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George Street’s New Man

This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on January 7, 1998. All rights reserved.

@INITIAL CAP+ = Here’s to a great time for the both of us, David.

I know that we can still change the face of theater. If not us who?

Love, Jonathan." David Saint reads these words from a note written

to him by his close friend and theater collaborator, the late Jonathan

Larson. A few months later, the composer would be dead, but his show

"Rent" would be running, winner of the Tony Award and Pulitzer

Prize. A year later Saint expresses the significance of the note in

a press conference as he prepares to take the reins as artistic

director

of the George Street Playhouse. Saint succeeds Gregory F. Hurst who

resigned hastily in July, 1997, after nine years at the helm.

Saint’s large eyes open wide as he looks around the rehearsal space

just off the lobby of the George Street theater, used on occasion

for performances by small outside theater groups. "Wouldn’t this

be just perfect for a second stage to develop new plays?" says

Saint during a conversation following the press conference. I’m

curious

to know if Saint thinks it is possible to alter or change the

character

of an established subscription audience. "You don’t pander to

the audience, you must make them stretch and do the best that you

can," says Saint who assures me that he will be out among the

audience at intermission and after shows listening to their comments.

One could easily go on listening to Saint talk of his love of theater.

But who would expect Saint’s family history to be so adventurously

embroidered? Born in Boston in 1959, and raised in Cape Cod, David

was named after his great-great-grandfather, a sea captain, whose

ship was wrecked off the coast of Cape Cod at an area now know as

Saint’s Landing. A formal Jesuit education and time spent in a

seminary

contemplating a life in religion preceded Saint’s admittance to

another

Jesuit institution, Holy Cross College in Worcester. While Saint now

says he wasn’t cut out for the priesthood, T.S. Eliot’s "Murder

in the Cathedral" is a play he would consider directing.

No one in Saint’s family had ever been connected with the theater,

except that Joseph, the youngest of his five brothers, is now a

lighting

designer. He allows that Eva Marie Saint is a third cousin, or

something.

"I was always acting," says Saint. "Right through school,

every summer I did summer stock. The minute I graduated from college,

I moved to New York and took classes with Uta Hagen." Good breaks

and talent landed Saint roles at the Public Theater, the Phoenix,

Playwrights Horizons, and the Manhattan Theater Club. But Saint adds

that it wasn’t until he began coaching other actors, like Diane Wiest

and Douglas Hughes, that the idea of directing came to him.

Interestingly it was Saint who succeeded Hughes (director of

"Wonderful

Tennessee" at McCarter last season) in his job at the Seattle

Repertory Company when Hughes left to take over the Guthrie Theater

in Minneapolis. Saint directed many productions as a freelancer at

Seattle beginning in 1990, achieving the title of associate artistic

director in 1996.

Saint, who has completed his last season at Seattle

Rep, is also no stranger to theater in New Jersey. He has directed

plays in recent seasons at McCarter (the world premiere of the one

act, "My Mother, Then and Now," by Wendy Wasserstein), Paper

Mill Playhouse ("The Foreigner"), and the American Stage

("Billy

Bishop Goes to War," which included Jonathan Larson in the cast).

"Somehow I feel that Jonathan is sending me back to New Jersey

to finish the work." Saint says that it is too soon to talk about

making changes at George Street until "they learn about me and

I learn about them." He expresses his enthusiasm for reexamining

the classics, but says the one thing he is sure about is the

development

of new works, which he calls "the life-blood of the theater."

At this stage, Saint says it is imperative that staff work together

to build up the theater. "Because of its size, George Street

Theater

is much more hospitable to the kind of play that I like to do than

Seattle Rep, a big hall of 860 seats." Saint talks of this being

a great moment in time in New Brunswick, where he sees a real

renaissance

of the arts emerging, notably nurtured and supported by the New

Brunswick

Cultural Center.

"This is an exciting day for the George Street Playhouse,"

announced board president Clarence Lockett, as he introduced George

Street’s new artistic director to the press. Lockett, an ordained

minister, is eager to share the news that Saint had himself spent

time in a seminary. "Yes, I did spend time in the seminary, but

I climbed the wall. I couldn’t face the future as Father Saint,"

he interjects.

Lockett is not shy about expressing his feeling that George Street

is "blessed" with this particular Saint’s arrival, notably

as the theater will begin its 25th year next season. The introduction

was, in fact, notable for the display of feelings as Lockett turned

to thank Wendy Liscow ("She prevented me from having sleepless

nights"), the associate artistic director whose leadership and

direction, during the interim, kept George Street on its artistic

path.

Saint arrives at the theater during a prosperous time. Lockett

confirms

that the theater has run with an operational surplus for the past

seven years. Saint joins forces with another newcomer, Tom Werder,

who took the position of managing director this past summer. This

leads Lockett to view this addition of two energetic young men as

"visionary."

Leading the search for a new artistic director, following the sudden

and swift departure of Hurst, was Bill Hagaman, the board’s vice

president.

Assisted by an 11-member search committee, which in turn was led

through

each intricate step of the search and selection process by Werder,

Hagaman was determined to make the selection by January 1. Besides

taking advantage of the committee’s contacts within the theatrical

community for a list of candidates, Hagaman commends the press (with

distinct irony) for "letting everyone know that a position was

available." Out of the 34 to 40 submissions were a dozen

impressive

candidates, among them Wendy Liscow, then acting artistic director,

who were singled out for personal interviews.

"We interviewed many talented people, but in David Saint we

believe

that we’ve found someone whose experience as an artist, and his strong

rapport with the national theater community will attract the finest

talent to George Street Playhouse," says Hagaman. Awarded the

Alan Schneider Award, a $10,000 award from the Theater Communications

Group to a promising mid-career director, the 38-year-old Saint has

won numerous awards for direction, including a Los Angeles Drama

Critics

Award, and the Helen Hayes Award.

Sealing Saint’s appointment, however, was an endorsement received

from noted playwright Wendy Wasserstein in which she wrote, "Saint

was intelligent, forthright, highly skilled, and somehow

simultaneously

warm and accessible, the sort of man who can create the best kind

of theater community."

Revealing how the process of picking an artistic director was as

time-consuming

as it was rewarding, Hagaman says, "it has energized us as board

members and put us 100 percent behind our new artistic director."

That the board has also been 100 percent behind acting artistic

director

Liscow during this difficult transitional phase may lead some of us

to ponder her future at George Street, now that she has not moved

up to the top job.

"I’ve been involved with over 65 productions during the past nine

seasons, now going into my tenth," says Liscow, who says she is

ready to hand over the reins to Saint in January. This, although the

balance of this season will continue under her artistic supervision.

One would have to be deaf and blind not to pick up the genuine emotion

behind Liscow’s welcome to Saint, particularly in light of being a

co-contender. "Saint has been touching souls," says Liscow,

referring to the letters of recommendation (Liscow called them

"love

songs") that poured in from world-class playwrights, designers,

and actors. There is a slight catch in Liscow’s throat as she says,

"I look forward to working with you and good luck."

New Brunswick now has a Saint in the city," are

the apt words Hagaman chooses to acknowledge the new artistic

director.

"It takes an act of bravery to create theater in this day and

age," says Saint, who also lets us know that it is the artistic

director who is the person "most responsible for creating a safe

home for the artist. This home has to be built on a series of

relationships,

and I particularly treasure the relationships I brought with me today.

It’s great to have friends rally round." At this point he casts

a big smile toward actress-playwright Anne Meara and author-playwright

Arthur Laurents, in attendance as a gesture of their support.

Introducing Laurents, Saint calls him "the most principled man

I know," and a protector of what Saint calls "the innocence

of truth." Saint shares the memory of his first job in the

theater:

a non-union summer stock production of "Gypsy" in New

Hampshire,

in which he played nine roles, staged managed, and pulled the curtain.

"I was hooked," says Saint, reminding us that it was Laurents

who wrote the book for "Gypsy," the musical that many people

consider the greatest of all American musicals. Mutual admiration

is apparent as Laurents responds with, "I don’t know of any

director

working in today’s theater who is more skilled in finding the

emotional

truth in the play and in the actors than David. I think you are very

lucky to have him."

Saint received accolades for directing Meara’s first play, "After

Play," successfully produced Off-Broadway a few seasons back.

That collaboration was the beginning of a firm friendship ("I

was white knuckled and he was my mentor") that would bring Meara

back to George Street. Not surprisingly, Meara’s affectionate remarks

about Saint and his abilities ("You’re in good hands with David

Saint") end on a funny note when she unabashedly reminds everyone

of the professional actor’s eternal quest. "I hope to do something

with you here David . . . that is if you . . ." Her voice was

unable to rise over the laughter and applause, both for herself and

the new artistic director who sees himself as "an evangelist of

the theater," and the one who has taken to heart Larson’s words,

"If not us, who?"

— Simon Saltzman

At George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New

Brunswick,

732-246-7717.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Christopher Sergel’s adaptation

of Harper Lee’s Southern, coming-of-age novel. January 24 to

February

28.

Voices in the Dark, a psychological thriller by John

Pielmeier.

March 7 to April 5.

Council of Thirty, the world premiere of a drama by Bob

Clyman that centers on a child custody battle. Wendy Liscow directs.

April 11 to May 3.

Old Wicked Songs, Jon Marans’ Pulitzer nominee, about

an American piano prodigy assigned to take vocal lessons from an

elderly

Viennese teacher. May 16 to June 7.


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