The curtain goes up, and … A crazed gypsy hag throws a baby into the fire. A Greek princess, reunited with her long-lost brother, asks him to hack up their adulterous mother and her new lover. An East German’s sex-change operation has not gone well, leaving behind an abbreviated appendage that is . . . a wee bit “angry.”
Class, please take your seats. Today’s topic is “Leadership.”
These incongruous moments from, respectively, an opera (“Il Trovatore”), a Greek tragedy (“Electra”), and a rock musical (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) are all part of a visionary Duke University program that uses the theater to teach students how to assume that most amorphous of all job titles: leader.
“Leadership and the Arts” is the brainchild of Bruce Payne. A member of Duke’s faculty since 1971, Payne has been teaching leadership, ethics, and public policy for almost three decades. In 1983, Payne received Duke’s Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. It was his idea to teach leadership through the arts. “Traditional academia teaches individual excellence,” says Payne. “But the business world is moving toward teamwork. What kinds of skills will students need to work in a highly competitive world with teams of creative, exciting people?” Payne’s answer is to hold his class in the world’s most competitive, creative city — in a classroom that changes its location every night and that comes with ushers and programs.
Each January, Payne brings a group of up to 15 Duke undergraduates to New York City, where they spend four months — an entire semester — seeing more than 50 Broadway shows, operas, and ballets. They tramp through acres of gallery and museum space. They meet with actors, directors, producers, dancers, writers, painters, sculptors, curators, entertainment lawyers, business leaders, philanthropists, and, for good measure, one rocket scientist.
They talk. And talk. It is a perpetual Socratic dialogue about leadership and life, fueled by lots of pizza, a few beers, and the adrenaline that comes from immersion in the cultural capital of the world. This is a program that treats the actor Kevin Spacey — whom the students will meet as part of the semester’s grand finale — less as a star of stage and screen than as a Peter Drucker with head shots.
“In the new world of corporate America, everybody is worried about how to achieve excellence in smaller and flatter organizations,” says Payne. “That means finding styles of leadership that work well with smart, self-respecting professionals. Since everybody knows that hierarchy never worked well — and these days, it works less well than ever — what styles of leadership really make the most sense? The people who succeed in the arts these days are people who have solved that problem. They know how to coach, they know how to encourage, they know how to praise, they know how to love. And they know how to express a vision that excites rather than intimidates.”
In a play, the dramatist’s job is to place all of the characters’ motivations in competition. Every play can be described in eight words: Someone comes out on stage and wants something. That something may be as specific as a throne (“Macbeth”) or as intensely personal as the desire to meet one’s own death with grace (“Wit”). Either way, values are at stake, and the action of the play proceeds until those values are either reversed or reclaimed. In the audience, those who are followers root for an outcome; the leaders take notes.
Ask any 10 people what leaders do, and you’ll hear all the old favorites: They take risks, they innovate, they inspire. The romantic view of leadership sees it as a kind of ectoplasmic magnetism, in which followers in variously sized groups — from teams to cults to companies to countries — are drawn mystically and irrevocably toward a central source of inspiration. A more practical view of leadership suggests that real leaders have identified and mastered a secret tool: emotional observation. If you can watch people — and, by watching them, figure out what makes them do what they do — you might be able to get them to do something else, something better. That leadership principle, Payne believes, makes the theater a perfect laboratory for anyone who wants to brush up on what makes people tick.
The theater also has much to teach a business world that worships at the entrepreneurial altar. According to Payne, arts organizations, especially small repertory companies and dance troupes, serve as useful models for a world that reveres the startup. “The performing arts have always had to do more with less,” says Payne. “All arts are essentially entrepreneurial.”
Business books and seminars have picked clean any number of occupational metaphors to teach management and leadership skills — sports, the military, wilderness survival, religion. Yet, perhaps more than people in any of these other fields, people in the arts have learned to deal effectively with impossible deadlines, tight budgets, temperamental employees, and the perpetual challenge of selling a product with a short shelf life to a fickle, demanding consumer base.
For inspiration on creative ways to lead a company — or to chart a meaningful career — there’s no business like show business.
Act One: Enter Stage Right
It starts with swans. Lots of swans. On a modestly cold night in early January, 14 students gather in front of a theater just off Times Square. There, they are handed tickets for the first production of the semester, “Swan Lake,” which is — and, as they are about to discover, isn’t — Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet.
Although many of the students knew each other casually back on campus, in Durham, North Carolina, this is their first evening together as a class. They stand beneath the marquee with the polite nervousness of people who are just now realizing that they are going to be seeing the same faces again and again for the next four months. They are (with one exception) in their third year of college. They are impossibly young.
For many of them, this is their first exposure to ballet. The boys finger tickets for the show like anxious magicians, as if flipping the stubs enough times might turn them into tickets for courtside seats at a Knicks game. A few of the girls wave theirs in the air with the enthusiasm that comes from having donned a tutu at age five.
Sasha Jackowich is from Spokane, a conservative agricultural hub on the dry plains of eastern Washington State. Spokane counts among its chief exports wheat, alfalfa seed, and wholesome children. Sasha always wears a sweater tied around her shoulders, and she arrives at every performance a little breathless, as if she’s just come from practice for the pep squad. “Everybody calls Duke ‘The Bubble,’ ” explains Sasha as the group climbs four flights of stairs to get to their seats, which are in the last row of the top balcony. “It’s totally insulated from the outside world. It’s all these rich white kids.”
New York City is about as “outside” as the outside world gets, and to some of the students, the thought of coming here has been terrifying enough to make them bring along the ultimate defense against big-city danger: their mother.
“My mom came with me to help me move in,” says Katie “Kat” Bartram, who is from Ironton, a small town in southern Ohio where everyone speaks with a drawl that has drifted in from across the river in Kentucky. On their first night in the city, mother and daughter witness a different kind of street theater, one of New York’s most unique welcoming ceremonies — a Mafia hit.
“We’re walkin’ down the street, and this big ol’ black Lincoln Town Car screeches up to the sidewalk,” says Kat. “Two guys in suits jump out, grab some guy on the sidewalk, and just start beatin’ on him. Then they drive off.”
Although Payne presumably would have hoped for a less literal illustration of his intentions, this real-life drama is as thematically on target as any of the plays that the students will be asked to deconstruct. Payne wants to assault these students’ conceptions of the world — and to challenge their sense of their place in it. Natalie Lamarque participated in this program in 1997, and this year she has returned to serve as Payne’s teaching assistant. From her own experience, she knows exactly why these students have come to New York for a program that brings together leadership and literature. “They are here to rewrite themselves,” she says.
“There are all kinds of ways to learn to be a leader,” says Payne, who has done it all — from working in the civil-rights movement in Mississippi in the 1960s to spotlighting poverty in South Africa in the 1980s. “The foolish way is to think that there is a type of ideal leader, and to try to become that. The smart way is to learn how to be a better Sasha or Natalie or Bruce, and then to find out where and how you can be effective in making changes in the world.”
As if he were some sort of cultural drill instructor, Payne’s mission is to draw out, and then to disorient, his recruits’ existing expectations. That makes “Swan Lake,” with its traditional flocks of ballerinas in fluffy white tutus, a curious first choice. This is the most mainstream of ballets — hardly the kind of performance likely to be called “subversive.” What the students don’t yet know is that this is the production that one critic dubbed “the gay ‘Swan Lake’.”
The ballet begins conventionally enough. There is a palace, there is a prince, and the prince is unhappy. He is so unhappy that he runs away and throws himself into a lake. There, he encounters a flock of dancing swans, all of whom are semi-naked and all of whom are . . . men. No toe shoes, no tutus — just barefoot, bare-chested men, their haunches judiciously covered in feathers.
Sasha whispers in the dark to no one in particular, “Is he dreaming the swans? Is he in love with the swans?” The answer to the latter question becomes self-evident when the prince dances a romantic pas de deux with a swan who has very nice biceps.
Not until after the curtain call does Sasha realize exactly what she and her fellow students have gotten themselves into. Back in Durham, thousands of Duke students are sitting in classrooms, listening to professors, and taking tests. Sasha and the other students in the “Leadership and the Arts” program are watching swans dance.
As she gathers up her program and carefully makes her way down the stairs and into the street, she asks a perfectly reasonable question: “Is this school?”
Act Two: Add Career Development
Every Saturday morning at 10 am, the box office at the Metropolitan Opera begins selling inexpensive standing-room tickets for the following week’s performances. The line for these tickets starts forming by 5 am. That there are music lovers dedicated enough to stand through an entire three- or four-act opera is inspiring. That these same people are also prepared to get up before dawn so that they can pay money to do so is vaguely disturbing.
At 5 am on their first Saturday morning in New York, students in the Duke program are dutifully waiting outside at the Met box office. It is mid-January. They have had to ride the subway in the predawn hours to get here. As the sun rises over Lincoln Center, so do their suspicions that the whole idea of spending four months going to the theater and the opera may not be the junket that they have anticipated.
During their first week at the Met, the students are introduced to “Lucia di Lammermoor “(bride goes mad at her own wedding and stabs fiancé), “La Bohème” (starving poet meets girl with bad cold), and an opera gala with Placido Domingo in scenes from “Faust,” “Stiffelio,” and “Carmen” (bullfighter meets Gypsy, bullfighter loses Gypsy). Unlike most theatergoers, the Duke students are not permitted simply to stroll out onto the sidewalk at the end of a performance, to utter a quick critique (loved/hated it/him/her), and to head home. Instead, Payne will take them to a nearby restaurant or apartment — where, over dessert and coffee, they will engage in the serious work of coming to terms with what they’ve just seen: “What were your expectations for this work, and how were they violated?” “What values were at stake?” “Where did you see moral change?”
Payne wants his students, as part of their experience of attending the theater, to develop their capacity for critical judgment. But his deeper objective is to find out how they react emotionally to the works that they see, and through that, to learn who they are as people. “If I’m going to be a leader,” says Payne, “then what exactly are the things that unite me with other people? What do I respond to? You can learn these things through your response to the arts.”
“In this program, you’re constantly forced to react,” says Evan Osborn, a shy young man who is devoting his first few weeks in the big city to trying to grow a decent, Lower East Side – slacker goatee. “Bruce always wants to know, ‘How do you feel? How do you feel?’ It’s a little disconcerting.”
Seeing so many operas and plays in nightly succession makes the semester seem like one of those whirlwind European tour packages that promise umpteen countries in just as many days: If it’s Tuesday, it must be Aïda.
“Caesar and Cleopatra” downtown. “Werther” at the Met. “Phèdre” in Brooklyn.
There is the occasional odd juxtaposition: a nude, but strategically draped, Nicole Kidman in “The Blue Room” one night; Disney’s “The Lion King” the next.
Night after night, the students stare intently at the action in front of them as if cramming for a quiz. (“One thing they teach us in school,” says Sasha, “is that there is a right answer.”) And it’s not just plays and operas that whiz by in a seemingly endless succession — people do as well. Payne is giving his students a crash course in industrial-strength networking.
Payne is part Mr. Chips, part Charlie Rose, and part Auntie Mame. He has boundless enthusiasm — and an inexhaustible address book of actors, artists, and patrons, all of whom he counts as friends. Each night, he carries an extra set or two of tickets, so that he can dole them out to people whom he calls “leadership-program groupies.” As a result, students often find themselves sitting next to an attorney, a magazine editor, a caterer for celebrity parties, a TV producer, an investment banker, a corporate-art curator, or a composer.
Payne tells students that when it comes to shaping their futures, the ability to connect people is perhaps the most important lesson that they can learn. “People think of their career in this disembodied way, as if it were an object that you select and pursue,” he says. “I’ve based all of my decisions in life on the people I’ve met. Opportunities always come in the shape of somebody, not something.”
Like most undergraduates, these students have mapped out career choices for themselves that have a half-life of about 24 hours. They are going to be lawyers, they say. No, make that psychologists. Wait a minute, teachers. Some swing back and forth between Wall Street and Madison Avenue, as if they were throwing darts at a map of Manhattan. The most popular career choice is Not Sure, followed by It Changes Every Day.
Payne often arranges for actors and other artists to sit down with students to discuss the decisions that they’ve made in their lives. Most frequently, what the students hear is that these artists didn’t choose a career — the career chose them.
“I knew at the age of three what I wanted to do,” says Patrick Corbin, one of the lead dancers in the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Frank Wood, who is appearing in the play “Side Man,” tells them, “Acting eliminated everything else.” Madeleine L’Engle, author of “A Wrinkle in Time” and other best-selling children’s books, remembers, “I got hold of a pencil at the age of five.”
Natalie, the teaching assistant, speaks of “ambition” as if it were a medical condition that she’d like to contract. “I hope it’s something that will develop,” she worries. “Well, damn, it’s not here right now. If you don’t have it, can you get it?”
Katie Murphy is one of four students who are taking a course in entertainment law this semester (the course coincides with the “Leadership and the Arts” program). Two weeks into the course, she has already absorbed her first piece of valuable information: Entertainment law is boring. Now she has no idea what to do. “I used to think there was something seriously wrong with me because I didn’t have my life figured out,” she says.
Some students figure that they’ll wind up in business in much the same way that the skinny, uncoordinated kid whom nobody wants finally gets picked for the playground ball game. “If you know that you’re not an academic,” says David McKenzie, “and you know that you’re not a professional, what’s left?”
Arrangements are made for the students to have lunch with Andrew Tisch, who, along with a brother and a cousin, is copresident of Loews Corp., a $21 billion conglomerate. “Tisch” is one of those New York names that one sees in steel letters on the walls of hospitals and university auditoriums. It is also a good name to know back in Duke’s home state, North Carolina: One of Loews’s subsidiaries is Lorillard Tobacco, based in Greensboro. Tisch was one of the tobacco executives who, in 1994, raised their hands before a congressional subcommittee and swore that smoking does not cause cancer. This may or may not explain why, when Tisch comes into the room to meet with a group of kids, he has a pr woman at his side.
The students sit around a conference-room table with their hands folded politely in their laps. Each of the boys is wearing a jacket and tie. The difference between Tisch and the glamorous artists whom the students have met so far during this program is immediately apparent: This man does not sing or dance. He is a businessman. He is a sobering reminder that someday these students will all have to go out and get a job.
Tisch introduces himself by rattling off a list of the companies owned by the Loews holding company, along with the percentages of stock that it controls (“Bulova — 97%; CNA Financial Corp. — 85%; Diamond Offshore Drilling — 52%; Loews Hotels — all of it; Lorillard — all of it . . .”). “We will not invest in the Internet,” he says almost proudly. “We don’t understand it. We don’t understand the value creation.”
Elias Muhanna, a philosophy major and budding novelist who hails from Lebanon and whose family now lives in Cyprus, wants to know if there’s “a continuum of principles or ideals that govern this holding company?”
“We always look at both the letter and the spirit of the law,” says Tisch. “In our oil business, 60% of expenses goes toward a clean environment. We do that because (a) it’s mandated by law, and (b) it’s the right thing to do.”
Melinda Steele is not quite sure Tisch has his a’s and b’s in the right order. She spent a semester in Zimbabwe and is concerned about women’s rights and health issues. She asks Tisch, “What is business’s responsibility to the community?”
“When you operate a company, you have a lot of different people you want to take care of,” says Tisch. “Your shareholders, your employees — but if you look at it on a Machiavellian level, you also have a responsibility to the community, because that’s where you’re going to get your pool of future employment.”
In a moment of reflection, Tisch thinks back on his own college years. If he had it to do all over again, he wouldn’t have gone so quickly from school into the family business. “I should have spent two years on the outside, being more anonymous,” he says. Then, as if realizing that lack of anonymity may be a highly Tisch-specific problem, he offers some more proletarian advice, urging students to carpe whatever diem happens to come their way. “People aren’t going to pull you through the portal,” he counsels. “When the door’s open, walk through it.”
Johannes Kraft, an exchange student from Munich, will soon walk through that door, and he won’t much care for what he sees on the other side. For weeks, he has been expressing an interest in investment banking. Over spring break, he’ll spend a day inside a firm that trades in government securities — and he’ll come back looking shell-shocked. “It was 90 people in a room screaming at each other,” he will report.
“I thought of going to business school,” says Melinda Steele, “but I’m very wary of business. When I went into the meeting with Andrew Tisch, I had this mind-set that business is evil.”
“I have a big problem with what I call a ‘fragmentation of personal ethics,’ ” says Elias. “Most of the people I know who go into business ultimately adopt this suspension of personal beliefs, in which their actions are informed only by their knowledge of proper procedures. There’s this idea that you are motivated by one set of values when you’re at work, and by a whole other set of values when you’re at play.”
Heather Ruth is president of the Bond Market Association, an advocacy group representing a sector of the financial industry valued at $12 trillion. She is also a Duke alum and yet another “Friend of Bruce.” One night, she and her husband, Jim Ruth, invite the students to dinner at her apartment overlooking Central Park. “Most business leaders think a great deal less about ethics on a day-to-day basis than they should,” she says. “Or they think about it and can’t figure out what to do about it. Or they rewrite their mission statement and have done with it. I don’t think we know as much as we pretend to about how to instill ‘good’ values.”
“This is my third leadership course,” says Melinda wistfully, as if the first two just didn’t take. In one of the operas that the students attend, “Moses und Aron,” Melinda sees the paradox inherent in trying to teach any concept, whether it be faith or leadership, that may be ultimately inexpressible.
“Moses understands God, but he is not able to articulate what he understands,” says Melinda. “His brother, Aaron [spelled “Aron” in German], understands people and communication, but not God’s message. So the question becomes ‘Is it possible to teach something that is a pure idea?’ “
In the final moment of the opera, Moses realizes that he may never be able to verbalize the message that he carries in his heart. “O word, thou word, that I lack!” cries Moses, as he sinks to the ground in despair.
Act Three: Everyone Gets into the Act
Emanuel Azenberg claims to be 300 years old. He is one of Broadway’s most legendary producers, with a list of credits reaching so far back that it includes almost every play that Neil Simon has ever written. Still, the calendar says that he’s only 65. And his soul is still in its infancy.
He is a Duke parent — his daughter graduated from Duke — and one of several “adjunct professors” who help Payne teach the “Leadership and the Arts” class. Payne refers to him affectionately as “a professional bad influence.” Azenberg wanders in and out of class wearing a baseball cap and sweatshirt, and he barks at the students as if they were his own children. The students call him “Manny,” as does everyone on Broadway.
His job here is to talk to the students about the business of producing Broadway shows, and about the meaning of those shows. But that lesson plan is often abandoned so that he can entertain them with backstage gossip and assorted tidbits of wisdom — which he often delivers as if he were smacking them upside the head. “Passion! Your lives are shit without passion!” he preaches. He tells them what Neil Simon once told him: “You gotta live your lives as if Gershwin wrote the score.”
Along with actor Kevin Spacey and four other people, Azenberg is producing one of the most widely anticipated productions of the new season, “The Iceman Cometh,” and he has arranged for one of the Duke students, Kara Medoff, to serve as a production assistant for the show. Along with running errands, she is “on book,” cuing actors during rehearsals whenever they forget a line. It’s a dream internship. For Kara, the most magical moment of the semester came during “Iceman”‘s first rehearsal, when Kevin Spacey walked onstage and said his first line, “Hello, Gang!” “The job didn’t seem real to me until that moment,” she says, “and then I suddenly realized that this was really happening.”
The students have seen one “Iceman” dress rehearsal, and they will see all four and a half hours of it again at a benefit performance for the “Leadership and the Arts” program. Over the past few weeks, Azenberg has brought several cast members to class to talk about the show, but he won’t let the students meet Kevin Spacey until they’ve seen the play a second time.
Today, the students are in trouble with their teacher. Last week, Azenberg gave them a script to read, a show about a conspiracy within the Vatican and the assassination of a pope. He’s thinking about bringing it to Broadway. “Anybody here Catholic enough to object?” he says, provoking them.
Only a few students have gotten around to reading it, and those who have are guilty of the most serious violation in the Azenberg rule book: They have no opinion. “I’m gonna shake your brains!” he shouts. “Give me some outrage or something!”
“You have to invest in something, emotionally or spiritually or morally,” he says. “Some philosopher wrote about a guy who is told by a wise man that ‘life is insignificant’ — but the guy then goes about his life as if someone hadn’t given him that information. Even if it’s only a delusion, you want your life to have meaning. How long can we listen to people talk about the stock market? That’s not work. That’s not human. That’s the accumulation of worthless things.”
The room is quiet as Azenberg continues. “I’m asking you to find something in yourself — for your own benefit,” he says. “When you get to be my age, you’re going to need it. If I died tomorrow, I would be fulfilled. I’ve done enough nutty things and virtuous things, and I’ve screwed up a lot of things. You have to be like Don Quixote: You have to piss into a few windmills.”
When the students attend a screening of “Dancemaker,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about the Paul Taylor Dance Company, they see that in the arts, having passion is not just a generalized aspiration — it’s a job requirement: One of the female dancers is fired because Paul Taylor, the choreographer, can’t connect to her emotionally. “It just wasn’t interesting,” says Taylor. “I couldn’t work with her.”
After seeing the film, the students talk about it with Patrick Corbin, one of the company’s lead dancers. He defends Taylor’s decision: That female dancer, he says, could not “get free.” Creating dance is such an intense act, and is so intensely dependent on teamwork, that there is simply no room for holding back, he explains. The actual steps of a dance are rarely choreographed before rehearsal. Instead, they emerge through an endless process of experimentation and improvisation. “It’s like a slow, uncomfortable conversation,” says Corbin.
The education in dance continues. Payne brings his students to a downtown rehearsal space to meet Doug Varone and Dancers, one of the dozens of small, threadbare troupes in New York City that survive on skintight budgets. “I never know when I go into a room what kind of dance I’m going to make,” says Varone. “The dance finds its way to me. I try out different shapes, different movements, different combinations of people.” He grins mischievously, and his eyes sweep up and down the row of students: He’s like a wolf trying to decide which delicious Riding Hood to eat first. “Eventually, the dance starts to tell me what it is — as you are about to discover. I’d like all of you to help me.”
Elias is the first student to figure out what Varone is up to. He groans in mock pain, shakes his head, leans back in his chair, and laughs. The students look at one another, their eyes widening as if they were roadkill in the split second before impact. It’s the moment anyone who’s ever attended a company off-site dreads. It’s the Leadership Exercise.
Varone gets the students up out of their seats and onto the floor, where he has them engage in a process of improvisational movement that he calls “cultural mapping.” “Imagine that this dance floor is a map of the world,” he calls out. “Find the place where your mother’s ancestors came from, and go there.”
Natalie heads off to Africa, Sasha to Poland, Elias to Lebanon — and so on, until all of the students have been dispersed into an imaginary diaspora. “Now think about your ancestors’ life there, and distill that experience into a single gesture.” Evan (who has abandoned his goatee experiment) is digging carrots in Sweden.
“Now find the homeland of your father’s ancestors, go to that place, think of an experience, and then reduce that experience to a gesture.” David McKenzie is in the South African bush, watching big game. Katie Murphy is playing bagpipes.
Before long, the students are all gesturing wildly, weaving in and out and around one another like a platoon of Frankenstein’s monsters that are trying to direct rush-hour traffic — and who are simultaneously frightened by it. After a bit of repetition and refinement, the miniature dances that the students have invented take on a sort of goofy grace. Varone punches up some music on a battered old cassette player, and the students take turns performing their creations. Each dancer receives a round of jubilant applause.
After weeks of being cultural voyeurs, the students are finally starring in their own mini-productions.
Act Four: Cue the Star
“Hello, Gang!” Everyone has been waiting for Kevin Spacey. His entrance, as Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh,” does not come until 45 minutes into the first act. The year is 1912, and the scene is Harry Hope’s bar, a skid-row flophouse where “no one . . . has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no farther they can go.”
Tomorrow is Harry’s birthday, and Hickey drops in to celebrate — as he often does. Hickey is a salesman, and a very successful one. Tonight, the drinks will be on him. By the time Hickey finally bursts through the swinging doors of the bar, the drunks who have been waiting for their old pal, and for his generous wallet, are half-mad from thirst.
Harry, the bar’s owner, used to be a local politician. Then his wife died, and for 20 years he has literally not set foot outside the bar. “I’ll go out soon. Take a walk around the ward, see all the friends I used to know . . . My birthday . . . that’d be the right time to turn over a new leaf. Sixty. That ain’t too old.”
Willie had studied to be a lawyer, until he found “the loophole of whiskey.” He’s going to take that bar exam . . . soon: “I’ll be straightened out and on the wagon in a day or two.” Joe is going to start his own gambling house, if he can just keep his hands from shaking. Jimmy is going to give up drinking and get back his old job at the newspaper. He’s been saying that for so long that everyone has taken to calling him Jimmy Tomorrow.
For the fools and failures who populate Harry’s bar, Hickey’s return offers another chance for them to trot out their “pipe dreams” one more time — just to see if anybody still believes what they say.
For Kevin Spacey, appearing in this play marks the beginning of a risky new phase of an already extraordinary career. Since winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for “The Usual Suspects” (1995), he has been one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, starring in “L.A. Confidential,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “A Time to Kill,” and “Hurlyburly.” Yet here he is on Broadway, acting in one of the most difficult plays ever written. And Spacey is not just tackling the leading role in “Iceman.” He is coproducing the play as well.
At almost four and a half hours in length, with a cast of 19 and a crew that must be paid overtime every night, The Iceman Cometh is so difficult and so costly to produce that in the 60 years since Eugene O’Neill wrote it, there has been only one successful production—in 1956, starring Jason Robards as Hickey.
For Kara Medoff, the lucky student who has served as a production assistant on the show, there is no question about which performer has offered her the most powerful leadership model. “Kevin Spacey,” she says without hesitation. “He’s taking an incredible chance with this production. And he makes sure that nobody treats him like a star. He doesn’t want his name on the marquee. He doesn’t want his name above the title in the ads. He even had some walls in the dressing rooms torn down so that he could share one big dressing room with seven other male leads. He makes sure that all of the people connected with the show feel that they’re part of something really special and that they’re important.”
All of the actors, including Spacey, make the minimum scale for a Broadway actor, $1,135 a week. Any profit that the show makes will be distributed to the cast. The top ticket price, a whopping $100, not only reflects the show’s high production costs; it also helps subsidize several hundred seats each night for a segment of the public that Spacey feels the theater must attract if it’s going to survive — students.
Given his commitment to introducing a new generation to the theater, it is no wonder that he has agreed to join the Duke students after the performance for a conversation about the play, the dreamers in it, and their own dreams. And so, near midnight, the students gather at Dorsay, an elegant new restaurant in the theater district, to wait for Spacey to make his second entrance of the evening.
After four and a half hours of watching a bunch of drunks spill their guts and their whiskey, Natalie is burning to know one thing: “How on earth do you feel hope at the end of this play?”
“How can you not?” asks Spacey. “It’s a play about love and friendship, and that’s ultimately what these people give to each other. When should you help your friends? When should you enable them? When should you tell them the truth? When should you pin them against the wall and say that they’re full of shit? These are all questions that this play is about.”
On the question of careers — finding one or letting one find you — Spacey has his own story to tell. “I was kicked out of military school,” he offers. “A guidance counselor in the seventh grade suggested that I had excessive energy and that I might channel it into some elective courses. I got into this theater class, and I suddenly felt I belonged. I had never felt I’d belonged before.”
Elias asks him how he has been personally challenged by the production of Iceman, and Spacey admits that the experience has been somewhat terrifying: “I was out of my mind to think I could tackle this play. But I don’t usually do anything that doesn’t scare me on some level. Sometimes, that’s because it’s a genre that I’ve never done, but most things I do because I’m daunted by them.”
Hollywood, he says, is filled with people no less self-deluded than the denizens of Harry’s bar. “I know a lot of actors in the movie business,” he tells the students, “and I’ve heard a lot of them in the past seven years or so say they want to come back and do a play. And I believed that seven years ago. I don’t believe it anymore. But they keep talking about it. Part of the reason they talk about it is to convince themselves that they’re still in touch with what’s important, that they haven’t lost touch with who they were when they first started out in the theater. But they have lost touch. In fact, they don’t really want it, but they’re not willing to admit it. If what you want is lots of money and to be a movie star, then do it. Dedicate yourself to that. But don’t do that and at the same time say that what you really want is something else. Because that’s bullshit. That to me is a pipe dream.
“Actors are always asking me questions about offers that they get: ‘Should I do this?’ They’re conflicted about it. My answer is always ‘You’re conflicted because you know exactly what the right thing to do is, and you’re being pulled by things that are not the right things.'”
Spacey has eyes that could peer through lead. He looks at each student as if he were taking a quick inventory of his or her soul: “The issue for you is, Are you going to do the right thing?”
This actor, who has kept an audience spellbound for more than four hours with one of the most talkative plays in the American theater (including one speech that lasts more than 19 minutes), has just three more words for the students from Duke: “Follow your heart.”
Act Five: Exit Center Stage
The swans have returned. The semester ends as it began, with a production of Swan Lake. This time, the production is by the New York City Ballet. These swans are ballerinas. These swans wear tutus.
At the end of every play, there comes a moment when all of the subplots are resolved and the author reveals how each character has been transformed. Such a moment, foreshortened as it is in time, is a conceit — a playwright’s fabrication for the purpose of dramatic necessity. Like all changes in life, the transformations that these students undergo will happen offstage, in the months and years to come.
In countless MGM musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Busby Berkeley’s Babes on Broadway (1941), struggling teenagers-with-talent (usually played by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland) turn to their fellow struggling teenagers-with-talent and shout, “Hey, my uncle has a barn. Let’s put on a show!” The time has come for the Duke students to get out onstage and to put on their show.
“This program is about more than just teaching people to ‘think out of the box,'” says Elias. “It’s about applying that habit to everything you do — to start afresh consistently. The aesthetic experience is often described as ‘seeing everything through the eyes of a child.’ If you can take the curiosity that you exhibit when you see a play or a painting, and apply it to management practices or to budgeting or to the design of a company, then you are the ideal kind of leader for a modern business. Not just a business, but a country: You are what Plato called a ‘philosopher-king.'”
Alissa Perine, an African-American from St. Louis, is not quite sure why she came here, but she knows exactly where she has come from. “My high school was 90% black,” she says. “One in five girls either was or had been pregnant. Only 30% of people went to college. Duke was a struggle for me. I spent the first year and a half just hating it. I didn’t fit in socially. It was like living in a J. Crew catalog.”
She joined the program to expose herself to the city, to the theater, to the opera, and to a whole bunch of white kids. “I called my mom and told her that I’m so happy, but she still doesn’t know why I’m here,” Alissa says. “Neither do I. I still can’t put it into words.”
Katie Murphy has endured her last entertainment-law class. After she had expressed what she felt was a fairly reasonable opinion on an aspect of copyright law, the attorney who teaches the course had embarrassed her in front of the entire class. “Does anybody here agree with Katie’s pedantic drivel?” he asked.
“For a minute, I was totally flabbergasted,” she says. This is a girl who was brought up by a good St. Louis family to be polite. This is also a girl who has not spent four months in New York City for nothing. “But then I called him a son-of-a-bitch,” she says, beaming with pride.
In Swan Lake, the prince falls in love with a swan who is transformed into human form. Odette, as she is called, is ultimately betrayed by the prince and must become a swan once more. By tradition, each choreographer rewrites the end of the ballet. In some versions, Odette dies. In others, both of the lovers commit suicide. In the production that the students are seeing tonight, Odette bids her prince good-bye and gently drifts away, sur les pointes, as the other swans engulf her. It is not clear whether she is ascending to some sort of swan heaven, is rejoining the swans as their leader, or is doomed forever just to be part of the flock. The ballet ends unresolved, leaving the prince onstage alone.
At the New York State Theater, in Lincoln Center, the students stand in front of the marquee with the sadness of friends who realize that tomorrow they will not see the faces that they’ve been looking at for the past four months. All told, the students have seen 32 plays, 6 musicals, 19 operas, and 9 ballets. They have encountered the equivalent of a combined cast of thousands. Yet the most memorable characters that they’ve met are not the ones that they’ve seen onstage but the fellow students whom they’ve been sitting next to.
“To me,” says Elias, “this has all been about working with people you love to be with, and about the extent to which you can make that your model of how you operate.”
They make their final good-byes to one another and to Bruce Payne, and then drift off into the night. Instead of ascending to swan heaven, they descend into the subway.
For the Duke students, the semester — their personal Act One — is over. Now they must become artists of their own lives.
Stevan Alburty (email@example.com), a freelance writer and technology consultant, lives in New York City. He spent his formative years acting and directing in community
theater. You can contact Bruce Payne at Duke by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).