Jeff Zinn: Keeping Company With Robert Brustein And Ryan Landry

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Jeff Zinn. (Dan Vaillancourt)
Jeff Zinn. (Dan Vaillancourt)

When the Elliot Norton Awards committee asked me to present the award for Outstanding New Script this coming Monday night I could hardly resist as two of the three playwrights involved form bookends on two of the most significant chapters in my theatrical life.

I've never been asked to present an award before. Free associating on the word "presenter" calls to mind the slightly sheepish appearance of those former Oscar winners who haven't been nominated for anything, but still want to keep their faces before the public. In fact last year I accepted the "Outstanding New Script" award for “Bakersfield Mist” which I had directed at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) and which then transferred to New Repertory Theatre.

I inquired what the protocol for presenters might be. Would I give a short speech of some kind or just recite the nominees? No, just a brief intro, and then open the envelope and announce the winner.

Too bad, I thought. No rambling anecdotes about how Robert Brustein was my mentor at the American Repertory Theater or my efforts to produce Ryan Landry at WHAT. Instead, I was offered space here to talk about Brustein and Landry. (Alas, the third nominee, Alan Brody, and I never crossed paths.)

Robert Brustein. (Photo by Bachrach Studio, courtesy of American Repertory Theater)
Robert Brustein. (Photo by Bachrach Studio, courtesy of American Repertory Theater)

When I was a student at the A.R.T. Institute I also happened to be in my first years as artistic director of WHAT so I made it a habit to closely observe Bob Brustein in his comings and goings. Everyone at the A.R.T. was always in a hurry, always stressed out, scurrying through the narrow hallways of the Loeb, fighting for the Xerox machine, battling deadlines. Bob would emerge from his lovely corner office from time to time (where I assumed he was penning his latest New Republic column) to wander the halls smiling serenely. One never quite knew what to say to Bob in those moments when we might encounter him in that hallway. What does one say to a god? I just tried to keep my head down. I would think to myself, “THAT’S what an Artistic Director does!”

Bob led our weekly seminar which was entitled “Rep Ideal” and it was. Ideal. When we weren’t visited by guest luminaries like Lindsay Crouse, Anne Bogart or Bill Irwin, Bob would speak to us in perfectly formed paragraphs, the ideas flowing effortlessly from decades of experience and erudition. I never did learn to do that. But Bob did teach me to gather together artists of the highest caliber and give them room to do their work. It was that impulse that drew me to Ryan Landry.

We had been bumping around the same sand bar — Cape Cod, that is — for years without ever actually connecting in the same professional orbit. We knew OF each other, of course. I ran the funky theater down by the harbor in Wellfleet. Ryan’s theater was so funky it made my funky theater look like the Paramount. All of his productions were being mounted with almost no resources in spaces that weren’t really theaters, and yet the work being produced was exceptional. Eventually I got to build a real theater in Wellfleet. A 220 seat jewel box we called The Julie Harris Stage. At WHAT we had the space and an aesthetic that was edgy enough to make room for a Ryan Landry gender-bending production. So I went to him and asked if he’d like to do something with us.

Ryan Landry in "The Little Pricks."  (Photo, Michael von Redlich)
Ryan Landry in "The Little Pricks." (Photo, Michael von Redlich)

Ryan said yes. Or maybe he said “sure kid.” (He likes to call people kid for some reason.) But it would have to be on his terms. “What’s the deal?" He asked. The normal thing would be for us to mount the production, assume all the expenses, and pay a fee to the director and royalties to the writer. Ryan was both, so he’d get both. “What’s your expense budget for a show at WHAT?” he asked. I told him. “OK” he said “Give me all of it and let me spend it the way I want. Then you can keep all the ticket money.” He was obviously going to take the money, mount the show in his own way (I imagined the Landry sweatshops with his company, the Gold Dust Orphans, hunched over, sewing sequins) paying his people what he would decide to pay them, and keep the rest for himself. I said yes.

Next we had to decide which show we would do. He wanted to create something new for us. “How about ‘The Little Pricks’ based on ‘The Little Foxes?’ " This is where I started to smell trouble — with the Board. “Uh ... what else ya got?” I asked. “I have it!" he announced. “Pussy on the House!’ " [A much-acclaimed production half saluting, half sending up Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in which Landry played Big Mama.]

The reaction from the board and the end of the story arrives in a word – NO.

I never would have had any trouble mounting ‘Pussy on the House” at our original space near the Harbor, in the days when a board meeting was me and my co-artistic director meeting for coffee next door at Uncle Frank's. Maybe that says all that needs to be said about why I am no longer the Artistic Director at WHAT.

And the winner is…

Jeff Zinn teaches theater at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark University. He will direct “Fool For Love” for the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet this August.

This program aired on May 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.