Sellars: Laughing All the Way to a National Theater

We hope for a theater of difficulty, delight, and drastic measures, philosophical convolutions, one-liners, triple entendres and tentative ententes, that puts the American public in direct contact with the culture that they own and must care for and the history that is instantly their lives and eventually the story of a nation . --From the statement of purpose of the American National Theater.

Peter Sellars enters his spacious but windowless Kennedy Center office, late from a lunch, looking like a life-size bowling pin.

A navy windbreaker with its drawstring well below his knees drapes his 5 1/2-foot frame. "My winter outfit," laughs the avant-garde director, now under the national spotlight as the first artistic director of the new American National Theater.

Like nesting toys that you take apart only to find a smaller version, Sellars sheds his giant parka to reveal another variation of himself, this one attired in one of 20 Japanese kimono jackets that have become his trademark, along with a laugh that sounds like a non-stop echo.

At 27, Sellars has attained a reputation as a whiz kid. He has directed more than 100 plays, operas and performances described as "miscellaneous spectacles," frequently opting for such novel theatrical settings as shopping centers or swimming pools. He has been basted with the kudos of success and has swallowed the failure of having performances rejected. As the ironies of creative life would have it, two years ago he was fired as the original director of the Broadway production of "My One and Only," and in the same week received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation five-year grant of $136,000 to let his theatrical spirit soar.

One would hardly opine that, in the few years since he graduated from Harvard with a Phi Beta Phi key, he has neared the pinnacle of his theatrical career. Yet as one of the nation's foremost young directors, Sellars' visibly preeminent role in the American National Theater undoubtedly will be reflected in its productions. And, just possibly, the impact will be felt on American theater in the years ahead.

"I think," he says in a quiet moment, "we can make a difference."

The theater, already nicknamed the ANT, is an ambitious effort to create a national theater resembling the France's Comedie Francaise or the National Theatre of Great Britain.

Armed with a five-year plan and with carte blanche from Kennedy Center Chairman Roger L. Stevens, ANT will stage productions at three theaters at the prestigious center, assist productions from other theaters, generate experimental work and provide a meeting place for artists. A new "free theater" will feature "highly visible" work with free admission. Sellars also plans to commission five new pieces a season and work with film companies to develop stage plays into movies.

The challenge also is part of his effort to recapture the continuity that Sellars believes the American theater has lost over the past 50 years, in part because of the increasing influence of TV on his medium. "Theater was once a roaring good time," says Sellars, who envisions using well-known actors, even rock stars, in future productions. "I want everybody here. I want to put the range of America on the stage."

But there will be no permanent company of actors. "It's too late in the 20th Century to have a permanent stage troupe," he says, because "all actors want to make movies. I want to make movies."

Sellars hopes to develop an American classical repertoire, drawn from forgotten melodramas of the 19th-Century stage, a period for which he has affection and knowledge. "Part of my real function is to establish a real American repertoire," he says. "American theater has the memory of a sea slug. If it happened last week, it's over."

The new theater is a joint project of the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA), chartered by Congress in 1935, and the Kennedy Center. In past years, ANTA staged many productions and ran two New York theaters. When the last property was sold in 1981, for $5 million, the money was earmarked for this new venture.

As part of his goal to make theater a regular part of people's lives, Sellars has slashed ticket prices from a top of $37.50 to $15 and $20. "I want people to be able to afford the habit of going to the theater a couple of times a week," he says.

A new membership plan allows charter members to pay $75 or $100 for four or six passes that will be honored for any performance up to curtain time. The concept gives Sellars added flexibility to adjust his schedule of plays during the season. "You never know when something wonderful will come along," he says.

The membership plan also provides Sellars a needed financial cushion. The Kennedy Center will contribute $2 million, about a third of his projected budget for the first season. Sellars believes that the day of the unsubsidized theater has vanished, and is counting on ticket sales and contributions--including help from Hollywood--to meet his financial needs. He says that from now on, every artistic decision will be a financial one.

In March, the theater presents its first play, "Henry IV, Part I." "It's our gift to Washington," Sellars says. "I'm trying to reclaim Shakespeare for the American theater." The play is directed by Associate Director Timothy S. Mayer, one of Sellars' close friends. Ironically, when the Shakespearean drama opens, the production of "My One and Only"--the Broadway play from which Sellars was fired--will be playing in an adjacent theater at the Kennedy Center.

Sellars will direct the second play, James O'Neill's version of the "Count of Monte Cristo," the 19th-Century melodrama that the actor made a staple of the theatrical diet for decades. O'Neill was the father of playwright Eugene O'Neill, whose plays Sellars hopes to stage at least once a year. Sellars opted not to direct the first play, he says, because "this isn't just my theater. I don't want this to be a one-man show." The third production will be Mae West's comedy, "Come On Over," and the full season will be announced later.

Sellars is a charming, perspicacious man with joie de vivre and an unassuming appearance, including hair that resembles a shaggy broom. Some observers consider him brash. Others call him the brightest young man to come along in the theater since Orson Welles, who sits on his board of directors. Sellars kids about telephone operators who confuse him with the late actor Peter Sellers and punctuates his interviews with laughs, smiles and pithy quotes.

But he also knows that this is the big time, and a monumental challenge after his most recent job, as artistic director for the Boston Shakespeare Company. His past includes productions of Aeschylus, Gertrude Stein, Shakespeare and Monteverdi. He has staged Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" in Boston, Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" in Chicago. He devised a Kabuki Western for the National Theater of the Deaf that toured the United States and Japan. His production of Brecht's "The Visions of Simone Machard" opened the new La Jolla Playhouse.

In time more than miles, his spacious office on the Potomac is far from Pittsburgh where, as the son of a English teacher and radio-station executive his youthful ambition was to be a herpetologist. "I had no remote interest in theater," he says. "I spent all my time out of doors collecting turtles, snakes, frogs, lizards." He and his friends canoed on the Allegheny River, collecting whatever they found in large pillowcases.

His introduction to theater was happenstance. One of his best friends in fifth grade had an older brother who was an apprentice at the Lovelace Marionette Theatre. "I just thought he was the coolest guy I've ever met and I thought if he apprenticed at the theater, then it must be the thing to do." When his friend's family moved South, he applied for the opening and at age 10 was packing popcorn and sponging up spilled lemon drinks. After his first year, he was paid $2 a weekend. Next, he was promoted to curtain puller. "I spent a year as curtain puller and learned everything I know about modern theater," he says.

He launched his own puppet show with his sister and next-door neighbor, building sets, touring in a station wagon and learning from Margo Lovelace in her kitchen how to stage "Punch and Judy."

His theatrical upbringing leaned heavily on the classical tradition, to which he remains finely attuned. At the Lovelace theater he learned of the comedie , and was introduced to the works of Jean Cocteau and others. Every year the theater staged an adult performance. "They did plays that puppets would do better than people," he says. The first plays Sellars ever read were by the French Surrealists. "So in this odd sort of way I grew up, Arthur Miller was the bizarre aberration. . . . It took me a while to figure out that Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were doing something else."

Sellars went off to school at Andover, but during summers in Denver worked at the Elitch Theater, the nation's largest and oldest summer theater. In his spare time, he started a children's theater performing in shopping malls and other public locations.

He held Lana Turner's cat, and worked the sound board for Mickey Rooney and Ginger Rogers. "I saw 16 performances of Sid Caesar in 'Prisoner of Second Avenue,' and watched it all from two feet away. Every night I was there in the wings, watching Caesar's every move and taking all that in, too. And then I would go and do these bizarre avant-garde spectacles for Denver housewives."

"My real shock in life was when I went to Harvard (in 1976) and kept doing the things I had been doing and people there said, 'This is modern, this is avant-garde. . . .' I had always done this before audiences who didn't know any better, they just enjoyed it. They didn't realize anything modern and challenging was happening. They just said, 'Oh, this is a show,' and they watched it and they got it.

"The irony of Harvard was finding out that I was an avant-gardist when all these years I had just been performing for Denver housewives in shopping malls."

He has few regrets about learning his trade in the mass market of shopping centers rather than in a formal theatrical school. "It's odd," he says. "I have a great deal more skill than many people who went through theater programs, but for the life of me I still can't block a scene around a sofa, which clearly I would have learned in second-year directing school. It's actually something you're going to see in later years," he laughs. "It's going to be my bold new personal departure. . . . That for me will be avant-garde."

Even as a young puppet-show producer, he learned early the role of the audience. "I'd have 200 10-year-olds out there and either that show is going to make them pay attention or it isn't. And if it doesn't, we will all be killed."

As a freshman at Harvard he was allowed to direct a performance at the Loeb Experimental Theater. It wasn't a success, and he retreated to staging weekly performances in the basement of Adams House, where he lived. He ventured out to direct other performances, including a serious version of "Anthony and Cleopatra" in a swimming pool.

Sellars' great love remains the 19th Century, when theater was the chief entertainment and realism and the spectacular were part of the staging. Sellars' prized collection of bound volumes of Theatre magazine from 1908 to 1911 is spread on a large, square table--a stage prop--in the center of his office. He pores through them for inspiration.

"My career is based on research," he says, laughingly adding that "one reason I took the job is because the Library of Congress has a branch in Kennedy Center."

When a page in one book falls opens to an article on superstitions of the theater, he is asked if he has any. "No, none. You just don't have the time. . . . You just keep moving. There are no excuses; there is only failure."

And then, as he does so frequently, he laughs his unforgettable laugh.

Next week: Dan Sullivan considers the likelihood of an American National Theater.

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