[Carole Rothman is co-founder and artistic director of Second Stage Theatre. In March 1987, on the eve of the company’s Broadway début with Tina Howe’s Coastal Disturbances at Circle in the Square (4 March 1987), I interviewed her about her work. I was accompanied on the interview by Geoffrey Shlaes, artistic director of the American Directors Institute, the organization (now defunct) that published Directors Notes, the newsletter I edited. This interview, a condensation of the full session, was originally published in the Spring Issue (vol. 1, no. 4) of Directors Notes in 1987.
[According to its own website, Second Stage was founded in 1979 to produce “second stagings” of contemporary American plays that deserved to reach a wider audience. The company soon expanded this mission to produce new plays by a developing corps of writers. Over time, the troupe’s dedication to telling essential American stories in their most exciting forms has come to include genre-bending solo performances, cutting-edge theatrical events, explosive new musicals, and world and New York premieres by America’s most esteemed playwrights.
[On 20 April, the New York Times reported that Second Stage had negotiated the purchase of the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway, to be the sixth Broadway house owned or operated by a nonprofit organization. This advance in the company’s status has impelled me to republish this interview from 28 years ago, when the Off-Broadway troupe had just made its Broadway début.]
Rick: To start out: I did enjoy the show [Coastal Disturbances at Circle in the Square, directed by Rothman], but I didn’t see the earlier [Off-Broadway] incarnation [at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre, opening 19 November 1986]. Were there many changes?
Rothman: Well, it was totally restaged for the “Sausage in the Square” [and] we changed part of the set. At The Second Stage there was a turntable for the lifeguard stand, but it turned on itself. This time, the lifeguard stand moves so it changes the shape of the space. That was the original concept of the piece anyway: to really emphasize the perspective you get at a beach.
Rick: You’ve had something of a relationship with Tina Howe. How did that begin?
Rothman: Tina came to see [Wendy Wasserstein’s] My Sister in This House [Park Royal Theatre, opening on 18 November 1981] which I had directed at the end. She decided she really wanted me to direct [Painting Churches]. Then she had asked me before Painting Churches even opened if I would direct her next show. I think Tina had been a little battered before. She hadn’t had great experiences with directors and my way of working doesn’t necessarily fit into someone who’s wary of working with directors because I don’t allow the playwright to come during the first week of rehearsal. Tina and I both like to go into rehearsal with a script that we feel is ready to go.
We talked a lot about the play before I went into rehearsal, and we talked every night after rehearsal. I had a vision of the play and a concept that was my own, but I think that it meshed perfectly with what Tina wanted.
[Then] she showed [Coastal Disturbances] to me, and I saw a focus problem and a couple of other problems and she went back and rewrote it.
Shlaes: Did any of the visual things start to come into your head at this point?
Rothman: Yes, you know. Tina would sometimes call me and say, “Can we do a scene where there’s a little airplane that flies across with sky-writing?” And I’d say, “No.” (Laughter)
She also knew that she was writing it for The Second Stage—she knew what her limitations were. Certain stage things like, “Could we have people walk along the beach?” and “Could we see the scenery go by?” And I said, “No. You don’t want tricks.”
So when I got the script, it called for scene[s] in the water and all over the place—not a really good sense of flow: morning, afternoon, rainy says—everything . . . . How was I going to deal with this script that called for all these different elements? I came up with the idea of a turntable then the rest was easy: rehearsals were a breeze, the script had a first reading that was a dream, and the run-throughs were really wonderful. [The set for Coastal Disturbances was designed by Tony Straiges.]
We went to the first preview—and hit disaster. The play wasn’t working for the audience. We [had] to make big changes during previews. It hadn’t happened to us [before].
Rick: How many previews did you have ahead of you?
Rothman: We were not about to open that play until it was ready, so we previewed the play for four weeks. It was one of those situations where you’re rehearsing a scene in the afternoon that’s going to go in two nights later. That night you perform the old scene: you’re teching the new stuff.
Rick: What kind of changes were you talking about?
Rothman: We cut about twenty minutes out of it. There were six scenes in the first act; there are now five scenes. We put two of the scenes together—which cut out the water scene so information from that scene had to go into another scene. The third scene of the play was originally between just Ariel [Joanne Camp] and Faith [Heather MacRae], and I said, “No, we’ve got to put Holly into it.” The scene with [Holly’s] boyfriend, Andre [Ronald Guttman], got worked on right up until the last minute. That’s the one scene that still has problems.
Shlaes: I thought it was the major accomplishment of the piece that after all the words and ideas got out, I was left with characters and also an atmosphere of the place.
Rothman: I don’t really want to toot my horn too much, but my major accomplishment was that I had a wonderful cast. And I was able to do it without stars. It was so much more fulfilling to me to be able to have Annette Bening [come] in just through auditions. I’m really proud of that. [Bening, who won a Tony for her role, made her stage début as Holly Dancer. Also starring was Timothy Daly as Leo Hart]
Rick: So Circle really didn’t put any impediments in your way to moving [Coastal Disturbances]?
Rothman: I think that they got a kick out of having us around—there’s never been a woman director at the Circle in the Square. When I got my contract, it was all typed in: “He will do this.”
Shlaes: You’ve altered the course of your company now to both second productions and first productions.
Rothman: Eight years ago, Robyn [Goodman, my partner] and I found that plays were falling between the cracks and need[ed] a second production. What has happened over the years is that there have been fewer and fewer places for new okays to be done. A lot of theaters are doing [second productions] now. [Goodman and Rothman were co-artistic directors of Second Stage from 1979, when they founded the company, to 2013, when Goodman left to become an independent producer and, ultimately, producer of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Underground program for new work of emerging writers and directors.]
But the original reason we changed [was] you develop a working relationship with a playwright and if you say, “Take your play somewhere else and have it not do well, and then bring it here,” that was ludicrous. (Laughter). Then we got this play by Deborah Eisenberg, Pastorale, which was our first new play, and really liked it. [Second Stage’s Pastorale opened at the Park Royal Theatre on 4 April 1982.] We did our next new play, Painting Churches, because Tina came and said, “I want you to do this play.” [Painting Churches opened at the South Street Theatre on 8 February 1983. I saw a revival by the Keen Company; my report was posted on ROT on 14 April 2012.]
Shlaes: Your reputation above the choices that you’ve made has been the quality of your product and the kinds of people that you’ve been working with.
Rothman: It has to do with Robyn being an actress and me being a director. Robyn has always maintained that this place has got to be a place where actors enjoy working. Added to that is that I’m a very good problem-solver for other people’s work. I don’t think that I’m ever really a threat to a director working here. My responsibility is to point out where the problems may lie.
Rick: [Robyn] spoke at the Drama Desk forum about artistic-director burnout. The source of the burnout problem was that they are running the theater all by themselves. You and she share this load so equitably that [burnout’s] not likely to be a problem.
Rothman: Absolutely. Some theaters have an executive director, but their responsibilities are separate. Robyn and I share the artistic burden, so it’s much, much easier.
Shlaes: It seems that what the two of you also share is affection, which would make the running of the theater a task that you would look forward to every day.
Rothman: Oh, absolutely. That’s why people get married (laughing). It also is quite frankly why we can maintain relationships outside of the theater. We pretty much go over the agonies of the day-to-day running of the theater here, and we can go home and have lives.
Shlaes: It’s a pleasure to meet you. You’ve made some wonderful comments about directing and about people and about work—things that I have long held true.
[Over the seasons, Second Stage has presented some important productions, including This is Our Youth (1998), Metamorphoses (2001), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005), The Little Dog Laughed (2006), and Next to Normal (2008). The company’s revivals have also been New York theater high points, many of them restoring interest in plays forgotten or overlooked—as much for the selections of producible material as for the excellence of the stage work and casting.]