Stage director brings home whale of a tale

Schweizer returns to city of his youth

May 15, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

David Schweizer always knew that choosing a career as a stage director would require sacrifices. But he never expected to so keenly yearn for a permanent home.

He had no idea how much he'd miss living in a city where he could develop long-term relationships with a reliable dry cleaners and deli. A city where he wouldn't have to constantly explain his ways to strangers, because he'd be with friends and colleagues intimately familiar with his work cycle, his favorite expressions and that thing he does with his shoulders when he's tired. A place where he could fully relax.

In the 1950s and '60s, Baltimore was home for Schweizer. It's not that now - there simply isn't enough work here for a freelance theater director. But the recollection of that old comfort remains, so Schweizer was "just tickled" when he learned that he would be directing And God Created Great Whales in the city where he grew up.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section misidentified the creator and star of the play And God Created Great Whales at Center Stage. The artist's name is Rinde Eckert. In the same article, a Baltimore costume shop was misidentified. The name of the Howard Street store is A.T. Jones & Sons Inc. The Sun regrets the errors

"I've worked in theater for 25 years and directed all over the world," he said. "But this is my first professional experience in Baltimore."

It's fitting, perhaps, that the themes of the Obie Award-winning musical by Rinde Scott are the preciousness of memory and the nature of obsession. In Whales, a composer named Nathan struggles to complete an opera based on Moby Dick before he loses his mind. Nathan is aided by taped messages that he made for himself, and his muse, who alternately torments and inspires him. The musical opens its monthlong run in Baltimore tonight.

Schweizer, 52, admits that his daily walks to and from the theater have been "haunted," but in a pleasant way.

"As a kid, I always loved Mount Vernon," he said. "It seemed very wild, very bohemian. I would look at all the old buildings, and find it very magical, and dream of having a place there. Sometimes when I'm walking in the neighborhood, it's as if I've entered a time warp and I'm in the '60s again. I can see my doppelganger - the skinny little kid I used to be - breathing hard from walking up the hill, and wearing a crazy costume."

Schweizer grew up in Roland Park. As a child, he suffered a heart ailment that kept him confined to bed. He voraciously read European history, and that stimulated a natural penchant for play-acting.

"For birthday presents, I'd get costumes from Joan the Costumer's, frock coats and turbans and things like that," he said. "I liked putting them on and wandering around, to the horror of my two older brothers. Often I would don them unexpectedly for family excursions."

In his teens, he went off to Yale. After finishing his bachelor's degree, he began studying directing at the Yale School of Drama, where the influential theater critic Robert Brustein was an early mentor. Before Schweizer had graduated, he was chosen by Broadway impresario Joseph Papp to direct a cutting-edge production of Troilus and Cressida in 1972 that starred Christopher Walken. At age 22, Schweizer had made his New York debut.

He was an instant success - but the competition for projects in the Big Apple is fierce. To make a living, Schweizer knew he would have to hop from city to city. "There aren't a lot of us left who basically travel around as journeymen directors," he said. "Either you have a tenured job at a university and direct one or two shows a year, or you run a theater, and direct one or two shows a year."

One or two shows a year wasn't enough for Schweizer. He decided to stick with the job he loved best - despite the enforced rootlessness. In the 1980s, he established bases in New York and Los Angeles, where he held a residency at the renowned Mark Taper Forum. Later, he went abroad, directing shows in Poland, Portugal, Germany, England, Czechoslovakia and Japan.

Over the years, Schweizer gained a reputation for staging edgy, avant-garde shows enlivened by his rich visual imagination - such as And God Created Great Whales. But even though that musical has been running off and on in New York for nearly two years, mounting it at Center Stage has required its creators to re-think the entire production.

Previously, the show has been mounted on a proscenium stage that runs from one side of the theater to the other, with the audience arranged in long rows in front of it. But Center Stage's Head Theater has a thrust stage, which means that the audience sits on three sides, with the action taking place in the middle. "The way the actors are positioned, their relationship to the audience, can give the piece an entirely different feel," Schweizer said.

A thrust stage is more intimate. Because members of the audience are visible from the stage, the actors are more connected with and responsive to them. A proscenium stage creates a more distanced feeling - but it may make it easier to summon the world of magic and fantasy that Whales requires.

"We've had to re-think the piece so we can still create that dreamlike, poetic aspect that will encourage the audience to take an imaginative flight," Schweizer said.

The audience on that flight will include members of Schweizer's family, and, perhaps, childhood friends.

"That's why it's so good to be back in Baltimore," he said. "I never thought that the comfort I get when I am nurtured could occur in a place where I can do the kind of work I want to do.

"I never thought the twain would meet."

On Stage

What: And God Created Great Whales

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays in June; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 16.

Tickets: $26-$40

Call: 410-332-0033

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