(KEY OFF)(KEYWORD) FEW YEARS ago David Chambers was writing Bicentennial Minutes by day and directing a torchlight theater group by night. The Bicentennial Minutes were seen by millions on national television. The theater work was seen only by the adventurous few who were willing to tramp around a Berkshires estate after dark, encountering small groups of actors who were enacting their dreams for their nocturnal audiences.
Today David Chambers is at the artistic helm of Arena State - the first person other than Zelda Fichandler to control an entire Arena season since the theater's second season 27 years ago. Fichandler has not vanished - she'll probably direct a show at Arena this season. But she has left her job as producer in the hands of Chambers for two years. He moved into her office last week. And Washington theatergoers are waiting to see what it all means for the future of the city's most respected theatrical institution.
There are probably a few Washingtonians who would like to see Arena move in the direction of Bicentennial Minutes. There are probably others who would prefer to see Arena plunge into experiments on the order of torchlit dream plays in West Potomac Park. Neither extreme seems likely, but perhaps neither should be ruled out.
The new boss offers no apologies for his Bicentennial Minutes. He had fun digging up dirt on John Hancock for them, and along with several other projects, he confesses, they "made me a lot of money off the Bicentennial." Nor does he reject his dream plays as an indulgent fling of youth.
"If it moves and it's on stage, I'm interested," he says.
He has begun talking with public television officials about two possible TV projects for Arena. One of them would be completely contemporary, bringing a playwright to Arena for as long as a year to develop a made-for-TV play. The other would reach back into the American past, using 10 plays over the course of two seasons, and focusing on "pre-O'Neil work." Both of these are still in the speculative stage, but they indicate the range of his interests.
Among his other ideas:
The development of "a pool of associated writers" at Arena. Fichandler opposes the concept of writers-in-residence, and Chambers would not go that far either, saying it could lead to "a Hollywood studio situation." There will be "no contracts saying they owe us their next three plays." But Chambers would like to see "writers wafting through the halls, using Arena as a gymnasium, a resource, an agent provocateur ." This will be in addition to the current "In the Process" workshop for new plays.
Commissioning new work. Already commissioned for next season is "Mysteries and Miracles," an adaptation of the Wakefield and Chester mystery plays by Robert Montgomery with music by Richard Peaslee. Arena has commissioned translations recently but hasn't commissioned a whole play since giving the green light to the rough outlines of "Raisin" and "The Great White Hope."
More "Midnight Specials" - late night workshop productions of plays such as last season's presentation of Sam Shepard's "Angel City."
More music. "I find it hard to do theater without music," says Chambers. This does not necessarily mean more musicals, though one is planned. Arena is installing a new sound system in its largest theater this summer.
An expanded and diversified company. Chambers is hiring three full-time company members and may add one or two more. He's aiming for a wider scope of ages, genders and races.
A women's theater festival. Zelda Fichandler - for years one of the most influential women in the American theater - has never emphasized major women's roles or women's plays, and they have been few and far between at Arena. But Chambers says that when he directed "Streamers," a "quintessentially male" play at Arena, he found himself looking for "a female 'Streamers.'" An actress friend told him that he wouldn't find it, that women write different kinds of plays. Chambers ventures so far as to say that women appear to write more "cyclical" plays. He realizes that some women will resent being thrown into one special festival, but he thinks there's still a place for it. Workshops and readings will be held as well as at least one full production, and playwright Honore Moore is trying to organize it.
As far as the regular season goes, Chambers will direct the first entry, the American premiere of Odon von Horvath's 1931 play "Tales From the Vienna Woods," and he is "thrilled" by its combination of "gritty reality" and "fairy tale" and its "decadent, wonderful music." Other than "Tales" and "Mysteries and Miracles," however, the only play that is even "90 percent" set for the season is Sam Shepard's "The Curse of the Starviag Class," which will be the first major production here of any of the plays of one of the most influential of contemporary American playwrights.
Shepard can be a difficult dramatist to get to know, acknowledges Chambers, but he thinks Washington theater has been "remiss in exploring whole movements of theater. One risks being terribly trendy, but there is a body of new work out there, some of it nonverbal, that hasn't been done here." He's also surprised there isn't more black work being done here, and he wants to bring in Ntozake ("Colored Girls") Shange again. He hasn't thought much about employing Washington playwrights or using Washington-based plays, but he does think "Washington should be a center of American work - I'm not sure we're paying enough attention to it." Washington has "a nice smorgasbord" of established fare "way beyond most cities," he says, but he believes the Washington audience is sophisticated enough for something more.
If there's a thread to his decisions so far, he volunteers, it's his attraction to the themes of "power and sexuality under specified, local conditions" and "the interplay of light and dark." But he quickly adds. "That's all academic. You don't fit plays to a mold like that. I don't feel an obligation to do anything in particular."
It has been suggested that Chambers was hired partially to make changes Fichandler favored but didn't want to make on her own. Chambers denies any such plan: "I was not hired to do Zelda's dirty work. I'm not here to mind the store. Or to start a new store." He says he and Fichandler "share a common belief in what theater is about" but disagree on some of the details.
Chambers was 5 years old when Fichandler cofounded Arena in 1950. He grew up in St. Louis and Boston where his father was a political science professor and an authority on Democratic Party history. His earhest experience on stage was as a kid in "Ah, Wilderness" at "an awful prep school." Later, in a public school he considered "heaven," he began writing and directing. But when he went to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., he joined the SDS and theater became "a bourgeois excuse."
At one point, says Chambers, he had to choose between the Weathermen and the theater. A machine gun was plopped down in his lap and he was asked if he was willing to use it. It depended on the circumstances, he told his pals. They didn't like that answere. Chambers chose the theater.
He went to Yale Drama School and finagled a grant for a six-month tour of Eastern European theaters. (Chambers suspects he had "a former life in Czechoslovakia." He says his personality combines the volatility of the Mediterranean with the Slavic depression of Moscow. Arena, lest we forget, is very big on Soviet-bloc theater, and Fichandler is of Russian Jewish ancestry. Despite his appraisal of his personality, Chambers is a WASP. But he doesn't like London and says he is not drawn to direct Shakespeare.)
In 1971 Chambers was named resident director of the Theatre Company of Boston. Later he founded The Faustus Project experimental company while teaching at the State University of New York in Buffalo, directed all over New York's non-Broadway theater world, and wrote and directed "The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show" for the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.He first worked in Washington at Ford's Theatre, which booked "The Portable Pioneer" in 1975. He returned here the next season to direct "Medal of Honor Rag" at the Folger and two one-act plays for "In the Process" at Arena.
Somewhere in there he married and became a father, but he and his wife have separated. He seems very devoted to his 6-year-old daughter Jessica and says the necessity of living away from her was the most difficult aspect of accepting the Arena job. The break-up of his family is one of the reasons he's attracted to Shepard's work, he says - "Shepard's terribly obsessed with what it means to be a family in a society where everything militates against it."
Chambers still doesn't have a permanent place to live here. He's thinking of the Hill but periodically casts a wistful eye out on the houseboats that pass his office window, overlooking Washington Channel.
When he first arrived at Arena, he regarded it as a rather gray institution, and "the hallways looked like an insurance office" to him. But within a week, "it felt like home." Unlike the Guthrie, with which it is often compared, "Arena grew out of the dirt," says Chambers. "It was born of people scraping gum off chairs. That's the source of theater - that intensive, collaborative, argumentative experience. At times we lose our sense of common territory," and Chambers says while he wouldn't endorse a "gee whiz, college theater" feeling, he does want the "raw energy that created Arena and still flows through it to expand." And somehow he has to do this "without becoming faddish, and in a time of decreasing budgetary scope."
So what should the audience do? "Drop a lot at the door, come into a sanctum of experience, and come out slightly transformed." Be willing to "enter a lab of human experience," to "share a vision of substantial risk," to hear "the lonely scream in the night" that theater sometimes should be. Chambers has huge, limpid eyes that convey absolute sincerity as he says these things.
If we can believe all this, it sounds slightly scary. But Arena Stage never said it would be easy.