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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Harvey Oral History: On the BAM Theater Company

Richard Dreyfuss and Rene Auberjonois in BAM Theater Co.'s Julius Caesar. Photo: Martha Swope
HARVEY LICHTENSTEIN: The BAM Theater Company that we started was much more a rep company, and really, after having worked for many years in the ‘70s with the Royal Shakespeare Company, I had a dream of putting together a repertory company that would play in rotating rep with BAM. We really tried to do that, because there had been a number of attempts to do a rep company in New York in the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, and they all had failed. A rep company never worked in New York. And even when Lincoln Center started at the Beaumont, before that, they had a downtown place before the Beaumont was ready, and they tried.

And so we got David Jones, who was one of the directors with the Royal Shakespeare Company and who had come over a few years before that to do two productions with the RSC. It was Maxim Gorky’s Summer Folk and Love’s Labors Lost. Those were two terrific productions, the Gorky and the Shakespeare. We got to be friends, and during the course of that engagement and later, we began to talk about really trying to start a repertory company in New York.

JOHN ROCKWELL: He reestablished himself in New York, did he?

David Jones, director (seated), in rehearsal for The Winter's Tale.
LICHTENSTEIN: Yes, yes, yes. He’d never lived in New York. So he came strictly to start the BAM Theater Company, which would be a repertory company. His wife, Sheila Allen, who was a well-known actress, came and joined the company, and he put together a company. We opened that season with what I thought was a brilliant production of The Winter’s Tale. And that transformation scene at the end, where the statue of his long-dead wife, who he thinks is long dead, is brought to life, is one of the most incredible scenes in all of Shakespeare. And it was a terrific production. Whenever that scene took place, and I saw it almost every night, I would be in tears. Every night. It was amazing.

Walter Kerr was then the theater critic for The New York Times. He came, and the son of a gun fell asleep during the goddamn production and gave it a very mediocre, bad review. Much of it, he didn’t even see because he was asleep. And he can’t contradict me now because he’s dead. [Both chuckle.] But in any case, it was devastating. It was the first production that we were doing of a major thing. We’d raised almost a million dollars to start this thing, and it was a terrific production. It was a terrific production. And it got killed by The New York Times.

Boyd Gaines and Christine Estabrook in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Ken Howard

(If you're hungry to know more about the BAM Theater Company, theatre critic Elisabeth Vincentelli will moderate a discussion with BAM Theater Co. veterans Austin Pendleton, Graciela Daniele and Rosemary Harris, this Monday, July 17, at 7 p.m. in the BAM Rose Cinemas. They will be joined by director Frank Dunlop.)     

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