Ex Marks the Spot
KING LEAR is at the Loeb Ex this weekend and next. There's nothing surprising in that, even though there should be. After all, "Ex" does stand for experimental. And there's nothing experimental about Eric Oleson's production of the 17th century classic.
It's not really fair, though, to single out this production. During the last few seasons there hasn't been much experimenting in the Ex. It looks as if the theater's name has become part of a strategy to preserve one of the University's finest theater spaces for the productions--adventurous or not--of whatever undergraduate directors happen to enjoy the favor of Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club leaders. "Experimental Theater", remember, carries the suggestion that the goings on inside are so sophisticated that only an elect are in a position to judge and appreciate.
Those who produce work that really is too risky commercially for House Drama Societies have had to scurry between the Adams House Swimming Pool and the Mather House basement in search of space. And they aren't the only victims of the HRDC's Ex strategy. Harvard's theater-going public is now forced to read every kiosk and house bulletin board to find the experimental works that have been ousted from the Ex.
HRDC President Andrew Watson '88 acknowledges that the Experimental Theater should use its high-profile and resources--each show gets $250 per weekend plus free publicity, lights, props and costumes--to encourage theater that wouldn't be viable here without subsidy. However, a partial list of the past year's productions raises some doubts that the Ex is doing this. Recent Ex shows include: The Dining Room, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Fool For Love, The Diary of Anne Frank, March of the Falsettos, A Streetcar Named Desire and, of course, King Lear.
(Why was Anne Frank, a play produced everywhere, always, given an Ex slot? Watson's answer: "It's very conservative-ness made it experimental.")
There's no question that the plays, several of which were wonderfully done, are worthy of student production. But it's fair to wonder at their selection for the Ex while plays of the sort the theater is funded by Harvard to nurture must be produced in the nooks and crannies of the houses.
For one thing, each year the HRDC membership elects a new coordinator, who makes all the final decisions on shows for the Ex. Thus, the selection criteria vary wildly from year to year, confusing applicants who must try to make their project consistent with whatever philosophy happens to be in vogue.
Last December, Douglas Mao '87, after having three petitions for Ex space rejected, posted a letter in the HRDC Open Book. "Some serious guidelines need to be set, especially if the system is not going to be changed," the letter concluded.
This year's coordinator, Deborah Farber '88, says her selections are based on a proposal's potential to use the space in an "original creative manner." This sounds fine, but the selections she made do not bear the vision out. The selection of six shows from 23 applicants this term, or from 30 last spring, seems to have had to do primarily with another vague term HRDC people use a lot, "balance."
At the Ex, two risky and original productions Gilgamesh and Landscape of the Bodyare followed with two dramatic classics,King Lear and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,that could easily have found able and willing House sponsors.
It's worth noting that the HRDC isn't exactly anxious to make the community aware of what the Ex has become. The HRDC Board maintains a no review policy for Ex shows. Board members say reviews would increase the pressure on performers, directors, and the technical crew.
The policy, perhaps not incidentally, also keeps these plays and the way they're selected, outside public scrutiny. And as it happens, Ex directors and actors generally say they would like to be reviewed and to have their plays more widely discussed. The directors and actors, at least, rightly feel that what they do with the Ex is worthy of attention.
THE EX remains prestigious, but its politics are discouraging some of the University's most creative directors even from applying for space. Mark Prascak '89, the director of last spring's inventive adaptation of Strindberg's A Dream Play in the Adams House Lower Common Room, says he's been told by the HRDC that he is "too experimental for the Experimental." He has applied twice--and been turned down twice.
Turned off by "a star cast system" and "a star techie system," Prascak and two other undergraduates are now forming an "alternative, non-elitist" theater company, Undergraduate Group Histrionics--or UGH. Prascak, Joseph Giani '89, director ofJesus Christ SuperstarandComedy of Errors,and others in the group say they will fill out the group during the next Common Casting, and that UGH will try to provide an outlet for directors and actors who want to work on "off-the-wall things," projects "that don't get put up in the houses." Sounds like what the Ex should be.
Elections for next year's HRDC Board are being held tomorrow, and a new Ex Coordinator will be selected. Here's one vote cast for a coordinator willing to select adventurous projects on the basis of something like Douglas Mao's "serious guidelines." The Ex, without any guidelines at all, likely will continue to stand for little more than exclusivity.