Former dean, founder of Rep talks theater

Former Yale School of Drama Dean Robert Brustein said Thursday that he believes the theater industry must continue to develop fresh talent because society will only keep coming back to the theater so long as it offers a unique experience and a relevant message.

Brustein, who founded the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre, spoke at a Morse College Master’s Tea on Thursday about his experiences in a wide-ranging discussion of contemporary issues in theater. About 30 students and faculty members were in attendance.

Brustein said when former Yale President Kingman Brewster (1963-1977) first asked him to become dean of the drama school, he was not sure he wanted to commit himself to the world of academia, but soon realized that given the authority of the position, he would be able to reform the school on his own terms. By aggressively recruiting faculty and founding the Yale Repertory Theatre, Brustein said he worked to build a more professional theater training school that was more closely related to the craft of acting.

“I wanted artists to teach artists,” he said.

Richard Selzer, a retired professor at the Yale School of Medicine and old friend of Brustein’s who attended the tea, said he remembered the former dean of the drama school as a daring and popular figure on campus.

“He made a big reputation for the Yale Repertory [Theatre], and he was a lively spirit,” Selzer said.

After a conflict with Brewster’s successor, A. Bartlett Giamatti, about the direction of the drama school, Brustein moved to Harvard, where he founded the American Repertory Theatre. In the decades since, he has worn just about every hat the theater world has to offer, from playwright to director to critic.

Brustein said that while the age of television and movies does present some challenges to the theater, it cannot replace the human connection that plays offer.

“I don’t want anyone sitting next to me in the movies, I want to sit alone,” he said. “But if I have a seat empty in the theater I think there’s something wrong with the play. I want to be with a society in the theater, and the theater is society in miniature.”

When it comes to social and political issues, Brustein said it is important for plays to tie into the outside world, lest the drama lose its energy. But he said it is equally important for plays to deal with those issues in the right way, and that subtle metaphor can do a much better job than ideological or activist statements.

“Drama is a place for complicated views of life, and you can’t be complicated if you have just one idea,” he said.

Brustein did not shy away from controversial topics during his talk. He spoke several times about the war in Iraq and fielded a question about his onetime feud with the late playwright August Wilson. In response to another question, he said he does not think British playwright Harold Pinter deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature he won earlier this year.

Morse College Master Frank Keil said Brustein made an interesting guest both for his stature and for his candor.

“He’s one of the most major figures in American drama, and it was wonderful to hear him talk,” Keil said. “I’m always interested in people who really speak their minds and don’t mince words, and that’s what he does.”

Tyce Walters ’09 said Brustein’s passion for his work showed through in his talk.

“Honestly, I think I learned as much during this Master’s Tea as I have this entire semester,” he said.

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