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Sellars: Laughing All the Way to a National Theater

February 24, 1985

WASHINGTON — We hope for a theater of difficulty, delight, and drastic measures, philosophical convolutions, one-liners, triple entendres and tentative ententes, that puts the American public in direct contact with the culture that they own and must care for and the history that is instantly their lives and eventually the story of a nation . --From the statement of purpose of the American National Theater.

Peter Sellars enters his spacious but windowless Kennedy Center office, late from a lunch, looking like a life-size bowling pin.

A navy windbreaker with its drawstring well below his knees drapes his 5 1/2-foot frame. "My winter outfit," laughs the avant-garde director, now under the national spotlight as the first artistic director of the new American National Theater.

Like nesting toys that you take apart only to find a smaller version, Sellars sheds his giant parka to reveal another variation of himself, this one attired in one of 20 Japanese kimono jackets that have become his trademark, along with a laugh that sounds like a non-stop echo.

At 27, Sellars has attained a reputation as a whiz kid. He has directed more than 100 plays, operas and performances described as "miscellaneous spectacles," frequently opting for such novel theatrical settings as shopping centers or swimming pools. He has been basted with the kudos of success and has swallowed the failure of having performances rejected. As the ironies of creative life would have it, two years ago he was fired as the original director of the Broadway production of "My One and Only," and in the same week received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation five-year grant of $136,000 to let his theatrical spirit soar.

One would hardly opine that, in the few years since he graduated from Harvard with a Phi Beta Phi key, he has neared the pinnacle of his theatrical career. Yet as one of the nation's foremost young directors, Sellars' visibly preeminent role in the American National Theater undoubtedly will be reflected in its productions. And, just possibly, the impact will be felt on American theater in the years ahead.

"I think," he says in a quiet moment, "we can make a difference."

The theater, already nicknamed the ANT, is an ambitious effort to create a national theater resembling the France's Comedie Francaise or the National Theatre of Great Britain.

Armed with a five-year plan and with carte blanche from Kennedy Center Chairman Roger L. Stevens, ANT will stage productions at three theaters at the prestigious center, assist productions from other theaters, generate experimental work and provide a meeting place for artists. A new "free theater" will feature "highly visible" work with free admission. Sellars also plans to commission five new pieces a season and work with film companies to develop stage plays into movies.

The challenge also is part of his effort to recapture the continuity that Sellars believes the American theater has lost over the past 50 years, in part because of the increasing influence of TV on his medium. "Theater was once a roaring good time," says Sellars, who envisions using well-known actors, even rock stars, in future productions. "I want everybody here. I want to put the range of America on the stage."

But there will be no permanent company of actors. "It's too late in the 20th Century to have a permanent stage troupe," he says, because "all actors want to make movies. I want to make movies."

Sellars hopes to develop an American classical repertoire, drawn from forgotten melodramas of the 19th-Century stage, a period for which he has affection and knowledge. "Part of my real function is to establish a real American repertoire," he says. "American theater has the memory of a sea slug. If it happened last week, it's over."

The new theater is a joint project of the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA), chartered by Congress in 1935, and the Kennedy Center. In past years, ANTA staged many productions and ran two New York theaters. When the last property was sold in 1981, for $5 million, the money was earmarked for this new venture.

As part of his goal to make theater a regular part of people's lives, Sellars has slashed ticket prices from a top of $37.50 to $15 and $20. "I want people to be able to afford the habit of going to the theater a couple of times a week," he says.

A new membership plan allows charter members to pay $75 or $100 for four or six passes that will be honored for any performance up to curtain time. The concept gives Sellars added flexibility to adjust his schedule of plays during the season. "You never know when something wonderful will come along," he says.

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