Theater Remembrance: Trinity Repertory Company Director Adrian Hall
By Robert Israel
During his career as the founder and artistic leader of the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence (from 1964 to 1989), Adrian Hall achieved a lasting place in the American theater as a visionary director.
Adrian Hall died on February 4 at age 95 at his home in Van, Texas, after a long illness. During his decades-long career as the founder and artistic leader of the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence (from 1964 to 1989), Hall achieved a lasting place in the American theater as a visionary director. Standing well over six feet, he was, by turns, given to piques of temper and charm. He influenced scores of thespians, directors, designers, stage-crafters, and writers (me included). He pushed the theatrical envelope by taking risks when few of his contemporaries dared to.
Hall had been bypassed for plum stage director jobs in New York City, and quit Broadway’s glittering and lucrative commercial world for a low-paying job as artistic director of a fledgling theatrical troupe that performed in a church in Trinity Square, in Providence. In the late ’60s, Providence was a backwater city overrun with Mafiosi. I was a high school student then, and I remember the downtown “entertainment district” as rivaling Boston’s famed Combat Zone with sleazy porno houses, strip joints, and brothels, not a place for a professional Equity theater. Thanks in large part to Hall’s chutzpah, Providence is a different city today.
Hall set out to create “theater that reached people where they lived,” he said. He had wondrous successes and blistering failures. During the 1975-76 Trinity Rep season, he staged (with longtime collaborator Richard Cumming) a musical adaptation of James Purdy’s novel, Eustace Chisholm and the Works that depicted an onstage back alley abortion and graphic scenes of homosexual liaisons (at each performance, scores of audience members stormed out). He commandeered Providence’s Union Station for a memorable performance of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit. When the show awakened homeless men sleeping in the bowels of the railroad station he included them in the production as walk-ons.
Some of the notable theater folk he influenced include Richard Jenkins, Peter Gerety, Katherine Helmond, Blythe Danner, Barbara Meek, and Ed Hall. He worked with writers Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams, William Goyen, and Robert Lowell. Under his tutelage, in 1981 Trinity was awarded a special Tony Award citation for Outstanding Regional Theater Company.
I credit Hall with his pioneering efforts to obtain funding from the National Endowment of the Arts to launch Project Discovery, which introduced school-age students to stagecraft, acting, and playwriting. During this turbulent time, when the Vietnam War was at its zenith, young males like me knew we would be drafted and sent off to Vietnam. Thanks to Hall, I was bused with my classmates to the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium for a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Sitting beside me, as it happened, was another impressionable teenager from Newport who introduced herself as Anne Bogart (she became artistic director, briefly, at Trinity Rep, later gaining a national reputation as director of the experimental SITI Company.) I can still picture myself seated in the auditorium as the actors roamed the aisles shouting about the “dogs of war.” We had been numbed by the scenes of carnage shown on the six o’clock news. In the theater, however, we were awakened to its reality and encouraged to put it in context, to process it historically and emotionally. No one else, it seemed, took students like us seriously.
Hall and I had many heated encounters during the almost 10 years I worked as a theater beat reporter for the New Paper (a weekly paper that morphed into the Providence Phoenix). He’d call me and berate me and then invite me to lunch in an attempt to cajole me into writing a puff piece. (I never did.) But this is how he rolled. He famously quarreled with the Trinity Rep board who fired him (he selected new board members and was rehired), ultimately leaving Providence for Dallas, where he had a brief run as artistic director there, before being shown the door.
His love of theater never waned.
“The theater is thousands of years old,” he often said. “It has always been man’s attempt to tell the stories to the people who are there. I mean, the Greeks sat on hillsides and listened to these stories all those years ago. It’s alive.”
Editor’s Note: I want to add a couple of things to Bob’s apt homage. At its best, Adrian Hall’s approach to programming was strategic wizardry. Each season he would mount one or two productions that were designed to shake audiences up, picked expressly to disturb and challenge, along with shows that were there to reassure. You could look over the season and see where he was taking chances and where he was not. This invaluable mix-and-match helped create (train?) audiences who learned over time to trust what the theater company was up to. They accepted new and unfamiliar fare because they had grown to believe in the taste and talent of the artistic director and his company. Also, Hall’s sensibility was robustly independent — he left New York because he rejected what its theater scene, driven by commercial compromise, stood for. Regional theater was supposed to serve as an alternative to Broadway — it was not about feeding it. His kind of rebellious savvy, dedicated to going beyond the well trod, has pretty well vanished.
As for theater productions, I have so many wonderful memories. A few quickly come to mind under Hall’s tenure: Vibrant productions of two of my favorite plays, Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Peter Barnes’s Red Noses, the latter a loving, circus-y testament to the kiss-ass go-for-broke theatrical glory Hall believed in. A personal favorite: German dramatist Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Mensch Meier, which was highlighted by a marvelous performance by the late Richard Kavanaugh. And one of the funnest productions I have ever seen, S.J. Perelman’s The Beauty Part. I saw that hilarious staging of farce by a master with fellow critic Arthur Friedman and our notebooks were soggy with tears of laughter at the end of it.
— Bill Marx
Robert Israel, an Arts Fuse contributor since 2013, can be reached at email@example.com.