Performance (Working In The Theatre #292)

(APPLAUSE) Once again, a warm welcome to the
American Theatre Wing seminars on “Working in the Theatre.” These seminars, now in
their 27th year, are coming to you from the Graduate Center of the City University of
New York. As the American Theatre Wing continues to bring these seminars together, we bring
artists from throughout the theatre industry, the community, to those that are part of the
work that you see on the stage. We provide an understanding into the exciting life and
the work of the professional theatre. Today’s seminar celebrates the performers.
We learn not only about their careers and their training, but also about the drive,
the passion, and the knowledge needed to achieve a career in the theatre. I’m so looking
forward to these seminars, and I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I know that I
will. It will be most informative and entertaining for all of us. I’m Isabelle Stevenson. I’m
Chairman of the Board of the American Theatre Wing. And now, let me introduce you to our
moderator for this seminar, television personality and theatre critic, Pia Lindstrom. And also,
member of the American Theatre Wing. Pia? (APPLAUSE) Thank you, Isabelle, thank you. And with me
here is an exalted panel. The knowledge of the theatre we have with us today is awesome,
as they say. Let me start with Mr. Cariou, Len Cariou, one of the great figures in the
theatre, a specialist in playing demons, I think. (LAUGHTER) Michael Learned is sitting
next to him. She is a beloved actress. We know her so well because she’s been in our
bedrooms (LAUGHTER), you know? (LAUGHS) Shh! For years and years, three Emmys for “The
Waltons,” and she is also, of course, a wonderful stage actress. Andre De Shields
is sitting next to me. He struts his stuff in THE FULL MONTY. Brought the house down
in the first act, without taking his clothes off! (ANDRE LAUGHS) First act number, completely
dressed, great number. Patrick Cassidy, on my left, from a theatrical family, is shooting
up the stage in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN right now. And Mary-Louise Parker, one of our bright
young actresses in the theatre, films, television, is playing an extremely intelligent woman
in PROOF. And next to her, my idol, Marian Seldes. (LAUGHTER) Woman of the theatre, she
epitomizes the theatre, icon. Marian! (MARIAN PUTS HER HAND TO HER HEART; LAUGHTER) Why
be an actress, Marian? In my case, I can’t answer that, because
I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know why. I know that I wanted to be, from the minute
I wanted to be anything, and so I never questioned it. Never, I mean, when I was young. I think
when you actually go into the professional theatre and you feel fear for the first time,
then you could question it (PIA LAUGHS), and you think, “How could I have a career? I
don’t look right, I don’t sound right.” You torture yourself with reasons you can’t
be. But if you’re lucky, as I was, and went
to a school [the Dalton School] where theatre, where acting, where writing plays was part
of the curriculum from the time you were six years old, it’s natural. And then, the first
time you see a play, I think almost everyone will say this to you, that either being in
a play or seeing it, just, you make the decision. You “take the vow,” so to speak. And it
is a calling, and however difficult it is, it is also, I think, the most rewarding life
you could possibly lead. Did you take a vow, Len Cariou, to the theatre? (LAUGHS) Well, yeah, I know exactly what Marian
is talking about. It’s funny. I grew up in the midwest of Canada, and my family on
my mother’s side, the Irish side of the family, were all singers and musicians. So
I sort of came by the singing part of it honestly, if you will. (PIA LAUGHS) But it never occurred
to me to be in the theatre, because being brought up in a small city – well, pretty
[big], not a small city, but there was no professional theatre. It was all amateur theatre,
and I grew up in a suburb of the city and didn’t have a lot of exposure to that kind
of thing. But my mother kind of vicariously wanted me to be a singer, so I studied singing
as a boy soprano. And when my voice changed, I still had one, so I went on. And I didn’t have the kind of exposure that
(TO MARIAN) you had. So, it never occurred to me to be in a play. It occurred to me that
I might be in a musical. And I was in a musical, and then when I decided to do it as a profession,
I was very lucky, because John Hirsch (PH) founded the Manitoba Theatre Center in Winnipeg,
and he kind of took me by the hand and said, “Come on, I’ll teach you how to do this.” And the funny part about it was that I was
an actor for over a year before I ever saw a play. (LAUGHTER) So that’s pretty strange.
I mean, that doesn’t happen too often. And then, of course, having been an actor for
over a year and went to my first play and thought, “What are they doing? (LAUGHTER)
Get off the stage!” I mean, I am the worst audience in the world. Patrick, you perhaps had no choice? You come
from a family where Shirley Jones was your mother. Oh, my schooling was a little different! Yeah,
you grow up where everybody you see – I watch my children, I watch my nieces and nephews
now. And I see myself through them, in the sense that they watch on television or watch
in the theatre their father, their uncles, their grandparents. So you assume that everybody
does this. (LAUGHTER) This is how everybody makes a living! So the natural sort of course
of events is, “Oh, well, I can do this, too.” And then, of course, you’re hit
with the incredible awakening. “Oh, this is very difficult! This is something that
I wish I had – as Marian did – had more schooling at it!” But for me, you know, singing came very natural.
I was in a band growing up, and when I made the move to New York when I was nineteen,
I started studying and going to acting class all the time. And like I said, it was in the
house all the time, I got to see it all the time, and that was my training. And then,
growing up in the theatre, just working in the theatre. But I remember seeing my first
show at age five. Were you ever afraid of being compared and
found wanting? Ye— no! I mean, I knew that that was sort
of the natural [thing], that was going to happen. For me, it was more about just sort
of proving myself, and that’s why I chose to stay in New York. You know, I had seen
what happened with my brothers [David and Shaun Cassidy] in terms of teen idolism and
having to go that route, and I thought – and I think my father [Jack Cassidy] would have
been very proud of me – “Well, if I stay in New York and I work in the theatre and
I continue to work regionally and stuff like that, you know, I’ll sort of carve my own
niche.” And that’s what’s happened. I guess in your family, if you became an accountant,
it would be a rebellious statement. (LAUGHTER) Well, the funny thing is, I think my parents
would have liked it that way. (LAUGHTER) My mother did everything she could to, God knows,
have us do something else, you know. And I thought about, you know, being a lawyer. Same
thing, though. (LAUGHTER) And it just worked out this way, and I’m really happy that
it did. Michael, why are you an actress? Oh, God, I don’t know. I didn’t get therapy
early enough. (LAUGHTER) I don’t mean to be cynical, because I love what Marian said.
I was eleven years old and living in Austria. My father was working for the CIA. Of course,
we didn’t know that. Everybody in the village knew it, but we didn’t know it. (LAUGHTER)
And they sent me away to English boarding school, which happened to be a ballet school,
and by accident I won the Drama Cup. You know, I was there as a ballet student, and the teacher
said, “Michael, you know, you’re not really a very good dancer. (SHE LAUGHS) You’re
rather lazy. So why don’t you become a special drama student?” Which I did. And like Marian,
I never looked back after that. It was wonderful training. I mean, you’re doing intercostal
diaphragmatic breathing at eleven, so you’re building your whole [body]. You’re doing what? Could you repeat that?
What was that? I’m so proud of that. My husband’s a lawyer,
and he was so impressed when he heard me say that, so I had to just drop that in there.
Intercostal diaphragmatic breathing, you know? No! Use all those muscles, the rib muscles, to
breathe through your back and so on. And Shakespeare and mime and voice production and scenes and
dance, as well. We had a dance class every morning, a different [one], tap, ballet, modern.
And then we also had a drama class every morning. So to start at that age, at eleven, training
your voice and your body, is why so many English actors are so good and take all the work away
from us. (LAUGHTER) But anyway, moving on. And then, I got married very young, so that
came first, because in the fifties, you weren’t allowed to have a [career], your career mustn’t
come first. And it actually did come first, because I have kids and I was quite happy.
And I just sort of worked whenever I could. And then, we moved to San Francisco and the
American Conservatory Theatre, and that was just a thrilling, thrilling time. My kids
were older by then, and I think one season we did seventeen plays in two theatres. And
we were training, teaching, acting, rehearsing, dancing. We were doing it all, and it was
just divine. (LAUGHS) It was heaven! It was the most exciting time of my career life. Andre, well, you’re a dancer, actor, singer,
everything. Performer! (LAUGHS) Whiz! Well, Pia, in my case, you’re talking to
a man who, from his very first conscious thoughts, surrendered to his destiny. I remember growing
up, my mother talking about her dream to be a dancer. And she deferred that dream. My
father talking about his dream to be a singer. And he deferred his dream. They did because
they had eleven children to raise. I knew, in my mother’s womb, that I was going to
manifest their deferred dreams. (LAUGHTER) That makes me want to cry! This sounds very curious and metaphysical,
but when you have ten siblings, five sisters and five brothers, you really have to decide
at a very early age (LAUGHTER), what are you going to do with your life? And I knew that
I was lucky, number nine. And I didn’t train, but after thirty-one years in this industry,
I know about intercostal diaphragmatic breathing (LAUGHTER), because otherwise you don’t
last that long, you know? If you’re breathing very shallow and from the top of the lungs,
then you’d better become an accountant. But once you learn to breath from the bottom
of the lung and once you’ve learned to use the bellows down here called the diaphragm,
you understand that you’re meant for only one destiny, and that is to declare yourself! I got the passion in my feet from my mother.
I got the passion in my voice from my father. And like everyone here on the panel, once
the decision was made, there was no looking back. Now of course, it takes a lot of tenacity,
a lot of long suffering, a lot of agreement with people when they say, “You’re crazy!
You’re out of your mind!” And you have to understand, “Yes, I am.” But I’m
in an industry, I’m in a community of people where being out of your mind is okay! (LAUGHTER)
It’s the norm. But don’t you always feel safer with people
who know they’re out of their minds? Absolutely! Those of us who agree that we’re
a little left or right of center understand that we’re safe. And you, Mary-Louise? Are you a little bit
crazy? Well, it’s funny, because when I first went
to drama school, it was the first time people told me I was weird and they meant it as a
compliment, you know? (LAUGHTER) So finally, it was all right. But I don’t really know
how I arrived at this. And I know, specifically because I wanted to be a stage actor, and
I still don’t really consider myself a movie actor or a film actor, and I really don’t
know why because I never really saw plays, either, and I was sort of discouraged from
watching a lot of television or movies. So I don’t really know. I knew that I wanted
it before I even knew what you called it, or even what the word for it was. And I think it was also odd, because I was
so quiet and so awkward and I didn’t speak very much. And then I went to drama school,
and I was the first person that got up to do every exercise and I was the first person
that wanted to do that, you know? And I was the one who’d jump off the building, or
you know, take my clothes off. I was the first person to do [everything], you know? And before
that, I was always so afraid of everything. And I don’t really know why that is. I think, some people, it’s just inherent,
it’s just there. And there’s not even a question. There was never a moment when
I even thought to question anything. It never occurred to me that I would do anything else,
that I wouldn’t do this. I knew that it was going to be really hard, and it is and
was at times, but I just knew that that’s what I would do. Can you teach acting? Marian, you actually
are at Juilliard, on the faculty there. Well, I taught there for more than twenty
years. I don’t think you can teach acting, but you can make a circumstance in which talented
people can learn to use their own talents to their fullest, and that’s it. I think
you can help teach terribly important things, like how to read a play. It sounds so easy
– it’s difficult. You must learn how to really work with a text, not just accept it
and jump into it and so on. And to use the intellectual part of your life, to bring that
to the theatre, too. To be able to make choices. Michael started when she was so young to be
a dancer, and so did I. And the discipline of a dance class is something you miss sometimes
in the theatre. You love that discipline. I mean, if you see Andre’s performance in
THE FULL MONTY, it seems to be entirely improvised, and yet, there’s not one second that isn’t
specific and focused. And you learn that from dance, I think. So that in a school, where I was lucky enough
to teach, at Juilliard, in the drama division, you learn almost everything but acting. You
learn how to use your voice, use your body, use your mind. But your talent is your own.
It’s secret, really. And the only time you go off center is when an untalented person,
be he a teacher or a director or a fellow actor or a critic, tampers with it in a dangerous
way. I mean, if we were a board of surgeons, I could say these things and they wouldn’t
sound odd, because if you make the wrong cut, you can kill someone. Well, you can hurt someone’s
talent, or you can make it possible for it to grow. And the most beautiful thing, for me, from
all those years of teaching, is to watch the people that I was – when I say, “I taught,”
I was on a faculty. I was one of many, many teachers. But to go to the theatre and open
the playbill, and there’s the name of someone that’s come into your class and you’ve
seen grow and you’ve loved, it’s just an extra joy of the theatre for me. (REFERRING
TO MARY-LOUISE, REACHING OUT TO HER) Look at that face! (LAUGHTER) You have a Master’s Degree from NYU. You’re
too educated. I do, but Marian has said something that really
reverberates in my life. She talks about tampering with talent. One of the reasons why I avoided,
as a young performer, training, is because I was carrying this secret with me, the secret
of my family, and it was a treasure and it was precious. And every time I came into a
situation with a teacher, with an instructor, with a mentor, I thought he or she was going
to tamper with my talent. I thought he or she was going to steal something away from
me, was going to spoil something that had been given to me, from the universe, through
my mother and father. So I deliberately did not train. Of course here, in the year 2000,
I sometimes regret that I didn’t, because everybody trains now. Yes, and you are teaching, too. Aren’t you
at NYU teaching? I am indeed. I am indeed teaching now. So are you ruining these people’s talents?
(LAUGHTER) I’m not ruining their talent at all. But
I never give them that madness about, “Let’s empty the glass so we can fill it.” You
know, I always ask them, “What do you got?” You know, we’re all flowers in God’s bouquet,
right? And I’ll say, “Ah! You’ve got this, you’ve got that. We’ll put it all
together and make this a lovely experience.” After that, I let it alone. Yes, it’s the use of talent. Right. It’s how it is used, your own, how you respond
to the talents of other people. It’s the family of talents, so to speak. It’s the
mixture. Absolutely. You’re both very loving people, but there
are a lot of students who have had to deal with very angry teachers. And that can have
a very negative effect. Or a director. When I was very young, at Stratford, Ontario, I
worked with a director who had me so terrified that I used to throw up before every rehearsal
and couldn’t speak. So I can understand your fear, because it can absolutely destroy
you. However, the reverse side of that is, I think when I was young and at A.C.T., the
good fortune of working with directors who also taught. I mean, wonderful directors who
were teachers. Like Bill Ball. Like Bill Ball. Ellis Raab. Ellis Raab, wonderful people. And they had their problems, like everybody
else, but they were magnificent teachers, as well as directors. I want to know, who was the guy that made
you want to throw up? (LAUGHTER) Yeah, you know I’m not going to say the
name! He made his amends, he said he was sorry, and I’m still here, so the hell with him!
(LAUGHTER) But when you’re young, it can be devastating. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) It can
be absolutely devastating. Sometimes teachers don’t know how damaging
what they say can be. I always, if I’m going to have a class that’s going to be ongoing,
I always say in the beginning that I will feel free to express myself with what I feel
I know, but that you, they, as the students, must question and must not use anything [just
because I say so], because there’s no one way. But when you’re in the rehearsal, it
seems there is only one way. You’re in this set of circumstances and you’re young and
you want to do well, which really has very little to do with acting, but you don’t
know that yet. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And you want to please and you want not to take the
time away from the important actors. Exactly. And of course, all that’s ludicrous. But
it’s life. And dealing with people who frighten you and hurt you is life, and overcoming it,
and being able to smile, in retrospect. And some teachers are, by their own nature, so
demanding that they’re terrifying. But there’s also a kind of teacher that
can be that way. I had a teacher named Grace Matchitt (PH) in England, who never said a
nice word to any of us. But you always felt that she adored your talent and that she was
just angry with you with you because you could do better. Well, that’s wonderful! And she was such a positive [influence], even
though she – because I guess it came from her spirit. And so, she just made you want
to do better and do more and work harder. And then, there are other teachers who can
just deflate you, to the point where you want to go home and just jump off a cliff. Len, was there a teacher in your life? No, there wasn’t. I didn’t have any formal
training. When I started in the theatre, the National Theatre School in Canada was founded
about the same time that I started in the theatre. And just prior to my becoming a professional,
they had gone around the country auditioning potential students. And as it turned out,
I was selected as the first student to go to the school. But it was in Montreal. I was
living in Winnipeg, with a wife and a child, and I was twenty years old. And they said
that they would give me a scholarship, but I wasn’t feeding one mouth, I was feeding
three. So it was an impossibility for me to do, so I didn’t have any of that formal
training. So all my training was on the boards, which is, I think, very much what Andre did. Absolutely. And (TO PATRICK) probably you did, too, right? Yeah. And you, too. You didn’t have a teacher
or a mentor? No, right. And probably everybody. That you just learn
by error. And it was that kind of a learning process. My teacher, my mentor, was John Hirsch,
who was one of the great directors that I’ve ever worked with. I’ve worked with an awful
lot of good ones. And he was somebody who had a great influence on my life. And he was
a true mentor. He made sure that – when I decided not to go to the school, I went
to him and I said, “Look, I can’t do this,” and he said, “I understand.” He said,
“Well, I’ll give you work.” And he literally took me by the hand and said, “No, this
is how you listen. This is how you talk.” And he really gave me a tutorial on what it
was to be an [actor]. And he said, “Don’t worry about it.” He said, “You have innate,
great talent.” He said, “Just listen to me. I’m just telling you what not to do,
more than anything.” And so that was my teacher. So there’s a director, again a teacher/director
teaching. Yeah. The great thing about the theatre is that
you have the opportunity, eight shows a week, if you make a mistake, you can correct it
the next day. You can learn. I mean, the audience tells you a lot. You learn what to do and
what not to do, based on their reactions. And I had a director in New York who, during
the course of rehearsal, chose to ignore me and what I was doing. And when I would go
to him, he wouldn’t really give me any way (PH), so I ultimately made my own choices. And during the preview process of this particular
show, I was incredibly inhibited and felt very self-conscious on the stage, because
the minute I would go to him, he would say, “No, don’t do that.” And then the minute
I would make a choice, he would say, “No, don’t do that.” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL)
So I was basically left looking and feeling and very self-conscious.
And ultimately, though, you know, the director leaves. And ultimately, you’re left up to
your own devices (LAUGHTER), and you have to save yourself. I mean, that’s what you
end up doing. And you learn, basically, based on audience reaction, based on other actors
you’re working with, and that’s the greatest thing about the theatre. It really builds
your chops up as a performer. You don’t get that same luxury in film, because, you
know, the editor has all the control and so does the director. Well, do you lead the audience or do you allow
the audience to lead you? Oh, absolutely, you lead the audience. You lead the audience? Though — That was my training. Okay. So we have a difference of opinion here? The script. I don’t know if there’s a difference of
opinion, but I think it’s a journey that the audience and the actor takes together.
Now, the initial lead comes from the performer, but we cannot ignore what the audience is
doing. Absolutely. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) I’m not suggesting – No, I know you’re not. But Andre, don’t you think the initial lead
is a step further back, which is the play? The play. I agree with that. It comes from the story. I mean, everything. The play leads, and you
owe that script or that song or that dance, to tell that story. Exactly. I completely agree with that. And you can sometimes, if it’s an audience
that’s just enraptured, it could lead you away from that. Right. You must commit to telling that story,
this is true. Or they laugh. You can go for the easy laugh,
because they laugh at a certain point, and so the next night, you know they’re going
to laugh, so you do it a little bigger, when you shouldn’t. Or you resist that. Now, I’ve had a marvelous
experience, and I’d like to throw these two names into that kind of pile of people
who have been inspirational to us. Jack O’Brien (GENERAL AGREEMENT) who directed THE FULL
MONTY, and Terrence McNally (MORE AGREEMENT), who wrote the book of THE FULL MONTY, who
continued to say to us, through the experience, “What we’re going to be doing is clearing
the laughter away from this musical comedy. We don’t want the audience laughing too
much, because we want them to hear the authenticity of the story of these ordinary people.”
So I agree with you, the commitment is to telling the story. Yes. After which we are the leaders, I think. And then we laugh at your character. Exactly. But only at the character, not at
the mugging. No, right. No, no. Not at the jokes. Not at the staging. Absolutely. We know your situation, and we’re
following your story. And in the case of what you’re doing now, all your stories. That’s
the amazing thing, in the direction of it, that they are all happening, it seems to me,
at the same moment, almost. At the same moment, yes. And I think that acting and performing and
being in the theatre has become a finer art, in a way, because of things like this, because
people discuss and are interested in what it is that makes a theatrical experience.
And it isn’t “Who is the star?” and it isn’t “How much does the ticket cost?”
It’s what you’re talking about, with Jack and Terrence, a director and a writer who
absolutely have the same wish, the same desire. And I have the feeling it’s the same in
PROOF, is it not? When something succeeds, it’s very rare
that it comes out of a disagreement. It comes out of everyone wanting the same thing. (GENERAL
AGREEMENT) But back to your question, if you don’t do a play as a team, if you get careless
and think, “Oh, well, this is really good, I’ll do more of this!” (ANDRE LAUGHS),
it’ll be less good and less good and less good, and the whole beauty of discipline is
destroyed. Is destroyed. And you’ll start playing desperately
for the response that you got last week, and the story that you’re supposed to be telling
would have gone to hell. Well, people talk about “good audiences”
and “bad audiences,” as though it’s the audience’s fault, you know? “We were
a bad audience, we didn’t laugh,” or something. Well, audiences have personalities, just like
performers do, which is why I think it’s a reciprocal kind of relationship here. I think what we’re talking about here too
is the focus of the play, that the play is the thing and that a responsible actor will
put the focus in the play where it belongs. And unfortunately, not everybody (LAUGHS)
does that on stage. And there’s nothing more annoying to me than that. Nothing annoys
me more than that. Right. You know why I think that is? I think
the single most difficult thing – I’m just going to throw this up to our group – that
an actor has to do is to listen in character. Umm-hmm. That is the true discipline, I think, for
the actor, that you must listen in character. I had three long runs in Broadway musicals,
and the first one, when I was in APPLAUSE, hmm-hmm years ago (LAUGHTER), and it was the
first time I was in a Broadway play, on Broadway. And we were about nine months into the run,
and something happened. I started going out there, and it didn’t seem right. And I called
our director and I said, “Would you come in and look at a performance? When was the
last time you saw it?” And he said, “Maybe a month ago.” And I said, “Would you come
in and look?” I said, “There’s something wrong.” He came back after and I said, “What’s
wrong?” It still felt that way for me. And he said, “Well, I’m telling you, I’m
very pleased nine months into the run.” He said, “Everybody’s on the money, it’s
in really good shape. It’s not falling apart, you know, at the seams.” He said, “The
only thing I can think of is that you’re not listening as Bill Sampson, you’re listening
as Le Cariou.” And I went, “What?” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And he said, “Well, that’s
the only thing I can think of.” And nobody had ever said that to me before. And I went
home, and went back the next night, and I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right. I started
to think, and it went away. That’s very interesting. When I got into the run of A LITTLE NIGHT
MUSIC, almost exactly the same amount of time had gone by and this malady hit me again,
I went (SNAPS FINGERS), “I know what this is!” And sure enough, I was able to correct
it. Now, that was just for me. I mean, I was the one that was suffering that, I guess. But it’s true of everybody, because the
actor doesn’t know the experience, right? What the audience is having? What I’m saying is, if you have to listen
as the character, and you make the mistake and not do that, then it’s the actor imposing
himself on the experience. Yes, right. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And it’s the character who has to know the
experience, not the actor. It think that’s the same thing as staying “in the moment.”
But once you leave the moment, then you’re either ahead of everybody else or behind everybody
else or beside everybody else – Or judging the audience. Or judging, you’re not doing, yes. Or judging yourself, or judging the other
actors. And you get to the point of saying, “It’s
a bad audience, it’s a good audience.” Well, that’s because you’re not in your
moment, and you’re not listening as your character. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) You’ve talked about learning while working.
But how do you know how to do what you say you did, to bring your character back, if
you’ve not had training of how you maneuver into that? You can’t always do it through
working. Don’t you have to have something that you bring to it, that you’re learned
and said, “Ah, now I know I have to do this”? If I might respond to that, when I said that
I eschewed training, I wasn’t putting down training. But as Len said, I learned by doing
it on the boards. And you learn through experiencing one epiphany after the next. Now, the reason
I knew that I was on the right mission in my life was because an epiphany I had when
I was nine years old and I saw John Bubbles (PH) perform in CABIN IN THE SKY. And he did
this dance routine where it looked as if he was ascending into the clouds and I thought,
“That’s what I want to do with my life!” Well, if I hadn’t gone on and experienced
an epiphany with another individual and an epiphany with Jack O’Brien recently, then
I would not have the chops that it takes to continue to do the very difficult, the very
hard, the very disciplined and the very rewarding work that we call acting. So it’s a daily
procedure of learning, unlearning, relearning, taking risks, trusting. And there are directors who can make you feel
very safe, like Jack does, you know? Absolutely. And directors who make you feel very unsafe
(LAUGHS), and you have to be able to do your work anyway. I think, to try and answer Isabelle’s questions,
I don’t think there’s any way without you having had some theatrical experience,
some kind of training, that you’re going to know that. There’s just simply no way.
There is no monitor, I don’t think, except maybe your instinctive monitor that’s built
in. I think it’s an interesting thing, when
you start working on something, start in the early rehearsals of plays, I found that virtually
everything that I first thought of, in the first two or three days or rehearsal, my instinct,
I would go and we would then explore, and three weeks later, I’d come back to exactly
what I did in the first two or three days. But in the first two or three days, it was
narrow. Three weeks later, it’s out here (GESTURES WITH HANDS APART) and it’s a full-blown
character that you have. So I guess I’m really saying that your instinct
was correct, but it’s funny that people – or some directors – will take you and
say, “No, no, I don’t think it works that way. Come down this road.” For the most
part, I think they’re trying to be encouraging. I mean, hopefully, they have some clue what
they’re doing. (MICHAEL LAUGHS) There are a lot of them that don’t. (LAUGHTER) But
it’s interesting and continues to be the same way, that you instinctively do something
the first two or three days that you’re working on a role and you go down whatever
road you may go down for the three weeks or four weeks of rehearsal. And you, in reflection,
say, “Well, this is exactly what I did the first two or three days.” I want to talk about fear! (GROANS FROM THE
PANEL) I’ve heard several people here talk about fear, throwing up. That’s what I’m feeling right now. (LAUGHTER) Mary-Louise, let’s start with you. How do
you handle stage fright, fear, nerves? I don’t have it. You don’t have it? Oh. I don’t. I’ve had discomfort twice on
stage, and one time it was fear, and it was a particular part. When I was doing HOW I
LEARNED TO DRIVE, I had a really hard time with that play, and the part was really difficult
for me, and I had to address the audience, and that really really wrecked me every night.
It was really hard for me. But other than that, I have a sense of anticipation before
I go on, and before the first preview, generally, you know, you have a little, but I don’t,
otherwise. So what did you do? I have life fright. This is frightening for
me. This is frightening! (LAUGHTER) Being yourself,
maybe that’s it. Yeah. (LAUGHS NERVOUSLY) It’s more frightening to be yourself than
it is to be a character. Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, what technique do you do if you’re
all choking up? I mean, what do you do? Oh, when that happens, you mean? Yes. Give us the hints! What do we do when
that happens to us? I don’t [know]. I mean, I’m trying to
think of during that experience. I mean, I just used every ounce of technique that I
had, basically, to make that not apparent to the audience so that I could tell the story
as best I could. Because the narrator, who was addressing the audience, had no fear and
was all comfort. You know, all her discomfort was buried, you know. So I had to bury mine,
as well, you know, as best I could. Vocally or physically, I just had to really use technique. Well, what is the technique, Patrick? If you’re
scared, how do you sing? I find it’s much harder in a musical. I
find singing the most difficult thing to do when you’re scared. I can dance. I actually
sometimes can dance better when I’m scared. And acting, I find, depending on the part,
fear also helps that sometimes. But for some reason, singing, because it’s so technical
on some level, and it requires you to breathe very low, fear can get the better of you. The scariest moment I ever had was I was singing
at Carnegie Hall with Victor Garber, we were doing a tribute to Stephen Sondheim, and we
were doing “The Ballad of Booth” from ASSASSINS. And I remember they had put me
on a stool with my face upstage, and I was going to turn around, into the camera and
start. And it was the first time singing at Carnegie Hall (LAUGHTER), I had flown in at
a moment’s notice, and I knew everybody in New York and everywhere was there. It was
frightening. And I remember sitting on the stool and the
beginning of the song started, and prior to my turning, and my heart was going like this
It was literally leaving my chest! And I said, “How am I going to do this?” And I remember
literally saying to myself, “Breathe!” Yeah! Take a deep breath. “Take a deep breath. Ground your feet, and
look.” And the minute I turned around – and you can hear it in my voice, you can hear
the change – I started the song, and the minute I sort of plugged into what I was singing
about and who I was talking about, the fear subsided. In other words, the minute I could
get into the character that I was playing, all that whole thing of being judged, all
that whole thing of “Who’s out there?” kind of dissipated and went away, and then
it was fine. It was terrific! But you see it – for me, knowing myself, I see the transformation
in the first line of music, when I started to sing the song and my voice was this (DOES
A TREMOR WITH HIS HAND) and than all of a sudden took some shape and took some form. Breathing. But how many times do we say it in our ordinary,
daily life? “Take a deep breath!” It’s no secret. Use those intercostal, whatever that is! (LAUGHTER)
Diaphragmatic. Sometimes when I perform, I’m not singing
and I’m not dancing, and I had a delicious opportunity of New York to play Willy Loman
in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. I was frightened out of my wits, because what is a dancer doing,
essaying the role of Willy Loman? So opening night came, and I was supposed to speak. I
didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know what I was going
to say, I was afraid. The beads of sweat – but how perfect, for Willy Loman, to be returning
with beads of sweat. (LAUGHTER) And I took a deep breath and it finally coalesced and
came to me. And at the end of the show, my director came up to me and said, “That was
magnificent! That breath that you took (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) before entering the house!” Oh, oh! It worked! Right. Well, you really suffered. I’ve heard of
many actresses who, you know, throw up before they go on. What I’d like to know is, how
do you do that? How can you get sick and then run out, you know, and go out onto the stage? Well, I was very young, and it was a rehearsal,
so it didn’t matter much. But I’ve heard of other actresses. But some people, yeah. I remember seeing Jane
Wyman – not Jane Wyman, uh – oh, darn. SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. Powell. Jane Powell? Powell, thank you very much. She’s a lovely
woman. Senior moment here. (LAUGHTER) But we were at the Tonys, actually, the Tonys.
And I had never met her, and I was sort of overwhelmed with all these wonderful stars
and everything, and this is like my first Tony thing. And she was shaking. She was sweating,
her hands were like ice, and she said, “Please, just hold my hand, just hold my hand.” I
thought, “This poor woman is going to have an [attack]. She’s just going to walk out
there and just collapse in front of everybody.” Well, she finally left to go backstage and
make her entrance, and when her entrance came up, this totally transformed human being,
(GESTURES) “Ta-da!”, came out. (LAUGHTER) I mean, it was so touching. It was extraordinary.
I mean, the guts! And you would never, in a million years, have guessed that she had
been through literal hell, only a few minutes before. And it’s star quality, I guess. Well, does meditation help? What helps? What
are the techniques? Nothing helps. I get more nervous for auditions
that I do for anything, because it’s like a test. Yeah. It’s a different process. It’s a totally
different process. And you know, a lot of people think it’s
purely ego from actors, and I don’t think it is. I think my fear, on opening night,
is that I’m going to screw up in some way and let everybody, let the play down, or let
my fellow actors down. Don’t you think? It’s not just me. It’s about it. (GENERAL
AGREEMENT) Yeah, it’s about the mission (PH), yeah.
But meditation at “Places!” doesn’t help. That doesn’t help! (LAUGHS) I can’t meditate when I’m scared! (LAUGHS) But I tell you, there’s something about
the light, there’s something about the costume, there’s something about the community of
people that’s soothing. And whatever ails you, this is a calming effect. Also, I think if you’re really prepared.
I think some of the fear, if you’re not quite sure of your lines or if you haven’t
quite gotten the grasp of your character, I think that contributes to stage fright,
too. I agree, absolutely. The only time I’ve
ever been – and I mean this, because when Mary-Louise was telling her story, I’ve
never really had any stage fright, either. I have that anticipation of getting on there,
but that’s not fright. I’m not afraid to go out there at all, never. Except once
in my life, when I decided that I would be a hero and I was going to take over Oberon
in THE DREAM at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, because an actor was going to quit in the
middle of the season and leave. And I said (DOES A SUPERMAN IMITATION), “Never mind,
I’ll do it!” (LAUGHTER) So I had about three weeks to learn this role,
and of course, when you’re working on a role, especially in a repertory situation,
you have three months to really learn something. It happens over a long period of time, because
you’re going to do them in rep, and you’re usually rehearsing them at the same time.
In my case, because I decided to do this heroic thing, I had to really just learn the words
and I was trying to memorize. So I guess what I’m saying is, you don’t memorize. You
learn stuff by osmosis. It happens, and it becomes very, very solid, and it allows you
to have that moment of spontaneity every time you go out there. Well, there was not one performance of A MIDSUMMER
NIGHT’S DREAM that I didn’t go (OPENS HIS MOUTH) and had no idea what I was going
to say. I just came out there and I looked at somebody, and I just looked at them. Until
they said (GESTURES, WHISPERING, FEEDING A CUE; LAUGHTER) And try whispering in iambic
pentameter (LAUGHTER) what your line is, on a thrust stage! It’s absolutely terrifying.
And it was actor’s hell. And you know, it was self-inflicted, so I guess I’ve been
dining out on it for a while, and now we’re going to record it for posterity. There’s an old story about Ethel Merman,
who was asked whether she was nervous on opening night, and she said, “Why should I be nervous?
I know what I’m going to do. The audience should be nervous!” (LAUGHTER) Yeah, it’s true. What happens when somebody else forgets his
or her lines? Have you ever had that happen, that you acted with somebody and they kept
going up? Oh, yeah. Last night! (LAUGHTER) It happened last night to me, too. What happened? Oh, tell us. What happened? I feel like I’m implicating – everyone
forgets his lines, all the time, so I don’t want to say. Yeah. That’s right. In a musical, you say the person’s line. Yeah, I said his line. You said the person’s line. Not intentionally, it just sort of came out
of my mouth. I said one of his lines. (LAUGHS) But his next line was “Call me Hal,” and
I thought, “Oh, my God, what if I had said ‘Call me Hal’?” (LAUGHTER) Because I
said his line and then I thought, “Oh, thank God, I stopped.” I don’t know why, I just
sort of said it. Is that what happened to you? You said the
other person’s line? No. What happened was, somebody had missed
a cue offstage. “Somebody”! (LAUGHTER) Had missed a cue offstage, and I was left
sort of hanging there. And then what I did was, I then went on, yeah, with somebody else.
I went on with my line, but about five lines ahead of where we’re supposed to be, which
then, you know, made the entrance for the next actor coming on stage that much quicker,
and it became just sort of this – and we sort of improvised for about three or four
lines, and then all of a sudden, we were back on the track. The funniest stuff, in terms of that, that
ever happened with me was, I was doing COMPANY with Carol Burnett, and there’s a scene
at the end that’s all based around a pack of cigarettes, about Joanne getting Bobby
to smoke, she wants him to smoke. Well, the pack of cigarettes was not there! (MURMURS
OF HORROR AND SYMPATHY FROM THE PANEL) And we came out in this scene, and it was Carol
to my right, and I was in the center, and her husband, Joanne’s husband was there.
And he had noticed, the actor had noticed that the cigarettes were not there, so he
had to literally exit, to leave. And the whole conversation is about cigarettes and smoking,
and “I’m going to get you to smoke a cigarette.” What do you do? So he got up and he left,
and he literally said, “I’m going to go get a pack of smokes.” (LAUGHTER) And you were left standing there? Totally. And it was until he located the cigarettes
– well, it seemed like an eternity. Oh, it was awful. And Carol is brilliant – it
was just amazing. She had on one of those fabulous Bob Mackie dresses with the back
cut out, like this (DEMONSTATES A VERY LOW-CUT BACK). Well, (LAUGHS) she turns to me, she
said, “So Bobby, how was your day?” (LAUGHTER) And I said, “It was terrific. It was really
terrific.” She said, “I’ve been shopping all day. In fact, I got this fabulous dress,”
and she turned to the audience and she said, “But I’ve put it on backwards!” (LAUGHTER)
It was very funny. They should have left that in, I guess. Oh, I mean, it was brilliant! And by then,
he got on with the cigarettes, and then we got back into the sort of play. Oh, my God! It is a nightmare when that happens. I did
PLAZA SUITE once, and one of the little segments is a producer and his old girlfriend who comes
into the hotel suite, and they have this [scene]. And we’d only rehearsed for two weeks, and
he didn’t know his lines and I didn’t know mine, and the two of us one night went
around, up and down and in and out, (LAUGHTER) and I kept trying to end it! Because I thought,
“The audience doesn’t know what the hell we’re talking about, and they won’t care!
They just want it to be over, and so do I!” (LAUGHTER) So I would sort of end it, and
then he would go back to the beginning and start over again. (LAUGHTER) Finally, there is a point in it where she
leaves, but she doesn’t leave. And I said, “I am leaving, and I am not coming back!”
(LAUGHTER) I left! And then I didn’t have the heart to go all the way off. He opened
the door and he went, “Oh, thank you!” And there we were doing it again! (LAUGHTER)
It was awful. It was just awful. Marian, what’s your answer to this kind
of thing? I think it’s so completely unpredictable.
You give yourself to the moment. Sometimes, you can just put your hand up and just say
and sometimes you can take the line and change it to your line. Sometimes you can jump a
line, go forward. Of course, in the beginning, when you haven’t rehearsed enough, it’s
agony. When you really know a play, in a terrible way, it’s exciting. Yes, absolutely. (LAUGHTER) I’ll tell you, what a riot. This happened
already, doing THE DINNER PARTY. I have a tiny scene – it’s set up as a farce, and
people are going in and out of the center door all the time. And I’m standing backstage
and for some reason, I got talking to the stage doorman. Oh, I know, it was right after
we opened, and I was talking to him, I said, “Listen, I have so many bouquets of flowers
out there.” I said, “Can you use any of these? I mean, can you give them to your wife,
or can you take them home and give them to, you know, someone, so they don’t just die?” And in the middle of it, somebody comes up
to me and said, “You missed the scene!” (GASPS OF HORROR FROM MICHAEL AND MARIAN)
And I went, “No! I didn’t.” I went, “My God, I missed [the scene]?” The horrible
part about it was, the scene was totally inconsequential. I mean, I actually have a scene in which it
doesn’t matter (LAUGHTER) what I said. Or if you’re there! Or what anybody said. There was no information
whatsoever in the scene. I mean, I went, “Oh, my God! What do I have to do when I go in
for my next … oh, there was no information in that scene. It’s just a joke.” (LAUGHS)
And thank God, because it takes literally twenty seconds, and then somebody else comes
in. So John Ritter had come off the stage and
was waiting for me to go on and went, “Where is he? Oh.” My cue had gone by, I was over
talking to the stage doorman. So he walked on and then he was back, ‘cause that’s
what he did anyway. He comes bang! – when I exit, he makes an entrance. It’s quite
astounding, everybody came off the stage – I mean, everybody was giving him a high five
for the save of the year. (LAUGHTER) And I said, “The really frightening thing is it
didn’t matter what any of us said in that scene, it didn’t matter!” That’s a sad commentary on it. What I find, as I get older, what scares me
is if another actor goes up, I’m not sure I could help out. That’s what frightens
me. Can you remember everybody’s lines? I can barely remember my own lines, and I’m
thinking, “Oh, my God, I hope she knows what she’s [doing].” And I had the good
fortune to work with Marian in THREE TALL WOMEN, and that whole first act, it’s an
aria. That was so extraordinary. And talk about listening, I got to listen to this fabulous
woman every night. And it was never, ever – there was never one moment where I wandered.
It was the easiest listening I’ve ever had to do in my life, was listening to Marian.
And she somehow managed – I mean, if you had ever gone up (LAUGHS), I would have just
stayed listening! (LAUGHTER) No help at all! I mean, I couldn’t have helped you out at
all! And thank God, you never did. Or if you did, you got yourself out of it brilliantly. So I guess the main thing is to stay in character,
if everybody’s forgetting their lines, at least never to lose your [character] and say,
“I’m lost!” Yeah, right. I just remembered something.
It’s worth sharing. At Stratford, Ontario, we were doing a production of MAHAGONNY. And
I was playing Moneybags Bill, and I had a phrase that I sang, and then the orchestra
went, “Ba-da da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da-dah! Da-da da-da da-da da-da da-dah!” and so
on. And then I would come in and go, “Dah da-da-dee da-da-da-da da-da-dee da-dee da
dun-dun.” Right? And that would be it. And I’d turn and go back upstage. And the music
was the same, only the lyrics changed. Well, one of the actors, who was on as an
understudy, God help us! Instead of going on, he went back to the section before I did
my little thing, right? Because the music was the same, only the lyrics [changed]. He
did the lyrics from the first – I guess he didn’t know the lyrics to the next part.
So he did that once, and the conductor is looking at me, going – you know, he’s
conducting the orchestra and going (GESTURES “Come back, come back!”). So I go back
and I stand up and I do my little “Duh-dee duh-dee na-na, da-na-na-na dun-dun-dun,”
and I turn around and walk away. Goes back, and the guy does it again. Oh, no! I did it three times, and on the fourth time,
I just said, “Nope!” I just said, “No!” (LAUGHTER) The conductor went (GESTURES “Get
out here!”) and I said (SHAKES HIS HEAD). And he stopped the orchestra, and he said
to the actor (WHISPERS) and he went, “Oh!” (LAUGHTER) And then started again, and the
guy finally went on. And I was beside myself, and this poor actor
didn’t have the wherewithal to come up and say, “Geez, I’m really sorry.” So I
went out after the performance and I happened to go into a restaurant and the people were
sitting down, they had just seen the show, and they went, “Oh, it was so wonderful!”
and I said, “So wonderful?” And I said, “What about that ridiculous thing with the
orchestra?” and they said, “You mean, that wasn’t part of the play?” (LAUGHTER) They never know. On that note, we will take
a short break and meet here again in a few minutes. (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 returning to our panelists, I would
like to emphasize to you that these seminars and the Tony Awards, given for excellence
in the theatre, are only a part of the activities of the American Theatre Wing. We may be best
known for these activities, but the Wing is so much more. As a not-for-profit charity
that serves both theatre and the community with its year-round programs, the Wing works
to develop new audiences for the theatre and bring theatre to those who would otherwise
not be exposed to its magic. Our meaningful programs for students include
“Introduction to Broadway,” which in its eight years’ history has enabled more than
80,000 New York City high school students to attend a Broadway show, many for the first
time. The Wing also introduces young people to theatre and to other worlds, by bringing
professionals into schools, through workshops. This is a part of our “Theatre in School”
program. Additionally, the Wing’s hospital program,
dating back to World War Two, when we created the legendary Stage Door Canteens, continues
to entertain patients in hospitals, nursing homes, AIDS centers and child care facilities
in the New York area. With volunteer talent from Broadway, Off-Broadway and the cabaret
world, the Wing continues to bring live entertainment to those who are not able to attend theatre.
And our grants and scholarship program provides a central support where it is so needed. We take pride in the work we do, remain so
grateful to our members and everyone who makes the work of the American Theatre Wing possible.
Our work strengthens the ties between theatre and the community, and we are proud to be
a part of this very great and important effort. Thank you so much for being here. And now
we go back to our seminar of the performers. Pia, would you go on with this now? Thank you very much, Isabelle. I’d like
to talk about auditions. Are you all so well-known now that you don’t have to go on auditions
any more? (LAUGHTER AND GROANS FROM THE PANEL) No, no, no! As a matter of fact, to get the
gig in THE FULL MONTY, I did the traditional audition process. I went in and I sang for
the director, playwright, composer and choreographer. And then I had to read from the play, and
then I had to go through a dance audition, and then I had to wait for a month to find
out that I was the one that they had chosen. Did you have to take your clothes off? (LAUGHTER) (LAUGHS) We were cautioned by the choreographer
that we should wear some “athletic clothes,” that we would strip down to. (LAUGHS) That wasn’t required. Did you have
to audition for PROOF? No. If I didn’t get offered work, I would
never work, because I never get things that I audition for. (LAUGHTER) Neither do I! Not any more. In years, I never – I don’t
audition so much any more, not because people are throwing work at me, but (LAUGHS) I’m
just not very good at it any more, I don’t think. Do you have a speech that you [do]? When were you ever good at it? (LAUGHTER) I was better at it when I was younger, because
I did it all the time, you know. And now, I don’t know, it just seems so huge. You
have to put on a dress and go to midtown. (LAUGHTER) You have to, like, be nice to the
producer. Be nice, yes! (GENERAL AGREEMENT FROM THE
PANEL) I can’t be nice any more. I go in with such
an attitude, I can’t help it. (LAUGHTER) And I wonder why I never get anything! It’s
because I go in in such a rage! (LAUGHTER) It’s like casting directors are young enough
to be your grandchildren. I know. But you shouldn’t have to audition for anything
any more. “Don’t you know who I am?!” (LAUGHTER) No! (LAUGHTER) “Don’t you know what I do by now? And
if you don’t, I don’t want to work for you.” (LAUGHTER) That’s my way of making
myself feel better. Because then I don’t get it anyway! And you have to audition, as well? Did you? Oh, yeah. But like Mary-Louise, I don’t
get things that I audition for. I mean, I got offered ANNIE. It’s a totally different
process than acting, I believe. It goes against every principle of acting,
actually. It does, it does. It really does, and specifically – the theatre
is a little bit better, because at least they usually give you a little bit more time to
work on the audition and they give you more time in the room. But if you ever have to
audition for a television pilot, or something like that, the guys that do the best and the
women that do the best to me are stand-up comics. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Because they can
go into a room and work the room for their five, six, seven minutes with this vessel
of material that they have, and that’s what gets you the job. It is a very foreign process.
I think it is a process still that needs to be [changed]. They need to find a better way,
I really believe. It needs to be abolished, is what it needs. Yes, absolutely. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Well, how do you do that, though? You say
it needs to be abolished. How does one know? We should have an actors’ bill of rights!
(LAUGHTER) But we don’t. Would you have a song prepared or a speech
prepared, Marian, for example? And you go – Oh, I am a stand-up comic. (LAUGHTER) And
I feel I should immediately put these people at ease (THE PANEL LAUGHS), and I go through
my act, but they don’t laugh. (LAUGHTER) They judge. I feel differently than most of
the actors and actresses, because I feel if I don’t do it, I’ll just keep doing the
same part over and over, and that people won’t think I can do something else and then I won’t
think I can do something else. And so, in a perverse way, I welcome it. I
think if I came in and talked to someone, I’d never get anything. But if I could show
them something else, I might. And that, if it’s a good audition, in a sense, the same
people that are judging me may do something else. Now, over the course of this last hundred
years, that’s happened sometimes. They’ll remember, or the man who checked your name
in is now the greatest director or something. So I try always to turn it into the opening
night, so to speak. How do you do that, though? How do you prepare
for an audition? Well, it’s the very thing that Mary-Louise
mentioned. I mean, how you dress and how you make up and how you go to this audition, and
how much do you want it? I won’t audition for something I didn’t want to do. Oh. But I – I don’t want to use the word that
keeps coming into my head! – but I’m so greedy to work, so anxious to be an actress,
and I don’t know any other way. Except – now, back to this interesting concept of abolishing
auditions, if the people who judge us and audition us would just go to the theatre more.
(VEHEMENT AGREEMENT FROM THE PANEL; LAUGHTER FROM THE AUDIENCE) Absolutely! Oh, yeah, but that’s also true – we all
have myriad tons of videotape on us. You know, why do you have [to audition]? I don’t think they look at it, darling.
I think they skip right by. I know they don’t. I think you do this thing (GESTURES, PRESENTING
HERSELF), all the time. That’s what’s heinous about it. I mean,
you know? But until you get to that stage where you
have all of this? It’s meaningless. It doesn’t matter. They
don’t care. But I once said to someone, I think it’s
so amazing that they sit through these hours of these tapes. And the other actress said
to me, “Do you think they look at them?” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) I think anything
that brings you in touch with another member of the theatre family is helpful. I don’t
say that it’s wrong to hate it, but I think you’ve got to try to do it. Oh, yeah, sure, I’ll do it. That’s because you’re you, Marian! You’re
just a very special person. (MARIAN LAUGHS) But would you audition against type? Anything. I’ll do anything, if I think the
play is interesting, (GENERAL AGREEMENT) and that they might think of me for it. So say it’s for a younger person or an older
person – Oh, absolutely. Go, go, go. You just say, “I’m going to go. Maybe
they’ll see something in me.” Yes. Absolutely. And especially during these progressive
times of multi-culturalism, non-traditional casting, color-blind casting, inclusion in
the theatre, I’m constantly out there auditioning against type. And once in a while, someone
will take a chance and cast me as Willy Loman. Right! (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Or cast me as Vladimir in WAITING FOR GODOT
or something like that. And those are the most satisfying experiences of them all, when
you know that everyone has gone out on a limb or as close to the edge as they can, and then
come back with this absolutely satisfying experience, to which no one has taken any
exception. Some of you have played living people, as
well as characters or fictional characters. How do you prepare to play, for a person who
actually existed? Well, I think, first of all, it’s the script.
How much of the real life did the playwright choose? I know that actors are always asked
if they do research. And Garson Kanin used to say, “Write first, do the research later.”
In other words, do the thing that you have and then see if it fits into the facts. And
I think that it’s wonderful – I’m trying to think of things I’ve done. I played, of all people, Alice B. Toklas,
who’s a tiny, tiny person, with a wonderful mustache (RUBS HER UPPER LIP). (LAUGHTER)
And I thought there was a mistake, that they meant for me to play Gertrude Stein! (LAUGHTER)
I had this other enchanting part to play, but I’d all my life read Stein and all my
life seen these photographs, so I didn’t do anything else. I taught the company – the
other person, there were only two of us – the whole history of the times. I think that to
do a real person on film is scarier. In the theatre, I think you could do any character,
we could all do anything now, and you’d believe us. But you can’t do that on film,
and I’ve never really had to do an important person on film.
Oh, yes, I did Eleanor Roosevelt, and they made me a wonderful thing for my teeth. And
when the shoot was over – this was with Gary Sinise, in TRUMAN – and when the shoot
was over, I asked if I could have this wonderful thing, and they wouldn’t let me have it!
(LAUGHTER) And sometimes I wake up at night and think, “What are they doing with those
teeth?” (LAUGHTER) They’re mine! I could have done it without the teeth. (LAUGHTER) (LITERALLY LAUGHING UNTIL SHE CRIES) Oh, I’m
going to fall over. Let’s try, how have you changed over the
years, as a performer. Len? Well, I’ve gotten older. (LAUGHTER) Right. Are you more, say, economical? I don’t know, I really don’t. I guess
it’s tough for one to answer that question about oneself. I would like to think that
yes, I am more economical, that I truly understand that less is more. But an awful lot of that
has to do with the material that you’re dealing with. If you’re playing, you know,
a character like – I did a one-man show called PAPA, about Hemingway, in which the
fourth wall was down and I did the whole thing right at the audience. In fact, the conceit
was, they had been invited into his home in Cuba.
And so, that whole dynamic was one of addressing an audience and involving them somehow. And
then, as you got into the dramatic part of the evening, as it were – it takes place
during a day – you kind of forgot about them altogether and it didn’t matter that
they were out there. Whereas, the role I’m playing now is one of a man coming in who’s
very specifically in a position to come into a room and – what’s the word I’m looking
for? Scorn. Terrorize! (LAUGHTER) That’s the word I
had. Well, sort of terrorize. You know, he has
a particular attitude. He’s somebody who is, if you will, of the upper-middle class.
And he walks into a room, and these guys are peons, as far as he’s concerned. And so,
I walk into that room, and less is more in that situation. The less I do, the more points
I score, just in terms of the material. Whereas, with the PAPA thing, it’s the other way
around, in my opinion. As a musical performer, I definitely have
evolved, because the body doesn’t do as much or as well as it used to, so I’ve become
a more economical dancer. I don’t think I’ve become any less impressive as a dancer,
but certainly more economical. And that happened after I was injured for the first time. Then
I realized, “Oh, I don’t have to slam myself into the floor in order to get that
effect.” As I’ve grown older, I’ve become a better singer, so I now luxuriate more in
singing. And as an actor, I’m no longer desperate for attention. I’m now desperate
to give attention to someone else. Do you prefer, Mary-Louise, to play contemporary
people or “classical” plays, old-fashioned? I just like doing new plays, I think, the
most. I just love getting a script that just has never been done before. It’s just the
most exciting thing to me in the world. And I’ve done classical parts, you know, and
some I’ve enjoyed a lot and some I haven’t. I don’t really like speaking in verse at
all. It makes me feel like I’m in jail, I really hate it. And I really admire people
who do it well, but I don’t think (LAUGHS) that I do. I think it doesn’t really matter
to me. I love a new play. I just love new writing, you know? And that’s what excites
me the most. Marian mentioned learning how to read a play.
How do you read a play? Do you read it differently than I do? I don’t know. I mean, what does an actor do, when you say
you read a play? Well, what I meant was, to be able to visualize.
I don’t know. I think when you read a novel, the novelist explains and shows you and paints
the picture. And in a play, you invent the environment. And if you’re reading a classic
play, a Shakespeare play, it’s all in the words, it’s only in the words. Mary-Louise
and I will do some classics for you the next time we’re back. (LAUGHTER) Good, good! Because she’d be so wonderful. She’s Shakespeare’s
young woman. You could do that. How would we cast her? Ophelia? Any part. Any one of them she could do. I’m a little old for Ophelia. (LAUGHTER) Are you? No. But when I say about “learning to read a
play,” is not just following the part that you think you might play, and trying to understand
all the relationships, and having a sense of what it is before you go to rehearsal.
Not deciding, but a sense of the whole play, so that what the director says, you’re open
to. But the thing I thought about, about Mary-Louise and how fortunate she’s been, and lately,
how fortunate I’ve been, there’s nothing in the world as wonderful as having a playwright
at the rehearsal. Oh, yeah. It’s awesome. I mean, can you imagine being in a Chekhov
play and Chekhov coming in? Well, she has had wonderful writers, and so have I. And
you talk about opening night nerves. I think the most challenging thing of all is that
day the author comes, when you’ve put the script down at last, and show him or her what
you’re going to do. And what if it’s not what they saw? (LAUGHS) Right. I mean, what if you disappoint? You can’t
help thinking that. But if they like what you’re doing, there’s
nothing like it. Really? There’s nothing more – oh my God, it’s
just like – it’s amazing. Yeah. It’s better than any review, better
than any audience. It’s everything. It’s everything. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Don’t you find, though, that the really
wonderful playwrights are so humble? Very. I remember when we did ALL MY SONS and Arthur
Miller came. Jack O’Brien directed it actually, for public television. And Arthur Miller came.
I couldn’t even speak to him, I was in such awe. But he came up, and his attitude was,
“What can I do to help?” I know. Here I am. Do you have any question?” He
wasn’t there to protect his play, because he knew it was good. He was there to be of
service. And Edward Albee, when he came and sat in, I was like this (WIDENS HER EYES AND
FREEZES WITH FEAR). He’s such a benign presence. I mean, he comes up and says, “I think that’s
an ‘and,’ not a ‘but’,” or whatever. (LAUGHTER) He comes in and listens for his
words. “Isn’t there an ellipse thing?” Right! (LAUGHS) Or, as in the case of Terrence McNally, he
will say, “I don’t write ellipses. Don’t play them!” (LAUGHTER) Oh! How interesting. That’s interesting. This is in a musical comedy! Yeah. Go, go, go. Or Neil Simon just saying to Henry Winkler
in our play, Henry comes in and he says – let me get it right. Henry was saying, “I never
come to Paris.” And the note after the runthrough was, “Henry, it’s ‘I never come into
Paris.’” Wow. Well. It’s a huge difference. Of course. Right, right. (LAUGHTER) Of course it is. Yep. “Into.” And it’s funny how you can even learn a
line wrong. Yeah. You see it, you study it, and you don’t
get it right! It’s amazing. And when you’ve been playing for a while,
too. I’m noticing just now that, you know, I’m suddenly questioning – “Is that it?” Yes. “Is this the right [line]?” And then
you have to go back to the script. You have to look at the script. Constantly. Absolutely. All the time that I did WAITING
FOR GODOT, every day I read the text. Yes, yes. Every day! I was so frightened that I was
going to get caught in one of those endless circles and never escape. So you keep it close
to your heart. And then I found – talk about reading a play! – I found, shockingly, that
there are some actors – forget about reading the play, there are some actors who can’t
read, simply. I don’t mean that they are illiterate. No, no, no. But when it comes to managing the language,
there’s a difficulty. You mean, they can’t read cold? Yeah. Can’t read cold. Do not master the
language, unless they’re in a situation where they must commit to memory text. Oh, uh-huh. I found that very surprising. That is. Well, these are the kind of things, Pia, that
can be learned, taught. These things are not hard to learn. But it’s funny, if a young
actor has a lot of success, it’s hard to go back. Yeah. And they get on, in a certain way, without
that facility, and feel they don’t need it. I wanted to say something about Michael
Learned, this wonderful actress. When we were doing THREE TALL WOMEN, there were some long
– Edward Albee sometimes calls his long speeches “arias,” which I would never
do, but since he does, it’s a wonderful word. So, the character I played had indeed
a long aria. And for some reason, in a perfectly average, regular somehow performance, nothing
different, I got mixed up. But I knew the story I had to tell, and so I told it, in
paragraphs that were out of order. And it was so thrilling, because she never
showed me that she knew it was out of order. She was that person I had always told the
story to, and it allowed me to tell it, to take my time, to figure out which paragraph.
It was the most amazing reliance on another person, and I wanted to say that all the time
we were talking about going up or forgetting. Mary-Louise chose to tell us about a time
when she was on her own, she was not with another actor, and someone else did, too.
When you had just the camera to turn to. But I had a person, and the person was not
Michael, she was the character, which combines everything we’re talking about. And when
I told you before that I thought it was sort of exciting when something like that happens,
it was like flying! (MICHAEL LAUGHS) Wasn’t it, darling? Do you remember that day? Listening to you was, because you were so
– We got it all! You were always there. And I was never afraid,
for you, that you were going to not find your way back. (LAUGHS) But it was through another actor. Instead
of panicking, I just kept telling her the story. And when it ended, the whole story
had been told. It never happened again, and I don’t know why it happened, but it was
a wonderful day. You’re mentioning technique. Today, actors
in New York are all miked, so they don’t have to learn vocal production, even when
they’re speaking. Intercostal diaphragmatic. (LAUGHTER) I mean, it’s one thing for musicals, okay.
But now, people are miked constantly. Well, I’m laughing inside, because when
I was in rehearsal for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, there’s a song in the show that’s this
lullaby tune that Annie sings, which is this really sweet, you know, sweet (SINGS) “Behind
the hill there’s a busy little sill,” and I thought, “How did Ethel Merman do
this?” (LAUGHTER) “And pull off this [song]?” Because we know the voice is there and hitting
the back row. And I thought, “How did they get that same sensation that they want the
audience to feel?” It’s supposed to be a really tender lullaby moment of singing
kids to sleep, when she’s (DOES ETHEL’S VOICE) “Behind the hill!!” (LAUGHTER)
I mean, I guess it was a totally different take on it. And so, yes, thank the Lord for
microphones. We heard her! Yeah, I think mics, I’m a fan of them,
actually. But I also think they have actually changed the style of acting in the theatre.
It’s much more natural, and in a way, I rather like that. I mean, (TO LEN) you remember
from the Stratford days, it was all about (MAKING GRAND GESTURES) costumes! And throwing
your voice! And all of that, which is fine. But the style of acting, I think because of
television, and maybe film, although film has been around forever. But even film acting
has changed. If you look back at some of the old thirties movies, everybody spoke with
a Mid-Atlantic accent, you know, (LAUGHS) and it was much more stylized. And I think
microphones have sort of changed the style of theatre acting, which I find quite interesting,
because I’m old now. I think you can still get a lot – it gives
you the luxury of nuance, you know? Yes, exactly. Not to say, by the way, because I still believe,
even if you have (GESTURES TO HIS MIC) this on, you have got to hit the back row. Yes. You’ve still got to learn to use your voice
correctly. But it gives you moments where you can really depend [on it], and specifically,
if you’re ailing. Like, this past weekend, I had a horrible cold and had to get through
four shows. And I said, “Look, I don’t know how much power I have today,” and the
mixer at the mike board turned me up. So it allowed me to get through it, because I wouldn’t
have been able to do it if there were no mikes. You know, I don’t know that actors need
body mikes if they’re not in a musical, but I think sometimes a little amplification
– I know a lot of people are against it, because they feel that the audience can’t
tell where the voice is coming from. Right. I mean, we have these discussions a lot. But
I don’t know. I mean, if you’re projecting, also it can be false. If you’re in a huge
[space], like we’re in the Virginia Theatre, which is a big theatre, and if you’re having
to project too much, it falsifies it a little, too. How do you feel about it? Well, it depends. I don’t like them. I mean,
they’re absolutely necessary in a musical, because how this all started was, they started
to mic the orchestra. So they said, “Well –” But they weren’t necessary twenty-five years
ago, in a musical. No, because the orchestras were smaller, for
one thing, and composers now say, “Well, come on, gimme! You know, I want more, I want
a bigger orchestra, and I want to be able to hear this.” So I mean, they can electronically
amplify any instrument in the world. It can be plugged into something and made to be as
loud as you want to throw the gate (PH) up. So by definition, I mean, just to protect
us, we couldn’t be heard, so we had to mike people in musical theatre. We have some enhancement
mikes, that you were just talking about, in our theatre, but we’re in probably the best
legitimate, as opposed to musical, house in this city, in my opinion. The Music Box Theatre
is the perfect legitimate theatre in this city. How many seats is that? A little bit over a thousand. And it’s a thousand and ten seats, and it’s
just wonderful. and you know, the only amplification – the thing that bothers me about it is
that if they do have those things, whenever you walk by. (STAMPS HIS FOOT) Uh-oh! (LAUGHTER) You can hear it! You hear your feet walking, you know? I mean,
it’s just bizarre. so generally, I’m against them in a smaller house, I don’t think you
need them. Thank you so much. This has been very educational.
I’ve learned a lot. I’ve enjoyed meeting you all. Thank you so much, and that brings
us to the end of our seminar on the Performing Arts. Thank you. (APPLAUSE; MUSIC)

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