A Chat with Legendary Theatre Director Stuart Vaughan

For over half a century, Stuart Vaughan has been - in every sense of the phrase - a true Renaissance man of the theatre.  Dedicated to bringing the classics to new audiences (and new life to the classics), the versatile Vaughan is a Drama Desk and Obie Award-winning director who also won a Tony Award for having served as a founding Artistic Director of the legendary New York Shakespeare Festival in the mid-fifties.  Playwright, adaptor, acting teacher and professor are among the numerous other feathers on Vaughan's impressive theatrical cap.

Vaughan's latest project is a new stage version of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic 1850 novel about the conflict between Puritanism and passion. It's the second 2006/2007 season production - following Vaughan and his wife Anne's adaptation of Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters - of the New Globe Theater, Inc., which Vaughan founded alongside Vincent Curcio and Anne Thompson Vaughan, and of which he is the artistic director.  The play, adapted by Vaughan with Marie Kreutziger, also marks his 42nd New York stage production!

Vaughan was also the founding Artistic Director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the Repertory Theatre New Orleans and the former artistic director of New York's famed Phoenix Theatre.  Directorial highlights include Richard III (with George C. Scott), The Family Reunion (with Lillian Gish), Hamlet (with Donald Madden), Julius Caesar (with Al Pacino and Martin Sheen), The Power and the Glory, Peer Gynt (with Fritz Weaver), The Beaux Stratagem (with June Havoc), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (with Elizabeth  McGovern), and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (with HAl Holbrook). 

With honesty, eloquence and insight, Vaughan recently answered some of my questions about his incredible life in the theatre - and about a career that shows no signs at all of slowing down!

MC: Could you please describe the origins of the New Globe and your goals for the company?

SV: My wife, Anne Thompson Vaughan, was Booking Manager in the early '70's for the tours of The Acting Company.  She found that lots of college and community presenters (those with smaller theatres) were unable to afford the high fees.  She and I formed The New Globe Theatre, Inc., an Equity company, to provide high quality theatre, with simpler physical productions, for those very audiences.

In its first incarnation, from 1976-1984, the New Globe toured university and community art centers and performed the classics in repertory.  What changes and/or improvements do you envision for the company's second incarnation?

After about five successful years, increasing costs combined with some personal considerations caused us to put The New Globe on hold.  Meantime, my conviction grew that my preferred way to work was with a company of actors, familiar with the director and each other, all working from the same philosophical and artistic base.  Five years of teaching at The Actors Studio Drama School's MFA program led me to a group of young and talented actors who could be combined with able actors from my past.  This prompted the first production of our New York phase, The Servant of Two Masters, and now The Scarlet Letter, with other projects on our next season's list. 

The Scarlet Letter was previously adapted for the stage in the early twentieth century and in 1994, for Classic Stage Company.  What aspects of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel would you and your collaborator Marie Kreutziger like to bring out in this new adaptation?

Adapting novels, historical material, and legends has its origins with Greek playwriting, and Shakespeare followed along with his history plays, plays based on the tales of Boccaccio and others, and adaptations that turned into Hamlet and Macbeth. Many theatrical hands have had their way with Hawthorne, Jane Austen, Dickens. I know of, but don't know, other treatments of The Scarlet Letter.  Audiences, though, come and go, and each audience cycle deserves its chance at the world's great stories – off the page and onto the stage.  Our version is how we see Hawthorne, and the valid views of other adaptors need not deter us.     

What do you think characterizes a successful book-to-stage adaptation, and what were some particular challenges you encountered in adapting The Scarlet Letter?

In adapting material for the stage, one surely must try for doing more than telling.  Other literary forms permit more narration – the stage demands visible and constant conflict.  At the same time, Shakespeare's lessons of compression of time, his use of the soliloquy, his neutral and flexible stage space, and his reliance on the strength of the spoken word, can be supported by the flexibility of modern lighting and the fluidity learned from film to give us a strong and varied palette with which to work.

Let's go back a bit further into your career and talk about The New York Shakespeare Festival, the iconic New York theatre institution that you were instrumental in bringing about.  How did you become involved as the Festival's founding artistic director?  Also, how closely did you work with Joseph Papp in its inception?

A fellow student in Harold Clurman's midnight class for actors in shows adapted Sean O'Casey's bio/novel I Knock at the Door for staged reading at the 92nd Street YMHA, and asked me to direct.  We opened in a blizzard with an audience of 30 people – and The Times' Brooks Atkinson, who wrote a glowing review.  Joe Papp was looking for a director for his great idea about Free Shakespeare at the Lower East Side Amphitheatre.  A mutual friend suggested me.  That led to directing a string of successful shows both in Central Park and indoors (including George C. Scott's Richard III) that won awards for myself and the Shakespeare Festival and established it as an important force.  Still, when The Phoenix Theatre offered me the chance for a continuity of several seasons' work as Artistic Director at the head of a permanent company, what could I do but say yes?  Joe and I continued in contact, for example with the 1970 Wars of the Roses, even though it had never been an easy relationship, and that mutual respect led to my later return to work with him in the three years before he died.

After you returned to the Shakespeare Festival – at that point known as Shakespeare in the Park – 30 years later as its resident director, you directed such productions as Julius Caesar (with Al Pacino and Martin Sheen!) and King John.  Did you find that the New York Shakespeare Festival had changed much in those decades?

It was bigger.  There were more people to say, "Yes, yes," to the great man.  There was an interest in new but not-necessarily-well-crafted plays. Shakespeare had become a showcase for name-value film talent – often with curious results.  And the very real opportunity to create a truly classic American National Theatre, possible in the '60's, had been frittered away.


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Maya Cantu Maya Cantu recently graduated from Virginia's James Madison University, where she majored in theatre. She is very excited about starting her MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama this fall. Maya was once a performer, and played roles ranging from eccentric mediums (Blithe Spirit) to slain noblewomen (Macbeth) to founding fathers (1776). While she hasn't been to an audition in ages, Maya still delights in belting showtunes - sometimes on key - at piano bars.