1980 to 1983, during which he staged not only the American premiere of Nelly Sachs'
Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel but also Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser's
Guys and Dolls, which remains the biggest box-office success the Guthrie has ever had -- closely followed only by Wright's subsequent Guthrie production of Cole Porter's
No other American director can claim a track record that so successfully spans Kafka and Cole Porter, Off Broadway fluff and Holocaust drama, Moliere and Eric Overmyer. This eclecticism has not necessarily contributed to his fame and fortune -- for all his talent and experience, Garland Wright is not nearly as well known as he deserves to be. His relative obscurity can be attributed in part to his infrequent appearances in New York, still the media center of American theater. More important, the projects he has ushered onto the stage in New York have been so diverse that he's never become identified (or pigeonholed) by his relationship to a playwright, a company or a production style. Even for those in the know, his peripatetic production history puts Wright in the position of the similarly New York-shy Peter Sellars -- it's easier to discuss his career than his work.
My own piecemeal experience of Wright's New York productions has nonetheless left indelible impressions of their visual beauty and the clarity of their performances.
On the Verge seemed scattered and thin when I read it, but in Wright's staging, Eric Overmyer's play became positively Shakespearean in its ability to create a world entirely through words. The distilled performances of The Acting Company and James Ingalls' bold lighting zeroed in on the sensual pleasure and pleasurable sense in the playful musicality of lines such as "My father was a pharmacist -- he invented a tonic for catarrh." Wright's work, like that of fellow visual-artist-turned-director James Lapine, has often been called painterly in its fondness for striking compositions. The penchant of his frequent collaborator, designer John Arnone, for out-of-scale models and two-dimensional set pieces perfectly suited the narrative sprawl of plays like
New Jerusalem and On the Verge.
Unlike some contemporary directors, however, Wright can't be accused of deploying visuals at the expense of the text or in lieu of interpretation. The strongest image that remains from his Acting Company production of
The Country Wife is Lynn Chausow's performance in the title role (a character often overlooked in the will-he-get-away-with-it frenzy of Horner's naughty antics) and the expression of painful epiphany on her face in the play's final moment.
Probably the most characteristic Garland Wright work I've seen was Anteroom at Playwrights Horizons, which gave free rein to Adrianne Lobel's subtly heightened architecture, the golden wash of James Ingalls' lighting, and Rita Ryack's witty costumes. Yet the evening's most memorable image was a stunning tableau -- an old woman wearing butterfly wings and a young black model in a prisoner's ball-and-chain, refugees from a disastrous masquerade party, poised in the well-kept pantry of a luxurious Long Island mansion -- in which the design elements and the director's eye for composition perfectly captured the essence of Harry Kondoleon's comic yet poignant play about tormented souls imprisoned in materialistic lives, yearning to escape to a higher plane.
Wright's eclectic, far-flung resume may have lowered his publicity profile, but it didn't prevent the Guthrie Theater's board of directors from considering him a top candidate to succeed Liviu Ciulei as artistic director of one of the oldest and largest resident theaters in America. Once hired, Wright has wasted no time in assembling a debut season that expresses his catholic tastes (Euripides, Shakespeare, Lorca, Buchner) and a directing staff of kindred spirits (Ciulei, Les Waters, JoAnne Akalaitis). Offered more responsibility than any artistic director since the theater's founder, Wright further requested -- and got -- what every Guthrie boss has desired: contractual commitment to a second-stage workspace to complement the 1,441-seat mainstage theater. The Guthrie Lab, housed in studio space at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and supervised by Charles Newell, has already completed a month-long session developing such disparate projects as a new play by Maria Irene Fornes, a free-form workshop on music and memory, and an adaptation of media savant George Trow's
Within the Context of No Context.
The Guthrie job automatically carries with it a position of leadership which Wright has assumed with visionary fervor, composing a passionate manifesto that among other things articulates his view that a living theater's primary dedication should be to the actor. Wright also chose to direct the first two shows of the season:
The Misanthrope, updated to the eve of the French Revolution, in repertory with
The Piggy Bank, Labiche and Delacour's farce about bourgeois yokels on the loose in the big city. A minor and sometimes tedious play,
The Piggy Bank made intellectual sense when paired with
The Misanthrope, in that its crude provincials (like a comic Khmer Rouge) represent the ill effects of a peasants' revolution; yet the performance was surprisingly mannered, as if the acting company had done its Royal Shakespeare Company number with Moliere and now felt free to act like the Beverly Hillbillies.
The Misanthrope, however, was prime Garland Wright -- designed and staged on an operatic scale, yet acted and thought out in minute, often unexpected, sometimes disturbing detail. This was the first production I'd ever seen or heard of that proved the real misanthrope to be not Alceste but the cynical Celimene. At the end of the play, her glass doors shattered by rocks from the street. she remained alone, caught in a merciless spotlight like Marie Antoinette, humbly yet vainly kneeling for mercy.
As an artistic director's opening salvo, though, perhaps the key line was Alceste's "One wishes not to be tortured by the need to please."
It's a beautiful sunny Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, and the Guthrie offices are deserted. I locate Wright in the dramaturgs' office, chatting with two associates. He's surprisingly short with a very deep voice and an even deeper laugh that sounds like a rattling in his lungs, like a smoker's cough about to start. On a table in his cluttered office is the designer's model for
On the Verge with its fluorescent green poles haphazardly strewn about the miniature stage. "That's what tech rehearsal looks like," says Wright, as if reliving a director's nightmare. "No," he says, rummaging around until he finds a couple of model palm trees and tosses them onto the set, "that's what tech rehearsal looks like." Armed with coffee and cigarettes, he strolls with me across the street to shady Loring Park to watch the ducks and discuss his checkered past, current obsessions and future dreams with an almost enigmatic mixture of eloquence and self-deprecation.
"I grew up in a totally surreal environment. That part of Texas was called the Permian Basin, named after a geological phenomenon. It had a lot of oil in it, so the oil companies built this totally synthetic city out in the middle of nowhere and named it Midland, after another geological fact, in that it was halfway between El Paso and Fort Worth. So everything about the place where I grew up was invented. Even down to the details. Nothing would grow there. I had a friend whose house had those sprinklers that you bury in the lawn, but instead of water in them, it was green dye, and they just turned them on every Friday and painted the lawn green.
"To this day, my whole concept of color is off. I can only see beige or violent color, because against this sand and dead mesquite would be sitting a '57 pink Oldsmobile, a turquoise-blue swimming pool, dead green cactus, this lawn that's painted like scenery, and the sky. There's no way to describe the sky. West Texas is called the Land of the High Skies -- another geographic name. The sky goes from the horizon to the horizon with nothing to interrupt it. So this color of blue is always a reference point. I will never be able to see any other way. Also, because of the barrenness of that part of the country, one was always forced into one's imagination about the world instead of dealing with the world that actually was there. So in retrospect, it's not so mysterious that someone from that kind of environment should end up as an artist."
The youngest of three children, Wright grew up in a devoutly Southern Baptist household. Until he was 18, he went to church three or four times a week. At SMU he studied graphics with the idea of becoming a commercial artist, but halfway through college he ended up in the theater just as the department was being formed and became part of a small group of about 15 students who did everything. "It was very valuable time in a practical sense. It was also wildly chaotic, and as a result, to this day I love work to be chaotic and confused and improvisational by nature."
When he got out of school in 1969, he migrated to New York, as most theater-school graduates did then. He devoured theater, having equally profound experiences at
Man of La Mancha and at Mabou Mines' The Red Horse
Animation. "I grew up in a world where Broadway was a real fact. It was the thing that attracted a lot of us to the theater -- you know, the old cliché of buying show albums, imagining what the show was, and every once in a while actually getting to New York to see them." Wright admits that his own existence was charmed: he got the first job he auditioned for -- working at Stratford as an actor and later as a director -- and he rarely has been unemployed since. He staged the world premiere of Tennessee Williams'
Kingdom of Earth at the McCarter Theater in 1974, and two years later caught the sweet smell of success.
"I had a commercial hit with an unimportant play that Jack Heifner had written. It was fun to do -- a group of friends doing a play together -- and lo and behold, somebody bought tickets. Suddenly, I experienced firsthand this thing called the commercial theater. Project thinking and residuals and royalty talk suddenly became real to me. Oddly enough, it came at a time when I was doing the Kafka piece with the Lion that didn't relate at all to those kinds of questions. And I was working on Len Jenkin's
New Jerusalem at the New York Shakespeare Festival. In my mind, there was no discrepancy between these activities. It was the press, my agent, the two groups of friends growing up around me that couldn't even speak to one another that made me realize there was, at least from the exterior, a clear difference between these modes of endeavor.
"It was a source of some conflict within me, because as I said I didn't have these differences in my own head. I still don't. But I had to make a choice that clarified for myself and everyone else where my allegiances really lay. I wanted to attack the classics as a
muscle- flexing project to see whether I was any good. My work with new plays was not satisfying me along those lines. I was always so involved with trying to fix something that wasn't finished yet that I could never locate my own work. So I made the choice to come here to be Liviu's associate.
"It was at that time that the issue of mentors opened up in a very real way for me. Liviu didn't choose to be my mentor. He just was, by example. He has an amazing gift of being able to see from all angles at one time. He can look at any given moment in a production from a world view, from a psychological view, from a dramaturgical view, from an aesthetic view. He doesn't forsake one for the other. Consequently, there's great depth. And here I'm just describing a thought process. It's something that truly is based on an innate intellectual and human gift, but one that even those who may not have been gifted in that way can seek to cultivate within themselves. I don't mean so much imitating a theatrical style as a way of looking, of seeing, of feeling the world. Concurrently, I was working at the Arena Stage, where I learned from Zelda Fichandler -- well, I didn't learn it, but I'm working on it -- an amazing grace, diplomacy, and a deep human way of dealing with problems, whether they be theatrical or operational or organizational."
In other interviews Wright has ascribed extremely personal motivations to his direction of classics by Shakespeare or Moliere -- wanting to direct
Antony and Cleopatra because turning 40 had made him think about the intertwined issues of love and politics. I ask him how this personal impulse operates.
"I don't know how to speak from a theoretical point of view. I feel false and corrupt when I do that. I speak through the work. If I can't believe in the work, if I can't justify on any grounds why I'm doing something, then I'm wasting what has become in my lifetime extremely valuable time in the theater." At that moment, the ghost of Michael Bennett, whose obituary was in the morning paper, floats through the conversation. "I don't stand with those who say the death of theater is knocking at the door, but I do see that it's possible to endanger not only the theater but a culture itself if one cannot -- and this is deeply, deeply unfashionable to say -- if one cannot speak from the heart in some way. When you do speak from the heart and nothing comes back to you, and no one hears you, you can also begin to perceive things about your own life -- what doesn't matter, what you're obsessed with that's basically your own problem and not the world's. It's not that I use the theater as therapy, but I think it's possible to find oneself through this engagement, but only if you're speaking from a personal place.
"My obsession with Moliere is based on the phenomenon that I experience sometimes in rehearsal when you encounter the playwright. Something is embedded in the play which has made the playwright live. Not just historically -- the person himself is actually embedded there and is reawakened through exploration, like in mummy movies, when they oil the tana leaves to make the corpse come back to life. It happened in
The Imaginary Invalid when I was talking to John Arnone. Usually in design you go from the hardest problems to the simplest, so we were talking about the chair that he's sitting in at the end of the play. This eerie thing happened -- we began to get the sensation that that was the chair Moliere had died in. This is a play about a perfectly healthy man insisting he is sick, written by a man who was desperately sick and insisting he was healthy, who'd written this throne where he would die. It was a chilling image.
"This mirror of the healthy man and the sick man begins to be clear in every Moliere play. As I like to personalize my own work, it became clear to me that a similar impulse obsessed him. Perhaps here I'm describing another mirror, which is seeing myself in him -- and that may be pretentious or presumptuous. But I think
Don Juan is the great modern play. At the birth of the Enlightenment, Moliere engaged in a conversation that's really about the end of the Enlightenment: 'Where is God? I can prove he doesn't exist. I can prove that human existence makes sense for all kinds of other reasons than divine intervention. But that leaves me lonely.' I find that play an extraordinary prophecy of my own life, because that's the world I live in."
As Wright's engagement with classics has made them live for regional theater audiences, in New York he has championed rich, poetic plays like
On the Verge and Anteroom that are not as popular or fashionable today as the selective naturalism of David Mamet or Sam Shepard. "I have a feeling that it's through my attraction to those plays that I began to find my connection to classical plays, to poetry and language. That again may be the manifestation of vitamin deficiency as a child. Where I grew up, language was Pinteresque at best and not half as pretty. So I may have felt the need to wallow in it so I can feel better. I do know that language is important to me and that I revere those writers who feel, as I do, that language has great power. We're told -- and I don't think we're being lied to -- that we're seeing the death of language, so perhaps I rage against the dying of the light. Perhaps I'm sentimental about it. I fully acknowledge that language is changing, and maybe I can't hear the poetry of the new language yet."
In his "Principles of Leadership," which appears in every Guthrie playbill, Wright declares, "We aspire to establish and maintain America's finest acting ensemble." I wonder how he envisions that happening. "This is a difficult issue to discuss, because everybody gets confused when you talk about company, and then you say, 'The one thing I don't want is permanence.' I don't think those are mutually exclusive ideas. I think having an open door goes at least one small step toward removing the sensation that the word company means prison, as in 'I can't get out of here.' Company, to me, describes a way of working. It describes a mutual trust and an understanding of what the work is for.
"There's another version of company which we seem to have an incredible envy of, that European model of the group who've done 15 productions together over 20 years. I think we should stop talking about that version of company until we live in a country that's going to support that. I really think it's a waste of time to think about it. I'm not even sure it's a great idea -- being in one situation with one group of people for an eternal amount of time is the greatest way for an actor to become deformed. So if you ask me what I really want in a company, I'm probably talking about 200 people who actually know they're the Guthrie company, instead of this unspoken 'Well, I work with that theater every once in a while but I don't know if they'll ever ask me back."'
Besides casting his lot with the actor, Wright also speaks favorably in his "Principles" about an often neglected constituency within the theater -- the audience. "They're half the engagement, aren't they? The greatest thing about this last year was not having to do anything here but watch plays that I didn't choose. And, boy, when it doesn't happen, the reason it doesn't is there's no engagement between these people sitting here and these people talking. One has to be cautious, though. I don't think the statement that theater is basically an engagement between the stage and the people who observe the stage says anything about having to adjust the event on the stage for the people. It may, however, have something to do with the number of people who choose to be observers. I think we're going to have to get realistic and not be hostile about that. Maybe we just have to admit that if you do this event on the stage, it will fill the Brooklyn Academy of Music for two nights once a year, and if you do this kind of work, it'll fill a loft of 90 seats for 12 performances and if you do this kind of work, you'll turn away 1,000 people a night for years and years. I can't look at that as a source of anger. If I do, I'll go mad. Peter Sellars said something wonderful: 'We're so obsessed with the people who walk out or don't come, we overlook the people who really love the theater. One of our problems is we're trying to make theater for people who hate it.' And I think he's right."
Wright is overdue for a rehearsal at the Lab, so reluctantly we walk back to the theater from the park. His proposition for the Guthrie Lab seems to be a departure from the typical resident theater "second stage," where intimate contemporary plays like Tina Howe's
Painting Churches are mounted while the mainstage does
Heartbreak House, and I inquire what he has in mind for it. "I can actually say with honesty, I don't know. Every time in my life I've felt crushed or stifled or frustrated, it's because I've felt there was no possible outlet for something in my head that I knew I needed to undertake. What I wanted to set up for artists is some facility or program that allows you to get rid of that frustration. It's a metaphysical place where you go when all the other work isn't enough." For an artist as restlessly curious as Garland Wright, one wonders what work could ever be considered enough.
American Theater, November 1987