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image: Campus NewsDirector Charles Newell holds Court
Before 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).

IMAGE:  "Are we taking enough risks?" asks artistic director Charles Newell

In 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.

How does directing at larger venues such as the Guthrie differ from the more intimate Court Theatre?
The 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.

The 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.

How long does it take to put on a production? How far in advance do you plan the schedule?
Typically 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.

How do you incorporate an equity theater into an educational institution?
Court's 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.

However, 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 their lines.

We're 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.


You are reaching the end of a five-year plan to make Court a national center for classic theater. How are you faring?
A 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.

Our 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.

Another 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.

As 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.

What's in the works for the next year and the long term?

Right 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.

I 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.



  FEBRUARY 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 3


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