The two masks of Harvard drama

Changing the direction of campus theater

When William Paul Rauch '84 and Paul Wellman Warner '84 first came to Harvard, both of them wanted to be actors.

Both had done acting and playwriting before--Warner at Exeter and Rauch at Haddonsfield, New Jersey High School--and neither had thought seriously about directing, let alone directing as much as both of them eventually did. Four years and 40 shows later, they are Harvard's two premier directors and, except for Peter Sellars '80, probably the highest-profile student directors to pass through here in years.

Rauch draws words like "genius" and "supreme" from observers and recently won a $1,000 national arts award. Warner works with a wide range of Boston-area professionals and will probably direct a show off-Broadway before the year is out.

But in September of 1980--freshman week, to be precise--they were just two kids thinking they'd like to do Harvard theater and auditioning for every show in sight, Inevitably, they started running into each other. They aren't sure, but they think they first met at auditions for an improvisation company called Blaridge's, run by three seniors.

Rauch: You got asked to stay and I didn't and I was so jealous.

Warner: (puzzled) But we both got into the company.

Rauch: I think they told everyone who auditioned that they'd gotten into the company. But they kept you to read something and told me to go home I hated you.

They ran into each other again at auditions for a Loeb Experimental Theater production of a play called Kaspar, in which, as it happened, they both got parts. Rauch played a prompter, which meant he had to go up to the balcony and scream down Warner played one of five alter-egos of the main character. Kaspar, and spend a lot of time hopping around the stage on crutches Rehearsals were "endless" and neither of them could quite figure out what the play meant.

Somewhere along the line, they got to be friends, and sometime after that--one a little before the other--they found they were better directors than actors. By then they were rooming together in Adams House and spending incessant hours talking about theater. And they had laid the groundwork for three phenomena almost equally legendary in Harvard theater circles today: the Rauch directing career, the Warner directing career, and the Rauch-Warner friendship, which has oscillated ever since between intense mutual support and equally intense rivalry over actors, stage space, and even scripts.

Three years and several epic battles later, most people involved agree that the two have had considerable influence on each other's work and on Harvard drama in general--though, to be sure, neither Rauch nor Warner nor anyone else can pin-point just what that influence has been.

"There is this feeling that Paul and Bill are on a different plane from the rest of us," says Moira Ariev '85, a Harvard-Radcliffe Drama Club (HRDC) member who has worked on the last four of Warner's shows. "At first when you hear their names bracketed together, the way they constantly are, you think it's unfair because they're so different. But in another way it's sort of true."

To the average Harvard theater-goer who hears the names Warner and Rauch constantly lumped together, that difference--a very definite one in style and approach--may not be apparent. Superficial similarities do abound. Both Rauch and Warner wince at words like "experimental" and "avant-garde," but one thing is undeniable: Nobody who goes to a production by either of them expects familiar renditions of old favorites, even when the posters promise Romeo and Juliet or Twelfth Night or even Cinderella. There are sure to be challenges--women playing men, men playing women, audience members sitting on stage, actors operating curtains, new shocks of insight into a script. "You can't just sit back and know what's coming next," says one colleague of Warner's. "Something weird might come flying at you."

Not all the shocks are physical. When Rauch directed Romeo and Juliet on the mainstage, he startled everyone by turning the famous balcony scene upside-down. Juliet wasn't raised above the stage; instead, she curled up under a quilt on a large mattress, while Romeo stood over her pleadingly. Later, in the Capulet fault, the audience was treated to a ghostly mirror-image of itself--a huge bank of the auditorium seats with pale corpses propped in them, staring out.

What really links the two in the eyes of the community, though, is their sheer visibility--a level of intensity and variety which separates them from most of their colleagues. Asked to count how many productions he's done, Warner counts, thinks again, and eventually comes up with 16--a figure which includes quite a few off-campus productions done in Boston theaters with his semi-professional repertory group, the Temperamental Ensemble. Rauch takes longer and gets to "somewhere in the early twenties" before throwing up his hands in despair at this spring's schedule. Instead of directing one or two discrete shows this term, he pulled together an ensemble of old and new actors called the Kronauer Group. The Kronauer Group, many of whom had worked together before did staged readings and adaptations, and concentrated on learning from one another rather than aiming for polished theatrical products. In the process, they churned through an astounding amount of material, including an adaptation of a vampire novel, a reworking of the fall's mainstage Yerma, and the season's culmination simultaneous and interconnecting performances of Medea, Macbeth and Cinderella on the same stage.

It has been a safe rule of thumb that in any given semester, roughly one half of all the interesting theater happening on campus can be traced to either Rauch or Warner. Take, for instance, the spring of their sophomore year. On the Loeb Mainstage, Warner was sparking anticipation, controversy, and eventually furious critical disapproval with a vast and intricate and blindingly tinselled version of Aeschylus's Agamemnon--a sort of high-tech extravaganza in which Clytaemnestra rode an electric wheelchair, the murdered king appeared as a scrawny kid in giant shoulder pads, and the Chorus donned shades and bopped to a syncopated beat.