Adrian Hall, the founding artistic director of the Trinity Repertory Company, died Saturday at 95 years old. Just a few days later, Eugene Lee, a Tony award-winning set designer and Hall’s longtime collaborator, died at 83. Together, in partnership with the late composer Richard Cummings, they challenged people to rethink the relationship between the theater and its audience. Afternoon host Dave Fallon spoke with Trinity Rep Artistic Director Curt Columbus about their work, and the impact it had on theater in Providence and throughout southern New England.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Dave Fallon: This is The Public’s Radio. I’m Dave Fallon. The Providence arts community has lost two giants this week. Adrian Hall, founding artistic director of the Trinity Repertory Company, died Saturday at 95 years old – followed just a few days later by the passing of his longtime collaborator, award-winning set designer Eugene Lee, who was 83. The two left an indelible imprint on the local arts scene, their influence extending well beyond Rhode Island. Here with me now to talk about their life and work is Curt Columbus, Artistic Director at Trinity Rep. Curt, thanks for stopping by. 

Curt Columbus: Thank you for having me, Dave, thanks.

Fallon: First of all, tell us about Adrian Hall's impact on the theater and the arts in Providence.

Columbus: He was a giant by any measure, Dave, that's actually how I would describe it. He, he was a boundary breaker. The very first time that I met him, he kind of swept me off my feet, in terms of the stuff that we talked about. You know, every conversation with him was punctuated by, “don't don't even think about that, darlin!” You know, I mean, he was – he was just larger than life. And I think the thing that is so remarkable about him is, you had this gargantuan artistic figure – someone who is doing work that would have been outsize on any stage in the world in his time – and he had made a commitment to being here in Providence, Rhode Island, he'd made a commitment to the southern New England community and, and he really made a commitment to doing work that spoke to that community about the issues that were that other media didn't want to talk about. And so that's, that's really his genius.

Fallon: We're talking mid-60s. 

Columbus: Right. He arrives here in 1964. He's, you know, there's a piece called “Eustace Chisholm and the Works.” It had abortion rights in it, it had a gay relationship in it. This is in the early 70s, when these things were not spoken about in public ever, let alone dramatized in the media. So in addition to his aesthetic genius, which was massive and clearly deeply inflected by Eugene Lee's genius, it was his public – how do we even describe it? You know, he was a public intellectual, in the way that Oscar Wilde was a public intellectual, and he challenged people to think about the way they saw the world.

Fallon: I remember when things first started at the actual church. 

Columbus: Yes.

Fallon: Trinity Church on Broad Street. There were not only plays done by the original company, which also kind of cleaned the auditorium and took the tickets– 

Columbus: Yes. [laughs] 

Fallon: –and parked the cars, whatever, there were also lectures going on, about plots, about theater, open to anyone who was interested. 

Columbus: Yeah. 

Fallon: And then, as they move to bigger and bigger theaters, RISD theater, and then finally the Lederer Theater – that had to show community support, didn’t it?

Columbus: Yes … he understood that the event of theater extended beyond the events on the stage, right? That if you didn't have a holistic approach to everything, what you were doing on the stage actually didn't make a lot of difference. And, you know, that was so distinct from the way that other theaters thought about, everything was ticket sales, everything was, you know, what actor can we get from television, washed-up TV actor to put on stage. And Adrian just thought about it differently. He thought about the conversation that he was having with his community. So that legacy is one of the things that he left us that is so important to me. And I talk to colleagues around the country all the time and say, you are so lucky that that's how your theater started.

Fallon: Project Discovery– 

Columbus: Totally. 

Fallon: –opened up the world to thousands of high school students.

Columbus: Absolutely. Well, you know, there's a famous story. And it has, it has some salty language in it, so I'll try to edit it for radio. But the famous story is, Adrian, one of the first shows that he did for Project Discovery, right? They got a million dollars from the NEA and Adrian was like, “I'm not making plays for children. I'm going to going to show the children the plays that the adults are seeing.” And so he brought them to see an adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd. Now, that's a– 

Fallon: I know what's coming, because a friend of mine from a while back was in the audience.

Columbus: [laughs] And so they, you know, you're showing this to high school students. Billy Budd, which is a rough sled for us as adults. And so the kids were talking and talking, and Barbara Meek, bless her beautiful soul, was out there doing the first monologue in the play, and they weren't paying any attention. They were talking and shouting and laughing. And after the first audience of children, Adrian said, you know, “I'm gonna make those little jerks listen to” – he didn't use jerks, but – “listen to what she's saying. Bring, roll a cannon out and fire it at ‘em. And then they'll shut up.” And he rolled the cannon out. The kids screamed, and then they shut up and listened. And that again, that was his genius, right? He would take the situation, he understood that the audience was part of the event. And he took the situation and made an aesthetic choice based around that.

Fallon: As we unfortunately mentioned, Hall’s friend and longtime collaborator Eugene Lee passed away just a few days after Adrian Hall. Beyond Lee's impact on the local theater scene, he was also known for his work nationally – the Tonight Show, SNL. Some memories of Eugene Lee?

Columbus: Oh, gosh, this one’s going to be a little harder to talk about. Eugene and I were working on a set design together for “Sweeney Todd,” the upcoming production that we're going to be doing. We'll be able to implement his design because we got far enough. You know, that design is particularly inflicted by, my 17-year-old self saw “Sweeney Todd” when it was on Broadway in the original incarnation. And, you know, Eugene's design for that changed my, the course of my entire life aesthetically. I saw that and went, I want to make theater like that. And so over the years, it was just such a privilege and an honor to have him as a collaborator and as a friend, you know, later in my life to be able to work with him on so many projects. And he always made my work richer, more true. I think that's the phrase that I would use. I mean, he made theatrical imagining happen with almost nothing. He could take a pen and make you imagine a spacecraft, and that was his genius. It was…

Fallon: Right, when you think of design, it's not just ornate design. 

Columbus: No.

Fallon: It's sometimes nothing.

Columbus: No, and in fact, Eugene was very much about – I remember him once saying, “less is more until more is better.” And he loved just having one element that dictated so many things on stage, and to be able to use it in many, many surprising ways. Richard Jenkins will talk about Ethan Frome, which he did with Adrian and Eugene, and there's a whole sequence where Ethan Frome goes sled riding. And they took a couple of pieces from the set, held it up into the air and they did a sled ride. And Richard said, “and in that moment, I realized this was greater than anything that movies could ever imagine because it all happened in the audience's mind.” And that was his genius.

Fallon: Hall, Lee, also composer Richard Cumming, they were quite the force, even when things were just beginning.

Columbus: Yes, yeah. And Deedee [Richard Cumming] was the, Deedee was the sweet wonderful heart. You know, you would always go to him for a smile and a laugh, was the sweetest, kindest man. And I had, you know, I was very upset when I heard about Eugene. And a friend said, you know, I just don't think Adrian could imagine going on to his work in the next world without his designer. And so, you know, maybe that's the good news, is that they'll do that forever together.

Fallon: You personally – influence by them on you and how you see things, not only agreeing with their approach, but perhaps sometimes disagreeing.

Columbus: Yeah, I think that the main, there are two main inflection points. The first and most important is this notion of the theater as a public square. Right? You referenced that, Dave, when you're talking about the lectures, the conversations, and not just the events on stage. Adrian and Gene were all about the life that happens at a theater. And that it is truly one of the last places in our culture where we can come together around ideas and have disagreement and conversation. So that's one important thing. The second is that their aesthetic was always challenging, and it was never the same twice. And so I've actually learned to embrace that in my own work. I try to not do the same things over and over again, it's easy for theater artists to go, “Oh, I know how to do that. I'm going to do that.” But both Adrian and especially Eugene, were just constantly challenging. “What can I do now? What's my aesthetic now? Today's Tuesday. My aesthetic is different than it was on Friday, and it's different than it will be next Friday.” So that's, that's the great challenge and the great gift that I hope I've gained from both of them.

Fallon: Curt Columbus, artistic director at Trinity Rep. Thanks for joining us.

Columbus: Thank you so much.

Fallon: This is Dave Fallon, and this is The Public's Radio.