David Wheeler and the Theater Company of Boston Remembered
Here’s a story I wrote about David Wheeler, who died last week, and his marvelous theater in Boston, which predeceased him. I got to know David when he was at Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, but I didn’t write about his A.R.T. years here. This is the story of the theater he created and the theater artists he created through it. My piece appeared in TheaterWeek magazine, November 6, 1995. This appears exactly as I wrote it then, except for added hyperlinks.
Scenes from Boston:
David Wheeler Directs
“The party scene was dead, dreadful,” Bronia Stefan Wheeler recalls. The fellow playing her uncle in Chekhov’s Country Scandal listened from the wings, hearing and understanding what wasn’t happening. “He made his entrance on all fours, like a drunk dog, and the audience howled.” One actor told the producer to fire the kid who did the peeing dog, but David Wheeler appreciates an actor who changes a scene to save it. He kept Dustin Hoffman.
Wheeler who co-founded the Theater Company of Boston (TCB) in 1963 and served as its artistic director though its ten-year life, has a knack for finding talent as well as keeping it. One actor, who auditioned then and since, describes the auditioning experience: “First of all, he makes actors feel totally welcome. We all sit around in a semi-circle and read parts, and he’ll just switch parts on actors. You’d spend two hours in a room and you never felt you were being looked at, and then the part was assigned to you as though you were part of an ongoing thing. I was already in the play,” says Al Pacino.
Ralph Waite was tending bar and drinking too much when Wheeler gave him his break. He feels the director isn’t as well known as TCB actors because he’s egoless. “I’ve seen people blow up at David, and he doesn’t react. It’s not that he’s a wimp. He just doesn’t take it personally. Once, Bobby Duvall was dying and a song came on instead of a gunshot. It ruined the whole ending, and Bobby screamed as any actor who had given so much to a part would. David was good humored and contrite.”
In 1960, Paul Benedict left the Charles Playhouse, which he had house-managed, to co-found the Image Theater. It ran out of money after three successful seasons. “About the time we folded, David came up from New York with Naomi Thornton to begin a company at the Hotel Bostonian, near the Fennway. Naomi produced. David Directed.” And Benedict acted and directed like never before.
An American history and lit major at Harvard, with a part-time production assistant job at a TV station and a husband studying at Harvard Business School, Stockard Channing says she was “the least likely candidate” for an acting career when she began “moonlighting on moonlighting” at TCB, She was to audition with a two-character scene. When nobody showed up to read with her, Channing did both parts, landing her first off-campus role and opening a new career possibility: “It was the atmosphere, the people, the endeavor. The Theater Company was all about new playwrights,” she says. “I didn’t realize how rare it would be. It was the tail end of what we took for granted in regional theater…the desire to be innovative, fresh.”
“Everyone loved to come to Boston,” Waite recalls. “We worked in scroungy places, but David picked wonderful deep material and gave us free reign. He’s very articulate about the complexities of the play. He would have been a major scholar if he hadn’t wanted to get into the dirt and nonsense of the theater.”
TCB did Brecht and Beckett, Campus and Sartre, Arden and Behan and several Pinters with the playwright’s blessing. When Pinter saw Wheeler’s production of Albee’s Tiny Alice at TCB, he stayed to talk to the cast. Wheeler directed Jon Voight in the American premiere of The Dwarfs, on a double bill with The Local Stigmatic, featuring Pacino. Playwright Heathcote Williams provided new transitional material for the 52-minute film Pacino later made of Stigmatic, which can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Wheeler has ongoing relationships with American playwrights, too. Albee once asked him to go to Paris in his stead to stage Zoo Story. Neil Barron, associate director of Trinity Rep where Wheeler has staged plays classic and modern, says the director never imposes an extrinsic concept: “The play is the concept,” says Barron. He’ll find the right ingredients [to realize it], watch what happens, then make it happen. I think of him as a kind of theater chemist.”
Wheeler says he urges playwrights to deal with the practical as well as the literary, to cut an element that has been worked enough, for instance, or to restructure scenes. When a playwright isn’t around, he does it for him. Recently, Wheeler heightened the witches in his PlayMakers Rep production of Macbeth, allowing them to enter individually, explore until each discovers a gourd of blood, raise the blood above them before an open trap, and pour it in as a bloody sergeant rises. “The witches dominate this world,” he says.
Some, but not all, living playwrights appreciate Wheeler’s contributions. “I hate to discover a playwright’s vision is narrower than mine,” Wheeler says, adding that he’ll only use actors who can work “in love and fun. This is the last cottage industry. We create as a group.”
Actors open to his process return after their careers take off. In 1975, Pacino did Brecht’s Arturo Ui for Wheeler, and he let the director convince him to tackle his first professional Shakespeare. Richard III was a huge success in Boston in 1973. Wheeler used mikes and flash cameras to suggest the paranoia of the Nixon White House, and staged the play in a Boston cathedral that he feels helped bridge the centuries. “Al wanted to recapture that in New York in 1979,” says Wheeler, and the two searched for a church, but weekend services interfered. Broadway producers, who felt Pacino could carry the show, didn’t invest sufficiently in other elements, Wheeler felt, and most critics trashed the Broadway production. Pacino has been interviewing Shakespearean players as well as spectators for a docudrama on Richard III. Wheeler’s son, Lewis, a student at the American Film Institute, was an assistant editor and camera man on the project.
Pacino says Wheeler’s shows mature with time because “he operated in such a way as to allow actors the freedom to develop things for themselves and to use their imaginations. He would set the stage for that. David’s productions usually manifest [themselves] after a month’s run,” he says, wishing critics had seen David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel into the run. “I think they would have recognized his momentous achievement.”
Wheeler and Pacino fared much better with Pavlo Hummel, however, in Boston in 1972 and later on Broadway. The pair waited five years for rights to pass from Joseph Papp’s control to bring it in, but the wait was worth it. “Pavlo Hummel was a major piece of work” says Pacino, who took the Tony for his role in it in 1977.
David Rabe loved the first production but felt that some things that worked in the three quarter round at the Charles Theater in Boston suffered behind a Broadway proscenium. “I asserted those opinions strongly,” says Rabe, who was impressed by Wheeler’s flexibility and has worked with him several times since. “He saw the problem and opened it right up.”
Recently back from Portugal, where he directed Camino Real, Wheeler lives in a Boston suburb with his wife, Bronia. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he currently introduces Harvard undergraduates to the elements of theater and directing; he teaches only one semester each year so he can guest direct outside Boston the other.
Although he tells students how he works with actors, he doesn’t often tell the performers. Jeremy Geidt, a senior actor at the American Rep in Cambridge, where Wheeler has been a resident director since 1984, finds him a “gentle and encouraging director. He is disciplined but not a disciplinarian” who can work under great pressure and get terrific performances. How exactly? “He’s a theatrical mystery man,” says Geidt.
“I tell my directing students, ‘Know during rehearsals what’s there in front of you isn’t enough. Stay open and keep dreaming over possibilities,’” says Wheeler. Sometimes, actors see him in this state. “There are times when you’re in the middle of a scene in rehearsal and he nods off,” says Pacino. “David’s always on his way to someplace else, and yet he is magnificent and I love him very much.”
Wheeler completed a pre-med program and studied psychology while majoring in English at Harvard. A fellowship took him to France to pursue psychiatry, but a close look at the distance between psychiatrists and patients convinced him he belonged in literature. He returned to Harvard to do a master’s in comparative lit, where his classmate, critic John Simon, recalls that he did “terrific impersonations of our teacher Harry Levin” and others.
After Harvard, Wheeler took a workshop with Jose Quintero, who hired him as his assistant for at time. Wheeler’s foray into psychiatry was part of his directorial apprenticeship, too, for it taught him that “another person has a mind and history that’s entirely different from yours.” He sees the director as a kind of shrink, and rehearsals can resemble group therapy sessions, for good psychiatrists and directors both set people free. Wheeler says his job is to “keep imaginations active and energies working all the time…That way, you will not be looked to as the source of all answers. You won’t be exhausted by rehearsals. You’ll be nourished by their thoughts.” Wheeler has directed more than 150 plays without ever canceling a rehearsal. After a fall once, he showed up on crutches.
He appreciates actors who are open, and when faced with one who isn’t, Wheeler sometimes turns an open actor loose. “If someone goes to work in a surprising way, you can create change,” he says. Barron says Wheeler sometimes whispers an instruction to one actor designed to elicit a response from another when put into motion. In 1971, Wheeler served as Michael Langham’s assistant at the Guthrie, where he directed A Touch of the Poet. The show drew raves from local critics and from Clive Barnes, who came from the New York Times to see a production that had been in deep trouble. The lead, “a terrific actor with terrific stresses” didn’t connect to the character until Wheeler set a creative actor free.
“I insist on creating life,” Wheeler says with an intensity that is unusual for this mild-mannered man. “I’m not going to be bored in the theater or at rehearsals. I want surprise and challenge.”
Spontaneity often saved shows at TCB. Once, an actor didn’t show for a performance of Endgame. Wheeler recruited Benedict, who didn’t know the play, put a script and flashlight in the barrel with him, and told him to pop out, deliver a line, go under, and learn another. Benedict recalls the moment an intense actor “with an amazing face” looked down at him. Dustin Hoffman continued to act as he looked deep in the barrel and “emitted this amazing laugh.”
Another night, when an actor failed to show for Pinter’s The Room, “David went into the lobby and brought a large black man on stage,” Benedict says. He gave the man a script, told him to stand with his back to the audience, and the play went on.
Spontaneity improved shows for the audience, too. “Blythe [Danner] cut into the row where Elliott Norton, the distinguished white haired critic from the Globe sat,” and she suddenly threw herself on Norton’s lap, screamed. ‘This man pinched me’ and slapped him. None of us knew she would do that,” says Benedict. Norton raved.
Wheeler lost many actors to Hollywood, replacing the best with more of the best. Venues were not so easy to replace. The TCB moved every two years at least, and worked under traumatic conditions. Once, after finding space in a second hotel and announcing a season, the bank foreclosed on the building. Trustees allowed the theater to occupy the vacant space until the end of the season. Building codes required $42,000 in repairs on TCB’s next home. The theater never drew the support needed to replace that money, even though it played to enthusiastic critics and audiences. “Boston has always been an odd town for theater,” Benedict reflects. “They claim they support it, but the Puritan days hang on.”
Alumni have gotten together to do plays Wheeler directs at assorted not-for-profit theaters and in New York. Benedict believes the TCB is still alive in that way: “David Wheeler,” he says, “is the Theater Company of Boston.”
=Photo: Left to right, Al Pacino, David Wheeler, Robert Brustein. Photo courtesy of the American Repertory Theatre
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