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‘I’m Not Avant-Garde’ : JoAnne Akalaitis, Joseph Papp’s heir, faces the biggest challenge of her career: getting the public into New York’s Public Theater

<i> Patrick Pacheco is a free-lance writer based in New York</i>

JoAnne Akalaitis, the artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, lives only three blocks away from the organization’s multistage complex in lower Manhattan. Yet, she insists on taking a taxi to the imposing stone building now named the Joseph Papp Public Theater in honor of its flamboyant founder, who died in October, 1991. For her, the daily cab ride is a minor, but no less significant, way to address her new mandate.

“I’m educating this whole army of cabdrivers,” Akalaitis said recently. “I get in and I say, ‘Take me to the Public Theater’ and nobody knows where it is. So I direct them in this very bitchy, highfalutin way: ‘Turn right on 3rd and now turn right on Lafayette Street. See, here it is. Have you ever heard of this theater? Have ever been inside? Believe me, you’d love what’s going on in here.’ ”

The scant cab fare is a minuscule drop of the Public’s $10-million annual budget directed toward the broader goal of creating a culture where everybody goes to the theater--from the Park Avenue matron to the young student to the immigrant taxi drivers who ply New York’s potholed streets. It’s not clear how many hacks Akalaitis has managed to corral with her back-seat spiel, but she is determined that they will discover a resonance to their lives on the stages of this sprawling complex, which on any given night percolates with drama, poetry readings, musical performances, film series, concerts and other community events.

“How do you get people on stage and in the audience to reflect the demographics of the community outside? My mandate for this theater is everybody,” Akalaitis said. “That’s the issue. I hate to call it ‘multiculturalism.’ Call it diversity, instead. Call it reality, because that’s what it is. If you go to the theater and see no one who is like you, why should you even bother?”

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Since being named artistic director last year, the 55-year-old Akalaitis has answered that question in increasingly bold and experimental terms, which has won her both supporters and detractors since she was picked by Papp himself to be his heir apparent in 1990.

The sudden transfer of power itself, due to the legendary producer’s illness, surprised many theater insiders, who saw Akalaitis as a brainy cult figure ill-equipped to stand in for the effusive showman who deftly juggled such Broadway crowd pleasers as “A Chorus Line” and “Pirates of Penzance” with the classic Shakespearean canon and the fringe works of downtown artists.

Akalaitis, then best known for her 1981 production of “Dead End Kids,” a multimedia production melding the Faust legend with the threat of nuclear devastation, had come out of the Mabou Mines troupe, an avant-garde clique whose fondness for European dramatists and esoteric performance art pieces intimidated some people intellectually.

“I’m not avant-garde,” Akalaitis said passionately. “I’m not even sure what that means. I’m an old-fashioned, middle-aged classical director. That’s really how I think about myself.”

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In fact, sipping wine after a weary day of rehearsals in her office at the Public Theater, the director can be rather engaging, not at all the dour, humorless ideologue that emerges in some press reports. Dressed in black, her pale features set off by blue eyes behind glasses and a shock of thick red hair, Akalaitis admitted to a shyness that compares unfavorably with her ebullient predecessors.

But, despite an obvious skittishness toward the press, she can also be funny. Talking about “The Mormon Project,” which she tried out in a workshop production some years ago at the University of Florida, she said, “I feel like an anthropologist when I go to Utah (to research). I could be in New Guinea standing around with a bunch of people covered in mud--except they have 1950s hairdos.”

When Papp picked Akalaitis as his successor, she’d sporadically worked at the Public as a free-lance director since 1976. He said at the time that he chose her because “aesthetically, JoAnne’s not an ideologue. She’s radical in her ability to take chances. I like the imperfection to her work, the roughness. It’s risky.”

That first year as an artistic associate got Akalaitis off to a shaky start--at least with the critics, who lambasted her production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” starring Joan Cusack, which indulged her penchant for spectacle, synthesized into a crazy amalgam of screwball farce, spectral figures and Germanic folk tales as rendered by a caricaturist on acid.

But last season she won raves for her production at the Public of “Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” starring Val Kilmer, one of the three productions that won generally good notices in the eight-show season. Another one was her production of “Henry IV Parts I and II,” which featured, among others things, Latino gang members hustling stolen television sets, and razzing an inebriated Falstaff sitting amid an island of crushed beer cans.

This, however, is Akalaitis’ first full-fledged season as artistic director and the absence of any Shakespeare production on the announced roster immediately drew howls of protest. She dismissed the criticism as much ado about nothing, adding that the festival was as committed as ever to the Bard but that a planned production of “Timon of Athens” had proved to be logistically unfeasible for the present. “We will finish the Shakespeare marathon Joe started,” she said, “but I never thought it was that big of a deal not to have Shakespeare at the festival.”

When Papp anointed Akalaitis, he also named three resident directors who were subsequently given the title of artistic associates: David Greenspan, Michael Greif and George C. Wolfe. Akalaitis has expanded the group to 21, including performers and writers such as Eric Bogosian, Anna Deavere Smith and Craig Lucas, and director Robert Woodruff.

The new season began in September with a critically praised puppetry series and continued with performance artist Ann Magnuson’s sold-out one-woman show. Most recently, Bill Irwin received rave reviews in “Texts for Nothing,” constructed from Samuel Beckett’s writing and directed by Joseph Chaikin. This season will also include Jose Rivera’s dark urban play “Marisol” (directed by Wolfe) and Tony Kushner’s AIDS drama “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” which the Public is co-producing with the Mark Taper Forum (where the two-part play currently resides) in association with New York Theater Workshop.

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Akalaitis herself is directing two productions: She is currently in rehearsals for a production of “Woyzeck” by Georg Buchner, which will open in early December, and in March will direct “Prisoner of Love,” a performance piece based on Jean Genet’s last book about his experiences living with Palestinians and Black Panthers.

What, one wondered, could be remotely appealing about this lineup to the cabdrivers to whom Akalaitis proselytizes each day? When asked whether an obscure 19th-Century German dramatist like Buchner--or Beckett or Genet for that matter--can appeal to any group other than an intellectual cultural elite, Akalaitis maintained that it could. But she admitted that one of her challenges is to overcome the misconception that such fare is cold, harsh or impenetrable to the general public.

“Beckett is not elitist,” she said. “He is human and accessible and so is Genet. It’s difficult because this perception is so tenacious and it’s simply not true. I’m really talking about getting people to the theater who have never heard of Beckett, so that they can’t even begin to say that it is elite. Great theater cuts across gender, race, income. It speaks to everyone.”

Akalaitis suggested that, in fact, theater neophytes and veterans alike could find much that was familiar in Buchner’s “Woyzeck,” about an obsessive working-class soldier, tormented by hallucinatory visions and voices, who murders his wife in a jealous rage.

Another way of eliminating cultural barriers is through casting, specifically a non-traditional approach for which Akalaitis has taken a great deal of heat. For the title role of Franz Woyzeck she has cast Jesse Borrego, a CalArts-trained Latino actor with whom she has worked many times before, including in “Green Card,” which she directed at the Mark Taper Forum in 1986. “I didn’t give it one thought that a Mexican-American was playing this very German character,” she said. “You see a play about a poor guy in the Army and most guys in the Army are not white. That was not reason for casting him, however. And I didn’t cast Sheila Tousey because she was Native American. I don’t have an agenda. They were simply the best for the roles and they looked great together.”

Such unconventional methods have made Akalaitis into a lightning rod for traditionalists. She dismissed their objections to the so-called “color-blind casting” as “hidden racism.” Still, some of her choices have demanded a suspension of disbelief. In Akalaitis’ “Cymbeline,” critics clucked over a scene in which Joan Cusack mistook a decapitated chubby black corpse for the body of her blond handsome lover.

In a now famous feud, Samuel Beckett insisted that his name be taken off her production of his “Endgame” for the American Repertory Theatre because Akalaitis had added music, set it in a subway station and cast a black actor, thereby raising what was to the author the extraneous question of miscegenation. Later, when she suggested casting Borrego in “Tis Pity She’s a Whore” at ART, artistic director Robert Brustein balked at the lack of the actor’s classical training and the production was canceled.

“I think training is important for actors,” Akalaitis said, “but, Jesse, or for that matter, Joan Cusack, speaks very well, even if it’s not classical. Besides, I was in England recently, and I found the speech of the actors there to be uniform and boring. It’s whatever works. I’m not in awe of critics. I don’t need them to validate my work. But they can be good for business.”

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“JoAnne comes out punching,” said a friend. “The wonderful thing about her is that she operates from a gut level. The bad thing about her is the same.”

Indeed, Akalaitis’ style has caused problems with various artists, reportedly including Wolfe, whose already-high stock has risen considerably with the Broadway success of “Jelly’s Last Jam.” Asked recently about his status at the Public, Wolfe said: “I’m really out of the loop in terms of the Public because I’ve been running all over the place doing a bunch of other stuff.” Wolfe wouldn’t comment directly about his relationship with Akalaitis, saying only that the Public has been very supportive of him.

Noted set designer and Shakespeare Festival board member Robin Wagner said of Akalaitis’ reputation: “She can be strong-minded and determined, but so was Joe (Papp). That’s one of the reasons why he picked her.”

Akalaitis’ scrappiness, as well as her working-class sympathies, come from her roots as the daughter of a Chicago blue-collar worker. She was the first in her Lithuanian-Catholic family to attend college, after years of parochial education. Though she is now an “atheist,” she maintained that she was not a “bitter, disillusioned Catholic” and, in fact, was grateful for the sense of spectacle and ritual it has lent to her work.

A premed student at the University of Chicago, she transferred to Stanford University and was studying philosophy when she began to direct theater. She quit school and moved to San Francisco to study acting. There, she met composer Philip Glass, whom she later married and with whom she had two children. (They are now divorced, but still maintain a relationship. He provided the music for her production of “Henry IV” and for her forthcoming “Woyzeck.”)

In the ‘60s they left for Paris, where they met Ruth Maleczech, David Warrilow and Lee Breuer. The quintet, after becoming steeped in the avant-garde theater, repatriated to New York in 1970 and founded Mabou Mines, an experimental troupe that has won numerous Obie Awards during its 22-year history, one of them for Akalaitis’ directing debut in 1976, a work adapted from Beckett’s radio play “Cascando.” Until her resignation from the troupe in 1989, she also won awards and acclaim for her productions of “Dressed Like an Egg,” “Southern Exposure” and “Help Wanted.”

“I understood a whole way of life, which was being an artist on the Lower East Side,” she said, referring to the threadbare days when Glass would support the collective and their family as a plumber and taxi driver. “I don’t feel attached to poverty, believe me. I’m happy having credit cards and going to restaurants. But now the idea of an artist is Julian Schnabel being photographed by Helmut Newton necking with his girlfriend as opposed to John Cage, who just died, the Eternal Child, at 79. For this beatific man in blue jeans, art was always wonderful.”

Despite being steeped in the avant-garde and hanging around with the heavyweight intellectuals of her day, Akalaitis also remembers the ‘50s as a time when she listened to Chuck Berry and sipped grasshoppers. She’s a pop music fanatic and can talk as authoritatively about Billie Holiday and John Lennon as she does about Beckett. While she said that she wasn’t about to do “Hellzapoppin” at the Public, she does see it as a home for popular culture as well as world theater.

“The success of ‘A Chorus Line’ haunts this theater,” she said of the musical that began at the Public. “And even some of the board members say a little wistfully, ‘I wish we could do “Guys and Dolls.” ’ Well, so do I. I’d like to do ‘A Christmas Carol’ here. I’m not a snob. But people forget that ‘A Chorus Line’ started as some small experimental idea. It was never a Broadway pilot project. That’s not and never has been our objective.”

Indeed, there appears to be something akin to cultural cross-fertilization going on at the Public these days. It is an alliance between pop culture and classic theater of the type that Akalaitis herself engineered when she asked Latino salsa star Ruben Blades to score her production of Genet’s “The Balcony” a couple of years ago. Akalaitis said she has given seed money to Ballet Hispanico director Tina Ramirez and choreographer Graciela Daniele to work on what she calls a “Latino Nutcracker,” and the Public is co-producing with the American Musical Theater Festival a mambo musical by saxophonist/composer Paquito D’Rivera and playwright Eduardo Machado.

Akalaitis has also commissioned Los Angeles writer Han Ong to do a translation of “The Tutor” by 19th Century German playwright Franz Lenz. The Chinese-American writer and performance artist will also be participating, along with several other L.A. artists, in Wolfe’s “Festival of New Voices” at the Public next month.

Akalaitis added that she would like the theater to commission pieces from such popular artists as controversial rap star Queen Latifah, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang and Ziggy Marley. She said that she intends to continue producing free concerts at the Delacorte Theatre, the Public’s venue in Central Park, which last year drew thousands of people to hear such acts as Eddie Palmieri and Toots & the Maytals. “Latino families were dancing in the aisles of and the stage of Delacorte,” she said.

How the Public then manages to get these same families to return to the Delacorte for Shakespeare, she said, is a question for “‘a marketing genius.” But there is no doubt in her mind that the free Shakespeare in the park is at the heart and hub of her mandate. It is what she calls “the signal of Joe Papp’s genius.” Were she to be given a million-dollar grant in these threadbare days she said that she’d direct it there. She recalled that one night last summer she encountered an elderly man in a wheelchair after a preview of “Comedy of Errors” in the park. The man, “this ancient King Lear,” was very poor, lived miles away in a seedy abandoned area of lower Manhattan, had no phone and was disabled. Yet he had managed to make it uptown to see practically every production.

“He was beyond marginalized,” Akalaitis said. “I asked if he’d ever gone to the Public Theater on Lafayette Street and he said that he couldn’t afford it. That’s a problem for us. According to our audience surveys, we have the richest, youngest, best-educated audiences in New York. That delights me. But I’d be equally delighted if it were the poorest.”

At the time of her appointment, Akalaitis said that she accepted because, though she had a “terror and mistrust” of institutions, she felt that it would be “very refreshing to take this on because I don’t know anything about it. I’m coming from a point of total innocence, which I want to keep.”

Asked how successful she’s been in keeping that innocence while presiding over a multimillion-dollar budget and 60-member staff, she paused. “I wish I were doing better at it,” she said, adding that her artistic associates keep her “doing the work for the right reasons--for what you believe in your heart.”

“That doesn’t preclude fiscal responsibility or financial health,” she said. “There are people here whose job it is to say, ‘Don’t do that,’ and it’s my job to listen to them.” And to override them, too? “Yes,” she said. “But with an informed decision. Not recklessly. The instinct of the artist is still wonder. Once you’ve stopped wondering what the universe is all about, then you should do something else.”


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