Andrei Serban, looking remarkably youthful at 50 in his black jeans and crewneck sweater, darts out of his office at Columbia University, where a year-and-a-half ago he was hired as head of the Oscar Hammerstein Center for Theatre Arts. Thin, edgy, sporting a neat beard and shaggy brown hair, the Romanian-born director motions to a bright-eyed graduate student and they disappear behind his door for a quick conference. Minutes later, Serban swoops out and motions to his next visitor.
To those familiar with the marginalized, tradition-bound Columbia theatre program that seemed gripped by rigor mortis though much of the 1970s and ’80s, Serban’s energetic presence signals important changes. For this Ivy League institution’s commitment to the arts over the past couple of decades was never so neatly symbolized as when the university razed the campus theatre to make way for a state-of-the-art law school without ever building a new performance venue.
Why would a critically acclaimed director who has worked with an inspiring range of international artists from innovative experimental performers to opera companies to Japanese masters–accept a position at an institution with such a track record’serban sips his coffee, settles awkwardly into his chair in his bright, recently repainted office and takes an uncharacteristically long pause: “The time has come to transmit my experiences in the theatre and my understanding to the younger generation, for two reasons: one, to pass those things on; and two, for myself to clarify these directions.”
Serban’s arrival was one in a series of fortuitous hirings that injected new life into the sixth floor of stodgy Dodge Hall, the building that also houses Columbia’s graduate writing, film and music programs. First, Peter Smith was named dean of the school of arts six years ago; he hired Arnold Aronson to chair the graduate theatre division. Together they pursued Serban, hoping he could do for their theatre program what he has done so eloquently for classical drama since the 1970s and for opera since the 1980s rejuvenate the moribund.
Serban’s mandate was to create a graduate MFA acting program from scratch and reclaim or develop a venue in which the students can study and perform and to do it, not incidentally, at a financially strapped institution in a city where space is at a premium. Asked to explain his program and teaching philosophy, Serban’s body recoils and flinches, conveying reluctance to confront the seemingly impossible task of explaining what he’s trying to teach his first group of graduate actors. There is no syllabus for his classes or reading lists. “The curriculum is extremely different from that of a more traditional theatre program,” he begins haltingly in his accented English. “What we are trying to do is to not necessarily make actors come out of the school to have a sure way to Broadway or television or Hollywood, but to really give actors the materials that will open them up to their skill as actors.” Serban assets that he wants the 16 acting recruits to be trained “experimentally,” learning by voicing, moving, doing–not talking or theorizing about acting.
Ironically, Serban’s solution seems so obvious that his “radically different” methods could be labeled almost…well, conservative. Drawing on the historical tradition of apprenticeship and collaboration on classics of dramatic literature, the acting student’s first-year texts are the extant Greek tragedies. The actors find themselves immersed in larger-than-life material–and they receive lots of help. Each is assigned to a director, a dramaturg and a new translation or adaptation of Greek text created by a student playwright. Twenty such ensembles share the vast black-box laboratory space in a refurbished basement across Broadway from Dodge Hall. Each group also gets rehearsal time, use of stock rehearsal props and modular furniture, and a date to present their “research” to their colleagues. The space is purposefully a place of exploration no seats and no sets.
Serban believes that taking voice or movement without an outlet to explore the techniques turns theatre training into a mindless acquisition of tools and styles. Therefore, at Columbia all body and voice work including courses in Kathikali dance and Indian chanting are acquired with a purpose: to be put to use in the Greek projects. “They must use techniques if it suits them and then discard them.” However, he adamantly refuses to let his students become “prisoners of style,” letting one technique become a crutch or habit. That this training, which seems so sensible, is so revolutionary, suggests why Serban’s view of American training programs as “stale and tired” has some validity. Next semester the actors tackle Greek and Roman comedy, using Aristophanes and Plautine texts as excuses to do mask and clowning work. Serban’s subversion begins to make sense: “We start with the most difficult material.”
This process turns out to be the opposite of Serban’s own experience training to be a director in Bucharest. That traditional program began with the director staging fundamental scene work–two-character scenes, three-character scenes, one act of a play building blocks to the assumption of a craft. Serban admits without hesitation that he wants to train artists, not craftspeople. His voice intensifies and his accented emphasis on the verb “is” gains an insistent snake-like hiss: “To me, what is much more important is the question, what is a director? What is theatre? What is an actor?” Serban sums it up: “This is a laboratory for the investigation of what is the nature of theatre. Why are we doing theatre at all? That is the root question we are examining here, rather than giving the pill of how to go to Broadway.”
Obviously it is too early to predict results, but memories of Serban’s famous Greek Trilogy suggest potential in his plan. That production at La Mama ETC in New York in the mid-1970s (revived in the 1980s) combined Medea, Trojan Women and Electra, fluidly staged in separate environments with the populous cast speaking a classical creole composed of Greek, Latin and nonsense words. Coincidentally, Serban has hired his Electra and frequent acting collaborator, Priscilla Smith, to teach acting and voice at Columbia. Together they hope eventually to create a vital theatre energy that serves as a magnet in upper Manhattan, attracting performers and students from all over the world–a setup perhaps modeled on that of his one-time teacher, Peter Brook.
It is from Brook that Serban’s infamous bamboo-pole exercises for actors originated. (Most students and faculty just call it “stick work.”) Serban never mentions this pervasive technique during our initial interview, but pressed later for details suggests that the eight-foot poles are “tools” that help actors find the transcendent moment. He calls them “magic wands used as weapons” to spur performers to a confrontation with themselves. Serban, it seems, is intent on educating Prosperos, not Calibans.
Although Aronson and Serban have gathered an impressive staff (including Smith, director Anne Bogart, playwright Romulus Linney, designers Marjorie Bradley Kellogg and Robin Wagner, and critics such as Michael Feingold, Elinor Fuchs, James Leverett and Linda Winer), the real question is whether Columbia can survive Serban. With the schedule and stamina of a jet plane, he returns frequently to Europe, even mid-semester, as he did this fall to direct Placido Domingo in The Tales of Hoffman in Vienna. He also is the artistic director of the Romanian National Theatre, a subsidized institution that employs a staff of 500. Nevertheless, he appears committed to making the Morningside Heights campus a weigh station, an island of theatrical energy amid the tempests of tradition that he views as American theatre training’s greatest enemy.