You can’t help but notice Gregory Boyd’s sense of style. Whether he’s in an elegant Upper East Side hotel suite (complete with baby grand piano) in Manhattan or his windowless, black-and-gray, high-tech Houston office furnished with sleek furniture and large abstract paintings, the man has an unmistakable mode. Halfway through his fifth year as artistic director of Houston’s Alley Theatre, Boyd has also shown something of a golden touch.
A recent capital campaign, launched by outgoing managing director Stephen Albert, has raised over $6 million in pledges, an accomplishment which Albert calls “a major step towards achieving financial stability” for the theatre. Since Boyd’s tenure began in 1989, says Albert, “Greg has brought a real sense of renewed energy to the Alley”–one of the oldest resident theatres in the U.S.–which went through a difficult recovery period (artistically and financially) after the death of its founder, Nina Vance, in 1980. The Alley is also expanding upward, with the shell of a new 500-seat proscenium theatre–dubbed the “Theatre in the Sky” by the staff–which sits atop an adjacent parking garage.
Boyd seems adept at mixing controversy (male nudity in a leather-and-chains Measure for Measure) with the comfortably mainstream (this season’s schedule includes Dancing at Lughnasa and Shirley Valentine). During his tenure, Boyd has brought playwright Edward Albee, directors Robert Wilson and Jose Quintero, and composer Frank Wildhorn (with whom Boyd has collaborated on two new musicals, Jekyll and Hyde–which is optioned for Broadway and should open there in the next two-years–and Svengali) into the Alley fold to serve as associate artists.
And in perhaps his biggest act of bravado so far, Boyd opened the 1993-94 season with an unabashedly old-fashioned and theatrical Cyrano de Bergerac–not a daring choice, except that he both played the title character and directed the production. The gamble paid off, with Boyd receiving respectful notices from local critics and the production breaking box-office records for single-ticket sales.
I spoke to Boyd shortly after he’d finished his run as Cyrano, and found his sharp, dry wit (one is hard-pressed at times to tell whether or not he’s making a joke) and quotable eloquence reminiscent of Rostand’s romantic hero.
Why did you choose to play your first major acting role at the Alley this fall, and why Cyrano?
In 1968 when I was 16, I heard Jean-Louis Barrault say that Cyrano de Bergerac was the one play that an actor-director could direct from the part. Now, I think it was a sucker punch he was throwing. But I remember filing that piece of information away because I admired Barrault so much. And it’s the only leading role that a short, funny guy can get away with–as opposed to your Hamlets or your Lears. That’s only half a joke.
But Cyrano wasn’t the first part I’ve played at the Alley. I went on for an actor who was indisposed in a Feydeau play and worked for Bob Wilson in Danton’s Death. And yes, they were shorter parts, but as we all know there are no small parts. When we began working with Wilson, the actors in the company were–I think it’s safe to say–apprehensive about beginning work with him, so I agreed to be in it with them, because they asked me to. It turned out that they all absolutely fell in love with Bob, which was what I thought would happen. What Bob was talking about was the same thing Stanislavsky was talking about and the same thing Brecht was talking about: effective acting is the same phenomenon whenever it appears, and wherever it appears, in whatever kind of production.
After that some of the other actors lobbied for me to do something else with them. Because I trusted and liked them as people and wasn’t going to be embarrassed in front of them, that made it easier to be in this play. So those were the main culprits: Jean-Louis Barrault, Bob Wilson and the other actors.
Playing and directing Cyrano does seem like a big artistic risk.
Well, I certainly was aware that if it was a big flop that it would be very eggy. Also the danger was of appearing as kind of the Lesley Gore theatre company–an “it’s my theatre and I’ll act if I want to” kind of thing. Whether I’m the best actor for this part in some theoretical context is moot–no, I would much rather have Brian Bedford. But in the context of what the production was about–which was trying to demonstrate a kind of old-fashioned theatricality–I thought I was the most appropriate actor for it. So, sure it was a risk, but producing Bob Wilson doing Buchner is, too. To stage one of the 50 plays that everybody always does is not necessarily a risk, and hence, why do it?
You also played Cyrano in college.
Yeah, I had a bash at it. I was basically a cynical, angry guy at 20, too–not unlike this character–and that’s the thing that you relate to. What the part is about is the armor over his incredible fear and self-loathing, and the challenge is to try to show the chinks in the armor. But when I was 20, what I liked about it was the cynicism and the romantic melancholia and the swordplay. At 40, I’m more interested in the lesson of the play: that if you love somebody you should tell them.
Do you have a style as a director?
Well, people seem to think I do. People say when I do Shakespeare, it’s in that kind of crypto-Nazi, neo-punk style. I’ll tell you who I’m influenced by–and I think every director of my generation is–Peter Brook. Any director who’s been fortunate enough to see the work in Europe has been influenced by Peter Stein and Ariane Mnouchkine. I grew up in San Francisco and was extremely influenced by William Ball at American Conservatory Theater, and I think he was influenced by Tyrone Guthrie–Guthrie’s kind of athletic, imaginative, trying-to-dazzle-you-with-the-staging brand of directing, which still appreciated great heroic acting. Brook directing Olivier in Titus Andronicus is probably the best example of that. So I think that’s the kind of director I’d like to be when I grow up.
But my real heroes, I suppose, are people like Hitchcock and Kubrick, even though they exclusively worked in film. What they were able to do was to meld experimental, very avant-garde ideas and techniques into a popular piece of art. Kubrick’s work was always cutting-edge, and yet it gets seen by lots of people: That, I think, is interesting. Otherwise, people get too self-referential in looking at their own bellybuttons and directing with a big D for the sake of directing with a big D. I’m also influenced by Bob Wilson because who isn’t? Beckett and Bob Wilson, those are the two great theatre artists of the second half of the 20th century. You can’t help but be influenced by them, if you’re alive.
How close are you to having a permanent acting company?
We have a permanent acting company if permanent means that they are a group of actors who are employed all the time, 48 weeks a year. There are 14 company members this year. I don’t think that’s enough. You need to have 28 to 35 actors to do the big plays, so you don’t overexpose or work to death certain actors. But that’s where we’re going.
You’ve staged a number of musicals at the Alley, especially with Frank Wildhorn. What is the appeal of musical theatre for you personally?
It’s very American, how can you not love it? It’s also a great hybrid. That’s the appeal of it! American performers–actors, dancers, singers–are the only ones who know how to do that kind of theatre. When we were working on Jekyll and Hyde, the first Wildhorn piece in 1989, the thing that I really got out of that experience was that the actors were always giving 110 percent in rehearsal and performance, always putting it out there. To take that attitude of how to put a show over which comes directly from the American notion of musical entertainment–and to apply it to Macbeth, say, is fantastic, and cuts through a lot of bullshit really quickly.
A number of regional theatres are moving pieces to Broadway. Is that something that’s a goal for the Alley?
It is definitely a goal to launch work into other consciousness besides the ones in Houston where we live. I just got back from Berlin, and we’re going to do two productions at the Schaubuhne there. It’s important, I think, to let your work be seen in other places. We’re talking to American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. about switching productions. It would be so interesting if audiences in Houston could see the work of Seattle Rep. or audiences in Louisville could see what the Alley’s doing, or vice-versa. Do there really need to be 72 productions of Dancing at Luhnasa in a season? Wouldn’t eight productions be better? I mean, what are we going to do, have a dance-off or something? That’s pointless. Whereas, if we spent our resources more wisely, actors would work more, more interesting things would get done and more titles would get produced.
Five years ago you took over a theatre that was really a matriarchy. Do you think the focus or the sensibility of the Alley has changed in any way because it’s led by a male artistic team as opposed to a female one?
I don’t know, I didn’t see much of the work from before. I don’t think this is particularly male or female, but I believe the Alley mainly did American plays about relatives there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just there was a steady diet of it. There wasn’t a lot of classical work, there wasn’t Chekhov or Shakespeare or Moliere. So it’s different in that way. I think the energy is different just because the individual people are different; I don’t know if it’s a gender thing.
Let’s face it, theatre is the one enterprise in life, the one human endeavor, it seems to me, in which you have total freedom to have men play women, or women play men, or women play women, or men play men, and nobody gets upset about it. The theatre has inherently in it the potential to be genderless.
Where do you see the Alley going in the next five years?
Towards a larger permanent acting company and a larger extended family of designers, composers, directors–and more performances internationally. Three performance spaces at home instead of two and all of them filled every night with people who sit this way (he leans forward in his seat). All that.