‘Art’: A Note from the Artistic Director

‘Art’: A Note from the Artistic Director

When Art was first produced on Broadway 22 years ago, it was a brilliant fable about male friendship. An affectionate satire, written by a woman, about the challenges men encounter on the road to friendship; how difficult it can be for men to be open and vulnerable with each other.

In Christopher Hampton’s translation, it served as a great vehicle for many brilliant actors and was produced widely around the world, winning the Tony Award for best play, running for an unheard-of 600 performances of an non-musical on Broadway and a whopping eight years on the West End. It introduced Yasmina Reza as a powerful voice who re-invented the “drawing room comedy” to skewer contemporary human foibles in the tradition of Moliere and Ben Jonson and the comedy of humours.

But why produce Art now? Why revive it in the midst of the pandemic? Why open our 20-21 Season with a play written for three white men and their petty upper middle-class quarrel over a work of art?

Art is the only title to have survived from our original season announcement in March 2020. When the coronavirus turned our world upside-down the rest of the ambitious season fell under the axe. Huge casts, big musicals, animals on stage. Sadly, we had to scrap those plans for happier times to come. This too will pass.

However, Art somehow resisted the axe. The original impetus, back in February 2020, to revive it came from a conversation I had with a board member, Betty Nakamoto, in which she lamented, “Why have we turned on each other so viciously in the country?” Sister against sister, brother against brother, we lament, “If you could support a certain politician or ideology, I’m not sure I can be your brother, friend, colleague anymore.”

“Why does that sound familiar?”, I thought. I later realized, and called Betty to tell her that her comment reminded me very much of Art. Two close friends, who’ve been devoted for many years, perhaps since school days, who are suddenly and perhaps irrevocably torn apart by one’s choice to buy a white painting. The other questions whether he can remain friends with someone who could do something so stupid. Bingo.

So our presentation of Art, coming so close to perhaps the most important election of our lives, was chosen to confront us with the lamentable human capacity to be divided into political camps in which we cannot understand, or empathize or communicate with those on the other side; the tragic sundering of the American civilization. A world in which political adversaries have become sworn enemies, shouting insults across our own Maginot Line of entrenchment. Like the McCoys and Hatfields, there seems to be very little hope of reconciliation.

And yet, some may say unrealistically, the combatants in Art do find their way toward understanding and forgiveness. Do they give us hope that we from the red and blue could somehow do likewise? Could we put aside our hatred and walk a mile in the others’ shoes. Many of us may chant, “Never!” But at least in our dreams, at least in the theatre, we can see it is possible, that these stubborn souls, imprisoned in their own version of “No Exit,” can find the chainsaw to hack their way out into the light.

– Artistic Director Bill English

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Bill English is Artistic Director and Co-Founder of San Francisco Playhouse, and in twenty years with Susi Damilano, has guided its growth from a bare-bones storefront to the second-largest theater in San Francisco.

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