An interview with Jac Venza

Great Performances team brought stage virtuosos into the videoscape

Interview by Steve Behrens

Current Q&ATwenty-five years ago this week, public TV first aired Great Performances, its major performing arts showcase. And just in time for the anniversary, CPB in October 1997 gave its top public TV award, the Ralph Lowell medal, to Jac Venza, executive producer of the series from the start. Earlier in the fall the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences honored him with its Governors Award.No other producer has captured as much free-floating excellence and put it on videotape as Venza, public TV’s major performing arts impresario. He also serves as director of cultural and arts programs at New York’s WNET, overseeing the American Masters biographies, the pop music series In the Spotlight and the local City Arts series.

Venza talked with Current Editor Steve Behrens in the offices of the arts unit at WNET. This is an edited transcript.

What are you particularly high on for this season of Great Performances?

Venza

Venza

The season was designed to have highlights of the arts that are now pretty uniquely broadcast on Great Performances. There is one of America’s most important symphonic organizations, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performing at Carnegie Hall with one of the great soloists of our time, Yo-Yo Ma.

The San Francisco Opera opened its new house last fall, and we have something that happens almost exclusively on our series: a gala of opera superstars, with Beverly Sills hosting.

The opening of the reconstructed Globe Theater in London reminds us that at one time Great Performances featured the great literature of theater — something that is almost never done anywhere else.

We have persisted in presenting American composers. It’s shocking that nowhere else in television can you hear a Cole Porter song or Duke Ellington’s music, so we have followed that tradition with a tribute to Kander & Ebb and their 30 years of songwriting [Dec. 3]; a look at a younger composer who’s just coming into prominence, Alan Menken, taking his music out of context of Disney’s animated films [March 6, 1998]; and a documentary on the making of the new musical “Ragtime” [Jan. 21, 1998].

At left, Great Performances veteran Judith Jamison will share the screen with newcomer Anna Deveare Smith in an Alvin Ailey tribute in June 1998. (Photo: K.C. Bailey.)

At left, Great Performances veteran Judith Jamison will share the screen with newcomer Anna Deveare Smith in an Alvin Ailey tribute in June 1998. (Photo: K.C. Bailey.)

American concert dance has not been really tapped anywhere else. Public television started presenting American dance when it was the most sought-after and celebrated thing all over the world. On the ballet side, we’ll have a commissioned program, “Hymn: Remembering Alvin Ailey” [June 24, 1998], a loving piece created by Judith Jamison, the choreographer, and Anna Deveare Smith, who has done these marvelous theater pieces that are made from real material — in this case the dancers’ memories about Alvin. And there’s the added ingredient of Orlando Bagwell, the filmmaker. I invited him to meet them, see this piece, and conceive an hour-long film. So the program brings together one of most important black filmmakers in this country, one of the most interesting voices in black theater, and Judith Jamison, one of Ailey’s most prominent dancers, who inherited his company.

And then we’re doing a big show with American Ballet Theatre [May 27, 1998], reminding people that in this period, this is the company where the world superstars of dance wanted to perform.

Scouting must be one of your most important functions.

That’s our business. It’s the value of having continuing strands in public television. Just as you’d expect my colleagues who do Nature to know who are the top filmmakers, and who knows about cats, for instance, our job is to know the performing arts. We have a department of experts, so we hear. That’s essentially what the system is putting money into: for us to be the lead expert.

That’s particularly important because we’re dealing with world-class artists. Their schedules are booked two and three years in advance. If Wynton Marsalis or Kevin Kline says I’d like to do this, but I can’t do it for the next nine months, you can say, “That’s okay, we’ll do it next season.” That’s why it’s important to have continuity and the three-year commitments from Chase and PBS. I’m already locking things up for a season from now.

How did you and your producers scout out “Ragtime,” in particular?

I looked at the people who gathered together to make the show and thought there’s got to be an interesting story here: E.L. Doctorow, who wrote the original novel; Terrence McNally, who adapted it; and Frank Galati, the director, who has done wonderful operas and that beautiful production of “The Grapes of Wrath” for American Playhouse; and Graciela Daniele, the choreographer. Also involved were Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the writers of the music and lyrics, whose work we had been following since their show on Broadway. So that’s what drew us to “Ragtime.”

You’ve taped it already?

In order to follow the process of a show, you have to start shooting when they start rehearsing. [Laughter.] So you don’t know what you’re going to get. We also did that with “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Angels in America” [both 1992-93]. We’ve been doing “process” as a way to get musical theater, because the rights to full musicals are still eluding us in terms of cost.

There must be some acts you chased after and never got. For instance, did you pursue “Rent?”

No, “Rent” has a long, profitable theatrical run ahead, so we’re not that unrealistic. Remember, we did not buy the rights to “Ragtime.” We did a film about the making of the musical because its rights will not be available for television for years from now. There may be a movie of it before then.

Don’t these “process” documentaries also have the effect of condensing the show to the hit numbers, to move things along for an audience that might be too impatient for the whole book?

That’s true. I think one of the problems of things designed for the theater is their length and pacing is different, so we’re always looking for ways to do things in shorter form, even in opera. For example, this year we have a wonderful film, “The Art of Singing: Golden Voices, Silver Screen” [March 25, 1998], with excerpts of opera stars in films — starting with silent movies, believe it or not.

Are process documentaries becoming a bigger part of your series? “Creating Ragtime,” “Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe,” Itzhak Perlman’s “In the Fiddler’s House,” and the Tonys broadcast this year — all use documentary technique.

It has always been a part of Great Performances. We’re trying always not to duplicate the theater experience but to bring people to it. I believe public television still can be an educational experience. So, we often look for some sense of process to help people understand what they’re seeing. We’re dealing with theater material differently on television, to do something that isn’t just a recreation of the concert hall or theater.

How do you split up the work among your core producers?

Over the 25 years, I would look back and say most of the people who excelled in the unit had dedicated their career to very specialized material. They know it, they know how you work with artists, how you record a symphony.

The pattern has been to take young people and develop them. I’m proud of my proteges who’ve had successful careers. Lindsay Law, who came from here has a film company at Fox. David Horn began his career here, as an office temp, and now is head of music. Judy Kinberg came from CBS with Merrill Brockway, who’s now pretty much retired, and took over the lead in dance, but Judy has also done films on other subjects, like her documentary “The World of Jim Henson” [1994-95]. And Kimberly Myers has just come back from Turner to head our drama department.

Phylis Geller was a graduate of our first drama work and is now at WETA in Washington. And Glenn DuBose, who was here helping me run this department, is now at PBS. I have a very good relationship with my kids, who are all very successful.

We’ve had some tragedies, we’ve had some deaths. We’ve lost two of our people to AIDS and one to cancer. It’s like losing your children, who go before their time.

It seems an amazing number of the operas and plays were directed by Kirk Browning. Does he still work with you?

Kirk was unusual because when we first started public television, there really were almost no directors who had concentrated on arts programs. He and one other, Roger Englander, directed all the NBC operas and could musically direct as opposed to working from text. When we started Theater in America, we needed a seasoned television director to collaborate with the theater director on how they would approach the play. Kirk is the most extraordinary man; he would work with someone if he liked their work. From his point of view, he’s spent his life with very interesting people. He’s still the key director for all of Live from Lincoln Center.

When we started, public television had to create its own directors because there were none being trained by commercial television to interpret the fine arts.

Both in public television and in public radio, cultural programming is down and public affairs is up as proportions of the schedule. In radio, stations are replacing music with NPR news, and in TV, cultural programming became the “sacrificial lamb,” according to the latest CPB Programming Survey. It peaked at 22 percent of the schedule in 1982 and was down to 16 percent by 1992. Why is this happening? Is it because “reality” programming is on a roll, and everything else has to get out of the way? Or is it because the arts are on the outs?

I believe the quality of what we do has to be considered before the size of audiences, if we are genuinely offering an alternative television service. It’s important to define a unique profile for public television. Other kinds of PBS programs are duplicated on many cable channels. Fortunately, I’m not alone in believing that arts programs should be available to a broad American audience. Chase, our new corporate funder, has committed funding for three years.

I know that [PBS President] Ervin Duggan and [top PBS programmer] Kathy Quattrone have supported a higher profile for what we’re doing. This is one of the kinds of programs in which we still have dominance on television.

What’s particular to Chase and the decision-makers there that made them willing and able to underwrite?

Chase, like Exxon and Mobil, had a long tradition of supporting the arts. Their support for Great Performances is consistent with the fact that they’re major supporters of Carnegie Hall and museum shows and a lot of other arts initiatives. Also, Chase has expanded tremendously; they have become one of the world’s largest banks with the acquisition of Chemical Bank. So I think you’ll see Chase investing not only in Great Performances but also in other major strands in public television.

How close have you come to having no money for the next season, or not nearly enough?

What’s surprising is that in the days when stations voted in the [SPC or Station Program Cooperative] program market, Great Performances often came in in the top four and never below seventh or eighth. Even though people are saying they wish the arts had higher ratings, I don’t think there are many who would want them eliminated from the public television system.

But in terms of underwriting, have there been periods approaching the time you need to make commitments and you did not yet have a corporate underwriter?

That’s true of probably half the major strands — I think at some point it’s been true of both MacNeil/Lehrer and Nature.

Are you buying rights for more plays than the stations are using?

We always have, I think. The point is to stay with as many as we could in principle, in case there’s some program that has a usage we haven’t thought of yet. But the fact that we don’t have time in our schedule for repeats for a lot of our strands says something is right about what we’re doing.

There’s a great economic advantage that the rock video channels have: the record companies pay to produce the programs. Is that kind of subsidy at all available for the Great Performances kinds of arts?

Sure.

Is it happening?

Yes, it always has. The difference is we don’t take a program made as as an EPK — an “electronic press kit.” We’ve turned those down consistently. If they would work with us and let us make the program, it would be a good public television program and a better selling tool.

Peter Gelb has worked with you as an independent producer for years and is now head of Sony Classical Film & Video. Are you getting a better buy on the programs because Sony is involved, or is Gelb’s production operation divorced from the Sony record label?

It’s important in this way. If we’re watching the arts for the public television system, one place to watch is what the artists are doing. And Peter Gelb has done excellent classical programs with us like the beautiful Kathleen Battle/Wynton Marsalis show on baroque music that we co-produced with CAMI [Columbia Artists Management] [1991-92].

But the main business of Sony is to sell records — video has not been a main component of profit. We usually conceive the program, whether it’s for Great Performances or In the Spotlight. It’s a very good pairing with a record label since we want to offer a CD or home video with shows that are used for pledging.

When did it first occur to you, either when you were working in the TV industry or before, that TV could be a place for the performing arts?

I had a very unusual opportunity. I started in the very early ’50s as a designer at CBS. And because I was a designer I was able to move from drama to variety shows to game shows to news sets. As the industry developed, the bottom line began to eliminate certain things that were less popular.

In the postwar years, when I was making friends in the concert world, the world’s best artists were here in New York. This is where everyone in Europe wanted to get to. And very few of those high-quality artists had any place in television — maybe five minutes on Ed Sullivan or a 10-minute aria on The Bell Telephone Hour.

So when I went to WGBH, on leave from CBS, to do an early series, A Time to Dance — before PBS or NET [National Educational Television] was formed — it was to help my concert dance people, who’d never been asked to do television before. It was the first time I was working with fine artists to do what they do, not popularizing it as on Bell Telephone or Ed Sullivan. That idea stuck with me. So when NET was formed, I was one of the first group of 10 or 12 producers who came [in 1964]. I later became the first head of drama. The executive in charge of cultural programs, Curtis Davis, was a fanatic about classical music, and Bill Kobin, who was head of all programming, was very much an enthusiast for dance.

Later, when no one else was working on dance, I inherited it, and when Curtis Davis was not part of the merger to create WNET, I took on music. Someone had to keep the banner for the arts high.

It was important that the leadership at Exxon was very interested in giving classical music a higher profile. Their support in the beginning years of Great Performances and later for Live for Lincoln Center allowed music to rise to the prominence it has.

Were these Exxon’s top executives?

Steve Stamos, who was in charge of public relations at Exxon, was a fanatic music lover. He later became the president of the New York Philharmonic.

We started with them underwriting Theater in America, and they were pleased with what they were doing and asked to expand it. And that’s when Great Performances started.

So you do need corporate people who do have a vision for the arts, and who see how it works for their companies.

peop9720-harlemDance in America today seems to be a component or a child of Great Performances, but wasn’t it actually a parent?

It was meant to be a separate activity. We had won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to give a much broader audience to the best concert dance companies they were supporting.

At the same time, the bicentenary was coming up and Exxon wanted to do something especially American. I said, why don’t we launch a new series Great Performances, which would celebrate all of America’s theater, music and dance in equal parts. In the first years, Live from Lincoln Center was the music part under that banner, along with Dance in America and Theater in America.

For a while we were carrying the only American drama on public television, and when Exxon pulled out in 1988, and Great Performances was cut from 52 to 26 weeks, the series could no longer accommodate it. We needed to change the scale of the series and bring in more support.

And there was another reason: I was very much a part of the founding of the idea that we needed a program strand completely devoted to American drama. Great Performances did not do enough. American Playhouse was created in my drama department. While they went mainly toward film drama, we stayed with theater drama as a smaller component of Great Performances.

Lindsay Law and Phylis Geller, after being developed as top drama producers here, had decided to go off to Hollywood. I had been producing drama personally and wanted to have someone to head drama and expand the department. I was having lunch with Lindsay and asked if he had any ideas. He said, “Why don’t you offer it to me?” I said, “Aren’t you happy in Hollywood?” He said, “No, I’m really not enjoying it.” So Lindsay came back and was one of the forces with me in creating the basic ground plan for American Playhouse and became its executive producer. We worked with [CPB Television Program Fund Director] Lewis Freedman on the idea and finally Dave Davis was brought in to set up the four-station consortium. We needed the commitment from CPB. This period was also the beginning of WonderWorks and American Experience.

So we took a lower profile in drama in Great Performances.

Do you still hear the line, “It won’t play in Peoria?”

If a program manager feels it won’t play in Peoria, it’s probably because he underestimates his audience.

Probably the most misguided sense of the arts is coming from Capitol Hill leadership at the moment. The attitude of the Gingrich community toward NEA hasn’t saved the taxpayers money, it hasn’t changed the public’s morality, it is simply of some value to some politicians who think that attacking arts funding will help them politically.

Great Performances has a number of performers that are so loyal they’re almost like a repertory company. One of your producers says that’s because you’ve given them the time and resources they needed. What were artists not getting from network TV?

We’re talking about the fine artists. They have often suffered financially a long time before they get recognition and can express their very personal voice.

A personal voice is not necessarily what commercial television does best. When Seinfeld gets an Emmy for writing, 12 of the highest-paid writers in America come up to receive the award. This is not the single artist’s voice of a great novelist. Yo-Yo Ma did what you saw on “Carnegie Hall Opening Night” [Oct. 15, 1997], and no one else can do that. Someone’s got to celebrate those singular voices in America. That’s what I’m looking for very often, a unique virtuosity.

You recalled in a New York Times interview that early TV producers were making the dancers perform on the concrete floors of TV studios.

One of the reasons we won the NEA award for Dance in America was that when I had a grant from them to do a program on the 25th anniversary of American Ballet Theatre, I said to the company, “I want to do a program that’s different from what you’ve done before. I want you to do your best work. That means we’ll have to take a week to tape it, not just one day live, like you used to do. And we’ve got to get a wooden floor, and get a studio with the proper temperature to dance.”

The dancers have to warm themselves up, and if it’s cool, which is the right temperature for the cameras, the dancers can hurt themselves.

One of the things we did was build a wooden floor that has the spring they are accustomed to on stage. But if the floor moved with the dancers, that meant that the cameras had to standing in another place. Whenever you see Dance in America, we have brought in the wooden floor and set it up. The word went out the dance world. We were the first ones who had food for the dancers that they could eat on a break. We had coolers of yogurt and fruit instead of the standard catering.

Where have you produced those dance programs? Here in Manhattan?

The place where we did some of our most attractive studio programs, and stored the floor, was in Nashville. Where they produce Grand Ole Opry, they have a wonderful, large studio with high lights and and a high cyclorama. But we move that same wooden floor to other places when we need it.

Translating dance to TV must take a great deal of effort. How has this art of translation advanced over the years?

One of the important things we agreed to do, which was never allowed in commercial television, was that the choreographer would be a key artist in creating the program and should have an equal voice in deciding the form of the translation.

We prepared for production by spending a week’s rehearsal with the dancers, using little nonprofessional cameras to see what the alternatives would be, working with the choreographers to decide whether they should change the choreography or we should move the cameras.

So when we finally taped the dance, we weren’t exhausting the dancers, having them do things over and over again that they usually do just once in an evening. We would show those little rough tapes to the cameramen so they could plan how to frame their shots.

Last year, in the Paul Taylor program, the camera was almost a partner in the dance, in some scenes, and then you’d see the whole stage head-on, in other scenes.

In the early years, choreographers like Paul Taylor would just want a record of the theater work, but they began to look at camerawork in the cinema and other places.

Paul Taylor’s work has been consistently inventive and surprising, and we’ve done more programs with him than with a number of other choreographers. It was probably the eighth program we’d done with him, during the taping of a ballet called “Last Look” [1988], when Paul suddenly got it. He realized this was an opportunity for him to use the cameras, to participate in a new way. He saw that dance, on camera, could have a completely different approach. That realization colored the next two dances, in which he was encouraged with the director, Matthew Diamond, to rethink the work for camera as a much different experience. This had much greater impact on the audience, because it’s not as distanced. The choreographer isn’t worrying about every little hand and foot, but about the best flow of images to put on the screen.

How do your producers plan shots for other kinds of performances?

When you’re recording a symphonic piece, the director literally marks the cuts on his score, as opposed to his script. Since the director can’t look at the score and the monitors at the same time, a music score counter works with him, telling him: “Your next cue is on bar so-and-so. Five, four, three, two, one.” He reminds him where the next planned cut was.

You’ve had some ingenious crossover acts — Linda Ronstadt singing Mexican folk songs, Bobby McFerrin doing Mozart, Perlman doing klezmer. Was there a prototype that inspired this?

It goes back to my answer earlier. Our job is watching. When we sense a trend, or someone important who does something fresh, our idea is to move quickly for the system. That’s why being able to be able to say, ‘Yes we’re ready, we’ll put our money down,’ is important.

Sometimes it’s a full-blown production, like the night I went to England to see Les Miserables in concert. I didn’t know whether the show would be very good. As it turned out, it was sensational. Our job is to be there as often as we can, to get it before anybody else does.

Are these crossovers, where an artist is working outside their usual genre — where do they come from?

The first generation of major artists had no reason to believe television was their friend. They had not been treated well by commercial television. So our first job was to convince the conductors, the choreographers, etc., that we wanted to do what they were best at.

The younger generation of people, like Thomas Hampson, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, have seen their art on television, so they’re much more venturesome. They see television as part of their careers. So they will very often come to us with ideas.

peop9720-fiddlerOn the other hand, we went to Itzhak Perlman with the idea for “In the Fiddler’s House” because we heard he had hired one of the klezmer performers for his daughter’s wedding. But he had never played the music himself. So we said, “Why don’t you come with us and be our host in exploring this thing?” There was this klezmer conference in Poland, which his father had left as a refugee.

When we began the show there was no indication he would try to play klezmer music. But, with Itzhak’s generation of performer, the difference was, when he first played klezmer, he didn’t say, “Stop the cameras.”

Yo-Yo Ma really created the idea of the Bach Suites series [Inspired by Bach] that is coming up later this year. He initiated this collaboration with other artists. It would be very hard to talk someone into anything as grueling and chancy as that. And the result is extraordinary.

And there are other cases: Thomas Hampson, coming to meetings in his blue jeans saying, “Why are we doing German art songs, when we have songs here that celebrate the American heritage? Could I talk you guys into doing a program on American art songs?”

Let’s return to the dramatic part of public TV’s mission. What’s your interpretation of what happened with “American Playhouse?”

I don’t know. I’m not going to try and answer that question. Right now, I’m putting my energy into developing another thrust for American drama. We are the longest-running producers of American drama, and before I step down, that’s one of the things I’m going to focus on: getting American drama back as a continued offering.

One of the advantages of producing in music and dance, as opposed to drama, is you are often choosing among proven productions, while a drama series like American Playhouse often has to rely on unproven originals. Does that help explain why it’s difficult to do drama?

[Hearty laughter.] No. I remember going with Lindsay to some think-tank PBS meeting, where they said, “Look, we don’t need this many programs — just bring us the blockbusters, the big projects.” And we looked at them and said, “Do you think we sit down to plan and say, ‘This is going to be mediocre, or uninteresting’?”

There’s no question that — if we’re only going to get two dance shows next year — my job should be to make sure the system gets two of the best ones.

You can say, “I don’t like modern music,” but at least what we offer is the best modern music. If we’re going to do ballet, it’s the best of ballet.

We also try to do a variety of things. One year we did “Billboards” with the Joffrey Ballet and music by Prince [1993-94], and this year we’re doing great classic work with great classic artists.

Will there be more drama in Great Performances, now that American Playhouse is gone?

Not necessarily. For me the most important thing is to help PBS and CPB develop an agenda. Right now, my group is trying to best plot what that strategy would be.

We’ve heard whiffs of rumors that your unit was working up new approaches to drama. Back in 1994, there was an item about Glenn DuBose working on something called Thirty-Minute Theater. Ervin Duggan and others have talked about returning to live drama in the 1950s style, or live-on-tape.

Are there some different approaches that could work on continuing basis? Or does public TV simply have to reestablish a unit that would do TV films, or shoot plays from the stage?

There are certain basic things that were uniquely part of the drama presented on public television.

One was the voice of a different kind of writing, the voice of the playwright. When we brought drama from England, we didn’t bring their popular drama, which is much poorer than ours. We brought David Mercer and Harold Pinter — rising playwrights who were supporting their families by working for television.

Commercial television is never going to be as interested in the voice of the playwright. That would be the basis of Thirty-Minute Theater, an idea I proposed that would have new writing debuted every week, as in the 1950s Golden Age drama series. That’s an idea we are interested in talking about: commissioned writing for television, not police chases but a place to showcase dramatic writing and virtuoso acting.

Over the years, you also see us working with literature as a base. Brideshead Revisited was based on a Evelyn Waugh’s novel.

Another approach has been to use drama to tell history or the lives of great people.

Out of these projects will come television writing. But when people become “television writers” they usually head for Hollywood as quickly as possible, and if they’re any good they’re making a fortune on a police show or something. The ones that stick it out, because they want their own voice, are the ones who will stay and work through theater.

And there are writers like Larry Gelbart and Steve Martin, who have been writing things for the theater that are very different from what they do for the movies or network TV.

What American Playhouse did very well was essentially new cinema, with important funding from film distributors, but first of all it has to work in commercial theaters.

I think there were many very fine things done at American Playhouse. If the system and PBS chose to not support it, then my job is to focus on what we will support. We’ve got to quickly build another presence. We cannot have another season with the embarrassment of having only British drama. There’s an urgency that everyone feels in Washington. We are now working with some research and development funds from PBS to put some of those ideas in proposal form.

What’s the timetable?

As soon as possible.

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