Kushner said that, for the most part, "after 'Angels' went on its national tour (launched from Chicago's Royal George Theatre in 1994), I made the decision I wasn't going to watch it anymore." But he trusted Newell. "We had long conversations during the lead-up to 'Caroline,' and of course I have had conversations with directors of my work before, but with Charlie, when I saw the final play at the Court, I thought, 'Uh, wow, so this guy had actually listened to me.'"
Newell grew up on the northwest side of Washington, D.C, a young fan of the pioneering regional theater company Arena Stage. He understood "early on that you don't jump in and out of a local theater but settle in and make its community better through the arts," said Collins, his wife, whom Newell met when they were 12. His mother developed inner-city day care centers. His father, Philip Newell, a third-generation Presbyterian minister, was a prominent leader in the civil rights movement civil rights movement, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. When civil rights activist and "Black Power" advocate Stokely Carmichael was in town, he stayed with the Newells. "The FBI would follow Stokely to our house," Newell remembered, "then, when my parents had to go out, Stokely would baby-sit."
After studying at Wesleyan University, he set to serve as an apprentice. He did this for eight years, learning theater at the feet of greats, including directors Mark Lamos, Michael Kahn, Alan Schneider, John Houseman, Joanne Akalaitis and Garland Wright — for whom he served as resident director at the Guthrie Theater before coming to the Court in 1993. The Court, founded in 1955, was initially a student theater. Nicholas Rudall, a U. of C. classics professor, re-established it in 1971 as a professional theater. "But the place was definitely in a state of flux when we arrived," said Collins. "They didn't have the ability to maintain quality, partly because Nick was running the theater and serving as a full-time professor at the same time."
In less than a decade under Newell's direction, the Court became a regular presence at the local Jeff awards for theater (Newell's first Court show, 1993's "The Triumph of Love," won best play). A pair of its productions — Akalaitis' "In the Penal Colony" and "The Iphigenia Cycle" — went on to New York. The theater's annual budget went from $1.5 million to $3.1 million; and has since jumped to $4 million. Though perhaps most important, the Court under Newell broadened what had been a fairly conservative view of classic theater and, taking a cue from Arena Stage, wove itself more keenly into Hyde Park, drawing more frequently on African-American themed works.
That said, asked why the Court only recently started to connect with a broader audience — i.e., an audience willing to trek from the North Side to the South Side — Newell says that it's because, with the 2010 hiring of executive director Stephen Albert, it's only recently that he's had fewer administrative duties, which has allowed him to connect more emotionally with the productions, and develop more confidence.
Nearly two decades after arriving, it shows.
On a Sunday morning, five days before the first paying audience, Mary Beth Fisher, who plays the Angel (among several roles), swung above the Court stage, swaddled in a harness. "So I'm just going to swing, aren't I?" she asked no one in particular. It was an hour before the scheduled rehearsal. Newell looked up at her from Row D then looked down at his parfait, working the last crumbles of granola from the bottom. The theater was quiet. "Are you comfortable?" Newell asked, not raising his voice, not looking up. "Kind of comfortable," she replied.
When she came off the wires, Newell stepped into the aisle and said it's looking good, better. Culbert said, "I've noticed some of your most powerful movements are some of the most subtle. Which is true of most things, I suppose." Newell nodded and walked back to Row D. He seemed intense but at home, strangely relaxed, until you consider his reputation: He's become so infamous within theater circles for tinkering with a production far into the preview period that Fisher said later "you know he'll never really be done changing things until opening night anyway." A few days later, the night before previews began, he told me the first dress rehearsal was the roughest he had ever seen. He did not look at all worried or like a man about to direct two plays as he said this. Besides, next season, though it appears markedly less ambitious than the last few, he's directing four of the Court's six shows.
So, during that Sunday rehearsal, when the fake blood streaming down actor Larry Yando's arm seemed too bloody — as it pooled on the stage — Newell watched patiently, then left his row and found Culbert and asked about the thickness of the blood, the flow of the blood, how to stop the flow to a trickle. Then he walked to the stage and explained that the small amount of blood on Yando's arm is "enough to tell the story." Then he walked back to Culbert to explain this. Culbert nodded, his face unreadable in the dark theater. Newell walked away, then, remembering another detail of the hundreds left to attend to, he stopped, turned and walked back to Culbert, hands in his pockets. He rocked forward and rocked back and asked, "Is it true, a pillow is a pillow is a pillow?"
"Uh, no, Charlie. Some of the pillows are blue. Because that's what you said."
"Right," Newell said, "because that's what I said." And then he returned to his row, Row D.