By Mara Dresner
NEW HAVEN – Gordon Edelstein is in his eleventh season as artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, where he has recently begun an association with Athol Fugard, directing his most recent work, including The Train Driver, and the world premieres of Have You Seen Us? and Coming Home. He also recently directed the Broadway production of Fugard’s The Road to Mecca for the Roundabout Theatre Company.
His acclaimed Long Wharf Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie played the Roundabout and the Mark Taper Forum and was the recipient of the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Revival.
Other recent Long Wharf credits include Curse of the Starving Class, Satchmo at the Waldorf, My Name is Asher Lev (currently running at the Westside Theatre Off Broadway), and his own adaptation of Uncle Vanya.
As a director of a diverse body of work, he has garnered three Connecticut Critics Circle Awards; under his artistic leadership, Long Wharf Theatre has received 17 additional Connecticut Critics Circle Awards, including six best actor or actress awards in plays that he directed. He is also the recipient of the organization’s Tom Killen Award, given annually to an individual who has made an indelible impact on the Connecticut theatrical landscape.
His opera work includes La Traviata and La Boehme for the Connecticut Grand Opera, and the world premiere of Black Water, an opera by Joyce Carol Oates and John Duffy.
Ride the Tiger by William Mastrosimone, which he directed, is currently running at Long Wharf Theatre. Edelstein said he was attracted to “the juicy and sizzling presentation of iconic American characters” in the play.
The Ledger recently spoke with Edelstein about his long career and the future of non-profit theater.
Q. How have you seen the non-profit theatrical landscape developing and what do theaters need to do to stay relevant?
A. Non-profit theaters have basically been subscription-based operations. Members of the community in Hartford or New Haven or Houston or Minneapolis or Seattle or Boston purchase a subscription for X amount of dollars for six or seven or eight plays. They trusted the artistic director, who was essentially the curator, to put together the offerings, a balance of classics and new plays and serious work and less serious work, and they bought that package because they were interested in that theater and were curious about all kinds of theater. That model has diminished with great alacrity and intensity and speed over the last 20 years.
While we makers of non-profit theater do count on our subscription base, virtually no one in the country has the subscription base he or she had 20 years ago. That’s because, in my view, there are so many more ways we can experience our entertainment. Instead of three network channels and two local channels, we have a thousand channels and on-demand channels. We don’t have to worry about taping things with our VCRs; we can watch things when we want to watch them. That is the most serious competition we have for people going to the theater. It’s partly a competition for our entertainment dollar; it’s mostly for your time. People work very hard, most of us; we don’t have an extremely large amount of leisure time. We can choose to do all kinds of things.
This has all kinds of impact on how we produce theater. So now, we more and more are less in the subscription business; now we
are in the single ticket business. It used to be that commercial theater was in the single ticket business. They needed to create a hit. Unfortunately, that model has spilled over into the model of producing non-profit theater in the regions.
As I’m planning next season, as I’m in the middle of doing, I’m thinking of how many single tickets will this play sell. This is a radical departure from the foundational impulses of our non-profit theaters, and it’s affecting programming and the taking of artistic risks.
Q. What excites you as a director?
A. All kinds of things. Plays that are rich with language and theatricality, and actors who are exciting and inventive and brave, designers with great imagination. I love telling stories; I’m basically a storyteller. I love telling stories that tell something about the truth about what it’s like to be alive. I love compelling an audience, keeping them on the edge of their seat.
Q. Tell me about an early theater memory.
A. I can remember the first show I ever saw, which was a musical called “Carnival.” It was in the 1960s, starring a very young, late great Jerry Orbach in his first Broadway role. I remember sitting in a box seat. Those are the seats all the way on the extreme sides, high up, and I remember looking down on the chorus singing the opening number. … I remember the chorus was downstage in a kick line, and I was leaning over the edge of my seat. I must have been beaming in joy, and a chorus member looked up and winked at me. And that’s something I remember and have carried with me.
Q. How is directing opera different from directing theater?
A. Fundamentally it’s the same; you’re telling stories. … Opera requires the bigger gesture, the bigger metaphor. Of course, singers have a different mechanism of expressing themselves through music than through language. Music carries so much of the emotion in opera, like in musicals.
Q. Is there such a thing as Jewish theater or other ethnic theater in today’s society?
A. Of course there is. There is theater that is created for Jews with deeply Jewish themes and Jewish subjects, just as there is theater with Armenian themes. More interesting to me, more valuable to me, is theater that is very specific in its ethnic locale but has resonance for all of us. Long Wharf Theater [produced in May 2012] My Name Is Asher Lev, an adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel. It had enormous success. The audience was mixed. It had tremendous resonance with Jews and non-Jews. That’s a perfect example. Here was a self-conscious Jewish writer, who writes on Jewish themes, whose stories have resonance beyond that; they speak to everybody.
Mara Dresner is a writer living in Rocky Hill.