Philip Arnoult has always been what he calls a “theater-maker.” He started acting in his Memphis high school, graduated on a Sunday in 1959, and the next day was acting at a “fledgling regional theater.” From that day to the warm February day on which I’m talking to him, his commitment to theater has never wavered, although his roles in the art and business of theater have, as he puts it, “morphed” enormously, from putting on theater for US Armed Forces, to running a regional company, to creating the unique institution that is Baltimore’s Theatre Project, to serving as a presiding genius of the international theater movement from Nairobi to Moscow. In the latest stage of his evolution, he is instigating an oral archive about the state of theater in Eastern Europe as reimposed right-wing authoritarianism threatens it.
We sit for over two hours in his home office in northeast Baltimore, and review how he got from there to here. He shares the names of the theater critics and practitioners who most informed his thinking along the way: Peter Brook, Herbert Blau, Richard Schechner, Eric Bentley, Albert Bermel, and especially Jerzy Grotowski. He recounts how from their writings and his own experience he synthesized the concepts that have guided his career and which he tried to put into practice at Theatre Project: public support for theater, the promotion of what Arnoult calls the Sixth Theater: small, dispersed throughout the country, multicultural, eclectic in form, energetic about establishing and joining collaborative networks with other artists, successful at developing new audiences. [End Page 635]
Though he may occasionally pause to choose a particular word or thought, Arnoult talks mostly in comma splices, great bursts of speech that gust over 80 words a minute, phrases left unfinished, syntax often ignored, as he veers to complete thoughts that continue to take form as he speaks. No question is too abstract not to be answered with a story, as befits a theater person—and as befits his current “Dark Times” project, which has prompted this interview. So his remarks (and the questions that elicited them) have necessarily been edited both for length and style.
We pick up the conversation where he turns to his involvement with international theater, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe.—Jack L. B. Gohn
I went to Poland at the invitation of Jerzy Grotowski. He came to Baltimore, saw me, and I interviewed with his project for a hire. It never happened, but I got to be in Poland the first time, and that began my love affair with the Eastern European theater. I went in 1975.
I don’t have any Eastern European blood in me. I just saw this theater that I’d never seen before, and I just have spent half of my life trying to figure out why, and continuing to be involved in that, and the other thing I was doing at Theatre Project which was really important was—I was drawing to Baltimore and putting a focus on a movement that was happening in this country. . . .
I gave away Theatre Project. I wasn’t run out of town, but I felt it was time to leave. So I left in 1990, ’91, left it to Bobby Mrozek, who ran it for 10 years. At Theatre Project I had lots of international theater companies. But I started the Center for International Theater Development to continue the work without the burden of an organization, without an office or staff. I really wanted to—originally started out as a not-for-profit to just follow my nose, mostly in Eastern Europe.
I took two diversions, one that ended up being a 10-year project between the US and the Netherlands. The director Ivo van Hove was my major success; his career in America got started in New York [End Page 636] Theater Workshop, and he still credits me. And then I spent almost two years in East Africa, and I built an arts center in Nairobi with Kenyan partners. It’s still going on, called the GoDown.
And then I did a really interesting contemporary dance project...