May 6, 2022

Interview: Mary B. Robinson

Interview: Mary B. Robinson

Mary Robinson sat down for a talk with Adventures in Theater History to discuss her four-and-a-half year long tenure at the Drama Guild in the 1990s. We also talked about the many shows she subsequently directed at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The first of a planned series of many interviews with historically important Philadelphia theater artists and scholars,


January 1990: The appointment of Mary B. Robinson as the new Artistic Director of the Philadelphia Drama Guild is announced, taking over from outgoing Artistic Director Gregory Poggi.

Robinson's tenure at the Drama Guild was slated to begin in August of 1990, so she could move back to Philadelphia and start planning her first season. At a press conference, she stated that she planned to personally direct at least 3 of the 5 shows staged by the Drama Guild, whose current home was in the Zellerbach Theatre on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. . . . 

In the fall of 2021, Mary Robinson sat down for a talk with Adventures in Theater History. It was also the first time she had sat down and really discussed her four-and-a-half year long tenure at the Drama Guild in since 1995. We also talked about the many shows she subsequently directed at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in years since. The first of a planned series of many interviews with historically important Philadelphia theater artists and scholars, we are proud to bring you this fascinating hour-long recorded conversation. 

For a blog post about Mary Robinson's time at the Philadelphia Drama Guild:
https://www.aithpodcast.com/blog/photos-of-mary-robinson-and-the-drama-guild/

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Transcript

Peter Schmitz
I am very pleased today that we have a special guest. Our first interview segment is with Mary B. Robinson, the theater director and a longtime member of the Philadelphia Theater community. Even though she now lives – you live in Brooklyn, am I right?

Mary B. Robinson
That's right. I grew up in the Philadelphia area.

Peter Schmitz
Where did you spend your childhood?

Mary B. Robinson
Well, first in Media - when I was really little - and then after two years where my father worked in Washington DC in the early 60s, we came back and lived in Haverford, which is where I did my main growing up. So when I was in Media, we saw children's theater at the Hedgerow and after we came back. I remember seeing something at the Theater for the Living Arts. we certainly saw, you know, tours that came through Philly on their way to or from New York. And then I think, the theater experience I remember best is being really transforming. Was the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company that does, you know, Gilbert and Sullivan came through Philadelphia on an American tour that  .   .   .

Peter Schmitz
This is the British company, not the Savoy Company?

Mary B. Robinson
The British company. Yes, that's right. Yes, the British company in 1964 and I saw Pirates of Penzance at the Academy of Music.

Peter Schmitz
Right, ok.

Mary B. Robinson
At the age of 10 or 11 and was just, you know, you know, as I said, just really transported by it. And actually after that, that kind of got me and my whole family hooked on Gilbert Sullivan. So we went to all the Savoy productions at Longwood Gardens. We went to the Plays & Players - G&S Players, I think they were called in Philly. And you know that that kind of you know, led to a lifelong love. Gilbert & Sullivan had really started me off on a lifelong theater. Love I mean, but the reason I was able to, the reason I did see all these theaters, my mother was a theater aficionado. You know, a very passionate theatergoer. And she would take us to . .  you know, we would make an annual family trip to New York for heaven sakes to see theater. You know, we saw, we saw some really interesting stuff. We saw, you know, stuff on Broadway. I remember seeing Julie Harris and 40 Carats and Pearl Bailey in Hello Dolly!. We also saw To Be Young Gifted and Black at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the late 60s. My mother really loved the work of Lorraine Hansberry and thought we would be, you know, intrigued by it and we were, and Man in the Moon Marigolds, you know, she really found things off the beaten path both In Philly and in the and in New York.

Peter Schmitz
Interesting. So a lot of Philadelphia people got in the habit of going to New York . . .

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah

Peter Schmitz
. .  or waiting to see New York productions come to Philadelphia. That was a standard Philadelphia theatergoer attitude at the time in the 60s, wasn't it?

Mary B. Robinson
Absolutely yeah. And there was a lot of theater. It was tryout theater - and then you know the tours that probably went to all the cities but Philadelphia was one of the main stops, I think.

Peter Schmitz
By that time, you went to the Baldwin School, as I recall?

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, that's right. Yeah, yeah.

Peter Schmitz
Was the, was there a theater program there, were they doing shows?

Mary B. Robinson
It was, it was much more important to me than my college theater program, as a matter of fact, it was huge. It was probably every bit as important as the theatergoing I was doing was the fact that from the age of 10 on I came into the orbit of this amazing woman named Lois Goutman, who was the Drama department at Baldwin. And did very ambitious plays - which at the time [I] thought well we're doing The Tempest, so we're doing, you know, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or Skin of our Teeth, or a Beckett play for heaven sakes. And now I think that's amazing that we did those plays. And were so comfortable with him and she was so convinced that we could pull them off. So that was a huge, huge aspect of my growing up. And, you know, I not only was in the place, but painting the scenery and stage management got props and you know, we all of us did everything.

Peter Schmitz
And was it with the all-female version or was it . . .

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, it was.

Peter Schmitz
Wow.

Mary B. Robinson
Of course, I played - so of course being 5’10”, I played the guys’ roles until my senior year when we did Blithe Spirit, and I got to play a woman for the first, but you know, but of course, playing the men roles I played some great roles because most plays have, you know, most classic plays have lots, lots of men roles and a few women roles.

Peter Schmitz
You were . . .  but you were acting, you were performing then?

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, yes exactly.

Peter Schmitz
You went on to Smith – am I right? - College?

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, that's right. Yes, Smith College.

Peter Schmitz
And you say that was less important. Why?

Mary B. Robinson
Well, well, it was like it was a difficult time, it was, um it was competitive. It wasn't the kind of community - and this is again no fault of the theater program - maybe just the vibes there. I had such a strong sense of community at Baldwin, with people who did theater. At Smith it was there was some competition. It was also. .  they had a graduate program, a graduate acting program. . .

Peter Schmitz
Did they?

Mary B. Robinson
. . . where they, where they had all men. And it made sense, because then those men would play, you know, the roles that you know. So then I got to play women. But I never thought I would go on to have a professional career as an actor. Being 5’10”, I was playing the mother roles at Smith, right? So, and then I began directing. Partly because  . . . gosh I played Gertrude in Hamlet at Amherst, with a really good actor as Hamlet (Jeffrey Wade his name is, I'm still in touch. He's, you know, worked as an actor on the West Coast for years) and I was really bad. I really wasn't good, and it was the first time as an actor.

I had come up against my own limitations in a really sobering way, and so I began to direct just to kind of learn more about what I felt the director of that production had not helped me with. Because I went to him a number of times and he was just kind of dismissive and I thought, well, what would a director . . . what should a director have said to me? So I began directing and I immediately thought, oh, this is - this is good. This is the right fit. This is what I you know maybe could even do professionally. And so, the last two years I was at Smith I still acted, but I but directing was my focus and I really, really worked to, you know, to learn.

Peter Schmitz
What did you . . .?

Mary B. Robinson
Well at first show I directed was a Chekhov one act, which was kind of delightful. Then I worked on Ibsen's Ghosts. Which was really hard.

Peter Schmitz
Yes!

Mary B. Robinson
But . . .  but I also actually directed Gilbert and Sullivan. I directed a Gilbert and Sullivan production of Princess Ida at Mount Holyoke and Ruddigore at Smith.

Peter Schmitz
So, as you're leaving college, then what's your next step if you decide to go pursue this professionally?

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, I wanted to. I thought I could try to pursue directing professionally. I didn't know how to go about it. I also didn't know what the long-term aspect of it would be because I thought I don't want to be itinerant for the rest of my life. You know, I know at some point I would. I knew I would probably like to 

have a family and settle down. So, in March 1975, just my senior year, the theater department had a panel discussion called “Regional Theater: What Is It and Is It For You?” And it was, you know, some real luminaries. Several artistic directors, including Zelda Fichandler from the Arena Stage in Washington. And I knew about her because we in two for two years, from ‘61 to 6’3. We actually lived in the DC area and my parents were subscribers to the Arena Stage. In fact, I've still got my  . . . the programs my mother saved. I've been looking them over lately and there were other people speaking there too.

But she was just completely inspiring. She was about 50 at the time, about the same age as my mother. And I, you know when she talked about running a theater, I knew she had children who were about my age. Her husband was the managing director of the theater, and I thought, oh, this is what I want to do! This is it. There, there you go! So, for 15 years I went out into the world, and you know, directed where I could and sort of did all sorts of things. But always my goal was to be the artistic director of a regional theater.

Peter Schmitz
So, but you got an early start at Hartford Stage, not far away from there, with . . .was that right out of college?

Mary B. Robinson
Not . .  no, I was five years out of college. It was a very long five years. I went to . . . I delayed going to New York for a year. I worked in regional theaters as like, directors, assistants and so forth and had survival jobs and then I went to New York. I thought if I want to get a job at a regional theater as a director or on these artistic staff, I've got to build some credits in the place to do that, that is New York, because there was so much going on in the off-off-Broadway movement at the time. A lot of new theaters like Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights, Horizons, Circle Rep, Ensemble Studio Theatre. So, I moved to New York. When you're out of college and dot and read scripts - sometimes at first for free. While I had a survival job and then I actually made a kind of made a living reading scripts, I was paid 5 bucks a script and I read 30 a week or something so, and then, and then from there, at the age of 26 I went to the Hartford Stage. Because my marketable skill then was new plays and knowing playwrights. And I was hired as their literary manager.

Peter Schmitz
Did you go back to New York after that was over?

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah, I did. I was back in New York a fair amount anyway. I mean, it was an amazingly flexible job and Mark [Lamos], you know, let me come and go. I directed several plays. I directed a play at the early Vineyard Theatre. I directed the first regional theater I did, which was out at South Coast Rep. Other than Hartford, I should say - out of South Coast Rep in California, I did well, I was still, technically at Hartford, so it wasn't a man . . . After a few years, I stopped being literary manager and just was associate artistic director, so I didn't have to deal with all the scripts. I was just basically on the artistic staff and free to kind of come and go, so I directed about four or five plays there and didn't realize it at the time, but that was a great (I mean. I did realize it probably, but anyway) Hartford was a really great place to be, not just in terms of the exciting work that was being done. But people were. Looking at it and so people saw my work as a result of the work I did at Hartford and in New York too at the time.

Peter Schmitz
What was your sense of the larger trend in American theater? Basically, at that time in your life where you've generally feeling that the American theater, particularly the nonprofit regional theater like Hartford, was heading in a healthy direction, did you . . did you sense like: “This is good - but not as good as it could be?” What was your . . .?

Mary B. Robinson
No, I mean I, I mean Mark, if anything, was such an artist. To the point where he was almost dismissive of some of the other aspects of the job - audience development, and, you know, marketing and you know, community relations and those things. But what he really instilled in me, was the fact that an artistic director is not just a producer of entertainment. But an artist you know, even if that person doesn't direct. But of course, when that person does direct as Mark did, and as I did, and do (Mark does, still - he's now the artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut) the entire institution is . . . this is the Zelda Fichandler quote . . .  is a work of art. And so I would go to Theater Communications Group conferences, and I certainly saw that a lot of theaters were struggling to survive and doing or thought they were struggling to survive. I don't know. I mean, but for whatever reason they were doing crowd-pleasing work in order. To you know, keep going, get those subscription numbers up.

They want, you know, to have the size staff they wanted, and Mark basically said: “That's not my focus. My focus is the work itself and doing the most exciting work we possibly can, fueled by the artists who do it.” And the Managing Director and his staff, her staff, you know, figure out that part of.

It so that was kind of my template and when I left Hartford, I was I really had  . . . and with Mark they certainly lost a number of audience members. So I basically you know, left Hartford in 1985, thinking, well, that's what I want to do eventually is run a theater like Hartford. I should say Mark did lose little number of audience members - and then he got new audience members drawn to the kind of work he was doing, and that's kind of what happened in theaters around the country, I would say, in those years.

Peter Schmitz
But in those years, what was also happening was that most of the regional theaters - who would often have been built on a repertory model - that was the “R”, right? 

Mary B. Robinson

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter Schmitz
I tell my students, R was not for “regional” R was for “repertory” which is a  . . 

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah. 

Peter Schmitz
 . .  company. Most of the companies were discarding their regular company members - if indeed they’d ever had them. Did that discourage you, or encourage you? Or did you say, “Well, that's the way things is [sic]?”

Mary B. Robinson
Well, I always wanted to have an acting company, that just seemed to me . . . .  and that may too have been based on what Zelda Fichandler was doing in Washington. You know, I thought the fact that.

Company of actors who could have a life, you know, just for the same reason that I wanted to run a resident, she used to call them “resident theaters” - you know, “resident/regional/repertory” is what she would always say. That, you know, that they could be in residence as well - as could designers, as could you know, all the theater artists. She they used have resident playwrights at Arena. We talked about that at Hartford. I brought it up consistently because I was so passionately in favor of it.

Mark Lamos had actually come from a company, because he started out of the Guthrie as an actor at the Guthrie, snd so he knew all the benefits of a company. But he also felt there were limitations, and the limitations had to do with casting new plays. Because at Arena, by the way, they never had been very well known for their new play productions. Because I mean, a repertory company was/is a wonderful idea when you're doing Shakespeare and Chekhov and so and so forth. But we're only doing 5 plays a year in Hartford, and at least one of them was a new play. And it was hard on a writer to say (this was the case. Mark would make) to say: “We're doing your play, but you have to cast it out of this company.” In fact, we would sometimes do readings, and cast them out of the company that was currently in whatever production. And the playwrights would say, “Yeah, well, you didn't hear it read with an actor who was right for the role.”

Peter Schmitz
Right, so most of the prominent American regional theaters like the Alley, the Dallas Theater Center, the Milwaukee Rep, Arena Stage - as we've mentioned - had been founded or were being sometimes run by dynamic female artistic directors. Did you feel that the question of leadership by women in regional theatres was already a settled question? Or did you feel there was still a bit of a bar towards being considered as a leader of a regional company?

Mary B. Robinson
Well, by the time I was old enough to lead a company, it was . . .  I don't believe it was a bar. While certainly women were sort of at the forefront of this movement in the ‘40s and ‘50s, there were . . .  Irene Lewis was a role model for me. She was the associate director at Hartford Stage before I came and she actually ran the Philadelphia Drama Guild for a year: ‘80 to ‘81. But there was certainly a bar of directing. I did find at first there was like, “Oh, a woman director. Really?” And I thought: “Are you kidding me?” And I've been to Baldwin. I've been to Smith and you know, All Women! So, that gradually diminished, partly because there were so many of us that came out on the scene. Around ‘75, there was Sharon Ott, Emily Mann, Pam Berlin, myself, the older directors - slightly older directors - like Amy Saltz and Irene Lewis had a tougher time of it than we did. And so right around the time I was ready to run a theater which was in the late 80s, around 1990 . .  I did . . .  I felt that the theaters that I interviewed for, they were absolutely open to a woman coming in to lead.

Peter Schmitz
So you had in mind that he would like to be running a theater company, that was a career goal. You at that point had a major success in New York, A Shayna Maidel. How did that project come your way?

 Mary B. Robinson
It piggy-backed onto a project I did right out of Hartford Stage called Lemon Sky. Which is a very early play by Lanford Wilson which I had read and loved and talked with him about when he was up doing Three Sisters. And I guess it was the spring of ‘84. I was just out of Hartford, kind of wondering how I was going to, you know, support myself and where I was going to work and had pitched Lemon Sky to a bunch of different theaters.  And Second Stage decided to do it, and Lanford said he wanted me to direct it. And so that was huge, because that was very, you know, that was a kind of a big deal because it was Lanford Wilson. And so a lot of offers, both regionally and in New York, came out of that. And one of them was A Shayna Maidel, which you know they approached me about. I mean, in those years I sort of didn't have to look for work for a few years. It kind of came my way. So I was, you know  . . . I interviewed with the playwright and, you know, we hit it off. And they asked me to do the off-Broadway production of it, which is the first and only commercial production I've ever done.

Peter Schmitz
But how was that different, that production?

Mary B. Robinson
It was . . .  I didn't  . . . It was hard. I didn't like the approach of: “Yeah, the whole goal here is to make money and if we do a good piece of work at the same time, good for us!” -  as opposed to the whole goal is to make a really good piece of work and not lose a lot of money because we're a nonprofit theater - but we can't, you know, go too far into the red. Which was the, you know, what I've grown up on. The producers would say, “OK, what stars can we get in?”, and you know, present me with a list of stars who were completely wrong for the roles. I thought, “This is ridiculous, you know I can't get behind this.” But you know, I also don't want the show to close and everybody to lose their work.

It was a beautiful play, and I felt very proud of the production when it initially opened, and some very good people went into it - Amy Ryan. It was, it was her very first play (at the age of nineteen) that she did. But overall, you know, it was challenging.

Peter Schmitz
But just at that time - we're now up to about 1990, and we're finally going to get Philadelphia . . . 

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah, right?

Peter Schmitz
. . back into the story again, which is that our purpose here. You were, hired by the Philadelphia Drama Guild, which was at that point a well-established . . . although it had only been a professional theatre company for about 10 years - just to catch everybody up who's not up on it.  It had been started by Sid Bloom, a former Philadelphia dentist, as an amateur company. And it moved into the then newly-renovated Walnut Street Theatre in 1970 as a professional company, and was the resident company there for 10 years, after which point it moved out and it was taken over by . . um, I’m forgetting, by um Poggi . .

Mary B. Robinson
Alright, well was first taken over by Irene Lewis, for a year . . .

Peter Schmitz
Oh well, yeah, no you're right.

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, yeah.

Peter Schmitz
You're right, well it was run by . .oh, Douglas Seale . . and then by Greg Poggi, right?

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah, Doug Seale - still in the Walnut - and then it went to the Annenberg. Irene Lewis was artistic director for a year, and then she left. And Greg Poggi, who was the Managing director, took over as a artistic director . . 

Peter Schmitz
Gregory Poggi, yes, right, but he was, he was  . . he was a managing director type. He wasn't  . . 

Mary B. Robinson
That's right.

Peter Schmitz
 . .  he wasn't a theater director. So and that that's happened at other institutions that wasn't exceptional . .

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah, yeah.

Peter Schmitz
 . . I've heard of that happening other places where it's run by the business side essentially. But it had some success of the Walnut . .

Mary B. Robinson
Right?

Peter Schmitz
For various reasons, had moved out, I'll cover that elsewhere. It had continued as the subscription-based model at the Zellerbach Theater. So now this new newly built modern theater, a thrust stage at the Annenberg Center in the at the campus and University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia. So a completely different locale. But it had been able mostly to maintain its subscription base at that point, but it was now looking for a new direction. And so did they approach you - did they find you or was there a search going on?

Mary B. Robinson
There was a search and the hit the search. You know the headhunter was somebody that I knew from Theater communications group conferences, and he'd actually approached me about a few other jobs and this one just felt really right to me because it was so close. It was an hour and a half from where we were living in New York. I was newly married by then and did not want to sort of uproot our lives too much and go too far afield. That was important, too. Also, it was in a community I'd grown up in. And so he you know he contacted me and then I started in everyone with the search committee and eventually the whole board in the Fall of 1989.

Peter Schmitz
OK, but so by 1990, though, they announced that you were going to use a new artistic director. I've seen  . . I've looked at the newspaper archives, I've seen the articles and although the background of that. And you were married by then to the playwright Eric Brogger, right, and you had  . .  you had met him where?

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, Brogger, yes yes. So we met in 1982 at a playwright conference in Chicago that we were both in. He was, he was. . .  I was working on his play as a dramaturg he was wonderful - was and is a wonderful playwright, but he was then teaching at Arizona and I was at Hartford. So, once we both moved back to New York as it happened in 1985, we began dating and then we're married in ‘88.

Peter Schmitz
So, were you looking for something where both of you could go, and where you could both find a bit of a home there?

Mary B. Robinson
Well, I don't know that we were necessarily thinking that he would, you know, he would live full time in Philly because he was teaching at Hofstra University on Long Island as an adjunct at the same time. Right at the same time I got the job offer to go to Philly he was offered a full-time job at Hofstra. So, we had a split existence. We had a large apartment in Philly, and he kept his studio in the Village and you know, Tuesday morning he would leave Philly and go teach for a few days and come back Thursday evening.

Peter Schmitz
So that's something that hasn't been one of those things - I didn't see covered anywhere in the newspaper archives. It's just a question of your personal life that you have to manage when you're a theater professional.


Mary B. Robinson
Well, you didn't see it in the papers because of course I wasn't talking about it. I very much didn't want  . . .  it was sometimes challenging, but Eric was great and we made it work. Until we had a child at the end of 1992 and it began way more difficult and I will just say I'll just say something 'cause I do want to talk about the personal aspect, 'cause it's some you know all these years later - I think especially women, sort of, women are kind of coming forth a little more with, you know, the challenges they faced. I actually did not take the job, once they offered it to me, until I had talked with the head of the search committee about the fact that we were trying to have a child. And I said: “And we're not going to stop trying, so I just have to warn you, I could get pregnant at any time.” And apparently . .  I talked to the headhunter first and said, I'm gonna . . . He said you don't need to tell him that I said I don't need to, but I want to. I don't.  . . So, what is he going to say? “No”? Of course not, you know. I thought . . and he was apparently kind of embarrassed by this information, but I think they'd figured it out. They knew I was newly married. I was in my mid 30s, you know. So lucky for the Drama Guild, I had two and a half years there before I gave birth. But life became much more difficult because then I was a . .  I mean, I was a single mom for several nights a week so, but it was, you know, we worked it out the way people did then and do now.

Peter Schmitz
Right, well that that is a very interesting side of things which I would like to return to when we talk about the overall story of your tenure at the Drama Guild went. But again, [it was] something I did not see much covered in any of the newspaper archives that I have been through. You mentioned right at the start - I did see in the newspaper interviews - that you said you weren't going to have a resident company that was  . . You felt that was a choice that you might want to make. But I'd like to hear your memories about specific projects that you worked on at the Drama Guild, that you produced. So you’re installed as the Artistic Director. Where was your office, where were you working?

Mary B. Robinson
Well, we had office is not the Annenberg Center bolt on Arch St between I think 17th and 8th St at 18th. Yeah, they're just sort of Center City, you know, not too far from the Franklin Institute and so forth. But you know, but but felt like offices did not feel connected with the theater - to get to the theater we'd have to you know, get on public transportation or whatever and get out to the Annenberg, so we're all back and forth a lot.

Peter Schmitz
Wow, so did they . . Was there an idea that said: “We're here now, but we want to move to another place eventually.” Was that always in their sights?

Mary B. Robinson
Absolutely, absolutely. And it was part of the discussions when I interviewed for the job there was there was even, already in the late 80s, talk of the Avenue of the Arts, and a sense that you know what are the what are the performing arts organizations that could that could find a home there. And because the Drama Guild didn't have its own space but rented out at the Annenberg, we were sort of the prime suspects for it, and the idea of actually being in on the ground floor of creating - and us also raising money for and then building a theater - was a huge draw. And the Annenberg Center, the Zellerbach Theater, which was a big theater, not a thrust stage, actually, at the time. It was a proscenium that could become a thrust, and we turned it into a thrust we said we've got to have it. There's such . . .It's so hard to make a connection between actors and audience and a thrust will help. And I was never crazy about the Zellerbach space, but I knew that we were going to be in it for a few years, and you know, really establish ourselves with a certain kind of work and then take that to the Avenue of the Arts, you know, then move. 

Peter Schmitz
But what challenges did it have besides it needing to be converted to a thrust?

Mary B. Robinson
Well, it certainly had acoustical challenges. It was a very wide. It was almost 1000-seat theater and even as a thrust it was very wide. In fact, Zelda Fichandler saw a production I did of Othello there and said she likes the work she said, but the theater is so wide that the energy sort of drains off to the sides.

And she said, “The audience isn't having the experience they should have, even though made they may not be aware of what's causing that,” you know? She was absolutely convinced that the space was a problem. And my feeling was, well, the space is a problem if we decide it's a problem. But maybe we can schedule work that really belongs in the space, like Shakespeare, which always did well there - August Wilson. A play like Moon for the Misbegotten, which is a small cast play but very powerful and really held the stage. So, it was a matter of doing work that would connect with the audience in that big sort of cavernous space.

Peter Schmitz
Right, there wasn't a separate studio space for you to do smaller productions in?

Mary B. Robinson
Not no, no. Carol Roccamora’s Philadelphia Festival for New Plays – Theater for New Plays - was in the smaller space in the Zellerbach. We did, in our final year there, produce both in the Zellerbach and in a theater nearby, which was a smaller space, and I loved that. But there is also some speculation that that could be one reason people didn't resubscribe 'cause they didn't want to go to that space. So that's  . . you know, who knows? Right?

Peter Schmitz
Well, let's talk specifically about things that you programmed and that you're working on, I'm. I'm selecting just some of the many plays you directed there. But one of your early productions was Boseman and Lena by Athol Fugard. Why did you choose that production early on?

Mary B. Robinson
Well, I felt it was a play that could really hold that big space because it's a small play with three characters, but it's about large things. It's about homelessness and male/female relationships. It's sizable and it has impact. I think a lot of people felt it was maybe not the right play to open with, but I was going to do a Shakespeare play, Midsummer Night's Dream, later. And I did not feel I had time to prepare it, because I was off doing other, you know, fulfilling other directing commitments, until August of the year I arrived there. So it was . .  but I but I think maybe I I loved working on it . . I worked with Seret Scott, who played Lena - terrific actor who now directs a lot. and a wonderful human being. I think some people were really moved by it and some people just went: “I couldn't get the accents. I couldn't connect to it. I didn't feel . . WHAT? Why is she doing this?”  So, and even some people on the board said this was really powerful, but I don't know about it's being in the very first slot of your first season.

Peter Schmitz
Oh well.

Mary B. Robinson
Oh, and one other thing I'll just say: the Wilma had a reputation for doing Fugard. And there was a little bit of questioning: “Well, well, why is she doing this? This isn't what the Drama Guild does.” And I so resisted that. I thought: “No, you can't define us like that. I really love this play and want to produce and direct it.” 

Peter Schmitz
And your mindset still is: “I'm looking at this artistically. This is where I am going to go as an artist and I'm going to explore this work and I'm inviting you to come along with me.”

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, exactly

 Peter Schmitz
“That's  . . . that's who you hired.”

Mary B. Robinson
Yep, exactly right!

Peter Schmitz
But you also are bringing in . .  you brought in your husband’s play, A Novel Life, which is about, as I understand - I have not seen it - So it's about a Jewish-American family, am I right about that?

Mary B. Robinson
That’s right, it's actually called A Normal Life and it's  . . 

Peter Schmitz
Forgive me, I wrote this down wrong . . .

Mary B. Robinson
That's OK, no that's OK. And it was.  . . .we had done it at  Seattle the previous summer. That's what I was busy doing until  . . . and I wanted to do it,  it was adapted from short stories by Delmore Schwartz.

It was a beautiful, tender, funny family play which just did wonderfully in Seattle, and which I really wanted to. . .  I wanted to do a new play at . . . in my first season, and I read a lot of plays and didn't like any of them as much as this. And so I finally said to the board, look, do you think that I shouldn't do this because I'm married to the playwright? And they said: “No, if you feel this is a play that you know belongs in this space and that you really want to, go for it.”  So I did. It was it actually worked really well on the Zellerbach stage, and the . .  It was a lovely rehearsal period both in Seattle and in the . .  and in Philly. The problem with that was: we opened the night that the first Gulf War started, and literally people were walking into the theater, listening to radios. And I had to make a curtain speech, we knew the bombs were about to fall, I mean, everybody's mind was on that and so that was tough. And you know that kind of colored the run for us but the . . .  You know a lot of people did write me and say how much they really enjoyed it and I never  . .  . I always felt very proud of the fact that we did it. It was just the timing was weird.

Peter Schmitz
Yeah, but so you go on to do a number of Shakespeares, including Othello and Midsummer Night's Dream. But I want to talk about a production of Macbeth you did - and you cast Andre Braugher, who was then recently out of Julliard. But I was not aware that he’d come down here to do Macbeth, rather early in his career.  Now talk about that, why you really wanted him in there and what you wanted to do with that production? 

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah, well, it was kind of hot on the heels of the Midsummer Night's Dream that I did. And as I said, maybe I did another Shakespeare too soon afterwards. Because you really do need time to let, you know, those plays sit with you. 

Andre’s then girlfriend - now wife - Ami Brabson was in Midsummer. So he had come to Midsummer. I auditioned him, and you know many other actors, for Macbeth - and just thought he was absolutely terrific. I believe he was only 29 at the time. He was very young, but he just had an authority and a charisma and a command of the stage and the language and the role . . . And so it was, you know what we then called “color blind casting”. You know, I don't think. . . I think people have long since realized there is no such thing. You know, and it was, you know. And so it was an interesting I . . A good friend of mine, said Clarence Thomas was having his, you know, hearings at the time and somebody said it made her think of that - it was like you know, everybody sort of brought to it what they wanted to, but my point was: the reason I’m casting him was that I thought he was by far the most exciting actor in the role.

Peter Schmitz
But this was before he had a a large reputation in television before he began doing TV shows, he think that if you had brought him in . . .

Mary B. Robinson
That's right, that's right, yes.

Peter Schmitz
. . post his television success there would have been a different reaction in Philadelphia.

Mary B. Robinson
Well, well to be honest, I didn't do a great job of that play.

Peter Schmitz
Oh!

Mary B. Robinson 
I will just be . .  I, I, I,  . . You know it's uh . .  it's uh . . . it's one of the best Shakespeare plays to read, but it's a really hard one to do. And I I've often seen not very good productions of Macbeth. Which, you know, I kind of learned the hard way. That yeah . .  I didn't have enough time. You know we never had enough rehearsal time. I think I made some. . . .We made some design decisions. I mean, I've worked with great teams. There's nothing against any of the actors or the designers. I think I did not run the ship as well as I ran the Midsummer Night's Dream. In a fellowship. I actually did Macbeth at Juilliard a few years ago, and Andre [Braugher]’s and Amy [Brabson]’s son was there, and I said to him he wasn't in it. He was a little. Older, but he saw it. And he said to me how much he'd enjoy it. And I really thought I did a good job with that one, with no budget whatsoever. You know, just people in the room. I said: “Oh yeah, the last time I directed this was 27 years ago and both your parents were in it.”

Peter Schmitz
“But I figured it out now!”

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, exactly yes!

Peter Schmitz
You also programmed two one-act plays by Milcha Sanchez-Scott. Who is a playwright whose work I'm not familiar with. But she was . .  she's . .  Uh, as we would say a Latinx playwright (but that wasn't the term that was in vogue back then). Why did you want to bring her work to the Drama Guild?

Mary B. Robinson
Well, I had worked with her at the Sundance Institute in Utah in 1986. I was invited out there to work on a play and I immediately said ‘yes’ not even having read the play. You know two weeks in the mountains of Utah? What could be better at the play was and not this one, but another one by Milcha. And it was just. This beautiful play that we loved working on together. So, you know, she was one of the writers I really wanted to bring. These were not new plays, but she came and you know, worked with us on them and it was just a totally different voice, that nobody in Philly knew. And we had, you know, a wonderful again, a wonderful design team. Alan Moyer was there - I was working with a lot of the time – he did this amazing thing with this play The Cuban Swimmer, which was one of the two plays where there is  . .this boat eight feet up in the air, a swimmer eight feet up in the air, near him on a platform. And just an amazing coup de theatre which we pulled off - and magic realism is the vein she wrote, and writes, in.

So again, I don't know that they attracted huge audiences, but I felt very proud to have done them.

Peter Schmitz
And then three other plays that I've written down here, which are more recognizable and standard. Misanthrope by Moliere: classic French, serious sort of moral comedy. You do Dancing at Lughnasa, which is the great Brian Friel play, which was a big hit on Broadway. You’d think that would have a lot of  . . . you know, attract a lot of interest, if there’s anyone who's interested in Irish theater. And then an American classic, Of Mice and Men. So, but, by that time were you dealing (I'm going to bring this back in there) . . .  were you dealing with the fact that you you're beginning to start a family?

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, in fact, with Misanthrope and Dancing at Lughnasa I have very . . .  but my most vivid memories of them, having to do with the fact that I was seven months pregnant. With Misanthrope, I sat there on opening night and Christopher was kicking a great deal - I didn't know he was Christopher yet, but it was like he was excited to be there too! Dancing at Lughnasa, he was ten months old and during one of the . . .  during the tech week when Eric had to be up teaching at Hofstra, a babysitter I we would use regularly got sick and I had to bring him to tech with me. And that's, you know, a very vivid memory of, like, you know, Alan Moyer, the set designer, put him to bed and one of the, you know, dressing rooms and we took a little baby monitor and put it on the stage manager’s table. He . .  it was very  . . . a lot of people who had families there at the time, and the fact that I was the Artistic Director meant that I did not feel self-conscious that I had to do this. It was just . . it was what it was. And Dancing at Lughnasa was a production I was extremely proud of and it did incredibly well. It was at the beginning of the time when we were having some difficulties. And so the fact that it did so well at the start of the ’93-‘94 Season was a big plus for us.

Peter Schmitz
It had a lot of single ticket or walk-up ticket sales, people were coming just to see that, . . . 

Mary B. Robinson
Exactly, that's right.

Peter Schmitz

 . . they, even if they weren't part of the subscription. OK, so the . . .  you were also beginning to work on work you weren't personally directing, but you were programming work by August Wilson, including Joe Turner's Come and Gone . . .

Mary B. Robinson
Yes.

Peter Schmitz
You brought in Walter Dallas, who was at that point at local Philadelphia director. He was working in Philadelphia. He was the head of the drama program at UArts. He's a well-known person in town. So, you brought . . .  and he knew . . . he had worked on August Wilson many times, he was  . . 

Mary B. Robinson
Actually not. I don't think he had. 

Peter Schmitz
Not by that time?

Mary B Robinson
No, I think his first August Wilson was Joe Turner.

Peter Schmitz
OK, yeah.

Mary B Robinson
Yeah. He’d worked at the Drama Guild a few times and I actually went up to Yale to see  . . . he did a show up at Yale Rep and I went to see that to get to because I'd gotten to know him, and I wanted to get to know his work, because I hadn't seen him at the Drama Guild. And, you know, we were just incredibly lucky that this phenomenal director lived and worked in Philadelphia. The following year we brought him in to do Spunk - a Zora Neale Hurston adaptation - and then he did Two Trains Running. And was supposed to do Of Mice and Men actually, which was which ended up being our last production. But he was . .  because of his great . . . the great productions he did of the two August Wilson plays he was  . . . Lloyd Richards got sick and he was invited to do the world premiere of Seven Guitars out in Chicago, which he did.

Peter Schmitz
I see. But he'd also . . .  the theater had received a special grant to support him. You got a big . .  a million dollar grant, it said  . . .$1,000,000 grant from the Lila Acheson Wallace . . 

 Mary B. Robinson
That's right, that's right.

 Peter Schmitz
 . . . Foundation, you know?

 Mary B. Robinson
Well, but we were, but he was already directing with us once a year before he we got the . . and honestly, I think a lot of the reason we got the grant was because we had Walter. And the grant enabled us to pay him a salary to be on the artistic staff - as opposed to simply, you know, a sort of an unofficial resident director, and, you know, good friend. The other things we did with the grant were, you know, a lot of, you know, community outreach efforts and [we] hired somebody especially for that: Marcia Pendleton. And you know, yeah, we were a number of . .  that was a huge, huge thing for us because we had already been making efforts in that direction. And that's where the grant recognized.

Peter Schmitz
Yeah, I noticed from the newspaper articles. I've been scanning that you - from the beginning - you were making very explicit statements saying, “We need to do more of diverse type of work, we need to be employing a broad variety of artists, we want to be involved with other communities besides the communities that the Drama Guild had traditionally been serving.” You were looking to expand the repertoire, you're looking to expand the audiences, you were looking to expand the type of material you were working on. Can you talk about your philosophy? That was . . . that is so much in the news now, but this is an old conversation as well. It’s been in the forefront for a long time.

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And it's even older than the 1990s . .  

Peter Schmitz
Of course.

Mary B. Robinson
 . . . because all of that was based on, obviously, personal belief, but the experience that I had at Hartford Stage. Because Mark Lamos and Bill Stewart as the Managing Director and I really, really, worked at Hartford to just make sure that the work was not all white. Just to be, you know, to include, you know, African American voices, playwrights. You know, to cast . . . as I said, colorblind casting (nontraditional casting as we called it back then) the classic plays. You know we were really, we.  . .  I mean there's yes, this is a conversation that's been going on for decades. That's, you know, it's very much on the front burner now. As it should be, and as it should have been all along. But so, I just basically carried that philosophy, which I was very rooted in, into the Drama Guild.

Peter Schmitz
There was an intention to build a relationship with the local black audience in Philadelphia, and by that time Philadelphia had, within the city itself, I think, by that point had a larger African American population than it did a white population and again it had a significant Latino population, a significant Asian population . .  How did that go? How did you  . .  .you were putting distinct efforts into it. What happened?

Mary B. Robinson
But you know? Really, I mean it . . .  it  . . . you know, single ticket-wise it was incredibly exciting. When we would do an August Wilson play or Spunk. And by the way, they were incredibly well done by Walter. I mean they were absolutely the rival of the New York productions. No question. Wendell Pierce played the lead in Joe Turner, 26 years old, unknown at the time, you know it was really . . . those were really superb productions, that I was so proud to be associated with. And the single ticket buyers - lots and lots of African American theatergoers came to those. And the point of the Lila Wallace grant. . .  'cause can we, you know, turn single ticket buyers into subscribers? That's much harder to do and every theater around the country, I think, who has made these attempts has found that. That's not in and of itself a bad thing, but it's uh, but it's a challenge. Subscription is, yeah  . . . 

Peter Schmitz
What first, why was that? So, by this point you must have been getting schooled a lot because you were having . . the subscription rate kept falling, as I would read from these articles. Each year you would have a drop in the number of regular subscribers - and I'm assuming these were mainly the older subscribers, and mainly White subscribers, who were often coming in from the suburbs. Were those the people you were losing?

Mary B. Robinson
Do you know, we never knew. I think it would have been so good if we could have done a survey about, well, who are losing? Why are we losing them? I mean, before I even mounted a single play, I got a phone message from somebody when I announced the first plays we were doing, which were 

Midsummer Night's Dream and Boseman and Lena. They said: You've got to do plays by Miller and Williams from the 30s. And I kind of laughed to myself like: “They didn't write plays in the 30s!” But in fact, I think that's what the audience may have wanted. Was just more . . .  Now, I have to say I think the subscription audience loved the August Wilson plays, because they're very accessible. And so, I don't think we were losing subscribers for that reason, but we were losing subscribers for the reasons that, you know, we were still doing, you know, new unfamiliar plays, in addition to the . . . I mean the Shakespeare always sold really well, and got great school groups and so forth. Honestly, Peter, the problem is we never really did find out why we lost subscribers. And it wasn't . . .  sometimes because we actually . .  the attrition rate was not so bad after our weakest season, which was the ‘93-‘94 season. So go figure. . . maybe it was the ‘92-‘93 season, excuse me! So, you know, maybe it was they didn't want to see the plays that we were about to do. I don't know made it in well, you know, we just never really found that did.

Peter Schmitz
You . .  so nowadays you might have called in a Consulting Group, and they would have done a focus group, where you've got all these demographic breakdowns . . .

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter Schmitz
 . . but that type of data mining wasn't necessarily available back then.

Mary B. Robinson
Well, I mean, we didn't. Have the Internet back then. A lot of things have been made much, much easier. You know we had to do everything with phone calls and writing, you know, I guess we started to have the Internet in the 90s, but not the way we do now.

Peter Schmitz
No.

Mary B. Robinson
And in fact, you know, this is maybe skipping ahead a little bit, but I did. I did feel when we had the really precipitous drop after the ‘93-‘94 season, which was the strongest season of all artistically and in terms of single ticket sales, we were kind of going OK. Finally, you know, we're really on track. And that was the year that started with Dancing at Lughnasa, had Two Trains Running  - huge, huge hit and also Othello, which did very well. And so then 50% of the audience didn't want to come back! And we could not figure it out. And I said to the board, “Let's do a survey, and if it's because of the work, then I'll step down.” Because I didn't, I don't, you know, water down the work. I'm trying to do the most populist plays I can really get behind as an artistic director, but I what I said was: “We're all guessing. We don't know why the subscription rate is so low. So, once we find out, then we'll know what to do.”

Peter Schmitz
Then what did . . .  Did anyone parse it at the time? At that point, the Walnut is beginning to increase its subscription rate exponentially. It's the (correct me [if I’m wrong]) very local audience based on “It’s old,” you know, it's: “We can sell the fact that this is the city's Oldest Theater” - even though it had been very much architecturally transformed. It would sell its reputation. “This is where . .  this is Real Philadelphia” or location. And when I read accounts of what older audience members who are regular subscribers are, they go, “You know what's great there? The parking. .  you can park right next to the theater. Just walk over!” People who are coming from out . . .  at that point, there wasn't a large number of people living in the city itself.

Mary B. Robinson
That's right.

Peter Schmitz
Now there's a lot of people who are empty nesters who are returning, and they're building huge new apartment buildings in Center City. And they move back to Center City - and they can walk just a few blocks to a theater. But then it was always a question of where you're going with your car, where you're putting your automobile. And the fact that they .. . .  it reassures them so much. You can park right next to the theater and walk right over. 

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah.

Peter Schmitz
And, but at the Zellerbach there is, I think a . . parking garage across the street which you have to cross this busy strett to get there. There's no real neighborhood there. Did that . .  Anyone mention things like that?

Mary B. Robinson
I mean, yes, we all thought that. It was a very big part of it. We absolutely did. And I will say the other thing that happened in the final year, which we never did finish, which was the ’94-‘95 year. We finally decided that we were not going to be stuck in the Zellerbach. We were going to do three shows in the Zellerbach, which were the right shows, the big shows. And we rented the space at MTI, which I don't remember where that stands for, but it's a converted church. Right in the same neighborhood, just around the corner. You could even park in the same place, but it had church pew seating and you know, maybe 500. So we would do the 1st, 3rd and 5th show in the Zellerbach, and the 2nd and 4th show at MTI with slightly longer runs, to accommodate the subscribers.

It is very possible that a number of subscribers went: “I don't want to be uprooted like that. I like my seats in the Zellerbach. I've been there for years. It's familiar. Where are you making me go, I don't know where this place is, we  . . never again.” That was, that is a very possible reason. One of  . . . one reason why the subscription rates were low, because they looked at the brochure and they went: “Wait, they're doing some shows - not in Zellerbach, no thanks.”

Peter Schmitz
And, and the . .  let's return to this question again: You were able to attract Black theatergoers, on an individual rate, to come see the shows that appeal to them, but that didn't tend to transfer over into subscriptions . . . 

Mary B. Robinson
That's right.

Peter Schmitz
 . . they weren't going to do that.

Mary B. Robinson
That's right.

Peter Schmitz
So like, was this something they needed, or wanted to support on a broader basis?

Mary B. Robinson
That's right. Yes, and I will say one other thing that I'll say and this is this is something I've sort of kept to myself, but I I am thinking about it. So the final year, the plays - we announced four: Ain't Misbehavin’ you know the Fats Waller musical. We felt that it was, you know, doing a musical would sell tickets. And I thought, OK, it's got to be something I really want to do. That's a small, very interesting, delightful piece. We . . .  later on, Walter Dallas was going to direct Of Mice and Men. And then we also did this play by Mustafa Matura, a Caribbean playwright, that Seret Scott was going to direct, called Meetings

So our then our board president, in a one-on-one meeting, said to me, “I wonder if the subscription rate is low because our subscribers think you're doing too much Black work.” And I said “No, no, absolutely not.” And he said, “Well, Walter is directing Of Mice . .” And I said, “But you know, he's doing Of Mice and Men! It’s just, you know, Walter Dallas shouldn't have to just do the “African American Slot,” right? But you know, but two of the five plays were all-African American casts. You know, at the time I was sort of appalled that he would even suggest this, and now I think: “Well, I suppose.” . . . We shouldn't . . He said, at the time, “There are a lot of prejudiced people out there.” And I thought, you know, 'cause I was . .  I was very, very resisting of that as a possibility. But, again: We don't know, and even if we done the survey, we might not have found that out, but .. . 

Peter Schmitz
Right, well, reading. . .  that would be my guess. I mean, again I wasn't there, and I wasn't paying attention to it at the time [to see] what was going on in Philadelphia. But looking back over what I find in the journalistic record, It's . .  into that, but I haven't found an article that explicitly addresses that, yet. Maybe I just haven't read the right thing.

Mary B. Robinson
No, I mean no, I don't think any article would because I don't think people would. You know if people weren't re-subscribing . . . they would not  . .  They might say: “I didn't think the plays looked all that interesting” or something.

Peter Schmitz
Right.

Mary B. Robinson
They would not . .  they would not come out with that.

Peter Schmitz
It was just a club that they didn't feel like they wanted to belong to, right?

Mary B. Robinson
Possibly, but that, but that's interesting that that's something that occurred to you too, yeah.

Peter Schmitz
Yeah no, I  . . definitely. I mean I grew up in America. So, I suspected that I know what’s there. So, let's, let’s . . .  I want to go through this quickly because I know it's a big thing in your memory, but it's important. At some point they told you that they weren't going to renew your contract, at that point.

Mary B. Robinson
Well, I kind of got wind of it at the board meeting in which I said we needed to do a survey. And that, you know, that we were all guessing that there were all sorts of possible reasons. So, let's find out the actual reason or reasons, and then if the work is the problem, I would step aside. So  . . and they all kind of nodded. And then they acted as if I'd already resigned, at that meeting.

So, I saw this coming. And I actually called Zelda Fichandler, whom I knew somewhat - not very well. She had left Arena in ‘91 and she was then the, you know, the Head of the Graduate Acting Program at NYU. She had - and has - at whatever sense, lived in Philly, and she had seen some of the work. And weighed in on the Zellerbach, and she had me fax (because we faxed back then) my artistic statement. You know - several pages! And, and to her. And then we talked  . . my recollection is we talked most days for about a week. And she was incredibly helpful about how I should conduct myself at these board meetings and not be apologetic, but insist that they do the survey. And it wasn't it was amazing what she what she told me and if I'd heard it a few weeks sooner,, I always feel maybe the outcome would have been the same, but I would have felt better about my role in it all. So I was asked to have a one-on-one lunch meeting with the Board President. And I kind of went in armed with Zelda's, you know, words ringing in my ears. And he said: “We don't want to renew you.” The end of it. He's anyways said, you know, complimentary things about the work. He said, “it's not attracting the subscribe the subscription numbers we need and so we have to make a change.” And I said, “OK, but because we've just come off a strong season, I think this is going to be perceived as, you know, a bad move, bad, very bad timing because” . .  And he said: “Well, you have to say you've resigned. We don't want to, we don't want it to be known that we're firing you.” And I refused. And I said, “I'm a very bad liar. I don't know what reason we would give. And, you know, I won't badmouth the company. I won't talk about, you know, I won't. . .  I won't say things that will endanger the Drama Guild.” He said, “Well, I don't think the theater will survive unless you say you've resigned.” And I I said, “I can't do that. I'm sorry. I will, you know, do whatever else you need me to do to kind of keep the theater going. I don't want it to go under. But I can't do that.”

And then they gave me a press release a few days later, that said I decided to resign. And I absolutely hit the ceiling and  . . as I felt I was, you know, I had to tell the staff I had to, you know it was. . . It was tough. It was tough. It was tough to be walk the tightrope of Let's Not Blame Them. They're doing what they feel they need to do. This is what's happening. We'll get through this. But then when I saw this, I . .  I . .  I said, I . . .  I said: “I wouldn't say this. And you can't . . you cannot say that I've . . . That I'm voluntarily resigning. Because I'm not.” 

So, it went out.

Peter Schmitz
It would have been easy for you, because you had a young child at that point, just to say, “well, I've got  . . I'm raising my family”, but that would have put a different narrative on it, you know? “Female artistic director can't handle children and work at the same time.”

Mary B. Robinson
Exactly, that that was in the back of my mind. And the other thing was, my mother had died. She was, um, had an illness that was terminal, and we brought her down to Philly in the fall of ‘93. Right when Dancing at Lughnasa closed. She was in a nursing home right near the offices of the Drama Guild. So, in the ’93-‘94 season, which happened to be a very strong season artistically, you know, I was also taking care of my mother. Not on a daily basis, not physically, but you know, emotionally and mentally, and, you know, all those things. She died in March ‘94, right when Two Trains Running opened.

And everybody . . . a lot of people knew this that I was dealing with, you know, the . . . the recent loss of a parent plus a child who was still less than two years old, plus running this theater. And I absolutely resisted saying “leaving for personal reasons.” Because it didn't feel fair to pretend that I couldn't handle it, when in fact I felt I was handling it quite well. And I also then subsequently thought: And it wouldn't have been fair to future women who want this kind of job. So, unfortunately, I do feel they were probably right. That if I'd played along, and said I resigned, maybe they would have made a go of it.

I'm not sure though, because there was no artistic director to raise. . .  You know, they had to start this emergency fund raising campaign. And there's no artistic director or artistic direction to do it with . .  and then I would be asked: “Well, what did you feel about this?” And I would have to play it very neutral and say, “Well, it's alarming. We didn't renew our subscribers, so this is what the board felt they needed to do.” And not comment on it. But I didn't pretend that had been my idea, no.

Peter Schmitz
Right. Wow. So, where . .  did you leave Philadelphia at that point, did you go back to New York?

Mary B. Robinson
No, no, we didn't. Once again, not for another year. Actually . .  it's interesting, actually Eric had gotten very fond of Philadelphia and the neighborhood. It was difficult. I thought . . . by the way, I took over Of Mice and Men. That was our last project, which was a wonderful . . .  Because I didn't want the theater to close, and I thought if I could do a strong production of that.  . .  That wasn't . .  so that was kind of the swan song. And then the theater closed in the winter of ‘95. 

No, I directed a play at the Manhattan Theatre Club later that winter, spring and I commuted. It was kind of crazy. And then that same play that at Manhattan Theatre Club. And then Sara Garonzik invited me to do at Philadelphia Theatre Company in the fall of ‘95. That was Three Viewings by Jeffrey Hatcher. And that was the first play I did at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. And then we moved to New York to Brooklyn. Sarah brought me back repeatedly to the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Peter Schmitz
Which is . . . thank you for bringing her name, because she's  . . because here's another local female artistic director, who had herself been through a near-death experience with her own company. She, her company, nearly folded in ’89. She'd managed to bring it back. It was then still in the Plays and Players, right? Now . . .  so still in its original space.

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, yes, that's right.

Peter Schmitz
It hadn't moved to the larger space yet. But she was . . .  it sounds like she came in to support you and find you things to do in Philadelphia right away, because she was like: “You’re available? I'll use you.”

Mary B. Robinson
Yeah, well I think she. . . she actually asked me to do . . .I think she saw Three Viewings in New York and said she wanted to bring it to Philly with me directing and I first said, “No I've just done it.” You know? But then as it became clear, we're going to stay in Philly longer, I thought, well, why not? I can cast it with some local actors, and I loved working on it. Working on some more of . . .  the playwright came and that started, you know, Sarah and I knew each other as, you know, as peers and friends. But that started just a wonderful working and friend relationship for gosh, I think it was 20, more than 20 years that I worked there on a fairly  . . . I did 10 plays over a period of 20 years there.

Peter Schmitz
Right, I have written down just some of them that I was intrigued by you working on so, you started off with Jeffrey Hatcher's Three Viewings. And then you worked on Molly Sweeney, another Brian Friel play which is similar to Three Viewings in that it’s all monologues, right? 

Mary B. Robinson
Yes, that's right. Yeah yeah yeah, I love Brian Friel. That was a wonderful play to work on and again, I feel proud of that particular production. Tricky with childcare and so forth.

Peter Schmitz
Yeah, the we've also worked on This Is Our Youth in 2001 and what what was by that we're working with. Was it New York actors or Philadelphia  . . ?

 Mary B. Robinson
Yeah, yeah, yeah, so that particular play. . .  By that time Zelda Fichandler brought me in to direct several plays in the Grad Acting program and that play of course is a 3-character play by Kenneth Lonergan. Wonderful play with three, you know, high school students. And so, all three actors I used were recent graduates from the program with whom I'd worked in the late ‘90s. And it was, and so they all knew each other and had a wonderful rapport. That that happened to be a play that we just cast with New York actors. But the other plays, most of the plays I did, we did a combination of New York and Philly actors.

Peter Schmitz
Right and now so you did , was it . . how many productions have you done with PTC?

Mary B. Robinson
I counted them, and there were ten actually, yeah. 

Peter Schmitz
Ten, right. I . .  by that point I'd actually met you, 'cause I came in as a understudy for Outside Mullingar. And I suddenly got this call: “Can you learn this part in a week?” 

Mary B. Robinson
Right?

Peter Schmitz
And . . . but I was so impressed.

Mary B. Robinson

But then I felt it was really important, to give you all the support you needed or wanted to do that.

Peter Schmitz
It was amazing for me, but I really felt supported.

Mary B. Robinson
That's great.

Peter Schmitz
Those two shows that I went on . . of course then I'm working with my friend Tony Lawton as my son, which is hysterical.  . . . 

Mary B. Robinson
That’s right. Yeah.

Peter Schmitz
. . Yeah, you know, we're not that far apart in age, which - yeah, but that didn't matter in terms of the show, it went well.

So overall now: You had such, uh, you have such a long perspective on the history of Philadelphia theater. When you look at where Philadelphia is now, as opposed to where Philadelphia was as you were becoming aware of the theater World: Philadelphia in the 1960s and 70s was still very much a try-out town for New York. So, there were always big stars coming in, always big productions coming. And Philadelphia audiences seem to have expected that in terms of their entertainment, and that's  . . .  I've heard that mentioned as a reason why there was no large bastion regional theater company in Philadelphia, that there was in other large theater cities, because of its proximity to New York. Would you feel that's a fair analysis?

Mary B. Robinson
I definitely think so. I think Philadelphia audiences saw themselves, as . . .  I sometimes felt when I was there. That, you know, that there was some work that was done that was, I thought, as good as if not better than . . .  I mean the Two Trains Running and the Joe Turner, right, for starters - as good as the productions I saw New York, which were also terrific. But I felt that there is sometimes a little bit of a wellm because of the proximity to New York, you know, maybe on the part of some people. I don't want to generalize, but a lack of understanding that the homegrown work here, whether it's, you know, actors from Philly, New York, both, a combination . . . can be just as good as the New York work - just because it's here doesn't mean it's inferior. 

I also think that by the time I came along in 1990 there were a lot of very grassroots theaters, like People’s Light, like Wilma. The Arden was starting out. Philadelphia Theater Company, as you say comeback.  . .  You know, really made this amazing comeback, you know there were other theaters in the Philadelphia area that we're doing really vital, exciting work. And there may have been less of a feel that there is a necessity to have this kind of flagship theater. As opposed to the Arena. You know when it started out, that was the only game in town for 30 years 35 year. As opposed to Hartford, where now there's the Hartford Theaterworks, but when I was there in the 80s there was nothing except some college theater and community theater in Hartford. So Philadelphia did have other options. And I think that not unfortunately, through their Drama Guild, but through these other theaters I absolutely feel in the decades since I've been gone from, you know, living and working in Philly, the audiences, you know, grow loyal to a specific theater or specific company. A specific aesthetic. A specific location. I think that there is . . . I remember Dan Shay, our managing director. When I first arrived, said as we looked at these terrible subscription numbers, we hadn't put on a single play, he said, “I think the support for the Drama Guild is very widespread, but only a quarter of an inch deep.” And I think there was a lot to that. I also think that these other theaters I just mentioned had found, in the years since, that their audiences are very loyal to them and identify with them and feel a part of a community when they go there. And I I think it was hard to create a community at the Zellerbach and the Annenberg. Again, I take some of the blame on that on myself. I feel as if I did a fair amount of things the first couple of years and started some . .launched some initiatives. It did, I will just say candidly . .  it became more difficult when my personal life got so crowded with some . . You know, my mother and our son. I couldn't be out and about as often as I was in the first couple of years. But I think I think the Philadelphia did just from what I've seen . . being at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, you know, back there over the period of 20 years. It was very exciting to see the audiences recognize that there’s this “created just for you” aspect of the other productions done at these various theaters.

Peter Schmitz
Well, that that is all such wonderful insight on what's going throughout Philadelphia. Let's just wrap up the interview with what happened then in the rest of your life. You moved to Brooklyn – I think you and your husband areboth on the faculty? . . . 

Mary B. Robinson
I taught for many years at NYU. I ran an undergraduate directing program at NYU. I also have taught - I did that for 18 years, and simultaneously, for now 23 years, I've taught in the MFA directing program at Brooklyn College. But sometimes I direct off-Broadway in New York - but not nearly as often as I directed in academic training programs and at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Peter Schmitz
Well, Mary, thank you so much. This has been more than I could have ever asked for in terms of your openness, your insight and the information you've been able to share with us. Our listeners are very grateful for you joining us today and for your generosity of spirit in doing this interview with us. So I'm going to . . 

Mary B. Robinson
My pleasure.

Peter Schmitz
 . . Thank you. I'm gonna stop the recording. I'm gonna sign off. And if you have any people back in Philadelphia want to give a special shout out to?

Mary B. Robinson
Harriet Power and Bob Hedley definitely, haven't seen them recently. Some of my favorite people, Barbara Silsey, Sara Garonzik. Chris Colucci - love him!

Peter Schmitz
There we go. We all love Chris! All right, thank you Mary, and I'll stop. Thank you.