Saturday, April 11, 2009

ArtsPaper Interview: Michael Hall, artistic director of the Caldwell Theatre

Michael Hall, founding director of the Caldwell Theatre.
(Illustration by Pat Crowley)

In early March, the Caldwell Theatre’s founding artistic director, Michael Hall, announced that he was stepping down into retirement after 34 years at the Boca Raton nonprofit resident professional theater.

Three weeks later, Hap Erstein of Palm Beach ArtsPaper sat down with Hall to discuss his plans, to look back over his acclaimed career and to consider the future of South Florida’s theater community in Hall’s first interview since his announcement.

Erstein: Last May, as you were turning 68, I understand you decided it was time to start making plans to retire, right?

Hall: It probably goes back further than that, when I was literally of retirement age. There are so many things I want to do, but I really needed to stick with this project and get this theater built.

Erstein: What were the factors you considered as you mulled the decision to retire?

Hall: What really made it possible was finding Clive (Cholerton, the current board chairman and next artistic director). Finding somebody with the ambition, the drive, the talent, the want to do it. That doesn’t come along often.

I think most people were worried, knowing I was of this retirement age, who are we going to find? Well, there he was.

Michael Hall, left, and Clive Cholerton at the dedication of the new Caldwell in 2006.

Erstein: Do you see yourself in him?

Hall: We think alike. Our basic feelings about theater, I think, are very much the same. His training seems to be like mine, although from totally different places. We agree on things, almost 90 percent of the time. And that is just a help for both of us, because he’s going to need me in questions and things and stuff, and I still want to work.

Erstein: Did building the new Count de Hoernle Theatre add stress for you that has hastened your retirement decision?

Hall: No, it was stressful, of course, but no. I think it was more stress on Clive, who literally came forward as chairman of the board and became a major fund-raiser.

But no, it’s just time. Quit while you’re ahead and travel.

Erstein: You’ve had associate directors over the years who you seemed to be grooming to take over, but they left for one reason or another.

Hall: At one point Ken Kay was a possibility, but Ken got this terrific offer to take over a theater in North Carolina [Blowing Rock Stage Company]. There had been a number of people who were curious when they heard that I had announced this decision. And I just said, “Well, I appreciate your interest, but we’ve got the man already.”

But no one was being groomed, really seriously, until Clive came along.

Erstein: He’s been around as chairman of the board for the past four years. When did the light go on over your head to make you think, “He’s the one”?

Hall: He told Pat [Burdett, Caldwell company manager] he really would be interested. He threw his hat in the ring. I think he was a little nervous to come to me, for fear I would say, “Oh, no.”

So Pat immediately told me and I said, “Oh, hallelujah, this could not be better.” So we then really started working. I would put together once a week a whole list of things that I do. There must be 30 pages of that, and he didn’t freak at any of it.

So I started into the training process. And then it was to familiarize the board with this possibility. Ultimately it had to be their decision, but they were thrilled, so it was easy.

Erstein: Often in nonprofit theaters, the artistic director who takes over after the founder has a hard time of it and often stubs his toes.

Hall: Right. That is something that’s a very major concern. I’m very aware of that. Because
if somebody comes in, unknown to the community, unknown to the board, they could be brilliant, but the chemistry would not work. I’ve been very aware of that.

Here, the chemistry is perfect, because he’s just so well-liked and he comes from within the organization.

Erstein: There are rumors that the Caldwell is having financial problems, based on the higher expenses of the new theater. Are they true?

Hall: Like almost any theater, it’s a scary time. However, we have challenged our board to meet certain goals and they’re doing it. Because with Clive, with me right there behind him, we’re going to come through it somehow. It’s not easy anywhere, as you well know.
But the dedication of these people I think is amazing.

Erstein: Have you spent some sleepless nights in the past year?

Hall: Sure, but what are you going to do? Sometimes all of us would wake up and say, “Oh, my God,” and then you just sort of go to work the next day and ask for help. And little by little, it comes in.

Erstein: Will you be involved with fund-raising for the Caldwell in the future?

Hall: Yes, we’re going to have a fundraiser at the end of May at a hefty ticket. [Pianist] Copeland Davis is going to do a concert in the lobby, with dinner and cocktails.

And what I will do is probably write a personal letter to hundreds of people, explaining to them, “Yes, this is what I am doing, but at the same time, let’s all work together and keep the health of the theater building. Send money.”

Michael Hall with his theater's namesake, Madeleine Caldwell, in 1975.

Erstein: You expect to direct a show here in the next season?

Hall: I hope so. We’re talking about possibly [Richard Greenberg’s] The American Plan. I’ve never seen it. That’s a possibility. I want to direct something.

Erstein: You already picked and announced a season of plays. Is Clive embracing your choices?
Hall: Yes, but it was 90 percent Clive. I said, “I’ll support you and I’ll give you my opinion, but I think you really need to be passionate about the choices that you make, so you don’t get stuck with something that you don’t want to do.”

Erstein: Travel is one of your priorities in retirement. Do you know where you’re headed first?

Hall: West. I’ve never been to Phoenix, San Diego, parts of L.A. So that’s first, then we’ll see. I’ve got to get back to England, I’ve got to get back to Italy.

Erstein: What’s on your money-is-no-object, pie-in-the-sky travel list?

Hall: The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Erstein: You are assembling a history of the Caldwell?

Hall: Well, the first step is this [pointing to a flash drive he wears around his neck]. In here are 4,000 photographs. I’ve put together what I call A Photographic Journey of the Caldwell. I have at least one and sometimes as many as eight photographs of every single show the Caldwell ever did since its beginning.

What I’m doing now, and am 90 percent complete, is writing the narrative of the history. It’s not just, “And then we did…” I’m not going to talk about more than 10 or 12 special plays, but I do take time to talk about fund-raising, about Friends of Caldwell, about animals onstage, the funny stories. An anecdotal history.

Originally, I did it just basically for me and the actors, but it has become such a big project. It’s going to be a presentation, two hours with an intermission. We’re going to do it sometime next fall as a fund-raiser. And hopefully get people who have been here since the beginning, or at least many of the years of Caldwell. I think they will be fascinated by that, seeing all those familiar faces over 35 years. And it could be put on a DVD.

Erstein: And you are writing a book, too?

Hall: The book in me, which has 200-300 pages in the computer at the moment, is autobiographical. But it needs to be turned into fiction so that I can really have fun with a troupe of strolling players creating a theater.

Erstein: Talk about the beginnings of the theater and the artistic growth of the Caldwell.

Hall: We began with the idea of being a total company, which I wish could remain true to this day. The economy makes it impossible to have a real repertory company. At first, I put together about five core actors and figured out a way to give each of them a part in every single thing we did, or backstage. And for the most part, for the first four years that we were at [the College of Boca Raton, now Lynn University], we had this company. Peter Haig was the minister in Candide and then he was a construction worker in [William] Saroyan, and then he was The Rainmaker. Audiences love that.

To some extent we have many of those people still coming back, but after awhile it became very difficult to find plays that all of those people could do, and the other thing is once we started to branch out into doing an occasional musical, sometimes those poor people didn’t fit. So it was limiting. I still think that’s the greatest idea for a theater.

Kim Cozort, Pat Nesbit and Toby Poser in Caldwell's 1995 production of Crimes of the Heart.

Erstein: I know they feel like your offspring, but single out a few of the productions from the past 34 years that you are most proud of.

Hall: It’s very difficult to pick among your children. The Middle Ages, yes, my first [A.R.] Gurney play. A perfect cast, it ended up in California. It was a highlight and will remain, I think, one of my all-time favorites.

I’d have to say Crimes of the Heart, because again I had a perfect cast. I had [Pat] Nesbit, I had [Kim] Cozort, I had Toby Poser, Ken Kay. I love the play. We had so much fun doing that show.

The Laramie Project, yes. Very, very special in every respect. It was a great group of people to work with. It was the first time that Tim [Bennett, resident scenic designer] and Tom [Salzman, lighting designer] and I struggled an entire day to figure out how to do a set. Until Tom pulled a sweater out of a trunk that I had brought back from Laramie, held the sweater up and said, “Here’s our set.” It was just this magic thing because of the colors and the fact that it came from Laramie. And then meeting Judy Shepard [mother of slain gay student Matthew Shepard, subject of the play].

The first time we did Bent was so controversial and so wildly successful that that will always be a part of our history, because everybody was worried. “Oh, my God, the subject matter,” and there’s a little nudity in it. The subscription base, many came in exchanging their tickets for something else, because they heard it might be too much for them. And then it opened and it was truly an amazing production.

And what it did was it opened up the doors, not only for us, but for a lot of other theaters to be able to tackle some material.

Erstein: What about the other extreme, the “What could we have been thinking?” disastrous shows?

Hall: There’s one that we call the “non-play.” It was called Comedy of Eros. A Broadway producer sent it to me, said he would put money into it. Stupidly, I said OK and of course he put not a penny into it. And it was not fixable, because the playwright didn’t know how. Didn’t have a clue.

Only because I had a really fun-loving cast did we get through it.

Erstein: You were sued over your direction of Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! And eventually settled the case out of court. What were the lessons of that incident?

Hall: That you should just settle something, as we did as a nuisance suit. Really no lessons to be learned, just beware. That once you are successful, some people would just love to get you.

We fought and made many, many, many friends. But I think the lesson to be learned is just beware of who’s out there and proceed with caution. That artists would attack artists is inconceivable to me, but there you are.

Tom Lawson and Anthony Newfield in Caldwell's 1985 production of Bent.

Erstein: You and [Royal Palm Dinner Theatre producer] Jan McArt were the two pioneers in theater in the county. What was it like starting up this theater in 1975? Was the audience receptive from the start?

Hall: We had three people in [Neil Simon’s] Star-Spangled Girl, our first show. At our second performance, there were two people in the audience.

A year later, Jan came to me with a poodle in each arm and said, “You’re going to direct my new theater. I’m building a theater.” And I said, “Darling, I’m trying to do the same thing.” So we became instant friends. We’d help her, she would help us. It was really difficult. Our difficulty was first of all finding Military Trail. There was no way you could get there in 1975 unless you knew magic roads.

Her location was terrific, but it was just as difficult for her to build an audience as it was for us. We grew together and we see each other all the time.

Erstein: How would you assess the South Florida theater scene today?

Hall: It seems to be pretty healthy, talent-wise. The economy aside. I do think sometimes that there’s almost too much. As times we may knock each other out of the ballpark.

Ithink there’s a lot of choice, which is good. I just wish we were all a little closer. Florida Stage, [Palm Beach] Dramaworks and Caldwell, we’re like buddies, we’re a team. We send folks to each other all the time. I wish the rest of the theater community could become a little closer.

The Maltz [Jupiter Theatre] is joining us, too. There are very good vibes among the Palm Beach County theaters.

Erstein: You probably had little time to get out and see other theaters over the years. Will you be doing more of that?

Hall: Yes indeed, I really want to go. I want to see theater, I want to go to the movies, I want to read good books. Things I just don’t have time to do now.

Erstein: Overall, any regrets about how you spent the last 34 years?

Hall: No, none. I have made so many lasting friends. I have probably made myself happy, because my parents came and worked for me, to help us start this theater. So the memories are really, really good.

Putting together this 34-year history, it’s just the happiest thing. And when you come across a play that didn’t work, now it’s funny. And you come across the ones that really did, ah, that’s nice. No, no regrets. It’s been a great joy.

Erstein: How will you spend June 1, the day after you leave this place?

Hall: Hopefully on a plane, going somewhere fun. I hope so. Or, as I said facetiously, cleaning out the garage.

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