Editor's Note: It seems that at most major transition points of my writing career, Laura Axelrod has been there. When I first started theater blogging, playwright Laura Axelrod was-- along with Terry Teachout, George Hunka, Dan Trujillo and Mac Rogers-- one of the only New York theater bloggers out there. We met in person a couple of times-- in George's backyard, at one of my shows-- and maintained a friendly correspondence since. When I decided I was done with temping and wanted to take my writing seriously as a freelancer, Laura Axelrod, again, was there, providing helpful tips of places to look for jobs. And when we announced The Lanford Wilson Issue, of course Laura was there too, informing me that it turned out she had interned at Circle Rep not long before it closed. So what better way to close out The Lanford Wilson issue than with Laura's memoir piece about her time there. It's a melancholic piece, one that tracks the way that youthful enthusiasm crash landed on the harsh realities of American theater as it moved to a more corporatist industrial model at the start of the 21st century. It's a feeling I know well, I'm pretty sure it's why most theater bloggers I know started blogging. So here it is, folks. After this post, I'll post a table of contents so you can check out anything you've missed, and then we're on to the next thing. It's felt good in the midst of all the blog rage to do something positive, to celebrate something, and to bring together a bunch of exciting writers under one roof and one topic. Stay tuned for news about the next Parabasis Issue, as I'm sure there will be another one.
Interning at Circle Repertory Company
by Laura Axelrod
During the summer of 1991, I interned at Circle Repertory Company. Home to Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lanford Wilson, the company played a pivotal role in American theater. They produced playwrights such as Jules Feiffer, Larry Kramer, Craig Lucas, William M. Hoffman and John Bishop. Their company of actors included Christopher Reeve, Judd Hirsch, Deb Monk and Jeff Daniels.
Despite this pedigree, I didn’t know anything about Circle Rep at the time. I was in my third undergraduate year at NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program. I entered college with the intention of double-majoring in film and dramatic writing. I switched to theater after a teacher told me I could write meaningful stories for the stage. I wouldn’t make much money, he said, but what I wrote would be treated with respect. That was exactly what I wanted.=
I needed an internship credit. Someone at NYU suggested Circle Rep. I was amenable to just about anything.
Circle Rep’s offices in Greenwich Village had an industrial ambience and shabby furniture. Interior decorating was not high on the list of priorities for the company. It was as if anything bolder than light blue or grey might distract them from their mission.
Visitors would remember the long hallway connecting the reception area to other departments. Playbill covers of Circle Rep productions hung on both walls. They were eye-level so guests could get a visual history of the company. From their earliest days to Broadway, these covers documented successes. Who hadn’t heard of “Fifth of July,” “The Hot L Baltimore,” and “Balm of Gilead”?
Me. I hadn’t heard of them. I had to pass an interview before getting the internship. As I sat in the reception area, I remember thinking how something felt good and right about this place. A blonde woman warmly greeted me, introduced herself as the literary manager, and walked me through the offices. I liked her immediately.
At the end of the long hallway was Artistic Director Tanya Berezin’s office. She, along with Lanford Wilson, Marshall Mason and Robert Thirkield founded Circle Rep in 1969. One playwright, one director and two actors. That’s how Circle Rep began.
The hallway didn’t stop at Tanya’s office. You turned left and continued walking to find the managing director, marketing and developments offices. Turning left again, you would find the literary office, workshop, Lab office and Black Box Theater. Indeed, the floor plan for Circle Rep’s offices in 1991 was a giant circle.
My interview was a formality. The blonde woman, whose name I don’t remember. She asked me about college. We made small talk about nothing memorable. At the end, she congratulated me. I was hired, she said. The bad news? The blonde woman recently gave notice, but don’t worry. “Circle Rep will be delighted to have you. Just show up,” she said. “You’ll figure out what to do.”
Circle Rep was founded on the premise that through working together, theater artists could help each other grow. Although the company included playwrights, directors and designers, they focused on playwrights. Rod Marriott, Circle Rep’s then-Literary Manager, told the New York Times in 1985, “Company writers are this theater’s first priority. It takes time to develop plays. I think that if you’re going to commit to new writers, you do the plays the playwrights write.”
He elaborated on the process in an interview with Albany’s Daily Gazette in 1990. “Lanford writes his own plays. But somewhere along the line, he’ll come in with a block of stuff, which we read aloud – and frequently discuss. It’s not writing by committee – that would be a disaster. But we do talk and it seems to work.”
Outside the Literary Office was a small nook with a desk for interns. The walls consisted of three tall bookcases that reached almost to the ceiling. The shelves held manila envelopes, sometimes quite thick. Inside each envelope contained a script.
Every play Circle Rep ever worked on was in this library. The company kept final versions as well as early drafts. There had to be several thousand manila envelopes. They were filed by playwright’s last name and then the title of the play. This system enabled you to track progress of a play from beginning to the final version.
Since the new Literary Manager had yet to arrive, I deferred to another intern named Barry. He had been there longer and seemed to know how the place worked. He told me to choose a play from the unsolicited pile and start reading. I pointed to the manila envelopes. “Can I read those, too?”
The sheer volume of material was overwhelming. I started with Lanford’s work, reading final versions and working backwards. It’s been 20 years since I went through drafts of “Talley’s Folly” and “Fifth of July.” I can’t tell you what changed in which draft. I remember being struck at how he drew the characters and then colored them. I recall reading dead ends in the early drafts. It was easy to see his frustration in truncated notes. Most of all, I remember the emotional residue after I finished reading final versions of his work. It was a gentle feeling, like reading an engrossing novel on a quiet afternoon.
Circle Rep also had his lesser-known works, scenes and short plays. One story took place in an airplane hanger, or something like that. I don’t remember the title, though I do recall thinking how I didn’t like the play. It taught me that sometimes you have to write a bad play to get to a good one.
My careful routine of going through the stacks soon ended. It got to a point where I stood in front of the bookcases, closed my eyes and snatched an envelope. I read them out of order. For example, I read “Fool For Love,” by Sam Shepard, but I have no idea what draft it was.
While Circle Rep was known for its award-winning productions, it also was famous for accepting unsolicited plays. Anyone in America could send the company a script. Someone would read it and give you a detailed review. In 1982, the New York Times reported that the Circle Rep literary office received over 2000 unsolicited plays.
When a script arrived, we’d log it onto an index card. Then, someone like me would read it and make notes. Our response went something like this: First paragraph: “We have read you play and we have found it (adjective).” The second paragraph contained all the good comments. The third paragraph was all the negative stuff, followed by the closing. If we liked your writing, we’d tell you to send us another play.
Even back then, the company was one of the few in America who would do this kind of thing. They regarded it as a vital part of their mission. It paid off for the company. They discovered playwrights, such as Timothy Mason, through this process.
It’s a Universal Law that if you leave someone alone in an office long enough, she will find intrigue. At Circle Rep, it wasn’t difficult. The filing system was atrocious. It wasn’t a part of the company’s culture to be secretive.
The first letter I found lying by the copier. It was to a famous actor, thanking him for a significant donation. Apparently, he donated regularly under the name “Anonymous.” Seeing the letter made me think about how many Hollywood actors got their start at the company. It wasn’t stunt casting when these people came back to take part in a production or reading. Circle Rep was their home.
The second letter was in a filing cabinet outside the literary office. Lanford had written an angry letter to the New York Times criticizing a review of a Circle Rep play. The critic thought the play was a mystery and came down hard on the playwright for revealing too much information early in the story.
The letter was brilliant and bitchy. Lanford’s first paragraph was a blunt, impatient explanation of the play’s structure, which was never supposed to be a mystery.“ Twenty years later, and I can recite its last paragraph—Circle Rep doesn’t do bad plays. We do good plays. Other than that, keep up the good work.— from memory. At NYU, I picked up that writers weren’t supposed to respond to criticism. We were just supposed to say, “Thank You,” or, as I often said in my head, “Thank you sir, may I have another.” Here was evidence that writers didn’t meekly accept criticism or assume what everyone said was right. Writers stood up for each other.
The summer show in 1991 was called, “The Balcony Scene.” Michael Warren Powell directed Cynthia Nixon, Jonathan Hogan and William Fichtner in a three-character play by Wil Calhoun. It was a light summer show.
Tanya Berezin announced they were looking for production interns. I asked her if, maybe, I could do that too.
“You want to be both a literary intern and a production intern? Do you have any idea how long your days are going to be?”
I didn’t care.
She smiled. “You’re willing to do anything here, aren’t you?”
Someone nearby joked that I should also stand outside the theater on Sheridan Square and talk the play up so people walking nearby could hear. Everyone laughed. Another person chimed in that Lanford had done that before, to try and get an audience for a show.
So I worked 11-hour days at Circle Rep, but I didn’t mind. At night, I helped turn sets and slide a bed out of cubbyhole. It was an invaluable experience.
The stage manager for the show, Fred Reinglas, worked on the original Broadway production of “Hair” and Lanford’s plays. Before the house opened, we sometimes gathered around to hear him talk about his experiences.
He told us about the time costumes were stolen before a show. Then there was the time a playwright walked on stage during the intermission to tell the audience to go home. Circle Rep had ruined her play.
“My goodness. What did you do, Fred?”
“We got her out of the house,” he said. “But the play got shut down. When you’re a stage manager, you have to be ready for anything.”
While critics didn’t like “The Balcony Scene” because it was too light, audiences seemed to enjoy it. For me, it was the first time I saw the art versus entertainment dichotomy that plagues theater. I’m sure the criticism stung the playwright, but he recovered nicely, going on to become executive producer of “Friends.”
Production interns made $60 a week. It was tough to live on. My parents helped me with rent. I could tell you where to eat on $5 a day. My phone got shut off for lack of payment. I could never afford to take the subway after the show. It was a four mile walk from Sheridan Square to my apartment on East 71st and York Avenue. I walked it alone, happy because I knew theater was my home.
We got paid every Friday. Another production intern warned me that I should get my check early. Cash it quickly, otherwise the funds might not be there. Ridiculous, I thought to myself. She doesn’t know Hollywood actors support Circle Rep. Still, I cashed it early. It became a game. I think of it now and cringe.
One day, I was hanging out in the reception area when a man approached me. “Have you ever stage managed a play before?”
“No,” I said.
“Want to learn?”
He led me through the doors of the Lab theater. It was a production of Tim Dugan’s “Devil’s Bag.” The director invited me to sit next to him. He handed me a copy of the script and began teaching me how to mark blocking, sound and light cues. I loved the experience. After “Devil’s Bag,” I worked another show in the Lab. I watched how directors and writers worked together. It was a simple and respectful process. It wasn’t the director’s job to change words. Quibbling about stage directions would’ve been regarded as asinine. I never heard directors or writers claim they felt stifled by the experience.
Circle Rep used the Lab, along with the Friday Reading Series and Plays in Progress to help writers develop their work. Everyone wanted to get their shows to the mainstage. If that didn’t happen; however, your play could still wind up at other theater companies. Kia Corthron’s “Wake Up Lou Riser,” for example, had a Lab production in 1992. It found it’s way to the Delaware Theatre Company.
Membership in the Lab, at that point, was about 300 directors, designers, actors and writers. It was regarded as a safe place to fail. The roles people played were well-defined, but you were not your role. Actors could write a play and see it performed in the Lab. Writers could experiment with directing. When people assumed another role in theater, their skills and vision matured.
The Lab was the place to network in New York. I was never a member of it, though I picked up stage managing jobs simply by breathing in the vicinity. In my senior undergrad year at NYU, I stage managed or worked stage crew for five more shows – from Cucuracha at Soho Rep to Midtown’s Theatre Row. I had just turned 21.
Circle Rep stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts by the mid-summer. It upset some writers in the Lab, who thought the policy went against Circle Rep’s mission of finding new American plays. But what I remember most is the groundswell of grumbling about what was happening outside the company. Playwrights talked about how theaters were changing the way they dealt with writers. I didn’t pay much attention to their anger. After all, Circle Rep won countless awards. Their process worked. Why change something that clearly wasn’t broken?
I wish I listened. Because I often theorize those changes set off a series of unforeseen consequences that can still be felt today.
Toward the end of my senior undergraduate year, I had to put together a BFA crit panel for my thesis play. The task was difficult. Too many people knew me as a stage manager and didn’t want to think I was a writer as well.
Someone at NYU suggested I call the Literary Manager at Circle Rep. So I did. I pitched the idea. She abruptly told me that she was too busy and hung up the phone without saying goodbye.
It was a strange ending to my relationship with Circle Rep. Several weeks later, NYU announced that my thesis play won several awards, including the Rod Marriott Senior Playwriting Award. Considering how Rod Marriott was once the literary manager at Circle Rep, it became a funny theater story, in light of that last conversation. Years later, I’d refer to the whole thing as Alanis Morissette Irony.
After college, I moved to San Francisco. In 1997, I had a chance meeting with a director at the Powell Street cable car turnaround. It spawned a production of my play. A producer picked up the play, restaged it in the city before taking it to the Edinburg Fringe Festival. Those circumstances, coupled with the new fangled Internet, led me to look up old friends on the web.
That’s how I found out Circle Rep closed. I felt like a swift kick to my gut.
Tanya Berezin left the company in 1994. But the real problem, according to the New York Times, was a six-figure decade long debt. The amount rose and fell, according to Circle Rep’s successes each season. In 1996, the company was almost $700,000 in the hole.
When the company closed, Lanford told the Hartford Courant that he felt depressed. It took him a while to figure out the reason. “`And I finally said to myself, `Lanford, your theater has been taken away from you. You have no home, you idiot. You've been kicked out in the street. Of course, you're depressed.''
Circle Rep’s success, I believe, was largely because they understood audiences needed to hear the voices of playwrights. People knew Lanford’s work because they knew his voice. They knew what concerned him. Audiences need to know there’s a human being behind the words. When you dismiss playwrights from the process, you are breaking the chain between theater and its audience. When you value writers only for their words, you lose an incredible resource.
When I moved back to New York in 2001, it was an entirely different landscape. My point of reference for theater was Circle Rep. I hoped to find a safe, respectful environment where I could work closely with directors, designers and actors. It was the only way I would become a better writer. Instead, I found a lack of confidence in playwrights. It was as if theaters thought writers couldn’t carry the weight of their own words and ideas.
This new reality shocked me. My resume will tell you that I learned my story-telling skills at NYU, but it was really through Circle Rep, through their dedication to and respect for the individual playwright. I embarked on a series of devastating theater experiences not worth repeating. By 2004, I began to think theater wasn’t the place to tell meaningful stories anymore. I flirted with other writing forms, and left New York City. In 2007, I got a job at a newspaper in Alabama. My ability to tell a story was easily transferable to a new career in journalism.
In 2010, I knew something was missing. I quit my job at the newspaper, became a freelance writer. I began writing plays again. I’ve been around long enough to observe cycles in theater. At some point, listening to playwrights went out of style. Maybe someday soon, that trend will come back again, like interest in Lanford Wilson and Circle Rep. I’ll wait it out. Or maybe I’ll find a director, two actors, and start something not quite so new.