Robert H. Chapman


Ever since Robert H. Chapman became director of the Loeb Drama Center in 1960, his main policy has been not to impose one. "The Loeb capitalizes on student interest," he says. "The idea is to trust in what the students can do, and we keep as light a hand on the production as possible. Our program has evolved; it hasn't been dictated or invented."

Chapman is the senior member of the three-man Loeb staff, the only person who has been with the Drama Center since its planning stages. In 1958, he attended the first meetings of the committee which determined the structure of the Loeb-to-be. When President Pusey appointed Hugh Stubbins to design the Loeb, Chapman helped the architect implement the committe's plans and advised him on the special needs of Harvard theatre.

Now his duties, which he shares with associate directors Daniel Seltzer and George Hamlin, are largely advisory. With the two associates, he sits in on meetings of the five-man Executive Board of the Harvard Dramatic Club, the student organization which produces nearly all of the plays at the Loeb. He helps Hamlin oversee divvying up the Loeb's $20,000-a-year budget.

When questions come up about which plays to select, or about incipient production problems, or about work on a current production, Champan and his two colleagues are there to help answer them. The three have no veto power. They belong to the Faculty Committee on Dramatics, which can, but rarely does, veto choices of plays; it is mainly Chapman who keeps the Committee informed on Loeb activities.

Chapman feels responsible for making sure that the Loeb runs, as he puts it, on a "two-party system" -- that is, for both participants and spectators. In advising the HDC, he tries to see that a balance is struck between educating the students and edifying audiences. When he directs Etherege's Man of Mode next month, it will be both "because it's not the sort of play students would ordinarily do," and because it will permit some of the six or seven hundred people in Harvard's English Department to see what a Restoration comedy looks like.


But since Harvard has no drama department, the most important thing that Chapman can do is to guide the students as they put a show together. And there is some disagreement around the Loeb as to how successful he is. Certainly his is not the style of the ubiquitous Dan Seltzer, distributing encouragement at rehearsals, helping actors make up on opening night, stopping in the Yard or the halls of the Loeb for a quick chat and to give a pat on the back. Nor is he like the warm, rather paternal Hamlin. Both the associates seem to be around more than Chapman, who sticks to his office. "Dan Seltzer and I don't agree," he says. "I tend not to go to a rehearsal unless I'm invited."

Because of this, people at the Loeb, especially new people, tend to think of Chapman as cold and inaccessible. "From what I'd heard, I'd envisioned him as an ogre, or Michelangelo's God," recalls one Cliffie. "But when I met him, the first thing he did was to kiss my hand. He's dashing, witty, and very charming."

There are really two sides to the Chapman coin. Heads, he looks down his nose at the Loeb; tails, he's a slightly discriminating perfectionist. "People don't ask him to rehearsals because they are afraid he would sneer," says one HDC member. "If he can't do a show exactly right, he can't bear to do it," says another. "He's kind of a snob. He won't do a show that would be compromised from the beginning."

When he directs, he spends a great deal of time researching the play's record. His production of Love for Love, a brilliant success, was correct down to the Restoration detail of having the gentlemen wear their hats to dinner. He was reluctant to go see the HDC's summer production of The Bacchae, because it was a modern interpretation done in modern dress; it didn't seem to him the real thing.

From the biggest director to the littlest props girl, Loebies respect him. His presence at a rehearsal or a performances galvanizes the cast. Whispers of "Chapman's here!" "What's he think of it?" float through the ranks and around the Green Room. They know he knows a lot, and they have faith in his appraisals.

But if they trust his judgement, they are often afraid to hear it handed down. When he dissects a Loeb effort, his charm can give way to an icy directness. Most leads and directors do end up wandering into his office for a post-mortem. Says one HDC executive, "If you ask him, he gives it to you straight -- right between the eyes. He judges everything from a professional standpoint. That's a good influence."

To many HDC members, however, he gives the impression that, as one put it, "he's extremely dissatisfied with everything that's done at the Loeb." Says the same person, "Chapman is caught between being too professional for the amateur Loeb and being fed up with what the professional theatre has to offer."

When the Loeb was first being planned, Chapman wanted it to house professional companies for at least a part of every season; this year, for the first time, two pro troupes will play there. And it will no doubt be a relief for him to hear polished sounds coming from the stage. For if he has given up the professional theatre as a vocation ("I don't have the theatrical temperament," he explains), he has retained the standards it once demanded of him.

Now 47, he was, by the time he was four, putting on puppet shows with his neighbor and contemporary, George Hamlin. He worked hard on his acting at Taft, went on to act and direct at Princeton. Princeton's situation was very much like that of Harvard before the Loeb opened. "There was no theatre, no drama department, no staff," says Chapman. "Nobody cared a damn." His only encouragement came from two English professor who occasionally stopped in at rehearsals, then made their suggestions at Sunday afternoon teas. He wrote two Triangle shows, playing "Miss Gibbings, a saucy secretary" in one of them. He became president of the Triangle Club in his senior year.

When he graduated from Princeton in 1941, he was thinking of "making a desperate attempt to get into the theatre as an actor." Instead, the Navy cast him as an intelligence man, and he ended up in Casablanca in a 12-man bureau devoted to investigating the likes of a bank teller who hung a photograph of Marshal Petain in his cage. He took advantage of the lack of crises to travel around North Africa, particularly Morocco, for which he developed an enduring love. (Today his office, which is his castle, is known behind his back as "little Morocco," because it is lined with books on Morocco, and its desk and walls are covered with Moroccan memorabilia.)