To Be Determined

Jeffrey Horowitz's tenacity has propelled his company into the spotlight—and, soon, into a permanent Brooklyn home

By Stuart Miller

Young director Arin Arbus was sharing a Manhattan taxi with Theatre for a New Audience founder and artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz. The two were heading to a late-April performance at the Duke on 42nd Street of TFANA's Othello, with which Arbus had made an extravagantly praised Off-Broadway directing debut. Unexpectedly, Horowitz turned the cab-ride conversation to a critique of one small moment in the play's action. "I just don't believe the character would do that," he advised Arbus, and suggested that she speak to her actor about altering the moment for the better.

Nothing unusual about an artistic director of a company looking over a rookie director's shoulder, right? But one detail makes this anecdote particularly revealing about Horowitz: The conversation occurred just two days before the acclaimed production closed.

"Jeffrey was still looking to improve the show," marvels Arbus, who is following up Othello's success by directing Measure for Measure in the upcoming TFANA season and has already spent three months in "heavy discussion" with Horowitz about the world of that play. "He's so passionate about Shakespeare," Arbus observes. "It is invigorating and also frustrating, but it makes the work stronger because he forces me to be very, very clear with what my ideas mean."

This recollection also underscores how far Horowitz, at 63, has come in the 30 years since he founded TFANA as an itinerant NYC company devoted to touring and the classics. In those days he was a novice improvising a career, hoping to cross paths with the British directors he so admired; now he's an esteemed Shakespeare interpreter imparting wisdom—and providing career-changing exposure—to directors from a subsequent generation. It's also a reminder of his central role in bringing Shakespeare to life for U.S. audiences—Horowitz has personally staged more than three-quarters of the Bard's plays—and in scouting out and nurturing significant young talent.

At TFANA, Horowitz will tell you, "It's about doing Shakespeare on a human scale—you don't need to go to grand production values. You have to find the essential elements in these plays." His own productions emphasize text and language, but depart from traditionally rigid rules about proper recitation—he's known for encouraging actors to speak more naturally, even if it means breaking the iambic metric line.

"He's an agitator, an intellectual and artistic provocateur," continues Arbus, 31, who this season assumed the title of TFANA associate artistic director. "What he has done is huge, especially in terms of supporting directors who are very much alone, going from port to port in search of a place to do their work. He's taken tremendous risks on these people and pushed them in new ways."

"Jeffrey has a keen sense of actors and directors and is one of the best producers around," confirms Julie Taymor, whose high-profile success is intertwined with Horowitz and TFANA—and who, as I was interviewing her for a different story, adamantly insisted I pursue a profile of Horowitz. Her argument, which holds up under examination, was that Horowitz has—perhaps by default, perhaps with a measure of intention—taken on the mantle of the legendary Joseph Papp, both in his love for and understanding of Shakespeare and in his successful quest to find the right people to direct and perform it in New York.

At the same time, Taymor went on to emphasize, Horowitz is the anti-Papp when it comes to grabbing the spotlight and taking credit. "The Joe Papps of the world are great, but Jeffrey is so unassuming. He deserves more credit for his work."

Last season, spotlight-grabbing was the least of Horowitz's worries—he and TFANA became media darlings both for Arbus's Othello and David Esbjornson's Hamlet. (Horowitz hopes to bring both shows back in repertory Off Broadway next year; the season's two other productions are Love Is My Sin, Peter Brook's adaptation of Shakespeare's sonnets, and Orpheus X, directed by Robert Woodruff.) Still, the company's struggle to translate sold-out success into extended Off-Broadway runs points up how precarious life remains for a small, classics-oriented theatre that has spent this past decade exhausting itself in the pursuit of a viable permanent home.

There's considerable irony in the real-estate issue, because TFANA might not exist had Horowitz not endured a truly horrific experience trying to create a home for himself in Greenwich Village back in the mid-1970s. A struggling actor at the time, Horowitz had rented a minuscule studio apartment, notable only for its cheap price and wood floors. Soon after he'd layered the floors with polyurethane, he was heading into the shower and heard an explosion. "The entire apartment turned into a ball of fire, floor to ceiling," Horowitz remembers. Bars on the bathroom window blocked his escape, so he was forced to dash out through the flames, suffering third-degree burns on his feet.

Horowitz's lawyer discovered that the polyurethane can was mislabeled, failing to warn that contact with humid air and the stove's pilot light could generate an explosion. By the time the resulting lawsuit was over, the would-be actor was rethinking his career path—and had devised a plan to spend the settlement money he'd won.

Horowitz had been raised in Miami Beach, started acting at a Massachusetts private school and studied theatre at UCLA. After seeing Trevor Nunn's Taming of the Shrew—"It was electrifying!"—he packed himself off to England to study for three years. Back in New York, he finally realized he was not a good enough actor to turn that discipline into a career. "I was not particularly spontaneous," Horowitz concedes, though he recognized even at the time that his "flaws" as an actor might lend themselves, paradoxically, to the making of an artistic director: "I was always interested in research. I wanted to know about the writer, the context, why a director was doing something."

When his agent dropped him, Horowitz's doubts about acting were confirmed, and he threw in the towel. Soon after, the lawsuit supplied the money for him to form Theatre for a New Audience.

"I was totally idealistic," Horowitz remembers of those years. "I just said, 'I've been to England. I'm going to do Shakespeare in a vital way. I'm going to get gigs and do it right, and we'll make a living.'"

Pausing to reflect on the absurdity of having pulled that off, he laughs, "Ignorance was very good."

Horowitz's naïveté did have its costs, however, as demonstrated by his first idea for a company name: For A National Theatre Seeking More Audiences, or FANTASMA. "Someone said it sounded like we were going to disappear—it was a ridiculous name," he acknowledges.

But more substantial problems lay in store. TFANA's initial productions were Shakespearean collages, incorporating thematically linked scenes from various plays—something Horowitz believed was theatrical magic. It wasn't, quite. "I discovered audiences didn't know the plays out of context," he allows.

Even his collaborators weren't impressed. For a show called Colors of the Chameleon, he looked up a young designer named Julie Taymor in the phone book and pleaded for her to make him some masks. The masks were effective, but upon seeing the show, Taymor told him, "This is dreadful. The music is no good. The settings are abysmal, the direction nonexistent. And I don't understand a damn thing." Horowitz laughs: "That's when we started becoming friends."

TFANA's early calendar comprised a mere 15-30 performances a year, mostly one-night stands, but then the company gained a toehold at the Lincoln Center Library and began performing for some New York City schools. In early 1984, Horowitz finagled an audition at Papp's Public Theater. The impresario agreed to let TFANA stage A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Public for 30 New York schools over three weeks. Horowitz quickly learned another hard lesson. Papp capped the successful run with a press conference at which he virtually took sole credit for the educational initiative. "Papp's press agent said, 'Don't rock the boat, he wants you to come back,'" Horowitz recalls. But months went by and no invite was forthcoming. Finally Horowitz got the word that Papp had decided against doing Shakespeare for children. "It was totally devastating," Horowitz remembers.

The worst was yet to come. Two months after the project's ostensible demise, Papp sent Horowitz reeling when he announced his own Shakespeare program for public schools. Estelle Parsons, a TFANA board member, would helm it. Considering himself betrayed, Horowitz forced Parsons off his board (they later reconciled) and persuaded the New York Times to run an article that laid out how Papp's program was draining resources from TFANA's smaller effort. The article cited the letter of recommendation Papp had written for TFANA and quoted Papp magnanimously saying both programs should exist. "Suddenly Papp and I are being mentioned on equal footing in the New York Times, and Papp was enraged," Horowitz recalls, savoring the memory. (He even remembers the headline: "Two Shakespeare Troupes Vie for Scant Donations.") "He never spoke to me again."

Horowitz is also quick to point out that Papp's program didn't adequately prepare or follow up with the students and quickly failed, while TFANA's program still flourishes. The key, he says, is connecting the plays to the schools' literacy curriculum, providing professional development for teachers, and having students create a final project after seeing the show. He also insists on directors giving notes to actors after these school performances so nobody coasts.

Horowitz's Midsummer at the Public yielded one crucial piece of fruit—Taymor had provided masks and her partner, Elliot Goldenthal, had written the music. Horowitz realized that while he was just a "pedestrian director," Taymor was a multifaceted artist with a superior conceptual vision. So, after a 1985 season with no new productions—the lawsuit money was gone and grants were hard to come by—he challenged her to direct The Tempest.

That production, staged at the downtown Classic Stage Company and filmed for public television, transformed Taymor's career ("I credit him with helping me get over the fear of that language," she says) and put TFANA on the proverbial map. Of course, considering the scope of New York's theatre world, Horowitz's theatre was a small speck on that map; and while Taymor returned for increasingly innovative shows like Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus and The Green Bird (by Carlo Gozzi), few other U.S. directors were willing to work at such a tiny place. So in the early 1990s, Horowitz began to cope with that deficit by finding British talent eager to direct in New York, including William Gaskill, Bill Alexander, Barry Kyle and Mark Rylance.

Horowitz knew better than to impose a vision on these directors—"I was being mentored, they were so smart"—yet he was resolute in certain areas. Since the shows were partly aimed at students, he insisted productions be compact—three hours at most. He'd also step in if anyone took an authoritarian approach with U.S. actors, trying to intimidate them with a British pedigree. Going a step further, he insisted that each production have a voice coach to help the actors "balance their own authenticity with the demands of metric line—to make their performances real, not grand orating." The directors often resisted another authority figure in the rehearsal room, and "that was something we did cross swords about," Horowitz notes.

But the end results were usually impressive—TFANA started racking up rave reviews, Lucille Lortel awards, Drama Desk nominations and other acclaim. As Horowitz still wasn't attracting experienced American directors, he decided to help develop them himself, and in 1997, he persuaded Cicely Berry, director of voice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, to help create the American Directors Project. ADP, which continues today, matches a director with an assembly of actors (and no props or sets); various exercises are melded with two or three Shakespeare scenes rehearsed over three weeks. The lack of hierarchy and structure is key, Horowitz believes: "It's very fresh, and everyone feels they can try things and speak out." Arbus, Karin Coonrod and Bartlett Sher are among those who have emerged from the ADP to direct Shakespeare for TFANA.

Horowitz sees his greatest skill as relationship-building. "My talent is to attract these people, support them, put the pieces together, and have the vision to say, 'Let's go down this road,'" he reasons. Horowitz will confidently impart his opinion as dramaturg, but his real love is the sharing of ideas. "I get excited by the adrenaline rush the artist gets—and that I get by collaborating with them."

Christian Camargo, who starred in this season's Hamlet, suggests that Horowitz has natural political skills—airing his opinion but "giving an artist full run." Camargo also cites Horowitz's patience in developing artists. "I had a relationship with the Public Theater," the actor says, "and that organization's insatiable need for and pressure to have a hit makes the process of developing work very short. Jeffrey takes a long-term view."

Indeed, Horowitz says he never thought of TFANA as a stepping stone to a bigger institution. "This was a small enough undertaking that I've had the freedom to take risks and build relationships and not have to do A Christmas Carol, ever," he says.

Still, TFANA had to grow to survive, and Horowitz steers much of the credit for that growth to Ted Rogers, who stumbled into Horowitz's orbit when he went to see Gaskill's Othello in 1990. Impressed, Rogers, then chairman of the New York City Ballet, sent a $50 donation to Classic Stage Company, where the show had been staged. CSC sent the gift back to the donor with TFANA's address. When Horowitz—who had only one other staff member and no development director—got Rogers's check, he took Rogers to lunch and cajoled him into joining TFANA's board.

"I try to bet on people," Rogers says, "and I recognized in Jeffrey certain qualities, especially a dogged determination—he's quiet, but if you knock him down he'll get back up, and he won't give up on his values." All the same, tenacity and a great eye for talent does not a viable theatre make. "I remember the first board meeting in his office, a place with rats and five locks on the door," Rogers says. "It became clear if we were going to be a company others would take seriously, we had to stop living hand-to-mouth and borrowing money from board members to survive."

Rogers became TFANA's board chairman and doubled the budget in six years while pursuing a three-part plan—raising money to eliminate borrowing; creating a fund to allow three productions annually instead of two (thereby enabling TFANA to produce new works and modern classics by writers like Edward Bond); then using the company's elevated credibility to fundraise for a permanent home that would solidify its identity.

"In the beginning," says Horowitz, "it was a miracle to be able to pay a director a few thousand dollars. To have our own space was preposterous—it would have been like saying, 'I want to own the Empire State Building.'"

But by 1999, after seven years of camping out in St. Clement's Episcopal Church in the theatre district, TFANA had outgrown the 135-seat space and Horowitz was at a crossroads. "If you want to develop this institution, it will take at least 10 more years," Rogers told Horowitz, "and it's about finding a home."

Since then, TFANA has sublet the American Place Theatre, then lost it to the Roundabout Theatre Company; set up shop at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village, which bumped them because the venue prefers emphasizing new works; and moved to the Duke Theater, which is too small and lacks flexibility for extended runs. "We need continuity for subscriptions," Horowitz says. "You also hit a funding ceiling if you're itinerant."

So the past decade has become, in effect, a quest. After its fruitless search in Manhattan, TFANA was invited in 2003 by Brooklyn Academy of Music impresario Harvey Lichtenstein to become part of BAM's "cultural district" in the Fort Greene neighborhood—meaning that for the first time Horowitz and company would have a theatre of their own. Since then Horowitz has found his time devoured by fundraising, planning and bureaucracy (the city twice switched the available location, rendering expensive studies irrelevant). He has become a reluctant expert on details like the cost of construction materials. (China's run on concrete and steel drove estimated costs for the proposed facility from $34 million in 2004 to $57 million in 2006; subsequent cuts plus the recession have lowered the price now to $47 million.) The building project has become "the hardest thing I've ever been involved in," Horowitz avows.

But the money is now in hand, and Rogers is confident TFANA will break ground in 2010. When TFANA's permanent home opens in 2012 or 2013, Horowitz says, he has invited Taymor and Goldenthal to supervise the first production.

Of course, once the theatre opens, Horowitz, who lives in Brooklyn with his family, faces a new set of challenges—diversifying his board (which currently has just one Brooklynite), convincing Brooklyn philanthropists and grant-givers to spread themselves thinner, and figuring out to whom the newly stable company should target its marketing.

"Brooklyn is a series of interconnected communities," Horowitz reasons. "What is the theatregoing audience of Brooklyn? We are planning on finding, no pun intended, a new audience in Brooklyn." Instant success will be critical, since TFANA's fixed costs per show will be about one-third higher than current costs. Some of the borough's denizens may be wary of this newcomer, so Horowitz figures that "from the get-go we've got to be good. We're a little bit under the microscope. It's a challenge we're going to rise to, but it will not be just another season like in Manhattan."

And once TFANA has a real home, Horowitz will also relish having the luxury of focusing once again mostly on the art itself. "I won't be thinking about the next bigger theatre—there will be a sense of completion," he anticipates. "Founding a theatre is like being a parent—you want to get your child to where they have enough skills and enough help so they can run with it and make their own life. This theatre company having a home will make it able to endure beyond me."

Stuart Miller is an arts journalist based in Brooklyn.

blog comments powered by Disqus

View our comments policy