Talkin' BroadwayV.J.

Simply Classic - Part II
The Pearl Theatre Company

Matthew Murray sends us the second of two interviews focusing on The Pearl Theatre Company. Last week he talked with Michelle Brandon, the Pearl's Marketing Director, about the new season and what makes the Pearl a unique theatrical experience. This week he chats with Shepard Sobel, the Pearl's founder and Artistic Director.

Matthew Murray:  How did you first get the idea for starting the Pearl Theatre Company?

Shepard Sobel:  When I was in high school in the early 60s, the drama club's advisor extended our school-year projects into a summer theatre. We spent quite a few hours designing the future of America's next great company. When I finished college and began teaching and advising a drama group of my own, I toyed with the same idea again. The primary leisure activity of my graduate school days in the mid-70s was sitting around talking about the theatre we'd start to change the world artistically and politically and every other way.

Scene from Pearl Theatre current production Exit the King
Soon after moving back to New York in 1979, I got a job at a very healthy community theater in West Virginia to direct a play. Over the course of the next two seasons, I developed a plan to convert the theater into a professional company, and even did a summer festival demonstration project. It didn't happen, but there I was with a much-invested blueprint and nowhere to go. Meanwhile, I had gone to some seminars and done some paper-preparation to establish a not-for-profit company in New York, and I melded all that had gone before into The Pearl.

At the very beginning, it was just a series of living room readings while 20 or so actors and I sorted out types of plays that most attracted us and approaches to casting and, soon after, producing that made sense. After more than a year of that, we tried a three-show mini-season of "tier code" productions in fall of 1984, and we haven't stopped since.

MM:  Did you find it difficult to get established?

SS:  Of course it's many hours of hard work, many many many hours, and all kinds of work. But quite honestly no, I did not find it difficult to get established. Of course, it's 18 years later and I'm still working on getting established.

I'd say a delicate mix of patience and impatience is essential. But so many people and organizations were extraordinarily helpful and generous; family, friends, funders, strangers, institutions. And there's great talent and desire to be tapped. And it's just a series of wonderful steps forward that you think will never come but then you just put your head back down and go to work and pretty soon, you notice you've passed that step and are patiently impatient about the next one which you think will never come. And I expect that will continue 'til I retire, die, or otherwise leave.

MM:   How far has the Pearl come in the eighteen years since its inception?

SS:  We've come a very long way; we've barely begun. I never imagined really, 18 years ago, that The Pearl would be paying people, still not enough, but competitively. Actually, it was hard to imagine for the first few years that I'd ever sell a ticket to someone I didn't know and/or wasn't related to.

I'm very proud of the talent and commitment of a company of actors who have developed a communal history. But it all comes down to which direction you're looking when you wake up in the morning. If you're looking back, there's a long view of accomplishments and some mistakes and people and shows and you can feel pretty darned far down the road. If you're looking forward, there's an infinite view of things to do immediately, like must-dos by lunch break things, and mountains and mountains of great ambitions that make one feel one is destined to lose the race with time and never get "there." So it's best not to think about how far one has come nor how far one has to go, but just to put one foot in front of the other for as long as one loves walkin'.

MM:  Where do you see the Pearl going?

SS:  The main push now is to be able to do what we do better.

I'm not looking to get to be a huge theatre - I don't want to be a five, six, seven hundred seat theatre - I'm eager to stay at the level of intimacy between the audience and the actors that we have. Although I would like to add some seats, we would probably stay between 250 and 300 so that we can maintain that relationship. And I do want to stay focused on the classical repertory and certainly the resident company, but most things we can do much, much more of.

We need to really invest in research and development and a longer gestation for each play so that we're really designing the gestation of the play to the needs of the final product, rather than, "How can we best do Hamlet in four weeks?" we want to ask, "What do we need to do Hamlet?" and then give it that, even if it takes two years or three years. Much more research and development. Higher salaries so that we can ask actors to make this their primary career so that they can stay for the full season, whether or not they're doing a mainstage plays, so that they can paid for all the other things that go into making great actors even greater. I don't really feel a great need to pour money into sets or to be a Broadway house. I want to do what we do, I just want to do it better, and spend more on compensation for everyone involved.

MM:  How did you decide to produce only classical pieces?

SS:  You know, we never decided just to produce classical pieces, but that certainly has been ninety-six percent of what we've done. We have done a couple of new plays, and we do hope to move further into that area, especially as we get a second stage, an experimental space, and plan out research and development.

I'm very eager to do more contemporary stuff, as it will always be in the service of us as a repertory to round out, but as long as we can only afford to hire our actors for the time that they're in a production, then I just don't have as much leeway for expansion in years of types of plays. But once we can do that, then I have an obligation to serve - there can be contemporary theatre and twentieth century theatre and more American theatre and all other kinds of things. So, I think over the five year span and certainly the ten year span we will be more of a "long range" company than purely the classics.

The emphasis will always be on the classics, which only makes sense to me. if you have 2,400 years of theatre, not much of it should be spent in the last 20 years! To be balanced. The classics offer perspective on the human condition, the most revealing possible perspective - that's where it is, the classics. Shakespeare. Chekhov.

MM:  Are there any particular plays you haven't tackled yet or that you would like to try again?

SS:  There's lots that we want to get back to and do again, that we did as a younger company and are eager to do again. But I think that the play I most want to do is the play we're doing, and that changes every six or eight weeks. I have a long list of plays that we are very eager to do. I want to do Restoration. I love doing Greek tragedy. We've only touched on Italian classical and Spanish, so we're very eager to do that. It's endless. There's lots of work ahead of us.

MM:  How do you decide how to form a season?

SS:  Balance. Balance is the key. We want to balance periods, genre, comedy and tragedy. We want to balance national origin to some degree, so that we're not doing five plays from the nineteenth century England. We'll do something from the Continent, something from the States, and see how far afield we can go with that. We want to balance large cast and small cast, and we're also, of course, trying to satisfy and stretch our actors. Each actor has preferences and has needs, so we want to speak to those, which we're beginning to do. So there's no single factor - balance is the only guiding principle, so the audience has a wide range.

MM:  Michelle mentioned that you try to use previous plays to build up to others.

SS:  You know, that's true. In a company of fourteen actors, and a marketing director, there are lots of individual identities, but this is one identity of the company as a whole in approaching a body of work as a whole.

Chekov is a good example. We really went through a series by which we started with his younger plays, the first to come, and see what those tell us. Then we realized that in order to really understand why Chekov wrote comedies, we had to go back to some of his vaudevilles and do them as a full production to make sure we, as a group, had a good understanding of that before we came to The Cherry Orchard.

Over the years and the seasons of course, we did a series of Sophocles in the order of the events and not the year he wrote them - Oedipus, Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus - in successive years so that we would know the story and that we would be able to develop it. We purposefully held off on doing The Way of the World until we had done a good bit of the Restoration and eighteenth century English plays so that the company that came to The Way of the World was really proficient. So, in that way, yes, we build every year and we plan ahead so that we're ready to do a play, it lays the foundation. Again, it's the same notion, we don't want to just present a series of plays.

MM:  Tell me about your arts in education program.

SS:  It's a terrific program. We purposefully keep it limited in number because we'd like the students to meet people who are actually trained as teaching artists and involved in the production. It's not an adjunct program - the kids are getting the people they are then going to see on stage, or who are going to design the set, or assistant stage manage. The other feature of it it's not just a school outing. The kids see all five shows; in some cases, they see all five shows for two, three years in a row so that they really do develop a theatregoing habit and see quite a lot more than I ever saw in high school by the time they're out of it!

We also focus on students that generally come from inner-city schools. There are lots of kids in this city, and a lot of them can't get to us because they can't go with their folks, or they live without that in their lives. But a lot of the kids in the city don't even have the money or the habit, and that's not where their parents were likely to take them on a family night out, so that's what we're working toward.

It's a great program. The actors go into the class for a full week at the end of a season to work and work with them. It's very important that we work with the right teachers, because this is only in service of the education, so it has to work with what they're learning and the needs of the teacher, so we have substantial conferences with the teacher to design the program. Now, we're beginning to try to capture those things and see if we can make it easy for them to continue to come to the theatre after they've graduated or are out of the program, but we're just starting that.

MM:  Do you find it difficult to compete with more commercial plays, or do you rely more on your own activities?

SS:  There is clear evidence that one way to look at this is you've got a certain number of theatreogers and if somebody else gets that theatregoer with that fifty dollars, you're not going to. And that's true when the Tony voting is going on - it's hard for Off-Broadway to get audiences. But, for the most part, it's not really a finite resource that we're all competing for. After all, the amount of theatregoing has been increasing and will continue to increase. It's a big city - if we can get ten thousand people to see each one of our plays, then we're turning people away. That's just not that huge a number in a city that supports this many tourists and residents. If someone decides to go to The Producers on a Thursday night, then I probably can't get them to come see my Richard II. I don't think of it in terms of that kind of competition.

MM:  What about your upcoming season?

SS:  We're excited about it. Again, balance, obviously, is the key. We're trying this Shakespeare rep - that's the same cast that will be doing the two Shakespeare plays, alternating performances - and that's exciting to us. We're more and more interested in doing rotating repertory as we've been doing for the last two or three years but all the plays are so completely different. You choose them to be different to present a wide range, but really they're chosen to complement each other. We're really very eager to get to Spanish theatre again. We brought in the expert, Rene Buch, who really knows this stuff. We did Ionesco a few years ago, we did The Chairs, and it was like a revelation for us. I kind of had to grow up to appreciate Ionesco and so that's thrilling, and to have Joe Hardy back, who directed The Cherry Orchard last year, and, again, there is such a payoff because Bob Hopp, who is one of the main characters in The Chairs a few years ago is now doing the King in Exit the King, so he comes to it with some background. Not many people do a number of major roles in Ionesco plays, and he is going into rehearsal with people he has worked with in the past.

I'm working on Iphigeneia now, I think it's going to be one of our most effective plays. It hasn't fared so well with critics in the past, but now, we are, in some ways, in a very similar position to America as Euripedes was to Athens at the time and its true value is beginning to grow through the centuries. It's an extraordinarily modern play. It's shocking me what he was up to as a playwright and a thinker.


The Pearl Theatre Company
80 St. Mark's Place, New York, NY 10003
Box Office Phone (212) 598-9802
By Train: N or R to 8th Street; 6 to Astor Place; F to 2nd Avenue.
By Bus: M15 to 9th Street or M8 to 1st Avenue

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