Charles Newell holds Court
becoming artistic director of Court Theatre, Charles Newell
was already a sought-after young talent. Directing productions
for John Houseman's The Acting Company, the Juilliard School,
the Tisch School at New York University, the Chicago Opera Theatre,
and several repertory and Shakespeare companies earned him a
place as resident director for Minneapolis's 1,297-seat Guthrie
Theatre. He left the Guthrie in 1993 for Court, where his directorial
debut, The Triumph of Love, garnered a Joseph Jefferson
Award for best production (his first of many).
the near-decade since, the 251-seat Court has doubled its annual
budget to $3.1 million, spawned two off-Broadway productions,
and earned a national reputation as a small venue with big ideas.
A respected director of Shakespeare, Newell will preview Court's
production of Hamlet on Valentine's Day; it runs through
the end of March.
does directing at larger venues such as the Guthrie differ from
the more intimate Court Theatre?
work with actors is pretty much the same in the rehearsal room,
but there is inevitably a transition from the rehearsal room
into the larger space. What that transition is will depend upon
what the space is like. We're very fortunate at Court to have
an intimate space. There's a relationship between the audience
and the actor in the sense of-not just closeness, but literally
breathing the same air, having a similar emotional experience
at the same moment that the actor is having it.
intimacy is also reflected in the acoustics. Court is small
enough that the actors are not putting a lot of their energy
into getting it out there just to be heard. When I was working
at the Guthrie Theatre, we spent a good month of the rehearsal
process on Shakespeare's history plays doing purely vocal and
physical work in order to prepare the company to be in such
a large space. We obviously don't have to do the same kind of
thing in Court.
long does it take to put on a production? How far in advance
do you plan the schedule?
we decide what the next season's plays are in late winter or
early spring, and then the first production goes up in September.
Productions have different developmental periods-when we're
commissioning translations or adaptations, those projects can
be a two- or three-year process, because that means developing
a text and workshopping it before rehearsals. A more typical
example is Hamlet, which opens in February. I knew we
were doing Hamlet back in April, and I've been working
on it consistently since then. So not quite a year is usually
the lead time.
do you incorporate an equity theater into an educational institution?
business of producing professional theater means trying to survive
in a very competitive arts market in Chicago. Being successful
within our local and national theater communities is very different
from what a teaching and research university has to do as a
nationally recognized educational leader. So while we share
something in our national awareness and perspective, our goals
can often be perceived as dissimilar.
clearly with the classical repertory we do a tremendous amount
of research. The quality of our productions is directly related
to the quality of our dramaturgical work-all the research we
do on the playwright, past productions, translation work, et
cetera. We are known for our first day of rehearsal, when the
actors get inundated with all of these booklets of historical
information, where elsewhere actors would just be asked to memorize
also expanding our teaching and training of artists. We have
groups of resident artists that we commit to for a whole season,
and we have apprentices, who are typically postgraduate actors,
for whom we are developing a training program. We are also developing
opportunities to have master classes that are an ongoing part
of our training program. So the training and research that Court
Theatre does is certainly very much in simpatico with what the
University does. Of course, we are continuing the many interconnections
between Court and the University, including internships, symposia,
faculty involvement, discount student subscriptions and single
tickets, sharing of artists with the University Theater, and
job opportunities. In fact, in every Court department, we have
or have had a University graduate.
are reaching the end of a five-year plan to make Court a national
center for classic theater. How are you faring?
lot of conversation within Court centers around the question,
"In what way is Court providing national leadership for
classic theater?" We demonstrate this in some of the work
that we've done, both locally and in coproduction work. Joanne
Akalaitis's [AB'60] production of The Iphigenia Cycle
went to New York with a new translation by Nicholas Rudall,
a professor here. Our coproduction with Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia
of Desire under the Elms was a transposition of that
text into an African-American context. And our co-commissioning
and coproducing with A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle of Philip
Glass's [AB'56] In the Penal Colony went on to New York
to some acclaim.
executive director, Diane Claussen, is president of the League
of Chicago Theaters-the local advocacy and promotional group
for 140 profit and nonprofit theaters in Chicago. And two years
ago I was elected to the board of the Theatre Communications
Group, the national advocacy group for nonprofit theaters. So
we've begun to work in the local and national theater communities
as an industry leader, not just limited to producing our work
here in Hyde Park.
way we're beginning to have an identity as a national center
is the recognition of our work's quality. It's immodest to say,
but there has been a growing recognition of Court's consistently
high quality of work, particularly in the past three or four
years. Certainly we've seen it reflected in the sizes of audiences
we're getting, the critical responses and awards we've received,
and the national recognition in the press. We've got a long
way to go before Court is where we'd like to see it, recognized
even more nationally and even globally, but with the consistently
high quality of work and the artists we're attracting, we're
moving towards this aspiration to become a national center.
we develop our upcoming three-year strategic plan, we're focusing
on how we can build upon the success that the theater has had
in the last five years, in which we've doubled our budget size.
For any theater to double its budget size in that short of a
span is extraordinary. A theater doubling its budget from $100,000
to $200,000 is not infrequent, but for a theater to start with
a budget of $1.5 million and in five years increase that to
$3 million, that's really off the charts when you're working
with such a large number. The only way we could have done this
is with the incredible consistency of work we're doing and our
excellent staff and board of trustees.
in the works for the next year and the long term?
now we're in the middle of season planning for next year. One
of the big challenges for us is-given the success of recent
projects-to build upon that success.
feel extremely fortunate that we can take risks at Court. Typically
a theater has to do a certain kind of repertory with a lot of
its slots filled by productions that are expected by patrons.
At Court we don't have those kinds of "givens." We
don't ask if we're taking too many risks; we ask if we're taking
enough risks. Given the challenging and provocative work that
we've done, we have to ask if the ideas that we have for future
productions are moving us forward. That's a very lucky position
to be in.