In 1966, Robert Brustein, then-dean of the Yale School of Drama, founded the Yale Repertory Theatre. He served as its artistic director until 1979, when he moved to Cambridge, Mass., to become a professor of English at Harvard University.
There, in 1980, Brustein founded a new theater for his new university: Harvard’s American Repertory Theater.
This Friday, the audience at the A.R.T. witnessed the opening of the first ever co-production between the two theaters: the world premiere of “Marie Antoinette,” by David Adjmi. The play was originally commissioned by the Rep after Adjmi’s “The Evildoers” premiered there in 2008, said Jennifer Kiger, associate artistic director at the Rep. The scale of the “opulent, ostentatious” production and the desire for it to have as broad an audience as possible made the Rep seek out a theater to partner with in its staging, and the A.R.T seemed the best fit, she added.
“James [Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Rep] knew this was a big show, and if we could bring the resources of [our] two theaters together, we could put together something really magnificent,” said Diane Paulus, artistic director of the A.R.T.
Previews of the show began at the A.R.T on Sept. 1, and it officially opened last Friday. It will conclude its run in Cambridge on the 29th of the month and open at the Rep on Oct. 26.
“It just felt like the production that would hold this world [Adjmi] had created needed to be as large in scale as the imagination that had written the play,” Kiger said. “Both theaters … have an interest in programming new American plays, [and] this particular play has a sense of daring and imagination, but also spectacle. It could not exist in any other form but in the theater and both the Yale Rep and the A.R.T are drawn to that: They have similar aesthetics, and both organizations gravitated towards this specific project.”
Paulus said the A.R.T. has historically been known for its ambitious production scale, particularly pushing the envelope in the context of scenic design.
She added that the benefits of a co-production include being able to pull together resources from the two theaters, such as expertise from employees of each, and the chance that the co-production can grow throughout its longer run.
Victoria Nolan, the managing director of the Rep and deputy dean at the School of Drama, said the Rep typically appreciates being the second theater to host a co-production as that means the show’s team has time to incorporate changes suggested during, and after, the first run.
“Theater evolves,” Paulus said. “This cast, this team, is going to have four weeks of running the show before audiences in Cambridge — they will arrive in New Haven with that whole wealth of experience that will allow an opportunity for the play to really reveal itself and to blossom.”
While the Rep administrators said they were glad to be working with the A.R.T, Nolan said that the theater has had to careful in selecting a peer institution to partner with, to ensure that the other theater can match the demands of the show in question.
She added that the other theater the Rep considered partnering with on this project was less desirable because of the longer time-frame it typically requires to build productions and its lack of in-house shops for set construction.
“Marie Antoinette” is, Nolan said, among the largest productions in the Rep’s history because of the intricate costume designs and the greater level of communication between designers it demanded. For instance, she said, designers had to make the girth of the women’s skirts slightly smaller to ensure that they would fit on the lift that takes actors up to the stage.
“I think this is a pretty difficult play — it’s oblique and complicated, and tonally all over the place, and frankly it is expensive to do,” Adjmi said in an email to the News. “I really felt I needed producers who understood and cared passionately about the material, and had no interest in normalizing it, and I have absolutely found that with these two theaters.”
Kiger said the Rep covered its portion of the “extraordinary production costs, including the costumes and the wigs and the puppets” in part by using resources from the Rep’s Binger Center for New Theatre, an initiative that funds the commission and development of new plays at the Rep and other theaters. In April, the Center received an $18 million endowment donation from the Robina Foundation last April, a gift that Bundy told the News was “focused on endowing [the] program’s capacity into perpetuity.”
Paulus said the A.R.T. and the Rep share a commitment to the new work of American playwrights. Adjmi, she added, was a playwright the A.R.T. had been “tracking” for some time.
Adjmi’s “The Evildoers” premiered at the Rep in 2008. The playwright, who has since received a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2010 Whiting Writers’ Award, said he “has a very special place in [his] heart” for the theater.
“I think it is the nonpareil, the crown jewel of American regional theaters, and I think what James Bundy and Jennifer Kiger have managed to accomplish here in the last few years is just staggering,” Adjmi added. “I’m a lucky boy.”
Bundy said that when he sent Paulus the script, “she loved it.”
Paulus’ values as an artist compel her, she said, to make theater accessible and democratic, in her role at A.R.T., moving it beyond being an elite art form. She added that her decision to stage “Marie Antoinette,” which she said speaks to America today, is an example of how the show she programs are potential catalysts.
“David Adjmi has taken a historical subject matter — Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, the French Revolution — and yet he’s actually setting off a detonating message about America and our contemporary world,” Paulus said.
Kiger said she thinks staging the show in the fall is significant, as it speaks to issues relevant in the upcoming elections.
Adjmi said that his play has an allegorical aspect. The work, he said, is not simply about Marie Antoinette as a historical figure — it explores the parallels between the period and the current state of American democracy and consumer culture.
It is, Adjmi wrote in his email, about “the nature of Human Nature.”
Lily Lewis-McNeil ’12, who worked in the Rep’s development department during her time at Yale and is now a development associate at the A.R.T., said in an email that the choice of this play as the two theaters’ first co-production represents their identities as “wonderful testaments to the legacy of Bob Brustein.”
“In terms of this collaboration, I think it’s indicative of what the two theaters have in common. The play is a world-premiere — it’s political, it’s pushy and it’s simply stunning. I’m proud that they’ve chosen to bridge the Harvard-Yale gap through theater, and especially with this new play, in this political atmosphere,” Lewis-McNeil said. “I can only hope the collaboration continues beyond the stage door!”
“Marie Antoinette” will conclude its run at the Rep on Nov. 17.