Performance (Working In The Theatre #302)

(APPLAUSE) Welcome to the American Theatre
Wing’s seminar on “Working in the Theatre,” now in their 30th year, coming to you from
the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Today’s seminar is with five leading performers. We can expect to learn not only about their
preparation for a career in the theatre, but also about the energy, passion and temperament
needed to succeed. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the
Board of the American Theatre Wing. And now, with great pleasure, let me introduce
our moderator for this seminar, Ted Chapin, President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. Ted, would you now continue? Thank you, Isabelle. I don’t want to correct, Isabelle, but I
count six distinguished members of the theatrical profession here, and I want to introduce them
to you. From my right, John Lithgow, currently in
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. Estelle Parsons, currently in MORNING’S
AT SEVEN. Jeffrey Wright, in the Pulitzer Prize-winning
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, one prize that’s already been given this season. Mercedes Ruehl, in Edward Albee’s THE GOAT,
OR WHO IS SYLVIA? Frank Langella, in FORTUNE’S FOOL. And Andrea Martin, in Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s
OKLAHOMA! Welcome! (APPLAUSE) I think it’s fair to say that the characters
that you all play on Broadway this year are a rangy lot. (LAUGHTER) And I thought I’d bounce the
first question to John, because you’re playing a bad guy. How does it feel, playing a bad guy? Well, I’m playing a bad guy in a musical,
the role of J.J. Hunsecker, based on Burt Lancaster’s performance
in the movie of 1957. And I love playing bad guys. (LAUGHTER) I haven’t played a really bad
guy for a long time, although I was doing a whole spate of them in the movies, between
about ’88 and ’94. So many bad guys. That’s one of the reasons I decided to do
a sitcom, to sort of cleanse them out of my system. That’s very sound. But here I am again! (LAUGHTER) Frank, do you play bad guys? Oh, I’ve played a lot of bad guys. (LAUGHTER) I’m like John, I love them. They really are the best parts to play. I’m now playing a character who is described
very often in the play as “an infamous, fatuous fop.” (LAUGHTER) He’s (DEMONSTRATES WITH a LIMP
WRIST) this kind of bad guy. (LAUGHTER) But they are the most delicious
parts to play, they really are. Heroes are wonderful, too, but bad guys offer
you areas that you can go inside yourself that are really wonderful and exciting to
play, and dangerous. Do you ever have a problem, feeling that the
audience is going to turn on you? Or is that part of the fun? Well, no, you want them to, actually. I mean, if they don’t hate you in the right
sort of way, you haven’t done your job. It’s very dangerous as an actor to want
to be popular. It’s something you should fight quickly,
get it out of your system. (MURMURS OF AGREEMENT) Don’t you think? Yeah, I’m nodding. Uh-huh! In life, I think it’s dangerous, to want
to be liked all the time. I think that’s a really important thing
to talk about, actually. It is, because you actually – Especially in this period, with all the people
coming to see you, and awards gonna, you know, nominated, and I’m out there thinking, “Should
I do a performance where people will really like me tonight?” Like, as if that’s going to matter. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) I have to really fight
against that. You think about it. And it’s the thing that often sends you
into acting, when you’re small and little. Right. You often want to be an actor because you
want to belong, you want to be popular, you want to be in the center of things. And then, as you get older and you realize
what a skill it is and what a craft it is, and that the worst thing you can do, really,
the most over-rated quality in acting is sincerity. (LAUGHTER) Sincerity? You need to be dangerous, actually, if you’re
an actor, I think. Always dangerous, and always avoid the idea
that you should want to be liked. I think even when you’re playing a character
who is likable, that you still have to find ways not to pander to them. It’s a need in all of us. I want to pick up on this “not to be sincere,”
“don’t go for sincerity.” Anybody want to sort of take that on and expand
on that? I’m not exactly sure what it means, so I
thought it would be interesting to hear. Jeffrey, any thoughts? Hmm. Sincerity, well – Or maybe you don’t agree. Well, I tend to think that – the first film
role that I did was with Sidney Poitier. It was a mini-series called “A Separate
People,” about the Brown vs. Board of Education case. And he said something to me really interesting. I was twenty years old and I was playing the
youngest of this group of lawyers. He was playing Thurgood Marshall. And my first close-up, ever, was opposite
And probably just going to the set that morning was my best bit of acting, ‘cause I had
no idea what I was doing. I had just started acting my last year of
college. And at the end of this shoot of six weeks,
he said to me – you know, I said, “I’m just going to say goodbye.” He said, “Well, may I say something to you?” I said, “Sure!” you know? (LAUGHTER) And he said, “Irony.” He just said, “Think about irony.” And it’s something that’s stayed with
me, just the tangent, and you know, the non-literal. You know, stayed with me till [now]. So I tend to agree on some level, but it has
to be, I think, on some level, sincere irony. (LAUGHTER) Right, right. But “irony,” he said that after you’d
worked together? Oh, yeah, it was after. I think he saw that I needed a little help!
(LAUGHS) A little help? What I meant was that sincerity for its own
sake, just sincerity, which I think a lot of young actors are forced into, in television
particularly, “just be yourself,” is an absolute mistake. It’s the wrong sort of advice to give, because
what Jeffrey says is right. You can be deeply sincere, if there’s a
twist, if there’s irony, if there’s anger. It’s interesting. But just to be sincere is really boring. There’s another aspect of that. If you are being sincere, if that is your
objective, you’re always thinking about being sincere, and it becomes like a petrified
form of honesty, it’s self-conscious sincerity. And too much sincerity can cause people to
want to kill you! (LAUGHTER) So know what you mean by that. But I was also going to say to that original
question about wanting to be liked by the audiences. I was working in a play on Broadway and it
was moved to London with an English cast, and they were older gentlemen, taking over
from older gentlemen in America. And the playwright said to me, “I was so
nervous at first, because the British cast looked like they were doing nothing in the
beginning. What?! They were just talking to each other!” And he said, “You know, just talking to
each other on stage!” They weren’t doing this thing where they
were reaching out to the audience and saying, “Like me!”, you know? And he said, “It was about seven minutes
into it that I realized that they had gone like this (BECKONS WITH ONE FINGER) to the
audience and hooked them right in.” Not pandering. Waiting for the audience to come to you. Yeah, come to you. Not going to the audience. And it was a good lesson. That’s fascinating. Yeah, I remember a wonderful, old drama teacher
I had when I studied in London, Michael McGowan (PH), who said he loved when he directed a
play to tell the actors to speak very, very quietly in the first five minutes. Yeah. Because you know, that’s the moment when
you’re creating the transaction with the audience, and you just get them sitting forward
and really listening. I think I have an extension of the story about
(LAUGHS) British actors! Good! Two friends who went to see PRIVATE LIVES
the other night and left in the intermission because they couldn’t hear, and called up
Manny Azenberg and said, “We had to leave because we didn’t hear a word that either
one of them way saying up there.” (LAUGHTER) And Manny said, “Everybody has
been calling me about that, and we’re going to do something about it.” But also, you know, at our show we’re enhanced. Oh, everybody. Probably all of you are enhanced. Everybody’s enhanced here. (LAUGHTER) It’s like costumes. I’m enhanced right now. (LAUGHTER) But it totally shocked me. Because one night somebody pushed the wrong
button, and we were still in previews and rehearsal. And the next day, Dan Sullivan said, “I
couldn’t hear anything for the first three minutes. That was no secondary glitch!” So I thought, “My God, they can’t hear!” I am in the first three minutes. It wasn’t me, though. It is astounding to stand on these stages
nowadays, huge, three balconies, and think, forty years ago, there was no amplification
at all. Whereas an actor standing next to you, unmiked,
yelling at the top of his lungs, is almost inaudible nowadays. Well, then, he’s doing it wrong. Because we can do it, we really can. Yeah. Well, I mean, the audience, too, has made
a re-adjustment. That’s it. They’re now accustomed to hearing amplified
voices. Yeah, they always blame it on the audience. (LAUGHTER) They always say, “We have to
enhance you, because the audiences now are used to enhanced sound,” and then you fight
about it. Right, right. And they’re also used to talking with you. (LAUGHTER) I don’t think we’re enhanced. Pretty soon, they’re going to enhance the
audience! (LAUGHTER) Oh, my God, they say very loudly,
“Oh, watch out!” (LAUGHTER) You don’t think you’re enhanced? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. It’s just two of us, you know, just two
of us there. But I did do a show, the last show in this
theatre, and it’s the Ambassador, it’s about eleven hundred people, I think, did
BRING IN DA NOISE, BRING IN DA FUNK there. And the show had been done downtown, which
I wasn’t part of, and I came to do it on Broadway. And I said, “You know, I’m not going to
use a mike for this! I don’t need a mike!” And then I got out on stage and there were
like eight guys tap-dancing, and playing buckets! (LAUGHTER) And I quickly found the mike. I only had words, so. It’s interesting that the set for TOPDOG/UNDERDOG
comes out. You know, it is also physically contained,
and sort of tells the audience, “Pay attention to this space,” you know, and there are
only two people on it. Because I think, sometimes, I know – certainly
in OKLAHOMA! – part of the problem with OKLAHOMA! is it’s in the Gershwin Theatre,
which is vast to begin with. Right. And the set from London is vast, as well. So it’s like, you know, you wouldn’t know
where to look to see somebody speaking. You wouldn’t? (LAUGHTER) If you weren’t enhanced. Oh! Not when you’re on stage, Andrea! I’m hoping some people are looking. I think some of it about being heard is to
do with focus, because we’re at the Music Box Theatre, and we’re enhanced slightly,
and we’ve never had one person tell us they couldn’t hear us. But, interestingly enough, at the end of the
show, for two weeks, Alan and I would do the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS speech. And invariably, I would step forward and I
would start to speak, and someone would say, “Louder!” Oh, really? And I thought, well, that’s something to
do with the mental mindset. When I’m in the character, I’m full voice
out, but suddenly I got maybe a little shy and I pulled back. So I do think every one of us is capable of
being heard in almost every theatre in the city. It’s a question of training your voice to
go out there, and intent. I think there’s something very exciting,
just the actor being loud! I mean, it’s very freeing, I think, in some
way, for the voice and for the breath and for everything. I really find it exciting when I can almost
see the sound reverberate off the back of the house. Yeah. I kind of need it, in some way, ‘cause I
can’t do it on the street, you know? (LAUGHTER) Well, one of the biggest houses in town is
the Met Opera, and they don’t enhance the opera singers. They don’t? Not at all. No, they don’t, but the acting sometimes
sort of shows it. Well, they’re not as good as we are! (LAUGHTER) No, somebody pointed out to me in the great
days of the musicals, of the Ethel Merman musicals that everybody loved, she would take
six steps down front and look out and boom the song out! Oh, that’s not true – Oh. – because I happened to be in a musical
with Ethel Merman. I’m sick and tired of people telling bad
stories about her. (LAUGHTER) That is – It wasn’t meant as a bad story! She didn’t have to do that. Well, what did she do? In the opening number of the show I was in
with her, we were like this (GESTURES FRONT) and she was way upstage. But I mean, we can be heard. Probably everybody in this room can be heard. Yeah. I did MISS MARGARIDA at the Ambassador, which
is eleven hundred seats, and of course was not enhanced. But there are some people now who cannot be
heard, let’s face it, who work on the stage with us who cannot be heard. We are not those people. (LAUGHTER) But it’s true! But going back to the other point, the audience
really is accustomed to mikes now. That’s right. I mean, in Epidaurus, you know, in Greece
– In fact, they’re not accustomed to mikes,
they want to be able to hear. Yeah, but I mean – And how did you learn to work with, for and
against the audience? Where does that come in, that training? You’re talking about the audience. It’s experience. It’s instinct, I think, first, and then
experience. Years and years of getting up and discovering
how and in what way you can hold an audience. How quiet you can get in what theatre you’re
performing. How loud you can afford to be. Often, sometimes, you can be too loud in a
performance, not too low. Yes! You have to adjust yourself. You can find yourself over-yelling in a part
that you don’t need to. And it’s only playing it, night after night
after night, and beginning to see, “Oh, they react to this when I’m tired more interestingly
than when I think I’m at my best.” That’s true. Some of the best performances, I think anybody
on the panel will tell you, is when you’re not feeling well, when you think you have
to overcome something. And someone comes back and says, “My God,
what a great show!” It’s so true! Dammit! Thursday and Friday night, last week, I’m
gonna – ‘cause we’ve been doing OKLAHOMA! for two months now, and maybe I’m losing
it – I’m gonna reinvest in it! So Thursday and Friday night, I’m reinvesting,
and I’m thinking of new intentions and a way to say this differently. And I’m telling you, I swear, at the end
of it, I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna get a real big applause at the end!” (LAUGHTER) Seriously! And both nights, they just (CLAPS GENTLY),
“She was lovely.” (LAUGHTER) And Saturday night – can you
swear in this panel? Swear! Saturday night, I said, “Oh, fuck this! (LAUGHTER) I’m not going to do it anyhow,”
right? And they (CLAPS WILDLY), “Yeah! Whoo!” You know? Just inside, I said, “Oh, I’m just gonna
do it the way I really feel.” But never – not – No, but it actually – Okay, go ahead. Am I talking too much? Yes, you are. (LAUGHTER) Just fuck off! (LAUGHTER) It brings up an interesting point
about comfort on the stage. It isn’t important, I think, that you’re
comfortable. It isn’t important that you feel the truth
every single moment. It’s important that the audience does. And whatever you need to do, the nights when
it’s all you and you really do feel alive and real and organic and truthful, and technically
right, is wonderful. But there are nights when you can’t get
it up. There are nights when you’re exhausted and
tired, and that’s where your technique comes in. If the audience is moved, whether you felt
good or not doesn’t really matter. Right. It’s a tough lesson though, I think. And I think it’s a big misconception amongst
young actors, that “I felt good tonight!” Well, who cares? (LAUGHTER) George Wolfe – when I was doing ANGELS IN
AMERICA, George Wolfe said something really fascinating to me on that. It was the first part, and I was kind of having
some difficulty. We had three months to rehearse, and I was
taking three months. And everyone was kind of swarming around me,
going “What’s going on?” And I was playing a retired drag queen, so
I was kind of navigating my way through that, the sexuality of that and everything. And I was doing a scene in which I’d lose
my voice. It was a particular scene that was particularly
intimate, and I would lose my voice. I would get dry and I was kind of stiff and
(CLEARS HIS THROAT). And I said to George, “Well, you know, I’m
not comfortable just yet.” And he said, “I don’t want your comfort. I want your talent.” And it stayed with me for a long time. He actually, as well, called me up. I think we were opening on maybe a Monday,
first preview. And he called me Sunday, at eleven o’clock
in the morning, before rehearsal, and he said, “Jeffrey, it’s not working.” Ooogh! I said, “I know, George. I have one more day, you know!” (LAUGHTER) And it worked out. (LAUGHTER) But it took a while to break myself
out of that comfort. That’s the answer of a born actor. A born actor! That’s right. Want more time. There are a couple of things that your question
made me think of. Technique seems to me to have a couple of
different meanings. When you’re a young actor, one of the things
that you do or feel is a fear of the audience, you know. “They’re gonna eat me up!”, you know? As a matter of fact, even when you’re a
middle-aged actor, some of the time. (LAUGHTER) And I remember when I was young,
hiding from the audience. And there are two ways you can hide from the
audience. (DEMONSTRATES) You can hide your face, and
you can hide by speaking softly, you know? So one part of technique is just learning
not to hide, learning not to hide from the audience. Seeing the audience or even the lens as a
… Friend. Almost, yes. The way a flower moves to the sun, instinctively. Because everything you’re gonna get, to
live and go and do a good performance, every interaction, the love, the thing, comes from
there! It doesn’t come from there (POINTS TO UPSTAGE),
you know? So there’s just that thing, that instinct,
like a flower to the sun. To be loud enough, to be seen, you know? But the other technique, that I have always
thought technique is – those are the requirements! But the technique was that thing that really
did open up the sluice gates of emotion and let them come out each time. Yeah. I mean, we certainly don’t go on any night
saying, “I’m going to phone this one in. I’m gonna technique this one through,”
you know? Every time you go on, with your technique
sort of in mind, instinctive now after these many years, thinking, “I’m going to open
up those sluice gates and let the real thing come through.” It’s a full heart you go out with. Yeah, yeah. And that’s technique. I had a great experience, very very early
on – your question about sort of getting to know how to manipulate the audience or
keep them with you. My very first Equity job was playing Lenny
in OF MICE AND MEN, when I was like twenty-three years old, at the McCarter Theatre, which
had a high school kids program, bussed in to see morning matinees, but we also performed
it at night. And I had done it four or five times at night
for adult audiences, before my first kids’ matinee. And I thought I was completely wonderful as
Lenny, the retarded farmhand who gets shot at the end by his buddy George. Then I put this performance in front of kids,
and they laughed me off the stage. (LAUGHTER) And I was completely mortified. And they jeered at me. And I had about twenty of these scheduled. (LAUGHTER) I thought, “No, I can’t do
it!” But bit by bit, I found those moments which
they found the most ridiculous, and I found just little ways to snooker it by them. (ESTELLE LAUGHS)
And by the end of these twenty performances for kids, they didn’t laugh inappropriately
at anything. There were a few laughs that were just right. And by the end, these high school kids were
so captivated that they were yelling out, and you could hear them crying and saying,
“Don’t shoot him, George!” (LAUGHTER) It was just incredible. And it was all just a matter of listening
to them. I mean, kids – Where did you learn to do that? They taught me! And they were kids who will teach you, unedited. But you know, adults will be very polite and
the kids will – That’s right. I learned actually being in the field every
night. And it’s a great story, because it reminds
me of something I learned very young, too. There isn’t any “right” in acting. There is no “right” night. There is only the search. There is only – as Mercedes says, you go
out every night with a full heart, with your technique ready. But it’s not “right” that night. It is as truthful as it can be. And the trouble is, so many actors will go
out the next night, saying, “Gee, I had it right the night before.” The night before is gone. It’s in the ether. You must never try to repeat it. You must never try to remember it, even. It’s better to just get those cobwebs [out],
and go out the next night and be truthful. We have a director that Estelle and I have
worked with, Arthur Penn. If you can believe [it], I once played Estelle’s
son. (LAUGHS) I could now play her grandfather! (LAUGHTER) Arthur Penn directed FORTUNE’S
FOOL. And the greatest thing about rehearsal was
whenever Alan Bates and I thought that we were off, somewhat rarely (LAUGHS) we thought
we were off (LAUGHTER). But whenever we would say, “Gee, this scene
isn’t right” – you’d use that word, Arthur would stop and say, “Well, why don’t
you just play your confusion? Why don’t you just allow not knowing how
the scene is supposed to be?” And we would do that. And FORTUNE’S FOOL looks beautifully staged. And it is, because Arthur never staged it. As John’s story goes, night after night,
we would go, “Oh, sorry, uh-oh!” (DEMONSTRATES MOVING AROUND SOMEONE ELSE)
and you adjust. And pretty soon, it had this beautiful, real
flow to it. The idea that you have to get it “right,”
I think is a big mistake. But did you have a director helping you with
that, or did you have to do that on your own? I recall that I was on my own. (ESTELLE LAUGHS) The kids’ matinees, no
one was paying attention. But I found them the most vivid part of that
experience. I think that’s the way you have to learn
it. Yeah, yeah. You have to learn it, as you say, in the field. You know, I went to NYU grad school, and I
didn’t stay long. I stayed for about two months, because I had
been working a little bit in the theatre before. I had done a couple plays before, at the Arena
and various places. And I just found, for me, that I wasn’t
a very good student. I’d been in college, been in school for
twenty-one years, and it was kind of enough of it. And you know, my mother was wanting me to
go to law school, so I agreed to make some money at least at what I was doing, rather
than, you know, being in drama school. And I found that just by getting on the stage
is where you learn it. And in fact, I had a similar experience. One of the best classes I ever had, you know,
in anything in theatre, and in audience and in life, was doing my first job. It was children’s theatre down in D.C. and
we would tour schools around the city with a telling of American history through folk
tales. And I played Davy Crockett’s grandfather
and Hiawatha and John Henry and all the various things. Hiawatha is a good part! (LAUGHTER) I’ve still got it tucked away! Davy Crockett’s grandfather, though (LAUGHTER),
is something else. But we would do the show for kindergarten
through fifth graders. And we would go and we’d, you know, kind
of start out with this (DEMONSTRATES DANCING; LAUGHTER) And it was wonderful. You know, we broke the set down, we’d bring
it to the next school, you know. And there was one morning that we all met
up at the theatre, and we, you know, stocked the station wagon, and then we dragged off. And you know, it’s like six thirty in the
morning. I’m half asleep. You know, I’m twenty-one years old, six
thirty in the morning rarely existed for me. But we go into this place, we bring everything
in and close the doors behind us. And foom! It was like a deadbolt. “Hmm, what’s that about?” We go into the next room. Boom! It was like we were going into these vaulted
rooms. And we set up everything, we get there. And you know, asked the lady, “Well, why
is everything being locked?” She said, “Well, this is a detention center
for thirteen to eighteen year old hardened criminals.” I said, “Well, what have these kids done?” She said, “They’re my children. I don’t even ask. I don’t ask what they’ve done.” They were waiting to transfer to more serious
places. And we got into this room, and there were
about twelve of them, four of us. (LAUGHTER)
And we got up and “I’m an old-timer,” you know. (LAUGHTER) And these guys looked at us and
started bawling. It was just “Ah-hah!” I mean, just these huge [laughs]. We were like the funniest thing they’d seen,
but it wasn’t what was intended. And I have never been so frightened, I don’t
think, before or after, on stage, to the point where I was just looking at them. I couldn’t take them in. You know, everyone was like (GESTURES, SMILING). We were our own audience. (LAUGHTER) But we stayed in it, we stayed
in it, we stayed in it. And you know, we were flying around, playing
multiple characters and all this stuff. And eventually, they came around and they
came in, and they were with the show. And you know, we did Tennyson’s “Hiawatha”
and [others], so you know, it was a fairly engaging show, and they came around. And it was the most gratifying experience. It was very scary. But I think at the end, I got one of the best
compliments I’ve ever gotten from an audience member, from one of these guys. We were walking around, you know, after the
show, kind of taking everything, taking the things down. And we were talking, “Well, does anyone
have any questions?” “Yeah.” “Talk to that dude.” “Yeah, I got a question for that dude. What kind of drugs do you do, man?” (LAUGHTER) You know, to fly from Davy Crockett’s
grandfather to John Henry to Hiawatha. But it was an incredible day. In fact, later that afternoon, I did a matinee
for high school kids of another show that I was doing at Arena Stage, a Lorraine Hansberry
play called LE BLANC (PH). And these were public school students, you
know, free. And it was the worst audience I’d ever played,
and I think, since. You know, these kids that were on the inside,
I think, had something – it was just a lesson about not giving up on the audience or on
people, you know, wherever they might be. In the last couple years, I have subjected
myself to a brand-new audience. I’ve been doing weekend concerts, with orchestras,
for little tiny kids. Like three to eight. I have traveled a curious route to get there,
which I won’t explain to you. But it’s been a fantastic experience. I mean, playing in huge halls, Carnegie Hall,
playing with major symphony orchestras. Audiences of over two thousand little tiny
children. And it’s been completely exhilarating. It’s been my sort of shadow career. I even do it simultaneously with “3rd Rock
from the Sun” and even SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. And it’s almost subjecting myself to a kind
of completely different chemical reaction, because kids are an impossible audience. I mean, little tiny kids. You have to completely engage them, or they
riot. (LAUGHTER) They storm the stage. And the challenge – I mean, if I were a
mountain climber, this would be Everest. These are the best audiences. And in an interesting way, I don’t know
how it informs what I do for grownups, but it’s been an absolutely wonderful experience. Well, it does, because it tests your powers
of concentration and commitment. I think there is no such thing as a bad audience. I’m always upset when an actor says, “It’s
a lousy house.” It isn’t. They’re in the dark, you’re in the light. Well, for me, when an audience throws food
on stage. Oh, well, that’s bad. (LAUGHTER) Yeah, tangerine slices – Unless it’s something I want to eat! But I mean, just think! The audience that throws oranges at you, think
how wonderful it is to get their attention. Yeah, it is. It’s exactly what you were describing. But can I tell a very funny story about you
with an opposite audience? This was at the Public Theatre. You were doing – it was about Joe Hilton
(PH), union organizer. What was the name of that play? SALT LAKE CITY SKYLINE (PH), by Tom Bates
(PH). SALT LAKE CITY SKYLINE. It was a few years ago. I was two. (LAUGHTER) And it was a Sunday matinee. And as I recall, it was in a theatre that
like bleacher-like seats. The Anspacher, yeah. It was a little bit, you know, (ILLUSTRATES
THE BLEACHERS) nnh-nnh-nnh. And it was a Sunday matinee, and there were
half-price tickets for senior citizens and students or whatever. So I was there with all these senior citizens. And there were these two women sitting in
front of me, and it came to a point in the play where you get executed. Do you remember that? Mmm-hmm. And they had a heart, a big heart on a piece
of paper, and they pinned it to your chest for the firing squad. Silence reigns in the audience. And there were these two women in front of
me (GIGGLES), and this one pokes the other and she said, (WHISPERS IN A NEW YORK ACCENT)
“Edna,” (LAUGHTER) “I can’t see.” It was kind of like in a three-quarter-round,
and we were along one side. “What did they just put on his chest?” (LAUGHTER) Edna said, “It’s a heart, Phyllis.” They watch for a while. And the guys are gearing up to kill you and
everything and you were saying these last lines, and it’s a very, very still moment. And (LAUGHS) Phyllis said, “Edna, I’m
sorry to interrupt you again. I didn’t hear you. What do they have on his chest?” And Edna said, “Phyllis, you are bewildered. You are really bewildered. It is a heart.” (LAUGHTER) So we wait again, it’s getting
very close to the end. And finally she said, “You’re gonna kill
me. You’re gonna kill me, Edna. I still don’t know what he’s wearing.” And Phyllis [SIC] turned and looked at her,
and in the silence of the theatre, she said, “Edna [SIC], he’s got a hard-on!” (LAUGHTER) And nobody – ‘cause he’s
preparing to die, and nobody wants to, you know, laugh at anything. And let me tell you, I know from inappropriate
laughter! (LAUGHTER) The whole bleachers are shaking
with people trying not to laugh. And the amazing thing is that I did! But we won’t go there. (LAUGHTER) And try to do that eight times a week! (LAUGHTER) Where do we take this discussion? (LAUGHTER) I wanted to pick up on what John
said about the concerts, because that’s an adjunct to your normal profession, having
taken something that you can do in a suitcase, basically, you can go in and do this. And I wanted to see if there are others of
you who, you know, as your careers have gone along, have thought, “I would like to teach,”
or “I’d like to do something that will fuel what I’m doing, but also feed me.” Yeah, you have to do [that]. The other myth I think that should be broken
down about being an actor is that you should live a monk-like existence, or an existence
that is free of stress. The more stressful your life is, the more
complicated it is, the more people there are in it, the more you have children and marriages
and love affairs and arguments and fights, and you stay in touch with your family, the
more difficult the day is, the moment you get to the theatre and you have that – with
me, it’s just about thirty seconds. As I get older, I know I need less and less
preparation. You stand in the wings and you take all of
that complicated day and you bring it on stage with you, and you artfully use it. When I was younger, I would think, “Well,
I have to clear my day and, you know, lie back like this.” (DEMONSTRATES, HUMMING) It’s nonsense. Or I’d stand in the wings for so long preparing
that I’d shot my load in the wings. (LAUGHTER) By the time I went on, it was all
gone. So I think – I had a similar experience
to John last year. Susan Stroman asked me to do A CHRISTMAS CAROL. So I spent – what was it? Seven weeks, fifteen performances a week for
fifty-six hundred people in Madison Square Garden, most of them kids. And what it does for you as an actor is thrilling! Because you really have to figure out how
to harness that kind of an audience. And then when you come back to something like
the Music Box and you have only a thousand people, you’ve got all this wonderful excitement
and energy that that brought to you. The more – not messed-up in the wrong way
– the more complicated your life is, the better an actor you are, I think. I was going to ask Andrea, the OKLAHOMA! cast,
there are a lot of young folk in it. Right, yes. Do they have different disciplines, or are
they learning what Frank is telling us all? You know, I’m so impressed with them, because
most of the ensemble is like twenty-one, twenty-two, the singers and dancers. They’re just extremely disciplined. I guess to be that good at that age, they’ve
been working very hard at discipline all their life. But I think Trevor Nunn, an English director
who directed this, I think instilled – gosh, ‘cause we haven’t talked about – I don’t
know how you all feel about this – putting one’s trust in the director. Because I guess there is a point as an actress
for me when I just am nervous. And there’s nothing in me – there are
some things – that I just can’t create in me the kind of confidence I really ultimately
need to go out there and feel safe. And Trevor Nunn really gave us that, so much
so that the opening – going back a little bit, I wanted to say this – I’ve really
done comedy all my life. And I really wanted this part! I know it’s a musical, but I wanted this
part of Aunt Eller, because I didn’t think of it as comedic. I really thought of it as grounded and more
real, frankly, than other things I’ve done. And the opening scene is a huge stage at the
Gershwin, with just a butter churn and me coming around in the revolve. I was so petrified, because I knew I couldn’t
rely on laughs. I knew that it wasn’t presentational. He had directed the entire play with the ensemble,
also, about deep connection, and without any regard, frankly, for the audience or what
the reactions were. So what happened after the fear of being out
there, “Oh my God, how can I hide?” ‘Cause there was no place to hide, and I
wear a wig – unlike my hair, ‘cause I’m hiding today! – unlike my hair, pulled back,
and there really was no place to hide. But what that gave me, for the first time
in my life, in fifty-five years actually, was a great sense of surrender and connectedness
with the other actors on stage. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything
in my life where I’m really not thinking about the audience, I’m thinking about other
[things]. I know all you actors have felt that, because
you’ve done wonderful, substantial plays. But when you’ve done a lot of comedy, you
know, it’s all about “What can I get?” You know, “Love me!” and “I’m going
to get this response.” So that was just a little – It’s wonderful to hear you talk this way,
Andrea, ‘cause I always think of comedy – As the bravest, yeah. As the courageous, you know. We all do. (AGREEMENT FROM THE PANEL) Isn’t that funny. You know, I mean, I am so terrified of hurling
myself out there, in improv. Standup is the most courageous thing you can
do. Well, that’s what’s so interesting about
this group people, then. We all have our own fears and, you know, lack
of confidence. Don’t you think a director – you started
out with something that fascinates me – now, anyway, a director has to earn my trust. I don’t give it to him because he’s the
director. Oh, yeah, interesting. As a matter of fact, I start out thinking,
“Are you going to get in my way?” (LAUGHTER) Yeah. “Are you going to mess me up?” And then, once he’s earned my trust, I’ll
give him everything. Absolutely. But I’m not automatically going to think
he knows better, because he doesn’t. Well, I – The actor always – usually knows. Yeah. How does he earn that trust? Well, by trial and error, really. And by giving you things that you can actually
use. That’s right. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) You know, it’s amazing, especially if you
work a lot in movies and TV, I have a list of probably a hundred directors I’ve worked
with by now. And it’s frightening how few of them are
any good at all! (LAUGHTER) That’s right. That’s really true. And also, it’s frightening how few directors
love us. Yeah. There are a lot of directors who don’t like
actors. And as well, I think is that – Do you prepare before you go on for the show? No, no. Do you do any preparation at all? No. I wash my face. I make sure my fly is zipped. Go! (LAUGHTER) Unless I have to do what John needs
to do in his show. But I think most of us feel the way Frank
feels, that as you get older, the preparation time gets smaller and smaller. Sure. Although I must say, this is the first time
I’ve ever been in a musical, and it’s wonderful to arrive at my age and do anything
for the first time. (LAUGHTER) But I mean, I have never prepared
so much! Right. I’ve been taking yoga every morning – Do you warm up? Because I know that in the evening, I’m
twice as good if I’ve done yoga. Right. Do you warm up? Do you vocally warm up? Vocally, and I stretch. I mean, I’m surrounded by all of these fabulous
young musical performers, who are stretching for fifteen minutes before the curtain goes
up. Right, right. They’ve shamed me into it! (LAUGHTER) Can I ask Estelle something? Yes, please! Estelle’s just worked with Dan Sullivan,
and I’m just going to say briefly, talking about directors and trust, I had the great
fortune of working with Dan Sullivan in MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, the only play I think he
ever did that wasn’t received well. But Dan Sullivan, for me, was a person that
said very little. He might have given me one note for the entire
performance. And yet I trusted him, I trusted his silence. And I’d love to know what your experience
was with him, and if it was different than other directors. She doesn’t look happy. (LAUGHTER) I’d love to know. No, we really are quite an experienced, seasoned,
successful group, but we really did not contribute much. I don’t know this thing of “trust,”
‘cause I don’t trust anybody, and probably never will. That’s one of my big problems. (LAUGHTER) So I don’t know “trust.” That’s pretty honest! Yeah. You know, I’ve only had two directors in
my life that I liked to work with, and even them I wouldn’t trust as much as I would
an audience when I go out there. That’s how I feel. They’re meaningless to me. But who? Arthur! Good! Who was the other one? Stephen Porter. Oh, yes. Stephen. But he had a concept and a vision of it. And basically, I would say that we are playing
his concept and vision. And that’s not a criticism, really, because
I think that the play works that way, and I don’t know – I wouldn’t have any alternative
way of putting it together. It’s a very strange play on the page, very
strange play to try to act. And it was, like, planned by him, even to
what prop I would use, what I would do with that prop. And for everybody, we just kind of stood there
and did what Dan’s vision was. Wow! So I doubt that people who work with him on
other plays have that same experience. Like it’s really the complete opposite,
so that’s interesting. Because this play was written before Lee Strasberg
and the Group Theatre. It was before naturalism. It was the kind of theatre that the Group
Theatre was revolting against, you know? It was written in the thirties. So it’s not psychological at all, and I
don’t know what would have happened (LAUGHS) if all of us had gotten in there and the usual
thing and said, “Well, I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna do that.” I think we’d still be arguing and still
in rehearsal. Exactly. Because it’s almost impossible to find it
because (LAUGHS) I don’t know what it is! (LAUGHTER) You know, everybody learned the
lines, and we did what Dan told us to do. And it isn’t that we couldn’t contribute. I don’t think we really had much to contribute,
because he had this picture. It’s a very odd play, so you need the experience. Don’t you think the best directors, though,
are the ones who say the least? Absolutely. Because I did a production of HURLYBURLY in
New York, with Mike Nichols, who’s just heaven to work with that way. And I lost a laugh somewhere, the third or
fourth month of the show I lost a laugh that was really sort of guaranteed. It happens, you know? We’ve all had this experience. Every night it’s like (CLAPS) you can’t
[miss it], and then one night it goes away. So I called Mike on the phone, he was out
of town. And I said, “I lost this laugh in Act Two.” He said, “Go get your script.” I went and got the script. He said, “I’ll read the other part, and
you read your part,” and I read it, and he said, “Oh! You’re going duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-DAH-dah. You should be going duh-DUH-duh-duh-duh-dah-dah. That’s how the laugh is.” And I had, over the month, lost the rhythm
of the joke. And Mike said, “How ya doin’?” I said, “Fine, thanks,” boom. (LAUGHTER) Did it work? I went out that night, boom! I sent him flowers. Can I call you tonight? (LAUGHTER) Yes! I have two laughs, I can’t get ‘em back! (LAUGHTER) Know that you can call Frank! The best story of this is Lunt and Fontanne,
when Alfred Lunt in some play, THE GUARDSMAN or something, had a reliable laugh when he
asked for a cup of tea. And bit by bit, it slipped away. And he said to Lynn, after becoming so frustrated,
“Where is that laugh? I’ve lost that laugh when I asked for the
cup of tea!” And she said, “Darling, you’re asking
for a laugh! You’re not asking for a cup of tea.” Oh, yes. There’s also a great Berliner Ensemble story,
about a woman who had a famous moment with pearls, where her lover came back and gave
her the pearls. And she took the pearls in her hand and looked
at them, and dropped them down and had this extraordinary reaction, and did it for years
and was always brilliant and always had a tear. And somebody said, “What are you thinking?” And she said, “Oh, I’m thinking (BEGINS
TO MIME TAKING OFF PEARLS) ‘One, two, three, four … ’” Wow. “Five, (LAUGHTER) six, seven, eight, nine,
ten!” (ENDS UP WITH HIS HEAD IN HIS HANDS; LAUGHTER) It’s a good sound check. That’s just great. It’s a great actor story, because as Alan
said in an interview we did the other day, acting is a wonderful combination of truth
it’s a great way to look at it. Yeah, yeah. (THE FOLLOWING SECTION IS ON THE AUDIO TAPE,
BUT NOT THE VIDEO) I think getting back to the director question,
I think the directors that I’ve worked with who’ve been helpful to me have been directors
who’ve also, as Mike Nichols has, performed, who have acted. Because directors who have just been audience
I find completely useless to me, because they just don’t know what you’re talking about. What you’re going through. And in some form, it doesn’t have to be
professionally. A director who I work with now, it seems only,
is George Wolfe. And that’s fine with me, I’ll work with
him on everything I do from now on and be fine with that. Was he ever a performer? Well, in school, yeah. He started off as an actor as well. He tried, you know, in L.A.
from Isabelle Stevenson on the American Theatre Wing. (APPLAUSE) I’m just overwhelmed at the wealth
of talent that’s on this panel today. And I want to say that if anything happened
here, there would be no theatre at all, (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) because theatre is here. And you’re just wonderful, all of you, and
I’m so excited about you being here and so pleased at the generosity of people in
the theatre who share their knowledge with us. So now I can go back to say what I’m supposed
to say. (LAUGHTER) Before we get back to the American Theatre
Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminar on performers, I would like to remind you
that these seminars are only one of many programs that the Wing undertakes. You’re probably familiar with the American
Theatre Wing Tony Awards. This is given for excellence in the theatre. We also have a substantial grants and scholarship
program, providing aid to Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatres, as well as to promising students,
to pursue their studies in the theatre arts. As a long-established charity, our other meaningful
and thriving programs are designed to promote excellence in the theatre and to introduce
young people and their families to theatre and the wonderful magic it unfolds. Our hospital program, dating back to World
War Two, when we also created the legendary Stage Door Canteen, to entertain patients
in hospitals, nursing homes, and AIDS centers and child care facilities. We take pride in the work we do and remain
very grateful to our members and everyone who contributes to help make possible the
wonderful programs of the American Theatre Wing. Our work is very important for the theatre
and to the community, and we are proud to be part of this very exciting, wonderful industry. Now, let’s return to our panel on performance,
and our moderator, Ted Chapin. Ted? Thank you, Isabelle. Let’s talk a little bit about directors. Jeffrey, you’ve been working with a director
for several times, including the current one, George Wolfe. Yeah, and I’ll probably only work with him
for the rest of my life. (LAUGHTER) Oh, stop it! Well, maybe one or two others. Jeffrey, you’re not going to work very much. (LAUGHTER) No, George works a lot! George works a lot. We’ve done all right, we’ve done all right. And he tolerates me. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) But you know, I think one component of directors
that is very helpful for me, I’ve found, is that they’ve had some experience performing
before, they’ve had some experience acting. Because you know, a lot of directors, I think,
are interested in sculpting people, sculpting spaces, and things like this, but they really
have more experience as audience members than they have from the other side. And it really requires an understanding of
the process of what one goes through. And you know, just understanding the vocabulary
of communicating to an actor, and understanding how it is that an actor can organically understand
what he’s doing and bring it to life, so that it’s as complex as it can be. You know, and for me, I mean, working with
George particularly is good, because he’s smarter than me. And a lot of directors that I work with – not
that I’m particularly smart – but I don’t think know what they’re talking about necessarily. (LAUGHTER) You know, as a serious actor, whatever
that is, you know, doing serious pieces, you know, pieces that are grounded in some kind
of history, particularly American history, which is very complex, you know, particularly
racially complex. And a lot of the roles that, you know, as
black actors we take on, the dramatic roles have some component of race attached to them,
simply because, you know, it’s very interesting stuff. It makes for interesting drama. And you know, I find that sometimes there’s
just not an understanding that really serves me as an actor. That a director who doesn’t have the information
or hasn’t thought about it – I’ll give you a small example. I was doing a radio play of a Faulkner piece,
with David Strathairn and a couple of other people, and I’m playing this slave who had
accompanied this Southern colonel into battle. And at the end of the thing, you know, the
war’s lost. The colonel comes home. You know, the slave comes back with him and
he’s, you know, trying to figure out what’s to be done next. And the director said, you know, “Well,
David,” who’s playing the colonel – and he’s a very well-intentioned guy – he
said, “You know, you’re battle-scarred and you’re exhausted and you’re psychologically,
you know, fatigued and all this. You know, you’re really war-weary. And Jeffrey, you know, you’re just happy
to be home.” (GROANS AND LAUGHTER) I said, “Well, you
know, the guy was, like, in the war as well, and he certainly wasn’t immune to the bullets,
you know.” But there was this kind of, you know, just
didn’t really invest the character with as much complexity as might have been there. So we had some problems. But you know, just really what you want from
a director is you want someone who’s informed, and you want someone who sees what you can’t
see because you’re not watching yourself. And you know, you want somebody smart. Estelle, you’ve directed, haven’t you? Oh, well, not commercially. Yes, yes, I direct! (LAUGHTER) I do. Do you enjoy it? Yes, I do enjoy it. I enjoy it a lot. But I am an actor in every fiber of my being,
so nothing could ever take the place of that. I mean, I do like to direct. I like to have an overview. I love to work with actors, but I would a
million times – I find acting painful. I’m not gonna say I love getting up on the
stage, but it’s what I do. It’s when I’m alive, all of me is alive,
and the only time all of me is alive. So, you know, it’s precious, isn’t it? Even if it’s painful. Yeah. You know, the old – no, excuse me. Apres-vous. No, Mercedes, vous! The oldest definition of theatre is the actor,
the boards and the passion. Yeah, a plank and a passion! And it doesn’t say anything about designers,
directors. No directors. The boards, the stage. The actor and the passion. Maybe we can put the playwright in there,
the passion, what infuses the actor with words, with vitality, with passion. And I think all of us have learned, because
I think we’re all pretty seasoned, we’ve all learned to become director-proof, in those
times, in those rare times [that you need to be]. Because I think you have writers, you have
directors, and you have actors. But in that group, the place that is the most
quicksilvery job is directing. How do you define a great director? I know what a great actor is. I know what a great writer is. But a great director, his skills are more
subtle. They’re harder to describe. So I think you have the lowest percentage
of great directors in all those groups, right? (GENERAL AGREEMENT FROM THE PANEL) That’s
where you have the lowest percentage of talent. So you do have to become director-proof. What you need is a great third eye, and occasionally,
if you have somebody as good as that Mike Nichols story, who can just – they can talk
to you spiritually, they can talk to you about the emotions, but they can also say, “The
rhythm of the line is duh-dum-duh-dum-duh-dum!”, you know? And still understand the process you need
to get to it. Yeah, yeah. There was an actor I’ve worked with a number
of times named Austin Pendleton, who told me a great story when he was directing Maureen
Stapleton in THE LITTLE FOXES. And she was really brilliant, and she had
it. She just knew what she was doing, wanted to
be left alone most of the time. And just before they opened in New York, he
walked into her dressing room and he said, “Maureen, I have a new idea.” And she looked at him and she said, “Austin,
don’t f with me.” (LAUGHTER) And he went, (MIMES BACKING OFF)
“Yeah.” Because he knew he had a great actress in
his hands, he knew she’d found the part, and there wasn’t any reason to put anything
new into it. And that’s a good director, as well, to
understand that. It’s very interesting. I want to pay a little tribute to a director
named Terry Hughes, who directed over a hundred episodes of “3rd Rock from the Sun,” that
I just finished last year. What I loved about Terry was how completely
he understood what his role was as a director. I mean, sitcom is different in many ways from
theatre, of course, although it’s more like theatre than film. But he knew that this is a medium completely
driven by actors and writers and their interaction. And he knew that the best he could do was
to facilitate that collaboration and make it easy. And he would make one suggestion for every
thirty pages of dialogue. It was just a very elegant setting of the
stage for this sort of interaction. I mean, there are many different kinds of
directors and many different media, but I think the essence of it is just understanding
what your role is, how you can help, and when you can’t help, how to just – Stand back. Keep the stage clear. And knowing that the actor knows, because
he has to go out there eight times a week, that the actor is going to know by experience,
by being in the field, on the stage, that this moment can work better this way or that
way. And then Mike can come along and help you
when it goes wrong. But actors – directors have got too much
power these days and too much aura and mystery about them. It really is very much the actor’s job to
find it and hold it. Well, it was interesting. There was one run-through of OKLAHOMA!, and
I don’t know if this happens all the time, but Trevor Nunn gave some notes to the company
and then said to the company, “I’ve never heard the story. Tell me the story,” and then went and sat
down. And I thought, “Wow, what a wonderful thing
to say.” That’s a great help. It was like that great [Tyrone] Guthrie story,
where he would give notes at the end of a run-through, and then he’d just dismiss
the cast by saying, “Amaze me in the morning.” (MURMURS OF APPRECIATION FROM THE PANEL) Well, I don’t think directors are overly,
you know, revered or whatever, or given too much power. I think bad directors are! But a good director deserves as much, you
know, credit as he gets. You know, I think, I guess in Elizabethan
time, you know, there was the writer and the actor and that was it. But you know, I’ve found there have been
a few instances where – I mean, a director will pull things out of you that’s not there,
that otherwise wouldn’t be there. I think what’s wonderful about being an
actor in the theatre is that you’re entrusted with the play, you know? In film, there’s so little trust. The actor, you know, is edited. You know, every gesture is at the whim of
some editor whom you haven’t even met, you know, whatever, and the director’s whim
and whatever. But in the theatre – He goes away and it’s yours. It’s given over to you. And a good director – I mean, whatever that
means – will give you information and control you with freedom, you know? But the process of finding the play, particularly
a new play, I think, you know, requires someone who’s very, very smart. That’s all I want from a director, someone
who’s really smart. Well, there are directors who have changed
the course of acting and drama. I mean, Elia Kazan. Sure. And the great ones are always invisible. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) It’s the ones that you
have difficulty with – Concept directors are difficult. They’re (ROLLS HIS EYES?) (LAUGHTER) Concept, where the conscious or unconscious
desire of the director is that everyone issues from the theatre saying, “Whoa! Wasn’t that brilliant directing!” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) When that happens,
the experience has been a failure (GENERAL AGREEMENT), because the director has not become
invisible. Kazan was invisible in everything and felt
everywhere. I think eventually – but I don’t want
an invisible director. Why? I think he’s – In the actual performance itself. Yes, of course. Of course. In the actual performance itself. I don’t want him invisible in the rehearsal
hall, you know. Yeah. I think what’s important is really heightened
dialogue, you know? Really good dialogue, you know, that’s the
whole point. And if that’s not there, then you shouldn’t
be there. In 1960 – I’m sorry, let me just tell
it real quick. Yeah, yeah, yeah. In 1960 – what was it? Three or four. Arthur Miller had written a play called AFTER
THE FALL, and I was in the Lincoln Center Training Program, which was run by Elia Kazan. And I sat in the room, at the age of twenty-three
or whatever I was, reading the part of Quentin for the actresses who were coming in for the
debut of this play. And behind me sat Arthur Miller, Robert Whitehead
and Elia Kazan. And all the leading young actresses of the
day came in to read. And this is when I got a lesson in what great
directing is, because Gadge just sat there like that and these actresses would sit down,
shaking, all of them, ‘cause this triumvirate of men was extraordinary. And I didn’t know the problem of this play,
I was twenty-three. I subsequently played it when I was fifty-five
or so. But I was just reading this old guy’s lines
and trying to be as good as I could to my colleagues. And these actresses would come in, and one
by one, they were awful. They were just awful, because they were so
scared. This is a new Arthur Miller play, Elia Kazan
is directing, Robert Whitehead. And Gadge would get up and walk over – this
was three days of this, some forty or fifty women. And he would lean over and he would say, (MURMURS
VERY QUIETLY), and she’d go like this, (NODS), and they were radiant. Every one of them found something. And I finally had the courage to ask him what
it was he said to them, and he said, “I say to every single one a different thing,
but I say the truth I think they need to be free.” He specialized in understanding the actor
and the actor’s process and the actor’s need. And his greatness, his genius was that he
was able to look at Mercedes Ruehl and know what would unlock her, you see? Wow. In bed as well as onstage! (LAUGHTER) Who was it? Elia Kazan. ‘Cause he certainly, you know. Have any of you had such an experience when
you’re auditioning and a director will come and say something that will make you feel,
“Oh!” Yeah. I auditioned, actually, for Kazan. There was this moment, that passed very quickly,
when he was going to direct [Richard] Burton in LEAR, and I went to read for the part of
Edgar. And I just spent like twenty minutes talking
with him. I didn’t read at all, but talking about
– he sort of gave me a homework assignment to come in a week later, read about beggars
and the wretched – you know, the people who wandered around on the heath back in those
days. You know, just learn a little bit about the
context of the play. But talking about lots of other things, too. And at the end of that twenty minutes, I was
absolutely dying to work with him, you know? It was just my little brush with Gadge. I was lucky to be in the room when Andrea
came to audition for Trevor Nunn for OKLAHOMA! And I mean, it was an extraordinary audition,
and it was a wonderful moment. I was one of quite a gaggle behind the table,
and I always felt that’s not fair to an actor, you know, to walk into a room and find
thirty people lined up there. But it was great, it was a wonderful audition. And he also, he goes over and whispers something. Yeah, I had the reverse effect. Trevor Nunn – (GESTURING TO THE AUDIENCE) Don’t look at
them. Huh? I’m sorry, I’m supposed to look at you? I’m used to looking out at the camera – oh,
(TO THE PANEL) look at you guys! But I’m going to cheat out there (LAUGHTER)
and talk out of the side of my mouth, ‘cause I don’t know how not to do it! Do what you want, Andrea. Trevor Nunn, yes. Well, he was such a gentleman, and he came
up to me, as he did I’m sure, every single person who auditioned, and asked me about
what I’d done and had he seen this and this, and he’s looking at my resume. And I thinking, “Gee, I really wish he wouldn’t
do the small talk with me, it’s not relaxing me at all. In fact, it’s taking me out of what I need
to focus on for the part.” And so, I think a lot of actors like that
kind of conversation, because he was really genuine, but I just wanted to get right to
what I had worked on, and this is who she is, and let me just sing my song and everything! All right, so that’s that story. But can I say one story about another sitcom
director? David Trainor (PH) gave me an invaluable lesson,
I guess in trust. That’s a big word for me, in the theatre
also. I was doing a sitcom that Carrie Fisher wrote,
and I loved it. But the lines would come down, and I’d immediately
think, “How can I rewrite them and how can I restage this?” And finally, after a few days of this, he
said, “You know, I think you really have to come from a place of believing that everybody
out there is good. And they will see if you do the lines that
they aren’t working, but you have to do what’s written there first.” And it was an invaluable lesson in sitcom,
and I’ve been able to bring that to the theatre. Because my first impulse, if I’m scared,
is to say, “That’s the wrong direction, that’s the wrong choreography. Why did you put me in that hat? That’s not the right dress.” And now I try to just go with the belief that
they wouldn’t be there unless they were good. I know it’s a little naïve. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) I stay there for
a while, and then if it’s still not working the way I want in previews, I say, “Can
we have a conversation?” But it has served me, because it’s let me
let go of the constraints of fear, and has made me open, as you’re talking about, given
me freedom to experience. But your training was mostly in improvisational
theatre, or largely? Certainly, you come from an improvisational
background, right? So the difference … ? Well, you know, I started off in legitimate
theatre, but improv, Second City was what gave me some kind of celebrity. And then I guess I got cocky that I can – what,
I’m gonna rewrite OKLAHOMA!? I don’t think so! (LAUGHTER) You know, I’m
gonna rewrite Terrence McNally? You know, I’m gonna rewrite LIPS TOGETHER,
[TEETH APART]? “Terrence, I got a new line for you!” (LAUGHTER) It’s all about fear. It’s all about, “I don’t know if I can
really do what he wrote!” And so it’s me just stepping in when I don’t
need to at that point. I think it’s all about, for all of us, freedom
and letting us tap the resources in us that are the most free. That’s a good subject. But I want to talk about training a little
bit, too, because, you know, I know there’s a lot of different kind of training here. And what’s important? Any training at all, or are there any specific
kinds that you would recommend or not? Well – Go for the Harvard grad! (LAUGHTER) Well, excuse me! I’m sorry! Everything I know about acting, I did not
learn at Harvard! (LAUGHTER) Mainly, I mean, after Harvard I
went to England for a couple of years and studied at LAMDA and came back. Basically, the first twelve or fourteen years
of my career were the theatre. I think it’s as simple as that, the theatre
is the best training. I mean, whatever other areas of entertainment
you go into, you learn the most from directors and audiences and even, dare I say it, critics. I mean, people who just sort of give you a
sense of who you are as an actor. The first time I became well-known in movies,
I was thirty-five and had already done fifteen plays in New York. And I always considered myself so lucky that
I knew who I was an actor before everybody knew who I was. (MURMURS OF APPRECIATION FROM THE PANEL) You
know, the theatre does it. And all of you have done film and television,
and you all started in the theatre and are here because you love the theatre? A point I’d like to make, because I think
it’s important. I mean, do you find, in your television and
movie experiences that you can tell an actor who doesn’t come from your world? Yes. In a word, yes. You can, but I must also say that it’s all
changed from when I started. Now, we really are all one family. There isn’t any [such] thing any more, I
don’t think, as “television actor,” “movie actor.” You’re an actor. And you’re a great actor, you’re a good
actor, you’re a bad actor, it doesn’t matter the medium any more. We all now cross over. There used to be this terrible division. “Oh that’s only – if you do television,
you can’t do film. So if you’re a theatre actor, you can’t
handle a camera.” We’re now all forced to, by economics, and
by the way the setup is. We’re all in everything. One of the things, Andrea said at the end
of this, that I think is an important word we haven’t talked about, is fear, you know? The other thing is that we’re all frightened. Every actor starts out from a place of fear,
because you’re going to do this. You’re going to reveal yourself in a way
that can be terrifying to you. And I think that’s probably one of the greatest
joys of being a theatre actor is that every night, you go out and face that fear. Because the minute you face it, you conquer
it. It’s only when you hide from it that you
don’t. And the things that you are afraid of are
the things that you learn the most from. I mean, as I say, the most scared I’ve been
in the last couple of years was the first day of the workshop of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS,
when I was sitting there with a bunch of extraordinary singers and dancers, and I felt I was right
back to square one. I was so nervous. Totally lost my voice after three days, ‘cause
I was using it so badly. I was terrified. And overcoming that fear is always when you
make a few steps forward. I’ve decided now, for the rest of my career,
I’ll only do things that I’m afraid of. (LAUGHTER) Yes, great. There was a wonderful – I don’t know if
any of you have seen the six interviews between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. Yes. But on one of them, Campbell is talking about
situations in your life when you have a heightened sense of being alive. And he said that in the Vietnam War, for instance,
a lot of GIs would re-up because while it was terrifying, they had never before nor
expected ever after to feel as alive as they did. And it’s a pretty, you know, dramatic way
to find it. But I think one of the things that we love
as theatre actors, and fear is the price, is that feeling of being so alive on stage. People talk about being almost in a trance,
and in a way, it’s not a trance where you’re like “Duh … ”, you know, but it has
this in common with a trance, that if you have a sore throat, or if you have a sprained
ankle or you have a – It goes away. You do not feel it! And that is an indication that you are in
an altered state of being more alive, you know? (FRANK LAUGHS) It’s dangerous! You’re walking out in some dangerous terrain! They’re all out there, you know? No director, no editor can come on and say,
“Take it again. Don’t do that. Let’s do it from this angle, you know, there.” You’re out there telling the story the way
Homer told the story around the fire, you know? Beginning, middle, end, nobody interrupts! It’s a great feeling of power. That’s another point about fear that I think
is important, what Mercedes just said. The sooner you learn as an actor that you’re
a vessel, the quicker your fear goes away. Because when you’re younger, you sort of
going out there being, “Look at me! Watch me!” But once you understand you’re a vessel
for the playwright – That’s right. Your fear disappears, because what you’re
doing is delivering the story every night. And you’re going past yourself into that
stratosphere, and it is really a stratosphere. And it’s not a goofy stratosphere, you know,
like “Oh, man, I’m really high on it!” It’s a really great, great rush. It’s a very privileged profession we’re
in. We’re very lucky. Well, that’s the danger of it as well, is
that actors can feel alive in anything, and will do anything to get that feeling, whether
it’s worthy of that vessel or not, you know? And that’s the way a lot of, like, really
useless material gets done, you know? Thankfully – (LAUGHTER) No, because an actor
is like, “Yeah, I’ll play that fish! I’ll do it!” (LAUGHTER) That’s an extremely good point. It’s true. That’s true. It is a good point, yeah. Because you will invest something that isn’t
really worthy of it of all of your energy and heart. It’s very important. I was very spoiled by my first experience
on Broadway, which was doing ANGELS IN AMERICA, which really kind of brought together everything
that I had – you know, speaking of training, it was like theatrical training and also,
I was a political science major in college, and it kind of brought all of that into play
as well. And it was also a piece that was done at the
time that it sprang from, so it had this kind of concentric history around it, and it felt
– you know, as you’re saying, feeling alive – I felt, at times, once I figured
out what I was doing as an actor, that I was supposed to be at that place at that time,
telling this story and saying these words. And it was a very alive and powerful place
to be. But it spoiled me, because it was early in
my career, and it got me thinking that everything that I did as an actor could be important,
you know, and every piece, every story that I told could have, you know, social/political
implications that were worthy of an audience, you know, and be engaged somehow in the society
that we’re living in. You know, you can sometimes and then sometimes
you can’t. Did you audition for ANGELS? Oh, yeah! (LAUGHTER) Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think the flip side of the coin of that
feeling of being alive and at the still point of the turning world for a moment, you know,
is that it’s an eternally humbling job, acting. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Because you can invest
certain material with the same part of your soul, the same heart, the same emotion, the
same [everything], but the actual material itself is not as fortunately composed as the
Chekhov play you did last year, that you gave the same investment to, and it flew up to
heaven. And here, it just doesn’t register. It doesn’t come across the footlights, because
the material isn’t supporting the work you do. But even when the material is great, we were
talking in the break last night – we had a lot of theatre people in to the show last
night. We all felt an urge to be really good, and
the audience simply didn’t react to us the way they always do. And you’re out there thinking, “Gee, I’ve
got a buddy out there, there’s a producer out there, there’s a guy who can give me
a job!” (LAUGHTER) And the play began to go in a direction
it had rarely ever gone before. It went into a darker, sinister place. And Alan and I unstatedly (PH) said to each
other, “If this is where it’s going, this is where we’re going with it.” It doesn’t mean that we’re unsuccessful
if a big laugh doesn’t come. It doesn’t mean you’re unsuccessful if
a scene suddenly turns dark, as long as you’re in that scene, in your character at that moment. And everybody came flooding backstage saying,
“We loved it,” and we kept thinking, “Well, it wasn’t, you know, it could have been
better.” But if their experience is honest and real
and yours has been honest and real, the play can go in a dozen different directions and
still be viable. It goes back to what we said earlier about
there’s no “right” in this. I wanted to pick up on something that you
had said earlier, in talking about directors, where you said a lot of them don’t necessarily
like actors. And one of the thoughts that occurred to me
is the amount of and the kind of respect that actors are or are not given. And I was thinking of this specifically, the
new plays that some of you have done. And I would think that to be an actor in a
new play would put you in a position of, if you have lines that have never been done before,
and as Andrea said, something about it, even though you may try to make them work, and
they don’t work, are you empowered enough to say to a living author, “Can we have
a conversation here?” Or how does that work? Yeah, it’s great to have that. Well, in the best of worlds, it’s very collaborative,
and working on something new is completely exhilarating, you know? At the end of one of our best rehearsals of
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, Brian D’Arcy James, he made the famous statement, “Revivals
are for cowards!” (LAUGHTER) It was so, just sort of – charting
new territory is so exhilarating, as long as you’re working with wonderful collaborators. Oh, I agree. It’s also great to have them, [for] the
lines. (PH) There’s a pitfall in that, though, is that
if your initial instinct is to think that it’s the play or it’s the director rather
than yourself that’s the problem. I think once you’ve exhausted every possibility
within yourself then, you know, you can go there. But it also, as well, depends on who you’re
working with, who the collaboration is with. TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, I first read the play three
years ago, and George called me. I happened to be in Los Angeles, flew in and
did a reading of it, and then later did another reading. And then we did it Off-Broadway, of course,
last summer. And we spent about a month around the table
before we even got on our feet, just working on the piece, working on the play itself,
the words itself. And reading it and re-reading it, and Suzan
writing and rewriting, Suzan-Lori Parks. And the thing about it was, there were four
people in a room who had a relationship that was really wonderful. It was so circular and so even, and everyone
kind of – Ideas would bounce around. Yeah, but everyone trusted each other. We all knew that we were there for a reason. But that’s difficult. It’s lucky moments, when the actor feels
like he’s part of the creative process. I think that’s sort of a new development,
too. The first play I did, MRS. DALLY HAS A LOVER, the guy would not let one
word be changed. I’ve worked with a lot of playwrights like
that. And one of the big challenges as an actor
is if there’s a line or a space that you can’t get, and you’re always saying, “There’s
something in that they I haven’t found, and when I’ve found that, I’ll know a
lot more about what I’m doing.” I think it’s very tricky to let a lot of
actors get involved in the writing. (LAUGHS) I mean, we may be a great group. (LAUGHTER) You are a great group. But there are a lot of actors, you don’t
really want what they wrote, you want what the playwright wrote! And you don’t want to do a scene that the
other actor wants! It’s great to have them alive. You’re lucky when you have – I’ve been
so lucky. My whole career, I’ve had brilliant, living
writers in the room. I did a play called PASSION by Peter Nichols,
and we were really messing it up. It was terrible in rehearsal, it was just
awful. So I went to the director and I said, “Could
we have Peter Nichols read the play to us?” And all the other actors went, “No! I don’t want to hear that!” I said, “Well, that’s what I want to hear. I want to hear what the writer’s intentions
were.” So I went and got a lot of bagels and cream
cheese. (LAUGHTER) We went to my apartment and ten
of us sat around and Peter Nichols read his play, and it was like, bells! You saw every actor suddenly go, “Oh, my
God.” We didn’t know – we couldn’t find within
ourselves yet – we probably would have gotten there at some point, but we were really heading
into the toilet. And Peter read this play so brilliantly. And he didn’t ask us to imitate him, but
we got his original intent. Mmm, that’s great. It’s an interesting thing, in Moss Hart’s
great memoir, ACT ONE, which is the best book written about the process of theatre. I was so amazed. Fifty years ago, this was completely tradition,
that the first thing that happens is the playwright reading the play to the actors. Wow! The actors don’t sit and read the play,
the playwright did. George S. Kaufman read ONCE IN A LIFETIME
out loud to the cast. Seems to make sense. Edward Albee read us some of SEASCAPE, which
was my first show in New York. A lot – How come that changed? Good question. And the playwrights are probably asking the
same question! (LAUGHTER) Yeah, we should get back to that. I’m working with Albee now, and I did VIRGINIA
WOOLF at the Guthrie last year, and we’re doing THE GOAT this year. And at the first reading, with all the producers
there, he said to the four actors, “Do you like the play?” And we all went, “Oh, yeah, yeah!” (LAUGHTER) “Yes, Mr. Albee!” He said, “Good. Because it’s not going to change!” (LAUGHTER) You know, that’s amazing. The first reading of SEASCAPE, which was 1975,
Edward came in, and he was directing it as well. Deborah Kerr, Barry Nelson, Maureen Anderman
and myself. We sat down, we read a three-act play, which
took about two and a half hours. And he said the same thing, he said, “Do
you all like the play?” And we said, “Yes.” He said, “Get your pencils, I’m going
to make a cut.” He said, “Turn to Act Two. Cut it.” Whoa! (GENERAL AGREEMENT) He cut the entire second act. And I said, “That’s the reason I took
this job!” (LAUGHTER) “I want that line, I want that
thing!” He just took Act Two right out, and we ended
up with a two act play. Did you say, “Now I don’t like the play”? (LAUGHTER) I said, “Now I like it less.” One-third less! Yeah, a third less. And composers and lyricists would sing their
material. Did that happen on SWEET SMELL? Did they present it to the cast on the first
day of rehearsal? That’s traditionally a kind of warm-up performance. No, I don’t recall [that]. Well, we had gone through this long workshop
process. Weren’t you really scared at your first
– I was scared at my first orchestra rehearsal in a musical. It was fantastic! Didn’t that terrify you? Oh, God. I thought I had died and gone to heaven! Yeah. This fabulous new word, Sitz probe (PH), which
I’d never heard before! Sitz probe! (LAUGHTER) You see, none of us know this,
because we’re not musical [actors]. Sitz probe? It’s the first time the performers and the
orchestra perform together. No, I know that. I thought it was a gynecological term. (LAUGHTER) I had a Sitz probe, but it didn’t
hurt! (LAUGHTER) There’s the Sitz probe, where everybody
sits, and then there’s the Wander (PH) probe, where they sort of walk around. (LAUGHTER) It’s German for a sitting test. It’s the first time you test out the orchestra
and the lead singers together. When the conductor raises that [baton] – Oh, my God! The first time Paul Gemignani did that, I
was terrified. And then when you heard the full orchestra
for the first time – It’s so exciting! It’s really exciting. Speaking of first times, I asked Jeffrey about
auditioning. How do you feel about auditioning, and do
you still have to audition? We all – we’re always auditioning. You’re actually auditioning when you’re
in a play, every night. I often, you know – sometimes, I have to
audition. And lots of times, I don’t. I figure (LAUGHS) if somebody doesn’t know
what I’ve done the last fifty years … (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) If it’s a part it’s perfectly
clear I can do and do very well, and they want me to audition, then lots of times I
don’t, because I know the people are going to be weird and I don’t want to work with
them. (LAUGHTER) But a lot of times, when they say,
“Oh, just come in and meet the director,” you know, “you won’t have to read anything,”
and I’ve read the script and I’m interested in it, lots of times I’ll say to the director,
“Hey, can we read a little bit of it?” Because I’m nothing like what I play, usually,
and lots of times I’m depressed. (LAUGHTER) And so then, they don’t see anything
that they’re gonna get, (LAUGHTER) so what good is sitting together? Okay, that is great! But if I really like the material, and all
my life, my husband used to say I was crazy, because I was the only person he ever met
who liked to audition. But for me, it’s a performance. Exactly. I like to audition. I agree, yeah. It’s a chance to be up in front of a really
hard audience, particularly singing, and I can sing better than anyone sitting in those
wings, and “Listen to me, guys!” You know, but to read that way, too. To have the opportunity to really grapple
with the material. I agree with that. It’s exciting. I think it’s terribly important. I don’t know why people are fudgy (PH) about
it. And you know, directors don’t have to audition. There is a famous story of Shelley Winters
coming in at the age of sixty-five, to come and audition for some kid of twenty-four,
who said, “Well, Miss Winters, what have you got for me today?” And she reached into her bag and took out
two Oscars. (LAUGHTER) And she said, “What have you
got for me, baby?” (LAUGHTER) That’s so good! That’s so good. The auditioning, I don’t enjoy it. I find the judge is there, you know, bringing
me back to when I was seven years old, being judged by a parent or a nun or something. (LAUGHTER) I hate it, you know? But one thing you know about good directors,
a good director knows on one audition, usually. You don’t have to have seven callbacks. He knows. A good director knows. Mike Nichols knows. They know in the first three lines. Yes! And when you’re called back three and four
times, then you know you’re with an inexperienced director, and probably you’re not going
to get it. And I remember once with Laurence Fishburne,
I did an audition for a film. And the young director brought me back again
and again and again and again, and it was after I had done FISHER KING and LOST IN YONKERS
and won a couple of awards, and I was thinking, “Excusez-moi! (LAUGHTER) One audition, maybe, but three!” You know what I mean? And it was just diminishing returns, and it
finally became really quite embarrassing, you know, to me. Undignified. Undignified. And I got a lovely little floral thing the
next day from Lawrence – I never did do the film, they did it with Ellen Barkin – but
he just put a little card in – I was in it. Hmm. BAD COMPANY. I was in it. (LAUGHTER) He put this little card in that said, “Those
who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” From another actor, it was – whoops! (DROPS HER MIKE) Am I still being heard? I think you’re okay. Fantastic! And you usually know you’re not going to
get the job, if as you’re leaving, the director tells you how great you were in something
he saw years ago. (LAUGHTER) Yes, that’s kiss of death. You’re like, “I didn’t get this job!” My experience was different in OKLAHOMA! I had to be called back three times. I knew that Trevor Nunn wanted somebody else. Another actor probably would have said, “You
know what? I’m not going to do it.” But I wanted that part! And I just had to put my ego at the door,
and just believe that it was an opportunity to get it. And after three auditions – and believe
me, I don’t really honestly in my heart believe he did want me, even at the end, but
they were starting rehearsals in six days. (LAUGHTER) But I believe by the end of the
rehearsal process – He was won over. I did. And I feel so grateful that my ego, which
believe me, in the past – (LAUGHS) I’m not going to swear again! (LAUGHTER) My ego, in the past, would have
said, “How dare they!”, you know? I feel terrible, absolutely terrible. I have to interrupt you. I’m terribly sorry to do this. I am humbled at the amount of talent that’s
on this panel today, but unfortunately we haven’t enough time, and so we have to [stop]. We could go on and on and on, and if you would
stay and not do any matinees (LAUGHTER) or any evening shows, I’d love it. But I have to say, thank you so very much
for being here. And this is just one of the American Theatre
Wing seminars on “Working in the Theatre,” coming to you from the Graduate Center of
the City University of New York. Thank you so very, very much for being here. Thank you. (APPLAUSE)

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