Campus & Community

‘Handwrought’ theater is Woodruff’s gift to A.R.T.

7 min read
Woodruff will introduce new works and give visiting directors more time to develop productions. Continuing Brustein’s legacy of placing the artist at the center of the theatrical enterprise, Woodruff plans to carry the process further, interspersing productions based on classic texts with those based on material developed afresh through creative collaboration. (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

His wiry body clad in tight-fitting black, Robert Woodruff hunches over his coffee cup struggling to express his thoughts about the job he has taken on, artistic director of Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.).

“The theater is very personal, very intimate. It’s not something where you call up and order 10,000 pens. It’s handmade, handwrought.”

Woodruff has been creating handmade theater since the late 1960s when, as a teacher in the New York City school system, he stumbled on the use of drama as a teaching device.

“I found that having the students stage the Trojan War or the creation of fire incited their minds, sparking ideas that lecturing could never inspire,” he said.

Woodruff continued to use theater as a tool to incite and inspire – through training in theater arts at San Francisco State University, to staging plays at some of the most highly regarded regional theaters in the United States and Canada, to collaborating with people like Sam Shepard, Joseph Papp, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

“We have a real artist in our midst, and that’s a great opportunity for all of us,” said A.R.T. executive director Robert Orchard. “Like every good artist, he has evolved over the course of his career. He hasn’t become stuck in one particular vein, but is constantly maturing and evolving.”

Woodruff replaces Robert Brustein, who as an actor, director, teacher, playwright, critic, essayist, and founding director of both the Yale Repertory Theatre and the A.R.T., has been a significant force in theatrical circles for more than four decades.

Brustein, who played a part in choosing Woodruff, couldn’t be happier about the selection.

“I think he’s terrific. He was our first choice. He’s very adventurous and a very strong artist in his own right. One thing that was very appealing to me is that he has great admiration for other directors, which is a quality that isn’t that common. I think he’s going to take the A.R.T. into some very interesting new directions.”

A glance at the six productions planned for the 2002-03 season shows that movement in those new directions is already well under way. The new lineup combines texts by classic authors with works that are still in the process of creation. Some of the directors have worked with the A.R.T. many times before, others are returning after a considerable hiatus, while others are new to the Loeb stage. All of them are artists who are known for their bold, original visions.

The season begins with “Uncle Vanya” by Anton Chekhov, directed by János Szász, a theatrical and film director whose last A.R.T. production was the past season’s “Marat/Sade.” Next is the ancient Greek tragedy “The Children of Herakles” by Euripides, directed by Peter Sellars, whose first production at the A.R.T. was in 1980, when he was an undergraduate.

Next comes “La Dispute” by the 18th century French playwright Marivaux, whose witty comedies are not often performed nowadays. The director is Anne Bogart, who has frequently collaborated with Woodruff, and whose earlier A.R.T. productions were “Life Is a Dream” and “Once in a Lifetime.”

The next production, “Highway Ulysses,” with music and text by Rinde Eckert, is one of two plays under the direction of Woodruff himself. Although it is based on one of the world’s oldest stories, Eckert’s epic is set in contemporary America and recasts Homer’s Odyssey in jazz, rock, and blues. Eckert, a composer, singer, actor, and movement artist, as well as a writer, is creating the work especially for this world-premiere performance.

Andrei Serban, a versatile and innovative theater artist who has staged numerous plays at the A.R.T. will direct the next production, “Pericles” by William Shakespeare. This will be followed by another Woodruff production and world premier, “The Sound of a Voice,” with music by Philip Glass and text by David Henry Hwang.

“None of them are small productions,” said associate artistic director Gideon Lester of the new season’s offerings. “All of them are going to stretch our capabilities to the utmost. Everyone feels energized by Robert’s plans.”

This new sense of energy seems due in part to an aspect of Woodruff’s background that might be seen as a liability, the fact that he has never before managed a major theatrical institution. His experience heretofore has been almost exclusively as a freelance director. But as the season gears up it is becoming clear to all that this lack of prior experience is shaping up as an asset.

“Because Robert doesn’t come from an institutional background, he has challenged us by asking a lot of difficult questions about why things are done the way they are, and I think as a result the institution is becoming less hierarchical and more efficient,” said Lester.

Bogart, who has known Woodruff for 15 years and admired his work long before that, said that she has seen her friend grow into the new position in the brief time he has been at Harvard.

“He’s opening like a flower,” she said. “My admiration for him has grown in the last month.”

She hopes and expects that the qualities that have made him such an exciting director will manifest themselves in his work as the A.R.T.’s artistic director.

“His work has always been bold, eccentric, beautifully acted, visually stunning, and risk-taking. He pushes the stakes pretty high, and I think audiences feel that. They feel they’re having an experience they’ve never had before.”

Those qualities are likely to dominate future A.R.T. productions, judging from the plans that are now evolving for the 2003-04 season and beyond. Look for more foreign directors coming here to add their unique visions to A.R.T. productions. In many ways, the United States has become something of a backwater where new and experimental theater is concerned, and Woodruff hopes to change that trend – at least in Cambridge – by introducing local audiences to the work of cutting-edge artists from Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

Woodruff also plans to introduce more new works and to give visiting directors more time to develop new productions. Continuing Brustein’s legacy of placing the artist at the center of the theatrical enterprise, Woodruff plans to carry the process a step farther, interspersing productions based on classic texts with those based on material developed afresh through creative collaboration.

He also plans to involve people from outside the theatrical world. A notable example, now in the planning stage, is “Infinities,” a theatrical piece created by Sergio Escobar and Luca Ronconi of the Piccolo Teatro of Milan, which is based on a series of essays by British astrophysicist John Barrow. Woodruff hopes to give the piece its first American production.

In a letter to the Harvard community, Woodruff has invited scholars from all fields to come forward with ideas for theatrical collaborations. It remains to be seen whether Harvard will respond to the challenge, but what is clear is that Woodruff is perfectly serious about this invitation, and that it is an offer that Harvard can hardly refuse.

“Harvard is about challenge,” Woodruff said. “It’s about pushing the borders of knowledge, of what is possible, and that’s what I want to be part of.”

To learn more about what’s going on at the A.R.T., come to the Loeb Drama Center Open House, Saturday (Nov. 16) from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The open house will include exhibitions, demonstrations, performances, and workshops. See story, next page.