FOR BETTER or worse, one's escapist fantasies are often inextricably linked to daily occupation. Thus vacationing sea captains build ships in bottles, football heroes compete in celebrity tennis tournaments and President Carter retreats to Camp David to hold spiritual self-flagellation sessions.
Producers of regional theaters, who daily attempt to field-manage both sides of the frequent border skirmishes between commerce and art, are by no means immune. And as producer pro tem (last season and this next) at Arena Stage, my escape life is often is an idler's reflection of my work life. Often, after a hard period of hair-tearing over what play(s) we are doing next, I return home and jot out fantasy seasons.
The All-Horse Season: "Equus," "Beggar on Horseback," "Three Men on a Horse," "Jockey Club Stakes," "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," "My Friend Flicka," in rep with "Mr. Ed" (adapted from old TV scripts).
The All-Disabled-as-Metaphor-for-Society Season: "Richard III," "Oedpius Rex," "The Miracle Worker," "The National Health," "Sunrise at Campobello," "Elephant Man," "Wings," and "Whose Life Is it, Anyway?"
The All-Seasonal Season: "Summer and Smoke," "The Autumn Garden," "A Winter's Tale," "Spring's Awakening," "Summer of the 17th Doll," "After the Fall," "Winterset" and "Springtime for Hitler" (with thanks to Mel Brooks).
The All-Safe Season (Guaranteed S.R.O.): "Cyrano de Bergerac," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Fantasticks," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "The Hobbit" (a new musical), "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog" (new drama), "The World of Sholom Aleichem" in rep with "Abie's Irish Rose" in rep with "Luther" and "Pride of the Yankees (The Lou Gehrig Story)."
If only real life were so easy, so ordered, fell into place so securely. But no. Even at a theater like Arena Stage with its magnificent traditions, its extraordinary group of artists and artisans, and its (relatively) strong audience support system, nothing is secure: not the art, not the income. So, the real-life act of selecting plays for a season, that juggling of personal artistic taste with economic and audience reality, is the keystone of the work.
The factors in play selection are as myriad, intuitive and elusive as the biological process of mate selection. But if objective criteria can be isolated in the mating dance between play and producer, they probably go something like this:
Is the play immediate? Does it speak in the present tense about large human/social concerns of the present, even if those concerns are not visible yet?
If it's a classic, can we conceive of an illuminating new way of perceiving and producing work without confusing novelty for substance. (For example, haven't we all had enough of "Hip" Shakespeare?)
Does it fit in thematically with the overall arc of the season (whatever that may be -- usually not known till all eight plays are selected; the plays select the idea, not the other way around.) No pre-programmed, All-Whatever seasons here.
Does it help provide variety and balance?
And, in there somewhere, the looming unpredictable: Will our audiences go for it? (Sometimes countered by "So what if they don't.")
As in potential lovers, one can find plays that get all-positive signs, but still somehow just don't turn you on -- it happens more often than not. Many of the above criteria are dependent upon a kind of trained subjectivism, knowing how to read and examine a script as if it were music, sensing the notes, the melody lines and counterpoints, and listening to hear if they harmonize with whatever music currently is playing inside my body.
And that process, in turn, is dependent upon hearing the interior rhythms of the self and keeping current with them as they change. And those rhythms, in turn, are affected by a tremendous number of factors -- tides of history, acquired knowledge, personal experience, environment, the people around you, home.
Or in theater terms, the city you live in and its audience. Like most theater people, I've traveled a lot, had many homes which affect and alter those interior rhythms: Appleton, Wisconsin; New Haven; Boston; Buffalo; Philadelphia; Minneapolis; St. Louis; Chester, N.H., and five years in New York. Now, Washington.
When I first arrived here from New York, my rhythms informed strongly by salsa music blaring out of street radios the size of suitcases, I immediately sensed an uneasiness in the populace, an uncertainty born of the fact that Washington just may have dethroned Chicago as America's second city.
A restlessness prevailed. It seemed as if people imagined themselves in Washington for two, four or six years, depending on whether or not they worked for a congressman, a president or a senator. Or in a law firm, a university, a news bureau, a consulting firm, a theater. For a while, Washington seemed less like a city and more like a rite of passage, or, for some, a trial by fire.
My urban metabolism began to change. It was either that or apoplexy, and running a theater affords enough opportunities for apoplexy; I didn't need to go out and get it on the streets. I moved onto a boat and let the Potomac Channel rock me to sleep every night.
I began to listen more closely to the audiences at Arena Stage, knowing that they were not the City of Washington, but at least a part of it, and I found them extremely bright, more attentive and discerning than any Broadway audience. I read the mail they sent me. It broke down into two categories:
Dear Mr. Chambers:
I hate you and everything you stand for because all you believe in is dirty words and naked bodies. I have been a subscriber for 20 years, but no more and besides that I'm going to smash all your windows and use my government contacts to mess up your credit rating.
More often, I got caring, passionate, intelligent letters, including one nine-pager which reviewed the history of Western Drama, applying Aristotelian Principles all the way to the present and gently explaining to me that Sam Shepard just didn't fit in, and therefore I should never produce a play like "Curse of the Starving Class" again.
The third category of letter rarely arrived so I wrote them to myself:
Dear Mr. Chambers:
I think you are the greatest thing since water and all your plays this year have made me re-examine my life and I now find myself a much deeper and more fulfilled human being.
I learned that satisfied patrons don't write letters, they just resubscribe.
And finally, after having jostled the febrile streets of Georgetown, having gone monument-cruising at midnight in crowded cars, having sipped cognac from the roof of the Hotel Washington and loving the beauty of this city, having eaten too many little wienies off too many little toothpicks, having waited three weeks for a movie to arrive that my New York friends had seen twice already, having dined in quiet houses only five minutes from the heart of the city (try that in New York), having delighted in the European beauty of the Potomac Drive and wept at the very American decay in the ghettos, having done all these things, I'm feeling that I might be beginning to get Washington's number.
Washington runs the gamut, and is in that way America's capital city. Its splendor lives right next door to its squalor. Its awesome power lies right next to its inability to see the wounds of American life. Its racing pulse beats right next to its dullness and vapidity. The transitory nature of its population reflects America's inability to root and nest, reflects our misguided notion that mobility is freedom. Its hunger for attention reflects a national need to feel pride in difficult times (let us not forget that New York itself is now hyping its own image with the defensive "I love New York"). It is a civil war of values -- the sleepy South collides with the urbane North. It is the Arena Stage audience -- bright, sharp, demanding -- and the Kennedy Center audience, more social, touristy and "event" rather than "play" oriented. It is highly educated and it borders on illiteracy. It hurts and it hopes. And it admits it.
And perhaps because of that, its audiences are more open, more responsive, more alive than New York's. Most theater in New York is based on a big-bucks real estate scam and its audiences act accordingly, paying outrageous prices to inhabit the hottest property for a brief time.
The Arena audience comes in for different reasons, reasons of encountering a human, often joyous or provocative, live event. And it leaves differently. Jabbering happily, sometimes grumbling or arguing, but never questioning whether they got their buck's worth.
So, my rhythms have changed as Washington has taught me another facet of life -- its life. I miss New York sometimes; I miss my friends, my corner newsman, the all-night fruit stand. But that is compensated for by the opportunity to make theater, to compose seasons, real or fantasized, in a home city that will listen to and judge the humanity of the play, not evaluate its stock-market value.