"This absolutely was my decision," Douglas told me by phone this afternoon.
The reason? "The approach to the work that I have differs so markedly from what has gone before that it just felt the compromise was too great," said the soft-spoken 50-year-old director. "What we all did have was the same goal for the work, for the impact of the work and the integrity of the work. It literally is just the way we came at it. I finally realized that it was pushing too hard and the company at large couldn’t sustain it. With the resources that we had, the financial realities of producing theater, it just seemed clear to me that it was going to be too hard of a struggle and I decided it’s just not fair to any of us."
A lack of artistic rapport was apparent in Douglas's ambitious first production with Remy Bumppo, Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Elektra. "Written as a trilogy, updating the Oresteia to Civil War-era New England, MBE is a shaggy, lumpy, self-consciously Freudian beast even in the 'fast-moving' three-and-a-half hour adaptation Douglas uses," I noted in my Reader review. "Bumppo stars like David Darlow, Annabel Armour, and Nick Sandys aren't suited to it and come off looking marooned."
Their difficulty isn't all that surprising when you consider that Douglas had never even seen a Remy Bumppo show when he became the company's AD. And yet the prospect of working with strangers was initially part of the thrill. "It was a huge leap of faith," Douglas recalled. "That’s one of the reasons I said yes—because it was so extraordinary that both sides were willing to be so game.
"But there are some practicalities about it that we’ve learned."
One of those practicalities involved having to develop a working relationship on the fly, while staging a show. "We really started at zero in the deep end of the pool," Douglas said."There was a clarity that was wanting. We speak different languages in approaching the work. I brought what I knew, and those who have worked with the company before brought what they knew, and it took us a long while in that first process to find a common language. And that was a marker for me—to realize that, wow, this requires more time and more grace and more finesse than I felt the company at large could afford. That spirit of compromise felt like asking too much from both sides."
Douglas's appointment was a breakthrough in the context of a theater community where integration has been slow in coming. An African-American, he was taking control of an essentially white troupe. I asked if race figured in to his problems at Bumppo. "We are all deeply influenced by our cultural specificity, from birth through how we were raised and how we come to learn about ourselves as artists," was Douglas's delicate reply. "So there are are inherent differences, absolutely. I think it was a part, energetically, of the overall challenge of finding one another, but certainly not the prevailing one. I don’t feel on a personal level that anyone was actively attempting to make me feel [ethnically isolated]. But as the cultural specificities became clearer to me, it was much larger than I’ve ever experienced in my career before because it was the first time I was in a position of leadership."
Douglas said he has no immediate plans. He'll remain in Chicago for now, and if he gets work, he may stay.