Arts & Culture » Arts

Exit Interview

Saying farewell to Ovations! Series artistic director Evy Warshawski


During the week that the musical Titanic sinks at the Fox every night — a disaster about a disaster — Evy Warshawski visits the offices of the RFT and empathizes with the unlucky audience members who forked over their hard-earned entertainment dollars for a show that left their thoughts by the time they reached the parking lot. "That's what's sad about the business these days," she muses. "How many people won't go away feeling fulfilled or thinking about it the next day?"

For the last 10 years, as artistic director of the Ovations! Series at Washington University's Edison Theatre, Warshawski has been making it her duty to present performances that leave audiences with plenty to think about, to talk about, to argue over, to be fulfilled and overcome by. She's brought to St. Louis both unfamiliar, undiscovered artists and recognized performers and groups who, before Warshawski came along, most thought would never come here. Bill T. Jones, Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham, Bill Irwin, Spalding Gray, the Guthrie Theater, Joshua Redman, Don Byron, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Ricky Jay, Maurice Sendak: a select list of prestigious names that is now part of a legacy for someone else to build on, because Warshawski has chosen to leave St. Louis and Ovations!, taking a position as artistic director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. "I'm going because it's time, it's time, it's time," she says.

Warshawski came to St. Louis from the San Francisco Bay area in 1989, hired by the chair of Washington University's performing-arts department, Henry Schvey. Schvey himself had only been in his post two years when he was given a mandate to strengthen the school's programming. Schvey gave Ovations! its name and gave Warshawski a directive for an eclectic performing-arts series, one that would range from "classical to contemporary," balanced between the disciplines, with a significant educational component, and one that would enrich both the university community and the community at large.

"Innovation and diversity," Warshawski sums up the agenda, adding, "They weren't buzzwords 10 years ago."

And 10 years ago, the wild, experimental, sexually frank and politically charged work she had known in San Francisco wasn't about to be what she was going to deliver to St. Louis audiences. Coming here meant a "pulling-back, but not in a negative way, but looking at what would" — she takes time to consider the appropriate word — "translate to an audience in a different context."

Rather than find the local context confining, she found it liberating. St. Louis was a place where "it hadn't all been done, which was very nice to fall into. A place that was ripe for new things — that was exciting to me." Along with a list of the 150 different performing groups and artists Warshawski has presented at the Edison (with the support of various co-sponsors, most significantly Dance St. Louis), she brings some statistics to the interview. One stands out: 90 percent of Ovations! performances were St. Louis premieres.

She also brings along a clipping from a recent New York Times article on Lincoln Center and its artistic director, Andre Bishop. The mission Bishop was given at Lincoln Center, he says, was basic: please everybody all the time. Bishop has followed a separate agenda, one that Warshawski has highlighted: "Someone once said that being an artistic director is the intelligent exercise of one's own taste. And that's what I believe with all my heart and soul.

"If you start second- guessing yourself in advance," he concludes, "I think you're done for."

"It is an instinct," Warshawski concurs. "Andre Bishop is absolutely right. It's personal taste. But you've got to put your ducks in a row, and the ducks don't always line up.

"There have to be really solid anchors for the decision," she continues. "I have to have those anchors internally. I have to know that Philip Glass will do a Q&A for a cultural organization, which he did. I have to know whether Philip Glass will be available for a reception for donors, should they ask, which they didn't. I have to know that Philip Glass' music is being discussed and taught in the classrooms. There have to be a lot of reasons why Philip and why not someone else at this particular moment in our history.

"And usually it works. Usually in choosing the artist, these other things fall into place somehow. Don't ask me how. I can't tell you how or why."

She admits she hasn't always been so successful. She still admonishes herself for not preparing audiences more fully for dance maverick Merce Cunningham, two years ago. "People who were not taken with Merce came because they thought they should. They found it very confusing. Merce is an acquired taste, and I didn't do my homework. I should have sent every ticketholder — and I did with Ubu Roi (the notorious Alfred Jarry play, performed with puppets at the Edison) when it came — sort of a "What you are about to see and hear has a long history. Let me give you a piece of that history.' I should have written a letter about the music of John Cage. Ubu Roi has terrible language — I wrote and told them about that.

"We assume sophistication, and we shouldn't always."

For the most part, though, Ovations! audiences have embraced the new, the different, the unfamiliar. "I hope it doesn't come down as condescending in any way," Warshawski cautions, "because I'm learning right along with the audiences. I'm learning just as much, even though I'm familiar enough and secure enough to book it.

"The idea of this kind of programming niche at a university is to get people talking. I want people talking even if they don't like Merce Cunningham. When I see them out in the lobby talking about things like Oleanna (the explosive David Mamet play about a sexual-harassment case) — there were people in the hallway so long I actually had to turn the lights off. Adam Aronson (a patron of St. Louis arts and artists) I saw two days later, and he said to me, "Evy, I got to tell you, everybody hated that play. But you know what? Everybody's talking about it.'"

That's the kind of response an artistic director dreams of, but there are AD nightmares, too, those moments when she has had to make the impossible happen. "We've had our share of difficult," Warshawski says. She mentions the Water Puppets, an ancient art of Vietnam, traditionally performed on flooded rice fields. When the touring company came to Washington University, the Edison Theatre stage could not support the water needed for the pageant. Moving the event to the fieldhouse brought with it further complications — no water was to fall on the gym floor.

"The exotic flavor of all that was worth it," Warshawski tells herself. "Things are always fabulous in hindsight. They're always incredibly traumatic when you're going through them. You think, "I can't move the Water Puppets to the fieldhouse — I can't do it,' and you know you can. But it's the thought of it, putting it up in 48 hours before people come in."

Sleight-of-hand cardsharp Ricky Jay made for another set of complications. "He was only difficult before he got here," Warshawski says in retrospect. "He told us everything he needed — it's just that the list is so long.

"But you realize why when you see the show. I had seen it in Chicago on a lark — coldest day of the year in Chicago — but I had to see Ricky Jay. When I saw it, I thought, "There's no way in the world I'm ever going to get this show,' but I had such a great time. Then all of a sudden it became available."

One of Warshawski's ever-present obstacles has been the Edison stage itself. The sightlines, especially on the left side of the house, are notoriously bad. As for the stage itself, dancer "Mark Morris walked out onstage, fresh off the plane, and he went on the stage and said, "You have got to be kidding.' The second thing he said was, "I will not dance on this stage without a dance floor.' We had about eight hours to make it happen. We got a dance floor."

Someone with that much pluck is hard to replace. Sally Bliss, who as artistic director of Dance St. Louis has co-sponsored many events with Warshawski, wants Wash. U. to realize how special Warshawski has been before they choose a successor. "The most important thing about Evy is that, in an intimate atmosphere, she is the best presenter of performing arts in this country. She had an incredible mix. I'm not sure the powers that be understand what she did. I worry that they won't bring in a person that can bring Ovations! to the next level. They've got to continue that flow."

For the interim, Henry Schvey serves as artistic director. "This year is going to be very difficult," he says as understatement. Schvey must begin booking the 2000-2001 season now as he teaches full-time and chairs the department. "We'll get through it," he asserts. Dean of arts and sciences and associate vice chancellor Edward S. Macias will be assigning an administrative review to assess the program. "I feel the university remains strongly committed to the kind of vision that has been put forward," Schvey says assuredly.

Meanwhile, Warshawski is packing for the move north. Anything more she wants to add?

"Thank you, St. Louis."

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