"In contemporary theater we're seeing a wonderful mix of disciplines," explains David Petrarca, the remarkable young director currently in residence at the Goodman Theatre. "Interdisciplinary work, while it has always existed, has been historically relegated to the avant-garde. Now a theater audience comes to expect a dance-theater-music performance. All of that cross-fertilization of the arts is tremendously healthy."
Petrarca almost effortlessly articulates the workings of contemporary theater, an ability that has undoubtedly aided him as a director. And at 25, he is the youngest recipient of the Theater Communication Group's National Directing Fellowship, an honor bestowed on only six applicants this year, the program's first.
Petrarca's enthusiasm for mixed-media theater is qualified, however. "Mixing genres in the theater is extremely difficult and requires enormous intelligence," he continues. "I don't know how many times I've gone to the theater and thought, 'This theater shouldn't make plays. It should make washing machines. I'm just watching an assembly-line process.'"
Petrarca's career has ranged widely, both geographically and stylistically, from forming his own experimental theater collective in New York, to serving as assistant artistic director of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, to directing As Is in its first Washington, D.C., production. "The fact that I was asked to do the first production of an AIDS play in Washington attracted me to the work," he says of As Is. "It was an incredible experience working on the play, knowing that the policymakers of the country were coming to see it."
Now Petrarca's fellowship allows him to spend a year at one of several major theaters in the country. He chose the Goodman because he wanted to explore its alternative style of artistic management; he'll not only assist directors but also contribute to the theater's artistic agenda.
"The situation there, with Frank [Galati], Bob [Falls], and Michael [Maggio]," he explains, "is a unique one in the country. They're making a commitment to a triumvirate of artistic leadership, instead of investing all the authority in one artistic director."
In an era abounding in "concept" directors (who somewhat arrogantly take a traditional work and give it their own stamp) and enfants terribles, Petrarca's eagerness to embrace a multiplicity of artistic visions is refreshing. "I'm not dogmatic in my feelings about the theater," he explains. "I don't say that one way is right and other ways are wrong. They're all valid. You just have to do them well."
Perhaps Petrarca's openness to theatrical diversity has its roots in his own diverse performance training. He began, as a young child, studying classical Russian ballet, with every intention of pursuing it professionally. After a few years, he changed his focus and studied opera. When that proved dissatisfying, he enrolled at New York University and received degrees in acting and art history. In the meantime, he found time to work professionally as a director, starting at 17. At that age, he founded the Limbo Theater Collective in New York, a nonprofit theater that in its three-year existence presented six collaborative multimedia performances.
Referring to the current trend to mix media, Petrarca explains that "it all grows out of a Wagnerian sensibility, a sensibility geared toward creating a total work of art involving a synthesis of all the arts."
Despite the variety of theatrical experiences in Petrarca's past, he seems guided by one clear principle: to find "a balance between the word and the image."
"The whole country seems to have moved into an area where language has died to some extent," he explains. "Starting with a pop art sensibility and moving forward, there's more and more a devaluation of the word and a preponderance of beautiful images, beautiful pictures. We're media-saturated. I think that's something that needs to be balanced."
Petrarca is quick to point out that his ideal of theater is not purely aesthetic but is infused with a healthy dose of morality. Not only must word and image be balanced, but "directing is also an attempt to find a balance between ethics and aesthetics," he says. "I love work that is beautiful or grim or whatever, but not purely so. Pure imagistic theater may be beautiful and may evoke an emotional response, but it doesn't go anywhere in terms of telling me what I need to do. It moves me to contemplation. A purely ethical theater, on the other hand, moves me to action. Again, I'm interested in a balance of the two. I want to explore their intersection."
One of his first acts at the Goodman has been to suggest that British monologuist David Cale be invited to perform as part of the Solo in the Studio series (three one-man performances will be staged in the intimate studio space beginning in February).
"David Cale is a great writer as well as a great performer," says Petrarca. "He's also unabashedly sentimental. So much 'performance art' tends to be a kind of closed, aloof, imagistic, private vision. David's work is entirely popular."
Cale will perform a collection of original stories, The Redthroats, centering on a working-class British family called the Weirds. Later performances are by Avner the Eccentric, a clown, acrobat, mime, and one-man circus, and Fred Curchack, whose piece Stuff as Dreams Are Made On is a one-man version of Shakespeare's The Tempest.
David Cale performs February 2 through 7; Avner the Eccentric February 17 through 28; and Fred Curchack March 9 through 20. For ticket information, call the Goodman Theatre, 200 S. Columbus Dr., at 443-3800.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.