Unbelievably, this summer was the 30th anniversary of the first Atlantic Theater Company production season in Montpelier, Vermont. That 1985 summer followed a year of study at NYU with David Mamet and William H. Macy, and was preceded by two summer intensives they conducted in ’83 and ’84 in Montpelier near Goddard College, which they both had attended in the 1970’s.
Writing this from Pie In The Sky, a wonderful bed & breakfast actually in the (now beautifully renovated) house that some of us lived in the summer of ’85, makes me reflect. I was lucky enough to study in the ’84 summer, which was a mind blowing six weeks of Practical Aesthetics. Mamet’s combination of acting technique and theater philosophy has its roots in psychology, Stoic philosophy, late Stanislavsky writings, and Meisner acting technique. The overriding message of that training, though, and of our following year of study through NYU, was create your own work.
One day, Mamet came into class at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago—they’d taken us there for the spring semester to continue classes and do internships to learn the ins and outs of running a theater while the Goodman produced several of his plays. He said, “We’ve taught you everything we know. Now go form a theater company and do plays.” Which we did. And still do.
Those first few summers, Atlantic mainly performed in Montpelier. We were essentially on our own, but Mamet and Lindsay Crouse, then his wife and also one of our teachers, would attend shows and throw picnics. Macy and their colleague Steven Schachter would sometimes direct us. And just once that first summer of producing and performing, Mamet dropped his two cents into our disputes via letter.
“If you have the urge to ‘act up’ in a rehearsal,” he wrote, “remind yourselves that you are in that rehearsal not to indulge your own feelings, but to investigate and practice certain specific skills.” … “This ability in yourselves–as a group and as individuals–to act with character although under stress…will spell the difference between happiness and unhappiness in your chosen profession.” … “You must have free time. You must have a day off and keep it inviolate…Do it although you don’t feel like it. Schedule meetings at reasonable hours. Go home at a legitimate time. No one is going to benefit from decisions made when you are exhausted.”
The training was simple yet profound: we were taught tools, and then left pretty much alone to work it out. We were told that if we worked at it, and worked at it together, we could do it. So we did. That’s what we try to pass on to our students. Not only are many of our grads working in theater, film and TV, current alumni-run companies include (guys, email me if I have left anyone out!) Pipeline, Joust, Crashbox, Lesser America, Artilliers, The Attic, The Savage Detectives, IRT Theater, and Harvard Sailing Team, as well as individual alums constantly producing their own films, plays, and web series, often working with their former classmates.
Though Atlantic eventually moved on to the larger audiences of Burlington for our Vermont seasons, which lasted into the 1990’s, those Montpelier summers were seminal. We learned to work together by doing plays, “doing our job and our job only,” settling issues in extremely long company meetings, and blowing off steam by playing softball and swimming in a quarry on Sundays. In Montpelier we hosted and read and produced the work of playwrights including John Guare, Craig Lucas, Wendy MacLeod, Aaron Sorkin, Shel Silverstein, Erin Cressida Wilson, Allan Havis, David Hare, Wallace Shawn, David Mamet, Quincy Long, Richard Greenberg, and Howard Korder, whose Boys’ Life put us on the professional map at Lincoln Center Theater in New York in 1987. Happy Anniversary, Atlantic. —Karen Kohlhaas