Drama dean is leaving; is prestige already gone?

Members of the Yale drama community are beginning to wonder why almost a full year after Stan Wojewodski, the dean of the Yale School of Drama, announced his resignation, there is still no replacement in sight.

Nearly one year ago, Wojewodski announced he would leave his post at the drama school and as artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater this June, and Yale President Richard Levin formed a committee to search for a replacement soon after. The search process has continued until the present, and, according to a letter from Levin, it may continue well into next year.

The search is a highly important one in the field of American drama, since Wojewodski’s successor will serve as both dean of the drama school commonly regarded as the best in the nation and artistic director of the Tony award-winning Rep. The job gives an artist the rare opportunity to combine an elite training institution with a well-funded and accomplished regional theater. With the force of Yale to back the theater financially and the abundance of talented theater students available to help with all aspects of the program, the Rep has uncommon windows for theatrical experimentation and diversity.

The position’s prestige leads many to wonder why Yale is having such trouble replacing Wojewodski.

JoAnne Akalaitis, an experimental theater artist and a faculty member at Bard College, said she was surprised at Yale’s difficulties.

“It is shocking that Yale can’t find someone to fill the job,” Akalaitis said. But when Yale approached her about the job, she turned the University down at an early stage.

The same is happening all over the country. Oskar Eustis of Providence’s Trinity Repertory Theater publicly turned down the job, and negotiations with Jon Jory at the University of Washington have reportedly fallen through. The general sentiment in the theater community is that the job is a great opportunity, but no one seems to want to take it.

With little information coming from Levin or the search committee, both the Yale and national theater communities are beginning to speculate about the reasons for the University’s inability to find a timely replacement for Wojewodski. Though drama school officials blame the inopportune timing of the search, some say that changes within the school are causing these problems. Declining subscription rates at the Rep, dropping application numbers in the school’s prestigious acting program and a series of experimental shows that have appealed to limited audiences may indicate that Yale’s own problems are keeping candidates away.

Levin appointed Wojewodski in 1991 to replace Lloyd Richards, a popular artistic director whose performance seasons had mainstream appeal. Richard’s term as dean saw world premieres by famous playwrights such as Athol Fugard, August Wilson and Christopher Durang.

Wojewodski joined the Rep from Center Stage, a theater in Baltimore at which he had served as artistic director for 13 years. Upon his arrival, the Rep shifted focus to more of an experimental laboratory, attracting controversial artists from all over the world, and some say that this change may have ultimately caused the dean search’s difficulties.

The Wojewodski years

Experimental theater, collaborative learning and community outreach all characterize Wojewodski’s term. Because of his commitment to nurturing new theatrical styles, Wojewodski has earned the admiration of some theatergoers and the dislike of others. Some subscribers are unhappy with his style, and, along with the shift from the mainstream, many see a decline in quality.

“I think that the audience sizes have definitely shrunk,” said Sarah Goldstein, a subscriber for more than 15 years. “A lot of my friends have not subscribed because they are not too keen on what is happening on stage with Wojewodski.”

Wojewodski has produced 10 seasons that have combined the traditional with the avant garde. He has brought together plays like “Hamlet,” “Richard III” and “The Way of the World” with new works by controversial artists like Ralph Lemon, whose “Geography” was a blend of dance, music and sculpture, and George Walker, whose “Heaven” premiered at Yale this season. Wojewodski named his work with Lemon and his early support of Obie-award winning playwright Susan Lorie-Parks as examples of his commitment to groundbreaking theater.

While some theatergoers miss the mainstream selections of Richards, others are pleased with the way the Rep has begun to push against the boundaries of traditional theater.

“When I moved to New Haven a few years ago, I wanted theater that would make me think,” recent subscriber Claudia Merson said. “The Rep has given me that.”

Christopher Arnott, a long-term theater critic for the New Haven Advocate, said he is joined by many in his support of Wojewodski’s style.

“When there is buzz for a Yale Rep show, you can feel it on the streets,” Arnott said. “You hear people talking about it on the sidewalk, like it was in the ’50s when this was a Broadway tryout town. I never hear that about a Long Wharf or Schubert show.”

The Rep administration is aware of the risks that Wojewodski’s choices pose for the financial success and reputation of the theater, but officials said they thought the pursuit of experimental theater was worth any such challenges.

“If we wanted to make more money off of ticket sales, we could do more common works,” said Rox Ann Moffitt, the director of marketing and communications at the Rep. “But in a theatrical laboratory like this, you want a wide variety of stuff.”

Indeed, over the last 10 years, subscription rates have dropped at the Rep by 30 percent despite aggressive student and flex season pass selling efforts. Ticket sales remained relatively stagnant until 1998, when Moffitt said it began gaining momentum as the Rep instituted popular programs like “Pay What You Can Night” and family matinees when children attend afternoon shows free on the weekends.

In addition to the changing image at the Rep, the Drama School — Wojewodski’s other responsibility — has also undergone transformations.

Wojewodski said he strove to bring together the different drama school programs — like acting, directing and stage management — while simultaneously uniting the theater and the community.

“I am proud of how I have been able to broaden the base of offerings in each of the eight programs, because I think theater being the most collaborative of programs,” Wojewodski said. “Oftentimes a management model can become rigid if you’re not careful. Our kind of exploration would be eliminated if we didn’t have a friendly model.”

In addition, he listed community involvement as one of his goals. The “Dwight Edgewood Project” brings drama students together with city public school students in a highly popular and successful mentoring program, and the discount nights at the Rep bring theater to those who could not normally afford it.

Amidst these changes, the landmark acting program at the Drama School has noted a decline in the number of applicants. Officials, however, are quick to point to similar changes around the country.

“While the playwriting and directing programs have remained steady, the acting pool has followed a trend we see nationally,” Rep Associate Artistic Director Mark Bly said. “It is on a decline, and there are lots of theories but we don’t really know why.”

An anniversary year

In February, Levin announced that Wojewodski would remain at Yale for up to a year, adding another twist to the already complicated tale of the year-long dean search.

The new dean stands to jump into the work in the middle of both an academic year and a theatrical season, and might take over the plays that Wojewodski is currently selecting for the Rep.

In the midst of its troubles finding a replacement, the school has been saddled with the additional attention stemming from recent anniversaries of the Yale drama community. The 75th anniversary of the School of Drama and the 100th of the Yale College Dramatic Association coincide with Yale’s tercentennial.

The successful history of the school drew national attention with the Stage Blue gala celebration in New York City and Los Angeles this fall, an event that Wojewodski said served as an excellent fund-raising opportunity. It may have also been aimed at raising interest in a school that is looking for a new leader, though on the eve of the event two out of three celebrity hosts, Jodie Foster ’85 and Meryl Streep DRA ’75, dropped out of the program.

With the mixed reputation of the past 10 years, Levin is likely looking for a candidate with fund-raising skills and a commitment to education and theater that is both groundbreaking and popular. The search has been long, but this deliberation has some, including Wojewodski, optimistic.

“When I was asked by Levin to stay for the transition, it was at a time in the year when some very interesting candidates found it difficult to leave,” Wojewodski said. “I think the delay is just a matter of the cycle the committee was working on.”

The secret search

The search cycle started in the late spring of 2000, and since then Yale has tightly held the secrets of the search for a drama dean. Drama School officials originally said they hoped for an announcement in December or January of this academic year. Now, Levin has said he may not announce a replacement until far into next year, and administrators agree that the Drama School community should not hold its breath.

“There won’t be an announcement soon,” Deputy Provost Diana Kleiner said. “Certainly not in the next few weeks.”

The search began with the appointment of an eight-person committee, composed of University faculty and Drama School students, which created a “short list” of suggestions for Levin that included theater artists both outside and within Yale. Though Levin was under no obligation to select a name from the list they created, committee chair professor Joseph Roach said he thought an outside choice was unlikely.

“It’s a possibility,” Roach told the Yale Daily News in January. “But Rick Levin is a great listener. He has been very good about hearing the committee’s views.”

From the time that the committee submitted the list until now, only Levin and a few advisers have known the status of the search. Committee members said one of the main reasons for the secrecy was respect for the lives and careers of candidates. Most were involved with their own projects and would need their own time to disentangle themselves from previous commitments.

Committee members also said any revelation of Levin’s activities could hurt the search by indirectly keying candidates in to Yale’s order of preference. Yet rumors spread quickly around the American theater community.

Gossip and big decisions

On Jan. 22, Providence’s Oskar Eustis announced that he had turned the job down, and in the process became the first public stumbling block for the search. Other candidates mentioned by theater artists from coast to coast included Akalaitis, founder of the avant-garde theater company Mabou Mines; Mark Lamos, former artistic director of Hartford Stage; and Jon Jory, former artistic director of the Actor’s Theater of Louisville and current faculty member at the University of Washington.

Akalaitis said Yale approached her and that she took herself out of the race at its preliminary level because she didn’t want to live in New Haven. Lamos, selected in November as an early leading candidate by the Hartford Courant, told the News in February that he was unaware of the activities of the committee. Sources said Yale engaged in serious discussion with Jory, but that such negotiations fell through.

Theater professionals have mentioned Carey Perloff, the artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, as the likely choice most recently, but Yale’s cloud of secrecy extends to possible candidates as well. There has been no confirmation of Yale’s selection of Perloff. Sources have also suggested that her current job is of more prestige than the dual Yale position and that she is unlikely to leave it.

Despite these setbacks, many leaders in the theater world still harbor respect for the job.

“It is obviously a very important one,” said Martin Benson, artistic director of the South Coast Repertory Theater in Orange County, Calif. “It is an excellent training program that has produced many hugely successful artists. It is also a program well-attuned to adjusting.”

Because the job has such a positive reputation, many wonder why there have been delays at all.

“My question is: Where is the leadership? Who are the leaders?” Akalaitis told the News recently. “Why aren’t there 17 people beating down the doors to be at Yale?”

One influential theater artist, Ann Bogart, said she did pursue the job.

“I went after it pretty hard,” said Bogart, who will be giving speeches on campus this weekend. “I was obviously not what they were looking for.”

Bogart is a famous director and creator of her own widely used method of performance, the “Viewpoints” theory.

Her public admission of negotiations with Yale have sparked even more rumors. Sources within the Yale drama community said the administration feared that Bogart would change too many aspects of the program, from the performed material to the members of the faculty and administration.

But Drama School officials say they are eager to get a dean with a new outlook. Every dean so far has brought new talents and new styles to both the school and the Rep, and many attribute the school’s rich history to this cycle of change.

“The staff here is ready to embrace change,” Managing Director Victoria Nolan said. “When the new dean comes in, he or she will have the support that they need.”

Moffitt, the Rep’s marketing director, agreed.

“We’re theater people. We’re used to change,” Moffitt said. “Or we’ll just go somewhere else.”

In years past, the Yale Repertory Theater's stage has seen the debuts of works by important, mainstream artists. Drama Dean Stan Wojewodski has added more experimental theater to the Rep's lineup.
alex romero
In years past, the Yale Repertory Theater's stage has seen the debuts of works by important, mainstream artists. Drama Dean Stan Wojewodski has added more experimental theater to the Rep's lineup.

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