The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, William Shakespeare’s theatre company, did not last fifty years. The Group Theater, known for rousing social justice dramas featuring some of the iconic talents of the 1930s, did not last 50 years. In the ephemeral world of the theatre, 50 years can be an eternity.
Therefore, Long Wharf Theatre’s 50th anniversary, celebrated in earnest this past weekend, is something to be immensely proud of. “It is a staggering accomplishment. This is the great era of American theatre,” said former Artistic Director Doug Hughes.
By way of celebrating Long Wharf’s storied history, all of the artistic directors came together for the first time on Sunday, June 7. The four men – Jon Jory, Arvin Brown, Doug Hughes, and Gordon Edelstein – walked out to a rousing round of applause and a standing ovation, something Long Wharf Theatre audiences only give when completely deserved. The mere mention of Long Wharf’s iconic productions brought murmured appreciation from the audience. The quips and stories were met with raucous laughter. Managing Director Josh Borenstein correctly described the event as a pep rally.
The artistic directors engaged in a wide ranging conversation, talking about their own backgrounds, and some of the challenges of programming a regional theatre. They spoke of the changes they’ve seen over the past fifty years. And sometimes they just told stories. Sure, there was a bit of dishing, but for the most part, the four men engaged in a jocular but serious discussion about the history of the institution and just how important the art form is in our culture. “(Long Wharf Theatre) did not feel like a regional theatre. It felt like a theatre in dialogue with world theatre,” Hughes said. “There was something beguiling about the fact it was at the food terminal.”
Jon Jory, one of the founders of Long Wharf Theatre along with Harlan Kleiman, spoke of how things got started. Long Wharf Theatre was founded in 1965 as part of the regional theatre movement. Jory and Kleiman, then freshly minted graduates of the Yale School of Drama, wanted to get in on the movement. As always, money was a concern. They needed about $125,000 to get the theatre going, money they simply didn’t have or have access to. So, they started reading the society pages of the New Haven Register and cold calling the people listed to ask them if they would be on the steering committee of the new theatre, he said. “We were just two kids … when people came to the office for a meeting we would hire people from the Yale School of Drama to be the receptionist,” Jory said.
The first leaders of the organization – Jory and Brown – comparatively speaking, were neophytes to the profession. In fact, Brown had not directed a full length play before working with legendary actress Mildred Dunnock in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In his effort to prepare for the project, Brown had moved little white figures around a model of the set. The first time he tried to suggest his blocking to Dunnock, the actress simply asked “why?” Brown was befuddled. “None of the little white figures had said anything like that”.
While each man offered the theatre a different style and sense of taste, there was one thing they uniformly agreed to – the task of putting together a season that would please everyone is an almost impossible task. “Long Wharf audiences are literate, open, educated, and honest. They are a great audience to perform for. However, virtually everything you do, you get complaints,” Edelstein recalled.
Arvin Brown recalled a production that culminated in the beheading of one of the characters. “People were not happy about that at all,” he said. Later that season, he was invited to the home of a loyal subscriber who was particularly vocal in his dislike for the play. Brown was concerned, but dinner moved along in a convivial fashion. Dessert was another matter. “It was a cake with a severed head,” Brown said to audience laughter. “It’s true. That took some planning and some bucks.”
Edelstein recalled several recent productions that for one reason or another caused consternation in the audience – puppet sex in Paula Vogel’s The Long Christmas Ride Home and fake urination in Curse of the Starving Class. On a more serious note, he pointed towards a production of Sixteen Wounded, which explored the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a real lightning rod. “Sixteen Wounded sparked such a strong response there were fistfights in the lobby. You knew the power of the ideas on the stage,” Edelstein said. “How fantastic! I really mean it,” Hughes said. “It makes the case for the perpetuation of the form.”
They find that for all of the machinations in a rehearsal hall, whether they view themselves as a proxy for the audience during the process or completely make decisions based on their own lights, once performances start the surprises begin. “Always always always,” Edelstein said. “After a couple of weeks of performances, though, you know what you have. There is no play without the audience.”
The 50th anniversary allowed for a certain amount of introspection. Each artistic director could speak to a very specific moment during their tenure that reminded them of the importance of their work, and why they wanted to devote their lives to this profession. Doug Hughes remembered his production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and the waves of laughter cascading through the theatre. “All you are saying when you put on a show is ‘we feel this way. Do you feel this way?’” Hughes said.
For Brown, it was working with his long time friend Al Pacino on the seminal production of American Buffalo by David Mamet. “Watching him walk out on stage for his famous first monologue … I enjoyed the sheer brilliance of his craftsmanship,” Brown said.
Both Jory and Edelstein reminiscences were about a particular personal accomplishment. Jory’s memory was of nothing less than the first moment he set foot into the warehouse that would become Long Wharf. “When we moved into this building, there were no lighting fixtures,” Jory recalled. “I thought, ‘I’ve always wanted to be in the theatre and I’m here.”
Edelstein re-imagined Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, making the whole play something the young man Tom was writing in a small hotel room. It added another layer onto the family drama, introducing the idea of artistic creation into the performance. “I had no idea whether the idea was going to work. I’ve never been so scared in my life,” Edelstein said. “When I heard a gasp from the audience that night, I had a feeling of not pleasure, but relief. It was very overwhelming,” he said.
Edelstein’s story was one that could be analogous for the theatre’s history as a whole – it was a palpable risk, but when it worked it was nothing short of beautiful.