Andrei Serban: Educating Prosperos
Istel, John, American Theatre
Andrei Serban, looking remarkably youthful at 50 in his black jeans and crewneck sweater, darts out of his office at Columbia University, where a year-and-a-half ago he was hired as head of the Oscar Hammerstein Center for Theatre Arts. Thin, edgy, sporting a neat beard and shaggy brown hair, the Romanian-born director motions to a bright-eyed graduate student and they disappear behind his door for a quick conference. Minutes later, Serban swoops out and motions to his next visitor.
To those familiar with the marginalized, tradition-bound Columbia theatre program that seemed gripped by rigor mortis though much of the 1970s and '80s, Serban's energetic presence signals important changes. For this Ivy League institution's commitment to the arts over the past couple of decades was never so neatly symbolized as when the university razed the campus theatre to make way for a state-of-the-art law school without ever building a new performance venue.
Why would a critically acclaimed director who has worked with an inspiring range of international artists--from innovative experimental performers to opera companies to Japanese masters--accept a position at an institution with such a track record? Serban sips his coffee, settles awkwardly into his chair in his bright, recently repainted office and takes an uncharacteristically long pause: "The time has come to transmit my experiences in the theatre and my understanding to the younger generation, for two reasons: one, to pass those things on; and two, for myself to clarify these directions."
Serban's arrival was one in a series of fortuitous hirings that injected new life into the sixth floor of stodgy Dodge Hall, the building that also houses Columbia's graduate writing, film and music programs. First, Peter Smith was named dean of the school of arts six years ago; he hired Arnold Aronson to chair the graduate theatre division. Together they pursued Serban, hoping he could do for their theatre program what he has done so eloquently for classical drama since the 1970s and for opera since the 1980s--rejuvenate the moribund.
Serban's mandate was to create a graduate MFA acting program from scratch and reclaim or develop a venue in which the students can study and perform--and to do it, not incidentally, at a financially strapped institution in a city where space is at a premium. Asked to explain his program and teaching philosophy, Serban's body recoils and flinches, conveying reluctance to confront the seemingly impossible task of explaining what he's trying to teach his first group of graduate actors. There is no syllabus for his classes or reading lists. "The curriculum is extremely different from that of a more traditional theatre program," he begins haltingly in his accented English. "What we are trying to do is to not necessarily make actors come out of the school to have a sure way to Broadway or television or Hollywood, but to really give actors the materials that will open them up to their skill as actors." Serban assets that he wants the 16 acting recruits to be trained "experimentally," learning by voicing, moving, doing--not talking or theorizing about acting.
Ironically, Serban's solution seems so obvious that his "radically different" methods could be labeled almost...well, conservative. Drawing on the historical tradition of apprenticeship and collaboration on classics of dramatic literature, the acting student's first-year texts are the extant Greek tragedies. The actors find themselves immersed in larger-than-life material--and they receive lots of help. Each is assigned to a director, a dramaturg and a new translation or adaptation of Greek text created by a student playwright. Twenty such ensembles share the vast black-box laboratory space in a refurbished basement across Broadway from Dodge Hall. Each group also gets rehearsal time, use of stock rehearsal props and modular furniture, and a date to present their "research" to their colleagues. …