The play's his thing

Artistic director Jon Jory is happy to talk theory. But he learned

By , Arts and television correspondent of The Christian Science

To look into Jon Jory's life story is to read a history of the American theater. Mr. Jory has had a long and distinguished career as the artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL), one of the most innovative regional theaters, which develops new plays and talents every year.

During his 30 years at ATL, he has seen many changes in the American theater.

Not all of them have been good.

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He has seen how television, for example, has altered theater by making plays shorter. Performances used to run 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 hours. Now, he says, two hours is long, and 90 minutes is the norm.

On the other hand, he has seen fascinating experimental works enter the mainstream. Playwrights David Mamet, Richard Foreman, Anne Bogart, Robert Wilson, and Tina Landau have altered the way we think about theater.

Jory's parents, Victor Jory and Jean Innes, were stage stars who became important character actors in the movies. And since he loved being with his parents, he spent every minute he could from early childhood on watching them work - and learning their craft. He had an Actor's Equity card by the time he was six years old.

"The great untold story in American theater," Jory says, "was the 40-week stock companies that went from the late teens until the advent of the talking film - they would do 40 plays in 40 weeks, and there were 1,400 of them across the United States." His parents played leading roles in several different companies - during which time they did 280 plays in seven years.

"When the talkies came in, these stock companies were lost - all 1,400 of them - in about four years.... This whole generation of stock-company actors went out to Hollywood and became that incredibly brilliant group of American character actors from the late '20s to the '50s."

But even while they made their splash on the big screen, those who had come of age on stage - among them Dana Andrews, Robert Preston, Lloyd Nolan, Victor Jory, and their wives - formed a group called 18 Actors in Los Angeles. "They did four or five plays a year, very often classics, and they would sell out for the year in a day. They rehearsed in their homes, and we had the best living room for rehearsals, so I would sit in my jammies on the stairs and watch them rehearse Strindberg and Ibsen and Chekhov, and other popular plays of the day, hugging my teddy bear. It never even occurred to me that I would do anything else."

His teacher? The theater

By age 13, the young Jory was already directing. Over the years he would direct his parents in nine plays, all of them American classics. The theater educated him, in addition to feeding and housing him and supplying meaningful work. "I always had a bit of a hard time in school," he says. "I've really been educated by the theater - which is a great educational institution...."

Jory attended the University of Utah, dropped out to follow his acting career at the Cleveland Playhouse, then went into the Army, where he continued to direct. (The Army, he says, produces more plays than any other entity in the country.) After his Army service, he went to Yale University to study playwriting and helped start the Long Wharf Theatre company in New Haven, Conn. Then he made his way to a struggling young company, Actors Theatre, in Louisville, Ky.

He found his real home at Actors Theatre, where he built a fine resident core company of eight actors. "I was directing [plays] around the country a little bit, but then I just couldn't get out of here!" Jory says. "It always just stayed interesting enough that there was no way to leave."

Actress Adale O'Brien met Jory at the Cleveland Playhouse 40 years ago, when they acted together in several productions. Ten years later, he invited her to become a member of the Actors Theatre during his first season, and she has lived and worked in Louisville ever since.

With true resident companies all but fading from American cities, her tenure is as unusual as Jory's.

"I think of him as a 'reluctant visionary' because he simply doesn't want to admit to that," Ms. O'Brien says. "But ... there's a whole bunch of ways to be a visionary. Anne Bogart is a visionary on one level, and Jon is a visionary in another. What he has done building a theater is a very pragmatic, realistic vision. But it's a miracle, too. We have here, possibly, one of the best theaters in the world."

During Jory's tenure at ATL, the theater's annual budget has blossomed from $250,000 to $8.3 million. "In the beginning, I think it was simple," he says. "We did good work that people had no problem understanding. We were lively ... committed, energetic, and determined, as you are when you are young."

His guiding principle has always been to interest and entertain himself. "It takes so much energy to do this work, you have to seek personal rewards in it," he says. "So, it was always to work with people I wanted to work with, or to do a play I wanted to do. I had always been interested in new writing. And I had always loved the traditions of the theater, so I wanted to do Shakespeare and Molire."

Theories of theater

Theater craftsmen earlier this century were more practical and less theoretical than actors and directors today, he says. "If you'd asked my father about his theories about the theater, he wouldn't have had any. But he would have had a number of tips. That used to be one of the ways actors greeted each other: 'How are you doing? You got any tips for me?' It had to do with common techniques. [It] had to do with handling an entrance or exit, with sitting down or standing up, with builds in language, with how to set a curtain line."

These are two worlds: the theoretical world, and the practical world, and you have to know both, he says. It's a good thing, since so much of what is happening in the theater today has to do with competing or complementary theatrical theories.

"You know, the argument in American theater right now is whether character exists," Jory says. "It's powerfully argued and not just by intellectuals. It's because of the rise of action-based theory, which tells us we have an action here, something we want the other person in the room to do, to feel, or to understand. Then we have the tactics with which we try to achieve the action. There are some obstacles that make it hard to achieve the action.

"Action-based theorists say that is character. If you play the action, you understand the obstacle, and you use tactics - there is no character beyond that. It has basically arisen from David Mamet's 'practical aesthetics' theory."

Practical aesthetics produces some fine acting in the right circumstances, Jory says, though he continues to ask himself "If there is no character, who's doing the action?"

Clinging to theory has an important function in acting, Jory says. "It helps relax the actor. Fear is the biggest problem that stands between the actor and performance." The fear most actors face, he says, amounts to "do I deserve to be up here in front of people...?"

Something for everyone

In choosing a season of plays, he tries to achieve a balance, something for everyone. Young people are drawn to stories that reflect their concerns. And the same can be said for children and adults. But if a theater director tries to operate too far outside his or her own authentic emotional base, he cautions, the results can be disastrous. For example, his production of "Nunsense," which was a phenomenal moneymaker elsewhere around the country, bombed so badly in Louisville, it took months to recover.

So Jory programs the way most regional companies do: a couple of musicals, traditional Christmas fare, a comedy or two, and, of course, the classics.

These are crowd-pleasers that make it possible to do more experimental work: new plays. Each year his theater hosts the Humana Festival of New American Plays, which draws press and theater professionals from around the globe.

"How would somebody do a bunch of new plays in Louisville, Kentucky?" he asks. "We found a way - it was a festival. And it was terrific, it had many advantages. One of the advantages was that the subscriber audience didn't have to see all the plays if they didn't want to."

So Jory was free to build something new - often offbeat, but always revealing the state of American theater.

"Regional theater is at that point where something [new] is being born out of that already existing structure," he says. "It is preparing for significant change. I'd say the theater is in flux, difficult to judge - sometimes more repetitive than it should be, but healthy enough to create a new theater around America for a new century."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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