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The Essential Bartlett Sher

The key questions, says Intiman's ascendant A.D., are: Who's doing it? and What makes it great?

An interview by Steven Drukman

What happens when you give a Grateful Dead-head his own theatre company? The question begs a punch line, but in Bartlett Sher's case it means leading a major institution into smart, serious and often politically charged territory. One of the most gimlet-eyed directors on the current American scene, Sher has headed Seattle's Intiman Theatre since 2001, and recently renewed his contract into 2008. He seems both at the peak of his artistry (if his staging of the multi-Tony-earning Light in the Piazza is evidence) and infused with enthusiasm for the field as a whole, a combination that augurs well for the 33-year-old company, which last year became one of only six U.S. theatres to win a coveted $400,000 endowment grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

I first encountered Sher's work when I saw Waste at New York's Theatre for a New Audience in 2000. The play, written in 1907 by Harley Granville-Barker, is a political drama à clef, and I anticipated a Samuel French staging of a drawing-room melodrama. Instead, I saw something unexpected—a rigorous, spatial system supporting a world of quasi-Shavian dialogue. There was nothing as obvious as a "style," but the production rested nonetheless on a meticulous framework of relationships between the actors and the objects in the space—and thereby, as much as in Granville-Barker's words, was the story told.

This was also true in Cymbeline—Sher's Intiman debut, which became the first American Shakespeare production to be seen at the Royal Shakespeare Company—and in his TFANA production of Don Juan. Granted, these plays could hold their own with a more formal approach ladled on top, particularly the soup-to-nuts Cymbeline, but, again, the spatial arrangements seemed to come from the plays themselves. (Sher's Cymbeline complemented the play's pastiche-like quality, evidenced in the moments of disparate styles—country-and-western music followed by samurai costumes, for example.)

Cemented in my mind as a director-who-does-things-to-the-canon, Sher surprised me, then, when he emerged—since his 2001 staging of The Dying Gaul at Intiman—as the foremost interpreter of Craig Lucas's plays. But Sher's resplendent Light in the Piazza, with a book by Lucas and score by Adam Guettel, as well as his gut-grabbing production of Lucas's 2004 epic The Singing Forest, may stand as his most virtuosic achievements thus far. According to Lucas: "To say that Bart is a rarity in the American theatre is to miss the point: He is, in my experience, the only one of his kind. He believes that you can change the world with theatre. He's as wary of pandering as the majority of his contemporaries are unaware of its dangers. And he never presumes to know what will make a new play 'work'—he continually says to me, 'We're not making the audience work hard enough.' He was the only person who, in encountering Singing Forest, said, 'Make it longer. I wish it were longer.'"

Indeed, my interview revealed a man who had immersed himself in the European modernism of Tadeusz Kantor and Giorgio Strehler but who is more salient about the American theatre—how good it is now and how much better it can be—than the most wide-eyed beginner. He has sharply etched, sophisticated opinions and a deep reservoir of seen-it-all wit, but he gives off not a whiff of jadedness. (He calls the American theatre a "grand and extraordinary organism.") He is an enemy of careerism ("it puts the individual ahead of what they're trying to create") but is on the ascendancy of a remarkable career. "Collaborating with Bart," says Lucas, "is an ongoing conversation as to the nature of our place in society and in relationships and in the spirit."

In fact, each time I encounter Bart Sher, his enthusiasm and positive outlook throw me. Maybe it's his look: Even his hair is rebellious, swooping over dark furtive eyes, and his grin seems always on the verge of mayhem. He's tall and flamingo thin—all elbows, angled for your ribs, perhaps—and he looks like the kid who'd flip off the math teacher in eighth grade (the less-evolved Deadhead, I guess). But in reality, he's not even close to that. He's more the stoner with a moral streak, the hippie on the block who scrutinized his own views and actions—rigorously—rather than others'. When I've watched him smoke a cigarette during rehearsal breaks, it's always as if he's sneaking it—from himself.

Following a visit to Intiman last season, I spoke with Bart over two days in July, by telephone. I hope the long, strange trip he describes continues for him, his company and the people of Seattle.

STEVEN DRUKMAN: Tell me about your family.

BARTLETT SHER: I grew up in San Francisco in a large Catholic family. A bit complicated because my father was Jewish. He was born in a shtetl in Lithuania. But I didn't actually find that out till I was about 15. We all grew up going to Catholic schools in San Francisco. It was the '60s and '70s, and it was a fairly wild time. I was introduced to all kinds of great experiences when I was young, like going to Grateful Dead concerts when I was 11 or so. But I thought that was what everybody did.

And you have a twin brother—who's nothing like you.
Nothing like me, no. He lives in Lincoln, Nebr., and he works for a hospital and he's, you know, born-again Christian, and we're pretty different.

That's often how it goes with twins.
Yes. We're like the twins in a Bergman film. I'm just not sure who's the good brother and who's the bad brother.

And how did you find the theatre—or did the theatre find you?
As a young person, I really mostly wanted to be a writer. I spent most of my time studying poetry and writing short stories. But I did perform in plays. I just had almost no talent for acting. In college, at Holy Cross in Massachusetts, I wrote a full-length play that I managed to get produced on the main stage, but it was the only play I think I had in me. When I got out of college, I went back to my old high school to teach English and I convinced them I could run the drama department at the same time. I directed this fantastic production of Ten Little Indians to start off [laughs], and then followed that with a more daring production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. After that I went down to San Diego and worked with some friends I'd known in college—started a theatre called the San Diego Public Theatre. San Diego is where I did my first professional work: I talked La Jolla Playhouse into hiring me as a dramaturg on a production of Robert Woodruff's A Man's a Man, starring Bill Irwin.

Probably the biggest theatrical event of my youth was the '84 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles. It was there that I first saw [Giorgio] Strehler, [Ariane] Mnouchkine, Pina Bausch and Tadeusz Kantor. The one that affected me the most was Kantor.

That's right, you're a Kantor-head.
Yes, a Deadhead and a Kantor-head.

Why a Kantor-head? Explain it to someone who actually isn't.
It was '84 and I was only 25 years old, and it was the first experience that for me was as good and as intense and as interesting as going to a Grateful Dead concert. And it marked me hugely. There are only intuitive reasons for why that would be the case. But I decided I was just going to immerse myself in why I was so affected by it—so then when I went to the University of Leeds for an M.A., I wrote a dissertation that was just an excuse to explore Kantor's writings and figure out what the hell he was talking about, because it's pretty dense. But this study of his writings laid out a framework of important principles for making autonomous works of art, and gave me a broader and more thorough way to think about making theatre that was wholly different.

What else influenced you then?
The other influences came from my girlfriend at the time, who was very big in Chinese theatre (she spoke fluent Chinese), and from Leeds being a place where a lot of great African writers had come to work. That included [Wole] Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, other people. All these forces, along with Kantor, Strehler and Mnouchkine, got absorbed into my way of making theatre.

And this girlfriend, did you marry her?

But you are married to [actress] Kristin Flanders, and you are a father. Did fatherhood change you at all?

Yes, marriage and being a parent really connect to my life and work. Kristin is my closest collaborator as an artist and as a partner. Together we make this small traveling artistic family. Luckily I became a parent relatively late because I was already over 40 when Lucia was born. Her entrance into my life was transformative partly because of her own unique, amazing qualities, and partly because once you become a parent it makes you think differently about the world you're bringing somebody into. Life and art do intersect.

And how did you meet Kristin?
We met at the Guthrie Theater. Really, meeting her was probably the central turning point in my life. It all intersected at the Guthrie, and I stepped into being an adult and a human being there. That was next incarnation after all the Kantor in England—going to the Guthrie as a resident director in a program Garland Wright had started. Garland probably more than anybody transformed my life as a director.

Would you say he was a mentor?
Yes. There were two: Robert Woodruff and Garland Wright. I assisted Woodruff on four plays over the years and his experimental focus and incredible energy toward theatre was great. But it was Garland who both introduced me to the classics and immersed me in his way of thinking about what makes a play from every point of view, from design to text to everything else. Plus how to run a theatre.

Right. And then you went to Hartford Stage Company?
Yes. When Garland announced he was resigning, I thought it might be a good time to leave Minneapolis. I went to work for Mark Lamos at Hartford for a couple of years. Very different from Garland. Mark's got an infectious energy about him. He probably balanced his freelance career and his career at the theatre a little bit better than Garland did, so that was educational.

How does this community in Seattle and this audience compare to other places you've worked?
Well, for about four years, I was honing out a living working everywhere from Portland, Maine, to Boise, Idaho, to North Carolina, you name it, but I really felt like what I wanted to do was run a theatre. When Intiman came up I seriously pushed myself toward that job because I loved the space, mostly. I didn't really know much about the community in Seattle, but Laura Penn was the managing director, and everyone was inviting—and it looked like a good city for me. It felt like San Francisco when I was growing up. And it turned out to have a great audience in terms of its intelligence and its openness.

And they've learned to be more open with me as we went along. I've always looked at being an artistic director a little bit like being the priest of a parish where, as an artist, you intersect with ideas that are important to your community, both on the local level and on the level of our sense of ourselves as a nation. People began to see, whether we were doing Cymbeline or Nickel and Dimed or The Light in the Piazza, that Intiman was an artistic institution that was going to engage ideas. You can strike a balance between the highest level of entertaining and the highest level of content to build a real conversation with an audience. That's also turned out to have some commercial potential that we couldn't have predicted.

Did the commercial appeal surprise you?
Oh, completely. The only principle I have is investing in artists, not investing in any commercial potential that those artists have. The idea for Nickel and Dimed happened because I heard Barbara Ehrenreich on the radio, and I realized, "I'm supposedly a liberal, interested person, and I had not realized how our culture has changed around the issues of living wage."

But you knew this would be theatrical?
Well, the story of Nickel and Dimed itself [Ehrenreich takes a series of minimum-wage jobs in various communities] seemed like Henry V going incognito among the troops—so the story had the germ of something that the theatre does anyway. And it exploded with our audience. It was the best-selling show we'd had since I got here. And then it went all around the country, because that idea was one that resonated with people everywhere.

What about your other enormous commercial success, Piazza?
In the case of Piazza, both Adam [Guettel] and Craig [Lucas] are such amazing artists that it was hard to not know it had potential.

Before your tenure, Intiman used to be branded as Seattle's classical theatre. Is that fair?
Yes, that's totally right. But that's when everybody was obsessed with the differentiation between all the theatres. Intiman was the classical theatre, and Seattle Rep was the "big" theatre and ACT was the place for new plays. But that template was at a time when these theatres were new and when those distinctions by genre made sense. The category that more accurately holds now is: "Who are the artists who run the theatres?" When David Esbjornson comes in he'll bring characteristics to Seattle Rep different from those that Sharon [Ott] brought to it, and so on. That's an easier way of seeing the identity of the theatres here in Seattle now.

So how has Bartlett Sher "re-branded" Intiman?
In terms of the kind of artists I hire. We came up with this simple idea, "New Masters/Classic Work," based on the premise that whether we're producing something brand-new—a new writer, a new director—or a classic, we're all trying to figure out what makes this artwork great. If you take an artistic approach with a great sense of respect and technique, with a sense of innovation and pushing the ideas of the plays as far as possible—if you can balance innovation and new ideas with actual appreciation for text, you get some sense of what makes me who I am.

At Intiman, there's a lot of talk about community. That's a thorny word, I think, in these times.
Really working in community is the hardest mission that anybody living in the United States can take on right now. There's very little real belief in it, like it's almost impossible.

I've learned this very profoundly from Laura Penn, my managing partner, who is a genius at community work. What we try to do is never ignore the fact that we are part of a community. Whenever we build a piece, there are two pillars. One is the artistic pillar and the other is the community pillar.

For example, when we chose to do Homebody/Kabul, because I was interested in Tony [Kushner] and I loved the play, our theatre could then explore what that meant in the community. So we'd go out and find what the Muslim community was like in the city, and connect with people, and then build whatever ways the theatre could push out to reach that community while we were taking on this play. The point is we will not only produce a play for reasons artistically, but because it should impact and be connected to people. So we brought a lot of people into our theatre through that experience who are Muslim Americans and who now come to see our plays.

How does "The American Cycle" fit into your philosophy?
It's a five-year cycle of plays that tell American stories: Our Town, The Grapes of Wrath, Native Son, All the King's Men, To Kill a Mockingbird. They all end up being almost from the same period. We picked them precisely to investigate what it means to be American through our great writers. So in some ways it's a classical exercise, but it's also about those stories which most influence us.

We decided to do it over a five-year period because it allowed us time to actually explore questions of what it means to be an American. And we would like to make a new model for how a theatre plans itself into the future and how a theatre engages the community through organizing five years of conversations about our shared history.

I wonder how the cycle jibes with something you said about "the old liberal arts model of theatre doesn't hold any longer"?
I went to a really good liberal arts school that gave me a sense of time and a sense of history in a fairly connected way, meaning we all study the Greeks, and then we study Latin, then the Romans, and then we move up to the Middle Ages, and so on. Our literature follows a sort of line, all the way up to now. This gives you a sense of your theatre and its development and its cultural imperatives in a kind of clear way. That line of thinking was hugely influential to me, and I still think it's valid as one part of our tradition.

I don't think, though, that the average American or the average theatregoer sees that single line—it's not how we perceive ourselves any longer. And partly because I worked with writers from Africa and China and all over the world, I began to realize not only that there are all these other traditions, but also how our ideas and the way we absorb them are changing within our own culture. One thing that leads to is something like the Barbara Ehrenreich project: Is the documentary version of something also applicable inside the theatre? Genres are cracking all the time.

Isn't it even more revolutionary than that? Isn't it that the liberal humanist tradition has been so fragmented that we don't even seek out that kind of connection anymore?

Right. We can't remember it. In the '60s and '70s, there was such a clear perception of what it meant to be going through all the changes and transformations happening because of the Civil Rights Movement and the push for women's rights and gay rights—we all thought that we knew where we were "going." And now that's completely breaking down. Now we're consciously being attacked, and we no longer see ourselves in the continuum, and our values are turning much more individual and narcissistic. I honestly think we can't remember who we were in that line, and why it existed. So I'm trying to build some sense of a muscle memory about who we are—even in the limited way that a play like Piazza provides us some sense of memory of what a musical used to be and an idea of what a musical can become.

That's even more evident in a play like Singing Forest, which is trying to cut through the fog—to insist, both thematically and stylistically, that we are connected.

Yes, that we are deeply connected, and that we have to have opportunities to ask questions about what the connections are and agree on them—because what people are doing now is fighting over what does connect us: "What is the story?" My twin brother and I are constantly engaging this question, because we grew up in the same context—going to Grateful Dead concerts and smoking pot—and now he's validly taking a different path in his life. Luckily we sort of found ourselves coming together on Piazza. But we barely survived the election. I love him to death and he's fantastic and I love his family, but I'm telling you there are times when I could just wring his neck. But it's in my most primary relationships, this division in the country, and I have to find out how to make it work.

So now I wonder: Does this mean that you are programming plays at Intiman that take up this question of our disconnection?
No, no, no. Every play is political. A Neil Simon play is reeking of politics.

You mean like unconscious regressive politics?
No, I mean that a Neil Simon text expresses the politics and views and positions of an upper-middle-class group of people, and what they value is inside the play. Their values and the politics are in the grain of the play. There's no play that doesn't have values and assumptions underneath it, from a class or a group of people—and that's a good thing. But I don't like the idea of politics with a capital P. What I like are writers, and artists telling stories.

Considering today's "with us or against us" way of thinking, though, doesn't the theatre artist have to be an adversary to the powers that be, just by definition?
This is a very complicated time in which to find how to oppose or show the mirror to the ruling powers. The ideology that defines Bush's community is extremely singular and does not have room to include all of us. So we either fall into the rules that it sets down for us or we're on the outside. What's interesting is that Democrats or liberals or anybody who once felt included in the process is feeling more and more powerless, for a lot of reasons. You get yelled down. You get identified. You get used. If you put your head too far above the parapet, you become something they lift up and use and smear for their own purposes to inflame their own base. They'll mangle whatever it is you're saying, and that is not something any artist with any brains wants to experience. So whereas it would have been clear with something like the Vietnam War or civil rights or women's rights, this is a different kind of enemy, because this enemy actually wants you to stand up so they can explode you into the universe and make a fool of you.

And I think we've all gotten hip to that in the world of the opposition. We don't trust that we can really be heard anymore. So we're not entering into the debate in the same way. Eventually, I believe, the people who run our government will have to take some responsibility for what they are doing, at which point they might actually enter into a real conversation. I don't want to be in opposition like this. I want the conversation to be, okay, that's your position, this is our position. The more we aim as artists to be in a conversation we all share, as opposed to one which is setting up a polarized situation, the better. Then we'll reconnect the links that somehow have been dissolved. The trust that held the republic together has been severely attacked. That's why we're doing the American Cycle: to have a conversation that connects, not one that polarizes.

How are you responding to all the national attention around Piazza, the praise and acclaim?
I'm not sure if I know yet. There were two great things about Piazza. First, it was the most extraordinary group of artists on every level I have ever gotten to make work with—there's no comparing the experience to anything else. Second, it makes one hunger to make equally similar great things all the time. So the real anxiety is how to move forward, what to do next. Its huge impact on other people is a fantastic thing, but to believe it is more than that you'd have to be a psychopathic megalomaniac.

Were you happy with your most recent production, Three Sisters?
I was humbled by it. I had wanted all my life to work on Chekhov, and I couldn't have been less prepared and more overwhelmed at the time I was working on it because of what was happening with Piazza. We did a really great job and we had great people in it, but I'm not sure I felt like I was totally up to it at the time it was happening.

I would think Chekhov is more terrifying than Shakespeare to direct.
Oh, my God, way more terrifying, because Shakespeare offers everything on the page, whereas in every scene of Chekhov there's a subtextual level that's unanswered. He's got more information missing from the page than is on the page!

Is there a part of directing a play that you dread? (Such a Chekhovian question.)
No, not one. I totally dig every single bit of it. I love the exploration with the actors. I love the design. I love, love, love tech. I love probably more than anything the preview process, where you're editing everything you've made. I love hunting for what I would call the deeper rhythm of a play, listening to its transcendental possibilities. I can't imagine anywhere that I'm a better human being than when I'm in a rehearsal room. It's just something that's extremely well-suited to my personality. I love collaborating. I love being surprised by things. I love how complicated people are. Probably the thing I love most about the theatre is how incredibly screwed up everybody is. I'm always nervous when I'm not dealing with a lot of complicated personalities who are, you know, breaking their spirits and souls on a text.

What about being an artistic director? Is there any aspect of that that you dread?
I dread financial crises. If there were even just an extra $100 million from the government, when it came to supporting theatres and artistic institutions in the United States, the country would transform. What that kind of investment could do would be mind-blowing—and so worth it for communities on the right or left, whether it's in Seattle or my brother's community in Lincoln, Nebr. His daughters are both wonderful ballet dancers, and they could use the support from the government for their small companies in the same way that Intiman or symphony orchestras or any number of institutions could.

Talk about your ongoing collaboration with associate artistic director Craig Lucas.

It kind of all happened by accident. I was planning my first season and I wanted a new play, and I looked at The Dying Gaul and thought it was great. It had a high level of language and at the same time allowed me as a director to imagine something amazing. So I directed it, and Craig and I hit it off in that regard.

But there is an additional function that the theatre can have, which is a very limited but important one: to make an investment in particular artists. So we applied for TCG's National Theatre Artist Residency Program grant that has allowed him to become connected to the theatre. We want to stay loyal and provide him a home, because most writers are often as adrift as anyone else. We did a similar thing with director Kate Whoriskey, who has done three productions here over the past five year—we got a TCG New Generations grant in order to invest in her.

I'm quite taken with your positive feelings about the American theatre.
You know, I could actually do a tourist-bureau clip for American theatre. I'd be very positive about it as a kind of grand and extraordinary organism. I don't mean to sound too sunny or, you know, Pollyannish about it, but it's a pretty interesting time and it's a great community. It's the one living community in America where people who are gay, people who are straight, people who are of all colors, all classes, are in constant communication about what it means to be human beings—to be Americans. There's no other example I know of in American life where all those things are clashing together and intersecting with the larger public and making such remarkable things.

Steven Drukman, a frequent contributor to this magazine, is a playwright and arts journalist living in New York City.