Interview with Professor Emeritus of Drama Evert Sprinchorn

Patrick Brady: I’m here with Evert Sprinchorn, Professor Emeritus of Drama at Vassar College. Professor Sprinchorn, when did you first arrive at Vassar and what did you encounter when you got here?

Evert Sprinchorn: I first arrived at Vassar in the Spring of 1956 to be interviewed for a position. And I declined it because I was hoping for a position in New York, where I was living at the time. And since I was interested in theatre, I wanted to stay in New York as much as possible. But, because I didn’t find a full time teaching job in New York, I accepted the offer from Vassar when it was offered to me a second time. So I began teaching at Vassar in September of 1956.

PB: How did you hear about Vassar?

ES: I don’t think I knew much about Vassar, until the secretary of the English Department at Columbia University called me, and gave me the happy news that she had found a position for me at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. And I don’t think I knew much about Vassar when I first heard about it from her. But she said, “This is a wonderful position.” And that secretary, Adele Mendelsohn, was the person who really was in charge of finding jobs for people. So even though I hadn’t heard very much about Vassar, I felt I had to assume a great interest because I didn’t want to offend Adele Mendelsohn in any way. So, I said, “Oh, how wonderful, how wonderful!” while in the back of my mind I was saying, “Do I really want that?”

PB: I see. And you were offered a position in the Drama Department as..

ES: Just as an instructor. I didn’t have my Ph.D. at the time; I was working on that. I was interviewed by Mary Virginia Heinlein. And she was the only member of the department with tenure. And she ruled the department like a dictator. It wasn’t that she didn’t want discussion; when it came to plays and things like that, she was very receptive—very receptive with everything that had to do with the creative process in the theatre, et cetera. But when it came to college politics, she was adamant. She said, “We’re a small department and we have to make ourselves felt as best we can. And that means we must vote as a department; we all have to vote the same way. And we should agree on that at our department meetings.” That’s how she ran things.

PB: So you would plan your votes for faculty meetings as a department?

ES: Yes, and I’m sure there were many stories about how Heinlein was dictatorial—in more ways than one. And, frankly, it didn’t bother me very much because I didn’t know much about college politics. I’d just arrived, so I didn’t mind that part of it. And as I said, when it came to theatre—putting on plays—she was very receptive to ideas.

PB: What did you teach during your first year?

ES: Everything. Everything in Drama. I had to teach an introductory course, which was very comprehensive back then. One had to teach some of the Fundamentals of Drama, some of the Fundamentals of Acting, and also be responsible for directing the students in short plays. This was part of the department’s policy that, in order to study drama, you should acquaint yourself with all aspects of it, not just the written text, not just the stage and so on—but the acting, possibly the lighting, too—which I thought was a wonderful idea. You got your hands dirty. You didn’t just read plays; you didn’t just get on the stage and act; you had to build sets, serve on the light crew, and things like that.

PB: That sounds like Hallie Flanagan’s influence on the department.

ES: Well, of course. Hallie Flanagan and Winnifred Smith, who was in the English Department, got together to create the Drama curriculum, which was unique in the country at the time. It goes back to what I was saying. This new approach was to balance practical theatre with the literal study of theatre. The idea was 50/50. So even in the introductory course, we taught students about the history of Drama, something about play reading, but we also required the students be involved in a production. And that continued for all four years. You took courses in Dramatic Literature, and also courses in production. It was an almost perfect 50/50 balance, which I thought was remarkable.

PB: Would you talk a bit about your personal academic history?

ES: Without going too far back in time, I can begin by saying that—having found myself unhappy with a career in the insurance business—I decided to study theatre. And I had time left under the GI Bill® of Rights, so I could go back to school. I went to Columbia University, where they had the School of Theater under Milton Smith. It was a very conservative program in theatre, and since it was at Columbia, one had to write an essay in order to get an M.A. It wasn’t just theatre work. At about that time, there was a visiting scholar from Sweeden, [Karl] Åke Leander, who offered a seminar in [Henrik] Ibsen and [August] Strindberg. I knew practically nothing about Ibsen, but I had discovered Strindberg on my own and found him absolutely faab as a playwright. So I immediately signed up for that, since it would count towards my M.A. And there were about 7 or 8 people in the seminar. Åke Leander began with Brand by Ibsen then went on to Peer Gynt, and I found it all fascinating. But then came A Doll’s House. I think it was the first of the “standard” plays he discussed. Now, Åke Leander was not a theatre person; he was a poet, so his approach to these plays was quite different than anything else I’d encountered. The only play I’d read by Ibsen up to this point was A Doll’s House, which I’d read as an undergraduate in a course on World Literature. And I found it mildly interesting. When I learned that this play made a great contribution to women’s rights, I nodded and said, “Yes, of course, that’s great.” But Åke Leander didn’t care about that aspect of the play. He was interested in things I hadn’t noticed. I remember in particular that, while we were discussing A Doll’s House, he brought up the visual elements in the play. And when the seminar broke up on that particular day, we walked towards the elevator in Fairweather Hall. I remember the moment very, very well, standing at the elevator, when he posed this question: “Why do you think the Christmas tree is stripped of its decorations in the second act?” Now because of the discussion that had preceded all this, the question carried its own answer. It was symbolic: we were witnessing the breakup of a marriage, and the Christmas tree had been transformed form a beautiful, decorative item—with all the children gathered around it—all that  had vanished in the second act, and we saw this bare tree. And I thought, “That’s absolutely wonderful.” And of course, Ibsen was a visual artist. He wanted to be a painter. But when you read the play ordinarily, you don’t think about these things; it’s just a simple little stage direction. So all of a sudden, this whole new world opened up for me. It was a world that went beyond acting; there were depths to this play, and those depths entranced me. And of course, when you talk about subtext, there is nobody who has a greater subtext than Ibsen. You can study these plays over and over again, and get more and more deeply involved in them…I forgot what question I’m answering!

PB: Your academic background.

ES: Oh. Well, I mentioned that because it really was a turning point. It really was. No longer was I thinking about acting, playing parts, learning lines—it was a different world. Maybe it’s the difference between “theatre” and “drama,” or something like that. And later on I found that in all the great plays, there are depths that are often not appreciated by people who don’t know theatre.

The idea was to teach the whole history of drama.

The idea was to teach the whole history of drama.

Literary scholars often miss important things, even in the Greek plays, and I have to say, I learned about these things by having to teach them. To go back to the curriculum that had been set up by Winifred Smith. The idea was to cover the whole history of Drama, from the Greeks to the present time, in four semesters. And every Drama major had to take those four semesters…which meant that I had to learn how to teach them, too! Because it was new to me.

PB: Fascinating. I’ve just finished Sources of World Drama, a descendant of the course you taught, but we tried to cover the same amount of material in just two semesters.

ES: I think that’s a shame. You can’t do it in two semesters! You can’t do it four semesters either, but you can make a good stab at it. And I think four semesters of history as an undergraduate is the most wonderful training. You don’t learn everything about the Spanish Drama, but you learn a lot. You don’t read all seven plays by Sophocles, but the two you read are most the important ones. So you get—you did get—a wonderful background.

PB: Did you enjoy teaching those four-semester theatre history courses?

ES: I loved it. I loved it because I was learning so much. Because I would encounter the Spanish Drama for the first time, and I’d have to read up on it. I found it fascinating, what was happening in those Spanish plays. And, of course, studying the Greeks is an endless study. So every time I came to the Greek tragedies, there was always something new to learn. So, preparing for class was always exciting. Always something new to discover…

PB: What drew you to the study of theatre?

ES: For some reason, people thought of me as an actor when I was an undergraduate at Drexel Institute studying mathematics. My roommates would say to me, “It’s 8:30. Curtain time!” That’s what they’d say to me when I was getting ready to study. So, I went to Columbia University to study acting. I didn’t want to be a stage designer. And at Columbia I realized I had an instinctive feeling for acting, and for the stage. People seemed to know I was an actor. On two, maybe three occasions, I got a phone call from—I can’t remember the fellow’s name—who said, “I’ve got a part for you in an off-Broadway play.” It was a Spanish play, by the way, but I’ve forgotten which one it was. “It’s not a lead,” he said, “but it’s a second lead, a strong part. Would you be interested?” Well, this came out of the blue. There was no course in acting as such at Columbia under Milton Smith. There were no courses in acting, lighting, stage design. You learned how to act by being cast in a part. And instead of acting course, there was Speech. My work in the Speech class must have interested the people who said they would’ve cast me in a play off-Broadway. So, as I’ve told you, I was suddenly finding that I was less interested in acting than in the plays themselves. So I turned down those two offers. The fellow’s name was O’Brien who called me; I can’t recall much else about O’Brien.

When I came to Vassar, and was interviewed by Mary Virginia Heinlein, I told her I had been studying under some eminent figures at Columbia, like Eric Bentley, [Louis] Kronenberger, and others. I brought up all these names to show I was qualified to teach drama. She didn’t seem to be interested. She said, “What plays have you acted in?” And, the truth of the matter was, she wanted an actor more than she wanted a teacher, because her great aim was to put on plays. Everything else was incidental. And there were no boys at the college at the time. So to put on plays, she needed men. And there were a number of people on the faculty who were happy to oblige her, and she wanted me, along with Leon Katz of the Drama Department, to be in plays. And she also called on the townspeople; she had a whole list of people who were willing to perform. Sometimes the plays were very well cast. She wouldn’t rely on some 19-year old kid to play an old man. She had a great gift as a casting director; she sensed what a person could do onstage.

PB: You had the chance to meet Hallie Flanagan during your first years at Vassar, correct?

ES: Yes. I first got to know her because she lived on the edge of the campus, on College View Avenue. And it was through Leon Katz that I first met Hallie Flanagan. By this time, she was suffering severely from Parkinson’s disease. So, unfortunately, it was very hard to carry on a conversation with her, because the words came so slowly on her side. What she liked was to have Leon and me read plays, or talk about them in her presence, so she could make a comment. Leon and I did that about three of four times. And then she left that house and moved to some rest home—forgotten where—and I saw here down there at least once. She did come to some of the plays, and somewhere I have a very nice letter from her, complimenting me on a play that Leon Katz adapted called America; it was adapted from a Kafka story. Very nice handwritten note, saying I had done a fine job in a certain part. And I could have replied to her, “Did you not notice I was in another part, also?” [laughs]

The real enemy of Hallie Flanagan, of course, was Dean of the College Mildred C. Thompson….It’s a very interesting subject, especially in regards to a liberal arts college like Vassar. The theatre was always looked upon with suspicion in most liberal arts colleges. It found a place here because the President of the College [Henry Noble MacCracken] loved the theatre! So, he supported the creation of the Drama Department. There wasn’t one before. There was Speech, a subsidiary of the English Department. But Winifred Smith, who was in the English Department, wanted a Drama Department, and so did the Speech teachers. They put on plays simply to get the students to learn how to speak. So, that reflected the situation. And Dean Thompson was adamant in saying theatre had no place as part of the curriculum. Putting on plays for fun, on weekends, that is fine, she said. But it should not receive academic credit. And this is where Hallie and the Dean fought bitterly. It really was quite nasty at times. And when Hallie left to run the Federal Theatre, I’m sure that Thompson said, well, “good riddance.” So,  I think that’s why Hallie had no chance of coming back here, and why she took the position at Smith, where she was certain she wouldn’t be fired, since she took on the position of Dean.

PB: What were the Drama facilities like when you arrived?

 ES: In a word, they were quite primitive. The theater was installed in what had been the Riding Academy, or really the Riding Amphitheater, where the young ladies learned horsemanship in the 19th century. That had been converted into an auditorium, and a museum, and so on, and then under Hallie Flanagan, the auditorium was transformed into a theater—based on an experimental theater in Paris. So, it had doorways on the sides of the stage. Acoustically, it wasn’t bad. It had a raked stage, so sightlines were quite good. And I, over the years, found it was a good, workable theater. It was awkward backstage because the English Department’s offices were back there. So, to go from one side of the stage to another, you had to run through hallways and so on. But it was workable. It had large lighting equipment that was very awkward, but great for learning.

PB: Were there other spaces for putting on plays?

ES: That was the only space we used for putting on plays during my first few years here.

PB: When did that change?

ES: Well, that lighting equipment was there for a very long time. And the technicians wanted it there because it was such a great piece of training equipment. There was a great sense of hands-on.

PB: What were the performance opportunities like for students during your time at Vassar? Was there student theatre? Student-directed theatre?

ES: Students directed plays as a thesis. There was the Philaletheis Society, so a lot of the students directed plays outside the Drama Department , and I don’t think we were too happy about that because often they didn’t show up for the rehearsal at Avery [the Drama Department’s facility] when they should because they were acting in or directing a play in Philaletheis. I know that happened several times when I was directing. Some of the student-directed productions were excellent; and, of course, some of them weren’t. But when students did direct a play for their thesis, they were well supported by the technical staff; there were sets, lights. It was a full-fledged production.

PB: Today, six or seven senior theses go up each semester in the Department. Is that how it worked in your time?

ES: There weren’t that many productions back then. But, perhaps, they were more fully mounted back then. And, since you began by asking about acting opportunities, I think, in a word, there were fewer. Because there were fewer productions. That was always a great problem: finding parts for students. For a while, when Bill® Rothwell was in charge of production, the department voted on a principle that was supposed to apply to everybody: Because we believe that good theatre training should encompass different aspects of the theatre, we want all of the majors to experience both backstage work and onstage work. And there was at least one instance in which a student, who was very good in the technical side of things, said, “I cannot go onstage.” He was playing a small part, and we said, “you have to. It’s one of the principles we’ve set up.” For the life of me, I can’t remember how that situation was resolved. But, he became a very successful lighting designer—at the Metropolitan Opera.

PB: Ha! That’s so interesting. My next question is about male actors at Vassar. You saw the transition, in 1969, to co-education, right?

ES: Yes, of course.

PB: Would you speak a bit about that process of opening the doors to men?

ES: Well, it doesn’t have much to do with theatre. The boys who came in were, to put it bluntly, intellectually inferior to the girls who were here. We often made jokes about it: “Where’d they drag theses fellows in from?” And the situation in the classroom changed considerably, as more than one student told me. The young woman would tell me, when I said, “Why didn’t you ask that question in class? that she was “intimidated” by the presence of the boys. And that was an important factor for a while—not just one or two years, but for a long time I would hear that from female students.

PB: Were there many young men interested in performing, when they arrived on campus?

ES: Oh, yes. Like I said, it’s always been a problem finding enough parts for students.                                                                     There are more students who want to get onstage and act than there are good parts. And that situation was complicated by Rothwell’s fairness. He insisted that only a senior could play a big leading part. So when I came to him and said I wanted to do [Henrik Ibsen’s] Hedda Gabler, and that I had the right actress for the part, he said, “You can’t have her; she’s a junior.” So, we let him have his way. But I remember that I was very upset because he insisted on that rule, saying I couldn’t have that actress.

PB: So did you manage to do Hedda nonetheless?

ES: Oh yes, but I didn’t get the actress I wanted. I don’t think she’s ever forgiven me, because I told her I wanted her for that part. I saw her on television not too long ago, in some small part. I do want emphasize that Rothwell, though I disagreed with him on certain things, ran the production side of the department in a very fair way. You have to remember that you are part of an undergraduate drama department. That attitude was so different than Mary Virginia Heinlein’s. She wanted, as much as possible, to put on a production that had the qualities of a professional production. And that’s why she would ignore a lot of students, because they had no talent. But if she discovered a student with talent, she would dedicate herself to that student, and work closely with her, using the Actor’s Studio methods—which I don’t think was good.

PB: Why? You didn’t like the Actor’s Studio?

ES: I have a story about that. When I came to Vassar, my only experience had been in the “old-fashioned theatre” as taught by Milton Smith at Columbia. As I’ve told you, no acting courses; speech courses. And I thought that made sense: you learn acting by getting onstage in front of an audience. But Heinlein’s approach was different. I’d heard about Actor’s Studio, but I didn’t know much about it, obviously. So the first play I was cast in was Three Sisters by [Anton] Chekhov. She said to the cast, “Don’t rehearse your lines at home. We’ll learn them here, in the green room. We’ll learn the lines along with stage movement.” Well, I always hated memorizing lines, so I thought, “Oh, this is good. [laughs] If I go off on my lines, I’ll say, ‘Well, you told me not to learn the lines at home!’ ” So, we sat around the table for maybe the first two readings, then we got on our feet. The green room was marked up like a stage. And we began staging the play, learning the lines along with the movements, the physical gestures, and so on, which I thought was fascinating. It was new to me. We spent a whole week on Act One. Then, during week two, we did a little bit of Act Two. But it wasn’t until the night before the dress rehearsal that we went through the whole play straight. And I remember that I didn’t know my lines in Act Four. I also remember that I didn’t feel upset by it. I knew I would think of something to say, because the groundwork had been laid so carefully; you’d established the character so well, that when I came onstage for my last speech of the play, I was thinking, “I forget what the line was!” But I did remember that I had to say goodbye. “You have to say goodbye to her.” That’s all I had to do. And it worked.

But to many people it was too much of a challenge. But, as I’ve told you, Heinlein knew how to cast people, and she knew how to work with actors in a certain way—the Actor’s Studio way, which I think now and I thought then is not the right way to handle young actors. It could be very destructive with young people, with their very tender egos and inexperience. Could be very bad, very bad. And I saw the consequence of that. This is a story that tells you two things: both what was good about Heinlein and what was bad about her. This is an incident from Three Sisters. Heinlein had cast a wonderful brunette girl—who’s name I can’t remember now—in the part of Masha. Now Masha’s the married sister. And in the first act of the play, she’s there for Irina’s Names day party. But she says, “I’m bored, I’m bored, I can’t stay for your party.” So, she’s about to leave, when Colonel Vershinin makes his entrance. And this very warm, attractive actress had to say her line, “I’ve changed my mind. I think I’ll stay till lunch.” She did it over and over again, while we, the rest of the cast, watched. “No, no, no, that’s not the way to do it! What’s the matter with these girls; don’t they learn anything?” Heinlein, walking up and down the auditorium, muttering, muttering, muttering. Then she, Heinlein, got up on stage. And she picked up a hat, put it on her head, and then, on stage, she read that line: “I think I’ll stay till lunch.” But she did it by crossing the stage from left to right, approaching an imaginary mirror on the wall, carefully pulling out the hatpin, removing the hat, and, in the process, she said this line “I think I’ll stay till lunch.” And the way she said it, the way she placed it, you knew she was saying, “I’ve fallen in love.” I thought, “Oh my god, that’s beautiful. That’s Chekhov.” That line, “I think I’ll stay till lunch” means “I’ve fallen in love.” Now, why couldn’t she have taken that girl aside and worked with her, instead of embarrassing her in front of the whole cast? That was cruel. But, it showed what a fine actress Heinlein was.

PB: How did you approach directing students at Vassar?

ES: Not Heinlein’s way, no! I didn’t think that was right for students. My method was to dig into the script, and try to figure out what was really going on behind the lines, and finding a way to express that. And making use of the resources of the theatre as well as possible; and you often get help in unexpected ways because theatre’s such a collaboration. I remember when I directed [Georg Büchner’s] Woyzeck—do you know the play?—it’s a pre-Expressionistic play. It’s about a young soldier who’s badly treated. He’s sort of mentally incompetent, and he has a little uniform he wears, and I had an excellent actor in the part, a fellow who could bring out the gentleness in the character and the weakness in the character. And people made fun of him, they badgered him, and so on. The young actor said he was having so much trouble with the part, and I kept reassuring him: “It’s going to be alright.” It’s a very demanding part; the play’s only 90 minutes long, and he’s onstage almost all the way through, and brutalized during the play, broken down. And the costume designer came up with this costume. When I saw it, I said to the actor, “Wait’ll you put that costume on. It’ll work.” And it did. Shows what a difference a costume can make. It was just perfect.

PB: Your expertise is in August Strindberg. What drew you to him in particular?

ES: I discovered Strindberg on my own. That is, nobody taught me to like Strindberg; I taught others. I discovered Strindberg when I was in the army and I read Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill. I loved them. I just thought they were so wonderful. In the preface, the noted critic Joseph Wood Krutch, mentioned that O’Neill was influenced by the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg. I’d never heard of him. I come from Swedish background. I spoke to my father about it. He was born in Sweden, and he was active politically. I said, “Do you know of a playwright named August Strindberg?” My father paused a moment, then said “Oh yes. He was a socialist.”  I said, “but he wrote plays.”   “Oh, did he?” [laughs]. So I first read Strindberg in English translation. But when I was in Sweden in 1947 I picked up, in a bookstore, a play called To Damascus. So, for the first time I read Strindberg in Swedish. It was a revelation. I was just amazed how Strindberg could evoke an atmosphere by using the simplest possible words. I’m still amazed. So that began kind of a life-long infatuation with Strindberg, who was the most marvelous stylist. He writes the most beautiful prose; it’s Mozartean in its beauty and fluidity. It’s too bad he isn’t better appreciated.

PB: Did you ever stage Strindberg at Vassar?

ES: No [laughs]. I always thought it was beyond what I could accomplish. I did direct Creditors at [Professor of Sociology] Walter Fairservis’s little theatre over in Connecticut. Yes, I staged Strindberg’s Creditors using a Vassar graduate. And, of course, you know about Meryl Streep and Miss Julie.

PB: What was her performance like to watch?

ES: It was fantastic. I think everyone who saw it would agree to that. It was perfect casting. She was just at the right age that Miss Julie should be, so she was vulnerable onstage. You felt she could crack. Clint Atkinson went to great lengths in directing the play, and we gave him full support; so it was a marvelous set. Students objected to all the hours they had to put in building that set for a play that had just three actors in it. But, I think in the long run it was worth it.

PB: In looking at your time at Vassar, what can you say about how much things have changed and how much things have stayed the same in the Drama department?

ES: I think the Drama department has changed so enormously, it’s hard to describe. It’s changed in every possible way. First of all, perhaps, one might say, film was added to the Drama department. That was a big change, but it didn’t feel like a big change at first. I was the person who introduced it when I was chairman, because we knew other colleges were offering film programs. And the Art department was thinking of offering a film program, but we had nobody to teach it [laughs]. But [Professor of Drama and Film] James Steerman volunteered, and I think he got a grant to study film—in order to teach it. So it began very modestly. And now, and think it has just as many majors, or maybe more, than drama. Some people were very opposed to it, like Mr. Rothwell.

PB: Has what’s required of a Drama major changed very much in your time here?

ES: I think that it has, but I’ve been retired for some time, and things changed a lot while I was working in the drama department, and I’m sure it’s changed a lot since then. While I was there, it didn’t change all that much as far as requirements were concerned. Things did sort of loosen up, became less strict. And I don’t know if that was because of changes in the drama department, or changes in the college as a whole, or changes in the national culture, but changes took place. I think that more was expected of students academically back in what we might call “the old days.” I remember that there was one student—I can see her face, but I can’t recall her name now. And she, for her senior thesis, wrote on the Russian theatre. It was, I think, 187 pages long. Remarkable bit of research for this senior thesis. Quite extraordinary. She became a lawyer, and once she told me that training at Vassar, especially as an actress in small part, was great training for the legal career.

PB: Do you think that students in the fifties and sixties were looking to become theatre professionals, or that it wasn’t until later in your career when students started majoring in Drama to pursue it professionally?

ES: The latter, yes. Definitely. The whole background to this has sort of been lost. There was this principle of education at Vassar—and I’m sure at comparable liberal arts colleges—that you went and studied things like music, maybe drama not to become a practitioner necessarily, but to appreciate the art. That principle, which started, I think, in the music department, spread to the art department, teaching the appreciation of art. And that applied to the drama department, later on. So, there were a lot of students who took these courses not because they wanted to be an actress or a set designer, but because it was a worthwhile cultural background. Certainly, if you’ve been onstage a couple times, even if you don’t go on to study acting, you read plays in a different way. But I think that has changed largely because so many students come here thinking this is a step to Broadway, or some place. But what I think you do get at Vassar—or what you used to get, anyway—is this deep background in theatre and drama, instead of just focusing on acting. And I must say, I can sort of pinpoint when the change took place. It happened because of the Powerhouse Theater.

There was obviously a need for another theatre space because we had a lot of students in the drama department, and this must have happened under President Simpson’s regime. Well, I can’t recall exactly how it began, but I do recall that [Professor of Drama] Thad[deus] Gesek and I were sent out to look for a space that might serve as a second theater. And one day, somehow, we noticed the “Old Powerhouse,” which was a powerhouse, powering the campus buildings—used only for storage at this point. And so that was converted into a theater. It was part of a larger plan, in which Avery would be completely renovated into a modern theater. And all the plans for that renovation were drawn up, and the architects offered us three versions: one cost 3 million dollars, the other cost 2 million, and the last one cost 1 million, or so. I’m pulling these figures out of a hat, you know. But the Board of Trustees decided to go ahead with the plan to change the Powerhouse into a performance space. So, that happened, but the important thing about the Powerhouse, this new theatre, was that it would be technically up-to-date; it would have the most modern equipment. That was the principle. And, also, it was to have flexible seating. It was to be an experimental theater. Well, that was fine, but who was going to run all this special equipment? The students hadn’t been trained to do it, so there was a problem. There was a part-time member of the department, who said, “I know about stage lighting. I could manage the equipment in the Powerhouse theater.” That was half-true, anyway, but it turned out to be a full-time job, maintaining all that equipment. So, two things had to happen: we had to bring in somebody who was technically competent to do it, and, secondly, we had to offer a course in stage lighting to train students to do it. But this ran against the principles of a liberal arts college. Now we were training a technician, teaching a technical subject. This went against the grain of a liberal arts college, at least to many members of the faculty. So, I happened to be chairman at the time, and I proposed this course in stage lighting, and there was one teacher who opposed it, who got up and said, “No, this doesn’t work.” But, of course, I guess people recognized that it had to happen. Well, this technical course represented a breach in the principle, but because that happened, I could introduce a course in acting. There’d been no course in acting. But if you had one “technical” course, why couldn’t you have another one? So, it broke down this whole barrier about liberal arts, and maybe the end result was unfortunate, going in that direction. It’s very ironic. The point is that we got a technically well-equipped theatre, but we also got what goes along with that. The emphasis on technique, engineering, machines, all that stuff, whereas in the old theater, you improvised. You did what you could with what was there, instead of bringing in an expert. So, the courses, taught by Bill® Miller, in lighting design, have been very successful.

PB: Norris Houghton. What was he like as a colleague?

ES: Norris Houghton was one of the founders of the Phoenix Theatre, an off-Broadway theatre in New York. He was trained as a stage designer, but in partnership with T. Edward Hamilton, he founded this Phoenix Theatre to produce plays that were slighted or ignored by the commercial New York theatre. Norris spent much of his time raising money for the Phoenix Theatre, and he got to know a lot of people that way. He was familiar with all the right people in New York, and he knew a member of the Vassar Board of Trustees. And, to go back to the beginning of all this: Mary Virginia Heinlein was not well liked by a lot of people. She had a lot of enemies, and I’m not talking about just a casual dislike. It was really—well, hatred is too strong of a word, but, well, she had a lot of enemies. And she knew it. So this member of the Board of Trustees, a woman, wanted to replace Heinlein, if possible. Well, Heinlein saw to it that nobody got tenure in the department, so nobody could replace her as chair. You need tenure to be a full professor. So this trustee suggested that Norris Houghton be brought in and given a position in the drama department. And Houghton was interested because he wasn’t making enough money to live as he wanted to in New York. Well, Heinlein heard about this and she fought tooth and nail against it. And she did have support on her side, so she managed to see to it that Houghton was not given a position as professor, or given tenure. He was brought in as an adjunct professor. So he got here, and then, conveniently for him, Heinlein died, and so he became chairman of the department.

PB: What was it like to work in the department under Houghton’s leadership?

ES: Well, I knew Houghton very well and I knew Heinlein very well, and they were dramatically different personalities. Heinlein was a gifted theatre person, very gifted. I had many quarrels with her about plays and so on, but it was always part of the creative process. Houghton was not a creative personality. He was the sort of person who gathered people together and made them work together in different ways, supervising things, but he wasn’t a creative spirit. Maybe that’s good for a chairman of a department, but you also need the other thing that Heinlein had. And Houghton didn’t stay here very long, he wanted to. He received an offer from SUNY-Purchase; they were just setting up their quarters down there, and one of Houghton’s friends, an architect, was to be the designer of the experimental theatre down there. The president of SUNY-Purchase invited Norris to head the theatre school down there. He was reluctant to leave Vassar because he had a nice job here. He didn’t have too many heavy responsibilities because he was the sort of person who delegated things to other people. And he had a nice house on Mrs. Astor’s estate in Rhinebeck, in addition to his house on the Vassar campus. So, he was very comfortable. So he went to President Simpson and said, “I’ve got this offer from Purchase,” and what he expected was Simpson to say, “Oh, Norris, you can’t leave us; we can match their offer, or go half-way toward matching it or something. Let’s talk about it.” Instead, Simpson said, “Oh, sorry to see you go.” [Laughs] And Norris was crushed.

PB: Of all the performances at Vassar you’ve seen, are there any that stick out? They could stick out because they were so wonderful, or because they were a catastrophe…

ES: I won’t talk about catastrophes. [Under his breath:] That was Hedda Gabler [laughs]. It wasn’t really a catastrophe, but I didn’t do as good a job as I should’ve. That rankles me because I love Ibsen so much. And I didn’t coach one of the actors as I should have. The best production I did at Vassar? There are two possibilities. One: [Chekhov’s] The Seagull. There were just the right circumstances. There were a number of young men and women who were available at the time. It was a star-studded cast. We had just the right people, and a wonderful set design by Thad Gesek. Realistic. This was not experimental. I was trying to do something that I believed Chekhov would have wanted: a naturalistic production, very atmospheric, an Impressionist painting come to life, with all the right sounds in the background. I liked it. I loved it. And Leila [Cook] Barber, Professor of Art, saw it and wrote me a nice letter saying it was the finest production she’d ever seen at Vassar. And her time at Vassar went back to the 1920s. So I savor that. It’s not an easy play to do, and frankly, I see professional productions and I think, “Ours was just as good, if not better.” I tried to do it again, The Seagull; it was alright, but not very good. Things just came together that first time.

Another production I’m very proud of is War and Peace, the Tolstoy novel, reduced to a three-hour stage play by [Erwin] Piscator, who was a German director, a Communist. So it was a version of War and Peace that had a strong political slant. And it was very timely; this was the time of the Cold War. We staged it in the Powerhouse. The lights were extremely important in this production; we had a wonderful light design by a student (I can’t remember his name, though). And, we had a very strong cast. Jon Tenney was in it, and he was superb. It meant reducing that huge novel into a three-hour play. The play is never done. I discovered it somehow and staged it, and I’m very proud of that production. Years later, I saw a play at the Powerhouse theater—during the summertime—and during intermission, a lady sitting next to me said, “Well, it’s alright, but they used to do better things here at Vassar. I remember seeing a production of War and Peace.” I said, “I directed it! “You did? Oh, it was so marvelous.”

The other one I’m very proud of is Woyzeck, the Georg Büchner play. This story brings in another aspect of theater; it shows you how it’s a collective art. I wanted to do Woyzeck because it’s a very interesting historical play, it’s very challenging, and it’s a very fragmented script. There is no final version; Büchner died before he could finish the script. So you feel you’re participating in a process. You’ve got these scenes scattered around, but, “Is that scene 1, or scene 7?” And you could play with it that way. Of course the scholars had played with it to come up with the arrangement, but you also know that may not be definitive. So you’re involved in part of the creative process. Ingmar Bergman had directed the play in Sweden, and I’ve read about it, and his approach was to reduce it to practically nothing except some actors onstage and a floodlit area. I thought that was too simplistic. To me, the sets, the atmosphere was terribly important to the play. It’s totally expressionistic; it’s not very realistic—except the theme is terribly real: it’s about a real life incident in which an ordinary soldier is brow-beaten and humiliated until he can’t stand it anymore, and he ends up killing his wife. It’s a tragedy of the common people, you might say. So there are about 14 scenes in it, something like that, and the trick was to find a way to have a set that would accommodate all these scene changes. One scene, for instance, takes place in the barracks; another scene takes place in the streets of this village. When I talked to Thad Gesek about the design, he came up with something that looked like a cross, and I said, “What is that supposed to be?” and he said, “Well, that’s the German military cross. It’s a German setting.” I said, “Nobody would understand that.” So, he went away—he was always terribly accommodating—and came back with another design.  This one looked like a series of rectangles, two rows. I said, “What are those?” He said, “Well, those spaces between are the streets in this small town.”  “Ah, okay, fair enough. And what are those squares over there?”  “Those are the bunks in the barracks.” I thought, “This is wonderful.” It worked both ways, if you lit it properly. We had a student who came up with a marvelous lighting scheme, in which shafts of light would go down, creating the sense of streets. As soon as you took that away, you’d have bunks in the barracks, with soldiers in uniform. So it was very flexible. It kept flowing. There were no scene breaks; you just kept flowing the whole way through, building and building to last scene in which he kills his wife. And that was an extraordinary scene. I was very proud of that production. I invited somebody I knew in New York, the acting teacher Jack Garfein. He came and saw it, and he said, “You should take this to New York!” It was extremely well done. Once again, the right cast.

You asked me about changes at Vassar, and, of course, they’ve been enormous, absolutely enormous. And not for the better, in my opinion. That’s not the fault of any one person, of course. It’s the changing times. I mean, for instance, the Powerhouse theater, and the need to introduce technicians, had to happen. But it brings with it other changes. Something else: when Heinlein was in charge of things, and for a long time after under Bill® Rothwell, the townspeople came to see the plays. And I think that’s always a good challenge for an actor, to act in front of not just there friends, but people from the town. I don’t think that happens anymore.

PB: That’s sort of a shame.

ES: I think so. Well, first of all, it was a good way of keeping relationships with that town, and the performances were usually well attended. Under Heinlein, they were very well attended because, as I said, she brought in townspeople to act and they’d bring in their friends. So when I acted in plays, there was always the feeling that “Wow, we’ve got a full house tonight. And it’s not just students.” There were a lot of townspeople.

PB: Fascinating. Thank you so much, Professor Sprinchorn, for agreeing to speak with me.

ES: My pleasure.

Related Articles


PB, 2014