Interview with Jack Marshall, Artistic Director for The American Century Theater
Jack Marshall, Artistic Director for The American Century Theater, took some time out of his busy schedule to share his experience and insight on the local theater scene and The American Century Theater.
Now playing:The Seven Year Itch: September 20-October 11, 2014
The season opens with George Axelrod’s classic comedy, one of TACT’s all-time biggest hits.
In Gunston Theatre Two
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SFP: What is your role with The American Century Theater and how did you get involved?
Jack Marshall: The late Bart Whiteman, my friend and founder of the Source Theatre and a major figure in the development of the vibrant theater community in the Washington D.C. area, made the statement that turned out to be the catalyst for the creation of the American Century Theater.
It was 1993, and Bart had just played Juror #3 in a professional production of 12 Angry Men that I had directed on commission from the American Trial Lawyers Association. The cast and I were having a blow-out post performance dinner after the lone performance, and everyone was a little drunk. Bart, all 6’6” and 300 pounds of him, could rant like few others, and suddenly proclaimed the demise of serious theater in America.
“This show is about things that matter,” he said. “Big issues—justice, war, bigotry, bias, the legal system, fairness, courage. Plays aren’t about big issues any more. Now, a drama is a 90 minute three person play about roommates coming to terms with being vegetarians. It’s all small, timid stuff. Miller, Hellman, O’Neill—Reginald Rose (who wrote 12 Angry Men)…they challenged audiences. Now audiences don’t want to be challenged, or so theater companies think. Somebody needs to start producing the old plays that matter.”
Tim Lynch, who played Juror #12, had some money at his disposal, and bravely decided to accept Bart’s challenge. He funded the launch of our company, with my commitment to be the Artistic Director, meaning that I charted the artistic mission of the company, chose the shows and the directors, oversaw all productions, and made sure that we performed at a professional level.
A little more than a year later, The American Century Theater performed its first show, 12 Angry Men, with me directing. Tim eventually left the company, but I’m still here. Two decades later, we will end out 20 years run with my directing another production of the same play.
SFP: How do you view theater benefiting the Washington, DC community?
Jack Marshall: Theater is the most dynamic, unifying, courageous, immediate and moving of the performing arts, and the stage is by far the most dynamic medium for exploring human existence, relationships, life, conflict and values. Unfortunately, it is losing ground rapidly to less challenging, flashier communications methods that don’t require a trip outside the home. Our theater doubles the benefit by returning to the era when the best and most able writers used the stage as their first medium, and when ideas and controversies were enough to make theater financially viable, and it had not capitulated to commercialism, crassness and the need to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
SFP: What are the artistic goals of The American Century Theater?
Jack Marshall: Our prime goal has been to bring seldom-performed 20th Century dramas, comedies, musicals and revues that have artistic, historical, literary and cultural value and importance to the audiences of greater Washington. Related goals are to demonstrate to other, more timid theaters that these are shows worth presenting, and to give opportunities to young, talented professional artists in our productions. The mission has worked. Today there are many companies that plumb the rich treasures of 20th Century theater beyond the handful of familiar and perennial “war horses”—the American Century Theater led the way there. There are also many plays that were forgotten and neglected before this company allowed them to live again, and that received new attention, new productions, and new respect in theaters across the country. Finally, and most important, there are thousands of theatergoers who have indelible memories, emotions and more that only enrich them now because this small theater, and its dedicated shepherds in Arlington County, had courage, dedication, skill, and the dash of insanity to yank a supposedly “uncommercial” stage work off a library shelf, and see if it could still entertain today.
SFP: What excites you the most about the current season at your theater?
Jack Marshall: It revisits many, though far from all, of the company’s best and most successful productions from the past 20 years, and I am always excited about doing “Twelve Angry Men” again, especially with this cast, which includes so many actors who were instrumental in making the company what it has been.
SFP: What types of educational opportunities are provided by your theater?
Jack Marshall: This has changed through the years. Our efforts to involve schools, which once comprised a professionally staffed program, have flagged with the de-emphasis of drama and 20th Century literature in public schools and a lack of support from Arlington schools generally. TACT is the only company in the region that admits all minors free of charge to every performance: the best way theater can educate is to encourage a love of theater. TACT is also known for creating audience guides for all of its productions. I prepare them personally, and they provide historical and literary context, as well as information about artists, issues raised in the plays, and their importance to us today. For some shows, most recently Judgment at Nuremberg, about the Nazi war crimes trials, we hold special post show presentations featuring scholars, historians and authors.
SFP: If you could have lunch with any well-known theater performer/professional, who would that be and what would be on the menu?
Jack Marshall: Well, if I can dine with the dead ones—most of our theater’s relevant and most revered artists are gone, after all— the dinner party would be Orson Welles, S.N. Behrman, Sophie Treadwell, William Saroyan, Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal, Moss Hart, Paul Robson and Lillian Hellman. The menu would be gourmet Chinese food, prepared by Danny Kaye.
SFP: For those interested in volunteering with your theater, what opportunities can you provide?
Jack Marshall: We need people to sell group tickets, strike sets, handle box office, usher…the works. This has always been an overworked, underpaid, staff. It’s amazing what we have accomplished. But they better hurry up—only three productions left!
SFP: What is your view of the DC theater scene?
Jack Marshall: My view is that it is overly insular and incestuous, timid, embodying narrow interests, political biases and historical ignorance, and crippled by an excess of arrogant, lazy, biased, careless and negligent critics who discourage diversity, variety, and risk-taking, and thus weaken area theater rather than nurture it. The smaller companies are marginalized by the rich ones, and audiences mistake fancy lobbies and inflated reputations for quality. (Since you asked…)
SFP: What brought you to the Washington, DC area?
Jack Marshall: I am a native Bostonian, and still all-New England at heart. I came to DC to attend Georgetown University Law Center, where I founded the theater company there, which is still doing strong, the only grad student-run theater organization in the U.S.
SFP: Is there a play you are dying to see performed at your theater and why?
Jack Marshall: There better not be, because we are closing our doors after this year, and I’m not ready to die. I regret never being able to direct O’Neill’s The Ice Man Cometh at TACT. Some day, somewhere….