Whereas 99 percent of theatre professionals don't know what they're going to be doing three months from now, Meadow has been doing the same thing for the last 34 years: running Manhattan Theatre Club. She joined the company in 1972 when it was a small, two-year-old upstart operating out of a space on E. 73rd Street. She's been there ever since, seeing it move to City Center in 1984, produce a steady stream of Off-Broadway and Broadway transfers and acquire its own Broadway home in the Biltmore Theatre in 2003. During that time—which has encompassed five full Presidential administrations and parts of two others—she has never taken a break. That will change with the coming 2007-08 season. Starting in the fall, she will embark on his first-ever sabattical. During her absence, director and former Seattle Rep artistic director Daniel Sullivan will watch the shop. Meadow, who is currently in rehearsals directing Charles Busch's Our Leading Lady, talked to Playbill.com about her long career and what the future may bring.
Playbill.com: Have you ever taken a sabattical from MTC before this one?
Lynne Meadow: No. (Laughs) Not in 34 years. I think I get the award for the longest-running artistic director.
Playbill.com: I think Ellen Stewart at La MaMa beats you by a few years.
LM: That's true. That's true. Her style's a little more laid back though.
Playbill.com: 34 years is a long time. Why is this the right time to take a sabattical?
LM: There just hasn't seemed to be a right time before. I was having a conversation with Dan Sullivan. I said, "Dan, if I ever wanted to step away for a little bit, would you consider stepping in while I took a sabattical?" He said "Sure." This was last summer or something.
Playbill.com: Do you think it will be hard to leave the day-to-day?
LM: I think what's going to be great, frankly, is to have a break from the day-to-day, and that's really what I'm interested in. Obviously, I'm totally committed to MTC. I'm already looking forward to coming back. But I think the idea of being able to step away from the day-to-day, to give myself a chance to have some larger ideas [will be good]. I was talking to a friend of mine, saying I have not been to the new Museum of Modern Art, I'm embarrassed to say. I'm interested in doing some extensive travel. Playbill.com: Do you know where you're going to go yet?
LM: I don't. I honestly haven't had time to plan anything. There are places I haven't had time to go in this country. I've never been out to Seattle, I haven't seen the new Guthrie. These are things that one should do in the course of one's work as an artistic director, but somehow it's really been a three-ring circus here for such a long time.
Playbill.com: When you go to these places, do you plan to talk to the people in charge of the theatres and pick their brains for ideas?
LM: Definitely—just open up to what's going on and what other people are doing. I'm as passionate about the theatre and my commitment to MTC as I've ever been. I'm really looking forward to the idea of having some larger ideas. I'm just leaving myself open to letting in new thinking.
Playbill.com: Do you think, as an artistic director enmeshed in the daily workings of a company, it's sometimes hard to step back and see where your theatre is at artistically?
LM: I think instinctively what I'm looking for is a chance to step back, just as I do in the rehearsal room when you're standing up close to the actors and working with them and I just step back to see a little more clearly in a context. Definitely, the day-to-day management is very consuming. There's a reason why so many artistic directors have taken sabbaticals. I've been talking to Emily Mann about it, to Gordon Davidson, and Dan Sullivan himself. Everyone has found this a very valuable thing to do. I remember many years ago when I was hired here by a man named Gerald Freund, who was instrumental in creating the MacArthur Awards. The first thing he said to me is, "Hopefully, you're going to grow with this institution, and I hope after a couple years you're going to take a sabattical." Well, I'm finally doing it.
Playbill.com: Will Daniel Sullivan have a great hand in selecting 2008-09 season?
LM: Yes. Dan is working now with us on the 2007-08 season. I'll consult on the 2008-09 season.
Playbill.com: Is The Country Girl still going to be part of next season?
LM: I don't think so at this point. It looks Country Girl is going to go elsewhere. We've taken it off the dockets for next year.
Playbill.com: Country Girl was replaced by Translations, which seems to have become the biggest critical hit the Biltmore has enjoyed since it reopened.
LM: I know. I really has been wonderful. What was so rewarding in doing that, as you know, is having done the premiere [of the play] 25 years ago, and then, coming back and looking at the play again. We did the same thing with Sight Unseen at the Biltmore. It's a play we did a number of years ago and wanted to re-do. There's a certain kind of work that we feel very strongly about doing on Broadway that's not as readily apparent as Broadway fare. But clearly there's an appetite for a certain kind of work on Broadway in addition to everything else that is on Broadway.
Playbill.com: Has it been a challenge finding the right mix of programming for a Broadway-size house?
LM: Definitely. It's been a wonderful challenge. I've worked very closely with my colleagues, asking, "What does it mean that MTC is on Broadway? What kind of things do we do?" There's been a wonderful dialogue...and how that corresponds to our work at City Center. It's a very fertile time.
Playbill.com: Based on the track record at the Biltmore, what would you say you have learned about what works and what doesn't work at that theatre?
LM: That's what we're really in the process of evolving. I think one of the things that makes is very exciting for all of us now is that there's a lot of discussion all the time. David Lindsay-Abaire's play Rabbit Hole…
Playbill.com: That was originally supposed to play Off-Broadway.
LM: It was. David is a writer who we started in Stage II. We did his first play out of school, Fuddy Meers, in Stage II. Then we did two more plays of his in Stage I. And he really wanted to do a play [at the Biltmore], so he wrote a play with the Biltmore in mind.
Playbill.com: You have many playwrights you're faithful too. Now that you have the Biltmore, do they all clamor to have their next play be a Broadway play?
LM: Some of them do, some of them don't. People love the Biltmore, but I'm doing Charles Busch's new play Our Leading Lady in Stage II, because it's really where we wanted to work. We did Tale of the Allergist's Wife there. One of the things we're looking at is: What is the relationship between City Center and the Biltmore? We know that there's a synergy. We know that the writers who we're working with at City Center will want to be at the Biltmore, and sometimes want to be at City Center.
Playbill.com: Is MTC going to be staying at City Center? There was some talk of City Center doing some renovations to the building.
LM: I hope so. We love it there. Yeah, they were talking about renovation, but we're a jewel in their crown. I think they'd be crazy to let us go.
Playbill.com: Tell me what MTC was like in the early days back in the '70s when the theatre was on the Upper East Side.
LM: One tends to romanticize a bit, but it was a very exciting time. We kind of burst on the scene. Within the first year, we had made arrangements with people who were then considered the best of Off-Off-Broadway: Julie Bovasso, Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson—23 playwrights. We did something called the New York Theatre Strategy festival; 23 plays in six weeks. Bad Habits [by McNally] came out of that. Our net was cast very wide. I think I was one the first people to bring over English playwrights before they were being done Off-Broadway. Plays like Amadeus were going to Broadway, but I was responsible for bringing over plays like Ashes [by David Rudkin], co-producing it with Joseph Papp, a wonderful mentor and friend to me. We did the American premiere of Translations by Brian Friel. We did American premieres by Harold Pinter and Simon Gray. We were also a three-ring circus; we had a cabaret where we did tributes to songwriters—Ain't Misbehavin' came out of that. There was always a lot of activity. We were operating out of three theatres: our cabaret, our small theatre, and our "big" theatre, which was 150 seats. (Laughs) We did ten cabaret shows a year. We called the theatres "upstage" and "downstage." The blueprint of what this company is was formed early on. I think one of the hallmarks of the company is the artistic mission has been very constant.
Playbill.com: What would you say has been the greatest challenge MTC has had to face in its three decades?
LM: I'm one of those people, I'm living in the moment and looking towards tomorrow. I have a hard time answering that. As a theatre company, staying alive is a tremendous challenge. Survival is tough as a nonprofit theatre, and holding fast to your vision.
Playbill.com: Thirty-four years is a long time to do anything. Has your ever thought that after your sabattical you might just choose to retire from MTC and do something different altogether?
LM: Right now, that's the farthest thing from my mind. I'm definitely looking forward to coming back.
(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)