David Mamet has done a lot of other things in his theater life besides write plays like his current Broadway hit "American Buffalo": he teaches, directs and - at one time - founded an acting company with his colleagues which is now a thriving regional theater in Chicago.
St. Nicholas (named for the Russian patron saint of Mountebanks, street musicians and the underworld of the arty crowd) grew out of the work done by Mamet with a group of students when he was artist-in-residence and teacher at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., in 1970. During their two year study period, Mamet's students performed the earliest versions of his "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "Duck Variations."
Back in his home town of Chicago, Mamet rallied Goddard students Steven Schachter and William H. Macy, as well as University of Chicago student of philosophy and art criticism Patricia Cox, to form a theater company with him. While it was Mamet's dynamic personality, method of acting and philosophy that orginated St. Nicholas, from here the story of what became a major force in regional theater relegates him to playwright again.
After the first season (in a rented theater) in 1974-75 producing the world premieres of Mamet's "Squirrels" and "The Poet & the Rent" (for children), as well as O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon," artistic director Mamet began setting his sights on Manhattan, while the remaining three decided to commit themselves to establishing a resident theater in Chicago.
Cox, Macy and Schachter leased an abandoned building on North Halstead which they converted, amost single-handedly, from a printing factory and bakery into a theater in six weeks - just in time to do the first full production of Mamet's American Buffalo" (the play which later won him an Obie for Best New Play 1975-76), on Dec. 21, 1975. Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge" and the world premiere of Julian Barry's "Sitcom" rounded out St. Nicholas' second season in addition to the introduction of Mamet's "Reunion" as part of Showcase, a series which gives playwright the opportunity to try out new plays and staff to apprentice new designers and crew (much like Arena Stage's "In the Process").
Premieres have since become a hallmark of St. Nicholas in its dedication to developing new plays and playwrights. This past season, five more playwrights were inaugurated in Chicago as St. Nicholas' mainstage productions while Christopher Durang presented his newest script in Showcase and Lily Tomlin tried out her show prior to Broadway. Unlike most regional theaters which do one new play a year as a token, St. Nicholas concentrates on new plays and does one classic a year, as a token.
For instance, their 1977-78 season includes David Rudkin's "Ashes" (following its successful Joseph Papp production this spring; the world premier of David Mamet's "The Woods"; a new play by Dallas Theater Center's playwright Glenn Allen Smith for which he will be in residence at St. Nicholas while re-working the script; the classic American comedy "You Can't Take It With You"; and a final choice yet to be made. Under consideration are new works from the O'Neill Playwrighting Conference this summer, a murder/mystery spoof or an original musical by William H. Macy and Alaric Jans, resident musical director of St. Nicholas.
A classic, included so that artists are exposed to a style of play not previously attempted, will be directed this season by Gerald Gutierrez, who has been associated with St. Nicholas since directing "Domino Courts" (by William Hauptman) and "A Slight Accident" (by James Saunders) this season. Gutierrez, who is directing Mamet's "A Life in the Theater" when it opens in New York this fall, will direct one or two plays a year at St. Nicholas as well as teach the classical method of acting in which he trained at Juilliard - all this to develop the concept of a resident director from outside the theater.
The residency notion is integral to the artistic direction of St. Nicholas - especially in terms of playwritting in which the collaborative, creative process of theater includes working with the playwright through the rehearsal period when he is re-writing. In addition to Glenn Allen Smith (whom director Schachter considers an unrecognized major playwright), Mamet will be in residence for three to four weeks during the run of "The Woods." A two-character love story set in Northern Canada, "The Woods" - to premiere Nov. 16 - will also be directed by Mamet, who received a Rockfeller Foundation grant to be in residence under the Program for New American Playwrights.
Mamet's other offering for St. Nicholas next season is a children's fantasy, "Revenge of the Space Pandas, or Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock," set for a mid-October run as part of the burgeoning children's theater program at St. Nicholas. In addition to four shows produced on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings, "Captian Marbles and his Acting Squad" (a musical about a group who get together to form a theater company which, strangely enough, parallels many of the adventures of the St. Nicholas crew) is slated for a statewide tour next spring following its current tour of metropolitan Chicago.
The founders of St. Nicholas believe theater should be experienced at an early age so that attending good theater becomes a habit. In a sense children's theater is part of their audience development as it educates a group who will later feel encouraged to support St. Nicholas.
And education, it turns out, is the second major objective of the people steering St. Nichalos. Graduated technique classes in acting have been taught by the St. Nichalos Theater Company since its incorporation in July 1974, when Mamet was the only teacher. From an enrollment of under 40 that first year, the professional school has grown to 1,200, with founders Macy and Schachter promulgating Mamet's technique of acting which is based on Stanislavsky's Method (as interpreted by the Neighborhood [Word Illegible] house in New York, where Mamet originally trained).
As it evolved to include scene study and directing as well as various classes in movement, voice and speech, and electives such as set design, makeup and theater management, the second has moved closer toward achieving the establishment of a resident training program. In addition to the current weekend and evening professional courses offered for working actors or as an introduction to the theater , St. Nicholas Theater Company hopes in 1978-9 to begin fulltime two-year training program, with graduates appearing in Showcase productions.
Even as Schachter (who is pursuing his own career as an actor while maintaining his status as a member of the board of directors and playwright-in-residence) believes that it takes a long time to train a good theater artist, the professional school has a more pragamatic raison d'etre: to provide volunteer help for productions, energy talent and revenue.
But there are other ways of achieving an income to match their projected $300,000 budget for next year. Founding member Cox, currently director of audience development, has worked with managing director Peter Schneider on building a strong community board of directors and a subscription audiences - two projects which will insure perpetration of St. Nicholas beyond the influence or responsibility of any one individual. Also, given St. Nichalos Theater Company's concentration on new plays rather than hit material or name stars (the backbone of commercial theater), it is essential to have the corporate and donor support a community board can produce, as well as an audience committted to the institution more than to each separate production.
The risk involved in developing theater talent, both by producing a new author's script and training the future actor, is looked upon as an exciting adventure by the eight full-time staff members.While certainly there is no guarantee a new play will be great, audiences are beginning to follow St. Nicholas primarily because its artistic direction lies in the realm of the novel (and because they know they can count on quality production values).
In comparison with the 25-years-old Arena Stage, the St. Nicholas Theater Company has a long way to go toward becoming a major institution for theater in its community. But the proto-type for regional theater in American most likely began with the same set of ideas and aspirations as David Mamet and his threesome. What is remarkable - and encouraging to the founders of St. Nicholas - is that its forerunner has grown into the Arena Stage and not the dream of any one particular person. In the process of developing new plays and playwrights and training theater artists, Cox/Macy/Schachter (and even Mamet) have managed to phase themselves out in favor of a greater vision for theater in America.