In the late 1980s, while teaching at SUNY, I had the honor to help and advise two remarkable theater students, John Ortiz (Silver Linings Playbook) and Stephen Adly Guirgis (Pulitzer finalist, The Motherfucker With the Hat) in the creation of a new theater in New York City. It was their deepest passion, and they were not to be stopped. Their company, Labyrinth Theater Company, arrived in a hurry and has made, in 20-plus years, a significant impact on the NYC institutional theater movement. Early in their evolution, Ortiz became co-artistic director with Phillip Seymour Hoffman (they had worked together in a Peter Sellers deconstruction of Chekov, A Sea Gull), and their significant contribution to the canon of gritty muscular plays of depth and substance was under way (In Arabia We’d All Be Kings, Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, all directed brilliantly by Hoffman). Phillip by now was a rising, sought-after character man in film with Scent of a Woman, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and many others to his credit.
In the Spring of 2002, Ortiz called me (I had just returned from working in Hollywood and was running a small entity called Saratoga Stages, dedicated to development of new plays) and said that they had lost their home for their Summer Intensive, at which they developed dozens of plays over two and a half weeks with their full company roster of more than 100 actors, and “did I have any ideas about where they might work?”
I quickly forged a relationship with Special Programs at Skidmore and the Dance Studios behind the Dance Museum, and both were willing to host. The one remaining task was for me to come to London to meet Hoffman and see if the energy was a “fit.” They were in the final stages of their most visible project to date, the transfer of Jesus Hopped the “A” Train to the West End at the Donmar Warehouse. Phillip’s direction of this play is, to this day, one of my five favorite outings by a director.
Philip was kind, quiet and deeply intimidating. I knew immediately that he did not suffer fools, and somehow we managed to bond over our shared respect for writers and actors. I was struck immediately by a gigantic power in him: a reservoir of the full array of emotions lurking just behind his eyes . . . his soul was right there, and in a flash was both opaque and transparent. This was a deeply sensitive man. They agreed to come to Saratoga, and I had the pleasure of watching his masterful leadership, of people, of the evolution of material of reluctant and blocked playwrights. He was patient and understanding with the many, many artists who sought his counsel. He sought me out on many occasions, wanted to know what I thought and what I saw. I was so very proud of this association with this remarkable company and with a man who I could tell had an important future—and possibly, just possibly, was too rarefied for what might be on the way.
I was fortunate to catch much of his direction, and he was one of the all-time greats. Seven years after their stay in Saratoga, his Jamey Tyrone on Broadway in Long Day’s Journey Into Night was definitive. However, I lived my entire life to see the Mike Nichols production of Death of a Salesman with tickets provided by Stephen Guirgis. Hoffman’s Willy was towering and epic, transcendent and sadly prophetic. I had asked for backstage passes to offer my congratulations, and was told by a friend, “Phil is having a rough time now and is not seeing any visitors.” I fully understood. Willy Loman is a journey like no other, one Phil was brave enough to take. . . . He drives his car into a wall, the allure too great, the demons too feral and insistent. There will never be another.
Bruce Bouchard is the co-founder and former artistic director of Capital Rep (1981-1995) and is currently executive director of the Paramount Theatre, a year-round National Historic Landmark presenting theater in Rutland, Vt.