Boston Repertory Theatre: Introduction

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


entire contents copyright 1998 by David Zucker


1971 - 1978

by David Zucker

Editor's note:
Back in the middle of June David Zucker --- who is still making a living at theater ---
found The Theater Mirror, and sent me this note:

"Here's an idea. I kept a journal during the Rep years and have just dusted them off since getting your enthusiastic email response. What do you think of an installment series? A serial of sorts? Here's the initial instalment. Let me know what you think of it. If you think it's too boring I won't mind hearing so. It's a lot of work putting it together, so I won't be offended if it doesn't capture your attention or interest. Still, it was fun to relive some of these old memories and to put them in order. I think, if I do this, I will also be putting some ghosts to bed!"

These entries from his journal, with new insights written ten years later,
really capture the conflicts, joys, confusions and excitements of theater life. The Boston Repertory Theatre was born on Cape Cod, moved to Boston and did many surprising things, before breaking up in their new theater building in the heart of Boston's theater district.
I find it a privilege that David has allowed me
to give this history to the Theater Mirror readers.
===Larry Stark

What follows is a history of the Boston Repertory Theatre, taken from journals I kept during the years 1971-1978.

The BRT began in Hyannis, on Cape Cod during the summer of 1971, survived, grew and thrived for six years.

The core people --- Esquire Jauchem, Pierre Vuilleumier, Wendy Kraus, and Judy Truncer --- went to school together at Defiance College in Ohio. At auditions for additional members, their wild insanity infected the hearts and minds of R. Thomas Bower, George Winn-Abbott, Virginia Feingold, David Morse (listed in the original program as an "associate member"), and myself.

Honorary members listed in the program were Sarah Caldwell of the Opera Company of Boston, The Rev. and Mrs. Pierre Vuilleumier, and Derek Sanderson. (We cornered Sanderson at his pub "Daisy Buchanan's" and he allowed us to use his name - He never came to one show. Nor did Sarah Caldwell, though she DID hire our entire company to perform in the world premiere of the english version of Prokofiev's opera, "War and Peace" in 1974.) These 12 people as well as "Mr. E.W. Jauchem, in Memorium" made up the list of the original founders of the Boston Repertory Theatre.

In nine years we moved 6 times to different theatres around Boston and managed to produce more than 40 plays (six world premieres). We toured across the USA several times with my original adaptation of "The Little Prince" performing, amongst many other places, at Trinity Rep in Providence and at WolfTrap Farm Park in Virginia. We hosted a couple of theatre companies from Germany as well as producing shows with nationally known artists like Tommy Tune, Viveca Lindfors, and Dick Shawn.

The BRT's crowning achievement, however, was to build the first brand new theatre in Boston in over 25 years. In 1975 we opened a world premiere adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr's novel, "Player Piano" (opening night saw Mr. Vonnegut in attendance) at our new theatre at One Boylston Place. The building was originally the Ace recording studio which the BRT purchased for $125,000 in 1974 and spent half a million dollars on the way to transforming it into a 200+ seat theatre. (One Boylston Place is the present site of the disco Zanzibar. The sad story of how it was destroyed as a theatre and turned into a nightclub will have to be told by someone else).

We were young, idealistic, naive, innocent, brave, honest, opinionated, and oftentimes more than a trifle arrogant in our views; but our hearts were firmly in the right place. For many of us original "Reppies", the BRT was our Camelot set on a shining hilltop.
-David Zucker

May 14, 1971
I have quit my job at Tufts Arena Theatre this summer. What I am about to delve into has occupied my thoughts for months now; and especially, in fact almost totally, since May 11 (1971) when I brought Virginia (Feingold) to audition for the summer company of the Boston Repertory Theatre. This company has just been formed and it is not even definite that it will have a physical structure under which to perform its plays. We were supposed to be in Barnstable on the cape, but yesterday we learned that the owners of the building have changed their minds and will not rent it to us.... Well, as of today we are looking into the Wuthering Heights playhouse in Provincetown.
Anyway, after rapping for hours with these people at the audition, I decided that I should make a break from authority, and, more important, from security. For two years the only thing I gained from summer stock were plays to add to my resume and bad habits. I want time to work on my own ideas and present them in front of an audience. I will be able to do this with the BRT.

June 30, 1971
Have been with the BRT now since May 31 in Craigville. Our theatre was finally located in the Hyannis Junior High School auditorium at the end of High School Rd. We got this because the Wuthering Heights playhouse in P-Town would have cost too much money. Mrs. Vuilleumier, mother of Pierre (one of our founding members) was the main power that influenced the school board's decision to let us rent the building for $50.00 a performance (rehearsals are free!) All electricity comes with the $50 charge!! However, a police officer at every performance is costing us $22.00 a night. Each of us only makes $45 a week. We opened William Saroyan's little known play, "The Beautiful People" last Saturday (the 26th) to a house of about 150 people (mostly staff and friends from Craigville); cancelled the Sunday matinee 'cause no one came; Sunday night had about 12 people, and on Monday we cancelled our performance 'cause it was cheaper than going on. Last night we went out on the main street of Hyannis; Virginia and I dressed in Mime clothes and whiteface makeup. I was very excited and did about 3 hours of improv mime on the streets while Pierre, Virginia, George (Winn-Abott), David (Morse), and Tom (Bowers) handed out flyers for the theatre. The theatre is in financial trouble (what theatre isn't). We really need audiences and money. I have a feeling that I am going to go salary-less more than once this summer. But Goddammit, we got up to and passed opening night and I'm determined to make it through the summer. We owe $2000 on a loan we took in order to buy insurance, $1200 for the house we stay in, $50 per performance rent, about $425 a week in salaries, over $1000 for our programs, and numberless smaller expenses probably amounting to $1000 or more. Where is the money going to come from? Most of our money so far has been spent on advertising. We have put hundreds of posters out, thousands of flyers, mailed letters to hundreds upon hundreds of people (all hand addressed envelopes by the way - well before computerised lists) informing them of our venture and asking for money. WHERE THE HELL IS EVERYBODY?

July 2, 1971
Show cancelled tonight. Not enough people. Third time. What can we do?
We've tried and tried; did everything we could monetarily afford.

July 12, 1971 - 1:30am
Theatre has been getting more and more into debt and audiences are as small as ever. We have been at our wits ends. Today we figured out that we owed about $5000 and there is little chance that we will be able to pay it back through box office.

Thurs. July 8
We opened Cocteau's "Knights of the Round Table" to a house of about 50 people. A minor miracle helped us through the show and to a favorable review by Evelyn Lawson. We ahd never once run the show in its entirety, there was always some piece or other missing; a prop, piece of scenery, under-rehearsed scene, costume, whathaveyou. We had only two rehearsals on the set. A minor miracle.

We decided tonight after another of our "We have come to a turning point in our young lives" crisis company meetings (after yet another cancelled show), to "Close our box office and open our doors." That is, give the theatre back to the people. No tickets, no advance sales or reservations, free admission and after the performance give what you feel it was worth to you, or whatever you can afford. Why didn't we do this sooner? Maybe we never considered it because it was too risky financially; but now we have nothing to lose and can afford to do it. Now, finally, people can see good theatre for whatever they want to give or feel it was worth to them. Maybe this way we can give theatre back to the people and pay off our debts. I hope we are not disappointed by the people any further.

Author's note: The extreme note of self-pity in this last entry illustrates the depths of frustration and despair to which we, as a company, had sunk. We just couldn't understand how, with all our hard work and pure motives, the world wasn't beating a path to our footlights... yes we had real footlights. Almost everything we had that first summer in the way of lights, scenery, props, and costumes was "borrowed" from The Boston Opera Company. Esquire Jauchem, the father of the BRT, had worked as Sarah Caldwell's right hand man for a couple of seasons and had access to the company's stores. We rented a truck at the beginning of the summer and hauled everything from the Opera company's warehouse in Boston to Hyannis. More to follow if you are interested.

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide