Way back in Thornton Wilder’s day, New Haven, Conn., was the theater’s biggest tryout town, and it may be time to revive that reputation. A glance at several major new plays reveals a striking Connecticut connection.
Consider these: Rolin Jones’ “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” currently at Gotham’s Atlantic Theater; August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” which recently played the Taper en route to other regional gigs; and Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” a Pulitzer nominee coming to about 600 theaters near you.
The common bond? All three appeared last year — with Wilson and Ruhl getting world preems — at the Yale Repertory Theater. In one magic season, it seems, the Rep has vaulted back into prominence as a new work incubator.
And to think that a few years ago, that cachet was almost gone. The Rep famously supported the early careers of Wilson, Athol Fugard and Suzan-Lori Parks. But by the 2001-02 season, ticket sales were bottoming out and few cheered for obscure offerings like Tennessee Williams’ “Kingdom of Earth.”
The tides have changed again, however. In 2004-05, not only was the Rep mounting world premieres, but people were paying to see them. Last year saw more than 18,000 single-ticket sales, a 40% spike from the lows of 2001-02. And the intervening seasons brought buzzed-about productions like “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella” and new Chekhov adaptation “The Black Monk.” .
This reversal of fortune coincides with the arrival of Rep artistic director James Bundy, who took over from Stan Wojewodski in 2002. With auds and critics alike rediscovering the theater, his three-year tenure could be called revolutionary.
Bundy, though, just sees himself as continuing a legacy. Asked about his apparent devotion to new plays, he demurs, “It is not a new thing to be doing new work at the Rep.”
True enough, but Bundy’s approach does have a fresh slant. More than just hosting world premieres, he wants the theater to be “systematically commissioning new work.” Commissions are new ground for the Rep, and to help the process, Bundy has brought several new staffers onboard.
Key among them is associate artistic director Jennifer Kiger, previously the literary manager at South Coast Repertory. Kiger’s central role will be scouting playwrights. “I’m coming to the Rep at an exciting time,” she says. “My impression is that there’s a desire to return to the commitment to new writers and to deepen and expand what that commitment can be.”
Echoing Bundy, Kiger says she wants nothing less than to develop the theater into “a leading commissioner of new plays in the country.”
That, of course, will take a wealth of resources, something no regional house seems to have. Despite the boost in single-ticket sales, for instance, the Rep’s subscription packages have followed the national decline, and Bundy says one of his greatest challenges is “driving our (artist) compensation forward. We’ve raised the salaries of Rep employees, but we have more to do.”
Asked about the fund-raising challenges that accompany playwright commissions, Rep managing director Victoria Nolan laughs, “We’re running as fast as we can!” She notes an expanded development staff and mentions that Rolin Jones, the Rep’s first commission under Bundy, is sponsored by a playwrights-in-residence grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Theater Communications Guild.
Jones, a Yale Drama grad, recalls another Rep concern: Yale School of Drama students. As interested as he is in new work, Bundy, who is also the YSD dean, must treat the Rep as a “master teacher” for the school. In order to provide students, who work for the Rep as everything from designers to marketers, with a complete education, he says the theater “can’t only do new work. And we can’t focus on the canon. We must do both.”
Mindful of both students and auds, Bundy uses the classics on his slate to feature well-known artists from home and abroad. Russian director Kama Ginkas, for instance, brought his staging of Chekhov’s short story “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” and thesp Avery Brooks toplined a well-attended “King Lear.” Imported talent has kept auds intrigued while enhancing what Nolan calls the Rep’s “rich exchange” between artists and students.
Finally, though, Bundy speculates that, like him, auds are just looking for the risk inherent in challenging work.
“We need to get the word out that you think you don’t want your boundaries pushed, but really that’s all you ever want,” he muses. “Why else would you drop all that money on a ticket?”