Chapter One: The Mystery of Azubah J. Latham

August 1, 2018
From the Desk of Joshua Dachs:

As I said in my last post, I've been trying to understand the genesis of Arena Stage's unique and remarkable theater-in-the-round (designed by Harry Weese and opened in 1961 in Washington DC). To do this I've looked for its predecessors; theaters that had opened before 1961 that might have served as the model or inspiration for the building that Weese and his clients Zelda and Tom Fichhandler came up with and built, which is still in use today. In the process I've discovered far fewer precedents than I had imagined but learned about some amazing pioneers and personalities along the way, and that's what this series of posts is about -- the people, rather than the buildings that inspired the work. Because it turns out that theater-in-the-round was an idea that was passed like a torch from person to person in the early 20C along a surprisingly clear and traceable path. Later it would become something of a movement, but initially it was a very personal quest with disparate motivations.

The obvious place to start looking seemed to be Margo Jones' famous book Theater in the Round, published in 1951. I plan to talk more about Margo later in this series, but suffice it to say, her book is one of the earliest practical guides to producing plays in-the-round in western theater. Her account of the history of the form, then, which fills her first chapter can be imagined to be in some way authoritative. She wasn't producing a scholarly work, however, and while the book contains a lot of great information, some of the statements that interested me the most were tossed off without any explanation or attribution.  

Jones states, simply, that the very first use of central staging in America was at Columbia University Teachers' College in 1914, in a production called the Mask of Joy, directed by someone named Azubah Latham in the center of a gymnasium, and designed by Raymond Sovey. She says that Latham and a professor Milton Smith would continue to use the theater-in-the-round technique "for several years". And that's it. The sum-total of information. So, who was Azubah Latham? What was this production? What was its inspiration?

If you Google her you will find, as I did, dozens of sources in books and magazines that simply copied or paraphrased Margo Jones' two sentences without adding any additional information. How did Margo come to know about her almost 40 years later? It certainly wasn't from any readily available theater history texts that I could find.

The Azubah Latham story contains few facts and fewer insights. She was on the faculty of Columbia Teachers' College for 30 years starting in 1903, and for 20 of those years she served as the head of the Department of Speech. Despite this the Teachers' College Library contains no photographs of her whatsoever, and only a handful of her articles and citations.

She was born in Thetford, Vermont, in 1866,received her A.B. degree at Boston College in 1888, and a Teaching Diploma from the School of Expression in Boston in 1890. She spoke at conferences and authored articles such as "Audibility and Distinctness in the Speech of the High School Student". Her younger sister Helen, a contralto, was also on the faculty in the Music Department, and frequently sang at College recitals. According to the 1905 census, they shared an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near Columbia. I can find no record of either having married, and one is tempted to imagine the two sisters living together in that apartment well into the 1930s. Azubah wrote lyrics to patriotic songs during the first world war that are on file at the Library of Congress. She wrote poetry, which she called bad, and says it was only her ability to read them well that made people think they were any good. She retired from Columbia in 1933, died in 1952, and was buried in the town of her birth in Vermont. One article by an admirer of her work in a journal called The Speech Teacher in 1963 cites her as frequently saying "she would rather a woman get an 'Mrs' than a 'PhD'" and calling her stern but caring. The times were different, and she was certainly a creature of the 19C. But like a 19C Patsy Rodenburg she also seems to have focused earnestly on techniques to train every child to feel centered and confident in their own voice, which she viewed as a critical life skill.

Did Azubah love theater? Did she frequent Broadway in the 1910s, when the Little Theater movement was having its impact and actor-managers like Henry Miller and Winthrop Ames were finding their own way? Was she an early attender at the Provincetown Playhouse, where Eugene O'Neill burst on the world, which opened in New York just two years later in 1916? Was she a passionate early theater maker?

In an annual compendium of activities at the College in 1915, she wrote an article called "The Making of a Festival With Some Account of The Teachers College Festivals of 1914 and 1915" describing the creation of the Masque of Joy or Drudgery Transformed. It turns out, this was a practical exercise for the class in Plays and Festivals. At a time when diversity probably meant Episcopalians along with Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians, she writes:

"It had been the wish of the instructors that a Christmas festival be designed, suitable for use in the public schools, free from all sectarian limitation; this was given up as too difficult for a first effort on so large a scale, and New Year's Day was chosen instead of Christmas as the time or subject of our celebration. The first day of January falling always within our vacation necessitated the choice of a substitute day, but the New Year idea was retained and the festival was called the Teachers College New Year Festival although it was held on the evening of January 9, 1914."  (Just seven months before the outbreak of World War I.)

It was designed to give her students the experience of devising and preparing a Festival, as they might later be called upon to do in the primary and secondary schools they were being trained to teach in. They formed committees; seven to be exact. There was an Executive Committee, a Literary Committee, a Committee on Music, a Committee on Costume, a Dance Committee, a Committee on Stage Setting, Stage Management and Direction, and a Committee on Social Preparation and Business Management. It was decided that the proceeds of tickets sales and refreshments would go to the Students' Council For The Support Of A Professorship In The Christian College, Canton, China.

Latham penned the script along with Edith de Charms Seward about whom I know nothing. The script to The Masque of Joy; or, Drudgery Transformed seems to have been published by A. G. Seiler in New York (1914) and is listed in The Dramatic Index of 1915 (Frederick Winthrop Faxon, A.B. Editor, Harvard University). Along with her own description of that first year's effort, photographs and accounts of annual Teachers College Festivals in succeeding years can be found in later Teachers College annuals, which read like some sort Edith Wharton novel, or a young F. Scott Fitzgerald's diary entry, including cringe-worthy accounts of the elevator "boys" being pressed into service as human set-dressing to flesh out the procession. By our own standards the Masque of Joy and its subsequent Festivals would seem to have been a terrible night out, with costumed allegorical figures, faux medieval dancing and many choruses of "The Wassail Song," in which the health of the Dean and the Faculty was drunk from symbolic paper drinking horns. Nevertheless, the event seems to have left a sufficiently profound impression on someone that it was remembered almost 40 years later and credited with being a seminal event in theater history.  

In a 1916 edition of the Teachers College Record Professor Allan Abbott describes that year's version of the Festival and says "the experience of festivals of the past two years has shown the effectiveness of center staging, especially in a gymnasium in which the audience, both on the floor and in the gallery, surrounds the action. Center staging has the further advantage of bringing the performers into the midst of the audience, and so making possible that interaction between performers and audience that is essential in developing the festival spirit. In the plan, as eventually worked out, there were various features, such as the country dancing, the entrances of village spectators, the distribution of refreshments, the sinking back, after each episode, of the performers of that episode into witnesses of the next, that were definitely intended to weld audience and performers together."

For Latham, the point was to involve the audience in the action. Her article on the Festival, which is the only first-hand account we have from her, comes at it from the point of view that the purpose of a pageant or a festival is and has always been the mobilization and engagement of an entire community. To that end the requirement that all attendees arrive costumed, using the first portion of the evening to teach everyone some dances they would do together later, use of group singing guided by a master of ceremonies, processions through the space that everyone would join, and even all those damned committees were part of a strategy for creating a participatory experience, rather than a presentational one. The "actors" were used to guide and focus the activity of the entire community. That she chose to stage the set-piece presentational moments in the center of the room rather than up on some platform at one end seems a clear and almost inevitable extension of that intention. The notion of a type of experience that brings performers and audience into such close proximity that the lines between them are blurred, where they occupy the same space, breathe the same air, and stand side by side seems to have been at the heart of Azubah Latham's experiments. One can argue that this thread of thinking about central staging and the scale of it, involving hundreds of guests and celebrants from across the University would disappear for the next 50 years, supplanted by other compelling arguments in favor of central staging having to do with intimacy of scale, proximity to actors, a subtler and more naturalistic acting style, and the possibility of an economy of physical production. Latham's themes would eventually be picked up again in the 1960s in places like the Performance Garage in New York ("Dionysus in '69"), or by Jerzy Grotowski in Poland.

But how did Margo Jones hear about this work almost 40 years later? Was it Latham's eventual collaborator Professor Milton Smith? Was it English and Dramatic Literature Professor Brander Matthews, on the faculty from 1892 to 1924, for whom Columbia named its now-demolished theater? Was it Professor Minor Latham (no relation as far as I can tell) who starting in 1914 taught English and Theater a few blocks away at Barnard College to the likes of Helen Gahagan, Jane Wyatt, Ruth Gordon, Vera Allen? It's not clear at all, but I have a suspicion.

A student in the Art Department at Teachers College at the time was one A. W. Raymond Sovey (1894-1966). He is credited by Jones as the set designer for Masque of Joy in 1914, and while documentary evidence of this does not survive, we learn from a 1915 account of a college production of The Romancers that "a student in the Fine Arts department, Mr. A. W. Sovey, under the inspiration of the modern art-stage movement, designed original settings and costumes which were worked out in various departments of the college." Sovey would soon fight in WWI and survive. He managed to graduate from Columbia, acted for a while, and then worked designing huge pageants across the country for the Methodist Episcopal Board of Foreign Missions. He went on to a very successful career as a set and costume designer on Broadway, with dozens of productions to his name including Green Grow the Lilacs, Petrified Forest, The Heiress, Our Town, Witness for the Prosecution, The Butter and Egg Man, and even Animal Crackers with the Marx Brothers. By the time Margo Jones began directing on Broadway in the mid 1940s he was well established, and it is very likely that Margo, who seemed to know everybody everywhere, would have met him and discussed her nascent interest in arena staging, which she had learned about from sources I will describe in a subsequent installment. I can think of no more likely vector for this bit of theater lore than Raymond Sovey who had lived it, and we ultimately have him, I think, to thank for this first obscure and intriguing piece of the Arena Stage puzzle.