Cromer comes home

By Samuel Charles

Columbia welcomed a former student and professor to share his experiences as an award-winning theater director and stage actor. David Cromer, who received a MacArthur Foundation Grant in September 2010, was described by the foundation as someone “who is reinvigorating classic American plays and illuminating their relationship to the present.”

Cromer, 47, came back to the college as the second speaker in this year’s installment of “Conversations in the Arts” on Feb. 23 to give his insight in how theater is evolving, the different directions it is moving in and how Columbia prepared him for life after college.

“Columbia shows you how to create from very little and how to self-motivate,” Cromer said. “This place is what you make of it.”

He left Columbia in 2008 to work as a full-time freelance theater director in New York City. In some of his upcoming productions, he’ll be working with high-profile film actors including Ben Stiller, James Franco and Nicole Kidman.

The MacArthur Foundation awards $500,000, which the recipient gets over the course of five years. On its website, the foundation states “the [grant] is not a reward for [a] past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential.”

“I’m going to live on [the grant],” Cromer said. “Prior to the last two years when I started making money, I have nothing. My assets are nonexistent. There’s the furniture in my apartment and whatever money my mother might have when she passes away.”

There is no application process to receive the grant, but a person has to be nominated by someone else. Often people will not know they’re nominated until they found out they’ve won.

Cromer has been lauded by critics nationwide for his ability to pay homage to a classic piece and keep its original message, all while bringing to fruition “what the play does to [him].”

He has directed his versions of “Our Town” and “The Adding Machine,” among others. He’s currently in the initial stages of directing a revival of the Tennessee Williams play “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

Patti Smith came to Columbia last semester for the previous conversations. In April, the college will host “Project Runway” winner Christian Siriano as part of the “Conversations in the Arts” series. Sam Shepard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was initially scheduled to speak, but Cromer was brought in as a replacement.

Chris Jones, chief theater critic at the Chicago Tribune, interviewed Cromer on stage that evening. Before asking his questions, Jones recalled how each time he sees a Cromer show, there are certain traits that come out.

“[Every Cromer show] seems to have one thing in common—a brilliant conceptual core rooted in the most powerful kinds of human truths,” Jones said.

John Green, chair of the Theater Department, said Cromer coming back to share his knowledge and expertise shows how invested he is in Columbia and vice versa.

“[Cromer] is a fantastic example of what we’re able to do at the college,” Green said. “We know our relationship with him is long term, and he’s invested in the success of the Theater Department and Columbia as much as we are in him and his career.”

Cromer plans to remain committed to Chicago, although all of his work is now in NYC. He added it’s his home regardless if he lives in New York.

The two agreed Chicago and NYC are the two major American cities with the most vibrant theater communities, but there are large differences between the two.

“Chicago is probably a better actor, but [NYC] is a movie star,” Cromer said.