A man for all media has a dream come true
New York — `I HAVE had my share of success and failure. I have done a number of shows which pleased me and some of which I am deeply ashamed. But, overall, my life as an Entertainer has been a ball!'' So said John Houseman almost 25 years ago, in a speech reprinted near the end of ``Entertainers and the Entertained,'' his latest book. It's a collection of essays he has written and published over the course of his distinguished career as a producer, director, teacher, author, and -- remember ``The Paper Chase'' on film and television? -- a most popular actor.
Visiting him recently in his elegant Manhattan apartment, I found Mr. Houseman as energetic and enthusiastic as ever.
His involvement in the entertainment world continues at full strength, and his familiarity with the latest show-biz phenomena -- from rock shows to avant-garde spectacles -- is as keen as his knowledge of theatrical history from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Orson Welles and Neil Simon.
Best of all, a dream of his is about to come true. His admired troupe of repertory players, the Acting Company, will have its own New York home starting next Monday when the spanking new John Houseman Theater is officially dedicated on West 42nd Street.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony will be followed by a celebrity-studded benefit at the Plaza Hotel, meant to honor Houseman's five decades in the theater and to raise money for an Acting Company endowment fund in his name.
Houseman is a seasoned veteran of the arts, and these developments delight him. The theater opening is ``a very happy event,'' he says with a smile. Yet he hasn't lost his perspective on long-term problems in his field. He identifies some of the most basic ones in the last section of his new book -- another speech, this one written just last year, and more somber in its sentiments than the 1963 address that precedes it.
He notes, for example, that today's entertainers are ``not at all sure'' whether the theater -- which he calls the highest expression of human culture -- will ``continue to play its seminal part in the cultural life of generations to come.''
He also maintains that in today's mass-media world, a dubious form of ``democracy'' is leading to a crisis in the performing arts -- whereby an obsession with ratings and popularity causes quality and quantity to be confused, and a work of art is judged by ``the size of its audience rather than by the intensity or the nature of the emotions it provokes.''
Houseman has provoked many an emotion during his long career, and some have been intense by any standard -- a notorious example being the ``War of the Worlds'' radio broadcast he concocted with Orson Welles in 1938, which literally panicked some listeners. Controversies also greeted such diverse projects as a ``labor opera'' staged in the 1930s; the movie production of ``Citizen Kane,'' which Houseman helped prepare in the 1940s; and an attempt to sustain a serious arts-related TV show in the 1950s.
By contrast, Houseman won enormous popularity -- and an Oscar, too -- for his movie appearance in ``The Paper Chase,'' and became something of a TV star when it was converted into a weekly dramatic series.
Of his current activities, the most long-lived is his stewardship of the Acting Company, a 14-year-old troupe that presents a repertory of diverse plays while traveling to towns and cities everywhere -- with regular stops in New York, where the company will now have a base to call its own instead of relying on borrowed quarters. Its emphasis on excellent acting and time-tested plays is a vivid reflection of Houseman's own priori ties.
As he sees it, the Acting Company has two functions. ``One is to bring important plays . . . predominantly classical . . . to the country,'' he says. ``That means we play big cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. We also play very small cities, and sometimes universities that are situated in fairly small towns.''
The other function, he continues, ``is to give [young performers] a chance -- such as British actors have had for generations, and we've never had -- to learn their trade by going out for two or three years, playing a repertory of four or five very different plays . . . each night a different play. They develop a skill at classical acting, or any acting, that is almost impossible to achieve anywhere else.''
This is a demanding agenda, especially for a troupe that began as an outgrowth of Houseman's teaching at the Juilliard School, New York's prestigious arts academy, and still features mostly young performers.
``It's a very hard life,'' Houseman grants. ``We don't encourage them to stay longer than three years. . . . Some have come back a few years later and spent a year on the road with us. But by and large, three years is it.'' The group is small -- a financial pinch has limited it to 16 or 18 people lately -- and finds new members through auditions.
A troupe of company veterans -- the ``grown-up'' troupe, Houseman calls it -- is also in operation, on a less busy schedule.
Critics and other observers have given the Acting Company high marks for two achievements. One has been the presentation of many acclaimed individual productions, ranging in type and style from Shakespeare's obscure ``Pericles,'' set in a madhouse, to a two-evening suite of Tennessee Williams one-act plays -- to mention just a couple of examples from the past few years.
The other achievement has been the simple fact of staying in business as a touring repertory company, an awesomely hard task in the American theater world.
``It's very tough,'' Houseman agrees. ``It's very difficult and very expensive. . . . On several occasions, the big regional theaters have attempted touring companies, but usually within their own state. And even that has presented . . . great hazards of money and organization.''
When he founded the Acting Company with Margot Harley, the notion of touring -- rather than settling on or near Broadway, the hub of American theater -- was central to the project.
``I knew that we couldn't live in New York,'' he recalls. ``We've had too many evidences that New York -- at this moment and for the past 30 years -- does not really love, or like, repertory.''
Why should this be?
``It runs contrary to the whole structure of the commercial theater,'' Houseman says flatly. He also blames critics who have ``enormous difficulty accepting, or being interested in, the repertory business.''
This doesn't mean reviewers are plotting against repertory, but simply that ``every show is reviewed as an individual show,'' not as part of an ongoing artistic enterprise. The attitude becomes, ``Is this a hit or not a hit?'' rather than, ``Although the play itself is not as effective as the one they did three nights ago, it's wonderful to see this company working in a different realm.''
Instead of building up a body of work, therefore, a company is forced to generate hit after hit -- and audiences, Houseman says, ``are trained to believe in smash hits or failures, not in continuing theater.'' This is an ``unfortunate'' situation, in his view, but it ``has been the case for years'' and helps to explain ``the catastrophe of Broadway -- the economic and creative disaster that Broadway has become.''
Houseman sees no ready solution to this longstanding problem, or to other woes of today's theater, including the inflated costs of musicals and other large Broadway projects.
He also wishes that the Acting Company had the resources to increase its membership -- the classics tend to be ``large cast'' shows, he insists -- and that its ideal of top-quality repertory theater were more in demand by public and press.
Still, he takes the long view. ``It has always been a struggle,'' he says philosophically, noting that Shakespeare himself ``was constantly scrounging around and trying to get court engagements, because the court paid well and they were able to get a lot of cast-off costumes for nothing.''
And one gets the feeling that Houseman enjoys ``the struggle'' as much today as in past decades, when he plied his trade with such unorthodox troupes as the Negro Theatre Unit and the Mercury Theatre. He's one entertainer who's still ``having a ball.''