'A Quaint Folly'

Times Theater Writer

Richard Eyre was artistic director of Britain's Royal National Theatre from 1988 to 1997. He arrives on public TV this week as host and writer of the three-week, six-hour documentary series "Changing Stages," about British and American theater in the 20th century. With Nicholas Wright, Eyre also co-wrote a companion book. Eyre discussed the project in an interview at a Pasadena hotel.

Question: You've written that making a TV program about the theater is "a quaint folly."

Answer: The theater's singularity and the reason why--in spite of everything--it will survive, is because the audience and the performer occupy the same space in the same time. This element can't be put on TV. You put a piece of theater on TV and it becomes a piece of TV drama. So the best you can do is put it in some context and then add illustrations.

Q: Who are you trying to reach?

A: I'm open to the accusation that I'm only pandering to those who are already interested in the theater, but this is not an insignificant minority. We're all minorities of some sort or another, and the proliferation of cable television recognizes all those niches. I'm also addressing people who are interested in cultural phenomena of the 20th century. I am trying to engage the skeptic and say, "Don't dismiss theater. You've got to try it, to be involved as an audience in a successful piece of theater." People are very willing to condemn the theater as an art form when it lets them down. But how many movies are actually successful, even on their own terms? You don't say "film is dead" because you see 20 terrible movies.

Q: Might that have something to do with the ticket prices?

A: Everything, of course. It's absurdly expensive to go to the theater. It's a medium that ought to be universally accessible. But a theatrical event is available to, let's say, 1,200 people at any one time. And because of that, it's expensive. That can be subverted only by subsidy, either private or public.

Q: The subtitle of your series is "A View of British and American theater," but in the book you say it's primarily about British theater.

A: It's unashamedly a personal and partial and unscholarly account. I've had a love affair with American Theater, like most of my generation has with American culture. [In England] we lived in a monochromatic world, and everything American seemed to be in color. The American theater in the '50s had incredible vitality. So it's my view of American theater filtered through a subjective prism.

Q: Is the TV series more or less American-oriented than the book?

A: We had five more minutes per episode on PBS than on British television. So there have been additions, and slight changes in selection of clips to favor an American perception. But it's not substantially changed.

Q: You've directed TV drama. Does it have any advantages over theater?

A: You have access to a huge audience.

Q: Is the theater doomed to be a minority art form?

A: That's its nature. But it deserves to be kept alive because of its unique properties. Since when did the word "minority" become a severe pejorative? Why does everything have to achieve only commercial success? So often, when people talk about theater in this country, they talk about Broadway, as if theater reached its perfect state there. Broadway is just, as Eugene O'Neill said, "a show shop." Those values don't necessarily coincide with the best possible theater.

Q: Yet you could watch this series and get the impression that you have to be in New York, London or Dublin to see theater.

A: An entirely fair criticism. I wanted to show groups doing theater in the streets or in small communities where work of high quality is happening. We simply didn't have the money.

Q: In the series, you don't appear to think highly of the '80s and '90s blockbuster musicals.

A: They're a hugely important phenomenon. But I can't disguise that my heart is not with them, that I have a nostalgia for the age when popular music and the musical lived side by side, from the mid-'30s to the mid-'60s.

Q: Any plans to become a professional TV host?

A: Certainly not. It's deceptively difficult, walking while talking to the camera. The directors never wanted it be just talking heads, standing still. The thing I most enjoyed was doing the interviews, talking to a lot of people I knew and encouraging them to be passionate about what they knew.

"Changing Stages" can be seen on KCET-TV tonight, Sept. 2 and Sept. 9 at 9 p.m.

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