More than 20 years since taking over the highest positions at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, Arvin Brown and M. Edgar Rosenblum still share an office.
It’s not because they are required to. Since Brown became the theatre’s artistic director 25 years ago and Rosenblum joined him as executive director three years later, the two have seen the theatre’s facilities twice expanded. What began as a rabbit warren of offices with one performing space in 1965 is now a relatively expansive complex with rehearsal rooms, production shops, offices and two performing spaces.
“The fundamental things are now in place, 25 years later,” Rosenblum says with hard-earned humor.
What is apparent is that Brown and Rosenblum’s shared space is as fundamental as the cement blocks and beams supporting the walls of Long Wharf’s theatres — the literal manifestation of their ability to work elbow-to-elbow and provide a different sort of foundation for the distinguished company.
“These two Connecticut Jews, they’re really this sort of married couple,” says Gordon Edelstein, Long Wharf’s associate director, who has staged plays at Long Wharf the past two seasons. “They take vacations together with their wives. They go off to England, the fourt of them, as if they’re not bored together. I can’t imagine it.”
On a recent winter evening, the two sit in their office, a sweater-clad Rosenblum in his familiar post at the office’s only desk and a casually attired Brown sinking into one of two couches. This, Rosenblum later confides, is how they usually work.
Both men appear slightly fatigued, but neither looks his age — 51 in Brown’s case, 60 in Rosenblum’s. And neither, unless he’s cheating, has been rendered fully gray by a quarter of a century in nonprofit theatre.
It is the middle of a preview week for John Tillinger’s production of Adventures in the Skin Trade, and both men have been functioning as midwives, helping to create Tillinger’s ambitious, part-musical adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s unfinished work. Rosenblum has (as usual, according to his staff) been present throughout the technical and preview performance periods. A self-described “techie,” Rosenblum has no production manager on his staff, but instead directly oversees the production process.
Brown, who is in the midst of directing a New York-bound, Joan Collins-fueled production of Private Lives, has managed to duck into rehearsals and run-throughs and tonight will see the show in its entirety.
“We just told somebody downstairs what this interview was about,” Rosenblum says — “that we are the oldest living couple in the American theatre.” Brown booms with laughter, as he often will at Rosenblum’s jibes, then adds, “No, not quite. That’s Hume and Jessie, if you’re talking couples.” Rosenblum, in turn, breaks into a wide grin at the comparison to the venerable Cronyns.
The exchange seems part of a long-running Arvin & Edgar show, a spontaneous but utterly familiar pattern of play established by two friends who genuinely like and entertain each other.
Apart from their obvious mutual affection, the heart of Brown and Rosenblum’s longevity as a team in the fraught world of nonprofit theatre seems to be a foundation of trust in the other’s talents and a large measure of contentment that each finds in his assigned role.
“I once directed a play,” Rosenblum says, “and it scared the life out of me.” (Brown roars.) “I’ve always had a view that there’s somebody over here who’s an artistic director who has a vision of what the artistic product and process should be, and my job is to support that. I feel very powerful. I know that’s a bad word, but I feel very powerful supporting that thing.”
That “thing” is, of course, the play — or in this case, the play reason, which, by the admission of both men and staff members, is Brown’s province. “That’s the hardest part of the job,” says the director, who this year selected five plays for the 487-seat mainstage space and four for the 200-seat Stage II space.
“It’s ultimately my responsibility, no matter what. I mean, I can have all the advisers in the world. Certainly Edgar has suggestions; Joey Tillinger works very closely with me on evolving the season, but in the long run, it’s my decision. I am judged by the program of plays as much as by any other factor.”
Newton Schenck, who was chairman of the board at Long Wharf for most of Brown’s tenure and now retains the position of board chairman emeritus, says the board stays out of season-planning decisions. “We in no way tell Arvin what plays he’s going to do,” Schenck says. “I don’t suppose many artistic directors would stay at a theatre where the board dictated the artistic product. The only thing we have to be careful of is the budget, of course. We tell Arvin what we can afford, and he has to stay within that.”
Over the years, Long Wharf has produced 220 productions including 37 American premieres and 29 world premieres. In addition, more than 20 productions have been transferred to theatres on Broadway and Off Broadway. If subscription numbers reflect public endorsement of play choices and productions, then Brown has been judged favorably over the years. The theatre’s subscriptions grew to a high of 18,000 in the media-blitzed 1989-90 25th-anniversary season. That the number dropped this year to just over 16,000 is attributed, by Rosenblum, to the recession, which is proving especially fierce in New England.
Apart from subscribers’ devotion to Long Wharf, many of Brown’s productions have been singled out by panels of peers and critics for national awards, including Tonys in 1985 and 1987 for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with Stockard Channing and Jim Dale, and All My Sons. Award statues and plaques sit amid the plays and books on the confortably dusty office bookshelves. If Brown has manifested a definitive style or preference in play material over the years, it is one that both he and his artistic staff resist labeling.
“Like any artist, you’re always evolving,” his colleague Edelstein says. “Arvin is an enormously intelligent man, one of the most intelligent I’ve met in this business. He’s always looking and seeing and changing, so it would be impossible to characterize his tastes.”
Edelstein does suggest that Brown’s roots spring from American realistic drama. Indeed, some of Brown’s greatest triumphs have resulted in staging American classics such as Ah! Wilderness, with Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards, American Buffalo with All Pacino, and A View From the Bridge (each of which was transferred to New York and earned Tony nominations), and a revival of The Crucible which Brown staged in honor of Long Wharf’s 25th anniversary.
But although Brown has shown a facility for American realist works, he has expanded the scope of most seasons, presenting works by playwrights as diverse as Athol Fugard, Peter Nichols and David Rabe. Edelstein also suggests that Brown has deliberately varried the play menu at Long Wharf by hiring associates whose interests differ from his own. Edelstein himself was instrumental in securing Michael Henry Brown’s Generations of the Dead in the Abyss of Coney Island Madness, a shocking and violent depiction of life in a Bronx housing project and certainly one of the most dangerous plays ever produced on the theatre’s stages.
Tillinger, the theatre’s literary manager for almost 20 years and now literary consultant, has brought another sort of flavor to seasons at Long Wharf, having directed such productions as Another Country, A Flea in Her Ear, Love Letters and Rebel Armies Deep into Chad. That Brown has had artistic associates has also enabled him to leave New Haven for periods to pursue projects on Broadway, Off Broadway, and in opera, television and film. While some critics have charged that his absences leave Long Wharf without an artistic leader, Brown insists that the time away from New Haven ultimately enriches productions at his home base. He also maintains that his forays into other venues have the full support of the staff and the board of directors.
“I said as I say now, that I am a director of plays first and foremost, and artistic director of the theatre second, and that I have to feel myself fulfilled as an artist before I feel I can be of real worth to the theatre.” Brown further suggests that the board’s encouragement of outside projects is “what’s allowed me to go on at Long Wharf for such a long time.”
Brown and Rosenblum agree that Long Wharf’s money belongs on its stages. That commitment became clear in a recent casting decision in Edelstein’s production of Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist. “There’s one part in the play for a person who doesn’t speak,” he says. “The first impulse from Edgar was to cast a non-Equity actor . Now, the role is one of the most important in the play. It’s a bring-down-the-house part. So I told Edgar this, and he said, |Of course you can’t cast this non-Equity.’ I mean, he would love to save the money but, in a second, he will spend the money for the art.”
Brown puts it differently, but with no less zeal: “I trust essentially Edgar’s conviction that what happens on stage is ultimately everything. When he comes to me with real economic constraints of one sort or another I’ve never had to really question that they’re genuine.”
In these precarious economic times, that theory has been sorely tested. After a number of years of breaking even, Long Wharf has posted deficits for the last three seasons, ending the ’91 fiscal year with a net deficit of more than $100,000, according to a long Wharf spokesman.
Some painful measures have been taken to stay within the $4.5 million annual budget: The number of mainstage productions has been reduced from six to five this season, a week has been trimmed from each production’s performance schedule, full productions on Stage II have been eliminated in favor of four workshops. and a few staff members have been laid off or had their positions altered — among them Edelstein, whose former position as associate artistic direstor has been curtailed to the role of associate director.
But in spite of the challenges and setbacks, neither Brown nor Rosenblum has lost his appetite for the work. “If you lose the appetite, you get out,” Rosenblum shrugs.
There has been speculation over the years, generally in the context of a successful New York transfer, that both men might leave Long Wharf for what are perceived by some to be greener pastures. Brown and Rosenblum refute the notion.
“It’s never been true,” Brown says. “No matter how inviting the opportunity, there’s always been some way of incorporating it within the framework of what I do here. Also, ultimately, I’d rather work here than anywhere else — I mean I enjoy it more, which is what says it all in the long run.”
As curtain time approaches, Brown is joined by his wife, actress Joyce Ebert. They make a courteous withdrawl to join the audience in the house. The sounds of the settling crowd can be heard clearly through a speaker in the office wall. Rosenblum waits, his head cocked to listen. When the applause begins, he rises from his chair and, drawing a curtain away from a small window opposite his desk, watches the start of the play.
“This one’s got some problems,” he says, “but we can fix it.”
ENTRANCES & EXITS
Irene Lewis, acting artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage for the past season, has been named artistic director. Lewis replaces Stan Wojewodsk Jr., who resigned last year when he was appointed to head the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn. Lewis has been associated with Center Stage since 1980 as guest director and associate artist, and previously served as artistic director of the Philadelphia Drama Guild and associate director of the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut. Lewis directed this season’s opening production at Center Stage, The Queen and the Rebels by Ugo Betti, and will helm Shakespeare’s Pericles and Moleire’s The Misanthrope later in the season.
Richard Hamburger, artistic director of Maine’s Portland Stage Company since 1987, will resign to assume the artistic directorship at the Dallas Theater Center following the current season. Hamburger’s 1990 production of Twelfth Night was Portland’s inaugural Shakespeare production, and he recently directed Machiavelli’s The Mandrake for the company. He will helm the final play of the season, Jon Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire, as a co-production with the Dallas Theater Center, where he first staged the play last winter. Dallas has been without an artistic director since the death of Ken Bryant in October, 1990. A search committee has been formed at Portland Stage to conduct a national search for Hamburger’s successor.
John Dillon, artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, has announced that he will resign to seek other artistic opportunities following the 1992-93 season. In his 15-year tenure at the theatre, Dillon has pioneered international exchange programs with companies around the world, expanded the Rep’s resident acting ensemble to include a variety fo artistic positions, and continually emphasized multi-racial and nontraditional casting. The Rep, a four-theatre complex, has formed a search committee to name Dillon’s successor. . . . Elizabeth Huddle will resign from Seattle’s Intiman Theatre Company following her seventh season as artistic director in December 1992. Huddle most recently directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the theatre, which is currently co-producing its acclaimed production of The Kentucky Cycle with the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. A search committee has been formed to name her successor.
The Idaho Shakespeare Festival has appointed Charles Fee artistic director. Fee is an actor, director and educator, and is currently artistic director of the Sierra Repertory Theatre in Sonora, Calif. . . . Michael Stotts has been named managing director of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. Stotts has been the Festival’s general manager since October of last year, and previously served as company manager at the Manhattan Theatre Club . . . . California’s Marin Theatre Company has named Regina Lickteig managing director. Lickteig previously managed the PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Kate C. Busch is the new director of development at Hartford Stage Company, where she will be responsible for government and community relations, long range planning and development of foundations and corporations. Busch previously served as executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, a trade and service organization for the New York City nonprofit theatre.
Canada’s Stratford Festival has named Marti Maraden director of the 1992 Young Company, where she will be in charge of the training program and will direct the festival’s summer production of Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Maraden has been affiliated with the festival for eight seasons as an actor and director . . . . Cora Mirikitani has been named program officer in culture at the Pew Charitable Trusts, a national philanthropy based in Philadelphia. Mirikitani has previously served as executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, managing director of the Japan America Theatre and, most recently, director of performing arts and film for the Japan Society.
The International Theatre Institute Worldwide has reelected Martha W. Coigney for a third two-year term as president. Coigney, currently director of the U.S. Center of ITI, has been affiliated with the organization for 25 years . . . . Margaret Lioi, administrator of New York’s Eleanor Naylor Dana Charitable Trust since 1989, has been appointed the foundation’s executive director.