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The movie "Fences," a leading contender for the Oscars, is based on a play by August Wilson that got its start at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn. This season, Yale Rep is celebrating its 50th anniversary as an incubator for many of today's leading playwrights. Jeff Lunden has more.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Here's James Earl Jones in the original production of "Fences."
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FENCES")
JAMES EARL JONES: (As Troy Maxson) It is my job. It is my responsibility. You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house. You sleep your behind on my bedclothes. You put my food in your belly because you are my son. You are my flesh and blood, not because I like you.
LUNDEN: The late playwright August Wilson told NPR in 1991 that Yale Rep was crucial to his work.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
AUGUST WILSON: For me, 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've constantly worked to reward that faith that has been placed in me.
LUNDEN: Yale Rep not only premiered 6 of Wilson's 10 plays about the African-American experience but ensured that he could refine them by getting the plays staged in theaters across the country.
Yale is different from other nonprofit theaters in several ways. 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, says James Bundy, who, like all of his predecessors, serves as both dean and artistic director.
JAMES BUNDY: 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.
LUNDEN: Students go to classes from 9 to 2, then spend their afternoons and evenings doing everything that goes into staging a play. Actress Dianne Wiest recently starred in Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days" at the Rep.
DIANNE WIEST: My costume was made by a brilliant student. The stage manager is a student. The assistant stage manager is a student who was down in the pit with me, you know, giving me a line.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HAPPY DAYS")
WIEST: (As Winnie) Just to know that in theory you can hear me even though in fact you don't is all I need.
LUNDEN: One of the students who graduated from the Yale School of Drama is stage and screen star Liev Schreiber.
LIEV SCHREIBER: I mean it's such an incredible history, that theater. And you know, just to walk around the halls and see pictures of Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards and Morgan Freeman and Meryl Streep and the remarkable Paul Newman...
LUNDEN: And remarkable playwrights like Danai Gurira, who's had three of her works done at Yale Rep.
DANAI GURIRA: 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 whose review comes out when, et cetera, et cetera. 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.
LUNDEN: One of the stories Gurira refined at Yale Rep was "Eclipsed." It eventually moved to Broadway starring Lupita Nyong'o, who was a student understudy at the theater.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ECLIPSED"
LUPITA NYONG'O: (As The Girl) I don't know. I just think we should know who we are, what year we got, where we come from. This war not forever.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) But that's what it feel like.
NYONG'O: (As The Girl) Yeah, but it not.
LUNDEN: 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.
PAULA VOGEL: New Haven is exceptional in the conversation I have with audience members. People come up. They want to engage in a conversation. They write me long letters. They go out, and they have coffee and cake, and they discuss the play. They want to be engaged in the conversation. They're not looking for the next play on its way to Broadway.
BUNDY: Which is where "Indecent" is headed this spring. Still, artistic director James Bundy says it's a play that really fulfills Yale Rep's mission.
BUNDY: 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.
LUNDEN: A new play called "Imogen Says Nothing" opens at the Rep this Friday, and an exhibition of photographs from the theater's 50-year history has just opened at the Performing Arts Library in New York's Lincoln Center. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.
(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "OXFORD COMMA")
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