Performance (Working In The Theatre #135)
I’m Isabelle Stevenson and I’m President of
the American Theatre Wing. And I want to welcome you to the Wing Seminars on “Working in the
Theatre”. These seminars are coming to you from the Graduate Center of the City University
of New York, which is located in the heart of Times Square on 42nd Street, where Broadway,
Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway all meet to bring the magic of live theatre. Here right
now are the seminars that tend to tell you a little bit more about what it is to work
in the theatre. The Wing is perhaps best known for its Tony Awards. But we do more than that,
and it is a year round program that the Wing has. We send shows to hospitals, to sit ins,
we … the people in the theatre work with us. The casts of Broadway shows like 42nd
Street and all kind of cabaret performers come to the hospitals under the Wing’s banners.
We also have a program called Saturday Theatre for Children, which is perhaps one of the
most important programs that I can think of. Because we bring theatre into the schools
on Saturday mornings, right into their own neighborhoods. And the children line up, and
they make the decision as to whether they’re going to go to see a live theatre or whether
they’re going to play baseball or whatever else it is. And we hope that doing that instills
a love and a need for theatre that will last a lifetime, that will really provide the audiences
of the future. It’s not good enough to go to the theatre, just because it is a blockbuster
or the hottest ticket in town. One has to go to the theatre because there is a need
and a love. And they know what good theatre is. So that’s what we’re hoping will turn
about and we have already seen much of this take place. And then, there are these seminars,
which comes out of the Wing’s school program. And it’s a wonderful, wonderful program, where
we tend to bring you a behind the scenes look, on what it is to work in the theatre. The
performers, the playwrights, the directors, the scene designers and the lighting people
and the producers all come and discuss how important it is to¬know each other’s craft,
as they work in the theatre. So because we have a wonderful panel and we have marvelous
co moderators, I am now going to introduce to you Jean Dalrymple, who is a member of
the Board of Directors of the American Theatre Wing. And one of the most knowledgeable people
I know in the theatre who has done almost all the things that we talk about. And Ed
Wilson, who is a wonderful critic and is, perhaps doffs his critic’s hat right now,
and becomes just a lover of theatre, as we all are, and a knowledgeable one at that.
They, in turn, will introduce the panel to you. Thank you very much for being here. Ed?
Thank you, Isabelle. As you say, we have quite a
distinguished panel and the first person I’d like to
introduce is on my far right, an actress who was born in
Canada and now lives in the United States, but won fame,
really initially in Great Britain where she was a member of
the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. I
first saw her ten years ago, playing Susan Trahern in David
Hare’s “Plenty”. It was an incredible performance, and she
won the London Critic’s Award as the best actress of the
year for that. She later performed it at the Public Theatre
here and on Broadway. She received an American Theatre Wing
Tony Nomination for that, and also for her performance in
“Moon for the Misbegotten”. She has been a film actress as
well, in films such as “Eye of the Needle”, “Dracula” and
“Without a Trace”. She has been on Broadway also in
“Serious Money” and currently is in a play, “Spoils of
War”. Miss Kate Nelligan. Next to her, the star of the
provocative and fascinating play, “M Butterfly”, playing
the part of Renee Galamard, which I hope we can explore a
little later because it is an incredible part. An actor who
has played on Broadway in a number of productions. He was
nominated for an American Theatre Wing Tony Award for his
performance in “Bent”. He played Saliere in “Amadeus”. He’s
been in “The Visit”, “The Rebel School for Wives”,
“Dracula”, just a whole host of Broadway shows. He’s “Frankenstein”t played over forty roles
in the resident professional theatre around the country. He’s been in a number of films,
“Wild Party”, “A Little Romance” . “First Deadly Sin” and many more. And he’s been in
a number of television shows, including specials “Cain and Abel”, “Strange Interlude”. “Winds
of War” and “War and Remembrance”. Mr. David Dukes. And to my immediate right, one of the
best known and finest actresses in the American theatre, someone who has delighted us on many
occasions and is currently doing so in a play called “Cafe Crown”, a wonderful revival of
a 1942 play, which is marvelous to be able to get a chance to see again. She has been
in so many plays, “Rhinoceros”, “Middle of the Night”, “Oh, Men, Oh, Women”, “Major Barbara”,
which she played in with Charles Laughton and Eli Wallach, “Waltz of the Toreadors”,
“Typist and the Tiger Love”. I could go on and on. And many television shows, including
“Golda Meir” with Ingrid Bergman. And also films with, I find, a number of fascinating
titles. I’m just gonna read three or four of these… “The Secret Life of the American
Wife”, “Lovers and Other Strangers”, “The Tiger Makes Out”, and “How to Save Your Marriage
and Ruin Your Life”. Miss Anne Jackson. Jean? Yes. On my left… far left, is an absolutely
marvelous actor, who goes easily from classical roles,
Shakespeare and so forth to modern. plays, like the one
he’s in now, which is “Check Mates”. And he’s been in also
a number of great shows. “A Lesson From Aloes”, which
I remember so well, a wonderful play, “Richard III” … I’m
going to ask him later what he played in “Richard III”.
“The Enemy of the People” and “The Latent Heterosexual”.
And I’m so glad that “Check Mates” is still playing and that
you’re in it. Mr. Paul Winfield. Now we have an actress
who has been an actress all her grown up life. And she’s acted
in every … and I mean that … on and off the stage,
she is an actress. And she loves being it. And, of course,
I think actresses should be actresses and I think
they should look like them. I don’t like to see… I don’t
like to see beautiful girls with their hair, you know,
crimped and looking as though they never combed it, and
wearing sneakers … I really don’t like it. I like
them to look the way she does.. like an actress… She’s
played in, I don’t know, countless plays, dozens and dozens
of them. And I’ll tell you a few of them. Where is she
here? “The Balcony”, I remember that so well, downtown
in the Circle in the Square, “The Iceman Cometh”, with Jason
Robards, “The Kitchen”I “The Night of the Iguana”,
where she made a tremendous hit. And her own show, “It’s Me,
Sylvia”. And right now, oh I have to say, she was nominated
… she’s done forty films. And that’s not down here.
And she was nominated for her role in two of them, “Farewell
My Lovely” and “Midnight Cowboy”. And everybody remembers
“Midnight Cowboy”. And also, she was nominated as best
actress in London, where she made “Vieux Carrell of Tennessee
Williams a hit, which it never was over here. Sylvia
Miles. And I fell in love with this man many years ago…
when he played “Eat a Horse” Magic in “The Red Touch”, “The
Rose Tattoo”, with Maureen Stapleton. I did “The Rose Tattoo”
later at the City Center, with Maureen Stapleton. I
couldn’t get him because he was working in London. But I got
another very good actor. And I said, did you see Eli in
the play originally? He said, yes. I said, will you
please play it exactly the same? He’s been, of course, in
many, many plays. And I remember him, not only in … oh,
and in “Camino Real”. And did you call it Re al,
or Real? Either way.
Yeah. No, because Tennessee Williams told me it was not Re al, Camino Re al, which is
Spanish, because that means the royal way. And he said I was writing about the real way,
the nitty gritty way of life. So that’s why I asked you. I remember too, in the “Typist
and the Tailor”, which was the first … I mean, “Tiger” … the first time that I saw
him with his wife, his wonderful wife. And isn’t it great that they’re playing again
together, and they’re down in a big hit. And it’s by Hy Kraft, who would be so happy if
he could see this wonderful revival. I was really very moved, also by the setting. I
hope you move to Broadway so you all get Tony’s. But I do think that Santo Loquasto deserves
a Tony for the wonderful set, in “Cafe Crown”, which of course was the Cafe Royale when I
used to go down and visit him and Judd Harris many years ago. Wonderful Eli Wallach.
As Isabelle has said earlier, this is a seminar about
working in the theatre … how the craft is developed, how
the profession is. And we’re talking to experts today. And
since we’re talking about working in the theatre, I think
it would be nice to start off asking each person here to
tell us a little bit about how they got started in the
theatre. Something about their training perhaps, but
particularly perhaps if there’s one person or one moment,
one event, one show they saw, that really determined for
them the fact that this was going to be their career. That
decisive incident or person that affected their career and
started them on this path. And I’d like to start with Paul.
Oh good. I guess, well basically, I’m a West Coast actor. This is … I’ve been acting
for almost thirty years now. But this is really my first time on Broadway, as it were. It
takes us a little longer to get here, I guess. By us, I mean black actors. The … but I
started basically in the academic route. I went to colleges, different kinds all on the
West Coast, UCLA, University of Portland, Stanford, all of ’em and kicked out of, but
I really found academic theatre really sort of fascinating at the time. And since I don’t
sing or dance, my parents and my teachers all said, well he best get into … going
to get in … going to theatre, the only place you can really fit, or at least make a living,
would be in academic theatre. Because there weren’t many opportunities, at least that
I was aware of or they were aware of, for black actors. And particularly if you wanted
to be … do the classics or whatever. Well, I was going that route and it was about the…
I guess in the early sixties when the civil rights movement basically came. And if owed
anyone for my career, I guess it would be. Martin Luther King, because he sort of brought
the whole civil rights movement into the living rooms of white America. And there was suddenly
this interest in these people who beforel I guess, could have been living on the other
side of the moon. But in terms of who were¬these people who would risk having hoses turned
on them, or dogs being sic1d on them just for the right to vote, or to sit at the lunch
counter, things that we take too much for granted today, I guess. But the … at that
time, Hollywood also became somewhat interested in black Americans. And the television industry
opened up a bit. We saw a few more black faces on commercials, on TV shows, on “Julia”, the
Diahann Carroll, a few movies, not a few but a lot of suddenly black movies came into vogue.
And I happened to be there at the time. Luckily. And had some … and had training in the theatre.
I guess my first really big play was Leroy Jones as “Dutchman” and “The Toilet” that
Burgess Meredith had directed in Los Angeles. We toured it in San Francisco. I’ve… in
terms of people that I’ve worked with that have really …that I’ve really found fascinating,
and I’ve learned I guess the greatest from, was… I was basically a spear carrier, or
the third knight in “King Lear” that Morris Karnofsky at the, at that time was called
the L.A. Group Theatre in Los Angeles, that John Housman who recently died, directed.
But I stood in the wings every night. I mean, it was his performance as if I saw it yesterday.
It was a combination of the method of classical acting, fantastic vocal control. When he says,
you know, “Let me not be mad,” he did a thing with his voice that really went up. And it
was like a piano wire breaking. It was just… it was an education. The other education,
guess, was Zero Mostel in “The Latent Heterosexual”, I find … I saw how great comedians get laughs,
no matter what. He would set them up, bip, bip, bip. And whether the audience heard the
punch line or not, they knew they were supposed to laugh on this particular time. That was
another education for me. I guess I’ve learned a lot by watching, and also by doing. I’ve
done an awful lot of plays in Los Angeles, over twenty five of them at the Mark Taper
alone. And every … and I was also in Los Angeles when the theatre was just… small
theatre was just developing and there was a lot of opportunities to do that. So there
was really no need to come to New York … I kept telling myself. But that’s basically
it. Right. Sylvia?
Well, I… When did you start being this actress that…
(VOICES OVERLAP) I originally started… I was going to be
a set designer. I was an art major and I was studying at Pratt Institute. And I think I
was one of the last students of Norman Bel Geddes, who kept telling me that there was
no future really for a woman in set designing, because it was kind of like a family tradition
handed down and so forth. But he said, if you want to, then get a job working as an
assistant, or an apprentice to a set designer. So I was fifteen and a half years old, and
I got a job as the prop girl to the set designer of a small theatre on Long Island. And he
sent me out to buy the props. And I paid ninety dollars
for them. And at the end of the week, I went to the producer with the bill of the ninety
dollars. And he said, well this is stupid. You don’t buy these things, you know, you
borrow them and we give them a credit in the program. I said, but we’ve already used them.
Where’s the ninety dollars? So he said, I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to
give you a part in the play … And this is the salary, ninety dollars. And he said, the
only part I have is¬this ninety year old man in “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”. So I
was given this role and … actually … what had happened was the play had already been
in rehearsal and the original ninety year old man had passed away. So they made me up
and I sort of looked like Confucius, I remember from the photograph of it. And I walked out
on stage and my … they said, place the child in the circle of chalk. And I realized I was
ninety years old and I had to take the time to walk slowly as an old man. And I took inch
… by inch… step … by step. Then twenty minutes later, I reached the center of the
stage, totally unaware that the other actors were glaring at me. You know, ready to kill
me. And I placed the child, and then turned around and… another twenty minutes to get
back to the other side of the stage. Well the feeling was so incredible. I thought,
well this is much better than, you know, set designing. Because nobody could do anything
until I got back to where I was supposed to be. So that’s… That’s horrible.
Let me say one thing about Sylvia that I forgot to say.
She’s a master chess player. She beats me at backgammon.
And she does the Sunday Times crossword puzzle in twenty
minutes. You notice I don’t get paid for any of those
Well, since we’re doing a play about the Yiddish theatre, my parents took me to the theatre
as a little boy. And I’ll never forget the scene. The young man had been sent off to
war, engaged to a beautiful rich girl. And he came back from the war like this. And the
woman he was engaged to, the girl, said oh no, I will not have him I will not have a
damaged person. But the poor girl who really loved him said! I’ll marry him. And he went
HA! And I jumped out of my seat and said, I’ll become an actor. Anyway, I went off to
the University of Texas as a young boy, from Brooklyn. And I ushered at a theatre there.
And Walter Houston was playing in a play, “Doddsworth”. And I went backstage at the
intermission. And I said, Mr. Houston, I’m from Brooklyn, and here I am in Texas. But
I want to get into the theatre. And he flipped his cigarette away and said, we all do, kid.
And he walked in anyway everyone in my family were teachers. And it was determined that
I would be a teacher. In the thirties, they didn’t need teachers. So I took the exam with
about two thousand others. Twenty five passed and I did not pass. I got a scholarship to
a school called the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. The teachers were extraordinary.
Martha Graham and Sanford Meisner. And they both have had a tremendous influence on my
work and my career. That’s it. Terrific. Annie? Oh, I didn’t say how I met
her. That’ll come later.
Maybe she can tell us. Well, I didn’t know anything about theatre,
but I guess I was about four years old, or five when I saw my first movie. And then when
I saw that movie, I thought that I would grow up to be an actress, on the screen, and kiss
the leading men. And wear fur at the bottom of my skirts. That’s really what I wanted.
‘Cause it was the thirties, you know, and they were all with their shoulders and their
satin and it was very glittery and lovely. And then when I was in high school, I guess
I got into a school play. And I kind of liked the feeling that all actors like, of having
the power of going into another soul. And making believe I was somebody else and convincing
an audience that what I said, I meant. And then, I went into the John Golden auditions
when I got out of high school. And I did a monologue that a teacher had written for me,
that was from “Anne of Green Gables”, and I had red hair and freckles. And I sat and
pretended that I was riding in a carriage and a little orphan girl. And of course, the
audience liked that. So I won that… I won the John Golden auditions and I was … then
went, after that … no before that, I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse. And I got there
through Herbert Berghoff, who was an enormous influence on me. Herbert was a refugee and
he was in love with the theatre. And I went to see him carrying Ulysses under one arm
and Gauguin’s journals under the other, neither of which I had read. I just thought that that
would be impressive. And indeed, it was. And he took me in his class and then got me … helped
me get a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse with Sandy Meisner. And then, it was a matter
of … when I studied acting and I realized it took twenty years to be an actress, I thought,
oh gee, that’s an awful long time for me to get my fur on my skirt and my satin dress.
But I then, got put in a play with Eva Le Galliene,
called “The Cherry Orchard”, that’s written by Anton Chekov. I played the ingenue. And
I fell so madly in love with myself in the costumes myself as a Russian hat the movies
didn’t have the glamour for me anymore. It certain didn’t have the mood and the beauty
of playing for a live audience in a great play. And then by that time, I was hooked.
So then there were a series of flops. And I’m still waiting for another Chekov play.
That’s it. That’s terrific. David.
Well, I’m another West Coast actor. And I was born and raised in San Francisco and I
guess the first performance I ever saw that got me going was, they took my English class
in my junior year of high school, went to see the Actors Workshop in San Francisco.
I saw Robert Simons do Falstaff in “Henry IV, Part I.” And it’s a performance I can
still remember to this day. And then I started taking drama classes, ’cause I thought, that
looked like a lot of fun. And then, the other major influence was Lori Schwartz, who was
my leading lady in the first play I ever did in high school. And Lori was this girl I had
known since grammar school but had no time for me. But in the course of the run of this
play, she . . . my first French kiss was in front of a sold out house, believe it or not.
And after that, I had to go into the theatre, there was no choice. ‘Cause it beat mathematics
all to hell, I’ll tell ya. And so I went to college, still as a math major. But I started
doing a lot of community theatre. And then my second year of college, a man named James
Dunn took over the college department. And he’s still a major influence in my life. And
he was just a great director. And then I joined ACT some years later, and Bill Ball and Ed
Hastings and there was a whole series of people at ACT that got me going. And I just … I
don’t know … I fell in love with it, doing the Shakespeare and you know, in all the Shakespeare
festivals on the West Coast. And I don’t know, I’ve just never turned back. And I, you know,
television and films I do to pay the rent. But theatre I come back to because it’s home.
So… I’m still waiting for … another Lori Schwartz.
grew up in a small town in Canada. And I guess I thought
I would be an academic. I was a very shy kid. And I went on
a scholarship to University to study French literature. And
as … I joined the volleyball team and I joined …
somebody said, go … you know, they’re doing these plays.
And so I went and I … my first role was Gertrude in
“Hamlet”. And I was sixteen. And I had a great dress, it
was purple. And it was low cut. And my father walked out,
because the dress was too low cut. And then, somebody said,
you know, you really are an actress. that’s what you should
be. And it seemed astonishing to me. I’d never seen a play.
I left the next year. Somebody filled out an application
form, because I was too shy to do it. A teacher at the
school said, they’re holding auditions in New Haven,
Connecticut for the Central School of Speech and Drama. It
costs twenty five dollars. I’ll give you the twenty five
dollars.’ So I went there and I auditioned and … and then
this blue envelope arrived and it said, you have a place.
And I went to England. I’d still never seen a play. I saw a
play the first time, I was twenty years old, in my second
year studying to be a professional actor. And I studied
there for three years at a, you know, a posh English
school. I don’t remember what I learned there. I’m sure I
learned something, but I don’t know what it was. The
people who taught me are all actors. I don’t learn from
directors, by and large. I learned from actors. I learned
from great actors is my history. Colin Blakeley, who died
last year, who was the best actor I’ve ever seen in my
life, and who was one of those English actors who worked
and learned and knew everything. But, you know, here he
would have probably been Spencer Tracy. But there, he was
Colin Blakeley. And I learned everything that I know from
people like that. But … so that’s what happened to me.
You talked about the theatre as being, you know, vis a vis
films and television. And before we get into some other
things, I would like to ask a little bit about the effect
of the audience on playing and on being in the theatre. And
Paul, who’s been in film so much and been on television and
played Martin Luther King, Jr. on television and has gotten
recognition for things like “Sounder” and many more. But
now you’re in a play where it seems to me the audience
response is a crucial factor in that play. I don’t know
that I’ve been in a long time to a play where the audience
is more into it. Could you talk a little bit about that,
and tell us how that affects you and affects the rest of
the cast, do you think. Well, it is truly amazing. It’s actually like
you’re getting two shows for the price of one. There’s
one in the house and there’s one on the stage. The response
is truly amazing. But I think that’s … due to two
things. one is that it’s a comedy. And the second is that
the audiences are mostly black, or at least three quarters
black, generally. And I was … we were all … we
all discussed this phenomenon. Sidney Poitier came the other
night and we were talking about it. And he was … and
sometimes it’s a little distracting for us on the stage, when….because
they get so involved and so… start talking back to us and
… and you say, what? And end up talking to you here. But
anyway, the he said it’s … he said, don’t be put off by
it, and don’t … he said, because it’s a kind of an
appreciation that, in this particular show where they have
three very well known actors who they don’t often get to
see on the stage. And also don’t get to see together and
working in material that’s as responsive as this is. Then
it’s a kind of continuous applause, I guess. And it’s …
and it does help, since sometimes you really come in
dragging. You say, I’d like to be anywhere else except on
46th Street tonight. But you get that first laugh and that
response. And somehow, it just sort of gets you right
through the day. But you have a different problem. But it’s
wonderful being in a comedy and having an audience response
like that, because it really does get you throughthe
evening. What is it do to timing? How do you handle
that? Oh, it’s . . .it keeps you on your toes
Yeah. Truly. I mean, just and a lot of what I watched
in Zero Mostel and Jules Minchkin Minchkin has come into I’ve been
able to use. Because if they you really do have to set it up, and also know when to cut
it off. And it’s … and they make you work for it. I mean, you … and they … you have
to keep control. I mean, when they get … when the audience gets control of the play, then
it really truly does go down the drain. But it keeps us on our toes.
That’s very interesting. Sylvia…
Yes. You’re in the theatre again after being in
a million films. Tell us what you feel about it.
Well, it’s interesting. I’d like to just take what Paul …
take it from Paul and just make another point. It’s
interesting, I made my debut Off Broadway in a play called,
“A Stone for Daddy Fisher”, with Zero Mostel. Of course,
the past master of comedy. So it was a great … and I
played opposite, ironically enough, Sidney Pollack, who
subsequently became a rather famous film director. But he
had been the sidekick or associate or assistant to Sandy
Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. And he and I played
opposite each other. And the play was directed by one of
the Adlers … Luther Adler, under some other name. of
course, he subsequently got very good reviews under the
other name. And he called up all the newspapers and said it
was me. But the … so several of the late previews of the
play before we opened were attended by Stella Adler and
Harold Clerman, who were married at the time. And of
course, Stella Adler being the sister of Luther Adler, she
would come backstage because she was very interested, you
know, and the young people in the theatre. And she was very
influential at that time to the young actors. And she would
come back and say, do not play to the audience. Do not play the comedy to the audience. Keep
it within the play. You know they are there. They are responding to you. It makes you feel
good, but don’t take it from them, because they get control. And the minute they get
control, you’re in trouble. Now, ironically, I’m in a comedy at the, moment, “Tea with
Rummy Jack”, which is a play that the audience does respond to a great deal. And it’s interesting,
because it is so important to and it’s so enjoyable as an actress, to play to that,
to have that response. But on the other hand, you have to keep such a tight control, right?
Because otherwise, they either get ahead of you or they begin to talk to you, or they
think they’re in a movie and … It’s… so among … I worked with Colin Blakeley and
this is also just … it’s like Kate said, I did a film with him. I, you know, with James
Mason and Colin Blakeley. And I had scenes with Colin Blakeley and I learned from him.
And this was 1982. So you see, you can always learn from a great character actor. In England,
they treasure the character actors a great deal more than they tend to here. You know.
Because… Now you worked with Zero, too. You had a deal
with that… I made my debut with him. As a matter of fact,
I was part of his preparation. Did you know this story?
No. Do you know this? Well, this is a sort of
… this is a typical actor’s story. It was my first play.
And I had no idea that actors had a preparation. You understand?
A strange preparation. And Zero’s preparation,
he would goose me… I was waiting in the wings. I was the
first one on the stage. And one night I wasn’t there, and
he couldn’t go on. He kept … reaching all over to find
me so he could make his entrance.
Well I … Ann and I played with Zero in “Rhinoceros” for
almost a year. Talk about audiences and their influence and
their response, the director of the play we’re doing now
said, there’s a fourth wall, it’s a cafe. Assume that the
audience is also seated at tables. And let them overhear.
But don’t push. Don’t go out to them. Well one night, they
were rather dull. And the computer up here sends messages
up and says, they’re terrible. So you have to push a little
harder. And the more you push, the more they retreat, until
it becomes a strange tug of war between you and the
audience. Well one night… I’m far sighted and I can see
very well… I looked in the front row, at a little theatre
on Second Avenue. Ann and I were doing “The Typist and the
Tiger”. And the man was like this.. And I thought, wait a
minute, I’ve just come on. We can’t be that dull. And, of
course, all my focus went on that one man. And all through
the play, I kept … he never raised his head. I thought,
Jesus! He’s asleep. Anyway, at the en d of the show, the
stage manager came back and said, someone wants to see you.
I said, if it’s him, I’ll kill him. And it was, and he was
blind, which … which taught me a valuable lesson. That
is, the more the actor goes into what he’s doing on stage,
and worries less about the response, the better he’ll be.
The actoralways pretends that the laugh came and surprised
him, even after playing for months . You know? And there’s
a part of him that washes over his whole being that says,
ooh good! Ooh good. Well that’s … that’s what happens to
the actor. I did a comedy act when I was actress. And
we one time played it, and the audience was so dull and
so asleep, that we finally ended up playing it as a drama…and
got a tremendous applause at the end.
David, what is the audience, in terms of your relationship
to the audience, because you speak directly to the audience
in “M Butterfly”. It was just … as I was just saying, in M
Butterfly, because I narrate to them and also jump in the scenes, it’s a very peculiar relationship,
because I do look out and I do see the guy just going like this … he looks at his wife
and he looks at the stage and he goes like this. And he just doesn’t want to be there.
And I watch that for the whole first act. And the first act of this play is a tremendous
amount of exposition. But it’s designed or directed to be funny. I mean, the man is,presenting
himself funny. But it’s also … the character also has a desperate need to tell this story.
So it strikes a strange balance. And some nights, I’ll go out there, and it’s just…
it’s a laugh riot. And then I’ll go out there other nights, and it’s the house of the living
dead out there. I mean, there’s no response at all. It’s very hard not to try and woo
them in, because it is a standup act. And it’s a very difficult thing to play, when
you’re doing a standup act and you get no response and you’re expecting one. But I think
I’ve learned, with this one, that you just … then it’s more about telling the story.
The character is telling the story and he wants the laughs, but for my character, you
know, they’ve laughed at his man because of his twenty year sexual relationship with a
man/woman. You know, so it seems funny … that they… it seems right that they don’t respond
to him. So it gets Very strange, this play, because the scenes always play pretty much
the same. But the narration plays wildly different, from night to night. I mean, a Monday night
audience can be wonderful, and a Saturday night audience is a painting. It’s an amazing
thing. But I always love, I mean, you asked a question earlier about why … the difference
between theatre and film and television. And for me, the theatre is like… it’s real.
Because I know when my work.is right, because they cough or they don’t cough, or they laugh
or they don’t laugh. And it’s … and that’s why I love to come back here, this kind of
challenge, you just don’t get in theatre and television.
In film. Yes, yes, film and television. You just don’t
get it. and I love this challenge, of coming out every night
and trying to crack this little nut, of telling this
story… And it’s different almost every night?
It’s wildly different from night to night. You know. But
you also get pockets of laughter. You get a group that may
understand it. And then we’ll have great French groups. And
we had, you know, a hundred and fifty French people the
other day. And they just didn’t catch it fast enough, you
know? It went by … their English wasn’t good enough. And
so there was this huge block in the house that I could not
get anything out of. Of course, I eventually realized, it
was a French group. You know, so but … which is similar
to the other story. Absolutely. Isabelle?
Where did you learn the standup technique? Because there… it’s very difficult nowadays.
There are very places … very few places that an actor can go and hone his trade and
learn how to draw in audiences. Well, I did a little of it when I first started,
in the early sixties. I played a couple little clubs
in San Francisco and whatnot.
Is that what you did? I guess my first one was, you know, giving
a current events report in social studies that would, you know,
a three minute report that would go forty minutes.
You know … and keep ’em laughing. But I think that’s where
it started and, you know, the variety club … you know, the
variety contests at summer camp.
It’s very important to have that kind of thing. Well, being able to play an audience, you
know. Uh huh.
Kate, in the … well, you’ve been… in terms of “Spoils of War”, you’ve been at Second
Stage and then in Toronto for six weeks, right? And then in New York. And is the … or what
is the adjustment like in terms of the audience? Is it … are you having to find this? Or
is it … has there been some consistency about audience response?
No, none at all. I figured out that the more people pay,
the harder they laugh. They’re paying a lot more on
Broadway, and they’re laughing a lot more. Oh really?
Yeah. Downtown, I mean uptown. I think downtown ’cause of
… when we were at the Little Theatre at Second Stage, you
know, they didn’t pay enough… I’m always … this is one
of the first chances I’ve got to… speak dialogue that’s
meant to be funny. That’s right, ’cause you’ve played a lot of
serious characters. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And it’s… I have, because
it’s taken so long for me to get a part like this, I am just suffused with gratitude, at
a laugh. I mean, my whole being is just … I want to get on my knees … thank you, thank
you. Thank you. Everyone said I couldn’t do this. And they’re wrong, aren’t they? I … I
love it. It’s … but it is deeply corrupting. It’s quite true. It’s very corrupting, because
it … you do… it’s like a carrot… it’s like the rabbit and the carrot. If you don’t
get a laugh, it makes you crazy. And of course, you force and do all that. But it’s exciting.
It’s an awful lot more fun to get laughs. Well you’ve done a lot of comedy, obviously.
And in terms of … how is it how is it playing with him?
That’s the biggest comedy of all. Unlike seriocomedy, you know where’s it’s
… where they laugh and cry. I don’t know. You know Edmund
Gwynn, who was a marvelous character actor, was dying … this
is a story that all actors know and it’s… I think what
we’re talking about here. And this director came to see
him. And he was really in his… in the last phase of life.
He had cancer. And the director went to the door and he said,
it’s … he looked at all of the tubes and at Gwynn and
he said, it’s rough, isn’t it, Ed? And Ed said, not as rough
as comedy! Well … and I … I mean, nobody can analyze
why that’s so. But it’s… in comedy, you really do have
to go for broke. And you really do have to listen and
create that moment. When you’re doing tragedy or you’re
doing a drama, the audience is respectful of whatever pause
you take and they go along with you. And you may take the
pause because you don’t remember your next line … but
they don’t know that. If you take that pause in comedy, you
have killed the laugh and are dead. If you walk into another
person’s laugh, you have thrown the timing of the play.
This is what makes it so delicate and what makes actors
so inter- ¬¬dependent on each other. And it’s why
we have such fun, I think, Eli and I, playing together. Because
I … we protect each other, on stage, you know for
laughs and things. I mean, if I ever walked into one
of his laughs …forget it! I could not go home that night.
I could not! I mean, the look I would get… I can’t describe
it to you. It’s the look right now.
Yeah, oh yeah. Oh, that’s it. That’s it. His eyes get
narrow and they come close together. And I get very
frightened. Once I broke up on stage, oh, God. Once, I’ve
done it a couple of times. But I was in a play that was a
very, very funny play called, “Luv,” “L U V”. And I broke
up on stage, because a man in the audience … don’t
forget, Alan Arkin was in this play and sat on my lap. For
starters, that’s funny. There was a man in the audience
whose wife evidently went into the bathroom whenever they
had a fight. And so I had a line where I said to Alan, when
I was trying to dump him… I say to him, why do you think
I was … what did you think I was doing in the bathroom
all night? Well, this man in the audience evidently had a
wife who went in and cried. And he got so hysterical that
he fell out of his seat. And I knew that I had to say the
line again. Well, so I couldn’t help it. The audience was
screaming with laughter and I started to laugh. And I said,
oh I’m sorry … oh I’m sorry, I said. I said, let’s all
have a good laugh. And then I went back in the play. Eli,
unfortunately, comes on the stage after that. And the
audience was under control. They loved it. They gave me a
round for admitting that I couldn’t go on. Alan and I were
in control. And he comes on and says, upstage, spitting at
me … amateur. Then facing the audience and I laugh again.
Now, we had a date with … I’m gonna name drop a big one.
Are you ready for this name? With Sir John Gielgud. And Sir
John was playing in “Tiny Alice” at the time. And we were
meeting him in Sardits, and of course, Eli said, I’m
reporting her. He came off stage, fuming. I mean, there was
smoke coming out of his nose and eyes. He said, I’m
reporting her to Equity. And I ran out of the theatre. I
was so ashamed. And I went into Sardi’s and I met Sir John
and I told him that I broke up on stage. And I said, Sir
John, have you ever broken up? And oh, he said to me …
well he said, well you know, Larry Olivier is a giggler.
I’m in very good company, how generous of you. I said, Sir
John, have you ever broken up on stage? And he said in that
marvelous, sonorous voice, Oh my God, I’d be too
frightened. That’s comedy. What happens to you Eli? Not Annie, but somebody
else. Well I … this truly happened. We talked
about … you talked about addressing an audience. And for
two years, I addressed an audience in a play called, “Tea
House of the August Moon”, both in London and here. And
half the part was in Japanese. And I was always terrified
that some night, a Japanese would stand up and point
at me and say, liar! You know … so there were four… I
could see very well. And there were four in the front row.
And the captain in the play says, tell the natives there’s
gonna be rice for everyone. And all the Japanese went out
of my head except, the school will have five sides like
the Pentagon. So he said, tell lem there’ll be rice. I said,
the schoolIll have five sides like the Pentagon.
And the Japanese in the audience thought I’d gone
crazy, and so did the actors on stage. That was one communication
with an audience. The other was, I came out one night,
in London at Her Majesty’s and sitting in the front row
was Winston Churchill. And I bowed, as the interpreter,
the little oriental Okinawan. I bowed… I bowed … and
I looked straight at him and I was as close as I am
to Paul. And I bowed. And he had a hearing aid and he went
like this. And I didn’t know if he turned it off or on. Well,
I … never was there more communication with one person
in the audience.
You’ve all talked about how much you’ve learned from other actors. But Annie said something
about, it takes twenty years to be an actress. And what happens in those twenty years? Where
do you go to learn this fine timing that we’re talking about now with the audience … of
comedy, for example. Where have you been? What have you been doing?
Acting. Where? Where? : (VOICES OVERLAP) audience
anywhere. : In front of an audience anywhere.
Here. Do you think this is how I really talk? Have you continued learning? Have you continued
working with other actors?
Absolutely. That’s what’s amazing about acting … about
learning. Paul mentioned Zero and what you learn from
watching people. You pick up odd things. I think when an
actor’s most relaxed is when he’s at his best. A lot of
things have been stored up here. If I put a bowl of oatmeal
under someone’s nose, they don’t have to do anything. But
they will invoke memories of all kinds of things … or
flowers … or smell, taste, all the senses are in play.
Now, I’ve been trying to get a laugh in this play … now
we’ve been playing since September 27th. I have not
succeeded. I told him how to get it.
Oh yes. We have a … we have an agreement, you see? It is
… the agreement seems to be that she can tell me anything
… make suggestions. As soon as I do, the hair stands up
on the back of her neck and it’s … don’t tell me and
don’t … how dare you destroy me and so on and so …
It’s the same thing out of the theatre. Once we had a fight on the way to the theatre.
We were doing a two character play. And we had this
fight. And I’m driving. Driving with Ann is an experience.
So I finally left the car at 70th Street, got out, slammed
the door and said, you take the damn car and you go to…
so she went. And she didn’t have her glasses. She got there
about five minutes late. And I’m sitting at the … getting
made up. And the lady who works for both of us, in
the dressing room … the dresser. And Ann looked in the mirror
and said, tell him I never want to see him again and
… And I said, you tell her I don’t care, that she’s not
gonna tell me how to drive. And so we get on stage, I kidnapped
her, tied her in a chair and said, shut up. Well it had
an extra added … And she talked about breaking up, ’cause
she looked at me and had a line. She said, don’t … I have
a husband and two children. I said, I don’t care. She said,
don’t you love anyone? I said, myself. She says, no
besides yourself. You mother? And I went, oohhh! And then, after
that she says to me…
You have kind eyes. Yes. Her line was, you have kind looking … you
have kind looking eyes. And I gave her a look, like
she … she could… she broke up.
What brings you back on again? How do you get back into character?
A look from her. Were you about to tell us about getting a
laugh that you’ve been trying since September…
I can’t get it. I’m still working on it. Oh, you are. I see. But she’s told you how
to do it. Yes, she has. But it doesn’t work.
Because he doesn’t do what I tell him. But you cannot go
for the laugh. I mean, he knows that, right? You have to
break the pattern and start all over again. Tell us about the famous Arthur Fontaine story,
about he used to get a laugh about … something about
asking for a cup of tea. And then he slowly lost it over
the course of the run. And then he started working it and
working and working it. And then he finally, in the dressing
room, said I don’t know. I’ve tried it and tried it.
She said, why don’t you just ask for the tea and not for
a laugh. And it, you know, it eventually got it back.
(VOICES OVERLAP) you are clever. If I could only do it…
Yes, of course if you can only do it. Well, you don’t have that problem, apparently.
Well no, but it’s… it’s interesting in terms of trying to
get laughs on… in working in film, it’s very different.
And I learned from some real masters. I had to do a scene,
I was playing Diahann Carroll’s boyfriend. And we were
supposed to have this fight. And the director kept saying,
well, there’s not enough in it, you know … more. So I
mean, he was telling her that basically. And being trained
in the stage, I thought, well maybe I’m not giving her
enough for her to come back. And so my performance got
bigger and bigger and bigger. And finally when it was
aired, I saw it and I was waiting for this great fight
scene. She was perfect. She had a little fire in her eye.
But I looked like Quasimodo, I mean… it was … and I
said, we had to like, change this to fit into this little
box, which took me … I’m still working on it. It’s trying
to get into fit into …. you see other actors, you say,
gee they’re not doing anything. And then you see it on
film, and it’s a revelation. It’s an ongoing process.
Sylvia gets a lot of laughs these days… Yeah.
And especially in the new play, “Crossing Delancey”. Tell
us about that. Well, it’s interesting, because … before,
David mentioned something about having this … you know,
desperate need to come back, you know, to the live stage like
we all do, because of maybe sterility if you’re doing
it behind the camera and so forth. But I’ve always found somehow or other, that’s the
only way, particularly if you’re doing a comedy part in a movie where there is obviously,
no audience. And it’s not so much that you’re playing it to the audience, but I’ve found
for some reason or other, if I were really into it… so into it that as in a stage performance,
not a motion picture performance, literally because I don’t do anything different. The
only difference is, because of the medium, I’ve learned to maybe control the physical
amount of effort that I will give. You know, I will, you know, make faces or be grotesque
or something on the screen. Because the littlest bit will look that way anyway. But I find
that the clues are watching like you are on the stage.
Yeah. And generally, if you think of yourself, in
a sense, doing that in a theatre performance, you know, you’ll
… the feedback will come that way, you now, for
that kind of… If you’re lucky.
That kind of thing. if you’re lucky. No, I don’t think…
It can be pretty (VOICES OVERLAP) But now I don’t do … but I don’t do too
much television, I do mostly motion pictures. And for some
reason or another, when they do hire legitimate actors,
the directors that hire them, they really expect you to
give a legitimate performance, by the way.
Yeah. Since we’re talking about audiences, have
you talked to the audience that’s coming into “Check Mates”?
This is a new kind of audience, coming into Broadway theatre.
Have I talked to them directly? Yeah.
We have question and answer things, after certain shows,
yes. Do you think they’re going to continue coming
in? Well, I certainly hope so.
Well I do, too. What I’m asking No, but I think it is. And it’s been increasing
and because we don’t do much advertising, it really is purely word of mouth. And it’s
a word of mouth show that has literally grown every week. It’s very gratifying.
That’s very good, to have a whole new audience come into Broadway.
Yeah. We’re going to have to take a break at this
point. And we’re going to ask for questions to the panelists. So at some point, make sure
that you have your questions ready and give it to someone from the American Theatre Wing,
who will come by and say, please have your questions and hand it in. Don’t go far away,
just stand up, stretch and come right down again. Thank you.
We’re continuing our discussion of what it is to work in
the theatre. I’m Isabelle Stevenson and these seminars on
working in the Theatre are part of the Wing’s program. And
they’re coming to you from the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York. We’re going to go right back where
we left off, on how you handle an audience and how the
audience handles you, with this splendid, splendid panel of
performers. Jean, would you like to pick up from here and go right on?
Where were we? Oh, let’s go on. You start. Well, the question was how do you handle an
audience or how does an audience handle you. An audience begins
to expect … you set up … I have set up a certain
personality here and Sylvia has and Eli has … we all have.
And so you expect us to say something funny to you, at
some point. So if we change and suddenly become serious,
the audience says “Oh no, that’s not what we were promised.
We were promised a good time and fun with this character.”
That happens in a play. You have to … that’s
why … we were just talking about getting laughs and style
in a play. The actor does not set the style. There’s no such
thing as playing style or playing nobility. You have
to play the situation the writer wrote, and through the
other actor that you’re playing with, it has to go through
that actor to you. We pretend you’re not there. We both
know you’re there, but we are trying to do something to
each other to make the scene. So that you … acting is,
in a sense, and especially in comedy acting, you say what
did so and so say to you, for example. You say, it’s not what
so and so said, it’s the way he said it. Now what does that
mean? It means that the way he said something made you respond
in a certain way. You say he’s a very odd man.
And you say, well why is he odd? Well I don’t know, it’s the
way he looks at you. So you notice it’s never the words or
the things. So that is … that is, in comedy acting, I think
probably one of the most important things that an actor
has to learn to do. To listen, to hear, and to play the situation
… to create that situation with the other actor,
so that you, the audience are overhearing. And that’s when
you have the most fun.
Well, I… Eli, do you want to argue with her?
No, I don’t … Actually, we were … a benefit … they
were honoring Mike Nichols who’s a master at comedy. And
the Master of Ceremonies was George Abbott, who’s a hundred
years old. And he had directed a young lady in a play and
she said to him, Mr. Abbott….this is the story Nichols
told…Mr. Abbott, I’ve lost the laugh. I used to get a
laugh. He said, where? She said, when I use the phone. You
remember, when I go to the telephone and I dial. And Abbott
said, show me how you do it. So she went over and dialed.
And he said, I’ll tell you why you lost the laugh. You
dialed the wrong number. Now, that’s very funny. But the
truth of the matter is, he was serious, because what she
did was dial all the ones, so … to get it over with
quickly, instead of really dialing the real number. And
that’s why she lost the laugh. I remember a story … Stella Adler once told.
It was … she had to murder somebody on stage and when
she went to get the knife, it wasn’t there. And there
was a bowl of fruit. And without stopping any of the original
motivation or whatever it was, she grabbed this banana,
and she killed the guy with a banana. Now, the point of the
story was that nobody knew that that wasn’t the way it was
supposed to be and nobody laughed, because of the fact that
she didn’t change the behavior to do … So it’s in the
same way… some… if the motivation or the reason that
you’re doing whatever you’re doing is for real, it will
always, in comedy, it will always evoke the response
whether it’s a large laugh, whether it’s a small laugh, whether
even the laugh isn’t there … the rhythm of it will
still be instilled in the audience, if it’s done for
real. For the effect, then you always lose it. And the audience,
by the way, is the first one to get that. And they
hate you when you do that.
I think Annie said it before, it’s important that the
audience realizes that what I say, I mean. And that’s the
whole crux of what you were saying. But it takes a lot to
get to that. And I’m going to keep coming back to where you
were before you got to that. Eli, talk about the theatre.
Well, I met two young men who had been honored in Dallas,
Texas. They’re budding actors … young actors. And they
come to New York, which is huge … which is a jungle, a
maze. And you think, how do I ever get started? The
theatre’s shrinking. I can give you all the negatives. And
still, there’s some little part of you that hopes that you
alone can come back and rejuvenate and revive the theatre.
That spirit in young people is wonderful. As we … you
know, it’s like those big seals … the young seals always
attack them. You know? And drive them off. And then they
go, king of the hill. I think the theatre is … has been a
fabulous invalid for a long time. And to quote John
Housman, who just died, if God looked down and said to him,
John you’ve got a choice … never mind … what would you
pick of all the media? And he’s say, I’d go back to the
theatre. That there, it’s the ultimate challenge. We have
two daughters who are actresses. And every time they’re
rejected, we go home and Ann says, why do we have to live
through it twice? But, you must have built within you that
spark which says I will not be rejected. I will make it.
The way, it seems to me now with the shrinking Broadway
theatre and the price of tickets and so on, is to go to the
regional theatres. Booker T. Washington, a famous black
scientist who invented peanut butter, said… Peanut butter?
Yes. He did… Among other things.
And peanut oil and so on, who said, cast your buckets where
you are. Don’t build it here, build where you are, grow
where you are. Insights, brilliance, talent is not endemic
to New York City. It exists all over the United States. So
that people from away from here think with an inferiority
complex about their ability. It’s not true. It’s not true.
So go back, make your theatre where you are. Build it so
that this … the New York theatre’s becoming like a huge
vacuum cleaner. It sucks up… it used to build and develop
things here and ship it out. Now, it looks to Louisville,
Kentucky, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles… London.
London, wherever, put it on roller skates and put a cat in
it, and you got…But that unfortunately is what Broadway
has become. They don’t take chances anymore. It’s too
expensive. We’re in a play now that has eighteen actors. To
do that play on Broadway would cost almost a million
dollars, with an exquisite set. A set where the people gasp
as the lights come up, where some people say, my God,
they’ve kept that Cafe Royale in storage all these years
… and now rebuilt it. But. the problem the actor has in
facing the theatre, he’s got to have guts, a thick skin and
a determination to survive. But Eli, everybody wants to come to New York,
not necessarily Broadway, Off Broadway, Off Off
Broadway, but New York. New York goes out to the regional
theatres and does go out to London, but the mecca is New
York. As an actor, have you any idea of why or how we
can bring the ticket prices down, bring the audiences into
the theatre, into…(VOICES OVERLAP)
Well, we’re operating in a unique theatre, in West…
And the audience goes there and you’re not cheap anymore,
either, down there. It’s twenty five dollars a ticket. But he
gives away … oh, he has twelve dollar and fifty ticket
… twelve dollars and fifty cents for senior citizens
or people who sit on the chairs and wait. But it’s only
three hundred seats. Now, I said to a business manager of
a Broadway theatre, why can’t we move this play uptown
and take twenty five dollars, that’s it. All seats
twenty five dollars. He says, the audience will say, what’s
wrong with the play?
Oh, I don’t agree with that. Well, that’s … that I can’t … now I said,
then I would take out an ad in the paper and say, top of
the line, “Tickets are twenty five dollars, there’s
nothing wrong with this play. We love it and we hope you
will. If you don’t like it, we’ll give you back your money”.
The man said, you’ll be in an institution. I said,
no you won’t. What are you getting? What are you getting?
Do you know? In
the … what am I… What is your ticket price?
Oh, the top is thirty seven fifty. Uh huh. And you’re getting full houses on
that? Uh huh.
Mostly. There’s a … there is that difference in it.
Yes, but there’s also the gimmick of the line, you know,
the line on… Half ticket…(VOICES OVERLAP)
… half, right, So you make the price fifty dollars, so
you sell a twenty five dollar ticket. I went to the
Shuberts and said, why don’t I take out an ad…we were
doing a two character play called “Twice Around the Park”.
Why don’t I take an ad with a picture of those people on
line, freezing in the snow and the rain. And say, look,
don’t stand on the line there. We’ll give you hot coffee.
Come to the box office and I’ll sell you the ticket for the
same price. They said, you can’t do that. You’ll destroy
the whole structure of fifty dollar tickets for twenty five
dollar tickets. So… Isabelle, part of the problem is that during
the so to speak glorious days of the American theatre, you know, and this … New York was
it’s mecca, the producers and the people who were putting on the plays, the angels, the
producers, were people who loved the theatre … were theatre buffs … were people who
were imbued with the love of the theatre from the time they grew up and their dream was
to become a producer. So much of it has become a business. And businessmen and the business
practices … corporate practices that have proven successful in the corporate takeovers
has sort of come into the theatre. So that… You mean it’s because of the high cost of
service today. Right. So that where we should be…
We’ll get back to Working in the Theatre. Where we should be talking … these actors
who are coming from out of town, to hone their craft and
to constantly study and to constantly do workshops, where
actually, these things now are done. Most of the productions
are done in workshops as opposed to out of town tryouts,
to associate themselves with a group so that they can learn,
at the same time…
That’s very good advice. Neil Simon wrote a…
Very good, thank you. Neil Simon wrote a small skit about room service.
A young man … what’s his name? Stiller and Meara, they did it. He calls up room service
and says, hello room service? I want a bacon and tomato sandwich and the bacon should be
crisp and so on. And I want Amadeus. And she says, what room are you in? He said, three
fourteen. She says, Amadeus is on the ninth floor, and it’s booked for a month. He says
… she says, well, she says, I’ll send you ‘Night Mother …. says, the room service.
He says, I don’t want ‘Night Mother, it deals with suicide. I don’t want that from room
service. He says, what can you have? She says, we’ll send you James Whitmore, he’ll do anything.
We’re now going to open this session to questions from the audience. And I don’t know how we’re
going to get in all the questions that people have been wanting to ask this very talented
panel here, but we’re going to try. Hello, I’m Roz Dunn. And my question to the
panel is, what were your best and worst audition experiences
in the theatre?
Anybody. How do you feel about auditioning? Anyone. Let’s
take that around. It’s a necessary evil. I don’t know if this.
I’ve been a director too, and there’s sort of no other
way to pick the actor, I think. You know, that I think we’ve
discovered. Unless you know the actor and have seen his
other performances. And know he’s right for it.
So it’s like a necessary evil, but it … as an actor, it’s
just… it’s the hardest thing in the world. I have never…
felt good in auditioning. I just can’t do it. And…
’cause I only think that I work well in four weeks of rehearsal.
But the best and worst … gosh. one of the best was
for “Travesties”, where Peter Wood, the director,
just came up and we just talked it through. We talked it
through this way and and through that way. And actually,
Austin Pendleton for “Spoils of War”, when I came
and auditioned for that. We just, it was he and Peter Weller,
we just talked it out. It was just an easy thing.
And we tried this and we tried that. And it was like a little
rehearsal. But … and then the worst was probably the first
professional audition I did, which was for Bill Ball. And
ACT had just come to town and I remember coming into … the
new offices were just plywood and … half finished offices.
And then you were ushered into Bill Ball’s office and
it was, you know, carpets and hanging ferns and this twelve
foot desk and a model of the “Tiny Alice” sat on the
desk. And Bill in one of those rattan…Tennessee Williams
rattan chairs and his Spanish hat and his boots, sort of
saying, what do you have for me? And I said, they told me
I wasn’t going to have to audition, this was just a meeting.
And he said, well it’s not. What do you have? And I said
“do you have “The collected works.” I did Benedict from
“Much Ado”. And he said, it’s on the shelf over there. So
you pick up the thing. And I remember looking at it and going
over “Much Ado”. And then getting up, and I start and
I say, I do much wonder … ring, ring, ring … the phone
rings. So I stop and he says, oh no, don’t stop. It’ll
ring all the way through. Through the course of my first audition
for my first professional company, there were three
telephones and two burst ins… oh Bill, oh! Sorry! That
was my worst audition. And I went out of there saying,
well my professional career will never begin. And…
Did you audition for “M Butterfly”‘? Oh yeah. I came in and auditioned for that.
I flew in and auditioned. It was very nice, very professional.
I got there, read my three scenes, and they said,
thank you very much. And Paul Sorvino walked up, next. And,
you know. And then … then they waited and waited and … to
finally make a decision. You know, ’cause then, they
waited till too late, and they only gave me two weeks’
rehearsal in the end. Because they couldn’t make a decision.
Well, who else … Eli? Well, you…
Do you still audition? You wanna … no, yeah, I think of my first
audition, for … Josh Logan said to me, I want you to audition for Rogers and Hammerstein
for a musical called “South Pacific”. I said, well I can’t sing. I can’t. He said, you won’t
have to sing, just read. And I walked out on the stage and this blackness out there.
And I said… I read. And he said, thank you very much. And a voice said, now sing. And
I said … and the pianist came running up to me and said, what key? And I whispered
to the pianist… I figured the only thing to do would be ad lib. So I whispered to him,
he went back to the piano. I put an imaginary coin in an imaginary phone. And said, hello?
(SINGS) I’ll be down to get you in a taxi, honey. And I hung up and said, I can’t do
it. I got butterflies in my stomach. And they said, we’ll get you a real phone next time.
And I didn’t get the part. Next.
My name is Liliana Komorovska and I would like to address
it to the whole panel. Do you ever get stage fright? If
yes, well … what … how do you deal with this?
I’ll answer that. I went into a play called Major Barbara,
after it had been running. And it’s a play by Shaw. And …
with Charles Laughton. And I knew my lines. But I was so
nervous and so rushed into this play. And he … when he
directed me, said, and I don’t want you to make a fist or
move your eyes and I want you to play this as though it was
camera. So I… I was doing this speech in the play with
him. And I got what they call an anxiety attack? Where my
heart was beating a mile a minute and I … and I could
hear my own voice. And I didn’t sound like any… I hated
what I sounded like. I wanted to get off the stage. It was
the worst … worst feeling that I’ve ever, ever had. And
the only way I got rid of that, was by saying I cannot play
this with the idea of playing for a camera in my head. I
have got to… I have got to defy Charles Laughton, who is
the star of this play… I have got to defy him and not be
looking where he tells me to look. And I did that. I came
to the theatre and I did that. I didn’t do anything I was
told to do. Well he played his poverty speech the best he
ever played it that night. I don’t know how good I was,
but I was the defiant daughter. And when I came off stage,
he said to me … a line in the play … he sent for me. I
went to his dressing room and I thought, well the … he
can only fire me. That’s the only thing that he can do. And
that’s it. And I went into the dressing room and he looked
at me through the mirror and he said, a line in the play
was to his son. You have earned your latch key. And that’s
what I mean by Greek performing. I went out of the dressing
room, I looked up and I thought, oh my God! I played like
the Greeks! Thank you. This is for David Dukes and anyone
else who has experienced this or knows about it, from hearsay. What is the best or worst
thing about taking over a role already created by another actor?
Well, I’ve done it a few times. The best thing is you get
to see other performances and you can pick and choose. So
you can steal the good things and throw away what you don’t
like. So I… I used to call it selective theft. And I’d
just … you know, that works, so I’ll take that. And, you
know, and that doesn’t. The hard part is that you’re
getting on… for instance, with “M Butterfly”, you’re
getting on a production that’s just moving like this (SNAPS
FINGERS). And you … you’re coming into a production that
is a success, not because of anything you have done. It is
a big success for reasons other than you. So you have to
support all that. You have to make sure that every other
actor’s performance still works. You’re … I’m opposite a
Tony Award winning performance, so I’m not gonna destroy
that performance. But you also have to bring your own
individual stamp to it. And how that is done, I… I don’t
know. But I … you just sort of figure it out each time
out. But it’s… that’s the hard part, is to come in
and into it, what the playwright and the directors, ’cause
they’re two different contributions … what each of their
contributions are. And make them both work. And still keep
the play going and bring what you … whatever you think is
a new energy to it. And I… it’s just a delicate balance
that you strike every time. That’s all I can tell you.
Thank you. Thank you. Very good.
Hi, I’m Patrick O’Leary and I have a question for the whole
panel. I wanted to know what qualities you look for in a
director, and what qualities you try and bring out in a
director, in order for the entire piece … to be
effective. I think Nellie should answer that. Miss Nelligan,
I think you should answer that.
I just try, you know, if he’s anything short of a
psychopath, it’s basically my rule. We all laugh because it
… not … my career has been … ninety percent of my
life is not finding the character. It’s being able to work
with that person who doesn’t understand that they work in a
way that is entirely different from every other person
you’ve ever worked with. This year, for instance, I’ve
worked with Max Staffercrock and Austin Pendleton in the
same year. Went from a man who’s … who told you how many
inches a step you should take … should be … six and a
half inches. And if it was eight, you were told. In a
production that was wildly, wildly successful and a
director’s piece. I mean, “Serious Money” was….a tour de
force for a director and an ensemble company. And then to
Austin, who’s method is entirely to do with patience and
non involvement, except when absolutely essential. It’s
like being with an ultimate Freudian shrink. I mean, you go
years, nothing said. And you… I really… I mean, I’m
being lighthearted, but I really do mean it that… it’s
extremely difficult to be a successful actor, if you define
a successful actor as someone who can work with … with
the directors, each of whom is entirely, entirely different. And it is a big, big part of the
job. Do you have any preference of which … which
type of director you prefer?
Austin is the first American director I’ve ever worked
with. I’ve only worked with French, German, English
directors. This is the first… incredibly… I’ve been
doing this for so many years. It’s the first American
director. So I say that, because I mean, my whole training
and everything was with a… I guess a more, if Austin is
representative of things here, what I’ve been used to and
the people that I grew up with were used to, was a far more
formal approach to the business of directing. A far more
intrusive approach. And this was, by far, the most
laissez faire I’ve ever… I’ve ever worked with. So maybe
that is or is not representative, I don’t know. But it was
extremely wonderful and fun. Does anyone else want to take this?
I just briefly … I’ve been a member of the Actors Studio for a long time. And I think
one of the best things I got from Lee Strasberg in all those years, was how to work without
a director. That you can bring a performance, without any help from anyone else .. or not
help… (VOICES OVERLAP) a new invention.
Yeah. No, I don’t agree with that. No I don’t agree
with that. I do think it’s wonderful training for an actor
to be able to bring something. But I think…
You have a method … methodology… You have to bring something to the director,
because then he choreographs the whole thing. And it’s
when you think that … a good director makes you think that
you have created…
Created… That by yourself. And I notice that Kate didn’t
use the word permissive, because Austin is not a permissive
director. He is … that was a very good description of
him. I’ve seen his productions. He has a concept of the
entire thing. And that’s terribly, terribly important for
the actor, to have a director who makes you think, yes
you’ve done it. And then who … Kazan, was a genius at
that. And then who brings that production, and makes it…
But don’t you find, Ann, that if you’re working with people
less than Kazan… Yes.
And most are less than Kazan, that very, very often there is no view –
Or not a coherent view. I tend to think that younger actors, people
younger than me and my… I mean, there are no more Kazans.
And we weren’t trained by people of that caliber, a lot of,
you know, or had exposure to that kind of thing. And an
awful lot of … and I’m not… I don’t think I’m being too
cynical … an awful lot of the life of an actress is surviving
the director you’re dealing with. Just surviving.
I took a … I studied with Harold Clerman, who actually
taught, you know, actors to how to, in a sense, direct
themselves. And, you know, similarly to Lee Strasberg, in
case of such an occasion. But then when I worked in England
and I played the reps, Chichester and Nottingham, that the
actors were sort of shocked when I said, well let’s work
this out, you know, tonight in the hotel room, or whatever.
And then we’ll bring it in tomorrow to save all that
trouble. And they looked at me sort of askance and wondered
how I would have the temerity to even dare to talk to
another actor. Because they don’t make a move without the
director. on the other hand, I find if you don’t, you know,
with us in America, the director’s usually happy if you
come in and bring everything in. Then he can work with the
people that maybe are not quite that, you know what I mean,
creative on their own. Or, you know, whatever. Once more, I have to interrupt you. I keep
do ing this all the time, at this very important part of the
seminars on working in the Theatre. This is the Performance
Seminar. And these wonderful performers have been analyzing
and discussing and cooperating with each other
on what it is to work in the theatre. I’m reminded of a line
in Eli’s play, “Cafe Crown”, in which he … someone says
“My goodness! I’ve been in the theatre all my life and I
have… I’ve learned more in three weeks, working with
this man, than I have in all of the years of working in the
… I think that we have learned more in an hour and a half
with these people of … than anybody could get in schools
or training or any place else that you might go. We’re
now talking about the directors. And tomorrow, there’s
going to be the time for the directors to tell us how they
feel about the actors. This is the seminars on Working in
the Theatre. I’m Isabelle Stevenson. They are coming to you
from the Graduate Center of the City University of
New York. This is but one of the programs … one of the services
of the American Theatre Wing, which is a year round
organization. I am so pleased that you were all here. And
I thank you very much. And I hope that you will continue
to watch, Working in the Theatre Seminars. Thank you.