Originally called Hawaii Theatre Festival, the name change to Hawaii Public Theatre signaled a change to a different company and mission. The Public would last from 1976-79. It was the first fully professional theatre company in Hawaii, with a paid administrative staff, acting company and technical staff. The only thing lacking was its own theatre. Performances were in several venues around town. Managing director was Ken Kanter, and the eventual Artistic Director was Eugene Lion.
Eugene had come to Hawaii from the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where he had been Associate Director of the Guthrie, and then Artistic Director of the Guthrie ll. Something happened and he came to Hawaii in order to write a suit against the Guthrie, which he settled a few years later. Whatever caused him to come to Hawaii was a stroke of luck for the Hawaii Public Theatre, as he was a brilliant director.
His directing style, and his knowledge and experience, his mentality, made me really look at a director for the first time. He was so unique, to me, at least, in the way he took charge of a rehearsal, and the actors, and in the clarity of his vision, of what he wanted, and how he wanted it done. And there was always room for the actor to make choices in our own way within that vision. Looking back, seeing him work, and working with him, and talking with him, were some of the first seeds of directing for me, though I had never thought of directing for a minute up until then. But there was a conversation I had with Eugene about Brecht and “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” concerning the famous, some would say notorious, “Alienation Effect,” that gave me, I remember, a vague, fleeting sense that I might direct a play someday.
The way I saw it, and the way many theatre people described it, the alienation effect was Brecht’s idea about involving an audience in the play, and then breaking the emotional spell, as it were, thereby allowing them to think about the play in a more intended way. The most popular way of interpreting the alienation effect, at that time, in Brecht’s plays, was with the use masks, so you saw a lot of masked actors on the covers of books of Brecht’s plays. In talking with Eugene one day during the run of “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” I said I thought that the masks , and the use, or misuse of them, wouldn’t serve Brecht very well, that, in fact, they would distract an audience into thinking primarily of the mask(s), and not the play. He didn’t agree with me. Then I said that I thought that Brecht had written the alienation effect brilliantly, but simply, into the structure of “Caucasian Chalk Circle” itself. Prologue, then a play-within-a-play, then the story of Grusha, which Brecht cuts off at a critical point of that story with the story of Azdak, then ending the play with an epilogue. Getting an audience involved in a story and then switching to another story each time, alienating them, as it were, from the previous story. He didn’t agree with me. And so it went. But just being able to have, I admit, a heated conversation about something so purely theatrical with someone like Eugene, no, with Eugene, was the moment in which I thought I might be a director one day. Seeds indeed.