Getting the Ear of the Loeb
It is a perplexing fact that the people at the Loeb can't really say why original student work is so rarely performed on the Mainstage. It isn't that they don't want to tell you; they just don't know. Everyone is well aware that there hasn't been an original show--a new play written by a student--there since the late 60s--even though the bi-annual Phyllis Anderson prize for the best original undergraduate drama is a choice of either $500 towards publication or the play being performed on the Mainstage--but no one can explain it. Because of the hyper-secrecy of past Harvard Dramatic Club (HDC) boards, the present board and members have no idea whether applications for original works to be produced on the mainstage have been consistently rejected over the past five years, or if simply no one has applied.
Ah, but the Ex, they will tell you, was designed for, and is most suited to original work. It's true--the versatility that is the Ex's charm encourages Innovation. And for most smaller-scale drama, the Ex is great. But to try to produce a full-scale musical there could be like booking the HRO for a concert in the Cafe Pamplona. Not only would the necessity of a large stage reduce the already small theater's audience capacity to about twenty, but the Ex is obviously acoustically wrong for large choruses. So recently, musicals have turned up sometimes in Agassiz Theater under the auspices of Radcliffe Grant-In-Aid--an organization that raises scholarship money through musicals--or more often in the far-from-ideal conditions of house dining rooms and common rooms. Even in these cases, no one is out to make things any easier for undergraduate playwright-composers.
Philip LaZebnik '75, returned to Harvard in the fall of 1973 with an original musical, The Truth of Mons Herbert, that had had its world premiere that summer in a Unitarian church in Columbia, Missouri. Against all odds--in a university town in August when the population is practically reduced to owners of pizza stands--the show was a success, attendance skyrocketed, and the house was filled for the last two nights. But when LaZebnik tried to find a group to sponsor the production at Harvard several months later, no one seemed to have any faith that the musical would be a worthwhile venture. The Lowell House Music Society finally agreed to do it, primarily, LaZebnik admits, because almost everyone in the Society was a personal friend of his.
Then there was the extensive financial haggling. Eventually, the budget was set at $500, one fifth of which went immediately to orchestration. (The approximate budget set for Loeb mainstage shows this year, considerably lower than that of past years, is $2000. The last Grant-In-Aid production in Agassiz Theater, Fiorello!, was budgeted at about $5500.) Again against all odds, Teeth sold out five of six performances and grossed $1100, making more than 100 per cent net profit.
This year, LaZebnik wrote a new show, Mad About Mintz, a musical comedy about the efforts of an advertising agency to convert a hack poet into the best-selling bard of the country. Armed with a volunteer orchestra and a full production team. LaZebnik tackled Radcliffe Grant-In-Aid for funds to produce the show in Agassiz. The society had a reputation for supporting original musicals, having produced Suffragette in 1973 (now playing successfully in New York) and others before that. But after more than a months deliberation, the Advisory Board of Grant-In-Aid rejected the show, claiming that force to "unprofessional." Discouraged by the Loeb Mainstage's recent record or non-record of original shows and therefore expecting to similar rejection, LaZebnik turned next to the Lowell House Music Society which first agreed to do the show and then backed out of the agreement two weeks later.
Then out of the blue there appeared a new organization. The Harvard Premiere Society (HPS), which was quickly shuttled through CHUL and proclaiming undying support for the cause of original drama at Harvard, took Mintz under its wing. Since the organization had apparently coalesced around LaZebnik himself there was naturally skepticism about the existence of any long-term ends. The six-man executive board, however, has tried to establish the group's legitimacy and eradicate suspicions that it might be no more than a LaZebnik front organization. After drawing up a constitution, finding faculty sponsors, applying for a grant from a New York organization devoted to the promotion of musical theater, and embarking upon an aggressive PR campaign, the HPS is now soliciting unsecured loans from people connected in some way with the arts at Harvard. So far, HPS has been able to offer LaZebnik $2000, an amount that no house drama society would ever be willing to risk on an original show. The $2000 allows LaZebnik to rent Agassiz Theater, Independent of Radcliffe Grant-In-Aid, and thus possibly to earn up to $5500 in ticket receipts for the seven performances.
Whether or not original theater is actively, albeit covertly, discouraged at Harvard, it undoubtedly has not been encouraged in the recent past. Boundless enthusiasm, confidence and energy, combined with craftiness, financial sense and the ability to enlist help from all sides, tied up with pullable strings, have been the prerequisites for bulldozing an original show through all the red tape and arbitrariness that clutters up the path to production. And unless authors and composers--who very often are not accepted "theater people" with ready made connections--are already wired in to one organization or another, the alternative for the sake of sanity has been in many cases to give up. Perhaps it is easier after all to put on a show in a depopulated university town in midsummer.
People involved with the theater at Harvard reject--or ignore--original work all the time. Yet ask them why and you find yourself up against a virtual stonewall. But it is a wall of mismanagement and lack of perspective rather than a conscious effort to prevent original productions on principle, LaZebnik who has been through it all, claims that the problem is not really financial. "The main obstacle is the people here," he says, For even when he had a show. Teeth. that everyone agreed beforehand could not fail to make a considerable profit, he was ultimately forced to pull strings in order to be able to produce it. Acquaintances, he will tell you, do everything here. In-groupness and cliques are inevitable in the non-professional atmosphere of college theater, where one is constantly dealing with acquaintances. Personalities clash; objectivity is abandoned. Outsiders to certain groups are either distrusted or simply unwanted. At the Loeb, where mainstage productions almost always operate in the red, to say that an original show was rejected on the grounds that it was simply a financial risk is a feeble excuse.
At the Loeb anyway, which receives the only official university funding for theater at Harvard, it certainly should not be. Again, personal and political issues seem to be involved. But if they have been, they have also been effectively hushed up by the HDC board's closed-door policy, whereby rejected applicants for slots were left with no idea as to why their plays were rejected. LaZebnik found similar seemingly irrational standards of choice in other areas of Harvard drama. His rejection by Radcliffe Grant-In-Aid seemed to him to have been based on the belief that he was not "a Grant-In-Aid type of person," that his was not a Grant-In-Aid type of show. Bemused by this aura of "Grant-In-Aidness" which the board seemed to be looking for, LaZebnik says, "I somehow didn't have it."
Impossible as it would be to come up with figures on the number of frustrated playwrights at Harvard who've written works that have never been read, much less produced, buried away amongst their old term papers, such people do exist. In a drawer in the HDC office there is a pile of two dozen scripts, many written by Harvard and Radcliffe students, aching to be read and produced. And a fair number of Hasty Pudding scripts--all of them original--are rejected every year. The Premiere Society has already received manuscripts to consider for future productions. All that has been needed is a little encouragement for original work--lying dormant all around Harvard--to begin to replace the pointless revivals of shows that long ago overstayed their welcome on Broadway but are forever being resurrected at Harvard Radcliffe anyway.
At last, it looks like something positive is going to be done, HPS, recognizing a bad situation, is developing a remedy. And the newly elected board of the HDC plans to radically alter traditional HDC policy by doing away with the secrecy with which decisions about Mainstage show have been made in the past, in a meeting to be held at the Loeb on March, I for everyone interested in applying for Loeb slots, the board plans to implement a new open policy whereby it will collaborate with the applicants to establish the criteria for deciding which shows will be produced. And although HDC policy for the upcoming year has therefore not yet been determined. Tom Wright 75, HDC president, said last week that he senses that a well-written original work with a solid concept of production "would be gobbled up" by the board. Also, plans are being made for regular public readings of original plays to be held at the Ex and elsewhere, beginning this weekend.
The perhaps not-so-mysterious mystery of why there has been such a dearth of original theater starving Harvard-Radcliffe drama of vital innovations may never be solved. But if the Premiere Society can live up to its alleged ambitions as publicized in its massive PR campaign, and if the HDC board actually alters its policy in a way no past boards have managed to do, such mysteries may become irrelevant. Since theater attracts a larger number of participating undergraduates than any other extra-curricular activity, it is only logical that original work should play a primary role in Harvard-Radcliffe drama, rather than being relegated to a bottom drawer in the HDC office.