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.

As a top director for over fifty years, you've directed hundreds and hundreds of acclaimed actors in productions across the country.  I found it very interesting to read about how you've directed everyone from Lillian Gish, the silent film star whose stage credits included playing Ophelia to Gielgud's Hamlet, to Pacino, one of the world's best Method actors. How have you approached directing actors with different acting styles and from different schools and generations of acting techniques?

I feel the director's task is to tell a story to the audience.  He must know what story he's telling, how to tell it, and how to get it told on time and within budget.  I try to get the right actors to create the right tensions in the story, and then we go to work deciding what to do and how to do it.  I try to avoid theorizing.  Every moment of the production is the director's responsibility, and you get the results you need however you can and however you must.

You yourself started out as an actor!  What skills from your acting days were you able to translate into your subsequent careers as a director, playwright, dramaturg, artistic director, acting teacher, scholar and professor?

For me, acting was the basis for everything.  I think I became as able an actor as I was capable of being, but as one of those people always asked to run things that need running, I found myself directing.  One learns to teach by being taught, and to direct by being directed.  And from watching other directors direct.  Too, life provides the material of which theatre is made.  Theatre touches on everything, and uses everything you can bring to it.  If you can speak, can write a decent sentence, can move, can draw, are musical, can work with others, the theatre will usually find a way to let you do it.

I also read that, early in your career, you received a Fulbright grant and worked with many great London theatre companies, including the Old Vic.  What did you learn from some of these companies, and how were you able to reconcile the British approach to Shakespeare and classical theatre with more American ideas?

My Fulbright year in England, associated with Olivier's alma mater The Central School, led to my working with twenty of England's best repertory theatres.  A later Ford Grant brought short theatre residencies in Europe, one with the Berliner Ensemble.  I see no discernible differences in approach to the classics based on national attitudes.  I see only on the one hand fidelity to the play and its author, whatever the production style, and on the other, revisionist approaches aimed at achieving "relevance," (curious, since it is built-in human relevance that denotes a classic) or reshaped to emphasize some current social or political bias.  I imagine my choice of words suggests to which camp I belong.

How did studying with legendary Group Theater co-founder Harold Clurman influence your own work and aesthetic?

You have hit upon my two greatest artistic debts:  my British and European experiences, and even more influential, those after-the-show classes with Harold Clurman.  These were acting classes, but though I had directed before, from Harold I learned to be a director.  Fifty years later I still rely on techniques received from him.

You've had great success in so many fields...how have you been able to juggle all these varied theatrical careers?

Someone told me early on, "Work always in the theatre, if you can, instead of outside."  There are lots of different tasks in the theatre.  My advice is, "Learn to do as many of them as you are able."

What would you say is your greatest theatrical accomplishment?  If that's too difficult a question, feel free to select more than one!

My greatest theatrical and personal accomplishment has been the relationship with my co-producer and life partner.  Forty-three years ago I hired a young actress straight from Vassar for The Seattle Repertory Theatre.  Later, we signed a "run-of –the-life" contract.  Finding my wife Anne was my greatest luck, accomplishment, decision.  Partner, lover, companion, friend, support . . . she feels that way too, I gather.

Finally, I'd like to ask a few questions about your views on the state of Contemporary Theatre.  How do you think theatre makers can best keep Shakespeare and the classics relevant to younger generations?

They must "stand on the shoulders of giants."  See all you can.  Read all you can.  Work with the best who will have you.  Learn to handle the language.  Do the internal work on yourself.  Immerse yourself in social history.  Find out what Gielgud meant when he said, "Style is knowing what kind of play you're in."  At a Drama Desk luncheon, someone asked him, "What kind of actor are you?"  Referring to his early training, he replied, "I am a Method actor."  There's something to aim at – becoming that well-rounded a talent! Bring that kind of perspective to your work, "Not," as an old professor of mine would say, "pimples of the intellect!" 

Do you think the audience for classical theatre has dwindled or expanded over the years?

The audience has not deserted the theatre of the classics; the theatre has lost faith in the existence of that audience.

Do you think New York theatre is in a healthy place today?  How important is regional theatre to the vitality of American theatre?

Of course the state of theatre in America is unhealthy.  Everything today conspires to drive up theatre's cost.  Too, the mass entertainment media suck up the cultural space once occupied by theater, classical music, books, and a responsible press.  It is getting harder and harder for people to listen, or find anything worth listening to, because of all the cultural noise.  The world's political state, as well, has us all, deep down, constantly on edge.  And the poor little regional theatre, by and large, simply echoes the noise we find on Broadway, in search of the dollars needed to keep the doors open.  We just have to go on swimming upstream against these cultural currents.  That's what our New Globe is meant to do, as best we can – swimming against the currents.  

Finally, what advice would you offer to young people who would like to pursue lives in the theatre?

I guess the same old stuff said to me still holds:  if anything else gives you as much satisfaction of spirit as theatre, do that.  If not, stay with theatre, but prepare yourself for a life of fighting, soul and body, for what you believe.  I must say, I've never had a moment in the past sixty years when I've thought of doing anything else!

***

The Scarlet Letter will play the following performance schedule:  Wednesdays - Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m & 8:00 p.m and Sundays at 3:00 at The Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond Street).  Tickets are $30 and $15 for students (with valid I.D.) and may be purchased by calling TicketCentral at 212-279-4200, online at www.ticketcentral.com or at the Ticket Central Box Office (416 West 42nd Street).

Photos: 1) Headshot by Christina Pabst; 2) The Scarlet Letter poster; 3) William Shust as Chillingworth and Jana Mestecky as Hester in The Scarlet Letter; 4) Jana Mestecky, Bridget Riley, Craig Rising as Reverend Dimmesdale (center) and William Shust in The Scarlet Letter; 5) Alessandra Ziviani, Rebecca Damon, Nick Fleming, Sondra Gorney and Gray Stevenson as villagers in The Scarlet Letter; all The Scarlet Letter photos by Ryan Mueller

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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.