My son Billy is the same age now that I was when I became drama editor for The Nassau Weekly.
I found my profession at Princeton forty years ago and it wasn’t being a journalist. But it was being a stage director, and working for the Nass helped seal the deal.
Those intense periods of compressed time when you are at your most vulnerable and impressionable, and where the imprint of your experience will impact you for the rest of your life: one of those periods was during the years surrounding and including 1979 when I wrote for the debuting Nassau Weekly. Silly putty pressed against the comic book drawing—that was me. Had I written those theater reviews at any other time, it would have had far less effect. But I wrote them when I wasbecoming—becoming an adult, which essentially meant becoming a director. In 1978 I directed my first full production—The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds—at Wilson College Theater. There would be upwards of 60 more productions during my professional life once I graduated, but fairly soon afterMarigolds I became the drama editor for the first Nassau Weekly—you know, because I was such an expert on what it took to direct a show!
During my freshman and sophomore years, my friends David Remnick and Marc Fisher had wanted me to join Press Club, but by then I knew I wasn’t going to be a journalist, thanks to professors Alan Mokler and Daniel Seltzer and Princeton’s emerging Program in Theater and Dance. Memory is hazy here, but I do think that as I was entering my junior year, the Nassau Weekly “Drama Editor” position was a bone they threw to me since I wouldn’t commit to the Press Club. It also helped that the Nassau Weekly, was, yes, a weekly, so that I could fit writing my pieces in and around classes and rehearsals.
And because it was Remnick and Fisher—in my view, they were the real writers—I took the job, started writing my theater reviews, and agonized over every idea and every word. The only thing I had over those two was what it meant to be a stage director and put on a show. There were umpteen more writers than directors at Princeton, so writing as both its own award and as a way to learn more about theater made the Nassau Weekly position ideal.
Reviewing McCarter Theater’s shows, and not the productions at Intime, Wilson College Theater, Triangle or other student-directed theaters gave me the freedom to be highly critical. I wasn’t critiquing friends, I was critiquing the professionals, and they deserved my 19-year-old outrage for not being original or innovative enough. As I re-read my reviews, it surprises me how tough I was on the work. On McCarter Artistic Director Nagle Jackson’s interpretation of Brecht’s The Visions of Simone Machard, which launched his first season: “…(the production) looks as much like a French revue of The Wizard of Oz as the story of a peasant girl who attempts to free a Nazi-occupied French village by emulating Joan of Arc. Her visions sorely recall Dorothy’s flight from Kansas, as do the wicked witch mother of the inn-keeper, the fumbling town mayor, and the presence of three inn residents. And in this version, Dorothy dies. Unfortunately, the production doesn’t have musical numbers with Bert Lahr as its saving grace…” I can now see the director’s critical eye developing, an eye—beady and relentlessly perfectionist—whose beam would eventually turn mercilessly on to my own work. On McCarter’s production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever: “With the exception of the Brechtian scene in Simone Machard, this is the first of Jackson’s productions that takes some risk in staging. For Jackson, ‘risk’ means not having only the important speeches be expostulated from smack center stage. He finally uses the upstage more unusually as a playing area…At the end of Act II the characters tip their tea cups to their pursed mouths and we see a photograph of old, a still shot of the rituals of this little world. The peculiarities of different characters emerge as they execute the same action…another stage picture flashes at the beginning of Act II, and I felt as if I were peeking through a key hole.”
Sharpening those skills sitting in the McCarter was preparation for productive self- criticism, first in the rehearsal room and then sitting ten rows back behind a tech table in theaters around the country where my own productions were in final rehearsal; I could apply the same critical sensibility to them as I had done for the (unsuspecting!) directors, designers, and repertory theater actors at McCarter. Alan used to tell us that we were getting a liberal arts education, and that our training as directors was not pre-professional: for that, we should get an MFA in directing, which I did three years after graduating Princeton. But McCarter was a full-out professional, regional theater, where I felt like a professional, and that self- perception gave me confidence that this was a world in which I could earn my keep.
The interview I did with Jackson during his first season—lots of firsts that year— showed me that theater was business, combining creativity with the hard core labor of hiring and firing, managing staff, balancing budgets. That Jackson was developing what he hoped would be a full-fledged repertory theater company, with an ensemble of ten actors performing multiple roles, became a true education for me about how actors can thrive—or not—in such a model. When during my last year in graduate school I would work for the regional theater pioneer Zelda Fichandler on The Crucible, which won the Helen Hayes Award for best production, I had my second opportunity to be around a repertory company, only this time from the inside, artistically, not outside, and critically. Good thing some other arriviste 19- year old didn’t review that production.
I won’t claim that when after a 20-year directing career I became a producer as a Vice President for BAM in New York City, or prior to that, worked as the chief dramaturg for Boston’s Huntington Theater Company—where I collaborated closely many times with the greatest playwrights living, including my incomparable mentor and friend August Wilson, may that great artist rest in peace—I gave much thought to the Nassau Weekly interview with Nagle Jackson. But I will say that having the opportunity in 1979 to meet with and ask many questions of an artistic director influenced me in many ways as I headed into a long career in the theater, an opportunity that The Nassau Weekly generously afforded me.
(Fisher and Remnick were also my bunkmates during the RA summer retreat prior to the Nass’s first year, and there is no better way to bond editors than through late seventies-era mosquito-infested trust exercises—“Keep falling backwards, I swear I got you”—an apt metaphor for the faith co-editors need to have in each other.)
Billy is now a theater and economics major—and writer, for real—at Northwestern. It is one of the periods in his life when he is most open, or I should say susceptible, to influence. I found my profession at Princeton, and worked with other artists and writers like Remnick and Fisher who gave me a shot when they “hired” me. As a freshman, my son is learning who will give him those opportunities—and, more importantly, creating them himself.
For I’ve left my favorite thing about the nascent Nassau Weekly for last: In 1979, the magazine was a “start up,” and the founders created something out of nothing.
They brought me along to do my part, but they and others had an idea and then made the idea manifest. And here it is, 40 years on, and The Nassau Weekly is still here.
To you students who are at Princeton reading this: What new (ad)ventures are you creating today? Make something out of nothing, please, so you and your friends can rejoice, in the middle of the 21st century, about how it’s all borne fruit.
Postscript: Ever the Princetonian—meaning, doing my homework—I asked the Nass’s Publisher Emerita’s Katie Duggan to send me a few scans of my reviews circa 1979. Illustrating the interview with Jackson about the start of his McCarter tenure is a photograph of him and his new artistic and business staff. Although part of the group stands outside of the frame, I count twelve individuals, two women and ten men—all white. And this is a theater! Since one of the criteria for this piece is “to reflect on the world at large,” I’ll say only this: thank God we can’t pull that kind of shit any more.