This tale relates to my previous one about visiting art museums in Texas.
In July 1991, having already visited some impressive examples in Fort Worth and Dallas, I headed to another crossroads: Van, a city with fewer than 3,000 inhabitants.
How does one reach this dot on a map? I could have rented a car in Dallas and driven about 75 miles east. But being somewhat concerned about getting lost or stranded, I opted for a Greyhound bus.
I much enjoyed listening to the other passengers – all Black women – singing their hearts out on their way to a spiritual gathering. Then one lady rose, came over to my seat, jabbed me in the shoulder, and declared, “I can’t hear you!” I quickly replied, “I can’t remember the words,” rather than explain, “I’m Jewish!”
I was headed to Van to rendezvous with Adrian Hall, the tempestuous founding artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company, who passed away this February at 95 years of age. After returning to his boyhood home, Adrian was once again living comfortably with his elderly mother, Mattie, and an older sister, Syble.
As Trinity Rep’s archivist, I conducted oral history interviews with about 75 members of the company and other Hall colleagues and acquaintances from around the country.
During several of his visits to Providence, Adrian and I recorded about 15 hours of conversations. Then I foolishly proposed that we complete this epic while I spent a few uninterrupted days at his homestead in Van.
Having grown up in Los Angeles, I became a theater enthusiast long before the opening of downtown’s Music Center in 1964. Before moving to Providence in 1987, Betsey and I had also lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, where we much enjoyed visits to the Guthrie Theatre (and the adjacent Walker Art Center), which had been Trinity Rep’s slightly elder sister during the growth of America’s not-for-profit, regional theater movement.
So how did I end up working for Trinity in 1990? Well, using proper Rhode Island parlance, “I knew a guy.” He was Bruce Sundlun, the former president of Trinity Rep’s board, who was also the president of Temple Beth-El. Curiously, even while president of Trinity Rep, Bruce had never become a serious theater fan. While his own life was overflowing with drama, he was far more concerned about stabilizing an important local cultural institution, as he had previously accomplished with the Providence Performing Art Center. Indeed, Bruce had played an instrumental role in negotiating Adrian’s retirement, following his 25 years of brilliance and turmoil.
Bruce had grown up at Beth-El, in Providence, where his father, Walter, had twice served as president. Somewhat resembling his attachment to Trinity, Bruce was – I dare say – only nominally interested in Judaism. Rather than deepen his own understanding of spirituality, he chose to strengthen the temple’s bottom line. Probably because he didn’t know – or appreciate – the extent to which Trinity Rep had been shaped and partially sustained by Jews, Bruce never explained such issues to me. Or perhaps he reasoned that I could figure this out for myself.
With theater being his sanctuary, Adrian too had never been a religiously observant person. Indeed, just the opposite; he reveled in iconoclasm, joyfully smashing any and every symbol of respectability and convention. How ridiculous, therefore, that his most commercially successful production, staged with two longtime collaborators, Eugene Lee and Richard Cumming, became “A Christmas Carol.”
In March 1963, Milton Stanzler, a Jewish lawyer and theater aficionado, had become the founding chairman of the Foundation for Repertory Theater of Rhode Island. In 1995, he wrote a lengthy article, in Rhode Island History, the journal of the Rhode Island Historical Society, about how this company, under Adrian’s direction, evolved through various struggles and incarnations to become Trinity Rep.
Milton, who would become no less important in Rhode Island as a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, neglected to discuss the extent to which Trinity Rep had evolved from shows sponsored by Providence’s Jewish Community Center. One good example was “Guys and Dolls,” which was performed in 1962 on the stage of the RISD Auditorium. The stars of such productions – businessmen, lawyers and housewives –sought to reach beyond their amateurish ways.
Adrian, however, sought to build the nucleus of his own professional company, and this quickly happened. Thus, in 1963, Barbara Orson, a Jewish actress, singer and dancer in New York City (who lived in Providence with Jay, her pediatrician husband), became one of Trinity’s six founders. The three other Jewish founders were Lawrence Goldberg, Norman Tilles and Robert Kaplan, who had also been involved in JCC productions.
Even beyond Adrian’s messianic determination, there were numerous factors that led to Trinity Rep’s amazing growth. One was surely the flow of federal dollars. Indeed, Rhode Island’s senator, Claiborne Pell, had been instrumental in the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts. And RISD’s president, Albert Bush-Brown, became a founding member of its advisory board, the National Council on the Arts.
How ironic that a professional theater company nurtured by Jews found its first home in a reconfigured auditorium on Broad Street owned by Trinity United Methodist Church!
Later, a Jewish family, the Lederers, became Trinity’s major benefactors when the company acquired and remodeled Emery’s Majestic, a former movie and vaudeville palace on Washington Street. For that matter, Trinity Rep obtained some measure of stability when, over 20 years, another Jew, Marion Simon (whose husband, Stanley, was also a physician) served as Adrian’s confident and defender.
A true student of theatrical history could also explain the extent to which Adrian became fascinated by Jewish playwrights. But Neil Simon was never one!
As it turned out, I never completed my interviews with Adrian. He just had too much to say! And we never built an enduring friendship. Perhaps each of us saw the other as a means to an end or we needed to move further in opposite directions.
While I sought some measure of loyalty within established institutions, Adrian still hungered to rule another of his own. And beyond his record of public service, Bruce also yearned for a bigger stage and a brighter spotlight.
GEORGE M. GOODWIN, of Providence, is the editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.