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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Monday, August 9, 2010

Dramaturgy | Lanford Wilson and Circle Repertory Company

by Rachel Lerner-Ley, Dramaturg

Circle Repertory Company was founded in 1969 by playwright Lanford Wilson, director Marshall Mason, actor Tanya Berezin, and director Rob Thirkield. With little money—paying the rent out of their own pocket for the uptown crumbling loft that would serve as a theatre and offices until they got a permanent home in the '80s, the four founders created one of the original off-off broadway theatres that would come to be a major influence in the American Theatre and the creative home to some of American Theatre’s biggest names. The theatre closed its doors in 1996.  

“It was created out of the need from the artists to express themselves,” Mason pointed out in an 1999 NewsHour interview. “and at that point, Broadway was almost exclusively English: Harold Pinter and John Osborne, these guys were occupying the Broadway theaters. Off Broadway had become very commercial. It was running ‘Little Mary Sunshine’ and ‘The Fantastics,’ and that sort of thing…..A young American playwright had no place to go, and so we went to the little coffee shops—you know—down in the village. Most of it was down in the Village.” It was in one such coffee shop, Caffe Cino—a tiny place of  mismatched chairs, postered walls, and a killer espresso machine—that the four founders of Circle Rep. met in the early '60s and began the collaboration that would eventually lead to the creation of a theatre company.

Circle Repertory Theatre was established as “an on-going ensemble of artists—actors, directors, playwrights and designers—who would work together to create a living play.”
 The company was host to resident playwrights who wrote new plays inspired by and tailored for the company’s core of actors. The company held workshops for the actors, training them in voice, movement, and scene study. These workshops allowed the company to build a vocabulary so that everyone could contribute to the creation of the play. At Circle Rep, making a play was an all hands on deck, collaborative process.

Circle Rep. was the perfect artistic home for Wilson who confessed in a 1978 New York Times article, that he has a deep aversion to working alone: “A long time ago I was told that writing plays was a lonely business and I knew then that wasn’t for me. You’ll never catch me a hundred miles away from New York, cloistered in a cabin, pounding out the third act. I could as easily write in a closet. I know I can’t work away form the city. Eight years ago I found a house in Sag Harbor, made a fine writing room there, and have never written a word in it. It’s a kind of mild aversion to working alone that everybody at Circle Rep comes by honestly. We began working at Caffe Cino and La Mama, with everyone bumping elbows, and it never occurred to us to ask if we had good working conditions. At Circle Rep we bump each other around a lot….”

It is from such a bumping of elbows that Wilson’s Fifth of July emerged. Fifth was written entirely at Circle Rep. with five readings of five different full drafts occurring over several months, plus the readings of numerous other scenes that Wilson tried out by just grabbing actors as they passed by.

The actors at Circle Rep. were critical to Wilson’s process. He once reflected, “Sometimes you see something in an actor (a small, odd movement, a turn of voice) that suggests a whole character, someone you’ve know and wanted to write about….” He continues “I’ve always written for actors. ‘Whom do you write for?’ Actors. ‘But what audience do you write for?’ Anybody. One of the pleasures of being a playwright (count them on one hand) is watching an actor in the process of understanding, believing, the part.”

In the end, all the aspects of Fifth of July were Circle Rep derived: the direction, the acting, the designs, and even the song which Wes Hurley plucks out on his guitar throughout the play was composed by actor and company member Jonathan Hogan.

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