When The American Century Theater announced that next season was going to be their last, I knew I had to ask Artistic Director Jack Marshall about his favorite productions and memories.
Joel: Why is The American Century Theater closing after next year’s 20th Anniversary season?
Jack: We set out to demonstrate that there were wonderful American shows from the 20th Century that were as good or better than the typical theater fare in professional theater today, and proved this over and over again. In the process, many of those once lost shows have been rediscovered by other companies and audiences, and more DC companies are delving into our repertoire. We have helped launch many local artists on their professional careers, such as Brian Childers, now reprising his role as Danny Kaye, Amy McWilliams, Mary Milben, and others. We have premiered new shows in our “Reflections” series that have gone on to be performed elsewhere, and are being produced still around the country. This is a good time for us to declare victory and to stop, with money in the bank, and the mission accomplished.
What have been your favorite shows/productions of the past 20 years and why?
Too many to mention, but here is an incomplete list:
- Moby Dick Rehearsed, an Orson Welles production that was once considered a failure but is wonderful theater, and TACT figured out how to make it sail..three times.
- Lady in the Dark, our most ambitious production, with a 16 member orchestra, live circus acts, and the brilliant Maureen Kerrigan showing that Gertrude Lawrence wasn’t the only one who could play the lead role after all…
- The Cradle Will Rock, another Welles production, where we made the audience believe the show had been shut down by “authorities” every night…
- Judgment at Nuremberg, the brilliant, important Abby Mann drama that no other area company would attempt until we did it this season…
- The Andersonville Trial, for which TACT built the courtroom to surround the audience, placing them in the historic war crime trial…
- Machinal, directed by Lee Mikeska and starring Marni Penning as the anti-heroine of one of the best and most original American dramas…
- Hellzapoppin, which TACT recreated from old scripts and vaudeville routines, showing just how chaotic that show was…
- Marathon ’33, in which producer Rebecca Christy made the audience really believe they were watching a 1930s dance marathon, in all its glitz and horror…
- I Do!, I Do!, which TACT envisioned as an all-gender-combination salute to marriage, and it worked.
What productions would you have liked to have produced and/or directed that never graced your stage?
Again, too many to mention: The Hot Mikado, the Kurt Weill musical Lost in the Stars, The Ice Man Cometh, any play by Maxwell Anderson, Sidney Howard, Sidney Kingsley, and Elmer Rice.
Which productions surprised you and were big hits and why do you think audiences embraced them?
Danny and Sylvia, the original 2001 musical by Bob McElwaine and Bob Bain, was the biggest shock by far. It began as a workshop piece, and became the company’s biggest, most popular, best-reviewed, and most profitable show.
Any regrets over the years?
No regrets, just disappointments. I wish we could have found the donors to have our own theater, but we just couldn’t make it happen.
How has the DC theatre scene changed since you started TACT and what has changed for the better and what has changed for the worse?
Many more companies are exploring 20th Century American works than when we started. What has changed for the worse is the increasing ticket costs of professional theater, which stops families from coming to plays and is slowly but surely making live theater entertainment for the well-off and elderly.
How do you feel critics have treated your shows over the years and what should theatre criticism be and not be?
With an occasional exception, the Washington Post was routinely negative to the point of hostility about both our mission and our product. In 100 shows, the Post’s primary reviewers came to see us twice, both for political satires, and wrote about how dated the shows were. The Post was unfair; everyone else was supportive. Bob Mondello of the City Paper especially (and you, Joel) always got what we were trying to do, even when he didn’t like a particular production. He helped a lot.
On the flip side of the coin was critic Nelson Pressley, who devoted a Washington Post column to trashing the company’s production of The Andersonville Trial as unworthy of its surprise Helen Hayes nomination. TACT’s entire operating budget was less than the budget of every single play in our category (Outstanding Resident Production of a Play), and we did not deserve that slap in the face. What should have been a high point and a great advance for the company was turned into a humiliation. And it hurt the company. I think, whatever else they do, critics should try to help area theater develop and thrive, not set out to abuse their power and influence like that.
How has being an ethicist helped you run this theatre company and to cope with the stress of running a small theatre company?
The stress? Not at all. Theater is stressful; at some level you have to thrive on it, which I do. My interest in ethics and law did consistently influence our choice of shows.
What are some of the fondest memories you have had so far?
- The Circus scene in Lady and the Dark.
- The chaos before The Cradle Will Rock, when we held the audience in the lobby as we tried to figure out how to break in (usually through a window) to the locked theater.
- The 90 year old man who came to see that show, and who had been in the crowd of Broadway theater-goers in 1936 who Welles led through the streets to an abandoned theater after the show’s original venue was padlocked on opening night. He told us that when he got to our production and was told that our cast was locked out of Theatre Two, he turned to his grandson and said, “Boy, I have the worst luck with this show!
- The whale boat scene in Moby Dick Rehearsed, the most exciting and dynamic moment we’ve ever had.
- The sea monsters (Brian Crane and Mundy Spears) in Steven Mazzola’s production of Seascape.
- Brian Childers as Danny Kaye, and the night he won the Helen Hayes Award.
- Paul Morella as Clarence Darrow.
- The reaction in the audience when the gunshots rang out in Stephen Jarrett’s Cops.
- Anna Lynch as the fish in this season’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad…
- Ron Sarro as a dirty old man in Hellzapoppin singing “You’re 16, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine!”
- Kathleen Fuller’s uncanny and hilarious Cher impression in Laughter at Ten O’Clock.
- The amazing improvising by the ensemble every night in Marathon, ’33.
What do you want to say to your supporters who have supported TACT over the years?
Thank you. You are the best, most passionate, most astute, and most loyal audience any company ever had. You made it all possible.
Any plans yet for after TACT closes its doors? What would you like to do?
I never think that far ahead. My immediate goal is to try to make the 2014-2015 a worthy farewell, and to convince all the theatergoers who never saw our shows to participate in the last season. It’s their final chance.
What advice would you give a student who is considering becoming a director or artistic director and to those who are considering starting their own small theatre company?
Director: Learn how to communicate, lead and manage people. The technical and the artistic stuff is useless if you can’t do that well.
Artistic Director: Try to get someone else to do it. It is the single most difficult job I have ever had, and after 19 years, I’m still not sure what the best practices are.
And if you start a theater company, do it for a damn good reason. I think we did.
An Evening with Danny Kaye plays through August 16, 2014 at The American Century Theater at Theatre II in the Gunston Arts Center-2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 998-4555, or purchase them online.