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.

Meanwhile, Rauch, with four Ex shows behind him, convinced the Radcliffe Office of the Arts to give him one of its largest grants ever, and on a fine May afternoon he led about 100 people down John F. Kennedy Street to the Yard with flags and balloons and treated them to a peripatetic performance of Vladimir Mayakovsky's Communist fable Mystery-Bouffe. By the end of the odyssey, the "audience"--nearly indistinguishable from the cast--had been through Hell (the Freshman Union) and Heaven (the steps of Widener Library) before achieving technological apotheosis in the Promised Land, which turned out to be the Science Center.

Rauch: The HRDC open book had a note in it the other day asking why we keep doing experimental crap, why don't we ever do Company or Fiddler on the Roof? What they don't realize is that those shows were incredibly innovative once. I don't want to cling to the innovations of the past; why museumize? It's perfectly fine to do, but it's not the same kind of risk-taking.

Warner: I hate the word "experimental" Saying "avant-garde" is just a copout, either something works or it doesn't

Rauch: Yeah. There's the pleasure of doing an innovative twist. But ultimately the pleasure lies in doing it because it's the only way."

Neither Warner nor Rauch would suggest that they always agree on theater issues, or even that they agree most of the time. Even when they do agree, or seem to, their work turns out vastly different. Within the close-knit HRDC community, observers and friends agree emphatically on the main difference between the "Paul aesthetic" and the "Bill aesthetic," though they have different ways of putting it into words. Inevitably, there are partisans, as well as a fair number of people who are quite sure they could distinguish a Rauch or a Warner production if they were put down in front of it in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

"There's no denying there's a certain look to Paul's shows, a sort of homosexual, mylar, glitzy look," says Peter Howard '84, a former HRDC board member who has acted for both directors. "It's the old paradox of trying on the one hand to attract an audience, to make them want to come back to the theater, and at the same time to threaten them and change their lives. Paul tends to be more confrontational."

"In a way, their two approaches symbolize two sides of Harvard theater--the sensationally experimental versus the humanly experimental," suggests. Ted Osius '84, a fellow director and Rauch's freshman roommate. "Bill really wants to be able to take his shows to Des Moines, Iowa, and have people understand them. Paul is more likely to have very complex intellectual ideas, in which accessibility isn't really the main point."

The common wisdom among theater watchers is that Rauch leans toward the first, appealing side of Howard's paradox, while Warner is more likely to shock and horrify Warner embraces and encourages this interpretation. "Theater is change, it's revolution," he says. "It should frighten people, change them so they don't know what to expect." His shows have sometimes drawn flak from offended critics for their heavy emphasis on sex, particularly bisexuality and androgyny--which he calls "crucial" for breaking down preconceptions, citing David Bowie as an artistic hero and model. The "Paul aesthetic" also includes mylar--greatly in evidence in Twelfth Night and Agamemnon--electronic music, sinuous or overtly sexual body movement, and provocatively incongruous props. His attacking bear in Winter's Tale at the Agassiz this fall wore a Brown Bruins baseball cap and set fire to his victim's back with a cigarette lighter. The classically pastoral feast several scenes later was catered by McDonald's.

Rauch's "aesthetic" is harder to define. Rather, when people talk about him, the theme which comes up again and again is the clarity and honesty of his vision into people--those in the script and those he is dealing with in rehearsal. "Bill has an amazing ability to get at what's most important in a script, most true in it for us now," says another friend. During rehearsals, Rauch lays great emphasis on working through ideas with actors, seeing what develops spontaneously. "For me there's always been that tension," he says, "between having everything planned out and letting things happen naturally. I'm not that good at working things out on paper; I'm better with people." In the last week of rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet, which had an immense cast, he managed to spend an hour alone with each actor.

When actors talk about working on his shows, an impressive number of them tend to wax fervent. "To work with Bill is the most incredibly uplifting experience possible for an actor," says Nick Wyse '84, who played Romeo for him on the mainstage. "He's considerate and has a unique way of nurturing what is best in people, and I've never seen him lose his temper with an actor. Actors can be very bitchy people--I've gotten that way myself, it's so easy to get horribly temperamental--and you feel so damn guilty at the end of it because he's so good-hearted."

"He has just the right balance of technical skill and humanitarian insight--it's really something special," adds Nela Wagman, another longtime friend and colleague. "I haven't been directed by anyone at Harvard who comes close to him."

'For me there's a tension between having everything planned out and letting things happen naturally. I'm not that good at working things out on paper; I'm better with people.' Bill Rauch

'Theater is change, it's revolution. It should frighten people, change them so that they don't know what to expect.'   Paul Warner

Rauch shies away from articulating a philosophy but admits to a continuing fascination with theatrical structure. "The actor can only work if the structure is just right, and the structure won't be any good unless the acting is absolutely straight on." The types of innovations he has tried reflect that preoccupation. When he directed Chekhov's The Seagull in the Agassiz last spring, in what was perhaps the most uniformly acclaimed Harvard production in recent years--he seated the audience on stage and moved the actors around among the rows of empty seats--isolated, trapped, or lost.

Even more startling, from a theoretical point of view, were the implications of the Kronauer Group's experience and especially of their culminating show this spring, Medea Macbeth Cinderella. Taking three familiar pieces of theater with vastly different conventions--a Euripides, a Shakespeare and a faintly dippy modern musical--he placed the actors for all three in an arena, they rushed around, colliding and mingling and doggedly pursuing their separate stories Soliloquies lined up with Greek choral laments and song lyrics. There were enough theoretical implications to set anyone afloat.

"After it, someone went up to him and said, 'Well, Bill, you've invented a new art form," says Wyse, who played the Fairy Godmother "And in fact, it is."

Rauch, who calls the Kronauer endeavor his most eye-opening experience ever, agrees that "there was something about the scope of the vision involved that's so big, bigger than me, bigger than all of us, bigger than anything I've ever done." The concept controlling the production the idea of a "magic forest" of criss-crossing stories as an image for the whole world--"scares me now when I listen to conversations in crowds."

The Kronauer experience had a deeper effect on him as well--particularly as it led into worries about a not-yet-certain future. "Nowadays I find myself thinking in terms of the difference between trying to get a lot of professional jobs and producing plays on the one hand, and devoting yourself to a group of people on the other. These days I wonder whether it's possible to do anything really new without working for a long time with a group of people--which makes me think that's what I'll do at some time in the future."

For the immediate future, at least, both Warner and Rauch's plans will keep them on surprisingly familiar turf--opposite sides of Brattle Street Rauch will spend the summer directing in the Agassiz. Warner is running the HRDC summer theater--a return of sorts to the group which had not accepted a show of his since Agamemnon, and whose internal politics he says helped spur him to work outside Harvard after sophomore year.

Afterwards, he will almost certainly make use of the contacts and the troupe he has developed in that time in professional theater. In fact, one of the skills almost every observer notes of Warner is his consistent ability to attract good people to work with him. Not wholly unrelated is an uncanny knack for making connections and attracting backers: when he isn't directing, he is caught up in a constant round of breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings with possible contacts, handling much of his own fundraising and publicity management.

"I get calls all the time now," he says, "and I'm not even sure where all of them come from I know enough producers that I think I can just start going from city to city." His post-graduation plans and projects are numerous. After summer theater, just for starters, he plans to write the book for a musical to be produced this fall in New York before his Winter's Tale opens.

"On some sort of level, Paul's already set," Ariev says. "There's enough of a flurry of attention around him now so that he can just keep going from show to show and eventually make a name for himself."

Though Rauch has yet to make comparable connections, it is difficult to find a colleague who doesn't put money on his eventual success. "He's made a name for himself solely on the quality of his work here," one says. "He may not have all those producers ringing him up yet, but he will.

Rauch: A director has to be so humble The actors, the audience, the playwright all know the play so much better than you do. All you can do is open it up and let these people breathe.

Warner: But at the same time you can't deny the importance of the director as a backbone--before you open it up. You can't sit back and let it breathe on its own.

Rauch: Yes, it's hard work to get it to the point where it can breathe. The director's job isn't to force it, though; it's to invest the faith and trust in all those people that'll let them succeed.

Warner: But that's all theoretical, isn't it? In practice, you're shaping people's, work; there's a thin line between forcing them and not doing enough.

The years of closeness and endless discussion almost certainly have left their mark on both directors' work--but no one, least of all Rauch or Warner, can say for sure what the effect has been. What is certain is that no absolute oppositions apply. "I know the tendency is to go with Bill as the sensitive one and Paul as the mylar sensational," says Howard, "but I think they've both looked at each other's productions and seen things that they didn't like, and that they liked, and now they're looking more and more different. It's been a process of defining themselves in relation to their audiences, which have largely been the same audience."

As to how much they actually differ, not even Warner and Rauch agree on that. "We support each other, we talk a lot, but we have a very different aesthetic," Rauch says. Warner is less certain: "We have the same mind in a lot of ways, it's just that our approaches are different."

"In all our discussions there's going to be an undertone of criticism," says Rauch, "but that can't really be avoided. If we didn't both believe in ourselves, we wouldn't want to do things the way we do them.