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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
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
to know if Saint thinks it is possible to alter or change the
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
contemplating a life in religion preceded Saint’s admittance to
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
designer. He allows that Eva Marie Saint is a third cousin, or
"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
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
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
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
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
of the arts emerging, notably nurtured and supported by the New
"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,"
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
Saint arrives at the theater during a prosperous time. Lockett
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
Leading the search for a new artistic director, following the sudden
and swift departure of Hurst, was Bill Hagaman, the board’s vice
Assisted by an 11-member search committee, which in turn was led
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
a non-union summer stock production of "Gypsy" in New
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
working in today’s theater who is more skilled in finding the
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
of Harper Lee’s Southern, coming-of-age novel. January 24 to
March 7 to April 5.
Clyman that centers on a child custody battle. Wendy Liscow directs.
April 11 to May 3.
an American piano prodigy assigned to take vocal lessons from an
Viennese teacher. May 16 to June 7.
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