Theater archives

A Year Is Born


January 6 was a chilly night, but as on every Twelfth Night, King Stanislavsky, King Ziegfeld, and King Comrade Brecht had braved the cold winds of midtown Manhattan to honor the infant theatrical year. They huddled in the dank motel garage on Eleventh Avenue where the unformed babe lay, contentedly sleeping, wrapped in swaddling clothes hastily assembled from old rehearsal skirts.

“Innocent child,” said Stanislavsky, “what realities you will embody.”

“Innocent child,” said Ziegfeld, “what lavishness you will display.”

“Innocent child,” said Brecht, “what a statement you will make to the world.”

Then all three men, inexplicably, began to weep. No one weeps more readily than theater people. And the Three Kings, eternal seekers after greatness, loved the infant year as only old theater hands can love a novice making a first appearance.

“Tell us, child,” said King Stanislavsky, in his resonant actor’s voice, “what spark you will light to inspire this benighted island.” A hint of a smile crossed the sleeping child’s face. “Speak, child,” said King Ziegfeld, his producer’s voice suave but slightly hard-edged, “tell us what beauty you will show to ennoble the hearts of this glum-spirited nation.” The child stirred uneasily in sleep, but its faint smile remained. “Don’t be afraid, child,” said King Comrade Brecht, struggling to soften his characteristic raspy tone, “speak truth. Tell us how you will awaken the numbed hearts and poisoned minds of this corrupt, polluted world.”

The child jerked in its sleep, woke, and started crying. Stanislavsky and Ziegfeld glared at Brecht. “You woke it,” Ziegfeld said accusingly. “I always do,” Brecht sighed. “My role is to ask the inconvenient questions.”

Attracted by the baby’s squalls, all the nurturing female figures of the New York theater had assembled. They took the child up gently, holding it, rocking it, passing it affectionately among themselves. The newborn year quieted. Marian Seldes, with graceful arm movements, placed it lovingly back in its cradle. “You men never learn,” said Judith Malina. “Not even you, Brecht. Couldn’t you have left the child a few more days of peace to dream in?” “She’s right,” said Estelle Parsons firmly. “Give the child a chance to hope. Disillusionment and despair will set in soon enough.” Kathleen Chalfant and Adrienne Kennedy murmured a soft “Hear, hear.”

“But we have brought gifts for the child,” said Stanislavsky. “The usual gold, frankincense, and myrrh, I suppose,” said Frances Sternhagen tartly. “A lot of good they’ll do. Except for the gold, of course.” “Yes,” agreed Lola Pashalinski. “Myrrh can scarcely compete with modern medications. And today’s theater press sends up enough frankincense to pollute New Jersey.”

“We didn’t actually bring gold this year,” Ziegfeld confessed. “What with the price so high.” “You mean even you have stooped to using cheap substitutes,” exclaimed Elizabeth McCann, shocked. “If the ghost of Isabelle Stevenson finds out—” She looked anxiously up over her shoulder. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” muttered Martha Plimpton.

The infant year slept peacefully again. Gently rocking its papier-mâché cradle, Ellen Stewart gazed at the theatrical royals. “If you haven’t brought gold,” she said with stern practicality, “what gifts did you bring?”

“We brought aspiration,” said Stanislavsky. “Awareness,” said Brecht. “Ambition,” said Ziegfeld. “We brought ideals—ideas—techniques—” Their voices crisscrossed and blended, as their excitement increased. “We brought visions, passions, desires, textures, strategies, hopes.” “Those are all fine things,” said Tonya Pinkins, “but the baby has plenty of them. Sam and the other shepherds stopped by yesterday.” She gestured, and the men suddenly saw, behind the cradle, huge stacks of ambitions, aspirations, techniques, insights—every imaginable thing to aid the theater’s life. They reeled back, astonished.

“You have so much here,” whispered Stanislavsky. “Need we have come at all?”

“New York is a big city,” said Valda Setterfield, helping Anika Noni Rose and Rosie Perez as they struggled to keep the piled-up gifts from toppling over. “We have every resource here.” “We have so much,” added Lois Smith, tidying a stack of beautifully wrapped small-scale aspirations, “that many valuable things get lost or trampled on in the profusion.”

“What then can we sages bring?” asked Brecht. “What blessing does New York’s newborn theatrical year not already have?”

Just then a ray of predawn light, piercing the garage’s grimy air, struck the sleeping baby’s face, and it spoke for the first time. “Repertory,” it said, in its piping voice.

“Repertory,” the women echoed, awestruck. “Of course.” Stanislavsky’s eyes brightened. Brecht grinned his sardonic grin. Ziegfeld’s brow furrowed. “Repertory?” inquired Charlotte St. Martin. “I’m not sure I know what that is.”

“It isn’t commercial,” Estelle Parsons explained sadly. “That’s why New York doesn’t have it.” “But we have dozens of nonprofit theaters,” said Elizabeth McCann, gesturing around her, puzzled. “Yes, but they’re not repertory theaters,” cried Rosemary Harris, while Joanne Camp nodded energetically in agreement. “I’ve played in real repertory. I can tell you, there’s nothing better—for actors, for the theater, for the audience.”

“I’ve heard about repertory,” said Zoe Kazan. “I’d like to try it.”

“My dear, there’s nothing more marvelous,” Marian Seldes told her. “To perform in two plays on alternate nights, while rehearsing a third. To bring back the play people loved last year, to test the brand-new play against the great plays of the world.” “You never have any free time,” said Mary Testa, laughing, “but it’s the greatest feeling.” “Every play teaches you something about the last one,” said Lisagay Hamilton. “And you get the chance to go back and use what you’ve learned.”

The child in its cradle smiled and gurgled happily. “Repertory,” it piped again.

“But it’s so expensive,” said Daryl Roth, wringing her hands stagily like Charles Busch, “and it’s impossible for musicals.” “Nothing’s impossible if you have the money,” retorted Angela Lansbury, with dignified assurance. “Oh, Mr. Ziegfeld, if only you’d brought that gold.”

“There’s gold enough hidden away in New York,” Jenny Gersten declared stoutly. “We just need a base of operations, and a producer daring and cultivated enough to take the risk.” “Ask Oskar!” shouted Rinne Groff, and suddenly the room rang with women artists’ excited voices: “Ask Bernie and Andre—ask Gerry and Phil—ask Todd and Scott—ask Joe Melillo—”

“Look!” Elizabeth Marvel gasped suddenly. “It’s Le G!” All eyes turned upward. Hovering just below the garage’s oil-spattered ceiling, on a cloud of golden ectoplasm, floated the ghost of Eva Le Gallienne, bedecked in flowers, ancient as the world and youthful as springtime. “Blessings on the child who says ‘repertory,’ ” she proclaimed. “I am the spirit of repertory past and repertory yet to come. I am Sophocles and Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov, Susan Glaspell and Suzan-Lori Parks.”

The monarchs, doffing their crowns, knelt on the cement floor. Only Brecht had the temerity to look up. “Where is the spirit of repertory present?” he asked harshly.

“Look around you,” Le G replied serenely. “I see women,” said Brecht. “I see artists. I see aspirations. I see a newborn theatrical year that has just said its first word.” “Do not cease to hope,” said Le G, “until it has said its last.” She vanished in a puff of gold dust, scattering glitter on the assembled throng.

Enraptured, the women rose to sing their hymn of praise. Jeanine Tesori raised her baton. “Put some zest into it this year, ladies,” she said. “Think repertory!” “For unto us a child is bo-orn,” chorused the women’s voices. Humbled, the three kings wept. Visions of repertory danced in the head of the smiling infant year.

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