A grand old institution launches a bold new program of classic drama with the BAM Theater Company revival of Shakespeare's haunting romance "The Winter's Tale" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The official opening Feb. 16 follows more than a year of planning and five months of preparation by artistic director David Jones and his colleagues.
As the season progresses, the BAM troupe will introduce what many consider the ultimate ideal for institutional theater -- a rotating repertory. This traditional fixture of European playmaking has seldom proved successful in the United States. BAM's venture is therefore doubly daring.
"The Winter's Tale" will be joined on Feb. 27 by "Johnny on a Spot," a 1941 Charles MacArthur farce about political shenanigans in Dixie. Next, on April 6, will come Gorky's "Barbarians," Mr. Jones being a Gorky specialist. It will be followed by "He and She," Rachel Crothers' 1911 comedy about women's independence.Like "Johnny on a Spot," it comes under the heading of American plays waiting to be rediscovered. The final production of the first season will be "The Marriage Dance," described as "an evening of farce" -- a double bill composed of "A Wedding," by Bertolt Brecht, and "The Purging," by Georges Feydeau.
Mr. Jones came to Brooklyn with an impressive accumulation of credits and credentials. The Welsh-born Cambridge University graduate has been for 14 years an associate director of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company and has been a visiting director at the Stratford Festival of Canada. A onetime film documentarian, he has also produced and directed major drama programs for the BBC.
In 1975, in one of the RSC's three visits to the Brooklyn Academy, Gorky's "Summerfolk" and Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost" -- both staged by Mr. Jones -- made a strong impression on local audiences and critics. They also clearly impressed Harvey Lichtenstein, BAM's president and chief executive officer. The rest is history in the making.
For now, the company will be without stars, although the management would, from time to time, welcome the idea of augmenting its casts with big-name players. But developing a strong ensemble is the immediate priority preoccupation. The roster of 33 players, chosen after extensive interviews and auditions, draws for its strengths on actors and actresses who have proven their abilities both here in New York and with major North American institutional theaters. The starting troupe, whose members have signed up for a 24-week season, includes Brian Murray, Jerome Dempsey, Roxanne Hart, John Heffernan, Laurie Kennedy, Frank and Marni Maraden, and Norman Snow. Beginning next season , Arthur Penn will join the enterprise as associate director.
Launching new production ventures costs a lot of money and the BAM Theater Company is no exception. A similar effort three years ago foundered partly because of insufficient funding.It will require at least $1 million a year to operate the repertory for the next three years. Besides the approximately 10, 000 subscribers already signed up, the academy has attracted impressive financial support from public and private donors, foundations, and businesses. Last year the Ford Foundation started things off with a $400,000 two-for-one matching grant. BAM's trustees have since raised the matching $800,000.
Other sizable contributions have included $150,000 from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, a $150,000 grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, and Helena Rubinstein Foundations. Recently, the Theater Development Fund, a nonprofit support organization, bought 2,000 tickets for resale through the groups it services.
According to Mr. Lichtenstein, the BAM Theater Company is "the only classically based company in New York." It thus becomes part of a venerable institution which has been serving Brooklynites and their fellow New Yorkers for 119 years -- 72 of them in the handsome old building at 30 Lafayette St.Other components of the performing-arts program include dance, jazz, and country music concerts, chamber music, and symphony concerts by the Brooklyn Philharmonia.
The BAM building, at present in the process of a $3.5 million renovation, houses four auditoriums: the 2,100-seat gilt-and-white Opera House, the 1,078 -seat Carey Playhouse, the Lepercq Space, which can accommodate up to 600 people , and the fourth-floor 199-seat Little Theater. The first four BAM Theater Company productions will be mounted in the Carey Playhouse. The Brecht-Weill "Evening of Farce" will be done in the Lepercq Space, an informally arranged area highly suitable for directorial fun and games.