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A New Dean Takes the Stage
James Bundy made his theatrical debut as a first-grader playing Santa Claus in a school Christmas pageant. Trying to untie a bundle of pencils meant as a present for his classmates, he wrestled with the knot, broke the ribbon, and scattered the gifts across the stage, ruining what he says was an otherwise excellent production.
Now 42, Bundy says with a smile that the incident “scarred him for life,” but he has more than compensated for it. He now counts among his titles: actor, director, theater manager, and, since October, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. A 1995 graduate of the School, Bundy is currently artistic director of Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater Festival, and he will join Yale full-time in July.
Bundy says he is taking on what he describes as “the most interesting job in the American theater” because it provides a rare opportunity to reshape what is already widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive drama programs in the country. But the job is also one of the most difficult. The School is at a crucial point in its 76-year history, and American theater itself is facing unprecedented challenges—from shrinking box office receipts to a blizzard of new entertainment sources brought on by changing technology, from video to the Internet.
Not the least of the issues Bundy will face is that Yale’s longstanding reputation as one of the nation’s top drama schools has come under question amid competition from expanded programs at other universities. Meanwhile, attendance at the Rep is down substantially from its high in the late 1980s of around 8,000 subscriptions to near 3,500 today, and applications to the Drama School are off, although that is the case at most other theater conservatories.
Beyond those concerns is the fact that several key professors and department chairs are approaching retirement age and could leave during Bundy’s ten-ure. We have “no bench at all, let alone a deep one,” says the School’s managing director, Victoria Nolan.
The new dean must also deal with the fact that the average graduate now leaves the program with $35,000 in debt and job prospects (if any at all) that offer exceedingly low pay. These financial realities are fueling concerns that Yale may be losing good students to better-endowed programs, and that talented graduates will bolt the stage for Hollywood in search of a better chance of striking it big and repaying their loans.
The surrounding cultural environment is also a matter of concern. The New Haven arts community has increasingly coalesced around a regional cultural plan that targets the arts as an engine for revitalizing downtown. Yet the city has struggled through leadership changes at seven of its major arts organizations—including the Shubert Theater and Long Wharf—in the past year alone.
But there is much cause for optimism. While the Rep has been criticized of late for plays that didn’t resonate with local audiences, it has presented a challenging mix of work with a national impact. Stan Wojewodski Jr., who has been dean for 11 years, has nourished the careers of playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks and Eric Overmeyer; sent Triumph of Love by Jeffrey Stock '88 and Susan Birkenhead to Broadway; and pre-sented innovative dance-theater by choreographer Ralph Lemon that went on a successful national tour after premiering at the Rep.
But perhaps most important, Wojewodski has placed an emphasis on the School that many claim was missing when former dean and artistic director Lloyd Richards was shepherding the plays of August Wilson and Athol Fugard to Broadway in the 1980s. Yale has since strengthened its directing and playwriting programs and has a newly independent sound design department. Rehearsal halls have been renovated, and a new stage went into service at the School last summer. A student-directed production is now part of each Repertory season. Wojewodski performed the rare act of staging a student-written piece (Rice Boy, by Sunil Kuruvilla '99MFA) at the Rep in 2000. “Stan has put a lot of energy into the student body,” says Jackson Gay, a directing student from Sugarland, Texas.
Different as they have been, the efforts of Wojewodski and Richards have combined to give Yale a reputation as perhaps the most expansive drama-school program in the nation, and probably the most competitive. Its eight departments offer advanced degrees in acting, directing, design, sound design, dramaturgy and dramatic criticism, playwriting, technical design and production, theater management, and stage management. Its graduates constitute a who's-who in American theater and film: actors Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Julie Harris, Charles Dutton, and Liev Schreiber; playwrights Wendy Wasserstein. John Guare, and Christopher Durang; director James Burrows; and scenic designer Eugene Lee, among others. Faculty members, all working professionals, are icons in their fields, and at least a quarter of them—including stage designer Ming Cho Lee, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, acting professor Evan Yionoulis and theater manager Benjamin Mordecai—have been at Yale for 15 years or more.
About 1,000 students apply every year for a mere 61 openings. Acting and directing, which enroll about 60 of the school’s 185 students, are the most popular. The training is collaborative and, according to students, exhausting; classes run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., followed by rehearsals until about 1 a.m., usually six days a week.
A key component of the experience is the Rep, a regional theater that brings leading playwrights, directors, and actors to New Haven and into the Yale classroom, while offering opportunities for student actors, designers, and stage and theater managers to work on professional productions. The theatrical environment is further enriched by the presence of the Yale Cabaret and the undergraduate Yale Dramatic Association. Collectively, they stage roughly 60 full-scale productions a year. Says Bundy: “There isn’t a challenge that faces the American theater that Yale isn’t working on.”
Outside New Haven, however, Yale’s supremacy, while remaining largely unchallenged, has been bruised. “Yale is number one, always has been, and always will be,” argues Sarah Nash Gates, executive director of the school of drama at the University of Washington. “But what I’ve been hearing lately is that some of the departments are getting along on their reputations.” A leading educator who asked not to be identified said, “Yale has the potential to be such a major institution internationally. But I would like to see them more curious and ambitious. They need an aesthetic vision, a greater social vision. If they do that, they have the potential to change the world.”
All of this presents an opportunity that Bundy, who calls theater “the most important secular form of the spoken word in our culture,” couldn’t resist. And while his peers may not envy the challenges he’ll face, they say Bundy has an extraordinary chance to recast both the School and the Rep.
Bundy was hired after an 18-month search that was both painful and public. Seeking a replacement for Wojewodski, whose second five-year term expired last July, Yale was turned down by some big-name choices—including Oskar Eustis, of the Trinity Repertory in Providence, and Carey Perloff, of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco—and forced to weather charges from students, alumni, and the media that the School’s reputation was on the decline. “It was a little stressful,” recalls Carrie Hughes, a dramaturgy student from Winnetka, Illinois. “People were asking, ‘Why am I here if nobody wants us?’”
As if that weren’t enough, news of Bundy’s appointment was greeted by headlines such as “Dean Who?” and with suggestions that, having failed to secure a top-tier candidate, Yale had settled for a “safe” choice—a recent graduate with a Yale pedigree three generations long.
Whether Bundy will prove a safe choice remains to be seen, but his Yale pedigree is above reproach. His father was McGeorge Bundy '40, a former special assistant to presidents Kennedy and Johnson; his grandfather attended Yale, as did his uncles on his father’s side.
Born in Boston and raised in Washington and New York, Bundy attended the Groton School in Massachusetts. He studied briefly with former Drama School dean and Rep founder Robert Brustein—who left Yale in 1979 and founded the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge that year—on his way to earning a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and language from Harvard in 1981. After Harvard, Bundy studied acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and spent eight years as an actor in regional theaters in California and Oregon.
In 1989, he began an affiliation with the Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles, signing on as a board member, then joining as an actor and eventually becoming managing director. A nomadic company, Cornerstone produces site-specific work in cities and towns throughout the country—rewriting scripts of classic plays, tailoring their themes to issues of concern in the communities, and enlisting local residents as cast members. For example, Cornerstone tailored a version of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound to the closing of the last Bethlehem Steel factory in Pennsylvania, staging it in an abandoned foundry with former steel workers among the actors.
Bundy left Cornerstone in 1991 to enter Yale’s MFA directing program. He considers himself a protégé of Wojewodski's, having assisted the dean in directing Shakespeare’s As You Like It; he directed Chekhov’s Three Sisters as his third-year project. Upon graduation, Bundy worked as associate producing director of The Acting Company, a touring ensemble based in New York, before moving to Cleveland in 1998. Hired by the Great Lakes Theater Festival (GLTF) as artistic director, he took on additional duties as an administrator when the managing director abruptly resigned. David Porter, GLTF’s chairman, says he’s been impressed with Bundy’s ability to grasp the artistic, financial, and managerial sides of the theater. “He has to raise the budget and spend the money,” Porter says.
Porter and others in Cleveland credit Bundy with turning Great Lakes around. In five years he increased attendance by 30 percent, lowered debt by $200,000, raised the operating budget by a third, and established an educational program that reaches 90,000 schoolchildren a year. Bundy also fostered cooperation with the other major theater in town, the Cleveland Playhouse. Peter Hackett, the Playhouse’s artistic director, said he and Bundy often explored ways to share resources and develop audiences. “There’s no rivalry with James,” Hackett said. “He’s an imaginative, level-headed theater director who’s always thinking of new ways to do things.”
Creatively, Bundy made his name at Great Lakes by redefining the notion of classical theater. n “He’s put a relevant spin on the classics while maintaining the integrity of the classical texts and their themes,” says Hackett. For a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Bundy littered the stage with pianos. He adapted Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, renamed it Lone Star Love, placed it on a Texas prairie, and set it to the music of a bluegrass band. His choice of productions included Romeo and Juliet, Gypsy, Travels with my Aunt, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and a setting of Langston Hughes’s stories and poems.
Bundy won his biggest accolades at Great Lakes through a reconnection with Cornerstone—partic-ularly its adaptations of Peter Pan and Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which moved the setting from Norway to the banks of the Cuyahoga and cast civic leaders as actors. “We would comb the streets to encourage people to audition for a play or grab people in restaurants to convince them to be in shows,” Bundy recalls. “On opening night, we had a sitting member of Congress [Stephanie Tubbs Jones] and two city councilmen on stage.”
Bundy won’t say whether he plans to bring Cornerstone to Yale (the company staged an adaptation of Brecht’s The Good Person of Sichuan at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater in 2000). But his work with Cornerstone does offer clues to the kind of community-centered approach Bundy is likely to take, especially as it relates to getting New Haven involved in the Rep—and vice versa.
The dean says his priorities for his new job include increasing scholarship funds and faculty compensation. Beyond that, he is understandably cautious, saying only that any changes will be made in partnership with the faculty and administration. But he is not coy about his artistic priorities. “I’m interested in the theater as a communal and political experience of human nature,” he says. “And I’m interested in the connection between the artist and the audience. The works that have been most gratifying to me as a producer are those where the audience and artists came together in ways they didn’t expect.”
So far, the Bundy approach is playing well. “He’s young, he’s interested in collaboration, he knows what makes this place tick, and he’s positive,” says managing director Victoria Nolan. “You come out of a meeting with him with a lot of work but feeling happy. You know you’ve been heard.”
As if rebuilding attendance, buffing the School’s reputation, increasing community involvement, filling out the faculty, and raising scholarship coffers aren’t challenge enough, one of Bundy’s most important charges will be making theater education relevant to a generation of students raised in a jump-cut, multimedia-driven MTV world.
Several nationally known educators said the depth and breadth of Yale’s programs, its endowment, and the fact that it has a regional theater under its wing puts the School in a better position than most to take the next logical step in drama education—creating a resident acting company of students and recent graduates. “Probably the one thing missing in the training for all of us is the notion of a company connected to a theater,” says Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. “This has emerged as a compelling form that this country needs.”
Bundy finds this idea appealing and, noting that it was tried by Brustein at Yale 30 years ago and is being attempted at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, says a company would offer a “golden opportunity for instruction and production.” But he is not about to commit to the idea yet.
Four months before relocating full-time to Yale with his wife, singer Anne Tofflemire, and two daughters, Bundy says he never imagined coming back to New Haven as dean only six years after he left as a student. “I have to continue to remind myself of what I don’t know, discover it freshly, and make sure that we make the right choices for the long term,” he says. “I haven’t started yet, but I anticipate the richest collaborative experience of my life. I anticipate learning more than at any time in my life, and I anticipate being listened to more than at any time in my life. I regard both of those as big responsibilities. It was [playwright] Peter Brook who said that to use two hours of public time well is a fine art. What I have now is a charge to use five years of public time well.”
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