The movie Fences is in theaters across the U.S. right now and is a leading contender in the Academy Awards. It's based on a play by August Wilson — a play that got its start at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn. This season, Yale Rep, as its known, marks its 50th anniversary as an incubator for not only Wilson, but also Athol Fugard, Christopher Durang, Sarah Ruhl and many of the leading playwrights working today.
In 1991, Wilson told NPR that Yale Rep was crucial to his work. He said, "One of the most valuable things, I think, that has contributed to my development is the fact of having a home here at Yale Rep, and knowing that I can write a play and that the theater would be willing to produce it. I constantly work to reward the faith that has been placed in me."
Yale Rep premiered six of Wilson's 10 plays about the African-American experience, and it also insured that he could refine them by getting the plays staged in theaters across the country.
Yale is different from other nonprofit theaters: It doesn't have to worry about funding because it's connected to a major university, and it was conceived as an integral part of the Yale School of Drama.
Like all his predecessors, James Bundy is both school dean and the theater's artistic director. He says, "The best possible training in every discipline of the theater could only be offered in conjunction with a practicing professional theater that regularly brought leading artists into the community and allowed students to work alongside those artists in a manner not dissimilar to that of a medical school and a teaching hospital."
Students go to classes from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., then spend their afternoons and evenings doing everything that goes into staging a play. Actress Dianne Wiest recently starred in a Yale Rep production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. "My costume was made by a brilliant student," she says. "The stage manager is a student, the assistant stage manager is a student, who is down in the pit with me, you know, giving me a line." Former students include actors Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.
Playwright Danai Gurira has had three of her works done at Yale Rep. She says, "It's a place where you can really go and incubate, because, you know, it's so tricky with how some of the things are structured now in our industry where it's all about who's review comes out when, etc. etc. And so it was really awesome to have that space to just not have to think about that stuff and to get to really think about What story am I trying to tell here?"
Eclipsed is among the plays Gurira refined at Yale Rep; it moved to Broadway in 2016, starring Lupita Nyong'o, a one-time student understudy at the theater and got a Tony nomination for best play.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel developed her latest play, Indecent, at Yale while she taught at the school. She says the audiences at the Rep were invaluable when it came to honing and shaping the work. "New Haven is exceptional in the conversation I have with audience members. ... They want to be engaged in the conversation — they're not looking for the next play on its way to Broadway."
That's exactly where Indecent is headed this spring. Still, Artistic Director James Bundy says it's a play that really fulfills Yale Rep's mission. "What are the odds that a play about censorship and lesbians would make it to a Broadway stage? That's improbable. And, in fact, if you're going to make theater that's really worth making, you should probably be investing in the improbable."
A new play called Imogen Says Nothing opens at the Rep this week, and an exhibition of photographs from the theater's 50-year history has just opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center.