This was Andre Bishop’s regimen when he took over the artistic directorship of Lincoln Center Theater in the summer of 1991: Two massages per week, three appointments with a shrink and an unspecified amount of artificial help getting to sleep each night.
“The trickiest thing was adapting to the working methods of others,” Bishop recalls now, “and not losing who the hell I was in the process.” Pay attention to that regimen – it works.
The theater component of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was for much of its life the wildest child in the collection of high-strung tenants at Broadway and 65th Street. Eero Saarinen’s elegant, unassuming theater was invisible from the promenade, tucked in behind Avery Fisher Hall, next to the Metropolitan Opera and all the way across from the New York State Theater. But the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s quiet exterior belied the years of turmoil and changings of the guard that brought what had originally been envisioned as a classical repertory company from the unruly ’60s into the no-nonsense ’90s.
The troubled years are behind Lincoln Center Theater, and it almost takes your breath away to realize that it is currently celebrating 10 years under that banner, the longest tenure in the Beaumont’s history.
The company will have three shows running concurrently on Broadway beginning next month: Tom Stoppard’s newly arrived “Arcadia” at the Beaumont; a revival of “The Heiress” at the Cort that has proved to be a surprise hit of the season and a star-maker for Cherry Jones in the title role; and “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” director/choreographer Graciele Daniele’s adaptation with music of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella, currently slated for the Longacre.
Downstairs at the little Mitzi E. Newhouse, James Lapine’s “12 Dreams” is about to take over the stage recently vacated by a revelatory and hugely successful production of Stoppard’s “Hapgood.” And out on the road is the touring company of Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig,” currently feeding $25,000 per week into the company coffers.
Which is a good thing, because Lincoln Center Theater’s expenses for this past year were an astonishing $42 million. Its revenue fell short of that by just $240,000, says executive producer Bernard Gersten, a veteran theater man who signed on when Gregory Mosher was named the company’s first artistic director in 1985. Some 80% of the company’s income is earned, a considerably greater figure than the declining national average of 58.6%, according to a survey of theaters just released by the Theater Communications Group, the national organization of nonprofit theaters.
And Lincoln Center Theater remains one of New York’s great bargains: You pay $35 to join and then $15 per play and $20 per musical, regardless of the venue. Of course, if you want to join the 30,000 members, get in line: There are 11,000 ahead of you. Knicks tickets are easier to come by. (This situation has led to no little rancor among members, for there have been occasions when the company was unable to accommodate all of them for a particularly hot show.) Unlike Mosher, who was himself a highly regarded director, Bishop came from the administrative ranks, having guided Playwrights Horizons into the theatrical limelight with such major works as Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles” and Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” But at Playwrights, Bishop had to program a mainstage with all of 150 seats – half the size of the Newhouse – while the Beaumont, a challenging space with a convertible intimate thrust, a backstage the size of an aircraft carrier and about 1,100 seats, was something altogether new.
“I expected to have to adjust a lot, but I was surprised how easy it was,” Bishop says now, during a conversation with Gersten in the company’s cramped offices in the bowels of the complex. “I felt the Beaumont needed to be used on a more regular basis, and have the right directors there; in the right hands it’s the most glorious theater in New York.” It wasn’t until December 1993 that he finally felt at home, and a huge-scale revival was the reason.
“‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois’ was the breakthrough,” he says. “I felt, ‘I think I can do this now.’ I thought it was a wonderful old play and would show off the theater well. Because it was well-received by the public I felt,” – he takes a big breath – “‘I’m OK now.’”
Not all of the choices have been so smooth. Not everyone agreed that Lincoln Center Theater should import the Royal National Theatre’s Cameron Mackintosh-underwritten production of “Carousel,” though few complained after it got here, and more complained when the run was abruptly cut off to make way for “Arcadia.” And Gersten, Mosher and Bishop have adamantly refused to define a mandate for the company beyond finding good work and putting it on.
Still, the company’s record in producing new works is unassailable, from supporting the development of new musicals under the stewardship of the esteemed Ira Weitzman, to such programs as last season’s minifestival of new American works at the Newhouse.
Gersten and Bishop currently are putting a lot of effort into a three-year, $12 million capital campaign, which will include $5 million for rehabilitation of the physical plant, $5 million toward an endowment and $2 million for various reserve and overcall funds.
Many other nonprofit theaters are struggling to survive, but Lincoln Center Theater is on a roll.
“I think there’s a sense of continuity and permanence that perhaps it never had, and that transcends Andre and me,” says Gersten, who has provided precisely that continuity for Bishop. “The mechanics are set in place to sustain the theater indefinitely.”