Growing up in Miami Beach, Fla., Elliot Wasserman cherished family outings to the Coconut Grove Playhouse, where he saw the likes of Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, and Ann Miller perform. While Wasserman enjoyed live theater and dabbled in acting, his first passion was writing. After earning degrees in English and creative writing, he headed to the University of Georgia to enroll in a playwriting program. After he took a directing class, he was hooked. “There was a kind of natural eye,” he says. “I could see things other people didn’t seem to be able to see.”
Wasserman’s professional career has included directing stars such as Donna McKechnie (whose performance in Broadway’s A Chorus Line won her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical) and Lou Diamond Phillips (known for Courage Under Fire and La Bamba). In 1991, Wasserman accepted a job as an assistant professor of acting and directing at the University of Southern Indiana. He currently teaches playwriting, acting, and directing courses and serves as USI’s chair of performing arts.
This summer, Wasserman takes on a new role: producing artistic director for the New Harmony Theatre. The season includes Lost in Yonkers (June 17-26), The 39 Steps (July 8-17), and Avenue X (July 22-Aug. 7). For more on the upcoming season or to purchase tickets, visit www.newharmonytheatre.com.
Theater has been a great adventure. It’s almost like a wonderland to me, but it always has been a world of imagination that’s had real-life application. Every time I turn around, it seems to help me, which is why I believe so strongly that theater has a very special value to people. There’s nothing quite like live entertainment. It energizes in a way that nothing else does.
I loved poetry first and foremost, and I think plays are very tonal. You can hear them; they’re musical; the lines have rhythm. Poetry is written by the line and by the pauses, and plays are written by the breath. I can hear things very distinctly when I read a play — variations, possibilities, and nuances.
I want to exercise good taste, to see quality on stage, to reach to the edges of the audience as well as touch the heart of that audience. I mean “heart” in terms of the emotional heart and the center of sensibility. I want to hit that, but I also want to go all the way out to the edges so the audience continues to grow. The mission is to take what is one of the most precious and valuable cultural resources in a 100-mile radius and maintain, renew, secure, and develop its reputation as a vital resource, as a treasure. I feel the stewardship responsibility very, very strongly.
One of the first things a lot of artistic directors do when someone gives them a theater to captain is try to show they can reinterpret the classics: “Oh, we’re going to do Romeo and Juliet, but we’re going to set it in the Civil War, and the Montagues and Capulets will be the Northerners and Southerners.” It’s not that that’s not a valuable thing to do at times, but if you do it only to prove it can be done, that’s been done and done and done.
I didn’t want to fall into that pattern. I didn’t just want to prove to the world that I could do these classics in this way. What I decided to do this season was not do a play that was more than 20 years old. A lot of (directors) constantly are trying to establish the importance of what we do by saying, “I’m going to do Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet or The Rivals,” or something of that sort. The reality is, there’s some wonderful theater being written for today’s audience. We understand the themes, controversies, and issues being presented, and we relate immediately to the characters.
When I first got (to Evansville), New Harmony Theatre had a slogan: “Theater of the heart.” I never have forgotten that phrase. I don’t ever want to do a season where I fail to touch people’s hearts. Sure, I want to do a play here and there where (audience members) laugh so hard that there’s never a moment that tests their resources of compassion. But I never want us to go through a season and not feel for a character, not put ourselves in a character’s shoes.