Performance (Working In The Theatre #320)

We are delighted to welcome you to the thirtieth
year of the American Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars. We are coming
to you from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. These seminars give
you an opportunity to hear a candid description of what it is like to work in the theatre
of today. The subject of the seminar you are about to see is performance. Our guests, all
notable actors, will describe the experiences that brought them to the front of the footlights.
I am Sondra Gilman, First Vice Chair of the American Theatre Wing. It gives me great pleasure
to introduce the moderator of this panel, Howard Sherman, Executive Director of the
American Theatre Wing. (APPLAUSE) Thank you, Sondra. (APPLAUSE) Thank you all.
I could easily spend the first twenty minutes of this seminar just giving you the extraordinary
range of credits of the performers that we have on the panel today. So I am going to
keep it very brief, and throughout, you’ll hear more about the many things that they’ve
done. Let me introduce, beginning on my right, Martha Plimpton, most recently on Broadway
in SIXTEEN WOUNDED. Jefferson Mays, appearing on Broadway in I AM MY OWN WIFE. Phylicia
Rashad, from the recently opened revival of A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Ann Heche, now in the
revival and revised version of TWENTIETH CENTURY, at the Roundabout Theatre Company. And Richard
Thomas, appearing in THE STENDAHL SYNDROME, Off-Broadway at Primary Stages. Thank you
all for being here. (APPLAUSE) When we put together these panels, which we
only get to do a couple of times a year, to say, “How do we pick five performers out
of the hundreds?” We just stop and say, “Who’s interesting? Who might be neat
to have together?” And then, as I began to think about, “How do we begin this?”,
we have to look for commonality. And I started thinking that so many of these performers
are people that we know because they’ve been on our TV screens or in our living rooms
at various times in their lives. And so, I wondered about the issue of expectations.
As performers, do you find that when you’re working, do you know if people come to the
work you do with particular expectations of what they’re going to see from you? And
then, do you have to take them somewhere from where they start from to where they get to,
in the performance that you’re giving? Let me start with Richard, who is (RICHARD LAUGHS)
certainly playing against type, many would say, in THE STENDAHL SYNDROME. I’ll take that as a compliment! (LAUGHS) As a crazed, bisexual orchestra conductor. And you’re not that? (LAUGHTER) No, no, and I haven’t even played it on
TV, so it’s all new (PH). Wow, wow! (LAUGHTER) But I’m thinking about taking it up! I think
because of the years that I spent – I mean, there are obvious things in my history that
lend themselves to that question, because after I had – I mean, I started, I grew
up in New York working in the theatre from the time I was a child, as a child actor here
in New York. But then I went away and I did a very popular television series for years,
you know, “The Waltons.” And so, when I first came back to New York after that had
been successful, and I had grown up working in the theatre in New York, it was very clear
to me that when I got back on stage here everybody was waiting to see. But people hadn’t, you
know, they were like, “Well, can he really act on stage or can’t he?” You know, all
the questions people ask when someone who hasn’t been in the last few seasons gets
up, or who is famous for something else. But I didn’t worry too much about it. I
loved the part, and it turned out to be okay. But I could feel in the house, you know, the
expectations and what they were coming to [see]. They were coming to see me, because
they knew me from something else. And I think some of them were wondering if I was going
to be any good on stage, and some of them didn’t worry about it. But if you have a
good show to do and you have a part you love, then you just try to give them the experience
of the play and the rest of it is up to them. You can’t drag ‘em with you, you know? Martha, we’ve been watching you since your
adolescence! Mmm! And then to see you taking on roles like,
for example, Hedda Gabler, which is a long ways away from some of your early films. (LAUGHS) Yeah … (LAUGHTER) I have to tell
you, just in terms of what I expect from an audience, generally, hopefully, is their,
you know, attention and their indulgence and their, you know, generous ears. But having
been in a fairly popular movie from the eighties, which has gained a sort of cult status in
the intervening years, it’s something of a risk, I’ve found, going up on stage, because
people will yell things at you. (LAUGHTER) And HEDDA GABLER, in specific, we were doing
at Long Wharf. I remember we were doing an afternoon performance for some college students.
Not Yale students, I should hasten to add (LAUGHTER), but college students from around
the state. And at the beginning of the second act, the
characters of Hedda and Thea are sleeping. It’s the morning of the following day. And
Thea is sort of restlessly pacing and wondering where Lovborg is, and Hedda is very calmly
sleeping on the couch, not concerned really about anything. And (LAUGHS) the lights came
up, this sort of gentle sort of, you know, sounds of morning coming in through the window,
and you know, sweet and simple dawn. And I’m laying there, you know, deepest sleep, and
I hear, “Goonies!” (LAUGHTER) So yeah, there you go. Yeah. And you don’t want them to do that in the
future, is that the idea? You know what? It’s fine. I just like a
little warning. You know, because for the rest of the show, I really was thinking, “Dear
lord, how am I going to do this? I’m a goonie again! (LAUGHTER) I’m the goonie to this
person.” Yeah, you can’t win. About two weeks into
FIFTH OF JULY, one afternoon after I – you know, Jeff Daniels came out and we had this
big kiss, and from the back of the house, “John-Boy’s a fa-ag!” (LAUGHTER) I said,
“Nevertheless, we’re going to do this play!” (LAUGHS) Of course, they had said the same thing about
Superman before you, Richard, so! [CHRISTOPHER REEVE ORIGINATED THE ROLE] But I should also add that there’s a wonderful
thing about it, in that it brings people who might not have otherwise come to the theatre
to the theatre. Yeah, it does that. Which is really the biggest plus about it.
So I’m actually quite grateful for it. And so that leaves me to ask Phylicia, because
certainly there are some audiences coming to RAISIN IN THE SUN who are being drawn in
from so many different worlds, because you are perhaps best known for your television
work, though you’ve got this extensive stage work. You’ve got Audra McDonald, who’s
a three-time Tony winner, and then you have Sean Combs [aka P. Diddy]. Do you find the
audiences taking time to adjust to everyone together, or whether the audiences are really
prepared for what they’re getting into with RAISIN? Hmm! There’s a phenomenon going on there
at the Royale Theatre. When performers make their entrances, Audra first, there’s always
applause. And so, when you’re standing backstage, you know, “Ah! Those are the theatergoers!
(LAUGHTER) They know her well.” When Sean makes his entrance (LAUGHTER), there’s this
wild scream that just goes all over creation! And you know, “Oh, those are the young people!”
And they’re not shy! (LAUGHTER) And then Sanaa [Lathan] makes her entrance as Beneatha
and you hear this other amount of applause and you say, “Filmgoers! Filmgoers.” And
then I come in, and then you hear this other thing, and you say, “Oh, television watchers!”
(LAUGHTER) But then it all changes. It all changes, and
the audience, which is the most diverse audience I’ve ever seen, becomes one community. The
audience becomes one ear. The audience becomes one set of eyes. It’s like the audience
becomes one person. And it’s amazing! And they come totally with the story, and I think
that has a lot to do with the force of this writing, and that it’s such a human story
and a humanizing story. That (LAUGHS), let’s say, the least likely, are just, at the end
– Sean once said, (LAUGHS) Sean said, “Know what (PH)? I’ve got some friends who are
tough dudes, and they were sitting in the audience saying, ‘Man, I had to check myself!
And I was starting to cry, I had to check myself!’” (LAUGHTER) And that’s the
beauty and the power of theatre, wouldn’t you say? Mmm, yeah. That’s great. Theatre is life! Theatre does this. Anne, for you, so many of your film roles
have been contemporary roles. And certainly, your first Broadway appearance in PROOF was
a contemporary role. Now you’re appearing in something which is very stylized thirties
comedy. Again, is that an adjustment for you audience? What kind of an adjustment is that
for you? Um, I – well, I don’t know! (LAUGHS) I
think I approach roles in the same way, whether it’s a modern role or this – I kind of
like to fall into the world of it. And being in the thirties screwball comedy is certainly
a new world for me, and I’m with a group of incredible players, including Alec Baldwin,
of course. And I find that because – and this is where, you know, publicity kind of
has come into play – everybody kind of set up that this was some crazy screwball comedy
with Alec Baldwin and Ann Heche. And what it did was kind of allow people to come into
the theatre with, “Oh, they’re outrageous and the show is outrageous!” So people are
very open to the experience. And where I find my expectation is, within
myself, after having done such a dramatic role in PROOF, that my expectation was, “I’m
gonna give them something completely different, and something they’ve never seen from me!”
And fortunately, I had, you know, a lot of, honestly, press out there saying, “TWENTIETH
CENTURY is this!” And so people came open-minded, and I said, “Well, let’s give ‘em a
show.” And it’s been wonderful, it’s been really fun. Jefferson, you haven’t got the same familiarity
of being in people’s homes, but you have a different challenge in I AM MY OWN WIFE,
because you aren’t inhabiting a single character, but all of them. And of course, I think many
people do come to the show saying, “What is this? How is this going to be?” How does
that work for you? And how do you draw them in to the countless characters you play? Well, it’s been lovely, because people come
to see I AM MY OWN WIFE with no expectations whatsoever (LAUGHTER), about me or the play,
because nobody knows who I am and nobody knows anything about this singular character. I
remember, in a matinee recently, entering at the top of the show, and hearing a man
in the matinee audience cry out, in injured tones, “It’s a man!” (LAUGHTER) So it’s
a starting at the bottom (PH) and nobody really knows what to expect. Most one-person shows
apparently – I’m thinking of TRU or FULL GALLOP – are based on famous people. BELLE
OF AMHERST, people have preconceptions. But nobody knows who Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is.
And what Doug [Wright] has done is an extraordinary thing, I think. He introduces the audience
to this person and they feel as though they get to know her, and then ultimately, I hope,
leave the theatre with more questions about her identity than they had to begin with. And you had the opportunity to really develop
this piece from very early on. So it was modeled to some – I mean, certainly modeled on the
real performers, and you were in fact working with the playwright, who is himself a character
in the play. How did that development come about? And how did you shape the play, as
an integral part of it? You know, it was a rare luxury to be – well,
I was called up by Doug, who said, “Would you like to be in a play that hasn’t been
written yet?” (LAUGHTER) And I said, “Oh, yeah, what’s it about?” And he said, “Well,
it’s about a sixty-five year old East German transvestite,” and I said, “Absolutely,
yes! (LAUGHTER) That’s the role I’ve been dying to play! It’s time!” (LAUGHTER) Is it fair to mention briefly that just before
that, you’d played Peter Pan? Yes, yes! (LAUGHTER) I needed something to
shake me up a little bit, I don’t know. But so, I was involved from the get-go. It
was just the head of Sundance Theatre Lab, Robert Blacker, called Doug up, and knew Doug
had experienced about ten years of writer’s block with this play. He just felt he didn’t
have the authority to write it, not the history of 20th century Germany through this marginalized
perspective. And Robert said to Doug, “Of course, you don’t! You’re a privileged,
you know, gay white male from Texas, and you can’t write about Germany. But what you
can write about is your relationship with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.” And so he said, “Just bring in a director
that you love,” and he chose Moisés Kaufman, who is adept, as you know, dealing with found
material, documentary sort of theatre, GROSS INDECENCY, LARAMIE PROJECT, “and a cast,
and come out to the mountains of Utah and just sit around a table and try to make something
over the course of three weeks.” And he said, “Well, I don’t know how many people
I need.” And he said, “Well, just bring one actor to just read it aloud in front of
you and then see what you can make.” So we just sat, with hours and hours of transcripted
interviews in this huge stack in the middle of the table and sifted through it, found
things that struck us and interested us, started to juxtapose them. And then, little by little,
the play emerged from that. So that raises a question for all of you as
performers. The opportunity to create a role for the first time in a new piece of work
versus taking on a piece which has been done previously, in some cases may have been done
for hundreds of years previously. Is there a difference in attacking those roles, or
is it fundamentally the same process? Martha? Shall I? You shall! For me, anyway – obviously, I wouldn’t
speak for anyone else – for me, it’s not too terribly different a process. I think
that, you know, the main difference being whether or not you have the luxury of having
a living playwright there with you to help you. Or not, whatever the case may be! (LAUGHTER) And we’re coming back to that! Yes! (LAUGHS) But I think, you know, for example, just doing
HEDDA, use that example one more time – you know, we could have, I suppose, been quite
nervous about putting on HEDDA, particularly since I was the youngest person to play the
role, since its original production in Ibsen’s time. She’s written as twenty-nine, but
often played by women quite a bit more mature and accomplished, generally. And that could
have been quite nerve-wracking. But we approached it like, sort of in the
way – Doug Hughes, our director, used to say, “You know, I sort of feel this play
suffers from ‘title character syndrome,’ do you know?” It’s called HEDDA GABLER,
but she’s Hedda Tesman in the text. And in that sense, we don’t really know who
this woman is, and there’s no reason for us to be nervous about how she’s been played
in the past or, you know, whatever film there is on it, or whatever, you know, research
we could have done. We didn’t really need to adhere to any of those rules, which was
nice. And in that sense, we were free, really, to do what we pleased. And I think, as a result,
we did some, you know, very sort of interesting, at least for us, that was pretty exciting.
(LAUGHS) But for a new play – and I have to admit,
I’ve only originated one or two roles, which is, I suppose, maybe a little unusual – the
fun is really having the playwright there, to help and to see the actor that he’s got
in front of him or her, and sort of find a way to give his character life through them.
And that’s always a very exhilarating bonding process. Richard, you’ve done so many classical plays
over the years, and STENDAHL was an opportunity to create a role. It’s nice to work with dead playwrights.
(LAUGHTER) We’ll tell Terrence [McNally] you said that! No, with a lot of exceptions, of course! I
actually did – that was because someone – I don’t know if it was Mark Lamos or
someone was doing something with the concept we had for HAMLET – and somebody said, “You’re
going to do that?” I said, “He’s dead! He won’t mind!” (LAUGHTER) It is fundamentally the same process, I think.
I mean, you have the text and you have the character and you spend your time getting
to know the character and bringing it to you and you to it. It’s exciting to be in the
room with a playwright, a little scary for me, because it’s very easy for me to put
someone else at the center of my process. So if there’s a playwright there who’s
writing a play, I sort of take their expectations and put them in the middle of me, which sometimes
makes it hard for me to really feel where I’m at. It takes time to make it my own.
But I think it’s a great privilege to work with a playwright and to create a role. STENDAHL SYNDROME has actually been kicking
around for a while in workshop. It’s never had a full production, but it was in pretty
tight shape by the time we started rehearsal, so he didn’t make a lot of changes in that.
The first act, he’s worked on, because it’s brand new. But when he sent it to me, and
I thought, “Well, no one’s seen this produced in the theatre before, and certainly (LAUGHS)
no one’s seen me in this!” It was thrilling, actually, to know that there were no expectations
about the role. But once a show’s up and running and people
are talking about it, they bring those expectations in. You know, we’re all expecting something.
You know, I expect abject adoration by the end of the evening! (LAUGHTER) Or at the beginning,
you know! When the process starts, and then by opening night, I wake up as if to be hanged,
you know? I just hope that there’s going to be a phone call from the governor, you
know, I’ll make it alive. But the classics are great, because you feel
– and Jefferson, you know, has a lot of experience – that you’ve taken a great
dive into this river, the time river of the river. All these wonderful plays flow through
it. All these fabulous actors have been in them and done them. And it can be daunting,
but at the same time, it’s fantastic to jump into that flow and to feel, you know,
the ghosts and the choices. And in many plays, choices you’ve read about and things that
actors have done that you know they did two hundred years ago that are talked about. So
it’s a great feeling of participation and continuity. That’s very satisfying in the
classics. You can’t make it yours. You can just bring what you can bring to it. Of course, in theatre it becomes an oral history.
For the most part, we can read about what a performance was like, but we can’t see
it. I’m curious to ask Anne and Phylicia – in the case of RAISIN IN THE SUN, clearly
that’s an iconic piece, and there is a film that people can go back and see. Anne, not
from theatre, but you actually did a very unusual thing, which was the remake of PSYCHO
with the original script and shot by shot. Do you go back? Do you see the originals?
Or do you keep them away from you when you’re creating? Oh, goodness, I don’t want to see the originals!
(LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) I’m the original! (LAUGHTER) And you have to think like that,
don’t you? Yes. Absolutely. I mean, you have to think like that. I learned
that as an understudy. For years and years and years, I was an understudy. And one of
the first lessons I learned as an understudy was that my real job was to go on stage and
not bump into anybody (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL), allow the people who did it regularly, the
actors who performed the roles regularly, to have the freedom to do what it was that
they did, without creating confusion, but to bring something that was totally new and
original for them to respond to. And so, every actor is the original, or should be. I totally agree with that. I mean, I had a
kind of interesting experience because I came – PSYCHO is a little bit different – but
PROOF, you know, I was asked to do PROOF after two incredible actresses – Mary Stuart [SIC;
SHE MEANS MARY LOUISE PARKER] had won a Tony for it, Jennifer Jason Leigh obviously is
an amazing actress. And (LAUGHS) they wanted to close the show, so they asked if I wanted
to do it. (LAUGHTER) And I said, “By all means.” I had not seen either one of them, and I was
glad that I hadn’t, only because to approach it I, you know, needed to go in with my own
character. But it was very interesting, because we got a new cast, but I realized in the rehearsal
process, oh, I was sitting in this chair because she sat in this chair! The whole play had
already been done. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) All the lighting was done. So even though it felt
like a new show, which Dan Sullivan, thank God, made it feel that way for us as actors,
really we were just fitting in to what had already been, you know, orchestrated. And
that was really awesome, because it was new, and yet, we were on the same set, and it was
really incredible. And then TWENTIETH CENTURY, of course had
been done – it’s been done in every incarnation about seven times by a million different people,
Carole Lombard being the most famous in the movie. And I just, you know, “No, thanks!”
Didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to play Carole Lombard. I wanted to play Lily
Garland. And you know, it just is that. You have to come in with yourself. And also, I
feel like, and did feel like, I didn’t want to come in with an entire cast of people who
were going to bring themselves to the play and be able to be in a rehearsal process with
an idea of something I already knew. I wanted our director to be able to give his point
of view on TWENTIETH CENTURY. Ken Ludwig, of course, did an incredible adaptation of
our show. And I wanted them to be able to have a fresh actress and point of view. And that seems to be – you know, I’ve
only done two plays, so I don’t know what the future is going to bring! (LAUGHTER) But
I might start looking at the other things in the future. I certainly would like to see
your Hedda, I’ll tell you that! Wow! Oh, well! Yeah. It’s extraordinary. I saw it. Yeah, you saw it. That would be, wow! I would like that opportunity.
And that is so wild! I mean, I wish I could go back and see Jennifer Jason Leigh do PROOF.
You know, it’s just – that’s one of the things that I wish I could do, but that’s
the beauty of theatre, too. I think that’s one of the fun things about
all of this, is that you find yourself talking to an actor who’s played the same role you’ve
played in a different production somewhere else. Yeah. And you talk about this, because nothing is
ever – it’s all impermanent, and it’s all done over and over again. And we all slip
into each other’s shoes all the time. I’m terrible one, playing a classical role – I’m
a terrible one for reading everything and listening – I listen to every recording. Yes! Oh, really? I start with – not because I want to give
that performance, because I know I can’t. I mean, I can’t give Gielgud’s performance
in RICHARD II. But I just take as much on board as I can, mainly, in terms of Shakespeare,
just for clarity and listening to things that make things clear to me. But I like to take
it all on board. I get frustrated because then I find myself not being able to do any
of those great things! Not that I’m trying to do them, those shadows and those ghosts,
but they’re there anywhere. Yeah. Sure. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) They’re looking. They’re in the wings.
They’re watching. They’re all around. I think it’s kind of one of the fun things.
With FIFTH OF JULY, I watched. I went to the theatre all the time and watched, ‘cause
I had to go in in a very brief time. So I really felt like an understudy coming in,
actually, in that performance. And it was such an exquisite ensemble, I didn’t want
to – I wanted to just fit in. But then, as we played, over the months, it started
to evolve and change, and people started to step back and make room for what I was doing,
and so, everything shifted. But I went in, pretty much, as if I were coming in as an
understudy, you know. I’ll tell you something else that’s really
cool about originating a role is getting your name in the first published version! It is! (LAUGHTER AND GENERAL AGREEMENT FROM
THE PANEL) It is, isn’t it? Yes, yes! Right. I’ve been wondering this. I mean, “When
they publish this, am I actually in the book? Do the workshops count?” I know, it’s really sad. These are the things
actors really care about! (LAUGHTER) It’s sad. That’s the only permanent thing
we have. That’s right, it is! Semi-permanent. It’s all ephemeral. Exactly. Do you know what I think will be so interesting?
Somebody came to the stage door the other day, and she said, “I saw you in PROOF and
I’m in high school and I played the role in PROOF and I didn’t want to see you! (LAUGHTER)
But I did it anyway!” And I said, “So?” And then she came to the show, and I said,
“So were we similar?” And she said, “Absolutely not. I was nothing like you. I enjoyed watching
it, but no, it wasn’t the same.” (LAUGHTER) I was like, “Wow, I should have met you
then. You know, you could have given me some pointers.” But David Auburn, of course,
won the Pulitzer Prize. And what I think is so interesting is that that show then went
across to every high school. And I’m curious, because of course, your show [just won the
Pulitzer, too]. That’s right, I can’t wait. The high schools
of America! (LAUGHTER) I mean, theatres doing (PH) that show, I just
think that’s going to be so interesting. Yes. Because (LAUGHS) so many people are going
to be taking on [that show], and so many students are going to be trying to figure out the complicated
performances that you give, and it will be so interesting in your life, I think. That is interesting. I can’t wait until
till the, like, sixteen-year-old captain of the football team is playing Charlotte van
Mahlsdorf! Yes! Right, right. Well, you know, when Lily Tomlin’s show,
THE SEARCH FOR INTELLIGENT SIGNS OF LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE – Oh, love that show! Went out and was done regionally, and probably
in stock productions, they actually had multiple people play the roles. Oh! How sad! So they actually broke it up. Oh, that’s interesting. It would be curious to think about – Yes. Certainly, it would be fairer to the
Drama Club, I would think. Well, as we know, the Drama Club, you know,
you sell the tickets based on how many parents of how many kids are in the show. Right, of course. Right, right, right! (LAUGHTER) So your show is not easy box office! (LAUGHTER)
At our high schools. But since we’re talking about schools, I want to ask about that. Some
of you started very, very young in the field. Richard, you got your Equity card at seven? Mmm-hmm. How did you all get into acting? What was
the break that got you started in all of this? Phylicia, I’ll ask you. You mean, professionally? Well, both how did you start just even getting
on stage the first time, and then the first professional break. Well, beauty was always an issue for me as
a child, because my parents were absolutely stunning. My sister was cute as pie. (LAUGHTER)
All of the girls ran after my brother. And every time I looked in the mirror, I thought,
“Well, when I was born, God was on a lunch break.” (LAUGHTER AND MURMURS FROM THE AUDIENCE) Oh, my God! This is how young people can think, you know?
It’s really something when you’re always comparing yourself to people around you. If
you’re always comparing yourself to other people, you can trick yourself easily into
believing you’re greater than or less than, instead of just being who you are. Mmm-hmm. When I was eleven years old, because of my
speech patterns, that my mother had insisted upon – grew up in Houston, Texas, but we
spoke as if we were from someplace else. (LAUGHTER) Presumably not Brooklyn! No, not Brooklyn. I was selected to be the
mistress of ceremonies for an inter-scholastic musical presentation, with all of the schools.
And I had learned my script so well that on the night of the performance, I stood in a
spotlight for the first time. The light was blinding! I had my script in my hand. But
because I had studied it and prepared so well, I didn’t have to read it. I stood and I
talked to the light. (DEMONSTRATES GLOWING IN THE SPOTLIGHT; LAUGHTER) And I just talked
to the light all night long! And when the evening was finished and people
were leaving the Coliseum, I heard several mothers say, “Oh! There’s the little girl
who spoke so beautifully! Isn’t she beautiful!” And I thought, “That’s it! When I grow
up, I’ll be an actress!” (LAUGHTER) And be beautiful all the time! Wow. But what I didn’t understand, and wouldn’t
be able to articulate for many years, was that the beauty that I had experienced had
nothing to do with what I was wearing or the curls in my hair or the ruffles on my socks.
It was the beauty of communication from the heart, and that’s what acting is. Is it
not? Absolutely. Well, we only hope. We only hope it’s as
beautiful as what you just said, yes, that communication and experience. Yeah. So let’s stay with first experiences. So
Richard, you went right into professional work. You skipped the high school shows. Yeah, I did. My folks were professional dancers
in the ballet, and I was sort of raised backstage, and started professionally, actually, in a
production of a play called SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO, about the Roosevelt family, in 1958. And it
was terrific. I had been in the wings my whole small childhood and then trotted out and did
that. But the thing about that experience that was so exciting to me was, I wasn’t
in the last act, so I was always brought home before the curtain call. But towards the end
of the run, they said, “Why don’t you let him stay for the curtain calls?” And
one of the most vivid experiences for me, aside from making my first entrance with James
Earl Jones – it was his Broadway debut as well, and he was just the dearest, kindest
man to me, to make me feel comfortable and at ease – was when they let me take a bow
the very first time, you know, with the whole company. You know, the curtain call, which
didn’t seem like such a big idea, but at seven, it was just extraordinary. (LAUGHTER) But my favorite early sort of starting thing
was when I auditioned for – and I’ll tell it, just because as a child, it was the greatest
audition anybody could ever have – I was ten, and I auditioned for STRANGE INTERLUDE,
the first Broadway production of the Actors Studio. And I went to Jose Quintero, to his
office at the Studio. And he sat down and he said (DOES HIS VOICE), “So, what do you
want to be more than anything in the world?” I said, “An actor.” He said, “That’s
it! You got the part!” (LAUGHTER) All actors should have that audition! Yes! And that was the moment in which I thought,
“Oh, okay! Yes, if I say this is what I am, then this is what I can be.” Wow. And so, that was a kind of beginning for me. Jefferson? I came to it very late, in college, actually.
It was my first play. But I think that I also came to it very early. I grew up in a house
with no television in it. It fell off the table during the Vietnam War. (LAUGHTER) The
family bassett hound ran underneath and got caught in the cord, and it smashed. And that was a strange sort of blessing. Because
my parents then, at the end of every meal, we would read a family novel. We would read
“David Copperfield” or “Great Expectations,” generally Dickens, some Thurber. But anyway,
all five of us would pass the novel around the table and each read a few pages or a chapter.
And I think that was the first time that I encountered theatre. It was just the spoken
word and these wonderful narratives, and hearing my father’s voice – and he was sort of
a removed narrator. And my mother would inhabit every character very fully, and I remember
watching her face just transform as she was reading. And I was very frustrated, because you know,
those Dickensian sentences that go on for pages (LAUGHTER) and coming to commas, and
I would just be furious. And in my sort of pre-literate days, I – well, I couldn’t
read, of course, in my “pre-literate” days! (LAUGHTER) So I would hear, you know,
a “Mr. Monroe” story from James Thurber, and then I would get up and sort of act out
a little Mr. Monroe vignette of some kind. So I think that was my introduction to theatre.
It was just sort of around the campfire of the dining room table. Martha? Well, it wasn’t dissimilar from Richard’s
story, really. My parents were both – well, my mother [Shelley Plimpton] was in the original
company of HAIR at the Public Theater in 1967. And she then moved to Broadway with it in
1968. And my father [Keith Carradine] came in to replace James Rado as Claude, and that
was in 1970. And I was conceived in the spring of that year. I’m not sure if it was in
the Biltmore Theatre or somewhere around it … (LAUGHTER) During the second half! (LAUGHTER) But you know, there was a lot going on! (LAUGHTER)
And so, by the end of 1970, when I emerged, you know, wet and screaming from my mother’s
womb, I was in the theatre every single day, until I was about three years old. And my
babysitters were “The Tribe,” you know, these wonderful, wonderful actors. And also,
strange people who just, you know, Ragni and Rado and Galt McDermott had just literally
pulled out of Washington Square Park to be in the show. (LAUGHTER) These people cared
for me and raised me. (LAUGHTER) And so, I didn’t know any other life. I
don’t know any other life. Which, at times, has frustrated me, because I’ve often felt,
“Well, you know, maybe I would be a better actor had I come to it as a young woman rather
than as an infant. Had I made a conscious decision, do you know, maybe I would approach
it differently, be more intellectual about it. Have, you know, a more rigorous, I don’t
know, technique or system, if I had gone to college, or what have you. But I didn’t, I just grew up in it, and
spent most of my life going to plays and seeing pretty much everything. My mother had no restrictions
on what I was permitted to see, from a very early age. I remember seeing a production
of TITUS ANDRONICUS that just blew my five-year-old brain! Wow! (LAUGHTER) “What?!” STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. I remember
seeing THREEPENNY OPERA in the park. These are my earliest memories. And I realize it
sounds rather pretentious, because it just does! (LAUGHTER) But that’s really how I
came to it. And then, it just was a natural way to behave. And then, I made – I remember
my mother was dating a fellow – Tom O’Horgan was directing a play on Broadway called THE
LEAF PEOPLE, which ran for about seven performances, I think. It was all about people living in
the jungles of the Amazon, and everyone was painted, from head to toe, green. And swinging
on vines, and singing these crazy avant-garde songs, and it was on Broadway! And I remember my first image of myself on
stage (TO RICHARD) is exactly the same as yours. We were there so often that Tom said
one night, “Ah, just paint her and put her out there!” (LAUGHTER) And I think I was
maybe three or four years old, and completely tow-headed, this white hair. And you know,
maybe this big (GESTURES WITH HER HANDS, ABOUT A FOOT HIGH). And they just wrapped a loincloth
around me, painted me green in that sort of noxious greasepaint – you know, that smell?
– head to toe green, and just carried me out for the curtain call in the line of green
people. And I just looked out at this enormous sea of faces! It was just – I’ll never
forget it, as long as I live. And I’ll also never forget that smell! (LAUGHTER) It doesn’t smell like that any more. Yeah! (LAUGHS) It doesn’t smell like that
any more. And it had a very specific kind of smell. Yes, it did. Like a clay, almost. (TO RICHARD) Were you in that play? No, no! (LAUGHTER) No, Rich just used to paint up. Yeah, I used to paint up. I painted up from
the time I was a small one. Yeah! No, just all that Stein’s grease stick.
I’m smelling it, yeah, what you say. Yeah, exactly, that grease stick! Yeah, yeah,
yeah. Oh, yeah. But just for pleasure. (LAUGHTER) Oh, yeah. Purely for pleasure, yeah. Yes, yes. It only became business later on. So, Anne? I was raised in a family – it’s funny,
I kind of feel like my pretending happened very young. We were not only pretending we
weren’t from the place we were from, which was rural Ohio, we were pretending that we
were not the people that we were! (LAUGHTER) We were pretending that we were richer than
we were. We were pretending we were not, you know, living in the house that we were living
in. It was not our car. (LAUGHTER) These were not our clothes. I mean, the whole thing was
a big fat pretend. So I do feel that I was learning from a very, very young age to lie
very well. (LAUGHTER) And when we were all – later, the door opened
a little bit to say, “We’re broke, and we all need to get jobs.” And I was twelve,
and I couldn’t do much, but I could babysit. And I ended up babysitting for a family in
Ocean City, New Jersey, who owned a dinner theatre in Swainton, New Jersey, called the
76 House Dinner Theater. And they were going to put up a show of MUSIC MAN. And I used
to sing in church with my father. And they were paying a hundred bucks a week, and boy,
did I get up on that stage and try to belt out, you know, “Gary, Indiana.” And I
think maybe three girls auditioned, but I was lucky enough to get the part, and ended
up being in the 76 House Dinner Theater for two years, being in all of these, you know,
ridiculous musicals as the youngest girl. And they all kind of took me under their wing,
and at two o’clock in the morning I was sitting around a bar with a whole bunch of
New Jersey actors wanting to be on Broadway. And they were drunk, and I was drunk, and
like, “Okay, I think I can do this!” (LAUGHTER) Now, I was only twelve, so I wasn’t drinking
yet. But it became my life. It became actually my home away from – it became my home. My
home was a big mess, and this became a place where I could really be myself. And speaking to continuing to go back to – I
didn’t choose acting. I could just work. And then in high school, I was in high school
plays. And then I was asked to be on a soap opera, and I was like, “Well, this will
get me out of my house, so yes, I’ll move to New York, great!” And then, I was there
for four years, and that was an incredible job. But after four years, I thought, “I
didn’t decide to be an actress. They just hired me to be an actress! I’m going to
go and be a designer.” So I applied to school, and then somebody offered me a movie, and
I was like, “I didn’t – well, okay.” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) I didn’t decide
to do this. I still haven’t decided! And I constantly – I really feel like I
decided to be an actress when I came to do PROOF on Broadway. And I stepped out, and
two girls had already done the show, and it was a huge success. And I stepped out on stage,
and I saw the faces for the first time, the people and the audience. And I was like, “This
is amazing!” And I re-stated my goal to acting, and said, “This is what I want to
do.” And this year – I mean, it just continues to be something that I re-state. Doing this
show on Broadway, originating – at least at this time – this character in TWENTIETH
CENTURY, I reclaimed being an actress again. And I don’t know if that will continue,
if that will stop. But I always thought the same thing, you know? I didn’t go to school
– I mean, this has all just been luck. It’s all just been, “I need a job,” you know?
And I’ve really just begun to own and claim the kind of space of, “I’m an actress.
This is what I want to do.” And I’ve just started to really pursue it, actually, with
that understanding and that love for the theatre, that came when I did PROOF. It’s fascinating that each of you rooted
that story in coming from family. Yeah. And touching on something that Richard had
mentioned earlier, the issue of an ensemble. And we all hear the cliché all of the time
that theatre is a big family, a cast is a family. What helps you to be part of an ensemble?
What is the environment? What are the actions that meld a cast together? I can do my one-liner
and say, “Of course, Jefferson is ‘I Am My Own Ensemble’ as well, in this particular
production.” (LAUGHTER) (IN CHARLOTTE’S VOICE) Wonderful cast! (LAUGHTER)
They’re together (PH), generous! But I am wondering, because it is fascinating
to see how casts do, or in some cases don’t come together. And I’m wondering what creates
the best experience? What are the elements that make that work, or what are the deterrents? I would love to just jump in here on this
one, because it’s something I’ve been sort of obsessing over for the last year or
so, having had a variety of experiences with wonderful, you know, people. I think the director
is almost the most important thing, in bringing people together. I think that first day of
rehearsal – you know, we all come from these sort of disparate backgrounds, with these
varying ideas of what the play should be and what we want to do with the play when we come
into the room. And maybe, you know, we know we have to keep our minds open, but we have
a plan because we took this role, because it was something in there that we needed to
look at or explore. And everyone comes into the room with their
own version of that. And a truly great ensemble, I think, is formed when the director can sort
of bring all of those people together on that first day, or maybe the second, doesn’t
matter. It should be in the first week, I think. It should be early! And sort of lays
out their vision of the world, of the story that we want to tell, the story we are here
to tell. They sort of open an umbrella and sort of welcome everyone in the cast into
it, and sort of shelter them in that. That’s not to say that it oughtn’t to be a fluid
and elastic vision. Of course, it always should be. But it’s so important to establish that
early, so that we all know we’re in service of the same thing, so that we all know our
mandate, in a strange way. And then we can all trust each other. We needn’t
worry, you know, whose ego is deciding where they should be standing. Or you know, whose
nerves are making it hard for them to express something, you know, because we have the director’s
idea to come to. For me, anyway, it’s an immediate way to sort of break down all of
that stuff and have everyone really sort of come together right away and be on the same
page. Of course, you know, nothing is foolproof, but in my opinion, without a great director,
an ensemble tends to flounder. Hear, hear! I agree. Nothing worse than being on board
an unguided missile. (LAUGHS) Yeah. Right. I like the idea – one of the – people
ask about differences between working, you know, in film and television and working in
the theatre – I like the idea that everybody comes together, every day, to all do it together
and make it. You know, I’ve met people at the wrap parties, who were in movies I was
in, that I never met, you know? Right. Sure. It’s important people, doing important,
you know, parts of a picture that I don’t have – I mean, I wasn’t a part of that.
But there’s something about everyone coming together, even listening, “How’s that
scene going tonight?” when you’re not out there, and sharing each other’s terrific
moments with each other as they come off stage that sound like either, well, sort of passing
the baton. And everyone coming together every night to tell the whole story together creates
a great feeling of ensemble for me, and a feeling of family. No question for me that
there’s a familial hook in my love, my need for the theatre. Walter Bobbie directed the TWENTIETH CENTURY
revival, and he’s such a wonderful director. And so much, to me, is that, yes. And also,
attitude of that director, of that leader, who wants to, you know, there – we’ve
all worked with a lot of jerks, and we’ve all worked with a lot of fabulous people.
And when that director comes in – Walter came in to the first day. It was utter enthusiasm
and thrill for the fact that we were going to do TWENTIETH CENTURY. He thought it was
hysterical. He thought it was fun. He told us all. We all gathered around and he just,
you know, stroked our egos! (LAUGHTER) Now, he told us all how thrilled he was, and that
energy – not only that, and then he brought in William Ivey Long, the costume designer.
John Lee Beatty, the production designer. And all of a sudden, we were shown models
of the set. We were shown costumes from the thirties. This, like, show and tell of these
group of artists who were going to work on this show. The lighting designers came in,
everyone came in to this first day. And it was like – I had never participated in that,
because in PROOF it was already up and going. And it was like, “Wow! This is stunning!
This is what people talk about in the theatre. This is being a part of something that is
so fresh and so awesome, and every single person in this room is so talented, and we’re
all going to do something together. And now we’re all gonna play! We’re all putting
on a play!” (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And it was just – I mean, that is so – that
attitude of that leader is so important to me. And that just kind of got in all of us,
and we were all bubbling. And every day we came to work, we were just thrilled. Although
I have heard that this is a kind of rare opportunity. Everybody says, “Oh, no, this – Anne,
don’t think that this is the way that it always is! It’s not always this way!”
We have a great group of people, but from what I’m hearing, it is that way. People
do come together and have a family and try to make it happen, every night. Yeah. You know? Eight shows a week, it’s crazy. I agree, those early days are so important.
(GENERAL AGREEMENT) What’s the vibe, yeah. So important! And when the designers bring
in their ideas to you, the world you’re going to inhabit and what you’re going to
wear in it, it’s a great gift. It’s a great feeling of – it’s still (LAUGHS)
that anything is possible! It is awesome! John Lee Beatty – we are
on a train, this is the Twentieth Century, the train? The train moves! (LAUGHTER) We
were in the first day of rehearsal and he’s saying, “This is gonna go like this and
this is gonna go like this, and then the set is gonna split open.” I’m like, “What?
What?! On stage? What?!!” (LAUGHTER) I mean, it’s just mind-blowing! And that’s so
fun. And then you watch all of these artists build, every single day the layers come. Not
only with character, but then the set gets built. You know, the lighting comes on. It
just – oh, it’s awesome – I’m sorry! (LAUGHTER) I mean, like, (DOES A CALIFORNIA
GIRL VOICE) “I really love the theatre! (LAUGHTER) It’s so cool!” Phylicia, Jefferson, the same experiences,
really, with a cast coming together? (PAUSE; LAUGHTER) Yeah, absolutely! (LAUGHTER) I just love hearing
what you say, Anne, about the initial presentation. The thing I was just thinking about is, what
I love so much about the theatre, is this – this sounds cynical, but it’s not – the
collective lying that goes on! The absolutely bald-faced artifice of it. Right! You know, where it’s not sleight-of-hand,
it’s just out there, lying! Right! You know, and what we do with space and time
on stage. And that is its beauty, because it’s all these people working very hard,
with open, full hearts, to lie! (LAUGHTER) And then the audience enters into that glorious
lie, and we don’t make any bones about it. It is artifice. This is fake! But we are entering
into it, and through achieving a wonderful lie, it becomes the truth, you know. It becomes
beautiful. Well, and what’s so funny is, we all run
around, of course, going, “Am I being truthful in this moment? (LAUGHTER) Am I being truthful?
I don’t know if I’m being truthful in this moment!” Yes, honesty is key. But it’s an honest lie. And then you go, “I don’t think you’re
being truthful! – wait a minute, what’s going on here?” Yes, getting to that time where you really
drop the drama. Yeah! (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And you’re just in it. Just in it. It’s believing that lie. Yes. (LAUGHS) It’s called pathological lying!
(LAUGHTER) Right. No, no. I’m just being facetious. I don’t think of it as a lie. I’ve never
thought of anything – well, there was one time, and I had the playwright, I said, “Honey,
you gotta fix this!” (LAUGHTER) “This is a lie!” Right. I think of theatre as truth. We have
this saying, “Theatre is life, film is art, and television is furniture.” (LAUGHTER)
Yeah, theatre is life. Theatre is life! And it’s a representation of life. And if there
is no truth in it – if I approached the work that I do as artifice, I couldn’t get
through it. Because I’m always looking for the truth, and I’m always looking for the
truth that’s not on the page. It’s what’s not on the page that’s exciting to me. Sure. And that’s not something that I make my
mind up about. That’s something that’ll occur to me when I’m washing a cup or frying
an egg, or walking the dog, looking at the change in the seasons. “Ah – oh! Oh, that’s
what that is! Oh, that’s why she says that. Oh, that’s how she’s feeling there. Oh!
Oh, that’s what that memory is.” It’s all of the things that are never on the page. Yet, it’s interesting, because you made
the comment about, you know, talking to the playwright and saying, “You gotta fix that.” Because it wasn’t the truth. And I wasn’t
gonna say it. (LAUGHTER) Well, it raises the question, as performers,
certainly in new works, or in classical works, where you’re working with a director and
shaping it, how much do you feel you have the right, the responsibility to make it work
for you and how much do you have to subsume to a director’s vision? What’s the balance
there? I think without that first day, that I was
just talking about, you don’t know. You can’t plan for that. The first day sets
the tone for how people will be communicating with each other (GENERAL AGREEMENT) for the
rest of the process. And if the tone is not set in a – first of all, enthusiastic, loving,
confident environment – you know, the worst thing you can do to an actor is rob them of
their confidence. And that first day is a lot about instilling confidence in everybody
in the room. And so, if that isn’t done, you’re at
a bit of loss, particularly with a new play, and you know, a living playwright who’s
there in the room with you, you are at a bit of a loss because you don’t know what the
parameters are for what you can discuss, because the world that you’re there to explore has
not been articulated. And so, it’s a little bit like swatting flies, do you know? It’s
a little bit hard. You know, you sort of want to go, “Okay, well, I want to play it this
way, but then – ” Do you know? Things just get all muddle-ly, and they get very
confusing. At least for me, anyway, because I tend to prefer to be extremely specific
and know exactly what I’m going to be doing, because I feel preparation gives you room
to be spontaneous. But anyway, so it’s very hard to do that
if you haven’t established the trust very early on. Without that trust, I think it’s
hard to really feel comfortable in your skin, asking questions or saying, you know, “What
is this meant to be doing?” or “What am I meant to be doing with this?” or “I
don’t understand.” I mean, do you know what I’m saying? It’s very hard without
that. To clarify what I was referring to in this
particular situation, this was a play written by a new playwright, and everyone came together
with an idea of what we thought the play was. It was very interesting, because all the cast
members had the same idea, and we hadn’t discussed it with each other. But the playwright
had a completely different idea. (LAUGHTER) Wow! And the director was trying to be friends
with everybody, and so the director really, after we’d been in it for two weeks rehearsing
– one day we were sitting around, the way actors do in the five minute break, and we
got to talking and saying, “Do you really – do you think – what does that mean?
Do you believe?” And we didn’t believe it. None of the actors did. We approached
the director and we were told, “Well, why didn’t you say so?” We looked at the director,
“Well, honey, you’re the director!” And it turned out the director didn’t believe
it, but the director was being friends! So we had to do something. See, normally, that’s
not my tact. (LAUGHTER) But yes, you’re right, that confidence. Right. And it comes, I really do believe, from – I
don’t care how confident and wonderful and talented everyone in the room is, without
a director who really makes you confident in them – Yes. Whether they’re completely off base or not,
you know? I don’t know if they’re off-base! If they sell it well enough to me, (LAUGHS)
I’ll buy it. Do you know? That’s what we’re all there to do, anyway. Right. And no actor, I don’t think, wants to belittle
or insult a playwright by assuming that they can tell them what their play is about. And
no director or actor should expect a playwright to be their own dramaturge. That’s incredibly
unfair. A playwright is there to, you know, put the words on the page. It’s the director’s
job to find the ways to articulate that theatrically, do you know? It’s not a novel, it’s a
play, you know. It is so strange, though, that we managed
very well in the theatre without directors for thousands of years. Yes! (PHYLICIA LAUGHS) I wonder, you know, why this emergence [has
happened]. Because I think the director is more important now than ever before, because
it’s so crazy what we’re asked to do sometimes. Mmm-hmm. You show up out of town, at a regional theatre,
to do LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, and say, “Oh, you’re my mom, and you’re
my father, and you’re my brother.” Mmm-hmm. Yep! “Okay, go! We have three and a half weeks
to do this.” So you need that sort of leadership, as Martha says. But I guess, before that,
what was it? Actor-manager? It was literally the – Or company – I guess the average company
– Company manager, yeah. Actor-manager is nineteenth century, pretty
much. Before that, I think it was company. The worst actor in the group would sit out
in the house and tell them what looked bad. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Truly! Yeah, I mean, that’s how companies started
(PH). Zeppo Marx! Yeah! (LAUGHS) Well, but suddenly you have that period of
the actor-manager, where it was one grand actor, and everybody just had to get out of
their way, and they brought their company around to showcase themselves. When I was in rehearsal for STENDAHL SYNDROME
– and (LAUGHS) I trust I can say it! – it was said about conductors. It was an orchestra
about conductors is, why is a – and I would imagine one could extrapolate to director
– no offense to (LAUGHS) any of our wonderful colleagues that we’ve worked with and love!
– but why is a director like a condom, you know? Well, safer with, more fun without.
(LAUGHTER) But I think we’ve had a lot of centuries to work together as companies of
actors. And I think actors essentially, at some level, if there’s proper respect in
how we talk to each other, know how to communicate as a company, and can actually put a show
on. Things are so sophisticated now technically, and so much needs to be pulled together. As far as an answer to your question about
when do you, you know, take issue with a director over a particular moment, my perspective,
having been raised by ballet dancers and my whole childhood having watched dancers with
choreographers, is I always try it. Because when I would watch my folks working with Balanchine
and Jerry Robbins, those were like, you have to – you don’t know if it works unless
you try it. So I’ve been very lucky, and I like to try it all. If they say, “Try
it this way” or “That’s not right, do it this way,” I try not to have too much
of a proprietary feeling about my choices. And if a director has an idea about how to
do something, it might be very different, he’s gonna – I trust that if I do it to
the best of my ability and it doesn’t work, he’s gonna see that or she’s gonna see
that and go, “Don’t do that.” Or “It’s still a good idea, but (LAUGHS) you can’t
do it!” But I like to try first, and then judge it later. In 1998 I had the extreme privilege and pleasure
of joining the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which of course has a long and illustrious
history of having actors who went to school together and were friends for many years and
just simply did what they wanted to do. And they didn’t have an artistic director for
a lot of, you know, those beginning years. They directed themselves and took turns directing
each other. And they did quite extraordinary work and created an ensemble that’s still
together after, you know, nearly thirty years. So that’s pretty impressive, that’s quite
an accomplishment, and it says that it can be done and it is often done. It’s just
a little more rare in our world right now. I’m out looking for an authority figure,
though. I don’t know about any of you. I feel some comfort, as long as it’s somebody
that I trust, I develop almost instantly that filial relationship to a director, when I
feel like a director is good. Someone that – I mean, for me, it’s part of my acting
– my pathology as a person, as an actor, is I’m drawn to wanting to please – Yeah. And if there’s somebody at the center of
a piece who loves you and who loves what you’re doing and who trusts you and brings you all
together, then there’s a polestar. There’s someone you can look to for guidance and ask,
and try to make happy. Someone always pops up to take that role!
(LAUGHTER) Well, somebody will, and it’s best if it’s
a good director. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think you’re absolutely right.
Because we’re gonna replace that with whoever’s out there (GESTURES TO THE AUDIENCE). And
I mean, you know, I like to do it for myself, too, but I’m sure all – it’s always
(LAUGHS) much more fun when they’re having a good time also, you know? Well, it’s more fun when they’re there
to have the experience, not just watch us have one. Right, exactly. I don’t know if I look so much for an authority
figure, but what I – I mean, for me, I was getting ready to do a screwball comedy, I
needed someone who could teach me! I needed to know that he was funny, and that he had
done a show – I mean, Walter Bobbie won the Tony for CHICAGO. I knew that I was coming
in – I had confidence in him, but I couldn’t do – I did not know – I wasn’t going
to stand up and direct a screwball comedy and know what I was doing. And I really appreciated
that Walter knew what he was doing. And on our second day, we got up and he had
the whole set built, with (GESTURES VERTICALLY) just sticks basically and doors. He had us
moving in and out of those doors, slamming doors, this, that, foom! fink! ‘Cause the
whole thing is like music, in a comedy. And I, of course, was sitting there going, “Great!
I can slam the door. Yes, I’ll do that on the line. Where’s my character? When do
we start working on character? When are we going to start talking about why she is this
way? She’s so insane, and what’s she doing?” And it didn’t happen, and we’re walking
in doors and slamming doors, and two weeks are going by and, great, we know our lines
now. And I watched this man sit back and tell us
when that door, (SNAPS HER FINGERS) bam! bam! bam! bam! And two weeks later, then we started
layering in, and I thought, “He waited all this time to talk to the actors about character
until our body language was so secondary, slam the door, duh! The music was there, and
then he started talking about character. And I thought, “What restraint!” It helped
me understand that each director has a process, how they approach it. And I’m going back to the question a little
bit earlier, when do you start saying this, that and the other? Part of my experience
with Walter was understanding that, unlike Dan Sullivan, who you start talking about
character in the first week with or in the first moment, everybody has a different process.
And each director approaches the kind of play they’re doing in a different way. So I thought,
“Okay, next time I’m just gonna trust that the person that I’m working with understands.
And if I can have the same kind of restraint that he had with me, not saying, “Oh, why
don’t you try this here and that here,” when he was still trying to get me in the
door at the right time in the funny moment. He said, and I just thought it was so incredible
– I said, “Walter, your restraint is incredible.” And he said, “You know what it is? I’m
just finding the vein for each one of you. That’s what I feel like I’m doing. And
if it taps in, and you get tapped in in the music of all of this, then you’re taking
your ride, and you’re with your character and with your company of actors, and I just
created the space for you to do that.” And I mean, I’ve never heard of anybody talk
about it that way, and that, again, is to me the pleasure of the theatre. On a movie
set, you have one minute to figure out character – Yeah. And you’d better in take two, and see you
later! (PHYLICIA LAUGHS) So it’s such an amazing thing to have time to even allow somebody
– I mean, part of what we do when we walk into a room is get to be with other artists
and watch their process, and understanding how they get there. And understanding and
hopefully trusting, that a director is looking at all of these artists, and he’s got to
figure out how to make them all work together in sync. I mean, it’s just – I was astounded
by Walter and his restraint. I think your point is so well taken. If a
director gives – because there’s the rehearsal process, and then the director goes away and
then it belongs to the company. Mmm-hmm. And if it’s been set well, and if a structure
has been – and an intention, as you say, and a point of view, and we all have a strong
house to live in, then they can go. The designers go away, the director goes away, and then
it always grows and changes (LAUGHS) incrementally – Sure. Well, God knows, incrementally! But then it
stays firm. And I think that structure is very important. I think that kind of approach
is really, really valuable. Interesting, it was so interesting. And I
imagine every director does it differently. It’s just so fascinating to see – And differently for each play that they do,
(UNINTEL PHRASE). Right, exactly. I’m curious. We’ve been talking a lot
about directors, and I’m curious about how you, as actors, look at other actors. Not
people, necessarily, that you’re working with in a show, because that’s very close.
But when you go to the theatre, what is the experience like for you? What do you look
for in performances? How do you respond? Do you analyze people? Do you watch it and just
go as entertainment? Can you do that at this point? What do you look for and what do you
see in other people’s performances? I’m just going to jump in, because I had
the pleasure of seeing Jefferson in his play. And for me, anyway, it was really just sort
of a transcendent experience. You’ll forgive me for being so gushing! (JEFFERSON SMILES;
LAUGHTER) And not least of which was because of what you were talking about earlier, about
artifice. I’m all for truth in the theatre and I believe that it is true to lie. I believe
what gives it – for me, anyway, it’s not interesting enough just to see people being
honest on stage. That I can see on “Dr. Phil” or something. (LAUGHTER) Do you know
what I mean? I want to see the art in the way they’re
being honest, in the choices they make, in the way they move their body. How someone
is telling a story, with the way they use their voice, or the way they use their arms,
or the way they address the audience. These are artificial things that we put on to a
character, to a performance, for effect. And we should have those, because that’s what
draws people in is that sort of oddity of that, and the skill. It is a skill. Otherwise,
you know, sure anybody can do it. But in watching your work, specifically, I
just felt like I was watching someone exercise their art, exercise their skill, in the most
generous, specific, simple way. And yes, it was clear to me that I was being lied to,
because here is a man playing quite a few people, do you know? There’s an articulation
in the play, in I AM MY OWN WIFE. There’s a phonograph box, and then there’s another
box within that phonograph box. And do you mind if I talk about this? Oh, no. Okay. (LAUGHTER) I’ll stop you if you give anything away. Well, I mean, because some actors don’t
like it, because you know, they don’t like to hear you emphasize a certain thing in their
play, they don’t want to think about that like that. But I’m just describing it, because
it speaks to your question. And I found it so moving, and it’ll never leave my mind. And inside this box, which is pulled out very
gently and very specifically, the story is being told. Objects are being described. A
home that someone lives in is being talked about. And a person is being revealed, in
the form of these objects. And the box is opened, and these objects, in miniature, are
removed, one by one, from the box, to sort of illustrate, you know, one – this is my
very pedestrian way of describing this, so forgive me! (LAUGHTER) But to me, that was the perfect articulation
of what the theatre is. Artifice, miniaturizing, presentation, connection to the object, a
language of the object, a physical language. All of these things just sort of come together,
theatrically. And I’m not just looking at someone being honest and saying, “Here’s
my chair. That’s the one I sit in. Here’s my phonograph. That’s the one I listen to.”
It’s, “Here is my chair.” Do you know? There’s something so deeply moving about
it to me, and I’m not sure I’m able to describe it very well. I don’t think I’m
doing a very good job. But I must say, that’s what I look for when
I go to the theatre. I go for a sense that my mind is being respected, number one. My
intelligence is respected, and that I am being drawn into a world. That I am having the experience,
not just watching someone feel something. That’s not terribly interesting to me. I
want to feel it! That’s why I’m there. And that’s why artifice, to me, is so important
and why that wall is so important. Do you know what I mean? I’m not interested in
hyper-realism, and I think that’s why that moment in your play, along with so many others,
was just so affecting to me. I’ve gone on far too long! (LAUGHTER) Jefferson, having just had somebody talk about
your performance, can you speak to a moment that you’ve watched in theatre that has
moved you? Yes. There are so many. I agree, it’s a
strange medium in that you – I mean, again, talking about the artifice, but there is a
presentation that happens, and this weird space in between performance and audience
which must be filled by both. I love the theatre, because of the demands it makes on an audience,
to lean forward, to suspend disbelief and to enter into something. And that is what
is so truly thrilling for me, this collective agreement that happens. I suppose it’s kind
of like church, in the best possible sense of the word, of people sort of communally
coming there to sit together, to kneel together, to stand up together. And that’s why I love
this medium. And that’s what I look forward to. I look for communion. And to believe that this is so. Yes, right. I love that church analogy. My mother used
to say to me – for a while, she was trying to find a good church, and she was having
a hard time. We’re Episcopal, and so it was sort of like diet Catholics. (LAUGHTER)
Sort of Catholic without the guilt! And she was trying to find a good church, and she
was in a new city, living in a new place. And she kept saying to me, “You know, I’m
having the hardest time finding a good church, because everywhere I go, they’re so down-to-earth,
you know? The pastor wears white patent leather shoes, and someone gets up and plays guitar
and sings a Judy Collins song. It’s all so, you know, down-to-earth. It’s all so,
‘Let’s bring God down to earth.’ And I don’t want to – I want to be brought
up to God. I don’t want to bring God down to me. That’s why I go to church. It’s
the God show, and I want to get lifted up.” And I do believe that’s – I feel the very
same way about the theatre. I think that’s what the theatre is for. Not to bring, you
know, bring it to the people, but you know, to lift everyone up in that way. I think it’s
a perfect analogy. Phylicia, do you think theatre does that,
can do that? I think theatre can change people. I think
theatre can change people’s lives, and if you look at those periods in human history
where great changes in societies were made, you’ll see that art was at the center of
it, always at the center of it. I don’t think of high and low, and up and down. I
think of omnipresence. That’s how I think. I think that there’s only One, and that
the One assumes the form of many, but that the One is present in all things.
So for me, it isn’t a matter of up and down, or high and low. It’s a matter of really,
really, really being, the essence of being. There is something so magical about that,
and it’s the most difficult thing for actors to do, is to be, because we’re all so accustomed
to doing things! I’m always learning. Sometimes in a scene, when I’m not speaking, and it
can be a dramatic scene, you know, there’s something inside me that says, “Be still
and take those words in. Let them into you. Let them affect you. Don’t do anything!”
For me, that’s the ultimate. And when I go to the theatre, I want to be
totally engaged. I want to be so engaged, I don’t have to think about what I’m seeing.
I’m in it. It’s become one. The audience and the performance has become one. That is
magical to me. And I love it. Whatever the style, you know, whatever the mode, whatever,
‘cause you know, I like all kinds of theatre, I want to be totally engaged so that I’m
not thinking about it. Anne, you are very new to working in the professional
theatre, and I’m wondering, even what Phylicia was saying about stillness – of course,
in film, when you’re still, very often they cut away to someone else, and they show that.
Does theatre give you the opportunity to sustain an emotion in a way that you don’t always
get the opportunity in film or television? I’m not sure I understand – in film I’m
still and they often cut away? I’m just not sure what that means. Oh, I was just saying, because of the discipline,
because film, you know, if there’s a conversation, you go back and forth between people – as
you say, they get the moment and the moment’s gone. Right. I was just curious about whether it feels
fundamentally different as a performer. Oh. I mean, it definitely does. And part of
why I love the different mediums is because I feel like you use a whole different set
of tools. And certainly, on film, you’re being told basically the story that the director
wants to tell you. “You’re gonna look here, you’re gonna look there, you’re
gonna look there.” And on stage, you do get to have the full experience, certainly. And not only am I new to performing on stage,
but I’m very new to watching theatre and going to theatre, because in my life, I’ve
worked and I was on a soap opera and I played twins and I worked seventeen hours a day.
I never saw theatre. I couldn’t afford theatre. And I’ve just really started to go to theatre.
And I am very much in awe of what’s happening, and I am taken into the world. And I experience
it in as full – I, being an actor on stage, understand that I want an audience member
to give over to whatever is happening on stage with all of us. So I try to give that. Like,
I am here to watch and experience all of what’s going on. And when I’m in a moment, it’s very funny.
‘Cause when I was doing PROOF, I went to Dan Sullivan’s show, MORNING’S AT SEVEN,
‘cause he had that on Broadway. And it was such an incredible show, and it was my second
day of rehearsal. And I saw all of these incredible actors, and none of them moved. (MARTHA LAUGHS)
They were on stage, they would come on stage and they would stand. And I realized – I
said to my husband, at halftime I call it – it’s not even halftime, it’s intermission,
I think. (LAUGHTER) At the break! I said to him, (WHISPERS) “They’re so still!” I thought theatre was all about movement.
I thought that when you came into this medium, that somehow I was going to have to figure
out – and I’ve always been an actor who uses me body, but you never see it, because
it’s always (GESTURES TO MAKE A FRAME AROUND HER HEAD) here. And I thought, “I’m so
wrong! It’s about being still. It’s about allowing the words to be the life that is
on stage. And I am the carrier! And so are the other people on stage with me.” And it was the most incredible thing, and
I ran into rehearsal the next day, and I said, “Dan!” He was a very silent man. “Dan,
I got it, I got it, I got it! I’m supposed to be still!” “What are you talking about?”
(LAUGHTER) I said, “I thought I was going to be flailing all over, rrr-rrr-rrr!” “No,
no, no, that’s not what’s interesting. Although I’m flailing all over the place
– You’re flailing now! I can forget Dan Sullivan now! (LAUGHTER)
But I often, even though my character is very physical in TWENTIETH CENTURY – I said to
myself – I always think about something else different, before I walk on stage. It’s
like, whatever happens to me before I go on stage, there’s often a focus point that
I have, and it’s different each night. And last night, I said, “Lose yourself.” Mmmm! “Lose yourself.” And the night before,
I said, “Listen. Take in the words that everybody else is saying, and just listen.” Mmm-hmm. And so, it’s so funny, because I think there
is a – I mean, it’s a cycle, you know. And maybe, next month I’ll be going through
the same things. But I try to add on the experience that I feel when I go to the theatre, and
then I take it in, and the listening and the understanding and the stillness. And then
the next night, I’ll say, “Oh, go wild! You know, whatever, do whatever you want.”
But what’s so amazing about it is that it changes every night. And then, when you’re in that experience
of whatever that is, and every other actor is doing their own thing, too, whatever makes
them be able to get out on stage, then you’re in the energy of the exchange, and that’s
when the audience – and no kidding, you can feel, that’s when that space is filled!
Because everybody said “Yes” to that experience. And I go to the theatre to say “Yes” to
the experience, and that’s why I’m a performer, too. I’m with you. I love to go. I love to watch
actors. I go to have a great time, and I go to admire. And even when I see an actor doing
something that I might have a problem with on stage, one of the first things that I’ve
come to realize about watching it is that what I’m seeing is a trouble I’ve gotten
myself into over and over again. I go, (PUTS HIS HEAD IN HIS HANDS) “Oh, I know where
you’re at!” Yeah! “I know it!” Because I don’t think I’ve
ever seen a moment, an acting moment by a talented actor on stage that I quarreled with
or thought they were in trouble with that was not a part of something that I had done,
many many times. The thing about still – and I’m a hyperkinetic, totally hyperkinetic
actor, so I admire stillness the way you do. I think one of the beauties of stillness on
stage is that it illuminates the space around the actor. And so much of what’s terrific about being
a human being, in a stage space, is that you bring the space around you to life, not just
your own performance here (GENERAL AGREEMENT), but you can make real the whole space around
you. I learned that about line in dancing. It’s not that the dancer has a pretty line.
It’s just that, if they have a beautiful line, what happens is that the line that their
body draws continues on into space, ahead of them and behind them. But I love that stillness,
too. And I have to let that be the final words.
These seminars, the American Theatre Wing seminars, are brought to you from the Graduate
Center at the City University of New York, part of the American Theatre Wing’s ongoing
mission of celebrating excellence and education in the theatre. I hope you’ll join me in
thanking these extraordinary panelists, and go see a show tonight! (APPLAUSE)

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