"Well, let's be honest," said Timothy Douglas, over a coffee in Evanston the other day. "There aren't many people who look like me running theater companies that look like Remy Bumppo."
Douglas, the new artistic director of that very Chicago company, was getting right down to the point. He's African-American. And throughout its 15-year history under founding artistic director James Bohnen, Remy Bumppo Theatre Company has tended to favor a certain kind of play. It's not easy to precisely define what kind of play (Bohnen, now retired, staged a more diverse array of titles than some people think). But Western European authors like Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, David Hare, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and the like have certainly predominated.
That choice of repertory not only reflected the very capable Bohnen's own tastes and interests, but it suited the ensemble of affiliated actors, mostly mature thespians like David Darlow and Annabel Armour, who tend to gravitate toward very literary and intelligent plays. Over time, that particular aesthetic became a useful marketing tool — "Think Theatre" became the company's slogan.
Now the Remy Bumppo audience, and the affiliated artists, are wondering if, and how, the incoming artistic director will change that approach.
Douglas — a warm and modest fellow with a background as a Linklater voice teacher — clearly understands some of these complexities. He described the theater's past repertory, accurately, as "the Western European approach." He further noted that most artists of color in the theater — although not all — are not especially interested in that approach. This raised a question. So what, then, is Timothy Douglas going to do?
"My goal," he said, grinning, "is to shake it down."
And what will that mean? It will start with casting, he said. "I don't think color-blind casting works in the world we live in. But I think nontraditional casting does."
In other words, Remy Bumppo under Douglas is likely to feature more artists of color on the stage, even if the plays themselves come out of that Western European tradition. Statements can be made, and Douglas clearly plans to make them. "American and European stories have to be told with respect for the integrity of the author," Douglas said, "but I also want our shows to look like the world in which we live."
Interestingly, neither Douglas nor Remy Bumppo knew each other well prior to this marriage. Long a freelance director in New York, with a career that included stints at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Douglas had never seen a Remy Bumppo show. And the people doing the hiring at Remy Bumppo didn't have personal knowledge of his work, either. But Douglas is not entirely new to Chicago — in the early 1990s, he based himself here as an actor and voice teacher. And not only has he worked at some of the leading American theaters, he is known for his work in the classics, however one might define the terms.
Bohnen, whose aesthetic and resources so shaped this theater, now has moved away. He recently opened a bookstore in Spring Green, Wis., and works in the summer at American Players Theatre. "I want to honor the legacy of what Remy Bumppo represents," Douglas said. "And James has been very helpful. But he is not at all looking over my shoulder."
And although he clearly desires change and growth, there are some tricky practicalities. Douglas is taking over a company that does not have the most solid infrastructure.
Remy Bumppo does not have its own space (Douglas says that the search for a new home is a major priority) and its current rental home, the Greenhouse Theater Center, is looking increasingly shabby. The Remy Bumppo budget is small. For 2009, the company reported revenue of just $728,035, a low sum for an Equity theater company with full-time employees. There is not a lot of cash in hand. And even by the standards of Chicago's arts-related nonprofits, Remy Bumppo is no bastion of high salaries.
Still, the theater has more than 1,000 subscribers, a loyal audience of single-ticket buyers, a notably dedicated staff and a history of high-quality productions. As Douglas well knows, the ensemble of affiliated actors, many of whom are big names in Chicago theater, are a big part of that draw. Douglas would be a fool to throw that away.
"I'm a very fiscally responsible person," he said. "This was a huge leap of faith on all sides. Now we have to see how people respond to Timothy Douglas and what he does with Remy Bumppo."
As with many such hires, a clear sense of Douglas' style will take awhile to emerge. Most of the 2011-12 season was already set. But Douglas will direct the first production, Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra," opening Sept 26.
Douglas said he wants to change the physical space at the Greenhouse, arranging the audience on two sides with the show taking place in an alley in the middle.
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