Community in Crisis: A.R.T.

In light of both news articles we reposted this morning, we thought it an appropriate time to talk about A.R.T. Both the training program (The Advanced Institute for Theater Training at Harvard University) and the theater itself have undergone major transformations since Diane Paulus took the reins eight years ago. We reached out to alumni of the institute to ask them how they feel about the theater, the institute, and the changes both have undergone. Many of them asked to remain anonymous.

When Diane Paulus took over American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, it had been known as one of the last bastions of the old Repertory tradition left in America. It had a thriving resident company for decades under the leadership of Robert Brustein and Robert Woodruff, and showcased directors like Joanne Akalitis, Andrei Belgrader, Anne Bogart, Lee Brewer, Livui Ciulei, Alvin Epstein, Peter Sellars, Susan Sontag, Les Waters, Robert Wilson, and Francesca Zambello, to name a few. In the words of one alumnus, “the theater was extremely different. It was a repertory theater…it really was a director’s theater, and the focus was not about moving shows to New York…[it] had a more international and at times almost avant-garde bent.”

When Paulus assumed control of the theater, one of her first moves struck some as extremely controversial. She disbanded the resident company of professional stage managers and actors, which had existed at A.R.T. for 30 years. The company gave hundreds of actors the opportunity to make a living wage by performing and teaching for the training program. Upon hearing this, students were shocked, one recalled, “I was heartbroken. As students, many of the company actors were also our faculty, and then of course we also understudied them or acted along side them. To this day the class I took with Alvin Epstein- a scene study class in Beckett plays- is one of my favorite acting classes that I’ve ever taken. Alvin was an original cast member of Waiting for Godot.” Another said they were “shocked, angry, and strangely unsurprised…the fact that the company is gone is proof that she has zero interest in the mission of the theater. Either she lied to the search committee, or the Board sold out the theater. Either answer disgusts me, and demonstrates a shocking, if unsurprising, naked commercial ambition. A rep company is essential to what was intended of the A.R.T. mission.”

Company members were given little to no notice and few have returned to perform since. Another alum added, “Without the company ART has become the “Company of Me” – it’s great that Paulus has her playground, it’s just too bad she had to jettison the artists to achieve it.” However, another alum pointed out that the company had mostly dissolved before Paulus’s tenure: “she did not really dissolve the acting company. The company was all but gone before she got there.”

Paulus revamped A.R.T.’s programming as well. From Pippin to Porgy and Bess, The Glass Menagerie to The Great Comet and Waitress, many shows from A.R.T. have transferred to Broadway, and the theater has reestablished itself as an incubator for Broadway hits. Chris Staley, Acting President of the Alumni Board (speaking only for himself) said, “My stance towards ART’s recent commercial uptick has shifted. As a student, and more recent alumni, I always genuinely felt that what was good for ART writ large was good for the alumni and the students… That said, I find it strange and lamentable at best that none of this commercial success seemed to aid the students.” Fellow alumni board member, Steve Harper added: “I love the idea that A.R.T. is on “the map” in a new way. I enjoyed Pippin and I think commercial producing can be a good thing…It would be great if the A.R.T. MainStage was a place where grads could act, and where other artists (playwrights, dramaturgs, directors) who are alums of A.R.T. could participate in these successful commercial projects and help create new ones.”

A more recent alum defended the programming under Ms. Paulus’ leadership, “There are still plenty of innovative, intimate, community-focused shows at the ART–Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge, David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, RoosevElvis, The Shape She Makes, a production of Violet on a moving bus, a production that was done for audiences of one, etc. It’s true that many of the more experimental and (to me) exciting pieces happen at Oberon, their second stage, and that the main stage shows tend to be “safer.” But I think that speaks to the plight of many regional theatres in America whose subscriber bases skew older/whiter/more “traditional.”…I could certainly be wrong, but I’m not aware that the ART has a “new emphasis on commercial producing,” any more than many other regional theatres fighting the audience engagement battle.”

Other alumni feel differently; one said of it, “I loathe it. It frankly disgusts me. A.R.T. was never intended to be a commercial theater. I can only imagine what Bob Brustein thinks about what’s happened to his theater. This emphasis is crass, ego driven, and demonstrates a naked commercial zeal that is antithetical to the mission of regional theater – to actual art, for god’s sake. The idea that the place that fostered such visionary artists as Robert Wilson etc is now being used as a staging ground for commercial musicals makes me ill.” And another added, “I think it goes against everything A.R.T. was set up for: not-for-profit regional theatre. Theatre created outside of the commercial realm to support the great works, told by great directors, with no financial considerations (other than the obvious ones relative to the overall health of the organization). This was a mandate in the long history of the regional theatre movement in America. Now it’s gone.”

Another alum pointed to Ms. Paulus utilization of non-union labor, “When [she] arrived at the A.R.T., she installed The Donkey Showin the theater formerly known as “Zero Arrow,” then renamed “Oberon.” She took that space away from student and Equity productions, and built the non-union The Donkey Show in. She employed exclusively non-union performers, and ran them ragged with an intense performance schedule. The theater provided no job security or benefits. Performers who grew ill were replaced, and those injured during the course of the show were simply let go. That’s appalling, especially for a major regional theater, and a cash cow of a production. I don’t believe that a major regional theater like the A.R.T. should be allowed to run what essentially amounts to a shadow, non-union theater just down the street.”

And now the Advanced Institute for Theater Training has been temporarily shuttered as Ms. Paulus studies how to better integrate it with her new vision. The median debt a student carries upon leaving the institute is $78,000. When asked how they could pay that back, one alum who recently left the profession of acting said, “absolutely never would [the loans] get paid back,” if he remained an actor, “and the interest is off the charts and has more than doubled over the years.” Chris Staley, of the Alumni Board, said of his own loans, “I have serious doubts about my ability to pay back my loans. When I attended, the advice we were given with regards to repayment was to take comfort in the 25 year loan forgiveness clause, and that given that we were likely to become broke actors pursuing our dreams over the years, we could get by on minimal income driven repayment plans. Several years later, I understand this advice to have been rather disingenuous. The other advice was to pursue non-profit jobs and again seek the 10 year loan forgiveness track. Many alumni, given the IBR plans, would have very low payments that at first seems like a boon, until you realize that these IBR plans would not begin to touch the rising interest on a huge initial principals, and interest is not forgiven.”

Some alums have fond memories from studying there years ago: “I will say I had a fantastic experience and the international training in Russia and our Italian and Eastern European directors was singular to this program. It’s a shame it was mishandled and lost its identity as an experimental regional theater.” And yet others worry what it is like for students now, “I am extremely sad about the Institute closing, and do feel as if it was neglected for the last several years. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be at the Institute currently as a student. I imagine morale is really low, and do feel that the current students should have some of their tuition refunded. I believe that everything that led me to apply to the Institute- working with the company actors, getting an MFA from the Moscow Art Theatre, building a resume with understudying/ main stage acting credits, being exposed to theater that was NOT mainstream- no longer exists or does not exist to the same degree as it previously did.”

Another former student added, “Diane Paulus told alums that part of her mission was to strengthen ties between Harvard and the Institute. I thought that as a Harvard alum, she’d be able to do that. I am not sure [she] has any deep interest in training artists (her Wikipedia page does not mention the Institute [as of publication date – ed.]), the space we used to rehearse and perform in has since been transformed into a venue for ‘The Donkey Show.’ I am not sure what running that show is in service of.” Another alum said that “ [Harvard] found a compliant leader who will cut the heart out (because it’s cheaper), and turn the great theatre into a commercial mill. Diane is famous, and Harvard gouged the remaining students so much ($35k/yr) in trade for an MFA from the extension school, until finally the federal government stepped in. It is unforgivable.”

Chris Staley said of the closing, “It should have come as no surprise that students and alumni would find themselves in debt-to-earnings ratios that were completely crippling. The defense that ‘this is how it is across the board with acting programs’ is not exculpatory to Harvard and ART’s lack of will, effort, or urgency to address this crisis for its students and alumni. Moreover, the defense that ‘this program was caught in a quirky net because of the unique degree granting structure’ is simply an excuse, and to me, it holds little water. The administrative woes characteristic of the program were able to be overlooked (by me at least) at the time because I still to this day believe that my education, training, and artistic growth was incredible and top notch. But excellent training is not enough when you’re talking about professionalism and academia. Part of running a professional graduate program is being available and competent in handling administrative matters from the top down and bottom up, and in this regard, Diane Paulus, the Institute Directors and Administrators, and Harvard’s deans have explicitly and implicitly relayed that the Institute’s (and its students’) wellbeing was not at all a priority. I can only hope that three years from now – the proposed timeline for the program to be opened- there will be some vindication for these various parties, but I have an extremely lucid level of doubt at the will and ability to actualize this.”

Others defend the temporary closing saying, “The school hasn’t announced that it’s closing permanently, and I’m optimistic that it will resume enrollment after the hiatus they’ve announced. They obviously have a lot of work to do to make the program financially viable for more students. But I’m very hopeful that they will because it’s a fantastic program. It was the best investment I’ve ever made. I also hope that this conversation expands beyond the hyper-focus on ART, and that people start looking at the many comparably-priced programs out there and putting similar pressure on them to financially restructure, even though the government hasn’t.”

But alumni board member Steve Harper added, “I felt sad when I heard about the closing of the school. I’ve heard it’s ‘temporary’ and I hope that’s the case. I’m glad I went to the A.R.T. and have pride about what I learned there ….I met Diane Paulus as an actor at Williamstown long before I went to the A.R.T. Institute. We were good friends for years. As the (outgoing) Alumni Association president, I reached out to her (as she was coming in) to touch base and make a connection between the association and her administration. Early emails suggested we’d connect and then, for whatever reason, she became unreachable. I hope that in this time of ‘temporary’ closing, Diane and the administration can firmly connect with alums (and other interested parties) to fashion a better, stronger Institute.”

Another alum added, ““It is easy, and sometimes wickedly fun, to cast blame for the theater’s demise on the current artistic administration, but it is unfair and incorrect to do so. The demise of the old ART was the result of two main factors: financial mismanagement at the end of the Brustein era and throughout the Woodruff era, and an unsustainable relationship with Harvard University. Ultimately, the theater I loved is gone because Harvard wanted it gone.”

What do you think? Are these changes inevitable for a nonprofit and training program to survive in today’s landscape? Are the challenges facing A.R.T. unique to them and not other programs?
Let us know your thoughts.