In The Director's Chair

In The Director's Chair The office of the artistic director of the Circle Repertory Theater is sort of a weather-worn, formerly white or whiteish box around 12 feet square, six flights up over Lower Broadway just above Houston.

The office of the artistic director of the Circle Repertory Theater is sort of a weather-worn, formerly white or whiteish box around 12 feet square, six flights up over Lower Broadway just above Houston.

Actually it is a two-man office, since one half of the box is the domain of the executive director of the Circle Repertory Theater, who now sat at a computer (of sorts) getting instructions from the artistic director on how to make the damn thing do something or other.

The executive director of Circle Rep these days is Milan Stitt, the playwright and educator who has been associated with that theatre company since 1977, the year his The Runner Stumbles was done off and then on Broadway.

The artistic director of Circle Rep these days is Austin Pendleton, actor, playwright, teacher, director (of The Runner Stumbles, among much else) and--suddenly, at 55--the self-effacing, cultivated, whimsical, impassioned stormy petrel of the arts who plans to rescue this much-beleaguered 26-year-old high-prestige Off-Broadway cradle of drama.

It was in August 1994 that Pendleton himself had a call on his tape at home from Milan Stitt: "I thought it was some show they wanted me to direct." Instead, it was the Circle Rep board of directors--businessmen, real-estate people, bankers, and the like, plus three unhappy founders--wanting to talk with Pendleton about coming on board as artistic director with then-associate artistic director (and actress) Lynne Thigpen. "The offer completely took me aback," said the frazzle-haired actor. "I said: 'I have a career; I don't want to give it up.' But Milan said: 'Go talk to Lynne; she has a career, too.' In fact actress Thigpen would on Memorial Day tell Pendleton that the conflict between her career and her Circle Rep duties had become too overwhelming, so she had to resign, leaving Pendleton--and Stitt--to carry on alone against the tempest.

By then, there'd been much internal trauma. The board had voted to put Pendleton in as artistic director in January. "And in March, Tanya, Marshall and Lanford [founding members Berezin, Mason and Wilson] all quit because they didn't like what we were doing. I don't blame them. They put an unusual degree of passion and hard work and good work into that theatre for many years."

What they were doing, what he was doing, was lining up and setting forth a new season with the goal of saving Circle Rep. That season opened in mid-October with Riff Raff, a three-character play about a botched drug heist, written by, directed by and starring Tony winner Laurence Fishburne.

To follow Riff Raff, as of this writing: The Hope Zone, by Kevin Heelan, starring Olympia Dukakis, directed by Richard Jenkins; The Size of the World, by Charles Evered, directed by Austin Pendleton, starring Rita Moreno and Louis Zorich; and HELP!, by Michael Weller, directed by David Schweizer.

"Lynne and I--in consultation with Milan--had picked the plays we wanted within a few weeks of getting elected. And then what we also essentially did was eliminate a couple of positions here.

"I'm very fortunate," said Pendleton, "in that I grew up in fairly comfortable circumstances [as son of the owner of the Warren Tool Co. of Warren, Ohio]. In childhood we never had to wonder if we were going to be thrown out on the street. Oh, I've had rough years as an actor, but I never got to the point where I didn't know how to pay the bills tomorrow.

"So I'm learning about poverty. I now understand what a blessing that was. And that's been basically what the whole thing is about here. It's been very painful for the people who worked here for years--just a lot of pain as well as a lot of anger. This was especially in early spring, when there was also a hopeless feeling around here, a bad feeling about the changes we'd made while the financial situation was going from bad to worse. But since then, I think there's been a real healing--a thing that may be special to theatre."

The theatre where Circle Rep puts on its shows nowadays is, as a matter fact, the old Circle in the Square downtown on Bleecker Street. And what about that financial situation?

"What we're doing," said Pendleton, "is trying to put shows on the stage that everyone wants to come to see--which not only starts a cash flow in itself, but also encourages people to give. Riff Raff was a case of that--small cast, only three characters and a play everyone wanted to see. The combination we keep looking for."

As for play No. 2, The Hope Zone, "Olympia Dukakis came and said: 'There's a show I did last year in Providence.' She sent it, I read it, and said: 'Let's do it.' "

Play No. 3, the play Pendleton himself will direct, is by "a young person [Charles Evered] I've known since he was, as an intern at Williamstown, my assistant when I was directing The School for Scandal there. He's got that thing called original voice, personal voice--the thing all four of these playwrights have in common. I don't mean the language, I mean a set of assumptions."

Play No. 4 by Michael Weller, about a married couple, a baby and a nanny, will be directed by David Schweizer. (Pendleton had directed--and had a Tony nomination for--Weller's Spoils of War on Broadway and Weller's Loose Ends at Steppenwolf in Chicago.)

"When I was first approached about this job, I went, on my own, to Michael and said: 'If I get this job, I want it to be a place where your plays can get done.' "

He got up, took a few paces around the 12-foot box, sat back down again.

"I took this job," he said, "because increasingly over the years I've heard, in bars, in coffee shops, people saying: 'Why write a play anymore? There's no place to put them on.' And I've written plays and couldn't get them put on. Essentially that was it."

That and something else, something more particular.

"In 1984 I directed Geraldine Page in Ibsen's Ghosts for Mirror Rep at St. Peter's in the CitiCorps Building. The New York Times refused to come, as did all but two New York newspapers, large or small. The Times said, when I called to ask them: 'We didn't much care for what she's done recently.' Geraldine Page! I said: 'What about the past 25 years?' But they wouldn't come. Grotesque, absolutely grotesque. It took me a year to get over it.

"That was the moment I realized the rules had all changed; the old rules no longer applied. And in that moment I saw that if we were going to have exciting theatre in New York, we'd have to get really resourceful."

Some years ago as an actor, Pendleton was an absolutely brilliant Frederick the Great in Romulus Linney's The Sorrows of Frederick. "There are certain aspects of that role that I can understand a little better now, having had this job. Frederick is"--measuring the words--"a genial, overwrought, sensitive guy who is a leader suddenly having to hold together a besieged entity, in his case, a country. In my case--well, there you go. This is the first season of my . . . my dic-ta-torship." All hail, Emperor Austin.

--by Jerry Tallmer