Lee Breuer is pretty sure that if he gathered together 1,700 press agents, gave them each a copy of his bio and asked them to write an ending to his story, not one of them would place him in a Phoenix suburb, teaching interdisciplinary theatre art on a university campus.
Nor, he guesses, would they forecast his failure to produce an interactive performance piece depicting football as a national cultural religion.
Yet that is exactly where this award-winning stage director and playwright finds himself these days: instructing students in the nuance of performance at ASU West and trying to explain why The Saint and the Football Players never saw the klieg light of day.
Breuer is best known for his creation of the Obie Award-winning musical The Gospel at Colonus, a dramatic fusion of Greek tragedy and Pentecostal preaching that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. As founder of the experimental theatre Mabou Mines, Breuer has spent the past two decades touring the world with his multimedia productions. He has received four Obies; his work has been nominated for a Tony, the National Institute of Music Theater's Award for the Advancement of Music Theater and a Grammy. ("I lost to Barry Manilow," he deadpans. "Some things you learn to accept.")
Productions of his work appear regularly on PBS' Great Performances and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. He has taught theatre arts at Harvard and Yale universities, and is considered by many to be one of the country's leading figures in experimental theatre.
So what is Lee Breuer doing in Phoenix? "Scaring people, mostly," he laughs.
"Actually, I'm here for a lot of reasons," Breuer admits. Not the least of which is money: His last couple of productions put him in debt to the tune of $100,000. "This job provides me a lot of freedom," Breuer explains, "and it also allows me to pay off some of my old bills."
One of the freedoms his gig at Arizona State University's Glendale campus affords him is the time to develop future projects while cultivating fresh talent. Breuer is teaching the Theatre/Studio Workshop he originated at Yale last year--a class which, he says, covers "acting, directing, designing, writing, producing and theory all at once."
"I'm interested in teaching how performance is relative to society," he says. "We're in theatre for spiritual reasons, to find out about life. This isn't just some acting class."
Apparently not. "Lee is dealing with some pretty nervy stuff here," says Michael Cerveris, coordinator of ASU West's Interdisciplinary Arts Program. "He superimposes different cultures and time frames; that can be very off-putting in a place like Phoenix, where we're mostly unexposed to abstract performance. Lee's work is very accessible, but people have to be ready to come at it. He has a very different approach to theatre."
Like his rules regarding rehearsals. "I like to rehearse a play for two years," Breuer says. "You can do a lot with a piece in a two-year rehearsal period. I have the awards to prove that."
While Breuer's unconventional work methods excite Cerveris, they've spelled doom for some of Breuer's past projects. His quirky retellings of Lulu and The Tempest, for instance, bankrupted him and nearly destroyed his off-Broadway career. And then there's the aborted The Saint and the Football Players, the sports-art performance piece Breuer and his students were to present to Valley audiences at semester's end.
"The Saint is like a 12th-century passion play," Breuer explains, "where the knights of the grail are white-clad football players, and the black-clad players are the devil. We were going to have flaming bats and balls, 40-odd cheerleaders, six golf carts, a lawn tractor and the voice of Howard Cosell."
Unfortunately, Breuer wasn't counting on his quarterback's inability to pirouette in slo-mo. "What I found out is that there is no tradition of this kind of work in Phoenix," he says without a trace of irony. "I needed football players--real ones, not actors playing football players--who could play comedy, sing Philip Glass, dance in slow motion. I did this play in New York; I found those people there. It worked. But here. . . . "Rehearsals were a mess. The actors were worried about getting hurt, because they were having to take full body contact with these hulking jocks. The football players couldn't handle the comedy timing or the dancing. Half of them weren't showing up for rehearsals because they had games, or they were busy trying to get recruited to Florida State or something."
Finally, Breuer notified ASU West faculty: Game called on account of strain. "I learned one thing," he says now. "I'd rather teach a football player to dance than try to encourage actors to play football onstage."
Breuer admits he hasn't yet found his local audience. But while he's seeking his public, he is fascinated with observing our suburban order.
"I live in the East Village in New York, so of course this place is dramatically different," he says. "But I didn't come here with a negative attitude. I grew up in Los Angeles in the Fifties, and Phoenix is a lot like that now." Phoenix, he says, "is a society of shopping malls. But it's making a cultural statement, and a valid one. I understand this suburban-car-culture thing: Guys working on their cars and motorcycles in the middle of the night; defining themselves by what they drive. A big Saturday night is sitting in your car drinking beer. I know this stuff, and I'm intrigued by it.
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"I'm fascinated that these guys are emulating what they consider to be macho role models," Breuer says. "They want to climb onto their Harleys or into their hopped-up autos and be James Dean or Marlon Brando. What they're not acknowledging is that they're emulating men of much more complex sexualities." Breuer sees everything as a potential story idea: "I want to be able to tell these guys while I'm here, `Hey, look at who you're imitating.' But I have to be careful. I have to consider who I might offend."
How will a man who can't find a football team to star in his latest opus convince the male populace of this town that it is emulating a dead, bisexual movie star?
"Easy," Breuer laughs. "I'll set it to music. Anyway, every guy wants to be James Dean. Everybody wants to die young, before life fucks up their face.