If you build it, they will sing « PREV | NEXT »: EMP 2008 I

April 11, 2008

O, Brave New World

When I was fresh out of college, I took a job at a non-arts related publication just to beef up the resume. Long story short: I was on the fast track and quickly found myself promoted to managing editor of a monthly magazine (what were they thinking?!!). Anyway, I ended up doing most of the work and getting none of the credit, and as a result, my boss tried to fire me. You know how that goes. After freaking out for a few hours, I had a lawyer friend send a stern warning to the publisher, along with a package of damning documents, a letter of resignation, and a request for a handsome severance. The PTB apologized and asked me to stay, but I left happily and began doing what I really wanted to do, which was to write about the arts. Best career move I ever made.

There wasn't anything particularly brave about that move - I was a kid with a beat-up car, a bunch of roommates, and few responsibilities beyond growing up, paying the rent, and staying out of trouble. But I do know that gut-wrenching feeling of rejection, that gnawing question of what to do next, so I have enormous respect for people who manage to take a bad situation and turn it into something better. We could all use a bit of inspiration from such stories, especially in these fragile times. And that's why I want to tell you about the Actors' Shakespeare Project, an artist-run troupe here in Boston. It's a tale that starts with rejection and ends with redemption.

In 2003, an actor named Benjamin Evett was let go from the acting company at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. He had spent almost two decades - his entire adult life -- in the company, starting onstage when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. But the theater leadership had just changed hands, and that's the way things go. Evett had a wife, two kids, and no job, but he didn't panic. Instead, he got a bunch of local actors together and started a Shakespeare troupe. The story would end here if the company went the way of so many overambitious start-ups, but it doesn't. The theater has not only succeeded, it's become a showcase of a certain can-do spirit and has created new opportunities for many folks, including a stage legend and a retired drama critic.

The company has done some solid work, but it made a national name for itself two years ago with its production of "King Lear" starring Alvin Epstein. Now, Epstein was something of a local treasure around here for many years as a member of the ART acting company, but he left ART and moved to New York to do "Tuesdays with Morrie" on Broadway around the same time Evett got fired. When Evett asked him to come back to do Lear, he had a one-word answer: Yes. And he was magnificent. At 80, he was every inch a king, from the moment he bounded down a staircase to greet his court to the final scene when he collapsed on a pile of mulch on the floor of an old Cadillac showroom ingeniously turned into a theater. This was quite a triumphant comeback, especially since Epstein had played the Fool opposite Orson Welles' in the short-lived 1956 production and had missed his chance to play the king himself when ART staged the play some years ago and a visiting director insisted on bringing in a "star."

The same team is currently presenting 'The Tempest,'' with Epstein as Prospero, and the production is captivating. Now almost 83, Epstein brings a sense of hard-earned wisdom to the role; he seethes, but his rage is tempered with experience rather than bluster. The staging is inventive, this time performed in a high-ceilinged old court room converted into an arts center. The opening storm features a miniature model boat, tossed across a billowing white sheet. Prospero, in top hat and tails, is a sort of Victorian magician, with a similarly clad Ariel as his single-minded assistant. In this stripped-down production, he and Ariel literally pull strings to make their magic happen (although Ariel, in spiky black boots, walks a fine line between dominatrix and sprite, adding a not entirely fitting edge to the role). The magic is not in the wizardry of the stagecraft, but rather in the words, the music, and the performances. And the feeling of melancholy at the end is hard to shake. In the penultimate tableau, Caliban (played by Evett) stands glum and resigned, toting a pair of suitcases for the trip back to Milan. Epstein, a remarkably nimble figure offstage, truly looks as if "every third thought shall be my grave."

But my point here isn't to project more gloom - quite the contrary. When Actors' Shakespeare Project first started, its publicity director was Marianne Evett, mother of the artistic director and retired drama critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who donates her time on a volunteer basis. She's now Publications Editor for the troupe. I talked to her the other day about how it felt to go to the Other Side. "I probably had a little agenda,'' she admits, laughing. "But I never felt like I was peddling something that wasn't worth it. What I was doing was not, in a sense, all that different from what I was doing as a critic.'' PR isn't for everyone, but it was for one retired critic. And that's the point here: Second acts are possible in life, even if this brave new world looks bleak for our profession.


April 11, 2008 11:07 AM | | Comments (0)

Leave a comment


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


    ARTicles ARTicles is a project of 
    the National Arts Journalism Program, an association of some 500 journalists in the United States. Our group blog is a place for arts and cultural journalists to share ideas and information, to celebrate what we do, and to make the case for its continuing value. ARTicles is edited by Laura Collins-Hughes. To contact her, click here.

    ARTicles Bloggers Meet our bloggers: Sasha Anawalt, MJ Andersen, Alicia Anstead, Laura Bleiberg, Larry Blumenfeld, Jeanne Carstensen, Robert Christgau, Laura Collins-Hughes, Thomas Conner, Lily Tung Crystal, Richard Goldstein, Patti Hartigan, Glenn Kenny, Wendy Lesser, Ruth Lopez, Nancy Malitz, Douglas McLennan, Tom Moon, Abe Peck, Peter Plagens, John Rockwell, Werner Trieschmann, Lesley Valdes and Douglas Wolk. more

    NAJP NAJP is America's largest organization dedicated to the advancement of arts and cultural journalism. The NAJP has produced research, publications and discussions and works to bring together journalists, artists, news executives, cultural organization administrators, funders and others concerned with arts and culture in America today. more

    Join NAJP Join America's largest organization of arts journalists. Here's how more

see all archives

Contact: articles@najp.org