Performance (Working In The Theatre #278)

(APPLAUSE) A warm welcome to the American
Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars, now in their 25th year, coming to
you from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. These seminars offer a rare opportunity
to explore the realities of working in the theatre. Today’s seminar is devoted to performers.
We will learn how they became professionals, their work ethic, and their reasons for being
in the theatre. We hope that you will enjoy and learn from today’s experience. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the
Board of the American Theatre Wing. And now, let me introduce our moderators. For this
seminar, first, a distinguished member of the theatrical community, and Chairman of
the Board of the Eugene O’Neill Theater, George White. And Pia Lindstrom, theatre critic
and TV personality. Now, please. (APPLAUSE) Thank you. And next to me is Swoosie Kurtz,
a fantastic performer that we have all enjoyed so much. (APPLAUSE) She’s won two Tony Awards,
for FIFTH OF JULY and HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES, and now she is a double threat in THE MINEOLA
TWINS. She’s also won an Emmy, and nine Emmy nominations. And next to her, the fantastic Brian Dennehy.
(APPLAUSE) A former football player, who gave up the playing fields for playing on the boards.
He’s been in over forty films, but it is for his theatrical performances that I think
he is going to be just honored for years. He is, as you know, Willy Loman in DEATH OF
A SALESMAN, and it is a riveting performance. Thank you, Pia. On my immediate left is Elizabeth
Franz, who is recreating her 1998 role of Linda Loman in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. (APPLAUSE)
And also won the nomination for Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Kate Jerome in BRIGHTON BEACH.
(LAUGHTER) Next to her is the extraordinarily well-groomed
Matthew Broderick (MATTHEW PATS DOWN HIS HAIR; LAUGHTER) today. In joke, sorry about that.
Who is playing Dan in NIGHT MUST FALL and is the Tony Award winner for his performance
in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. (APPLAUSE) On the far left, which is not a political
statement (LAUGHTER), is Kathleen Chalfant, who actually was the understudy for Elizabeth
Franz (LAUGHTER) in the Playwrights Horizons production of SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS
IT ALL FOR YOU. And played many times. Played it on Sundays, I think. But actually,
now, she is doing a wonderful performance of Vivian Bearing in the marvelous play, WIT,
currently. (APPLAUSE) Pia, over to you. Yes. To get things started, each one of you
has, in this play and in other plays, a moment that you coalesce somehow the whole meaning
of the play, I have noticed. And I direct this specifically to Elizabeth Franz, because
you’ve done it a couple of times in other plays and you do it again. And I’m very
interested in the development, as you read the text how you arrive at the central core
moment? That’s a wonderful question, because it
is from reading. Reading, reading the play, with your fellow actors. And as we’re sitting
around – how long did we work around this table? And we read and discussed it and said,
“Now, this moment is this and this moment is that.” And then when we get up on our
feet, and then the characters become developed inside of us, before we know it, those moments
are there. And they’re magical, in a way, through the eyes of the other actors, you
know. It’s a total ensemble effort of developing that, those moments. I think, you know, Pia, bringing that up also
relates to the whole business of researching a character, too, which comes into that. Yes. Which we all do, have different ways
of researching. I think Elizabeth was a little startled when
she got working with us. Falls and I have done a lot of stuff together, and we spend
the first two weeks of the rehearsal period telling stories. (LAUGHTER) Funniest stories you’ve ever heard in your
life. And the last thing in the world you would
think, if you walked into that rehearsal room, is to think that these people were rehearsing
DEATH OF A SALESMAN. (LAUGHTER) HELL’S A-POPPIN’ might be more like it. (LAUGHTER) But there
is some kind of catharsis that comes out of all this. We became a family that way, through those
stories. It works. And I think it’s also true that the more
difficult the material, the more laughter there is in the rehearsal period. Yeah. Because you have to keep yourself alive. Because it seems so impossible to do. Yes, yes. (LAUGHS) Right. And I wanted to add something to what Elizabeth
said about these moments coalescing, because you begin with the text and then the company,
and then the final part of the equation is when the audience comes. The audience, yes. And they’ll lead you. And that makes the moments fly. Do you play off the audience? Yes. That is, it stimulates you? Yes. I mean, it’s who you’re communicating
with. And you hear it? What, breathing? We’re
not that noisy in the audience, are we? No, no. But you can hear the silence, the
attention. Yeah. Ah, ah. The silence. There’s a palpable energy and an electricity
that either comes or doesn’t. Umm-hmm. I mean, that’s one of the exciting and terrifying
things about live theatre, and I think one reason we all do it is that immediacy. Like,
you’re all giving us energy right now. We’re getting energy from you. We’re giving it.
It’s really tangible. I mean, it’s an electromagnetic field. And some nights you’ll
go out and there’s no electricity in the air. It’s a terrible feeling! (LAUGHTER) No matter what you do, no matter how hard
you try, and you know, you tend to push it then, which is bad, it ain’t going to be
there that night. It’s amazing. Some chemical reaction of that collective.
You all take on a collective personality. And some nights, you can’t put a foot wrong,
it’s just like (SNAPS FINGERS) you’re flowing, you’re just channelling. The play is playing
itself. Those nights when you feel like you’re performing
to (COUGHS) a group of tuberculosis patients. (LAUGHTER) Oh, yeah. All coughing! They laugh on the punch line! February was a particularly bad month. I always want to stop the show and say, “Okay
now, everybody cough! Go ahead, cough, cough for the next two minutes. All right, that’s
it! Fine, let’s go on.” And people have various strategies about coughing.
There are people who cough on the punch line, and then there are people who wait for the
silences, thinking that they won’t [interrupt], you know. Yeah. How about this one? “Unh-hunh-hunh-hunh-hunh-hunh-hunh-HUNH!”
(LAUGHTER) Yes, and it goes on. Is that necessary? The ones that drive me nuts are the ones sitting
out there saying, “Hunh! I’m here, too! What about me?” (LAUGHTER) But then, that’s where the professionalism
comes in. What do you do when you have that kind of an audience? As a professional what
do you do about it? Well, my teeth are worn down, I gotta tell
you, from grinding my teeth. (LAUGHTER) Trying to keep from crying! I’m instantly in a rage, is what happens
to me. Really? It makes you angry? Sometimes. But I find that I have to, every
now and then, remind myself not to just focus on it. Sometimes you can get obsessed with
that. The audience. Particularly if you’ve been in a run for
a while. Suddenly you find yourself, all I’m doing is listening to whether three people
cough in this moment (LAUGHTER) or one person coughed. That’s true! Maybe somebody did have a cough, you know?
It doesn’t always mean — (LAUGHTER) Well, it’s true! And so sometimes, I think it’s
good to remember that there is a play on stage, too, you know? (LAUGHTER) You know what I
mean? You can go [too far]. Although you’re definitely always listening. But you play a kind of crazy guy, so maybe
it would feed into your rage there in this play you’re doing. So you could use it,
maybe! Yeah, that’s true. No, you try to use everything. You don’t have the luxury of Kurt Masur,
who walked off the podium because of the coughing, and then walked back on. Oh right, right. Although, there’s something for you to try!
(LAUGHTER) No, sometimes, it’s hostile. Yes, yes. It is? Sometimes the coughing is a way of way of
saying, “I don’t like this,” I think. Sometimes you can tell? You feel it. You can feel that? Sometimes, sometimes. That they’re not really giving their all
to it? (COUGHS) “I already get where you’re going,”
you know. (COUGHS) “I know, I know, I know.” I think when there are those moments that
we’re talking about, nobody coughs. Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, that’s why you think, ‘cause other
times it’s like – Because I’ve been in theatres, it’s dead
silence. Silence. Yeah, and that’s a great feeling. And you wonder where the coughers are, and
I think that you just don’t cough at that point. Yes. Well, that’s why it’s so frustrating.
Because you know, when you have those moments, and all of a sudden everybody forgets to cough,
obviously, most people don’t have to cough when they do. (CLEARS HIS THROAT; LAUGHTER)
But I think you’re right, Matthew, about the fact that it can indicate [hostility].
I think maybe that’s what’s so frustrating about it. Yeah. Because it indicates to you, “I’m screwing
up.” Exactly. It’s our responsibility. (GENERAL
AGREEMENT) Lack of interest, yes. Our job is to communicate, communicate the
text. “I’ve done something wrong.” And Ralph
Richardson described acting as “the art of keeping eight hundred people from coughing,”
and that’s not a bad definition. That’s wonderful! (LAUGHS) One of your jobs is to keep them from coughing. And I think that one of the things you do
when that happens, when you begin to feel that you’re losing the audience, and it
can be coughing, or the dread cellophane. That’s a bad one. I actually feel people should be patted down
for cellophane (LAUGHTER) before they come into the theatre. That’s right, yes. Strip search! How about
phones? Oh, phones! Oh, bad. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) That’s the latest. We get that a lot. What about the cardboard cups with the ice
in it, though? Oh, that’s bad! Now, that’s something brand new. (MATTHEW
SLURPS) They’re supposed to make sure that the cups are not there, but you hear the guy
clicking with the ice. I love this! What a motive for homicide that is! (LAUGHTER) But I think what you do, finally, after you
get over the immediate rage, figuring out what row the guy is in, (LAUGHTER) is try
harder. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You know, you just sort of [try].
The job here is to get people’s attention, and that’s what you do, finally. Because
usually, we don’t pick up set pieces and hurl them into the audience, which is the
immediate response, because indeed it is a partnership between what’s going on on the
stage and what’s happening in the audience. And you also can’t focus on that one person
who’s screwing it up for everybody else. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Right. Because there are the other ninety-nine
percent. The silent majority. Hundreds of other people. I mean, in the middle
of the play the other night, this woman, I don’t know if she just had a little synapse
or what, but she went, (YELLS) “Debbie! (LAUGHTER) There you are!” And I almost
went, “Huh?” (LAUGHTER) And I had to like really work to [ignore it]. She suddenly thought
she saw Debbie, and she’d been looking for her for years, you know? And then people who
talk out loud, who are used to watching television. And the other night, because I’m playing
identical twins, we’d gotten through the entire play, with just wonderful silence and
attention and laughing. And suddenly, in the last scene, this woman way back in the house
goes, “Which one is she?” (LAUGHTER) And it’s like, “Oh, she’s followed it up
till now … “ (LAUGHTER) You know, so you just have to concentrate, concentrate, concentrate.
Focus, focus! And what’s interesting is that you know
from all of us that there are two kinds of consciousness going on all the time on the
stage. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) The consciousness that’s in the world of the play. And you
know, we’re not insane, so we know what’s happening in the outside world. And for years,
you think, “Oh, my God, there must be something wrong with me!” until you talk to your colleagues
and discover that everybody does that, and that’s the job!
SWOOSIE KURZ Don’t you wish, though – can I ask you
other actors a question? Yes, yes, yes.
SWOOSIE KURZ Don’t you wish you could turn off that little
editorial voice that’s always watching you. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) “Oh, that was good!
Whoa, missed that laugh! Whoop, that didn’t go. That worked better last night.” Well, when you’re at your best, don’t
you think you’re not hearing that? When you’re at your best?
SWOOSIE KURZ Yeah, yeah. Or you know, the odd time when you have a
good time, or a scene goes, and you think, “Wow, I don’t even know why that went
well, but it went well.” Yeah. It’s just so thrilling, and before you know
it, you’re in the dressing room. But you can always remember afterward what
happened, which is a kind of wonderful thing. It’s quite a remarkable thing to do. SALESMAN is interesting, because it makes
people talk back to the cast. Howard Witt plays Charlie, and there’s this great scene
towards the end of the play, where he, in effect, offers me a job out of charity. And
we’ve got that scene pretty honed. So he says, “I’ll give you a job, just for the hell
of it,” whatever it is, and there’s this pause. And somebody in the audience says,
“Take the job!” (LAUGHTER) And I say to myself, “Jesus, if I did take the job, we
could all go home right now!” (LAUGHTER) Right, it would be all fixed! You’d be out in forty-five minutes. I wouldn’t mind, some nights! It’s a different direction. I’ve got to face Kevin Anderson at the end,
when he beats the crap out of me! (LAUGHTER) Well, you know, there is the old vaudeville
thing, which was the old rubric, which is, if they cough, go back five minutes. That’s
really for playwrights. You know, back up five minutes, because somewhere five minutes
earlier, you lost ‘em. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Do you see a difference in audiences, as you
have gone through from play to play through the years? Is there a difference in today’s
audiences from the ones ten years ago, going to the theatre? No. It’s always interesting to me that people
often attack the audience. And I’ve been in the theatre in New York for twenty-six
years, and played only for American audiences, and I find them astounding. New York audiences, yes. New York audiences are amazing, smart! They’re not better than Chicago. (LAUGHTER) No, no, Chicago’s a great town. Is that right? I don’t know, I’ve never
played in Chicago. But I mean, American audiences, because I think we’ve all played all around
the country. The best audiences I’ve ever played to are
in Dublin, I have to tell you. We did ICEMAN COMETH in Dublin, and they were the smartest.
There’s a whole sequence that starts in the first act, when Jimmy Tomorrow, he’s
always talking about, “I’m going to go to the laundry tomorrow, I’m going to get
my suits out of the thing.” And what happens, it’s a repetition of a theme, and usually,
by the third or fourth time he does that, the American audiences would start to laugh,
getting the joke, because this guy was always talking about tomorrow, which of course is
true. In Dublin, because of the Irish (LAUGHS), the first time he said it, there was a scream,
because they knew exactly what the guy was about. Knew where you were going. They were so smart. They’re such a literate
bunch over there. Was this at the Abbey Theatre? At the Abbey, yeah. But I find, you know our play is about cancer
and John Donne. You would think, box office poison. (LAUGHTER) But in fact, people have
been coming, and the audiences are immensely sophisticated about John Donne. And it’s
everybody. You know, we’ve now run out of our friends, so it can’t just be people
we know. (LAUGHTER) Audiences are coming to the play. And I think that people come if it’s good.
And if it’s good, people get what it is that you’re – in fact, not what you’re,
but what the writer is trying to say. Because in the end, that’s what we’re doing. Our
job is to communicate what the writer meant to say. And I’m now in this play called
WIT and the last play that I was in that won a Pulitzer Prize was ANGELS IN AMERICA, another
extremely difficult, and then, very long play. This is a short one, that was a very long
play. And people flocked to it and understood it – it was very difficult and sophisticated
– because it was good. That’s what’s so exciting this year. Yeah! This year is so exciting, because there are
so many wonderful plays on, serious straight plays. Some three hours – ours is three
hours, ten minutes, sometimes. Yeah. Unfortunately, most of them are fifty
years old. Yeah, unfortunately. And we were discussing
that. The American playwright is an endangered species right now. But we do have these wonderful
plays, whereas last year it was all musicals, a few years back. And here we are, we have
a community of actors that we see each other constantly. Now, we’re all back on the boards.
It’s the most exciting season in many, many years! I bought a boater yesterday. You did? Yeah, a straw hat I’m going to start wearing.
Back on the boards! (LAUGHTER) Well you know, that is interesting. And of
course, WIT is a new play. And it brings me back to the idea of research, too. Because
I mean, the plays, almost all the plays that are represented here, with the exception of
WIT, have had a life. And I wonder how influenced or non-influenced you are with the roles.
I mean, you know, Lee J. Cobb was the first one. And I’m just thinking about it. I can’t
go back to NIGHT MUST FALL, (LAUGHTER) I don’t know who played Dan. But I wish I could haul
that one out of my memory, though. Emlyn Williams, the writer. Was the writer? It was Williams, okay. Wrote it for himself? Yeah. Robert Montgomery did the movie, and
Albert Finney did another movie. Yeah? So how influenced are [you]? There’s
a lot of things I want. And the other thing is, in terms of SALESMAN, there was a hiatus
to a degree, wasn’t there, between then and here? Yes. A month, something like that. How do you get that back? Or what do you do?
Did you change anything, from Chicago to here? These are a lot of questions. Well, the set changed. The set had been reduced,
much smaller. But we just went back to the boards. We went back to the table. Sat around
and read it, and we had Arthur there. The difference was that Arthur was there.
(LAUGHS) Arthur there, yes. Which was a little bit intimidating. Yes, it was. I kept watching. We were rehearsing on stage,
Arthur was sitting at the table, next to Bob Falls, the director. And I was watching Falls
and Falls was watching Miller. (LAUGHTER) Right, right, yes. But we got through it all right, he liked
it. And he had wonderful notes, extremely helpful. Wonderful notes, extremely, oh. I mean, why shouldn’t he be? (LAUGHTER)
But he was great. And he loves this production, and he’s been a real part of it. So that’s
been a real positive. And it was exciting, having those six weeks
off. Because we were rested. Also, the character had lived inside of us, knowing that it’s
coming out again. And kind of like soup, it just gets so flavored. (LAUGHS) Well, also, there was kind of an extraordinary
tension about this situation, because of the 50th anniversary. They decided to reopen the
play on exactly the 50th anniversary, so there was a tremendous amount of hoopla about it,
and that’s good and bad. Umm-hmm. It can really take your focus away. But we
all survived it, we got through it. And it’s been good. What’s the bad part of it? I know what the
good part of it is. Well, it’s distracting. It can be distracting.
You know, you say to yourself, that last week before you open, you say, “If I can just
get through all of this stuff and just do the play.” Yes. And of course, you never really get through
all the stuff. Because there’s always something else, yeah. Because there’s always something else, yeah. But it is the judging, which is often the
most difficult part of a production. And you just think, “If we get through the day when
the New York Times comes, then we get the play back. Whatever happens.” Yeah. Whatever anybody says, whether it’s well
received or not. From the day that the New York Times comes until the play closes, it’s
ours and the audience’s. And it’s a great feeling. Well, we had the very peculiar situation of
having gotten a rave review (LAUGHS) from Ben Brantley in the New York Times in Chicago. Yes. Which is one of the reasons why the play came
to New York. And so now we’re opening in New York, and we’re going to get reviewed
again! (LAUGHTER) You have to do it again! Yes, I know, scary!
(GENERAL AGREEMENT) I would say to myself, “The way my career
goes, he’ll hate it in New York!” (LAUGHTER) I mean, we were all saying that. We were terrified. But no, we got through that, thank God. It was a terrifying situation. Well, yours is not reality-based. We have
these heavy stories going on here. You are in a fantasy world here. Surreal, you play. But a serious play, this play, too. Yeah! I mean, it’s very real in a way. When
I first read it, I thought, “This is brilliant, but I don’t understand a word of it.”
I mean, I really didn’t. The writing is so breathtaking, and it’s hilarious, but
it is very dark and very biting and painful underneath. And it’s just a feast for an
actor. I just get to do everything. Yes, you’re two people, so you take all
the parts! Yeah, I get all the parts! (KATHLEEN LAUGHS)
All those times in your life as an actor where you’re saying, “God, I wish I had more
scenes! I wish I had more lines! (LAUGHTER) Why couldn’t I have gotten her part?”
You know, you’re sitting backstage reading or needlepointing. I am going, like, “Could
we cut this speech?” (LAUGHTER) I mean, I never stop talking. The only time I’m
off stage is to make seventeen split-second wardrobe and wig changes. And intermission.
(LAUGHTER) Yes, but unlike you guys, it’s a brand-new
play by Paula Vogel. And it’s brilliant. Yeah, not only do I get to play two people,
Myra and Myrna, the good twin and the bad twin, but I get to play them from age seventeen
to like late forties. So really, I’m playing eight or ten different people, because you’re
a different person at seventeen than you are at thirty-five, whatever. And we start in
the Eisenhower administration, we go through to the Bush-Reagan years. And it’s a ride
for me and the audience. What did you do for research on that? Or did
you? I’ve never been to Mineola. (LAUGHTER) Aw, gee! I believe in research to a certain extent,
as much as it’s practical, as much as it will immediately help you apply to the play.
You know, I just don’t think that you have to have gouged out your lover’s eyes to
play MEDEA. (LAUGHTER) You know, that’s what we do. I mean, that’s our technique,
is “What if I wanted to murder someone?” You know, that’s where the imagination comes
in and that’s where our art comes in. And obviously, yeah, if you’re playing a doctor,
you know, definitely as much research. In film and television, very often, you have
no time for research. You just learn to make really quick choices. But the playwright does a lot of research
for you. Right. And mentions the correct amount of things.
It’s our job to make it alive. To bring it up and make it spontaneous and alive. And
you can get too far into your head with research. And something like what Swoosie is doing,
you can’t. You’ve got to be fast. I mean, I’m an only child, for instance,
so I’ve never had a sister, and I’ve played a lot of sisters. And I’m now playing two
sisters who basically want very, very much to connect, but they also want to kill each
other. I mean, it’s that sibling thing that really is something alien to me. Now, that
I had to do some research on, because I’ve never wanted to kill, you know, my sister.
I mean, people talk about when they grew up and they wanted to strangle their brother
and they tried to bash his head into the pavement. And this was like, “Really?” I mean, this
was so foreign to me. But you could use your agent. (LAUGHTER) As a sense memory, yeah. As a matter of fact — no. Right, so you use
those other things in your life where you have wanted to bash someone’s head in. When did you first get the play, in California? I got the play in July. I’ve known I was
going to do it since July. And we had a reading of it at the Roundabout in New York, and we
all just read through it. And it was just, you know, instantly we all fell in love and
that was it. They said, “You gotta do it,” and I said, “I gotta do it,” and they
said, you know, “The theatre’s gotta do it.” So pretty much since then, I’ve known.
But there’s only so much work you can do at home, you know, before you get together. It comes along after the cast gets together.
That’s what it’s about. Kathleen, tragically, you know, I was reading
about how much your older brother influenced you. Now, that must have been [research].
I mean, that was unfortunately on-the-job research, if you will. And that must have
spoken to you a great deal, did it not? It did. It’s one of those odd times when
your life and your work come together. You might explain that a little bit. In fact, the day that the play came to me,
this play WIT, which is about someone who is dying of ovarian cancer, I discovered that
my brother, who was my much older brother, my fourteen-year-old brother who had been
my mentor, had been diagnosed with cancer. And the passion, I like to call it, of his
cancer exactly coincided with the making of this play, so that in an odd way – he died
just a year ago, on the seventeenth of April. And we did the first production of this production
of the play at the Long Wharf Theatre the fall before. So I learned from the play in
some way how to help my brother at the end of his life, and I learned from my brother’s
dying how to play the end of the play. And the whole play has been a kind of memorial
to him. And he’d have liked all of this a lot. (LAUGHTER)
He’d have liked all the stuff. And I sincerely hope that he’s hanging around somewhere,
because it would mean a great deal to him. But that was a time in which life informed
work, but in a way that I couldn’t – it was interesting. After we came back and began
working again for this production, the production of WIT that’s going on now, people said
that the end of the play was different. And I hadn’t consciously changed it, but I just
knew more. And I think that that happens. It’s one
of the luxuries of playing a play for a long time or being able to go back to it, because
every time you go back to it, you know more not only about the play but, you know, whatever
has happened to you in the interim informs the play. And it’s wonderful to have the
play so much in your mind and your muscles that there comes a time where simply you don’t
have to worry about where you’re supposed to be and what you’re saying. That’s there,
and life begins to inform your work. And it’s a wonderful thing. That’s the good thing about a long run.
People always say, “Do you get bored?” And if the writing’s good, I think not.
I mean, eventually you get bored, but not for a long time, because life and your relationship
with the audience and what happens to the company, the way it changes, is always informing
it. And then the director comes back and tells you to put it back the way it’s supposed
to be, which is always good, to take out the improvements. (LAUGHTER) Where do you learn all these things that you’re
now putting into place? Where did you start? Actually, I acted when I was a kid in high
school. I grew up in Oakland, California, and I was in a theatre group there, taken
there by somebody, and my father used to come and take me away at midnight, saying that
I’d been a slave. And then I went to college, thinking that I was going to study the theatre,
and I didn’t. I studied classical Greek instead. And I was on my way to getting a master’s
degree in classical Greek and I met my now husband and said to him, “You know, I really
don’t want to teach Greek in prep school.” (LAUGHTER) And he said, “What do you want
to do?” And I said, “Well, I always wanted to be an actor,” and he said, “Well, why
don’t you do that?” And so, I did. And I began in a strange way. I didn’t ever
go to acting school. We were married, I went to Europe and I studied in Europe with someone. And then we came back and we moved to New
York when I was twenty-eight. And I began to study with Wynn Handman. And I worked in
the theatre in New York for twenty-six years, doing mostly new plays and being incredibly
lucky in the writers that I’ve worked with. My first big thing was Jules Feiffer’s HOLD
ME. And then SISTER MARY. So I’ve made my way slowly, and I’ve been lucky, because
I’ve had the luxury of staying in New York and doing what I like. What about you, Matthew? What’s your story? Yeah, what’s your story? (LAUGHTER) My whole life? (LAUGHTER) If you’re quick. We have about four minutes. Four minutes? Debut at seventeen. Start there, debut. My debut was in TORCH SONG TRILOGY, when I
was nineteen. Before that. Before that? Seventeen. Well, you come out of a theatre family, too,
right? Yes, okay. (LAUGHS) We know it better than you! (LAUGHTER) In the beginning there was – The same one, right. The family business! Well, there was Adam and Eve. (LAUGHTER) And
then a lot of generations. And then my father was James Broderick, an actor who I grew up
watching on stage, kind of all over the country. I spent a lot of summers at various, the O’Neill,
summer stock places more, and watched him. And I guess that’s where I started wanting
to be an actor, although I didn’t really admit that for years, until I was in my late
teens in high school. And then I started. Really, where I learned most of my acting
school type stuff was in high school, believe it or not, you know. It gets a bad reputation
sometimes, I think. Here in town? Yeah. Walden, which doesn’t exist any more.
But I did three plays a year, you know, and I learned a lot. And after that, I studied
with Uta Hagen a little bit, and then I was lucky enough to get a job when I was nineteen,
which was TORCH SONG TRILOGY, with Harvey Fierstein. (LAUGHS) Which is a great way to
begin (LAUGHTER) because you’ve seen everything! You’ve got all this scar tissue for the
rest of your life! Yeah! (LAUGHS) Literally fistfights backstage.
SWOOSIE KURZ Baptism by fire, by Fierstein! (DOES HARVEY’S VOICE) “My darling, whatever
I do – “ (LAUGHTER) And that led to BRIGHTON BEACH, with this
one. BRIGHTON BEACH. And at the same time as I got cast in BRIGHTON
BEACH, I got movies and then everything, just been working a lot. The same day they cast him in MAX DUGAN’S
RETURN (PH) and when I went out from my last audition, they said, “We’re going to be
playing it with Matthew and we just cast him in our movie, too.” Oh, how great! So he did the movie first. Yeah. And I was so excited that day. Mostly
by the play, I thought BRIGHTON BEACH was such a fantastically good part and a wonderful
play. And Neil Simon, who I thought really was a factory that made shows, I didn’t
know it was a guy until that day. (LAUGHTER) And there he was, you know? And I just was
so delighted to get that role. Who directed it? Gene Saks. Gene Saks, yes. It was Herb Ross. It was Herb Ross, but that’s interesting.
Herb Ross cast me, and all of us. Cast us. You want to get to you? And then jumped ship a few weeks before. And didn’t make any casting changes? That’s right. Thank you, Matthew. I wanted to ask, too – I want to know about Elizabeth on that side,
about her life. Okay. That’s where I was going actually. Oh, okay. Okay, time out! (LAUGHTER) Well, we still have a half a minute, but we’ll
take that. But I also wanted to find out as we go along,
also to discuss a little bit, because all of you have had screen experience as well,
is the differences in how you scale. But tell us about your life. My life! I’ve always wanted to be an actor,
since I was five years old. It was either a missionary or an actress. My mother wanted
me to be a missionary. I feel it’s the same thing. It is the same thing. It’s totally the same thing. Better living conditions. (LAUGHTER) Right! So I saw in the Seventeen magazine,
back in Akron, Ohio, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and I went there at nineteen.
I left Ohio and came to New York and went to the American Academy. But the beautiful
thing, what happened to me, all my training came from a wonderful couple that ran one
of those – they’re now almost all gone – summer theatres, where you can go and
you can do sixteen plays in sixteen weeks. And you do everything in that. You do the
stage managing, you do the lights, you learn theatre. And you learn how to just get characters
and create them and get up there and do it. And I spent about four years with them, in
my early twenties. Also, I was always told, which is interesting, my graduation from the
American Academy, the President said, “You probably will not work until you are Millie
Dunnock’s age.” (LAUGHTER) Ah, sure! Go ahead, tell them about that. Now, Millie Dunnock, you know? Because I was
always an older soul. So I said, “Do you mind if I try?” (LAUGHTER) and she said,
“No, you can try,” you know? I remember that day so clearly. And of course, now Millie
Dunnock originated Linda Loman many years ago, fifty years ago. So from the summer theatre,
a new play was being created up there, ONE NIGHT STANDS OF BEBE FENSTERMAKER (PH). It
was a very old play. And it came to New York and I then understudied all those characters.
I was playing a woman who was in her sixties, so there was no way (LAUGHS) when I came to
New York that I was going to play this mother. So I understudied all the women. And then
it just went from there. What was the summer theatre, just out of curiosity? It was called Dorset Playhouse, up in Dorset,
Vermont. And what was the couple, just for posterity? Oh, please, yes. Pat and Fred Carmichael (PH).
And she was a director/actress and he was a writer/actor. And oh! I give them my life.
I mean, I would not be here if it weren’t for them. That’s good. You’re a product of the University of California?
Drama school? Well, yeah. And RADA, too. LAMBDA. LAMBDA, sorry! Oop! (LAUGHTER) The other one! Sorry, the other one, yeah. Yeah, yeah. For some reason, it was my dream
to go to an English drama school. I was a real Anglophile. And so I got accepted for
London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and went there for two years, and came back. I
mean, I look back now and I think I would have been better off, I think I would have
gone further, faster, had I gone to Juilliard or Yale. You know, because I would have had
a network, I would have known people. Came back, wonderful training, but I came back
cold. Nobody knew me, I knew nobody. But I worked for years in regional theatre, just
all over the place. Manitoba, Canada. Cincinnati, Ohio. Charles Playhouse in Boston. The Arena
Stage. I mean, the Goodman, just everywhere. And then I finally got a show in New York,
a nice little cameo and then I was understudying the two girls and then I got to play both
parts. They both, like, left rather quickly and I played both of them for the next two
years. But it’s just been a long, hard haul. (LAUGHS) How did you get those original jobs? Oh, the original jobs, they had – I don’t
know, they must still have them, the Theatre Communications Group, TCG auditions? TCG. Yes, they do. And I came back from LAMDA and I did those.
And I did, you know, my three minute classical and my three minute modern, whatever. And
I got all of these, you know, people want to talk to you, you get this little list of
offers or people who want to talk to you, various people. And then Cincinnati Playhouse
in the Park, I went there for like a long summer season and did, you know, five plays
or whatever, and just went from there, you know. But heavy, slow going. Slow going, long. Thank heavens for regional theatre, isn’t
it? Yes, yes! We would not be here if it weren’t, you
know. You’re a Columbia [graduate]? Well, I went to Columbia, but I didn’t do
any acting there. I played football at Columbia, and then I was in the Marine Corps for five
years, doing a disturbance (LAUGHS) in Southeast Asia. Five years? Five years in the Marine Corps. Yeah, I was gonna say. And then I got out, and by that time I had
a wife and two kids, with one on the way. And so my father expected me to go to law
school or graduate school or whatever. And for some (LAUGHS) unaccountable reason, I
said, “No, I want to be an actor!” (LAUGHTER) Well, you know, for an Irish working class
family in Brooklyn, especially when you have two kids, this was kind of an unusual announcement
to make. (LAUGHTER) What brought you to that feeling? I have no idea. I had done some acting in
high school. Had a wonderful high school teacher. We probably all can mention some person. Yeah, yeah, in high school. Who changed our lives. And this guy’s name
was Chris Sweeney, and he was a tough, working class [guy]. But there are these wonderful
Irishmen who are self-made intellectuals. He was a reader and a thinker and a philosopher.
And he got me started acting in this high school in Brooklyn, this very tough, Catholic
high school, all boys, jackets and ties. And in those days, you know, there wasn’t this
ban on corporal punishment! (LAUGHTER) They’d whack you just as soon as look at you! In
fact, I remember many times walking down the hall, whack! “Brother, what did I do?”
He said, “Nothing. It’s just a warning!” (LAUGHTER) Yeah, the warning was to make sure
you keep your eyes open at all times. Anyway, we did – I guess it’s okay to say MACBETH
in here, right? Oooh! No, no! I was fourteen years old. But Robert Klein
was telling me last night that he makes a point of going into the theatre all the time
and saying, “Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth!” Oh, stop! Brian! (MATTHEW WHISTLES) Brian, we all have performances tonight! Don’t do that! Don’t ever do that! Don’t
whistle! Anyway, I did Macbeth at fourteen (LAUGHTER)
in front of this very tough audience, okay? This is 500 really tough Brooklyn Irish Catholic
and Italian Catholic kids. And people always say, “Boy, that was a really, really tough,
brave thing to do.” And I say, “That was brave? You should have seen the poor kid who
played Lady Macbeth!” (LAUGHTER) And it was! He was dressed up in a dress, and he
came out and gave it his best shot! (LAUGHTER) For all I know, he may still be wearing it.
(LAUGHTER) But that’s how it all started. But then I got away from it for ten years.
And then when I came back from the service, you know, one good thing about the service,
at least in my case, you mature quickly. You have to. So you get through all that stuff,
that you have to usually put up with in your twenties and thirties, and you really get
to the end, saying, “Okay, what do I want to do with my life, because this is a precious
piece of time?” And this is what I decided to do. So ten years of driving cabs and driving
trucks and working in bars, and I was an overnight success! (LAUGHTER) What was the first job? Was it in film? Oh, it was a great day! Stories, probably.
I’ll never forget it. I was doing a tour with Harold J. Kennedy. Remember Harold? Umm-hmm. Sweet old man. Doing a summer tour, playing
a small part. Came back, I was up at the Equity lounge. This was one week in July of, I don’t
know, ’72 or ’73. And someone said, “You know, they’re casting this play, comedians,
and they’re trying to find this Irish comic. Mike Nichols and so forth.” I called my
agent, who could not, you know – (LAUGHS) he was not particularly interested in me or
my career. (LAUGHTER) “All right, I’ll make a phone call.” So I went over to the cattle call, right?
There’s three hundred guys standing in line. You walk out on stage, there’s work light,
it’s just like all the movies. The stage manager is reading the lines, you know, and
chewing gum at the same time, and maybe drinking coffee. And there are three people out in
the dark you can’t even see, and it just happened to be the casting director. And I
read for this part of McBrain (PH), it was a northern Irish comic, very funny, he tells
a joke. And I know how to do the northern Irish dialect, which is tricky. And I had met a friend of mine, who was standing
in line with me, Chris McKaren (PH), who’s an Irish actor. And you know, he was a carpenter,
and I was a bartender. This is what we really were. (TO ISABELLE, GESTURNING OFFSTAGE) Fifteen
minutes, he was trying to tell you. (LAUGHTER) Forget it! This is better! If the clock runs all the time, you never
know anything! Yeah. And we were standing in line, he says,
“Listen, we’ll have coffee. You know, I’ll meet you.” The Howard Johnson’s
used to be right there on Times Square. It still is! It’s still there? It’s the only thing that’s still there.
(LAUGHTER) So I go out and I read, and it was good, I
knew it was good. Not that I thought any of it was going to lead to anything, but it was
just good. Something, I can still remember it. I walk out through the stage doors, this
long line of guys all standing there, and Chris is waiting outside in the alleyway.
And I walk up to him, and I can still remember, just vividly, I’m 37 years old, 38 years
old, and I’ve been doing this for too long. As we were walking down the alleyway, the
door bangs open, and it’s one of the casting people and she says, “Brian!” And I stop
and I turn around and she said, “Can you come back this afternoon at two o’clock?”
And I can still remember, it was like this finger that just came down and just touched
me on my head, and I can still remember looking at Chris and him looking at me and everything
was different. Mmmm! And it was! I came back that afternoon for
Nichols and Trevor Griffith, blew the walls out. I mean, it was just – and I remember
Mike Nichols walking down the aisle after the audition. And he stopped and he looked
at me for a minute and then he said, “Where did you come from?” Just like that. (LAUGHTER)
So that’s when it all started. And it started in that minute! It was interesting. Because
I mean, everything up to it was preparation for it in some funny way, but I’m one of
the people who can actually point at that particular moment and say, “That’s when
it changed.” And it did, big time. That’s what gives everybody hope in the
theatre (GENERAL AGREEMENT), that that moment comes along. Keep at it. And that’s what is so hard. I’m going to just take a second to explain,
for some of you sailors here, why you don’t whistle on stage. You don’t whistle on stage
because in Elizabethan England in the theatres, most of the stagehands who knew rigging were
sailors. And when you wanted to drop a sail, you whistled. So if you whistled on stage,
someone would drop something on your head. (LAUGHTER) And that’s why you never whistle
on stage! That’s the derivation of that. A little bit of history. These seminars are so wonderful. You learn
things! Full of trivia! But that’s why you’d never
do that, because then they’ll drop something on your head. They were old sailors who would
do that, you know. That stopped everything in its tracks, but there we are. It’s important to know that! Yes, it’s very important! Now, it’s just a button on the computer. That’s right, and then you still get hit
on the head. (MATTHEW WHISTLES AND MIMES PUSHING A BUTTON) Unfortunately, it doesn’t work half the
time. Yeah. That’s right. That’s an interesting technical problem
that people have to be prepared for, what to do when the set stops. And it does. It does. Oh! Oh, yeah. Sure does. We had it several times, several times. We’ve had several times. And then the stage
manager, “Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll excuse us for a moment (LAUGHTER), we’re
going to stop the play right here.” And in fact, in Chicago, we lost two shows,
right. Well, in New York, we had a big preview audience,
and of course, my friend Brian Cox (PH) happens to be there then. He’s like a Jonah. Every
time he comes, you can be convinced it’s going to be a disaster. And the round table stopped
three or four times that night. The minute he walked through that door, I knew what was
[going to happen]. (LAUGHTER) How much rehearsal did you have? We started rehearsals January 10th, and we
opened February 10th. But we had rehearsed it in [Chicago]. Yeah. We had to put in a few new people. But we
pretty much knew what [we were going to do]. It hasn’t really changed much from Chicago. No, it hasn’t. No, it’s just deepened,
yeah. How often had you seen this? Had I seen it? Actually, the funny thing is,
I’ve never seen it. I saw the Lee J. Cobb movie of the television show, and I saw the
Volker Schlondorff movie with Dustin, which was terrific. And my whole thing about Willy,
I mean, Willy is Willy, but I was fascinated by the element of mental illness. That was
the study that I did. I did a lot of work on depression and bipolar presentation, what
happens when somebody is losing control and stuff like that, and is swinging back and
forth. And so that’s really the only different kind of research. Your wonderful gesture, is that you or the
director? Well, I watched films of severe bipolar depressives,
and there was this constant (DEMONSTRATES, TAPPING HIS FACE) thing going on all the time,
flicking, touching gestures. It’s an extraordinary piece. So I didn’t want to go that far with it,
but I use it from time to time, and then the pockets, hands flicking in the pockets. You’re
always checking to see if they’re there, you know? Anyway. That’s interesting. Was that you or your director? No, that was mine. (LAUGHS) No, that was key.
I kept saying to Bob in Chicago, and Elizabeth was there, and I kept saying, “I don’t
know what the hell I’m doing here. I mean, I have no idea.” And he kept saying, “Don’t
think about it, just do it.” Just get out of your head, yeah. Because Willy doesn’t think. Willy’s not
an intellectual type, he doesn’t lead an examined life, so the last thing you should
do is examine it, I guess. Anyway. Let’s talk also, because we talked about
seeing films of this, I personally feel that, for instance, just parenthetically, that DEATH
OF A SALESMAN is a play, and it is quintessentially a play. Only a play, exactly right. You can fool around with it on the screen,
but it’s a play. It never works. And it doesn’t really, because of the intimacy
and the bouncing off an actor. But if you would take, because you all have had this
experience in film and television, how do you scale your acting? What do you do differently?
Or do you do nothing differently for this? I mean, you’ve all had the experience. I think any good actor naturally plays the
size of the room, without thinking about it. You know, it’s obviously very different
for camera, because you know, they seldom see your legs and (LAUGHS) I mean, if this
is a really long shot, then it doesn’t matter what’s happening on your face. I mean, you
get to know these things. It’s here, it’s here and then it’s here. (GESTURES TO INDICATE
A LONG SHOT, A MEDIUM SHOT AND A CLOSEUP) And I think you have so much less responsibility
as an actor in the movies. Oh, yeah. Because someone else is making all the artistic
choices. On the stage, everyone on the stage is responsible for the whole deal. You have so much more control. Whereas in the movies, not only at the moment
is someone else making the decisions, but in the editing room, whole lots of decisions
that you have nothing to do with. So that in a way, it’s relaxing and narcissistic
in a way that the theatre isn’t, you know? For that moment that you’re in the movies,
all attention is focussed [on you], but I always feel that the actors aren’t quite
grownups in the movies. Umm-hmm. And actors are grown-ups in the theatre. I
don’t [know if I’m right], because you’ve made lots more movies. Well, the thing about the movies is, there’s
always a car outside to pick you up and take you to the shoot. (LAUGHTER) Oh, well, there’s that, too! The theatre, you gotta get there yourself!
(LAUGHTER) Well, we have our buses, though. They do treat you like adults in the theatre,
there’s no question about that. “You mean nobody’s going to call me and pick me up
and take me?” (LAUGHTER) But I think personality counts for an enormous amount in film. There’s
a great story about Akim Tamiroff, who did a picture with Gary Cooper called “The General
Died at Dawn.” Tamiroff was from the Moscow Art Theatre, and he was one of the great Stanislavskians,
he had worked with all these guys and I guess had come to America after the revolution and
went to Hollywood and was a very powerful and interesting screen actor for many years. And Robert Preston told me this story before
he died, God love him, he was one of the great guys. Preston was under contract at Paramount
and so was Tamiroff. And they met at a coffee show, and he says, “Tommy, how you doing?”
He says, “Bob, it’s the damnedest thing.” He says, “I am making this picture in northern
California called THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. I am working with this lox, Gary Cooper. (LAUGHTER)
You know Gary Cooper? Big, tall man, can’t act at all. I’m telling you, Bob, this man
is no actor. He is terrible, he does nothing, he stands there, nothing. (LAUGHTER) “I, by the way, am brilliant in this film.
(LAUGHTER) I am wonderful in this movie. I am acting my ass off. Everybody is watching
me. We don’t see dailies for six weeks. We finally come back to where we can see dailies,
to some civilization. They put dailies on, and I, Akim Tamiroff, am watching Gary Cooper!”
(LAUGHTER) And that’s the way it is. That’s right. I mean, you take those closeups of somebody
like Cooper, and you can’t take your eyes off him. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) It’s all in the eyes in film. The other
thing about film and television is, you miss that magic word, rehearsal! (GENERAL AGREEMENT)
Oh, my God. It’s what I love about the theatre. You have that gestation period. You know,
you go home, you sleep on it. You have a day’s rehearsal, you sleep on it. Your subconscious
goes to work on the material, and the whole process, you know. In film, I mean, you arrive
the night before on location. You have a six A.M. call. At six thirty you meet the guy
playing your husband, and you say, “Okay! We’re going to start with the scene where
he tells you he’s leaving you, go!” (LAUGHTER) And you know how it is. Or worse, you get into bed! (LAUGHTER) Yes, and that, right! But I think that acting in film is harder,
really, than in the theatre, because it’s done in such short clips, where in the theatre
you’re really living it and you’re bringing it. The whole thing begins to make sense to
you as the story unfolds and you keep on going. But suddenly, in movies, to have just this
scene completely out of context and have to rise to it, how do you do that? But there’s something that’s an easy thing
to that, too. It’s harder in a way, but not. You can do anything from any path. Because you go home at night, and “Oh, I’ve
got to learn my lines!” And it’s one page, you know? (LAUGHTER) Where you say, “I’ll
get that,” and “See you tomorrow.” “Get the car, George.” That’s a day! And then you shred it, and you never, ever
do that scene again. And then it’s a whole new thing the next day. The variety of it
is there. Yeah. So in some ways you can focus a lot,
almost too much in a film. You get like, “Well, I wonder if I should open the door with my
right hand when I say – “ Right. Whereas on the stage it would just be like,
“I have that scene coming, so let me get that door open so he can come in.” Which
I like. There’s something very nice about that, because you don’t focus on these little
things. The thing about the theatre is it’s primitive.
I mean, the whole point about the theatre is that it’s primitive. It’s you and the
audience, okay? Ten thousand years ago, in Salamankus Bay (PH), there was some guy up
in a cave telling a story, with his gestures and so forth. And that’s what we do. I mean,
there are no filters. There’s no director. There’s no editor. It’s just you and the
audience. So that there is a basic quality to the theatre that doesn’t exist in film. And when it works, it works like nothing else. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Everybody knows that, you know? And it continues
to work, if you’ve ever had the experience of taking someone who’s never been to the
theatre to the theatre and watch it happen. They are transformed! And it can only happen in the theatre. That’s
the tragic thing about, you should pardon the expression, the Disneyfication of Broadway.
Because those things are wonderful. I mean, THE LION KING’s great fun. I think it’s
beautifully staged, and there’s a lot of stuff to watch in it, to care about. But when
you see a play like WIT or DEATH OF A SALESMAN or ICEMAN COMETH, you can be changed by that.
I mean, something can happen in that theatre. I watch it every night. I watch people, not
everybody and not every night. But something can happen in the theatre that just doesn’t
happen in films and will never happen in film. And the exciting thing is that one of the
Wing’s programs is bringing youngsters to the theatre. The majority of them have never
been to a Broadway theatre, have never been to Broadway, never been out of their own neighborhood.
And the minute you say there are tickets available for a show, live theatre, the hands go up
immediately. They don’t know what they’re going to see, but the magic of that word,
of live theatre. And they’ve been reared on television and movies, but live theatre
is so exciting to them. Student matinees, do you all have them? Oh, oh, the best! The best. The best, absolutely. Have they been coming to NIGHT MUST FALL,
too? Yeah. That must be incredible. And I thought, “This is 1935 in the countryside
in Britain, they’re going to not understand a word of this.” What’ll they care? Yeah, yeah. And they were just so [attentive] – they’re
fabulous! And afterwards, they understood everything. They asked great questions. You have those seminars afterwards, those
question and answer things? They’re just so – They’re either really good or really bad.
(LAUGHTER) They were great. “I’m from Seward (PH)
Park, and I want to say that was really fabulous.” That’s true of everybody in every audience. The kids are absolutely honest, though. I
mean, you know if you haven’t got the kids. Right! Yeah, talk about coughing! Whoa! (LAUGHTER) Kill her! (LAUGHTER) You usually play good guys. I somehow think
of you always as a good guy. Yeah. But now you’re having an opportunity to be
a bad guy. Well, this is a good guy who – A good guy/bad guy. But is that what attracted
you to the part? Well, it was nice to think of, yeah. Because
I don’t ever get to do that, very rarely. And he’s an angry person. (LAUGHS) Is he insane? Is this what you’ve come to,
the conclusion? Well, he did more research than me. I don’t
know. That’s what made me think of it. (LAUGHS) Yes, I suppose he is. I think, though, he
has his reasons, you know? He is insane, because rather than (LAUGHS) just get mad and yell
at somebody, he puts a pillow over their head and stuff like that. (LAUGHTER) But he’s
a very resentful servant, from a time when servants, or that class, had no chance to
better themselves. And he’s as bright as anybody around him, and he just does not like
taking orders from people at this point in his life, I guess. I mean, that’s a very
general way to put it. And he has a problem with his mom and women things. He’s got
a few issues there, too. (LAUGHTER) But I think the one thing that isn’t so crazy
and is understandable is just his tremendous resentment at being working-class in England
at that time. A real rage. His rage, yes. Matthew, you have to now take orders from
me, because we have to stop for just a minute. And you can all stretch and you can turn around
and then come back to your seats immediately, as we start right again on this wonderful
panel of “Working in the Theatre.” (APPLAUSE) This is CUNY-TV, the City University of New
York. (APPLAUSE) Welcome back to the American Theatre
Wing’s seminar on “Working in the Theatre.” Before we return to our panelists, I’d like
to tell you that the Wing is more than a sponsor of seminars and more than our famous Tony
Awards, which are given for excellence in the craft of theatre. We are an organization
whose year-round programs are dedicated to serving the theatre and the community, with
a goal of developing new audiences. And to achieve that goal, we have created audience
development programs for students, like our “Introduction to Broadway,” which began
seven years ago and has enabled more than 75,000 New York City high school students
to attend a Broadway show, many of them for the very first time. And through our newest program, “Theatre
in School,” theatre professionals like these on our seminar panels go directly into classrooms
to work with and talk to students about working in the theatre. In addition, we have our hospital
program, which dates back to World War Two and our legendary Stage Door Canteen. Today’s
version of the program utilizes talent from Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the cabaret world
to entertain patients in nursing homes, veterans’ hospitals, children’s wards and AIDS centers,
all in the New York area, bringing the magic of theatre to those who can not get to the
theatre itself. We are proud of the work we do and happy for
the wonderful working relationship we have with the theatrical community. And we are
grateful to everyone who makes what the American Theatre Wing does possible. And now, let’s
get back to our Performance Seminar. And I’d like to start Part Two with a question to
the panel. I’d like to know what is your favorite role? What it brought to you, what
it meant to you. Could you start with that? Kathleen, why don’t you? Kathleen? That’s always a hard question, because the
role I’m doing now is my favorite role now. (LAUGHTER) Up till now, then. Up till now, I guess. I’ve been, as I said,
very lucky, so all the six people I played in ANGELS IN AMERICA were astounding. I don’t
know. I can’t answer this question in a very sensible way. That was my answer. HENRY V? Oh, and HENRY V, well, that was nice, too.
Though I wasn’t playing Henry! (LAUGHTER) It would have been nice. Well, it’s like picking a sibling over another,
in a way, so I hate to do it. But I guess Eugene Morris Jerome, really, (ELIZABETH LAUGHS)
you know, if I really was being honest, which I did with Elizabeth. That was a wonderful
time, and sort of the first time I’d been on Broadway. And tougher question then, why? Well, it fit me and my mood at that period.
You know, every now and then a part comes at the right time for you and whatever happens,
that all these lucky things have to happen. And the cast you’re with. You know, we had
a great thing. Great time. Elizabeth was just a vicious adversary as
my mom. (LAUGHTER) We would fight over cookies and butter and milk and shopping and roller
skates. And they were battles! Yes, yes. And it was just great fun. It was wonderful,
wasn’t it? It was great. Weren’t we great? (LAUGHTER) We were very good. And we were innocent. We
were terribly innocent, because we had never been on Broadway ever before. Yeah, yeah. Neil found all of us Off-Broadway, except
when Joyce [Van Patten] joined us out in California. Yeah, she was a ringer. She was the ringer. And Zeljko [Ivanek]. And Zeljko? Well, maybe he hadn’t been on Broadway. No, not Broadway, we were all Off-Broadway. That’s right. Yeah. And Peter Michael Goetz. It was just
an incredible family. We were all terribly innocent. We all did everything together.
And we were in California for what? About four months, wasn’t it? San Francisco and L.A. Yes, and L.A. That’s where we started that
play. It was a great time. Was that your favorite, or do you have another
one? Me? Yeah. Oh, no. I can’t. I’m like Kathleen, I
can’t tell you. I mean, it would have to be between Kate and Sister Mary and now Linda
Loman. I mean, she just has possessed me, with this man here. (LAUGHTER) I’m possessed!
With him, too. Hmm. Swoosie? My favorite role is usually always the one
I’m doing at the moment, in this case Myrna and Myra, my favorite roles. Because I think,
you know, we were talking earlier about research and so forth and learning. It’s amazing
how, the older you get, the more life experience you have, that in itself is rehearsal and
research for whatever you’re going to do. I did SIX DEGREES [OF SEPARATION] at Lincoln
Center years ago, and I recently did a kind of thing, it was a radio play of it in L.A.,
but we did it in front of a live audience. And it was amazing how much better I was!
(LAUGHTER) I mean, I was good in it in New York, but I mean it was so much deeper. People
who had seen me thought, you know, terrific, but this was like nine more years of life,
it was amazing. And so to come back to something with so many
things – I digress. But I think for me it has to be the role I’m playing now, because
it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It’s the largest part I’ve ever
done. It’s the most daunting and impossible task I’ve ever attempted. And it’s me
now, you know? Hopefully, I’ll get better and better. And of course, Bananas in HOUSE
OF BLUE LEAVES is always close to my heart. I think that because acting on stage is the
definition of existentialism, I mean, it exists while you’re doing it, and then if you’re
lucky, it exists in the minds and the memories of the people who have seen it, and yours,
as well. But it is totally existential. It’s just happening while you’re there. It would
be impossible, I think, for me not to say that, you know, the most significant role
is the one that I’m doing now. Because it’s not only the part that you’re
playing now, but you’re living with that character. There’s no way to not live with
him. I mean, I wake up every day with a part of me being Willy, and I get through the day,
a part of me being Willy and thinking about what I have to do that night and trying to,
unconsciously, in some cases subconsciously, in some cases consciously, preparing. So it’s
hard to answer that question. But I think, you know, Kathleen was right. It’s essentially
what you’re doing, while you’re doing it. I mean, it’s fascinating about this business
that you do it and then it’s gone. And then you do it again and it’s gone again. And
you do it again and it’s gone again. And you have a tendency to kind of forget that
and think about what I’m doing tonight, what I’m doing next week, what I’m doing
tomorrow. And then someone comes up to you on the street and says, “You know, I saw
a show a week ago, or two weeks ago, or twenty years ago, and I can’t tell you what it
means to me.” And all of a sudden, you realize that it does have a life. But it’s a life
that exists in someone’s mind, in someone’s memory. So it has a significance, it has an
importance that can’t be quantified. But the fact is that Willy right now is the one
that [is my favorite]. But you know, it’s interesting, you come
off a great Hickey, too, in ICEMAN. And then, you know, you did Cornelius Melody (PH). Con Melody, I love Con Melody. You know, but somehow those characters, in
my head, are related, in terms of their fantasy world. Oh, yeah. Con Melody, unfortunately, it’s
a play that [isn’t done much]. Bob Falls and I had a history, up until (LAUGHS) this
one, of doing plays that people talked about and people thought were great plays, but were
never done. We did GALILEO, we did ICEMAN COMETH, and we did TOUCH OF THE POET. And interestingly enough, the most orphaned
of that three is TOUCH OF THE POET. It was never actually prepared for production, even
by O’Neill. And it’s a wonderful play, it’s a great play. And so, there is always
a tendency to kind of look at those stepchildren and say, “God, I wish more people could
have seen that.” So yeah, Con is a great character. But there is a relationship. It’s fascinating
to me that now, in 1999, this winter in New York, you would have ICEMAN COMETH and DEATH
OF A SALESMAN playing. These were plays that were written within – well, O’Neill probably
wrote most of ICEMAN in 1939, 1940. It wasn’t produced until about 1945. Obviously, the
war intervened. But Miller certainly had to be affected by the play, influenced by it
to some extent. And it’s interesting that at a time when America was at the apogee of
its power and its self-confidence and its success and it comes through the war, that
these two very (LAUGHS) kind of dismal plays about being American and what America was
all about would be produced. And for them both to be revived, successfully, some fifty
years later. It’s a very interesting coincidence. I was wondering, as you’ve done so much
research into the mind and character of Willy, if you knew what he has in the suitcases?
Or is it all metaphorical? (LAUGHTER) Well, it’s funny, because Arthur is very
adamant about that. When anybody asks him, and people always ask him – (LAUGHS) They always ask, right. — “What is Willy selling?” And Arthur
says, “Himself.” And do you tell yourself that, as well? Yeah, himself, himself, and it gets harder
and harder to carry those bags, you know, because he’s got a lot more rocks in those
suitcases as he gets older. But I go along with Arthur’s answer to that question. He’s
carrying himself. How long is it with you, after the curtain
comes down? And how soon do you have to start thinking about it? Or does it begin to take
place before the curtain goes up? Well, I think now there’s a more relaxed
element to it. I mean, if I get through the last ten minutes and I haven’t had a coronary
(LAUGHTER), there’s no paramedics on stage pumping on my chest, then there is a certain
amount of gratitude involved. (LAUGHTER) But you know, there’s this wonderful ambivalence
that you have. When you really enjoy doing the part, then you can’t wait till it’s
over, at the same time. (GENERAL AGREEMENT AND LAUGHTER) You get to the penultimate scene, and you
think, “Ah!” One more entrance! (LAUGHTER) And then what happens? Oh, and the bows. What’s fascinating about
this production, and it’s unique in my history, I get a big kick out of coming out and looking
out as you take the bows, because you see the damnedest expressions on people’s faces.
(GENERAL AGREEMENT) Tears. Stunned. Yes, tears. Sobbing. And their faces are just open, in a way that
you rarely see people’s faces open. I mean, they’re just smoothed in some way. I’ve not ever heard the silence that comes
after that wonderful last line in any of the productions I’ve seen. How about WIT? I would think that that must
stay with you, too. Well, it does, though because the end of WIT
is so triumphant – Sure, sure. It’s a different issue than DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
There’s a moment of grace at the end of the play. And people always asked, you know,
“How could you die eight times a week?” (LAUGHTER) And I think it is because of that.
I think that if the play ended somewhere else, it would be much more difficult to do. I didn’t
realize that until I was doing it for a while. And I have the same experience that Brian
was saying, to look out at the audience and see people’s response. And people hang around
after the play. They want to. They need to. We have talkbacks every Tuesday night, and
seventy percent of the audience stays. And you know, by the time we come out, there are
people still kind of hanging around the theatre. And I think it’s a safe place, in a way.
And we have been, for the last week, raising money for Doctors Without Borders. And people’s
response has been astounding! We raised sixteen thousand dollars in one week with a curtain
speech and two actors carrying baskets. It is an example of the power of the theatre,
what we’ve all been talking about, that people are opened in all sorts of ways. When they cast you in this, did they tell
you you would have to shave your head? Yes! They told me I’d have to shave my head,
and the other part, I’m naked in a part in the play. But that’s in the stage directions.
And so, you’re reading the play, and my brother, as you know, had read the play, too.
So I read the play and I got the part, and I was worried about being bald, but I thought
I could manage that. But then my brother said, “What are you going to do about the nudity?”
And I said, “Nudity?” (LAUGHTER) That was harder! You mentioned bows, something we’ve never
talked about. Do you take direction in bows? How much attention is given to taking bows
at the end, curtain calls? It depends on the director. I’m always fascinated by the difference
in curtain calls. You’re always suspicious of a production
where the curtain calls are more carefully rehearsed than the play. (LAUGHTER) And I’ve
seen a few like that! On the other hand, it’s important to do
curtain calls, because it’s ungracious not to. You know, you go through a whole period
of “Oh, I don’t believe in curtain calls or having to bow or anything,” and it seems
that’s ungracious, too, so you have to have a [balance]. You have to let the audience have their moment. Yeah. Would you stay in character when you do your
curtain call? I don’t think so. No. Not really. You want to break the mood? I think that’s the time to say it was a
play, in a way. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) That’s the time for everybody, for us and the audience,
to say, “We’ve been watching a play. Now we’re back to our life,” sort of. Yeah. Sometimes we’ll have a night where
there just aren’t any laughs and you think, “Well, what’s happening here?” And then,
in the curtain call, they’re just, like you said, you look out and see the faces,
and they’re just, “Yeah!” (CLAPS WILDLY) And all the time, they’ve just been going
like that (SMILES), but they don’t laugh out loud. Well, maybe they’re glad it’s over. (LAUGHTER) That never occurred to me! Don’t think about that any more! (LAUGHTER) They do get more energetic sometimes, in a
curtain call. It’s not easy to applaud while you’re
putting your coat on. (LAUGHTER) Sometimes they do look back while they’re
putting their coat on. (LAUGHTER) They do that as they’re walking.
SWOOSIE KURZ Right, right, as they’re walking up the
aisle. What about people who come in late? Oohh. Do you notice that? Do we notice that! (LAUGHTER) You’re supposed to be concentrating. Well, it’s interesting, because Miller wrote
this very delicate scene at the beginning of the play, which actually has the whole
play in the scene. Tells you exactly what’s going to happen. And you have latecomers and
the flashlights and the murmurings and the rustlings. And it’s maddening, because there
are so many people out there, it’s just like Matthew said before, who really want
to watch it and listen to it. And you have to remember that they’re the majority and
you’re playing to them. But you know, that’s the thing. You just have to get that stuff
behind you. You just have to not worry about it and just keep on going. I mean, the telephones
and the this and the that, whoo! And then the ones who put on the earphones and crank
it all the way up. (LAUGHTER) SWOOSIE KURZ
Yeee! We have some questions from the audience.
And there are so many. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but let’s start with them right now,
for these young people. Hi, my name’s Breelyn (PH), and my question
is for all of you. I’m wondering what kind of preparation you do every night, from the
time you walk in the door of the theatre until the curtain goes up. I find that I can’t prepare for an entire
play. You know, I can only go moment to moment. I can only prepare really for my opening scene.
I mean, I try to do beyond. You know, I go, “Oh, I have that breakdown in Act Two. I’d
better, you know, get worked up.” (LAUGHS) It just doesn’t work! It’s too far down
the line. There are too many moments between now and then, so I just take it one step at
a time. I had the great privilege of working with
Peter Brook, and he said a fascinating thing. He came back to see the show after four weeks.
We did CHERRY ORCHARD in Brooklyn. And after ripping us to shreds for twenty minutes about
what had happened, he said something that was really very interesting. He said, “Now,
look.” He said, “You’re all preparing to go on stage.” He said, “No one prepares
to live their life. You’ve done that. You’ve rehearsed the play. You walk on stage. Let
the play happen to you.” In my case, it’s fascinating. Howard Witt, who plays Charlie,
because I’m saying to myself, “Oh God, how do I get ready to do this?” And Howard
Witt said, “Go out and pick up the bags.” SWOOSIE KURZ
Yeah. Start with them. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And you know, the preparation really has been
done. I mean, there are people who do all kinds of exercises and there are certain physical
preparations that make sense. But you know, the thing to do is to go out there and to
let the play happen to you. Next question. Hi, my name is Nendi Theshanoy (PH), and my
question is directed to Mr. Dennehy. Before that golden moment that you described earlier
in the program, I’m wondering what kept you going in the craft? I don’t know. Stubborness, probably, more
than anything. (LAUGHS) I can’t tell you how many people used to say to me, “Actor?
You’re not an actor. You don’t look like an actor, you don’t sound like an actor!”
And I couldn’t disagree. (LAUGHTER) My father was one of them, by the way. (LAUGHTER) And
with him, it was a mantra, you know? “Errol Flynn is an actor!” (LAUGHTER) Errol Flynn! But I don’t know. You know, the funny thing
is, as I look back on it now, I don’t know why I kept doing it. Because God knows it
was not easy. I never had any training, because I was working. I mean, I was driving a cab,
I was driving a truck, I was supporting a family at the same time I was trying to make
it in the business. So I’ll be damned if I know. Thank you. Mildred Clendon (PH) for Kathleen Chalfant.
You played a number of roles in ANGELS on Broadway. I never look at a program before.
I like to see if I can recognize people or how they change or what they do. You played
several parts and then a rabbi came on, and I couldn’t get over the verity of that characterization.
He was wonderful! I don’t know why it struck me that way as a character. And I had to look
through and see, and there I saw the ultimate exposition of an oxymoron, Kathleen Chalfant
playing a rabbi (LAUGHTER), in addition to the other roles. Now, you talked about research,
everybody did. How did you do any research for that? Well, first, Mildred and I, we’ve worked together,
so hi! (LAUGHTER) It was very peculiar, the rabbi, because I was invited to be part of
ANGELS IN AMERICA at the very beginning of it. And there was a reading upstairs at the
New York Theatre Workshop, and I was late for the reading, and Tony gave me the script
and he said, “You play the rabbi and the doctor and Ethel Rosenberg and the mother.”
And I said, “Fine.” And the rabbi is actually the first speech in MILLENNIUM APPROACHES.
And this rabbi came out, that came out of my mouth, and that happens sometimes. You
know, they just come out. And he always was there. And I never could figure out where he could
possibly have come from. And about four years later, my husband and I were in the kitchen,
and the radio was on, and they were (LAUGHS) playing an old Jack Benny radio program, and
Mr. Kitzel (PH) came on. (LAUGHTER) And I realized that in my childhood ear Mr. Kitzel
had gone, and he came out waiting to be the rabbi. You never know.
SWOOSIE KURZ Nothing is ever wasted. It took a long time before I dared tell Tony
Kushner that that’s where it came from. (LAUGHTER) It’s all a thing about hair, whether there
was facial hair or not. Yes, right, bald men. And hair, whatever. Hello, my name is Anne Block (PH). It’s
directed to all of you. Have you ever gone up on a line on Broadway, and if you did,
how did you handle it? Like last night? (LAUGHTER) It happens a lot. And to other actors, and
hopefully, everybody’s paying attention and somebody will – Help you. — will get it moving again. If you sort of
don’t panic, somehow it works out. I remember one time, though (LAUGHS) when an actor named
Zeljko Ivanek, that’s the worst I’ve ever seen that happen. I was doing a scene with
him, and he had a big monologue and he was halfway through it and he was at the climax
of it. He said, “And I put the dirt on his shoes and then Mrs. Strohan (PH) looked at
me, and uh – ” he looked at me, and uh – he looked at me. (LAUGHTER) And he went totally,
stark raving up. And he grabbed me, finally, in a hug, and I know what he wanted me to
tell him, which was what was his line? (LAUGHTER) But I said, “I – I don’t know!” (LAUGHTER)
Because this was maybe eight months into the run, and I hadn’t paid attention to that scene
for maybe four months at that point, right? (LAUGHTER) ‘Cause he talked the whole time,
and I would sit there going – (NODS HAPPILY). And I realized, “I have no idea what you’re
up to.” (LAUGHTER) The stage manager came with the book, (WHISPERS). Couldn’t hear anything
she was saying. It was awful. I remember then, afterwards – sorry to blab on – No, no. But I came off stage, and from then on, I
did listen, by the way! (LAUGHTER) That’s something that happens when you’re in a run
for a long time. Sure, it does. Yeah. You have these sections where you just tune
out. Or at least I do. We have this wonderful moment, where I get
fired, this firing sequence. Uncle Ben appears, of course as a dream character. And he comes
in and he says – (LAUGHS) It is so critical, too, because he says, “I’ve been up to Alaska,
and I’ve just bought a lot of timberland.” The line is “timberland.” “And I need a man
to run it for me!” And for some reason, this particular night, and it’s very heightened.
I mean, you’ve just seen this firing sequence, the audience is [intent]. He said, “I’ve just
been to Alaska, and I bought a lot of – real estate!” (LAUGHTER) “And I need a man to run
it for me!” Now, I’m walking over to him, just getting fired, and I’m (SNORTS WITH LAUGHTER).
Because now, I’ve got to turn around and say, “Real estate!” Can I tell you something? Real
estate and timberland are two different things. And remember? The whole scene, he was trying
to think of that word. Yeah, he was. Those eyes were going – Those eyes! When they get those pinwheel eyes,
you know (LAUGHTER), that’s it. He’s up, boy. The whole scene. And he never knew. “Real estate!” (LAUGHTER) My name is John Francis Fox (PH). My question
is for Kathleen Chalfant. Since this is the second play you’ve done in which a lead character
is dying, can you tell us if there has been a difference in the way audiences have reacted
to WIT and to ANGELS IN AMERICA? I think audiences have responded differently
to the two plays, but they’re very different plays. The thing that they have in common,
I think, is that the ends of both of these plays are triumphant. And people respond to
it. People have treated both plays in the same way, as though they’re safe places to
come to deal with complex issues. And we know in the talkbacks that we have with WIT that
people talk about death quite a lot. I think people want to do that. People need to do
it, because it’s something that people don’t discuss in the culture very much. I think
the issues in ANGELS IN AMERICA were both political issues and issues about living,
so the issue of death was not as central as it is in WIT. I think we have time just for one more question. Hi, my name is Melissa (PH). I just wanted
to know this question. It’s for all the panelists. What advice do you have for young, aspiring
actors or actresses? Go to dental school. (LAUGHTER) Could you go around, quickly? Only do this if you have to. If you have to
do it, then do it. If you can think of something else to do, do that. It will require every ounce of energy and
hope and exertion. It’s “Climb Every Mountain,” you know, for the rest of your life. I mean,
you have to want this so badly, because it’s so, so impossible. You have to have a great passion for it. A
true passion, and a great belief in yourself, because you’re not going to get that belief
from other people. And you just never take “No” for an answer. And if you really have
that passion, you will be fulfilled eventually, but it’s hard. Matthew? Well, my father once told me, when I auditioned
for something and I didn’t get the part and I was like, “I screwed it up” or whatever,
and he said, “Maybe they screwed it up.” So I think that’s something to keep in mind when
you’re starting. Somebody doesn’t cast you, there’s no reason to think they’re right all
the time. So keep that in mind. But there’s always a cost. And the thing is,
it’s not just your cost. You know, if you’ve got kids, you’ve got parents – I’m sorry. I just wish that we could go on
and on and on. (LAUGHTER) Of course, cutting me off! (LAUGHTER) Yeah. Well, you got that little “fifteen minute”
line in. I’m thinking about my kids, the price that
I demanded from them. (KATHLEEN NODS) And I don’t think that’s fair. It’s tough. That’s the cost of having these wonderful
people here, there’s so much to say. This has been the American Theatre Wing’s seminar
on “Working in the Theatre,” coming to you from the Graduate Center of the City University
of New York. And I want to thank this wonderful panel who have shared their knowledge and
experience with us. And our gratitude to our two moderators, Pia Lindstrom and George White,
for chairing this panel so very well. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the American
Theatre Wing, and thank you so much for coming. Thank you all for being here. (APPLAUSE)

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