ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you.
I’m your host Elysa Gardner, and this season we’ll be looking at how the Broadway community is coping in the wake of COVID-19. The coronavirus hit New York hard just as the 2019-20 season was reaching its busiest period for openings, and what was at first supposed to have been a pause of several weeks turned into what’s shaping up to be a roughly yearlong hiatus. We’ll be speaking with some of the artists and insiders who have had to persevere after specific projects were delayed, and who have sought to keep connected to fans and to each other.
Our first guest is Andre Bishop, who has been artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater since 1992 and its Producing Artistic Director since 2013. Before joining LCT, Andre served as artistic director and literary manager at Playwrights Horizons, where his productions included the Pulitzer Prize winning works The Heidi Chronicles, Driving Miss Daisy and Sunday in the Park with George.
At Lincoln Center Theater, he has developed new work and encouraged new artists through a series of workshops and readings, and helped launch and nurture initiatives such as the LCT3 program, dedicated to producing the work of young writers, directors and designers; the education program Open Stages, and LCT’S Directors Lab, which supports about 100 young directors each year. His work with American writers, spanning generations of talent, has included new plays by Horton Foote, A.R. Gurney, Christopher Durang, John Guare, Wendy Wasserstein, Richard Greenberg, Jon Robin Baitz, Sarah Ruhl, J.T. Rogers, Dominique Morisseau, Samuel D. Hunter, and Antoinette Nwandu. And the new Beaumont New Play Commission Program, will commission new plays specifically for the Vivian Beaumont Theater, LCT’s Broadway house, with Lynn Nottage, Branden Jacob-Jenkins and Marco Ramirez being the first commissioned playwrights. The works of all three dramatists have been previously produced by LCT on its other stages.
Andre’s tenure at Lincoln Center Theater has also brought audiences various new plays by Tom Stoppard and David Hare and many celebrated revivals, among them, LCT Resident Director Bartlett Sher’s award winning productions of South Pacific, Awake and Sing!, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The King and I, and My Fair Lady; as well as the premieres of such ambitious, thought-provoking musicals as A Light in the Piazza, also under Sher’s direction, Parade, Contact, and Marie Christine.
Andre’s many honors include 17 Tony Awards for Best Production, a special Drama Desk Award and a Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding achievement for a body of work, especially in the development of new American plays and playwrights. He was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2012. Thank you so much for joining us Andre!
ANDRE BISHOP: You’re very welcome, I must say that list – I was thinking, “who in God’s name is she talking about?”
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] Well, I left a lot out! It was difficult to condense it to just that.
ANDRE BISHOP: Well yes, and then I thought, “Oh my god, I’m so old!” Oh well, thank you very much for asking me to be on the program.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, thank you for joining us, and you’re not old, you’re prolific! As I’ve hopefully conveyed, you’ve been working in theatre for a very long time, doing a lot of work I should say. Has there been anything comparable to – I guess this is a rhetorical question – but has there been anything comparable to or in any way prepared you for, the past six months?
ANDRE BISHOP: No, there’s no other answer but no, and I daresay, I think there would be very few people who would say anything but no. I mean, I’ve lived a good life and lived through some bad times, like polio and the cold war, and of course, the AIDS crisis. And many other awful times that we’ve all gone through, but I must say we’ve never been through anything like this in my life certainly.
ELYSA GARDNER: Take us back to March and April of this year. I think it was March 12, the announcement came down that all Broadway productions would be shuttered for about a month. And then, Off-Broadway and other live performance followed, and then that shutdown got extended and extended until it finally took us into 2021…But what were those first days and weeks like for you and your colleagues at Lincoln Center Theater – and in the theater community?
ANDRE BISHOP: Well I think those early days were… [sighs] I don’t know think we realized, and how could we have realized, that it was going to last as long and be as serious as it was. You know, we suddenly heard of this virus and suddenly it was in New York, and then suddenly people were getting it and then suddenly we had to go home. I remember I left my office with whatever was in my briefcase, and that was it. And I thought “I’ll be back in a week or two.” I mean you know – naïve, today. I think we didn’t know what we were in for, and we were optimistic that it would be short term, and there would be greater leadership then there has been in terms of dealing with it. So I don’t think it dawned – I can’t speak for anyone else but the few people that I do talk to, and the people on our staff – We weren’t prepared for this, I don’t think anyone was. We had no idea that it was going to be this serious and last this long.
ELYSA GARDNER: Was there a sense fairly early on of the community galvanizing, maybe after a period of shock and dismay? I know commercial producers and general managers in various parts of the country started taking part in Zoom sessions, – I know you’ve been a bunch of Zoom sessions – strategizing; was there, what was the activity like in the was there any comparable dynamic in the not-for-profit sector, and at Lincoln Center Theater?
ANDRE BISHOP: In the beginning, I don’t think there was a lot of activity. I can’t speak for other theatres, but certainly for Lincoln Center Theater, what happened was, we had three productions up. One was towards the end of its run in at LCT3, The Headlands, and one was Lynn Nottage and Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera version of her play Intimate Apparel, which was probably two weeks, perhaps, into a four week preview period, and then we had James Lapine and Tom Kitt and Michael Korie’s musical about Aldous Huxley, Cary Grant and Clare Booth Luce called Flying Over Sunset, which was the day we closed down, was the day that was going to be the day of our first preview. So what happened was, the actors in the LCT3 play, who were ending the run in a couple days, they sort of, were getting nervous, and they basically wanted safety and out and we simply closed the show a little bit earlier. In the case of Intimate Apparel, we had to close down because everyone had to close down. In the case of Flying Over Sunset, it wasn’t a question of closing down because we never opened up. The season such as it was up to that point was kind of set. So it wasn’t like, “Oh my god I’ve gotta think about what we’re doing in three months,” because I knew what we were doing in three months. I’m making that number up, three months, could’ve been two months or five months. I think, you know, we talked to the cast first about being careful before we realized we had to shut down, and of course when we shut down we said we’ll be in touch as soon as we can be about the next steps. We thought the next steps were probably going to be reopening in the fall, and then it became clear sometime in July, and we waited to see what was going to happen, that they should be told that they were not going to reopen in the fall, and that we were hoping now to reopen in the spring of 2021. So that’s where we are at this point.
ELYSA GARDNER: Right, and you do have those plans, I don’t believe there are specific dates yet, but you do have firm plans of, as firm of plans as we can be right now, for the spring…
ANDRE BISHOP: We do.
ELYSA GARDNER: …and I know Lincoln Center Theater was among the first to announce such plans.
ANDRE BISHOP: Yes. We wanted, you know, when you work in the theatre, you live and hope. And then if you don’t have, what Kenneth Tynan, the great critic refered to as cork-like buoyancy, you’re not going to really make it. We wanted to be positive and uplifting and forward thinking, and we’re going ahead. What we have discovered of course, since then, as we all know, for those of us that work in the theatre, and those of us that do millions of other jobs not in the theatre, nothing is certain. No one really knows what the future holds. No one really knows when everyone is going to reopen again. Everyone knows when they want to, which was, you know, today. But I think, taking an optimistic and hopeful point of view is the only way to be, because that’s the way you are in the theatre anyway, even if something like this didn’t exist. You’d have to be optimistic and hopeful of course. But, I would say, nothing is clear and nothing is definite. And if those who think it is clear and definite are perhaps a little more hopeful than they could be, but you never know, I mean, amazing things could happen.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, yeah. Cockeyed-optimist, to borrow a line from one of your great productions from several years ago. But optimism is clearly, and resilience are clearly part of the program there, and you’re dealing with artists, you’ve mentioned a few of the great people involved in these productions, in Intimate Apparel, and I think – is that your first opera for Lincoln Center Theater?
ANDRE BISHOP: It is. We’ve done a lot of, I guess the word, certainly the word used to be, through-sung musicals, starting when I was at Playwrights Horizons when we did the early Bill Finn shows like March of the Falsettos, which is basically through-sung. Certainly Michael John LaChiusa’s Marie Christine was more opera than musical theater. But the Intimate Apparel, has as you I’m sure know, come about through this arrangement with the Metropolitan Opera…
ELYSA GARDNER: Right.
ANDRE BISHOP: …where we’ve commissioned a number of new works, they have done two, and this is our first one that we’re doing.
ELYSA GARDNER: Right, with Bartlett Sher directing, as he’s directed for the Met as well. I know some of your directors have also, you know there’s also definitely cooperation and synergy there.
ANDRE BISHOP: Right, the Met and Peter Gelb have been very collaborative, Peter loves the theatre, and I mean the theatre is an art form, and has liberally taken advantage of his love and knowledge of the theatre by employing a lot of theatre artists who work at the Met.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. And tell us a bit about Flying Over Sunset, because that sounds just wild, [laughs] it involves the folks you mentioned, Clare Booth Luce, Cary Grant, and Aldous Huxley, and 1950s Hollywood, and LSD.
ANDRE BISHOP: Well, it’s probably going to be a show where it’s not going to be what people think it is going to be. In the 1950s, LSD was legal if you had a prescription for it, it was used medicinally, especially to help people psychologically. And it had nothing to do with the 60s and psychedelics, and taking trips, and you know, kind of going crazy for fun – there was nothing fun about it, it was a serious drug, that people usually administered to other people very carefully, and with supervision. Anyway, the fact of the matter is that Aldous Huxley, the great British essayist and novelist and thinker, was a great experimenter in drug taking in the 40s and 50s. Cary Grant, you know the famous movie star, had a lot of sort of psychological problems with his marriage and his unhappy childhood, and he started taking the drug under the supervision of his psychiatrist. And Clare Booth Luce did the same thing. And each of the three of them were taking the drug – and this is all true – to work out certain problems in their lives. In the case of Huxley, it was the early death of his wife. In the case of Cary Grant, it was his unhappy marriage and his conflict with Hollywood, and his own sexuality, and his very unhappy upbringing. And Clare Booth Luce lost her mother and her daughter separately in car crashes and these were three people who were looking for some kind of answer. So, they all lived in California at that time and knew each other. Their meeting happened, their taking the drug together, I think, is sort of invention and conceit of the authors that they take it together and come to certain realizations about their lives and their problems. It’s very visually interesting, and you can imagine, they only sing when they take trips – LSD trips. But what the show really is about, interestingly enough, is nothing flashy or you know high toned, it’s really about the unlikely coming together and friendship of three very different people. All of whom were under the supervision of this, at the time, well known British poet named Gerald Hurd who was a Buddhist and an experimenter in drugs. So the play is really about connection more than anything else.
ELYSA GARDNER: Very topical theme, right now. [laughs]
ANDRE BISHOP: Yeah! I mean LSD has now come back, in a way, as a medicinal, if that’s the correct word, tool.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yes, I think there was a book released recently that I was reading about, but there have been.. it has gotten more focus in that capacity, and I would imagine, the way you describe it there’ll be some very intense emotional…
ANDRE BISHOP: Yes.
ELYSA GARDNER: …experience and reaction dealt with through music and word and dance – I know Tony Yazbeck is part of your cast,
ANDRE BISHOP: Yes.
ELYSA GARDNER: Which, he’s an incredible dancer/singer, the whole cast looks terrific. So we’re very much looking forward to that.
ANDRE BISHOP: You know, he plays Cary Grant, and Cary Grant was an old vaudevillian, I mean that’s how he started out, was in British music halls singing and dancing.
ELYSA GARDNER: Right, yeah. So hopefully, we will see that in the spring, that’s the plan right now. I wanted to ask you about the subjects of diversity and racial and social justice have obviously become bigger concerns in the months that live theater has been unavailable, for a variety of reasons. A number of playwrights and other artists that you’ve championed have been women and people of color; and I know you recently added Lileana Blain-Cruz to your artistic staff as resident director. So, tell us about how you’re meeting the responsibilities and opportunities posed by this moment at Lincoln Center Theater.
ANDRE BISHOP: We are meeting them and trying to meet them as effectively and as honestly as we can. We have made errors and mistakes in the past, we have not realized certain things that we should’ve realized, certainly in terms of the programming at the Beaumont, that’s very clear. And what we’re doing is we’re trying to address the issues that people have brought up. Specifically about Lincoln Center Theater, just in terms of the work. We’re trying to address this issues head on, that’s why Liliana is made, you know, resident director along with Bart Sher. That’s why those three playwrights were commissioned specifically to write plays for the Beaumont stage. What pleases me about it is that these were not people we kind of plucked out of the air. Liliana has directed three shows for us in the past, We’ve done plays by Lynn, her current adaptation of her play Intimate Apparel, and Marco Ramirez, The Royale, and War by Branden Jacob-Jenkins, so these are artists that we’ve had a relationship with that we wanted to draw in more closely to the theatre, and to, not just say what we were going to do, but do what we’re going to do. I think we are very committed to change, and to a greater degree of inclusion, and anti-racism, obviously, and we have a committee of the staff who is working very hard on that. And we’re doing what I think we should be doing. Which is facing up to our past and looking to admit it, change it, and create a better future for all of us. And I daresay that a lot of theatre companies that I know, you know, people who run them that I talk to a lot, a lot of theatre companies have taken this challenge very seriously, and are working very hard to change their ways.
ELYSA GARDNER: And you’ll be announcing additional playwrights for your new commissions program, I guess in the months ahead?
ANDRE BISHOP: Eventually, I mean you know it’s.. everything takes longer because of this pandemic I mean it’s such a peculiar situation to have deep conversations with people about very important topics. We are definitely going to add more playwrights to our commissioning program at the Beaumont, and one or two more staff positions but all of this takes quite a lot of time because you know, it’s strange having serious, hopefully deep conversations about things that are highly important with people that you may know or you may not know, but they’re not in person. Zoom calls are fine, and you can see people and all of that, you know, not just see them but see what room they’re in and what kind of furniture they have, [laughs] but it’s a different kind of reality. So it takes longer to get to know people on Zoom calls than it does if you meet them in a room and can sit in a chair and talk for an hour, but everyone is going through this, so..
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. And since theatre by nature is so collaborative, so many different players are involved, so I’d imagine setting things up where people can engage each other and conversations about all the different topics has to present a challenge.
ANDRE BISHOP: It does, absolutely does.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Well I know that Lincoln Center Theater has offered a few virtual programs to engage fans and families during the COVID crisis, and you’ve both streamed shows and made videos available on your site of artists in conversation, people involved in Intimate Apparel, for example. Is that something you’ve been actively involved in?
ANDRE BISHOP: Yes, and I mean, I think we have a ways to go. I think the key that we all realize is that you have to keep in touch with people, you have to keep in touch with your audience, you have to keep in touch with your artists, you have to keep in touch with your donors, you have to keep in touch with your board, and you have to keep in touch with your staff, with each other. And, certainly these things that so many of us are sending out, some quite elaborate, some rather simple, you know, webinars and streaming and all of that, are important to keep the idea that “XYZ theatre” is a going concern and it’s out there, and here’s an example of their work. I mean, we were very lucky that a number of our shows were able to be shown, in various media, because of filming for Live from Lincoln Center, so, our production of Pipeline has been shown endlessly on various channels, and The King and I, and Act One, we’ve had a lot of shows filmed by Live from Lincoln Center. And almost all of them have been allowed to be released for the general public to see. So that’s been a great, great thing because they’re always very well made, very professionally done.
ELYSA GARDNER: Have you gotten feedback from people who, you know, might not necessarily have been able to come to New York to see these productions?
ANDRE BISHOP: Yeah. I mean, I don’t get so many letters but the marketing department does. And I think people are very appreciative, I mean we’ve had endless letters, and I’m sure many other theatres have this thing too, of how “we were unable to come to New York to see your production of Act One or whatever, and it was so wonderful to be able to see it, and of course it’s for free in our living room wherever. And I did get a few letters, I mean, people rarely write me, or if they do, the staff hides these letters [laughs].
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs]
ANDRE BISHOP: But I’ve gotten a few letters in the past, over the summer from just people, I guess some members – we don’t have, as you know, subscribers, we have members – or just the general public just saying “thank you so much, please hang in there. We’re rooting for you, we’ve been going to Lincoln Center Theater for 30 years. Please, please, take care of yourselves and your staff.” It’s been very moving to me. I mean, I’m not trying to say that 10 million letters like that arrive, but one letter like that is worth a million letters because it means so much to you, to me anyways.
ELYSA GARDNER: And what’s the morale been like among artists? The many artists that you work with?
ANDRE BISHOP: I think the morale is very mixed. Well, I think it’s very mixed for all of us. I think these are perilous times on many levels, quite scary times, changing times, we have this virus, we have protest, we have anxiety caused by uncertainty, and I think artists, you know, performing artists they want to get out and act and sing and dance, that’s what they do. And I think the other thing is, of course, there is great worry about money. About earning a living. About what’s going to happen to their savings or their nest egg. What’s going to happen to unemployment and all of that. I think people, and it isn’t just people in the arts, people in everything, are very concerned about their financial futures. And as the weeks go on, I think they get more concerned. We all do.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, weeks and months. Well, I do want to ask, before you leave us, about silver linings, which is what we’ve all been looking for right now. Wondering if the challenges that you’ve faced this year encouraged you or forced you for that matter to think outside the box more? And do you think they’ve provided lessons, not that you’ve not gone outside the box, but to maybe think in different ways, and have you had lessons you can draw on as things slowly get back to normal, whenever and whatever that will be?
ANDRE BISHOP: I would say yes and no. I mean, quite frankly, the bad things that have gone on, like this pandemic, and the fear about this election, are just bad things and I don’t think there is anything good to be taken from them. I think in terms of the fight for social justice, that is going to prove to be a very positive moment in the history of this country. And in the history of the arts. I think thinking outside the box is good, but because the of constraints, the health and safety of human beings, artists, audience, front of house, backstage, people in the lobby, all that, you know there’s only so much you can do online, there’s only so much streaming, there’s only so many buoyant messages you can pump out into the digital world. So that, I for example, and others don’t agree with me, I don’t think that seeing a play in a 1000 seat house like the Beaumont, with only 75 people there all sitting half a mile apart, wearing masks is thinking outside the box just to get the play on, because you’d have to completely rethink the play, rethink the staging, rethink everything. And that rethinking would not be artistic rethinking, it would be rethinking in terms of how the hell do we do this given the constraints we’re under? So, I’m not of the school that feels that all of this is going to eventually turn out to be good and we will have a better theatre for it. I think in terms of diversity and variety of work, yes. Absolutely, better. Absolutely, lutely better. But in terms of how do you manage how to get a play on, I’m not clear on that yet. I suppose everyone says, well when we have a vaccine that works. But I think what I’ve learned, since that’s the question you ask me, I’m a worrier. Not warrior, but worrier.
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs]
ANDRE BISHOP: I wish I was more of a warrior.
ELYSA GARDNER: You can be both!
ANDRE BISHOP: What I’ve learnt, having had a pretty long life and career, is that I’ve learnt a lesson that I’ve learnt as a kid, (and had a complicated childhood) is that I’ve learned how to survive in an atmosphere that I don’t especially like or feel comfortable, or in fact, rather frightened by. So I guess that’s a positive. But I can’t say that it’s an earth shattering positive. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] I hear you. Well hopefully we’ll be getting back to live theatre again.
ANDRE BISHOP: Yes, I mean I think we absolutely will, and we must believe that we will, and we will.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
ANDRE BISHOP: No question of that.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Andre—and please, stay safe!
ANDRE BISHOP: Well thank you, and the same to you!
ELYSA GARDNER: To learn more about what’s happening and what’s planned at Lincoln Center Theater, visit LCT.org.
And for all things Broadway, and to find tickets to your next show, visit BroadwayDirect.com. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening. And remember, it’s Only Intermission and we look forward to seeing you again on Broadway.