Performance (Working In The Theatre #326)

[MUSIC] Welcome to to the American Theatre Wing with
Working in the Theatre Seminars. I’m Sandra Gilman, Chairman of the Board of the Wing
and this is Doug Leeds, our president. We have been presenting these very special programs
for 25 years, with our partners CUNYTV and we’ve expanded this
year thanks to the Adinburg Foundation. These seminars play an important role in The Wings
efforts to provide educational programs to people interested in theater.
We are now also broadcasting a new weekly radio show called Downstage Center on XM
satellite radio. On these shows, we also bring conversations with
theatre artists both onstage and behind the stage to listeners across America. To further support our efforts, the American Theatre
Wing provides grants and scholarships to New York theaters and theatre students. All our educational and media programs including these
seminars are available free on-demand on our website The Wing founded the Tony Awards 60 years ago
and we’re continuing to present them with the League of American Theaters and Producers. We are fortunate enough to have three greatly admired
female performers working on the stage today. We will hear about their individual experiences that
brought them to this moment in their careers. We thank you for joining us, and we’re very pleased to now introduce our moderator, reporter and critic, Pia Lindstrom. (APPLAUSE) We are so very fortunate to have three of the most incredibly
talented actresses with us today, and I am so happy to be able to introduce Kathleen
Chalfant, who of course we know from WIT and from ANGELS IN AMERICA and so many wonderful
productions, Brenda Blethyn from London, one of the great actresses of the English stage
and now the American stage, and Randy Graff, who has been with us for a long time here
in New York, many things you’ve done. ANGELS IN AMERICA, a Tony Award. CITY OF ANGELS. CITY OF ANGELS. (POINTS TO KATHLEEN)
That’s ANGELS IN AMERICA. CITY OF ANGELS! There’s a lot of angels around. A lot of angels here! So, welcome all. I know how you get to Carnegie Hall. We’ve heard about that, “Practice, practice,
practice.” I’d like to know how you got to Broadway. And I’d like to start with you, Kathleen,
because you’re from San Francisco. I am. So how did you get from San Francisco to Broadway? I took the long way around, actually. I was born in San Francisco and grew up in
Oakland, and went to school in Palo Alto, at Stanford. And then I got married, right away, and we
went to Europe, my husband and I. And I always meant, all the time, I always
meant to be an actress, but I took a sort of side step when I was at Stanford and studied
classical Greek. And I was on my way to graduate school, and
then I met my husband, and I said, “You know, I don’t really want to teach Greek
to prep school kids.” And he said, “Well, what do you want to
do?” And I said, “Well, I always thought I wanted
to be an actress.” And he said, “Why don’t you do that?” And I said, “Oh – oh! What an idea!” So I dropped out of graduate school and began
to study acting in San Francisco, and then we got married and lived in Spain and had
a baby, and then lived in Italy. And I studied acting in Italian, which was
great! With a wonderful teacher named –
Heavens! That is the long way! It is the long way! Alessandro Ferson (PH). And then we finally moved to New York, and
we lived in Woodstock for a little while, and our second child was born, during a production
of MAJOR BARBARA, in which I was playing Barbara. So you started a little bit later, then, in
your life? I did. I was twenty-eight when I came to New York. I actually interviewed with Wynn Handman on
my twenty-eighth birthday, which was January 14th. Wow! And Brenda, did you start very young? I’m a late starter, too. Oh, you’re a late starter, too? Yeah. I didn’t go to drama school until I was
nearly twenty-eight, yeah. Huh. And they let you in? They let me in, yes! (LAUGHS) A mystery to me, too! Well, what were you doing before? I worked. When I left school, I went to commercial college,
and I learned shorthand, typing, bookkeeping, and all those sorts of things. I worked in all sorts of places, a bank in
London, British Rail. But I did a little bit of amateur dramatics,
and people kept saying to me, “Do you know, I think you’re good enough to be a professional!” (KATHLEEN LAUGHS) And I thought it was the
most ridiculous, absurd, irresponsible idea! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Do you know, to
give up my good job and become an actress? But people said it quite often, and I thought,
“Well, I wonder …” And I was twenty-seven, I thought, “I might spend the rest of my
life wondering about this, unless I go and check it out.” And so I applied to Guilford School of Acting,
which was quite near to where I lived, and lo and behold, they gave me a place! But I didn’t tell my family, because they’d
have thought I was off my rocker, (LAUGHTER) sort of taken leave of my senses. So I waited until I thought I had made the
right decision, and I was doing okay at drama school, and I told my mum and dad. And they were thrilled for me, because I was
happy. They just wanted me to be happy. They didn’t mind what I did, long as it
was legal. (LAUGHTER) In fact, my mum said to me one
day, “Brenda, if you do your acting all day long, when do you earn your money?” (LAUGHTER) I said, “They pay me, Ma!” She said, “Do they? They got any more jobs out there?” (LAUGHTER)
And then they got to see you at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company,
and all of those things! Oh, they were just – mmm-hmm. I mean, you did so many wonderful things. Yeah, they were over the moon. In fact, I was at the National Theatre in
London when it opened, and so I was in all – not all the early plays, ‘cause there
was three theatres, but I was actually in the TAMBURLAINE THE GREAT. I only had one line! But you were there! I was in it, yes. Randy, did you start very young? Well, if you ask my father, he said I’ve
been performing since I’ve been three! (KATHLEEN LAUGHS)
You’re from Brooklyn. I’m from Brooklyn. So it wasn’t so far for you to get to Broadway. Not so far. You’re the closest one to Broadway. Yeah. I grew up in Brooklyn, and then we moved to
Staten Island when I was fifteen, and then when I graduated college, I moved into Manhattan. But I think it was always around my family. I don’t think I chose it, you know? I think it kind of chose me, because there’s
always been music in my family. My grandmother sang. My Uncle Jerry still, at eighty-six years
old, writes and plays piano beautifully, and my cousins are actors. So it was always kind of around. But I don’t think I got serious about it
until I was college. But I have girlfriends from Brooklyn, who
I still keep in touch with, who all popped up during FIDDLER. It was great. FIDDLER brought everybody back. Oh, it was wonderful! I saw FIDDLER. You were wonderful in that. Oh, thank you. Thank you. But all the old girlfriends from Brooklyn
showed up, and one friend said, “Well, you told me you wanted to be Carol Burnett when
you were in the sixth grade!” (LAUGHTER) And I don’t remember any of this
stuff. But it was just always around. And in college I, you know, majored in speech
and theatre and minored in education because my parents wanted me to have something to
fall back on. Yeah. (PIA LAUGHS)
And it was there that I met a gentleman named Milton Lyon, who passed away about eight years
ago, but he really became a mentor for me, and taught me that when you sing you have
to act. I learned that very early, in college. And Milton, when I had graduated college,
Milton was directing a production of PINS AND NEEDLES, which is this musical about the
garment workers union, written by Harold Rome at the old Roundabout Theatre when it was
on 23rd Street – In the market. When it was the old movie theatre on 23rd
Street. And I was living in the city and I didn’t
have any representation or anything like that, and I just called Milton up and I said, “Can
I try out for your show?” you know? (LAUGHS) And he said, “Yes,” and I auditioned. And my Uncle Jerry played my audition for
me, and he hired me, and I got my agent at that point, who was coming to see one of his
other clients in the show. So it all kind of took off from there. But it really was a connection that I made
in college that helped me take off. So nobody discouraged any of you, really? It sounds like all of you were –
No, it seemed – in my family, as in Brenda’s, it seemed – and not like Randy’s, it seemed
not practical. That’s right, yeah. And then I found out the same thing, afterwards,
that my parents were all excited and happy that I’d done it. And I have to say that I had been and still
have, ‘cause we’ve now been married for thirty-eight years, the unequivocal support
of my husband. Well, I guess that would have to be, wouldn’t
it? Yes. Me, too. You’re married? No, I’m not, but I’ve been with my partner
for thirty years. I can’t make up my mind about him. (LAUGHTER)
Take your time. If it’s working, don’t! Yeah, I mean, because that is a problem. He’s real supportive. I have a friend of mine who’s an actress,
and I keep inviting her to parties. She can never come. I can never see her. She’s always working. Eventually, you give up on friendship. Don’t you have trouble (LAUGHS) with family
and friends, keeping them going? Yeah, it’s difficult. Yeah. Well, especially when you’re doing eight
shows a week, there’s no time to see anybody. It’s difficult, yeah. And you can –
But if you’ve got real friends, you know, my best friend in London, I don’t think
I’ve seen for about ten years! (LAUGHS) But if I rang, if I saw her now,
it was as if I saw her yesterday. For you, but maybe not for her. Oh, no, it’s the same. Because I’m the friend, and so I always
feel, gosh, I’m missing out on something here. No, it’s just the same for her. You really have to have that tunnel vision,
I guess. And it’s interesting, you can’t have people
to dinner, which is an odd thing. We live in a house – we own a house, it’s
a family house, and so Henry and I live on the top, and our cousin – Henry’s cousin
and his wife – live underneath us. And he’s a painter and she’s a writer. And Charlie and Michelle have people to dinner
all the time! And I think, “Oh, I should do that!” but
you realize – there are odd things that happen to your life that you don’t expect. Yes. I sometimes envy that, you know, because we
don’t have time, because our work takes place when everyone else is sitting down for
a family meal – Yes, right. Or off to the theatre, to enjoy themselves! (LAUGHS) We’re working. And I sometimes envy that, being able to do
it, but not all the time. No. Sometimes, I’m glad, you know. That your life would be –
Yeah, I prefer what I’m doing. Tell me a little bit about auditioning. You mentioned a rather pleasant experience
when you auditioned, but isn’t that very awkward and difficult to go to auditions? Yes! (LAUGHS)
Do you all like them? I mean, is it something you look forward to? It’s always kind of nerve-wracking. I’m not very good at them. I think it’s very seldom that you ever hear
anyone say that they are good at them. There are some people who say they love to
do them, but I think they’re delusional. (LAUGHTER)
I think it was Tyne Daly who said that she loves to go to auditions because it’s an
opportunity to act. Oh! I thought, “Well, that sounds good. I can’t …”
I was wondering, as we are speaking here of women in this profession, can we call you
actresses? I know that sometimes you have to say “actor”
now, so I don’t know. We’ve all been calling ourselves actresses. I don’t want to be politically incorrect
here and call you actresses, if you’re an “actor.” I don’t care about that. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Okay, actresses. I like the word actresses. Good or bad, that’s the important part. I wonder if any of you have experienced an
expectation, as you are women, of what you’re supposed to be on stage when you arrive at
an audition? Or would it be exactly the same for men? The reason I’m thinking of it is, very often
you think of women’s roles, there’s the good girl, the bad girl, you know, the tart,
the matron, the society woman, the witch, the crazy woman in the attic (LAUGHS), I don’t
know. There’s a kind of group there. Do you feel that there’s a pressure to be
a certain type? I think what I’ve learned is that it’s
just best to be yourself, that you can’t second-guess what they’re looking for, and
to just present who you are. And you have no control over whether or not
you’re the right type or not. I read this book early on, Michael Shurtleff’s
“How To Audition.” Do you know this book? I think it’s still out there. He used to be a casting director. Yes, he did, yeah. I don’t know if he’s doing it any more. But he talked a lot about all the things as
an actor that is just out of your control. And I gave – oh, I’m going off on a whole
tangent here, but it’s a cute story – No, it’s good. My dad is a retired salesman, so he knows
about selling. He knows about product and he knows about
selling. And when I first got into the business, I
said, “Dad, you have to read this book, ‘cause this is a book about my business.” And he read the book, and I had an audition
one week and I told him that, and he said, “So how did you do? Did you get a callback?” And I said, “No, I didn’t get a callback.” And he said, “Well, I guess you had the
wrong color suit on.” I thought, “He got it!” Yeah. He got it. So you can’t second-guess them, ever. You just have to be who you are and present
who you are, and they either want that quality, or they don’t. Right. That’s just been my experience. You have the same experience? I think it’s true, and it’s the most difficult
thing to convince yourself of. Yeah. Because it goes on and on, and you keep saying,
“Well, if I’d only – ” or “Maybe I could have – ” But it doesn’t seem
to be true. If you do what you can do, in the best possible
way, it’s your best chance. Right. And sometimes people – because I’ve been
on both sides of the casting table – I was about to say “couch”! (LAUGHTER)
We could talk about that one! Yes! (LAUGHTER)
And sometimes, someone surprises you, because they aren’t anything like the person that
you had in mind, but they’re the best person who’s come in. An example of that, a wonderful example of
that was in WIT, actually. Paula Pizzi, who ended up playing the nurse,
who was written as an Irish person, and Paula is an Italian person from Argentina! She’s beautiful! She lives in my building. So beautiful! And about to have a baby, too! Yeah! Paula’s going to have a baby. But I’d been cast, and they asked me to
be there for the casting for all the other parts. And we saw a whole bunch of people, all wonderful
people, many of them Irish, many of them who looked exactly like what you imagined the
part to be. And Paula came in, and it happened that it
was a day when you went to work with a relative, and my niece for some reason decided that
she was going to come to work with me. So she came to work with me that day. And she was there, she was about sixteen,
and so she watched the audition. And every single person in the room said,
“Well, it has to be Paula. It couldn’t be anybody else.” And so Paula became Susie. And it did an amazing thing. It changed the part, so Susie – the name
of the character is, I think, Susie Monahan – is always played, has been played [by
people with non-Irish backgrounds] – Audra McDonald played her in the T.V. thing. So it made the part free, in some way. Wow. Isn’t that – I hadn’t thought about
that for a long time, but that’s a great example of what can happen in an audition,
and you just go and do who you are. I remember reading Hume Cronyn saying that
he had gone to an audition and they said to him, “You don’t look like anybody.” (LAUGHS) And he always said, the problem was
he was so … plain. So I was thinking that maybe one has to, you
know, do something to get attention. Well, some people do do that, sort of –
You don’t? No, you just – okay. No, I just turn up as me. It’s sometimes quite hard, I suppose, if
the casting person or the director hasn’t got a clue who you are and doesn’t know
your work. I mean, I would never get any job on that,
and usually, I don’t if that is the case. But I’ll sometimes talk to students at my
old drama school, and they get despondent if they haven’t got an audition. But it’s not always you’re not talented
enough to play the part, or you’re not right. They might already have cast somebody the
same height as you, the same color eyes as you, same color hair as you, same accent as
you, you know, and they don’t want two people like that. It’s not always that you’re not capable
and would not be good playing the part. There are other things taken into consideration,
too. What’s the best part of the rehearsal period? Rehearsal. Just rehearsal. Yeah. Oh, yes. Mmm-hmm, yeah. Just the rehearsal? It’s my favorite. And you know, when I tell my husband this,
I say, “Honey, you know I love you, but I just – please don’t take it personally
– the rehearsal room is my favorite room in the world!” (LAUGHTER) When it’s the right group of
people, and the right project, it just – there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like it. We had the most incredible rehearsal process
for FIDDLER. For FIDDLER? Yeah, because they did all kinds of stuff
to make us feel like a community, and we started out – and the first day of rehearsal, I
thought, “Oh, no, I’m not into this at all.” But we – (LAUGHS) we did these massages,
where we would find a partner and massage your partner and then your partner would massage
you. But it really just gave you a chance – and
sometimes, it made me a little self-conscious, if I was with –
Who was your partner? (LAUGHS)
Everybody! Oh! (LAUGHS)
It ended up going around the whole company. You mean you would just –
You’d go around the whole company, and sometimes I was a little intimated, if it was some gorgeous
man (LAUGHS) who was rubbing my body! I’d be a little self-conscious about that. But do you know what? Eventually I got into it! (LAUGHTER) And that was just to make us feel
relaxed and comfortable around each other. And then we did this Jewish folk dancing. We’d start every morning with massage, vocal
warm-up, and Jewish folk dancing. And it was so wonderful, and it created such
a bond and such a family and such a community within the company. And then from there, we went on to, you know,
tackle the text. But I just love the creative process. I live for that. I love it. And that’s why I love rehearsal. Is that the same? Brenda, what is the best part of rehearsal
for you? Oh, I agree, rehearsing is just – and discovering,
you know, and finding – working bits out and finding something new each day. It’s wonderful. It’s very edifying. And just prior to the read-through on the
first day, I am petrified. I should be in hospital, I am so scared! Because you always imagine they’re going
to find out any minute they’ve made a dreadful mistake. Yeah! Oh, my God, I know! Is it the same with you? Yes, yes, yes! (PIA LAUGHS)
Why are we like that? I don’t know – and do you have the thing
where everybody else is wonderful? Yeah! Oh, yeah, absolutely! (LAUGHTER)
Why am I in this play? Well, first read-through is the hardest. And then, after the read-through, there’s
like a little bit of a lull while everybody chats to each other, but the director and
the producers are huddled somewhere (LAUGHS). And there’s, “Oh, God, we’ve got to
get on to Central Casting!” Yeah, “We’re gonna get rid of her!” I’m thinking, “What are we doing with
her? We’ve got to rid of her!” (LAUGHS) Terrible paranoia. And it’s the same before going on, in a
performance, every single time. I’m petrified. Do you have a lot of stage fright? I’m petrified! Oh, really? Once I’m on, I step on, I’m fine. But before going on, it’s awful. Is there anything that you do beforehand to
try and relax yourself? Just before curtain – this is going to sound
silly! – but (LAUGHS) – no, I’m not even going to say that! Yes, tell us! Tell us, tell us! (LAUGHS)
Well, I’m right in the center of the curtain, on stage, and (RAISES HER ARMS UP AND OUT)
I offer myself, like an offering to the audience, and I’m going to do my best, and I can’t
do any more than that, so. That’s good. And it’s just to center myself and to stop
wasting energy fretting. That’s the only reason I do that. What do you do with stage fright, Kathleen? It’s odd, I don’t – it’s almost gone
now. I had a long period of six or seven years
when I thought I would have to stop, because it was so awful. It was a kind of phobia, you know, and I could
feel it. I would be fine, and it would start in the
middle of rehearsal, and then go on for a long time. And it was awful. It’s worse when it starts in rehearsal,
because it means you can’t work, because it’s when the work happens. And it would start – I could feel it start
at the bottom of my feet and crawl up and stop about here (GESTURES TO HER THROAT) and
I could just barely talk. And I – and really, I didn’t know what
I was going to do. And I went – I was seeing a therapist at
the time, and she had among her clients a lot of people (LAUGHS) who were pilots and
things, people who flew and all. And I was the only person in the theatre that
she’d ever had up to that time. And I was explaining that it was a problem. And she said, “Oh, I understand! This is a practical problem, isn’t it? It gets in your way.” And she said, “You would be surprised how
many pilots have fear of flying!” Oh, gosh! That’s not reassuring. (LAUGHTER)
No! Surprised and alarmed! (LAUGHTER) And so she said, “I have a – you
know, obviously there are Deep Underlying Causes, and perhaps we’ll dig them up or
perhaps we won’t, but obviously – ” So she said – it’s quite a simple thing,
but it’s quite difficult to do, is you can’t think about it. You can’t give it brain room, in a way. And I always – I do this, because I always
thought of it as (GESTURES WITH HER HAND ACROSS HER FACE) this terror would begin to creep
across your eyes, as though they were creeping onto the screen. And you had to push it away, by any active
thinking about anything. Working, you know, if you read the text, don’t
think about it. Because terror is a little bit like a wound,
you know how you always pick, in a way, to sort of feel if you’re alive? And it’s very dangerous, especially phobic
terror, like it’ll just pull you down. And so, it’s gone away. And the only time now that I’m frightened
is during the judging, you know, during the time when the critics come. Because it seems un – it seems that there’s
so much hanging on it. Is it fear of being a failure, or fear of
just getting it wrong? It’s fear of getting – it actually is
fear of letting down the enterprise, you know? Everybody’s worked so hard. Yes. And you have to work – the great secret
is, you have to work just as hard to do it badly as you do to do it well. (PIA LAUGHS) Nobody sets out to do it badly
or to fail. And there’s all, so much work, and it all
seems to hang on this one night. And even if you say, “I don’t want to
know when HE’s out there,” you always wind up knowing! Wondering if somebody’s out there. Whether it’s somebody whispers –
And you know after it’s happened. And so, the whole period of the judging, I
find it a difficult time to work. Yeah. And I have to do something like what Brenda
did. It’s almost like auditioning again. Yes, it is an audition. It’s an audition for the critics. And you have to sing, as well. Oh, that’s the worst. When, talking, ah! It’s already hard enough. That’s just the worst. What do you do when you have to go out and
sing, when your throat is closing up? I’ve had some really embarrassing (LAUGHS)
moments, with singing and clamming up, because you – you know, you get locked, so you can’t
breathe as well, and then you get dry and – I have a voice teacher who I check in
with from time to time. She said a great thing to me. She said, “Yes, you’re going to get nervous,
but just know that it’s not going to get in your way.” And just having that little mantra inside
my mind, “Okay, I’m nervous, but it’s not going to get in my way. It’s not going to get in my way.” And just remember to breathe. When I remember to breathe (LAUGHS), I can
sing! And I don’t get nervous singing when I’m
in the run of a show, but if I have a concert or a benefit, when it’s just one of those
one-shot deals, where you’re just shot out of a cannon, I get terribly nervous! One of those things, (POUNDS HER CHEST) and
my heart starts racing! And as long as I remember to breathe and take
a good breath before a phrase, I’m okay. But it’s really hard. Now what about just physically? I was reading about some actors that drink
Throat Coat [tea] and (LAUGHS) they’re drinking all these things backstage and taking pills. Do you have some regimen that you –
Yeah. I have all kinds of [things]. Would you like to divulge some of these things? One thing that I will tell you is that any
of those eucalyptus things are terrible for you, because they just dry you out. And if you have to sing – or not even singing,
just speaking, anything, there’s a little lozenge, and it tastes awful, but it’s the
best thing for you. It’s the slippery elm, do you know about
this? Oh, slippery elm, I know! Slippery elm? Is this the –
Slippery elm lozenges. Yes, and they just taste awful. Awful. You can get them cherry-flavored, or mandarin-orange-flavored. (LAUGHS)
What is this? They still taste terrible. You get them in the health food store. But what, what’s the elm? Slippery elm? It’s an herb, and it’s a natural lubricator,
so it just – and I have them. I keep them in the back during the show. While you’re singing? If I’m having some vocal problems, I just
kind of – (GESTURES TO THE SIDE OF HER MOUTH) I let it live, like, right there. (LAUGHS) Very dangerous. And it just melts. It could just come bursting out! Well, one night, I choked in the middle of
“Do You Love Me?” and I couldn’t sing it. I just was choking, so I had to kind of talk
it. And our conductor, Kevin [Stites], thought
that I had choked on a lozenge, and it was the tunafish sandwich that I had had at intermission! (LAUGHS)
That is a little-known hazard! Tunafish or eating? Eating anything! Eating and choking, yeah. At intermission. In ‘NIGHT, MOTHER I have to eat a snowball. Right at the curtain up, first thing in the
play is Mama eating a cake. And a couple of times, I’ve inhaled crumbs. Oh! Mmm-hmm. Right! And (SQUEAKS) my voice gets like this! I tried to carry on! Terrible! And it’s a practical set, so I went right
to the sink, you know, drank water. You can go and get water? Do you have water? Water, yes. Do you all do things like body works and relaxation
techniques, and massages? Or you don’t? I should do it. You think of all the things that you should
do! Because I’ve heard that singers particularly
have to do a lot of, well, I don’t know, relaxation of all of the muscles. Throat and back and –
Yeah, I do. But you also have to do things to get your
body up, because you need your whole body when you sing, so I find push-ups are really
good. Push-ups before you go on stage? You’re kidding! Mmm-hmm. Ten of ‘em. (LAUGHTER) Girl push-ups! I’m impressed. Girl push-ups. But you’re doing that backstage, in your
costume? Mmm-hmm. (LAUGHTER)
Well, that helps. You don’t think about your throat, at least,
you think about your arms. Do you have some ritual before you go out
on stage? I don’t. And I keep thinking I ought to. What I’ve discovered is that it works best
– it’s some odd combination of complete relaxation and having every nerve ending in
your body ready. So that if you do the first too well, then
nothing much is happening when you go out. And if you do the second too well, then you’re
just taken over by nervous energy. When it’s best, it’s complete relaxation,
and it’s a form – and the audience – it’s why I said I only get stage fright or something
like it during the judging, because the audience always seems the purpose of it. The play doesn’t really exist unless the
audience is there to see it, and that’s really true. And so, it’s wonderful to go out to the
audience, because it’s going to be finished. You’ll find out whether it’s, you know,
working or not. But the judging is something different. The judging is an audition. How important is the concentration on the
other actors? Does that not help sometimes to forget about
your own stage fright if you really, really –
Absolutely. If you can really concentrate? If you listen. If you just listen. You can’t be so relaxed. This is the balancing thing again, because
if you get too relaxed, you’re not concentrating. Well, it’s active relaxation. It’s something – it’s not – when you
first begin acting, you always think that all that kind of terror that you feel is useful
to you, that it’s the energy, it’s the engine that’s fueling the work somehow and
that you need to have that. And I’ve discovered that it isn’t useful. What is useful is – I don’t – it sounds
“woo-woo”, too! – is just being completely alive. And what you say is very important, because
if you get lost – lost, not the lines, but lost in the line of the play – the best
place to go is into your partner, and then the two of you can find the play again, or
however many of you there are on the stage. Do you ever lose your place? Have you ever lost your place, speaking of
– Not really. No, no. Once I’m on stage, I’m not frightened
at all. Oh, okay. I would just like to be there. Now, you’re in a very – the play you’re
in now, ‘NIGHT, MOTHER, I mean, that is a very hard work, because it’s so difficult,
that part. Do you take that with you? When I leave? Yes. No, no. No, you can leave that? No, I am the opposite of a method actor. (LAUGHS) I look at my characters totally objectively. It’s her, it’s not me. Ah! And I can talk about her till the cows come
home. Once that curtain comes down, I’m Brenda,
lucky enough to be working on Broadway, you know? And I’m ready to party. (LAUGHS)
Is this the British education? (LAUGHTER)
Aren’t you ready to eat? Aren’t you ravenous? Yeah. And have a beer, or something. No, that’s her, that’s not me. But going back to what you just said about
talking to the other person on the stage, somebody once asked me, “If you’re working
in a studio, not on stage, do you talk like, rather like here (TURNS HER HEAD), do you
talk to the camera, or to the audience? Who do you perform to?” You perform to the person that you’re playing
with, who you want to hear [what you have to say]. Do you know what I mean? Yes. If this was a drama, a play, you talk to the
other person and they’ll get it, if the message is good. But if you talk to the other person and your
head is in the wrong place, we can’t hear, so you must have some guide that we’re –
Yeah, but the intent is still to the other actor. The intent? There’s another technique to embrace that,
but the intent has to be directed to whom you are talking. Right. Of course, the skills needed today are a little
bit different. I was thinking, everyone is miked on stage
now, practically. So you don’t need to have that vocal projection
to the balcony, do you, in some of these plays? Never. I’ve never been miked. Oh, God, I’ve never been miked. You’ve never been miked? No. Aren’t you miked? (RANDY NODS) Randy’s a singer. But there’s an orchestra. They have to. Yeah. But I’ve seen straight plays where they
are, too. They have mikes. I’ve never been miked. Never been. Okay, good. So you’re doing it the old-fashioned way,
you’ve got to speak up! (LAUGHS)
Only in the Park! In the Park, to talk over the airplanes. But not –
Because it’s becoming, you know, quite obvious, that many people – particularly if they’re
screen actors who come in and haven’t had that training, you know, the vocal training. I don’t think I would like it. No. I wouldn’t like that at all. No, I didn’t, because it’s a mediation
somehow. Well, it has a slightly tinny sound. It has that slightly different sound. I wonder how different it would be, if you
were miked, if one spoke naturally on stage in a big theatre. There’s something to be said – if you
can’t see what’s happening, probably, you can’t hear as well either. And on a stage, you naturally use your body
in such a way – Yeah. So that it invites everybody in, not in a
false way, but there is just a way of doing it that embraces everybody. I think if it was more naturalistic, you’d
lose that as well. Because you have to fill the space. Yes. It depends on the size of the theatre. For instance, the play I’m doing now was
originally done in what’s called the “little” theatre at the Kennedy Center. TEN BY TENN. FIVE BY TENN. FIVE BY TENN! (LAUGHTER)
Only five, only five! I’m confused on my plays! Five is long enough! Five. FIVE BY TENN, okay. Tennessee Williams. But we started doing it in the Terrace Theatre
at the Kennedy Center, which everyone says is the little theatre, because it doesn’t
have five thousand seats. It had six or eight hundred seats, and it’s
a long, deep theatre. And now, we’re doing it in the smallest
theatre at the Manhattan Theatre Club, which seats a hundred and seventy people, and we
were doing it a full-on proscenium there, and now it’s stadium seating, you know,
people on three sides. And it’s very different. And so, you had to make it – it had to reach
to the back of the Terrace Theatre there, and here, it has to be appropriate to this
stage, which is about the size of this stage, and the whole theatre, it’s about the size
of this room, you know, back to where to the last people are sitting here. So you play it smaller? You don’t consciously do it, but I think
what Brenda said is true. You naturally – your body – it’s like
Alice in Wonderland, you shrink or expand to fill the space. To fill the space. I mean, you should be able to play any scene
anywhere, in an elevator, or, you know – if the heart of the scene is right and if it’s
truthful, you can play it anywhere. Who says it has to be in a living room? You know, it could be in a deep end of a swimming
pool. But if the heart and the truth of it is the
same, the intent is the same. So you should be able to play it anywhere. Yeah. It should be able to stand up to close scrutiny,
wherever it is played. Let’s talk a little bit about training. You studied with Sandy Meisner, is that it? No, I studied with Wynn Handman, which was
kind of like studying like Sandy Meisner. Yeah, Wynn Handman, okay. Wynn was his – I guess, his disciple, in
a way? It was that method of –
Though they were almost contemporaries. The wonderful thing about Sandy Meisner and
about Wynn’s training was that it was very practical. So he’d say, “Whatever works.” He didn’t necessarily want to know what
it was that you were doing, but if it worked, that was fine. And if you fooled him by not doing anything
but just playing pretend, that was okay, too! And there was a wonderful story that somebody
told – maybe Wynn probably told the story about Sandy Meisner. A student said, “Now, Mr. Meisner, I know
you’re really supposed to cry, but you know, what happens if you can’t actually cry?” And he said, “Well, you turn your back and
shake your shoulders.” (LAUGHTER)
That’s very good! Uh-huh, yeah! I do that! (LAUGHTER)
Yeah! Because the audience hasn’t come to see
you do it badly. The audience has come to have the story told. And you have to use whatever you can bring
to telling the story to do it. Well, I guess the art is making the audience
cry, not having the actor cry. Absolutely. Yes. It’s usually better not to cry. Yes, I mean, that would be translating it. But did you find it useful to you? Because there are some people who say – like,
I read that David Mamet said most acting teachers are frauds. I found Wynn’s training invaluable. Ah! And I keep running into – I’m actually
in the play now, David Rasche’s in the play, and David and I were in Wynn’s class together. He was a wonderful, wonderful teacher, because
he had a wonderful eye, so that he could tell when it was being done well or badly. And he also had great taste. So it was – I’ve been very lucky. And the man I studied with in Italy, Alessandro
Ferson, had the same gifts. And they both came out of the kind of ur-Method,
which is out of Stanislavsky. And Stanislavsky came as a corrective to,
but not an obliteration of, classical theatre technique. So it didn’t mean that you were – it wasn’t
naturalism. It was true, which is different from naturalism,
I think. Brenda, your training would have been classical,
perhaps? I didn’t do much Shakespeare, for sure. I’m one of those people who is a little
bit scared of it. I have done Shakespeare at the National Theatre
and the BBC. In fact, my (LAUGHS) – the first Shakespeare
I did at the BBC, I played Cordelia in KING LEAR, directed by Jonathan Miller. And I enjoyed every minute of it, because
I thought I was learning something, but then I got very, very nervous when it was time
to be transmitted. And the day after, I was just so embarrassed,
expecting people to hate it. And I was just walking across Waterloo Bridge,
and I could see coming in the other direction a critic. (LAUGHTER) And I thought, “Oh, no, what
if he’s seen last night!” Anyway, he bounded across the street, and
he said to me, “Miss Blethyn! Oh, I saw KING LEAR last night! I thought you were wonderful!” I said, “Oh! Oh, thank you, thank you!” And I was so proud. And he said, “Yes, you played it exactly
as I thought it should be played, like a chip off the old block.” I said, “Oh, this is wonderful!” (RANDY LAUGHS) And then he said, “Technically,
you’ve got some way to go.” (LAUGHTER) I thought, “What does that mean?” What does that mean? “I loved it, but – ”
So I was totally deflated. What does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t know. It doesn’t mean anything! The training you had, though, was – you
mentioned the school before. The Guilford School of Acting, yes. And did they do Stanislavski method, or did
they do some – No, no, no. They did another? It’s much better now, and I think they probably
do, now. But then it was in its early stages, and they
concentrated mostly on dance, actually. It’s the best, I think, probably in Europe,
musical theatre school there is. But I was on the acting course. And I didn’t do the full term, as it happens. I was offered a job – I was the oldest one
there. And sometimes I was asked to take a little
class or two. And I thought, “Well, I’m not learning
anything here, doing this,” because most of the other students were eighteen, nineteen,
twenty. And I was offered a job with the Bubble Theatre
Company. And that’s a company that tours the London
boroughs in a big tent. And they would generally go to boroughs that
didn’t have theatre. Some of them did, and some were wealthy boroughs,
and some were not. And depending on where we went, it was reflected
in the ticket price. And we did three plays, an improvised play
it or not! (LAUGHTER) And I did that for six months. And I learned more there. But from doing that, I then went to the National
Theatre, where I had, I would say, most of my training. And for you, you found it useful, all the
training that they gave you at the National. Well, it wasn’t – it was just working,
you know. Yes, but I mean –
I was the first one to come up through the ranks at the National Theatre. There are people who say that you can’t
teach it, and that it’s, you know, you either know how to do it or you don’t. What was your experience? Did you find teachers useful? I’ve had two really wonderful teachers. Actually, my first teacher I think shared
a studio with Wynn Handman. His name was Richard Edelman, I don’t know
if you know him? Yes. And it was also Meisner technique. And then another teacher who’s still teaching
in a studio in Carnegie Hall, his name is Freddy Kareman. Oh! Well, Freddy used to teach with Wynn. With Wynn. So it’s all from the same school. It’s all the same. And Freddy Kareman, in my mind, is – I never
studied with Wynn, but I’ve heard great things about him – but Freddy is just – I
think he’s an amazing teacher. And he – I always thought that I was a pretty
good listener on stage, and I didn’t really learn what listening was about until I worked
with Fred Kareman. But I have a question for you ladies. (TO BRENDA) You’re doing a very emotional
play right now, and (TO KATHLEEN) I’ve seen you do great emotional work before. Don’t you find having to get it up and go
to those places eight times a week is exhausting? And on those nights where you just don’t
want to go there, which — (LAUGHTER) What happens to you? I mean, you do it –
That hasn’t happened yet. It hasn’t? Not yet. No. It’s – it takes as much to play that part
as any part, to get it right, for me. It’s wonderful to hear people laugh, so
it’s uplifting to be playing in a comedy. But to be as honest doing that, to get that
right, takes as much concentration as doing that, I find. I don’t know about Kathleen. For people who don’t know, ‘NIGHT, MOTHER
is about suicide. Yeah. It’s a mother and a daughter, and at the
start of the play, the daughter announces to her mother that tonight she’s going to
kill herself. And whether she does or not, you have to come
see us! (LAUGHTER) The mother has to find ways of
dealing with this news. And there are some very emotional scenes in
it. But once the play’s over, she’s there. I’ve left her behind. But do you ever – how long have you been
running now? We’ve been playing for about six, seven
weeks. Okay. I’m just wondering if you’ll get to the
point that (LAUGHS) I’ve gotten to with FIDDLER. You sound like you’ve gotten there! Where it’s close to a year now. And when you talked about turning your back
to the audience – And crying! I started to do that, because I – I’ve
just gotten to the point where, “Oh, my God, I don’t want to go there right now.” And it’s not –
But what is different from what you’re doing now, to what you were doing when it first
opened? I wasn’t as tired, I think. I think just after doing a three-hour show
eight times a week for almost a year, I’ve just kind of hit a bit of a wall. Not every performance, but a couple, maybe
twice a week or something like that, it’s been feeling that way. I think that’s a real issue, because you
are expending vast amounts of real physical energy, as well as emotional energy, and I
think you do get tired. I think there is a reason – the first time
I was ever in a play long enough to take a vacation was ANGELS IN AMERICA. And it never occurred to me to take a vacation! And then I realized that it actually was a
good thing (RANDY NODS), if I were planning to stay, to take whatever – I think it was
two weeks or something. Because I didn’t take it when you could
take a week, because I wouldn’t. Oh, that’s great! So I took two weeks. And I think you really do need to. And there is a time when you should stop,
in a long run, when you’ve done it long enough, because you don’t have anything
more to give to it then. And sometimes, it’s difficult to do, ‘cause
it’s difficult to give up the part. So then the technique of keeping things “fresh”
– I’ve heard actors say that. I never quite knew what it meant, but how
can you do that? Well, you do – I mean, a year is quite a
long time to do a play eight times a week. And it’s a very long time to do a musical
eight times a week, in which you both have to sing and dance, because the physical demands
are enormous. I was in ANGELS IN AMERICA off and on from
the beginning of its development, off and on, for six years, from the first reading
at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1988 until I left it on Broadway in 1994. But it wasn’t continuous until we came to
Broadway. So we came to Broadway, I think 1993, and
we did MILLENNIUM and then rehearsed PERESTROIKA, and then we did – so for a while, we were
doing both plays. But there was always something new going on. And WIT I did, off and on, for three years,
five different incarnations of it. That’s another one of a person dying. But a year – there was a year, you know,
a whole, one year that was continuous, from the continuous time we came to New York. Oh, and then I went right to Los Angeles and
then to London. And by the time the play closed in London,
I was ready to stop playing the play. And there are – you know, the way to do
it, to keep it fresh is just to start every day. You know, you just start as though you’d
never done it before. But there are limits to how long you can do
that! I will be ready for a holiday! (LAUGHTER) It’s a limited run. But it’s only – the play is an hour and
a half only, so – it’s like telling a joke. You know, the audience hasn’t seen the play
before. And if you tell a joke, you tell it with as
much enthusiasm to the person who hasn’t heard it before. You want to get the punch line right. So it has to be new the first time, as you
know, you know, each time. Speaking of audiences, do you follow the audience
or do you try to lead the audience? Um, I think I do lead –
I mean, are you listening? Well, you have to respond appropriately, if
there’s a big belt of laughter, yes. If they laugh suddenly, is that –
Yes, you just like to ride it. There’s just a way that we just know how
to do it. It’s – you can’t necessarily be taught
that, there’s just something that comes with experience. So you are listening? You are aware of it, yes. Are you aware of the audience? You hear every single thing that happens in
the audience. And this is a thing, I think, that audiences
don’t understand. Every – you can be completely involved in
the play, and are – But this is still on. (GESTURES TO HER EAR)
And you know every single piece of cellophane (PIA LAUGHS) that has been opened. Cellophane should actually be banned! Ban cellophane, a great idea. It’s shouldn’t be – people should unwrap
anything they might need to eat or look at or anything at home, and have it in a small
velvet bag. That’s a good idea! Oh, yeah. And after you’ve heard the sweet unwrapping,
crinkle, crinkle, crinkle, and they do it real slowly (LAUGHTER) so it goes crunch. And always in the first row. And then once it stops, you’re just waiting
for – you just know, about five seconds later, you’re gonna hear (SHE BEGINS MAKING
And you can hear that? Oh, that’s terrible. You hear everything? Or you think it’s over. (LAUGHTER) You think it’s over, but then
people have the sweet in one hand and the cellophane in the other (LAUGHTER) and what
do you do with the cellophane? (GESTURES WITH HER FINGERS, CRINKLING IT)
You move it. It’s very –
That’s amazing, that you are so attuned to the sound. Well, Linda Emond said this once, and it’s
absolutely true, that a theatre is an aural space. It’s meant for things to be heard. So it goes both ways. We can hear on the stage as clearly as people
in the audience can hear. And you are aware – you’re aware of a
kind of general sense of the audience, if people are restive. You can tell when they’re listening. You can really feel when they’re listening. When people are listening. But my mom, when she came to see me at the
National, whenever I came on, I heard, “That’s her. That’s my girl!” Aww! (LAUGHTER)
“That one! That’s her talking now!” (LAUGHTER)
Oh, sweet. And the first time my daughter ever saw me
in a play, she was two or something, and Henry brought her and she was standing in the back
of the theatre. And I came on, and she said, “Mom!” (MURMURS FROM THE AUDIENCE)
My mom used to wear white – she doesn’t do it any more, but she would wear white sleeves
and in the curtain call, she would go like this! (DEMONSTRATES, WAVING HER ARMS ABOVE HER HEAD;
LAUGHTER) She doesn’t do that any more. But it is a form of communication – I mean,
the purpose of it is communication. And so, it would be mad to say that you weren’t
aware of the other person in the conversation, because that’s what it is. You’re trying to tell the story. So it’s a tricky thing, because you also
can’t always tell, in the same way you can’t in a conversation, you can’t always tell
whether somebody’s getting it or not. Because some groups of people feel comfortable
and laugh and laugh and laugh, and other groups of people smile fiercely, but you can’t
hear it. Yeah, you don’t hear that. And then they’ll be on their feet at the
end. Yes! The audience that you think –
It’s a big surprise. Yeah. It’s – (SHAKES HER HEAD)
I think people in the audience, we don’t realize you’re listening to us. At least, I didn’t until you said it this
way. I know you hear people’s cell phones going
off, but I didn’t think that you were – I mean, you’re not consciously trying to
hear, you just can. When I’m in the audience – I saw TWELVE
ANGRY MEN last night, and the audience was so silent! But then they would laugh at odd places. Mmm-hmm. And that’s wonderful, because you feel the
whole audience there, and it’s great when people laugh at odd places, because laughter
really means understanding, usually. So it’s not that people just laugh at jokes. And it’s great when people go, “Oh-h-h!” You hear them, and they go, “Oh-h-h.” Yes, yes, yes. I remember when I was playing BENEFACTORS,
Michael Frayn’s play in London, I had a line that I said to another character on the
stage, “Oh, I’ve put a chicken in the oven for your dinner,” and somebody went,
A BIG HURRY; LAUGHTER) Funny, funny. She’d forgotten it in the oven! Oh, that’s very funny. So you hear them weeping sometimes? Yes. I mean, you’ve done these plays –
Yes, lots of weeping! Lots of weeping. You hear weeping, you hear –
You hear everything. You hear people coughing, you hear – someone
said – oh, it was Penny. I’m in a play now with Penny Fuller. Penny has wonderful, wonderful stories to
tell, and she remembers them, remembers things that people have told her, which is a wonderful
thing, too. So she said that Ralph Richardson was once
asked why it was important to do it well, and he said, “To stop people coughing.” (LAUGHS) That’s very interesting, that people
don’t cough when they’re listening. I certainly have noticed that. Nnnn-mmm, nope. So that must be a bad sign, when you start
to hear everybody coughing and you know it’s not going well! What’s the worst thing that’s happened? Let’s talk about the disasters. Have you reached for the gun and it wasn’t
there? (LAUGHTER) The curtain came down, or the missing
prop? When I was doing LES MISERABLES, I was doing
my death scene, and Colm Wilkinson is supposed to come on stage and lift me up off the floor
and carry me into my deathbed. And he never came! (LAUGHTER) This is a famous story. I tell it, Colm tells it, Terry Mann tells
it. Where was he? He was talking to his dresser. (LAUGHTER) He just forgot! And I was at the edge of the stage, and it’s
a duet, and he never came out. Oh, that happened to me! So I would sing my bit, and then Colm was
supposed to come in and sing. So I would sing, and then I would just let
the music go and pretend – you know, I was delirious then anyway, ‘cause I was dying,
so I was just sort of pretending that I heard the voice. And the conductor and I were just kind of
looking at each other, and it was time for me to die, and he still hadn’t come out
on stage! So I dragged my dying body into my deathbed,
and finally got into bed, and then I heard this, “Oh, sh–!” (CLAPS HER HAND OVER
HER MOUTH; LAUGHTER) over the loudspeaker, and he realized he was late. They cut him off as he was [talking]. And he finally came on stage, and he embraced,
and he was singing and he was embracing me. And he’d sing (SINGS), “Oh, Fantine, your
time is running out!” (BENDS OVER AND WHISPERS) “Randy, I’m
so sorry, I’m so sorry!” (LAUGHTER) That was –
Yeah. That’s bad. That felt like a week. (LAUGHTER)
That happened to me, too. That happened to you? I was in THE PASSION at the Cottesloe at the
National. And Robert Stephens and myself – he was
playing Pontius Pilate, and I was Mrs. Pontius Pilate. (LAUGHTER) His queen! And we had to make this grand entrance on
a gantry (PH), looking down onto the audience, a promenade performance. And he had this speech first, (DOES HIS VOICE)
“Lo, Pilate am I, proof prince of great pride, ba-da-da da-da-da-da.” And then I had a speech, “And I am Dame
Precious Pergola, a princess is the prize!” But he wasn’t there! So I thought, “Well, I’ll do his speech.” So I said, “Lo, Pilate lives here, proof
prince,” and then I did my speech, and then I did the rest of his bit, and he still wasn’t
there! But then the scene continued, where we were
supposed to start kissing. (RANDY LAUGHS) And I turned to the band leader
behind me, John Dunn (PH), I said, “What shall I do?” He said, “Improvise.” So I thought, there’s only one thing to
do. I turned to the audience, I said, “I’m
terribly sorry, I’m afraid my Pilate’s gone out.” (LAUGHTER)
Oh, that’s great. That’s great! At which point, Robert came on. He’d got tangled on a door, he had this
big cape on, and he couldn’t free himself. And I said, “Oh, shall we start again?”
and he said, “Oh, yes, please!” So that was all right, but terribly embarrassing. Oh, gosh. That was a great line, though. Very, very good! I didn’t even know it was funny when I started
the sentence. And another time, in the same show, I had
to go and find – Malcursuit (PH) had his ear chopped off. The soldiers had captured Jesus. At the Garden of Gethsemane, that always baffling
picture where there’s – And I couldn’t find him, because there was
a thousand people, and it was a promenade, and I was going through the crowd. I simply couldn’t find him. And so, I went back to the soldiers, I said,
“Well, I can’t find him, but if he had been here, he’d have said this!” (LAUGHTER) And I did his part, too! (LAUGHTER) And then I’d have said. But the lines were almost identical, so it
was – oh! Anyway, it was embarrassing. Live theatre! Audiences love that, though. Yes, we love the stories, too. That just happened –
Do you have a story? Well, this story just happened to me (LAUGHS)
a week ago! No! Yeah. We were out there, these five one-act plays
of Tennessee Williams, and in one of them, I am a wife with a philandering husband. And this very handsome young man comes, much
younger man, Robby Sella, actually, comes to try to take me away because he’s fallen
in love with me. And in the play, I don’t go with him, and
about half the audience always says, “Well, why didn’t you go? Why didn’t you go?” (PIA LAUGHS) But I stay. But the other night, at the moment when the
young man says, “Well, I won’t leave unless you go with me,” at that moment my husband
[comes in] – David Rasche, he’s supposed to be talking to the elevator boy in the hall. So Robby said, “I won’t go,” and there
was a great silence, and I was at the door – it was one of those moments where I was
at the doorknob, and if I had had any gumption whatsoever, I’d have said, “Well, hell,
let’s go!” But I didn’t do that, so I listened. And it’s a tiny little theatre, David couldn’t
have been very far away. I didn’t know, where he was. So I said, “Oh, but you have to go. You have to go. Josie will be here any minute now.” And still no David! “I’m sure he’s coming, I’m sure he’s
coming!” (LAUGHTER)
Did you say that very loudly? And by that time, I was an inch away from
leaving with the young man. Next time, I’m leaving with the young man! Next time. No, of course, we love all these stories,
because that is the difference. That is so funny! And you don’t believe it’s going to happen
when it’s happening. You say, “This can’t be happening! This isn’t really true!” (LAUGHTER) And then it’s funny! Now, I’ve also heard about actors; nightmares. I’ve read that Vanessa Redgrave said she
repeatedly had this nightmare that she was coming out in a play and she didn’t know
what the play was. It was another play. They’re saying other lines. And she said, it’s like a recurrent nightmare. Yep. It is. Do you all have recurrent nightmares? Yes, and quite often you’re –
Mmm-hmm. The same one? Yes. That one, yeah. No, you have that same one? Or you turn up at the wrong theatre. Mmm-hmm. Yeah. And you can’t find – and quite often,
you’re naked, which is worse. I’m quite often naked, and I can’t – (LAUGHTER)
At the wrong theatre, as well? At the wrong theatre –
That’s because you were naked in WIT! No, I know, I have to give it up. So maybe (LAUGHS) it’s coming back to you! Yes. I can’t imagine what I was thinking of! So you don’t have the costume, and you know
– my version of it is I know there’s a play going on and I should know what’s going
on. Somehow I’ve missed all the rehearsals,
but it’s happening, and there must be a script somewhere. And I can find neither my costume, nor my
script, and it just goes on and on and on. Oh, that’s horrible. Awful. Do you have a nightmare? What is your recurrent nightmare? It’s hysterical. It started when I was doing LES MISERABLES,
and it’s still going on, and I’m always dressed in my Fantine costume, with the wig,
no matter how old I am, I’m still in the same costume, in the same wig. And they’ve thrown me into the role in some
production somewhere, and I don’t know what, you know, any of the words are or what the
music is. But I just find it so interesting that I’m
always the same character, at 30, at 40, at almost 50. I’m always the same character. And I guess it’s because it was that show
and that part that really – that was my first big break in New York. And how old were you when you did that? Thirty-one. Oh, okay. I just thought maybe you were much younger. But do you find you have these anxiety dreams
when you’re having work anxiety, when you haven’t worked? For me, it’s usually centered around work
anxiety – Yeah. Getting a job. Whether I’m not working or I am working,
but it’s not a personal – But that’s another subject now. How do you keep finding work? Actually, men have this problem as well, but
I mean, women also, as we get older, it’s harder to find jobs, isn’t it? I’ll be sixty in January, and I never thought
I would ever be sixty! But I didn’t start working continuously,
really, until I was thirty-eight. And so, for me, it’s been better as I’ve
gotten older. I keep expecting it to stop, and it may stop. FIVE BY TENN is quite likely to be my last
job! No! But I think what happens is, you begin to
work continuously for a long period of time, and then you don’t. And it depends what part of your life –
Yes, where you started. Right. But that maybe you didn’t start as the ingénue. I would never – and would never even, when
I was the ingénue. So that’s helpful, if you don’t start
that way. I’m now about as old as people have always
thought I was. (LAUGHTER)
Grown into yourself! (LAUGHS) Finally old enough to play whatever
it is I’m supposed to be playing. Now, you do so many film roles. You have a big film career as well as a stage
career. Yeah, I do. But I came into the business simply to work
in theatre. I didn’t have any dreams – I’m not very
ambitious. In fact, I’m not ambitious at all. I’ve never sort of yearned to do anything
that I haven’t got to do. But I came into the business to work in theatre. I didn’t think I’d ever be on television,
or certainly, wouldn’t make films. My dad used to take me to the cinema once
a week, when I was a little girl, and the people I saw were from Mars, you know, they
were from another planet. So I mean, that was just these wonderful people,
not anywhere I was ever gonna be. But then, when I eventually did do television,
and then I got to play SECRETS AND LIES, my agent said, “This is the best job you’ve
ever been offered.” I said, “Oh, this is fabulous! And let me read the script!” He said, “Oh, Brenda, come in, where have
you been? There is no script! (LAUGHTER) There never is a script.” I said, “There’s no script? What do you mean? What, what? Why does he want me?” And that’s where I learned most. Working from that – not SECRETS AND LIES,
actually, I did one in 1980, called GROWNUPS, that informed everything else I’ve ever
done, because of the way he works, and the way you build up the character from infancy. “He” being whom?
Mike Leigh [the director], I’m sorry. Oh, Mike Leigh, sorry, Mike Leigh. And it’s just a remarkable way of working. So I don’t approach any job now without
doing some Mike Leigh work on it, i.e., how does the character feel at the top of page
one, you know? Did she have a good night’s sleep before
page one? You know, and where the character did – it
doesn’t necessarily show itself in the production, whatever it is I’m doing, but it informs
me of how to find my way through. A prior circumstance? Is that what it’s called? I’ve read in acting books –
Yes, yes. A lot of it is contained, of course, in the
script, it gives you lots of clues. But not all, and it’s important for me to
think a lot about that. No, I didn’t think film actors used that
at all. Oh, you have to even more. Really? Even when it’s not – I mean, in Mike Leigh’s
films, you develop a script together. Together, I see. But you’re given – particularly if you
don’t have a big part in a movie. If you have a small part in a movie, you have
to make it all up, because the only thing that exists is that scene, and it needs to
seem – you need to imply the whole – You have a life, yes. Life of the person before, and the person
afterward. And also, give the illusion of having a relationship
with whoever it is you’re talking to, whom you probably met ten minutes ago, and who
might not actually be there when you’re shooting! Absolutely! (LAUGHS)
All of that makes sense for the theatre. I can understand that clearer, that you would
need it. But in film and in television, in a way because
the writing isn’t as rich – Yeah, in theatre you –
You sort of have to bring more – More to it? More of somebody, you know. Yourself, or whoever this person is meant
to be. Yeah, yeah. But it’s for a different – it’s for
such a tiny concentrated moment. Yeah. In the theatre, of course, you have the luxury
of rehearsal and playing the part chronologically. On film, you get barely any rehearsal, especially
if you’re playing a small part, you don’t get any. And so, you’ve got to go away and find something
for yourself. And on television, if you do – I just did
a series for – I was kept recurring on this television series for three years. “Talking Head.” (PH)
And what’s interesting about the way series television works in the United States is that
the writers and the actors stay with the show, but the directors change. The director’s job ends, so that in a way,
the actors have the lore of continuing characters in themselves. Because the people who come in to, you know,
do the episode don’t know these characters. They know the story. So they have a history. So you bring all the history with you. It’s –
Have you found this to be true? Did you need to bring –
I’ve done so, so little film. I’ve done one film. It was terrible. (LAUGHS)
I’ve done several of those! (LAUGHTER)
But in the theatre, do you have to do that work on how you felt before you arrive on
the scene? Yeah. It depends on the character and how much is
in the script and how much is not in the script. But I sometimes do a bio. Do you do bios at all? Sometimes, yeah. I write histories. I retain things better if I write it out. I do the same thing, yeah. But I wanted to ask, ‘cause I’ve never
had a big desire to do film, and I think it’s because I don’t think – for me, there’s
not much of a creative process, ‘cause there’s no real rehearsal there. I wanted to ask you, when you’re working
on films, where does the creative process come in for you, if there’s not – well,
it’s different, I guess, with a Mike Leigh film. Oh, completely different, yeah. But is it rewarding for you in a different
way than it is when you’re working in the theatre? Oh, it’s so hard to describe, because it’s
so out of order – it’s not chronological. You have to do a lot of work on your own beforehand. If the director feels so disposed to talk
to you about it – I think they’re pretty careful in casting, usually, and think you
can probably come up with the goods. But that’s obviously not enough. And the last few films I’ve done, on the
day of shooting the scene, you get to talk about it and talk about what’s needed and
where the character is. But it’s always the actor who’s totally
on top of that. And if the writer is around, but they’re
generally shoved to the background, which I think is such a shame, because it would
be so much easier to go straight to the horse’s mouth and find out exactly the intention. It’s not how you say something, it’s why
you say something, and that’s the most important thing. So I think the actors pretty much have to
do a great deal of the work on their own. So the director is more important in the theatre. Do you find that to be true? Director, true. Your director is important? In the theatre? In the theatre. Yeah. The director is the eye that you have to trust. You have to have somebody in the place of
the audience – I mean, more than that, the idea of the whole. But it’s like being a conductor, because
you can’t direct the play from inside. And the great trick is, you can’t make the
other person that you’re acting with do what you think they’re supposed to be doing,
and you can’t respond as though they were doing what you think they were supposed to
be doing. It takes such a long time to understand that
you can’t play both parts. Are you directing, yourself? No, I’ve never directed. I know so many good directors I don’t –
Anybody here interested in directing? I would be interested in the theatre, yes. Theatre directing? Yeah. And maybe that’s something I might do. But it’s not a craving to do it, but I might
consider it, in another year or two. There are very few women directors, aren’t
there? There are a few, but not –
In the theatre? Yeah, in the theatre. Don’t you find you work mainly with men
writers and men directors? There are many more women writing for the
theatre – Now? In America. But it depends on what level. It’s true. When there’s lots and lots and lots and
lots and LOTS and lots of money involved, somehow it almost always ends up in men’s
hands, so that – but you know more about this on Broadway. Are there women directors on Broadway? Susan Stroman. We can name a few, but by and large. Yes. Yes, Susan Stroman and Julie Taymor. Oh, Julie, yeah. Who’s now doing film now, she’s just disappeared
into film. Not many, nnn-mmm. Susan Schulman is doing LITTLE WOMEN now,
but – (SHAKES HER HEAD) So why is that? Why is that? Women have gone into so many other professions
and some of these – I think that there’s a strong – you know,
there’s always a strong bias towards men. And there’s, oddly, a strong bias toward
men in the creative part of the art – you know, for writers – the people who have
the money, for the most part. And this is in the commercial theatre. It’s not so true – it’s much less true
in the not-for-profit theatre. In the not-for-profit theatre, there are women
in important positions all over the country, (RANDY NODS) both as Artistic Directors and
as writers and as directors. But in the commercial theatre, it’s still
a man’s world in great part. And now, a lot of the commercial theatre is
controlled by enormous corporations, not even by people who are in the theatre, you know,
and there’s a strong bias toward men. Is that true in England, as well? Yeah, I suppose it is. I mean, I don’t know where the money comes
from – No, but you have not worked for many women
directors? I’ve worked for some, yes, especially in
television and radio. But not the –
In the theatre, there are some very good female directors, but I haven’t worked for any
yet. Deborah Warner, for one, she works a lot with
Fiona Shaw at the National. And Jude Kelly (PH), I think her name is. Yeah, there are female [directors]. And as far as parts? There are enough parts out there for you,
Randy? I mean, when you get finished with this FIDDLER,
do you go right away to something else? Do you have to start –
I have to start over again. Oh, start over again, looking. Yeah. That’s – that always depresses me, the
constantly having to audition and constantly having to prove yourself over and over and
over again. And the nice thing –
And even at this point, when one assumes they’ve seen you in so many things? Sometimes, I get offered to do things, but
mostly I have to audition. It’s always so wonderful when someone just
calls up and says, “Would you like to do this?” And says, “I saw you.” Yeah! I love that! (LAUGHS)
Is the competition very severe? I don’t even think of it as competition,
because it’s so apples and oranges. They either want this person or they want
me, you know? It’s that type thing again. And you can do so much, Randy, though. ‘Cause you can –
Oh, thank you. You know something? Here’s the thing about the business. Even though I’ve done most of my work in
musicals and I’ve done a couple of plays here and there, I still, with most of the
casting directors in town, get labeled as “a musical theatre performer.” Mmm-hmm. And I think Bernie Telsey, God bless Bernie
Telsey, who I think is the best casting director in town! Because he just brings in good actors. He doesn’t type anyone. He just brings in interesting, good actors. But they’re not all like that. Yeah. I still get typed. I still have a hard time being seen for plays. It’s tough. It’s tough. And Randy just was in an amazing play last
season, THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME. Oh, great. And that was because, I think, of –
Doug. Doug. Doug Aibel, the artistic director and –
At the Vineyard Theater. Oh! There’s another one who’s just a gem,
just a gem. It’s all about the work at that theatre. It’s just the most wonderful theatre to
work for. It’s called the Vineyard Theater, it’s
downtown, not-for-profit. And it’s just – there’s no bull, you
know? It’s just about the work. I love it down there. And they’ve been having a wonderful couple
of years. It’s where AVENUE Q started, and it’s
also where THREE TALL WOMEN came from. Right. Oh, yes. So, it’s – you know, it does –
And do you have the next plan? Do you know what you’re doing after FIVE
BY TENN? I don’t know. The only thing that I know that I’m doing
is I’m doing the play HONOUR, in Berkeley, actually, at the Berkeley Rep. I start rehearsal
the 19th of April, and play till the 3rd of June, because it’s a wonderful play and
it probably – if it were to come to New York, it wouldn’t probably come with me. So –
Why? What do you mean? Why? Well, I think – Corin Redgrave and Eileen
Atkins did it in London very successfully last season, and there was some idea that
Corin might come to Berkeley, but he’s both being Lear and being Ken Tynan now in London,
and starting a new political party! So he’s not going to come. And I suspect that if it were to come to New
York, it would come with Eileen Atkins and Corin, and not with me, and it was in New
York with Jane Alexander and Bob Foxworth and Laura Linney and wasn’t so successful. And it’s a wonderful, wonderful part. And I’m thinking that it’s a little bit
like going home. And there is some possibility, though I don’t
know if it’s going to happen – during the RNC [Republican National Convention],
we did a reading of ELECTRA at the Lincoln Center Library with Marisa Tomei and David
Strathairn and Heather Tom and there’s some possibility – and Laila Robins. Oh, Laila was wonderful! She was the Chorus. So there’s some possibility that that will
have a limited run. It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, how
plays don’t go from one city to another city sometimes. Certainly not one country to another. Is the humor is different or the accent is
different or [what]? Well, it’s interesting. HONOUR, everyone thinks of HONOUR as a British
play, and it isn’t. It’s actually an Australian play. And I don’t know why – I mean, that doesn’t
actually seem to be true. There’s a strong
Anglophilic bias, certainly in the commercial theatre in New York, which is difficult sometimes,
makes it difficult for serious American writers. If you’re a serious American writer, oddly,
you’re much more likely to get your play on in a commercial venue in London than you
are in a commercial venue here, whereas all the most important British writers are produced,
you know, in this country on Broadway in commercial venues. Brenda, you do a Southern accent (BRENDA LAUGHS),
speaking of going from one country to another. How were you cast as a Southern woman? I know. Did you have to audition with a Southern accent? No, I didn’t audition for this. Marsha Norman wanted me to play this part,
and I was sent the script a couple of years ago. But it seemed like a pipe dream, and I couldn’t
figure why (LAUGHS) she would want me to play this. Anyway, she did, and they persisted and wanted
me to come to do a reading here in New York. And when I came, about six or eight months
ago to do it, they wanted to hear it out loud – I went all round America and southern
Australia (LAUGHS) with the accent! But they’d heard other things I had done,
not with that particular accent, but that I could do them. And then Edie Falco became interested in playing
the other part, and it suddenly all became like it was gonna happen. And I said, “Oh!” And I’ve worked hard on the accent with
Deborah Hecht. It hurt my face to start with, because my
voice comes from here (POINTS TO HER CHEST) but (CHANGES HER VOICE) hers is right there
(POINTS TO HER NOSE). And I was using different muscles. Oh, really? Interesting. So (DOES THE VOICE) for a while there, you
know – (LAUGHS) Your nose hurt! My face hurt! (LAUGHTER)
Isn’t that interesting. So you’d have to exercise that part of your
face. Yeah. I was like, I could feel the resonance right
Now, why are some people good at doing this and others aren’t? Am I wrong that the British seem better at
doing accents than Americans? Are we not so good at that? Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think they are. I don’t think it’s true, no. I’m glad to hear it. On the contrary, I mean – and for a long,
long time, everybody always said that we could do British accents and the British actors
couldn’t do American. That’s not true. (DOES IT) It’s just, you’ve got a good
ear, you can do it. You can do it, yeah, yeah. It’s like singing. You sort of either – and you either have
a thing for it, or you don’t. Yeah. And there are some you can do, and some you
can’t. Have you had to do accents? Yeah, I’ve had to do – I do a really bad
Cockney. I’m pretty good at doing like a Maggie Smith
British accent. (BRENDA LAUGHS) But I haven’t had to do
it a lot. And people assume you can do it right off! Yeah. You have to work at it! Study it, yeah. I mean, an actor might not be able to do it
right now, but three weeks down the line, with tuition, they can do it! So you know, I couldn’t do this accent when
I started, and I’m still working on it, to tell you the truth. You know, it’s like anything else, you have
to practice. (PIA LAUGHS)
Did you bring your accent home when you were preparing? Well, I had to do a voiceover this week for
a British commercial, on satellite link-up, and they said, “You sound American!” And I thought I was sounding perfectly English! And I had to do twenty-seven takes before
I could get rid of the American nuance. Oh, gosh! (LAUGHS)
I could hear them thinking, “Oh, let’s cut our losses and get somebody else!” She’s infected! But if you had to do anything else, is there
anything else in life you would rather do than act? Oh, this is like the James Lipton show! (LAUGHTER)
Oh, sorry! What do you like best then about what you
are doing? What do I like best about it? You know, it’s – what do I like best about
it? This is gonna sound so corny, but I really
love living in an imaginary world, under imaginary circumstances. That’s not corny. I like just getting immersed in the world
that I’m in at the time. Right now, I’m in Anatevka, and just that’s
the part that I like the most, I think. For you, what is it? I really enjoy the challenge of observing
somebody, whether it’s a real person or someone created, just to work out what makes
them tick, what makes them get up in the morning, and just kind of really understanding somebody. And I think it’s great being an actor, you
know, because that’s what we do. We observe people and try to understand them
and make what’s written on the page visible and believable and it’s a different challenge
each time. Because you’ve played one person well doesn’t
mean you can play the next person well. It’s a whole different challenge, and that’s
what I like about it. Thank you so much. That was so terrific. I enjoyed so much talking to you and learning
so much. Thank you. Thank you, Pia. We are coming to you from the City University
of New York, at the Graduate Center. Thank you so much. (APPLAUSE). [MUSIC]

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