Playwright and Director (Working In The Theatre #243)

(APPLAUSE) Welcome to the American Theatre
Wing Seminars on “Working in the Theatre.” These are coming to you from the Graduate
Center of the City University of New York. As I speak to you, this is the 22nd year that
we have been giving you these seminars, right from this very same place. And the seminars are geared to give you an
inside view of what it is to work in the theatre. What it is to work from the viewpoint of the
performer, the playwright, the director, the set designer, the costume designer, the unions
and guilds, all the people, the producers, that come together to bring the magic of theatre
to the audience. The American Theatre Wing is possibly best
known for its Tony Award, which was founded in honor of Antoinette Perry, who was all
of those things. She was a producer, a director, a playwright. I think she probably also designed costumes
and scenery as well, but I’m not sure. And this is the Tony Award, and it’s the
50th Anniversary of the American Theatre Wing’s Tony Award, so there’s a great history here
and a great feeling of continuity in the theatre. The Wing, however, does more than just the
Tony Awards. We are a year-round organization. And we bring theatre to hospitals and nursing
homes and AIDS centers. We also bring theatre to high school students
in a new program, which is “Theatre in Schools,” and it is exactly that. We bring everyone that has a part in the theatre
to a high school and they talk, one on one, with the children, of what it is to work in
the theatre, again, from every standpoint, from the stage manager to the director. We also have a program called “Introduction
to Broadway,” and that brings high school students to Broadway. It’s our fifth season, and over 55,000 children
have come in from the five boroughs of New York to see their very first Broadway play,
in most cases. They pay for this, a very small amount for
us, a large amount for them, but part of the program is that they make the commitment to
buy a ticket and get into the habit of seeing a show. It’s exciting for them and it’s wonderful
for us to see what happens to young people when they’re exposed to theatre and every
aspect of it. And then there are these seminars, which is,
I think, one of the most important things that anyone can possibly do, and that is to
bring the kind of people that the Wing calls upon to share their knowledge with each other
and with you. And so, here we are again, on a wonderful
seminar, which is on the playwright, the director, the lyricist and the composer. And we’re going to hear which one has the
upper hand, which one tells which one to do what before you, the audience, get to see
it. It is co-chaired by Brendan Gill, who is a
member of the Board of Directors of the American Theatre Wing, an author and a critic and a
man who loves theatre, and George White, who is President of the O’Neill Center in Waterford,
Connecticut, and is a director on the faculty of Yale University, and he, too, adores theatre,
as do I. So please enjoy today’s seminar. (APPLAUSE) On my far left is George C. Wolfe, whose Broadway
credits include– what is printed here is ANGLES IN AMERICA, which George might well
be able to create a play about, but in any event, ANGELS IN AMERICA, JELLY’S LAST JAM
and THE TEMPEST. And currently on Broadway, as director and
one of the creators of an extraordinary thing, BRING IN ‘DA NOISE, BRING IN ‘DA FUNK. (APPLAUSE) Next to George is Tom Jones, the lyricist
who wrote the lyrics for THE FANTASTICKS and I DO, I DO. And THE FANTASTICKS, as almost everybody in
the world knows is, I think, the second longest-running theatrical work on record. Immediately to my left is Mary Murfitt, who
is responsible for the music and lyrics in COWGIRLS. Other credits include OIL CITY SYMPHONY and
HOME FIRES. And on my far right and Isabelle’s immediate
left is Leonard Foglia, who is director of MASTER CLASS, and his other directing credits
include, BY THE SEA, BY THE SEA, BY THE BEAUTIFUL SEA, LONELY PLANET, and HEIDI CHRONICLES. And next to Leonard is Michael Greif, who
is director of the New York Theatre Workshop production of RENT and Artistic Director of
La Jolla Playhouse, where he recently directed Randy Newman’s FAUST and Tony Kushner’s
SLAVS. And next to me is Betsy Howie, who is the
book writer for COWGIRLS and can also include playwriting, acting and directing on her resume. Great. And I’d like to start by talking a little
about, not “The Actor Prepares,” but “The Director Prepares.” And I wanted to start with Leonard and ask
if, in the approach to MASTER CLASS, whether in your preparation you had viewed, I guess,
the famous videotapes of Maria Callas doing the master classes. And tell me a little about your preparation. I just need to correct one thing. Daniel Sullivan directed THE HEIDI CHRONICLES. I was the Assistant Director on THE HEIDI
CHRONICLES. (LAUGHTER) I just read ‘em. I know, I know! Dan Sullivan directed THE HEIDI CHRONICLES. (LAUGHTER) I could be killed for that. Well, it was kind of an extraordinary situation
with MASTER CLASS in that I didn’t know initially what I was directing, in that Terrence
was invited to a playwrights’ conference in Montana. And a few months beforehand, he asked me to
come with him as his director. He hadn’t written anything. So there was no way to do any preparation. Five days before I left, he called me down
to his apartment and gave me just the first act. I didn’t know what it was. I did know Maria Callas had, you know, figured
into it in some way. So there was really no time, initially, before
the first. We did, you know, about a week and a half
workshop. And maybe, in a way, that was a good thing,
in that I was focusing on a play by Terrence McNally, not any sort of a docudrama or documentary,
which is one of the things we’ve tried to, you know, make it clear that this is definitely
an invention of Terrence’s. And he wrote the second act while we were
there. So all I got in was a biography of Callas
on the plane, you know? So initially, it was simply an invention by
Terrence and Terrence’s idea of Maria Callas. And then, in the interim, there was about
six months before we went into rehearsal, before we finally started working on it, and
then I did all of the stuff. You know, viewed all the videotapes. Dealing with a famous person, it was endless,
you know, with her, too, with the recordings. And so, I did all of that. But the fact that it was done backwards, I
think, was a good thing, because the focus was always on Terrence’s script. So eventually, we did it all. The most worthwhile thing I did, I think,
in the interim, was I just went to a master class that Marilyn Horne was teaching up at
Yale. And it was just kind of interesting that nobody
cared about those students at all. You know, every person in that audience was
just focused on her and, you know, what was she going to say? And it was really part master class, part
stand-up routine. I mean, she was working that audience from
beginning to end, you know? She’s just a performer and a star. And what I learned was how much Terrence had
captured that already in his script. And although I would like to say I did endless,
endless preparation that, you know, gave me all these wonderful moments in the play, but
Terrence had captured it so beautifully that I found that when I did the research, it just
confirmed, you know. There are not very many people in the world
who could ever write as fast as Terrence. He’s the fastest gun in the East. He is. But on that occasion, he was proving that
he was the fastest gun in the West, and you were watching it. I think what Terrence does is– people think,
“Oh, he just whips off these plays in two seconds.” I think it’s a germ in his mind for a long,
long, long, long time. Because he mentioned to me months before he
thought it was going to be– actually, he told me the moment when it kind of happened. He said it’s the only time it ever happened
to him, when the idea for a play actually snapped in front of him. And it’s actually kind of a good story. Do you want to hear it? Sure! More interesting about what we do, anyway. Manhattan Theatre Club did a big benefit for
him, and Nathan Lane came out and did the big speech from LISBON TRAVIATA about Maria
Callas. And then, the next thing that happened was
Zoe Caldwell walked on stage– they were doing all scenes from his plays– and did a speech
from PERFECT GANESH. And he said Nathan walked off, doing a thing
about Callas, and Zoe walked on, and he said, “Zoe– Callas,” and that was it. He said at that moment, he knew what the first
line of the play was. And so, it was a wonderful experience, having
that wealth of material. But it was also keeping the line that this
is an invention. I mean, Terrence did attend the master classes
twenty years ago. Yeah, I knew that. But as he always tells people, he didn’t
sit there thinking, “Twenty years from now, I’m going to write a play.” And what a lot of people don’t realize is
that’s not the only place she taught master classes. She actually taught master classes in Philadelphia,
which in my mind, is more where they take place, which is why I don’t have a set that
takes place at Juilliard, why I didn’t set it there. It was a master class that she went in, on
the first day she decided the students were not up to her caliber, got on a plane and
went back to Athens that day. And she was supposed to teach an entire season. To me, that’s where our play takes place. (LAUGHTER) I use that for whenever anyone
says, “The master classes weren’t really like that.” But it’s an invention of Terrence’s, and
that’s the most important thing. George, you had a similar situation in one
respect, in that you helped to create this play, this wonderful thing. It’s an invention of how many of you? You worked it all up together. Yeah. I mean, it was like a big giant factory. The poet Reggie Gaines (PH) was off in one
corner working. Savion was off making incredible noise, and
so therefore, the piece is aptly titled. And all the dancers were working, and then
there was a dramaturgical team that was off doing research. And then the composers were off, and it was
all in one big giant room, or in various rooms at the theatre downtown. And so, I think having the job which I have
at the Public, where I’m supposed to be in command all the time, which of course I’m
not, but I’m supposed to be in command all the time, the creative process has become
very important, because it’s a place where I can not know what I’m doing and discover
it in the moment. And so therefore, this whole situation was
crafted along the principle that you have artists of extraordinary caliber in the room,
you can just sort of surrender and allow the moment to reveal itself. So that therefore, I had certain sort of conceptual
and intellectual ideas that were in the back of my head, but I would throw something against
Savion and say, “I want to do something about this.” Or a couple of the moments I dreamed. I knew I wanted to explore sort of the migration
from the South up into the North, and I had this dream about one of the guys who played
the buckets was hitting drumsticks on the bottom of Savion’s feet. And so I came and I asked them if they had
ever done it, and they said, “Oh, yeah, in Eastern Europe we did that,” one of those
places or something, because they tour all around the world. So then I said, “Well, what if we rig up
a structure, a bar that you can suspend yourself from, so that you can hold yourself in the
air, so that when he hits your feet, you can stay there longer so we can create a longer
sound.” And so, I had the stage manager rig up something
which allowed for two people. Then I saw it and said, “Well, what if we
add in stairs to that and then four more people?” And then I went, “Oh! This is the industrial component of the show,
the moving from a rural rhythm into an urban rhythm.” So it was like there were all these little
signals that happened in the room. The smartest thing that ever happened to me
as a director a long time ago, I was working on a project in college and it was something
that I had written and I was having a fight with the composer about what it should be. And the cast was over there, making noise,
yelling and screaming, and I was going, “Quiet, please!” And I was over talking with him and arguing
with him and they kept on making noise. And I said, “Quiet, please!” And then just at the point where I was about
ready to yell and scream at them, I listened, and they were playing around with the moment
and had solved it. They’re horsing around. So that therefore I think that the rehearsal
room, if you can create the right atmosphere, it’s sort of like this magic place where
the seeds of what you’re looking for are happening in some corner, if you’re available
to it. But now, it’s the opposite of what you then
do when you’re confronted with something like THE TEMPEST, where here was a famous,
celebrated, sacred work. But you also must have dreamed some of that,
too, I think. Well, I mean, this one thing which is what
I was thinking about so much was that once upon a time, you know, this guy named Bill
Shakespeare didn’t go, “I’m going to write a classic that’s going to transform,
you know, and that everyone’s going to discuss as being this great work.” As with any writer, as with any creative person,
there’s an urgency inside of them that says, you know, as you were just telling your story
about Terrence, “I have to write this play right now.” So once upon a time, Shakespeare went, “I
have to write this right now.” So in the rehearsal room, all our time was
spent trying to find where that urgency lived in the work. You know, so that therefore you can tap into
that, so it feels like you’re doing a “play” as opposed to “a sacred work.” Then it frees you to be creative and it frees
everybody else in the room to be creative. You have to honor, you know, the language
and the way it works and the sound of it. But at the same time, a human being wrote
this thing, which means those passions and those drives that compel all of us to create
were inside of William Shakespeare once upon a time. He wasn’t always “William Shakespeare.” He was some, you know, writer-actor person. In fact, if you look at the Folio, it’s
great, because it’s like a real working person in the theatre. Exactly. Sometimes it says “Enter,” instead of
the character’s name, it puts the actor who played it, you know. And I think now, one of the problems is, unless
you’re lucky enough to be in your situation or maybe the places where Terrence was, the
paucity of production puts such emphasis that people get so involved in rewriting as opposed
to just grinding it out, which I’m absolutely certain Shakespeare did, for example. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) You know, as they said,
the famous thing, he never blotted out a line. (LAUGHTER) And someone said, would that he had blotted
out a thousand. That’s right. And Ben Johnson said he wished he’d blotted
out a thousand (LAUGHTER), but Ben was full of baloney. (LAUGHTER) And when Ingmar Bergman was doing
his great films, he wrote and directed two of those films each year, plus directing three
productions at the Royal Academy in Stockholm. And you know, that kind of thing, it’s as
if people gamble all the time. Then they have dreams, you know? They dream about the game. Exactly. And it’s just so much part of their lives
that it’s just natural, you know? Whereas, if you have the situation which unfortunately
(HE LAUGHS) many of us have, where years go by between productions, you get so uptight
sometimes, and you want to weigh everything. And you know, it’s just better to just do
it. That happened with film, too. I mean, MGM, the golden years, when they were
just a production line. Yes, that’s right. One film after another, and those go down
now as, you know, sacred. And people thought of it as a factory, but
it’s a factory in a good sense. Yes. A factory ought not to be an awful word. You used the word “factory,” that was
great. Andy Warhol is an artist and he was famous
for having a factory. It was a good factory, not a bad factory. You should be proud of it. But then there’s TV, which is a bad factory,
so. (LAUGHS) Well, the factories have always, I mean, whether
it’s Moliere or Shakespeare or anybody else, or the Public. I mean, these things are doing a lot of work
and out of that is going to be gold, you know? Dickens, you know, had to write. Every week it had to come out in serial form,
and so, you know, all these masterpieces were coming out because he had to do the product. Well, Michael, let’s go on. We were talking about sort of an evolution,
and I think, that’s what you were saying, George, evolutionary work rather than something
scripted. And obviously, RENT is an evolutionary work,
isn’t it, as well as scripted? And of course, as I asked before we started,
the last time you saw BOHEME was in Helsinki. Umm-hmm. But tell us a little bit about the evolution
of that and how that came about. It sounds similar to BRING IN ‘DA NOISE. In many ways, it is. I actually, very intentionally, haven’t
seen BOHEME since I started working on RENT. I was sort of designated the person to make
sure that people who had no knowledge or interest in LA BOHEME would have interest and knowledge
of RENT. So that’s how Jonathan Larson and I sort
of divided ourselves on that line. But, as you described it, as an evolutionary
work, it has been in workshop and development, at least very pragmatically, since early 1994. And before that, before I was involved in
it, Jonathan Larson was working with some other collaborators, brought the piece to
Jim Nicola at the New York Theatre Workshop. And I think when Jim knew that this piece
had won the Richard Rodgers Award and he therefore had some money to do this workshop, it entered
into a new phase, with me and some other collaborators. And then, after the workshop, late in ‘94,
we brought in our dramaturg, Lynn Thompson (PH), who continued working with Jonathan
while I was in California. And we would get together periodically, me
and Jim Nicola and Lynn and Jonathan, to assess progress. And I think that RENT’s success should be
a wonderful advertisement for development, for grantsmanship, for the Richard Rodgers
Award, specifically. And let everyone know that these pieces don’t
come out of, in this case, heads full-formed, but go through a very lengthy and difficult
and fruitful and exhausting process, with a lot of collaborators. And I think Jim Nicola deserves so much credit
for being the kind of producer that we all dream about. So the director is almost the playwright in
this case, as well? Or in your case, to a degree? Well, as the director, certainly I had a part
in how we would tell the story. I think that Jonathan is the writer of this
piece, but I think that he had great help from Lynn Thompson, his dramaturg, Jim Nicola,
his producer, Tim Wylie (PH), his musical director, and me. And over a long amount of time. And I think that that is very common. That’s the real work process, and I think
we all find great joy in that. And unfortunately, or strangely, that process
isn’t discussed a lot, because we like stars, we like individuals. And I don’t think we work that way. I think we all work collaboratively and over
time. And you know, things banging together in a
great way. I just want to ask one question. Were you able to get a commitment from the
four or five of you, over all this period, this long period of time? Uh-huh. And that’s how we did it. How did you do that? Well, I think that had a lot to do with who
we all were at the time we were making that commitment. And our belief in the material. I think it always comes down to that. Because so often, one hears that “We wanted
to do this, but it didn’t come through at that time, and so the project was dropped
and somebody went off to do something else, and then it changed in that sense.” Yes, but you make all sorts of life choices. I turned down a lot of work to do RENT and
Jim turned down a lot of productions to do RENT. And Jonathan was real happy, because someone
was doing his work. And similarly, Lynn turned down a lot of work. So yeah, people turn down work, and a lot
of times, as you say, something doesn’t happen and someone walks off. Well, this was a group of people that believed
in something and stuck it out. And I think that’s what it’s about. I think it also helps if you like the people
that you’re working with a lot. Absolutely. Absolutely. (LAUGHS) You know, it’s marriage. And we all know, at one point will get ugly
and tense. And if you have a foundation of affection
and respect, then you can survive those rough moments. And if you don’t, then it’s “I’ll
never work with you again!” and you storm out of the room. But I think if there’s a foundation of respect
and love, then I think you can survive, you know. And Mary, tell us about COWGIRLS. How did that get put together, made shapely,
as it is? Well, I mean, as everyone’s talking, the
collaborative spirit. I mean, it started out in my head as a bad
one-woman show, and I didn’t like the idea of being alone. (LAUGHTER) And so, little by little, in a
funny way, you know when the idea that finally hits, you go, “That’s it, and I have to
do this!”, much like what you’re saying. I wanted to write a country western musical,
and just country western music, I just said, “Well, that’ll get boring in a hurry,”
and I was trying to think of a hook. And a friend of mine said, “Well, what about
your own background? You know, you were a classical musician in
Kansas.” And I went, “Yeah, I– oh, wait, wait.” You know? And then they just went, “Oh, a classical
trio mistakenly booked in a country western bar!” (LAUGHTER) And there’s only a couple things
that can happen, you know? (LAUGHTER) It works or it doesn’t! It works or it doesn’t. They figure it out or they don’t. And the show is, it works. And that was like six years ago, you know. And then, you almost get this pit bull mentality
about it. It’s like, “I will complete this, I will
see this through, and I don’t care how I do it. You know, how many law firms I have to work
in, in the meantime.” And then you find a collaborator and maybe
they don’t like collaborating, so then you have to sort of separate that, and then you
start over. And after maybe a bad experience like that,
you’re going, “I’m never collaborating again.” And then you go, “No, I’m going to try
again, I’m going to try again.” And then I find Betsy, and you find someone
with a similar sensibility and a sense of humor. And you know, you realize, by yourself you
might ruin a perfectly good idea, and you need help. Yeah, with someone else, you at least have
one other person who thinks it’s funny. Yeah. (LAUGHTER) How did you two meet and how did that go together? We were introduced because she was looking
for a book writer, so we were introduced because of the project. Well, yeah, but who introduced you and how
did that networking go on? I was working at Westbeth Theatre, for someone
that was working on a production there, who had been working with Mary on getting a reading
of COWGIRLS up and running. A reading of my bad book. (LAUGHS) And she knew I was a playwright and suggested
that we meet. And I gave her a copy of something I’d written,
and she never read it, and then we met (LAUGHTER) and decided to go anyway. It’s when I met her, I knew. It’s more of, as you said, a marriage or
something. Yeah. You know. I met her, and we said, “Where are you from?”
and she said– “Michigan.” (HOLDS HAND VERTICALLY) And I said, “Kansas. (HOLDS HAND HORIZONTALLY) We thought that was really funny. (LAUGHTER) You know, states. And that was why I worked with Mary Murfitt. But we knew, I knew this (HAND GESTURE) meant
this part of Michigan, and I knew this (HAND GESTURE) was Kansas. Every time we tell that story, nobody laughs. Everybody goes, “Uh-huh . . .” (LAUGHTER) “Yeah . . . so then why did you work together?” But it was that sort of thing. And as you were talking about Terrence, sometimes
I wonder if there is more collaboration in a musical. Yeah. As opposed to a play. Do you think that’s true? Oh, I think there definitely is. You could probably speak to that. Oh, yeah. More people involved, for one thing. There are so many people involved, in the
musicals that I’ve done. I mean, there are so many people involved
that there has to be one person pulling it all together. It’s a really complicated marriage. I know. It’s sort of like a Roseanne and Tom Arnold
thing, isn’t it? Group marriage! The first time I did a musical, I found it
hard that there were actually other people who thought they could make decisions. (LAUGHTER) I mean, there’s a musical director
that actually wanted to have input and a choreographer and all of that. And it’s a whole different mindset. And since then, it’s wonderful. It’s so exciting to hear you talk about
that story of all that creative energy happening in the room. Once you get used to that, because I did plays
for so long, it’s the fact that there is that kind of creative input happening all
over the place. Once you get used to it and you realize what
it is and– Embrace it, yeah. It’s thrilling. That happened a lot with COWGIRLS, too. Yeah, the musicians. It was instrumental, actually, because everyone
played something in the show. And the show, in one regard, really evolved
around who could play what. That was one of the main [things]. And who got pregnant. (LAUGHTER) One of the actors got pregnant
right before the first production, and suddenly, the character went from having a seven year
old son to being pregnant, and now, it’s still pregnant. So there’s a lot of stuff that sort of dictates
it that doesn’t seem like it should feed it, but it does. So it’s part evolutionary, as well? Exactly. Oh, yeah. And I’ll be pregnant for years! (LAUGHTER) Is this a marriage now? Well, I think each play is almost a lifetime
of its own or a child or something? So you’re married while that child is being
born, and it works for that project. And you know, whatever comes up next, you
go, “Okay, is that the right mother or father for this child?” And I think that’s how you have to look
at each project. I also think that there are certain muscles. It’s like going to some sort of creative
gym. I mean, certain collaborations, you exercise
certain muscles. And then, at the end of that project, you
feel the need to exercise different kinds of muscles. Right, right. And therefore, you search out or you attract
a whole different group of people to work with. Not because you don’t want to work with
those people any more, but you want to see how your arm works, because now you’ve worked
up this arm, you know? So that therefore, after NOISE, FUNK, I’ll
want to do a drawing room comedy maybe. I don’t know. But it’s just, sort of therefore I keep
all of my being as toned as I possibly can. BRING IN ‘DA TEA. Exactly, exactly. (LAUGHTER) I think I’ve got something there. Going to ride it for as long as I can. Now, how do you put that down on paper? How do you put this which is evolving as you’re
all working on it? How, and when does it get put down on paper
for someone else to do it? Well, as we go along. I mean, it was a very interesting project,
because I always work with collaborators. I’ve never worked on a project where the
primary collaborator was a choreographer. So it’s been really fascinating. And a choreographer who is sort of inventing
a new dance form that kind of looks like tap dancing, but is something incredibly bizarre
and intense and wonderful. But it’s his language. So the whole show is scripted in its current
form. As soon as we were in previews down at the
Public, we went through and scripted it. But in terms of “scripting” this language
that Savion has crafted, I mean, I’m not quite sure how to do it. I know there’s dance notations and maybe
that will enter in at one point. But we’ll see. I don’t know. I mean, it’s a rare project, because when
we got together, it’s like, “Okay, you know, it’s a very Mickey and Judy thing. Let’s go into this room and put on this
show.” And then, you know, this thing happened with
audiences and critics and all this other stuff. So it’s like, “Oh, okay.” So, in a strange way, it was the first project
I’ve ever been working on where there was absolutely not one thought process about a
future life at all. It was just about being in the room and enjoying
it. Because Savion, ever since I met him, when
he was like seventeen or eighteen, I wanted to work with him. And I brought into a room various people I’ve
worked with on other projects before so that there was an instant shorthand. So you weren’t going, “A, B, C, D.”
Everybody sort of knew the alphabet already. So everything just sort of escalated in a
very quick way. But in terms of future productions and separate
productions, I don’t know. Well, that’s ideal. It’s totally ideal. But I mean, so much of this is, I don’t
know. It’s an interesting question, and so, I
don’t know. Did you edit the form? Do you shape, ultimately, the form? Like where you’re going to stop Act One
and how you’re going to start Part Two? Yeah. I mean, every day we had these file cards
and they were on the board, and it was sort of like, “Our project for today is the twenties!” So we’re doing the twenties, so Reggie would
be off. And you know, I used to talk to Reggie about
what I wanted him to work on writing wise, and he’d go off. And the dramaturgy would supply a whole bunch
of research and everything. And I’d talk to Savion and you know, I would
describe it. So much of it was very fascinating. Every day, we would sit around a table and
talk. They would talk about their world, which is
1990’s and I would talk about history. And this was because there was certain information
which they didn’t have. So I would talk about the twenties, and just
how there was this sort of drunken euphoria after World War One that then crashed in the
early thirties. So I would say, “Savion, I want to craft,
you know, a Charleston that is mad and that feels like, at the end of the Charleston,
the entire world is going to end.” You know, and he’d say, “Okay,” (LAUGHTER)
and he’d go off and start doing it. And then he would just start and go, “Is
this mad enough? Is this intense enough? Is this raw enough?” And we’d just go to that place. And then I would add a certain shape to it,
but it was because there was so much happening in the room. And then the words would come in, then we’d
throw it in. “And what about this? What about this?” So that it was an extraordinary way of working
because everything was informing everything in the moment. It was wonderful. What you wonderfully decided to do was to
have the woman representing really, we were talking with Ann yesterday, humanity. It seemed that the emotion on her level, the
range of song. Meanwhile, the technique of tap dancing is
so still, but also has to be highly mechanical in its execution. So she kept pouring the emotion from decade
to decade. It was also really valuable that she is an
“older woman,” because they are Very Young Men. (LAUGHS) And that was a really nice thing,
very powerful. I mean, just in terms of in the rehearsal
room, because Ann, as you might know, she was on yesterday, is not a human being, she’s
a force of nature. And these young guys, when you’re 19, 21
and 22, you are a force of nature. So it was nice to have two forces of nature
so they could cancel each other out a little bit. Was that your idea to have an Ann there? Well, yeah. When I was talking with Savion, I knew I wanted
a very strong female presence, and the boys’ tap club is very sort of “Boys’ Tap Club,”
and we spent a lot of time trying to invade it. And so that invasion will take place on another
project. But on this one, it was very much that, so
I wanted to have a very strong, forceful female energy, just in the room. And also, having worked with Ann on JELLY,
she has this incredible ability, I call it channeling. I mean, her vocal stylizations, she can take
on any sort of form. So it was really valuable. It was a very healthy energy to have a very,
very strong female presence in the room. Tom, how does this sound to you? How do you work? Oh, it’s very different. That’s a very special, unique almost kind
of experience, I think, what he’s talking about. And you know, when you talk about going to
different collaborators, that’s very enticing in a way. But you’ve worked with Harvey. I mean, like different marriages. Harvey and I have been partners for forty-five
years. (LAUGHS) A great marriage! Yes. And it’s certainly tempting to think about
straying a little bit. (LAUGHTER) Harvey, if you’re watching this,
I’m only kidding. The only time I did and have, was with Jack
Orfenbach (PH) and that seemed safe, you know. But no, our process is different. I mean, certainly in terms of working with
a channeling director. When we did I DO, I DO, for example, with
Gower Champion originally, there was no question that with all the different forces, even in
that case, with Mary Martin and Robert Preston and a lot of sort of high-powered egos and
energies, that Gower was to be the center and to make those decisions, more than in
any other project we’ve ever worked with. And we were very happy with that. And he helped shape it in the way that you’re
talking about. I mean, what I was going to ask a minute ago,
for example, is who decides whether there are two acts or three acts or when the act
break comes? Those are really, to me, playwriting decisions,
but in this instance, they become directing decisions. Exactly, exactly. I have some questions for you. In our project, it’s specific in that both
the writers are in the show, and you have to hand over a lot of creative power to your
director. Eleanor Reese (PH) directed our piece, and
I don’t think she ever told us exactly how that must have felt having two authors on
stage and trying to direct them and have creative discussions, arguments, whatever. How was that for you? Was that ever a problem? A problem in terms of? Of saying, “I think it should be this,”
and then Savion saying, “Well, I don’t”? I mean, was it hard to do that? No, no, because I think there was an incredibly
intimate level of trust that exists. And occasionally, if there was something,
I would go, “No. No, we’re not doing that. No, that’s not happening. No, we’re not doing that. That’s not going to happen.” But that was very, very, very, very, very,
very, very, very, very rare. And also, because I think there are two styles
of directing. I mean, two, there are eighty million styles,
but I think there’s two fundamental styles of directing, where I think you can stand
where you are and demand that everybody meet you, or you can go to where everybody is and
seduce, charm, threaten, do every single thing you possibly can to woo them in your direction. And I think the latter, I prefer working,
because ultimately people invest another level of passion in the work that they’re doing. So that therefore, as much of a control freak
as I am in the rehearsal room and in life, I value, very intensely, you know, the heart
and the intelligence of the people that I’m working with. And so, if you’re very severe, they don’t
give you that. They don’t share that in the room. They protect that. So if you (GROWLS) like this, then they become
very rigid about that. And particularly with the guys in the show,
there were these various components of running the room, at the same time creating an energy
so that they feel like you’re one of them and at the same time letting them know that
in a moment’s notice you’re not one of them. So it was kind of like parenting in some strange
way. Yeah, yeah. But it sounds like you were, from the very
beginning, a very intrinsic part of the structure development, which is slightly different from
the experience that we had where we came with a script. And suddenly gave it to a director. Right. So you’re one of the creators. How did you work with your director? I mean, how did that work? Did you feel that it was true collaboration
or did the director work with you or impose herself? Both. And I would probably do the same thing. You know, I mean, it’s a long process, and
everything happens at one time or another. Well, and the thing is, structurally, she
helped a lot, you know, the first thing. Yeah. But what’s odd is to not be able to see
or hear your own work from where the audience is. Oh, yeah. Wow. And I don’t think I can do that again. Yes. Especially music. It’s very odd to have to hire people, a
musical director, somebody, to be your ears and your eyes. It’s very strange. You’re talking about disciplines here. And one is the conventional discipline, yours
in a sense and yours, Tom. And the other is the inner discipline that
you had, with RENT and with BRING IN ‘DA NOISE. What you’re both going for is to bring out
the magic that’s in there, but you’re going in different ways, I think. Yours is very structural. As a director, as you very disciplined with
your people? Well, I think every situation is wildly different,
you know. Let’s take MASTER CLASS. With MASTER CLASS? Disciplined with who? Terrence, you mean? (LAUGHTER) That’s the ultimate. No. Who might you be mentioning? But you know, speaking of this, picking up
on what Isabelle said, now that you mentioned Terrence, but you have collaborated with him
before. But even so, how do you deal with a playwright? So you have a backlog of experience with him
that you can either harness or bounce off. Yes, there was a history with Terrence. And you know, I’ve been through it, being
an assistant on productions and watching him go through the process. But this was being written while we were there,
so there was a little bit, you know. And then there was the decision, I mean probably
my greatest influence with the production was the decision not to have it be a play
happening separate from the audience. I very much wanted to make it into an experience. I wanted people to walk in, feel like they
were attending a master class, almost not know what’s happening. These people are talking to us, the lights
are up, how long is he going to leave these house lights up, you know? And I said, “You know, Terrence, you have
a lot of leeway with all of that.” And I said, “We’ll change the lines. Let’s see how long. I want them to be up just long enough for
people to think– “ What was his attitude towards that? Terrence is an extraordinary collaborator. He enjoys it. It’s unusual in a playwright, yes? Well, maybe it’s unusual. I mean, I’m in an experience right now that’s
almost like a test case in working with playwrights, because I’m working with three different
playwrights on BY THE SEA, BY THE SEA, BY THE BEAUTIFUL SEA, which we’re getting ready
to do at Manhattan Theatre Club. But when we did our first production last
summer at the Bay Street Theatre Festival, it was extraordinary in that, you know how
you always create an atmosphere in the room? You know, and you work very hard and you create
an atmosphere and freedom and a certain mood just pervades the room? Well, what do you do when at lunch the playwright
changes? Oooh! And you take a lunch break, and you’re on
to a new play and you’re on to a new playwright, and they were all wildly different, you know? And so this was a really a test case, and
three people that worked very, very differently. I had worked with Terrence before, so there
was a little bit of a shorthand there. Lanford Wilson, I had never worked with before. And I’m saying this now, I’m not even
sure if it’s true, but I think I might be the first person to direct a premiere of one
of his plays, other than Marshall Mason, in probably twenty years. I don’t know. There may be something else. So he was all of a sudden in the room, you
know, someone I had known. And at lunch it would change. So the situation right now is, it’s just
such a test case in how wildly different it is, because they all have very different needs,
as far as being part of the process. You know, I got to a stage in the middle of
rehearsal, when you start getting things up on their feet, where you’d really kind of
like to get the playwright out of the room for just a while. And you know, I talked to them all, and I
got to Lanford and said, “You know, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to come
by for the next couple of days.” And he said, “I’ve never not been in on
a rehearsal.” He was in every second, every moment. But that became what Lanford’s play was. And then we just got used to him, just sort
of like, you know, here’s his chair, he’s always there! (LAUGHTER) And it didn’t bother you? Well, it just was the way it was going to
be, you know? Because I don’t think you can set up such
strict rules, “At this point, the playwright leaves.” You can’t do that. And also, because I don’t know what his
creative instincts were. And you know, it was interesting, even when
we were staging and doing things, he would get ideas. Terrence likes the distance. You know, he likes to leave and come back
and see it fresh. And so, it’s always wildly different. And so the situation, you know, collaborating
with MASTER CLASS is that that was the whole idea of making that into an experience, Terrence
was very open to. Because his initial thought was, you know,
“Master classes are inherently theatrical, and so what could I do to make this into an
experience?” Like you create an experience, you know? And that’s what I wanted to do, something
that was wildly different from anything anyone had seen before, and I sort of felt like we
sort of semi-achieved it when we were in Washington and I was standing in back of the theatre. And about fifteen minutes into this play,
this woman in the last row turned to her friend and said, “That woman is being too hard
on those young people!” (LAUGHTER) And I thought, “Okay, okay! They’re experiencing this.” The decision to go into the La Scala thing,
is that a directing decision, a staging decision, a combination decision? The whole closing of the first act was my
idea. You know, when things actually evolve over
time, you actually wonder who really came up with it? (GENERAL AGREEMENT) But my memory of it, Terrence,
is– (LAUGHTER) I did it all! I did it all! Everything you liked, I did! No, he had given me the first act to read
in his apartment. You know, “Here, read this,” you know? And the character was talking about what it
was like to be on the stage of La Scala. And he hadn’t written the second act, and
I said to him, “Terrence, I have no idea where you’re going with the second act of
this, but all of a sudden, I want to see it from her point of view.” So he put it initially in the second act,
that we would see something there. And then I moved it back to the first act. And I tell you, that was a huge selling point. That’s a structural decision, really. Yeah. And we just moved it, and you know, it was
all something that was in my head. And you know, quite frankly, I had to sell
it, you know, to the producers. Michael, tell me about RENT and how you were,
in the same area. Also FAUST. I’m interested also in hearing about, if
I may interject, I really want to know what’s happening with FAUST. Whereas I know RENT is already done, and so
it’s a smash! We’re doing FAUST again at the Goodman,
in the late fall. And as Lennie said, every collaboration with
every creative person is different. And their personalities dictate– But what was a most unusual kind of undertaking? In terms of RENT, you mean? Yeah. Well, certainly, what is extraordinary, and
extraordinarily tragic, about RENT is, at a certain point when a collaboration usually
becomes its closest, Jonathan Larson died. So we were left in a most remarkable and singular
place. But because of the many years of working on
RENT together, I certainly felt and still feel that the people who remained to continue
working on the musical knew Jonathan’s mind and intentions and heart very much. And the whole preview period down at the New
York Theatre Workshop was especially wrought. Preview periods always are. Luckily, Jonathan was a very communicative
fellow and wrote a lot and spoke a lot, and so we had a sense of what he believed and
what he wanted. And also, we were able to prevail upon him
to make many, many, many changes in our rehearsal period. Like, every two weeks, we would essentially
have a big run in order to enable Jonathan to refine and reshape. I mean, generally, I would, you know, orchestrate
these in Machiavellian fashion, in order to get him to do what I believed we should do. And so, we had a very good foundation of where
we could go. What did you do when you were in front of
an audience, and you saw something? You know, the audience tells you when something
isn’t working, and now he’s not there. I don’t know how much process you went through,
but what did you do? Well, the first couple of performances that
we had, the first couple of previews, were attended largely by family and friends of
Jonathan’s. And the response, as you could imagine, was
overwhelming and the outpouring was extraordinary. And then, three days later, the New York Theatre
Workshop subscribers showed up. And then they told us a lot of different things
than the family and friends were telling us. How much happened from that point on? I mean, would you consider it major reworking? These are difficult terms. Yes. We cut about eight minutes. We reshaped some things. We moved some songs around. We reintroduced a narrative element that we
had employed in the workshop, that Jonathan wanted to drop in the production, that I firmly
believe he would have endorsed re-introducing after he’d seen it in front of an audience. Because there was still some narrative information
that was hanging us up, and people couldn’t really enter in, because they didn’t understand
some things. And now we essentially have a character who
tells them, “A, B, C,” and then we go off like a shot. So some people would think that’s a lot. It’s substantial. Yeah. And in other cases, it seems very, very minor,
because so much of the heart and soul are intact. And we had already arrived at a very solid
foundation before his death. Right, right. How about FAUST, too? I mean, to pick up on what Tom is saying. Where are you going with that? I want to stay with RENT. All right, well, okay. And I’m only tempted to make macabre jokes
about Randy, so it’s good. A little about FAUST, and then– All right! (LAUGHS) It was quite a different process. Well, that’s why [I was asking]. Of course, because Randy is in quite in a
different place professionally than Jonathan Larson was, while we were working on RENT. And those things matter. And the ways in which you collaborate are
changed. Certainly, in the course of working on FAUST
together, especially through previews at the La Jolla Playhouse, Randy and I became very
close and real, you know, buddies, and scrapped in a wonderful, easy way that collaborators
need to. But certainly, when we began the process,
here was the material (HOLDS OUT HIS HANDS) and here was me (CRINGES), and it evolved
in a very different way than what happened [when I did RENT]. You know, Jonathan was asking me to direct
his play, and then I was very happy that Randy was allowing me. (LAUGHTER) And it was quite different, but
you sort of end in the same place, I’m happy to say. And I think that the fact that we’ve done
that before will really change the dynamic between us next time and that’s great. Also, RENT in the middle is going to change
the dynamic, inevitably. It’s just inevitable. Yes, that’s true. In that power goes where power is and it’s
always changing and sliding in and out. There are some artists who have called me
about working on their work, some composers who are rather famous. And I was at meetings and friendly and fabulous
and wonderful, and I go, “This will never work. This will never work!” What I bring into the room and what the person
brings into the room, that’s (CLASPS HANDS TOGETHER) never going to happen. So you just go, “It’s brilliant, it’s
wonderful. You’re brilliant and wonderful. I can’t do this, because we’ll end up
with our hands around each other’s necks, and we shouldn’t do that, because it’s
about the art.” Because it’s a very interesting thing when
you can work, and reverence. I mean, I think reverence is a totally unhealthy
thing in the room when you’re working, because theatre, in order to create something beautiful,
you have to get dirty. And if you have to revere someone, it’s
very difficult to get dirty and messy and sloppy, and “sloppy” is essential if you’re
ever going to get clean. You get a little precious, too. I think respect is the only thing that matters. Exactly, respect! Everything can fall away if respect stays. Other things will come back and go. Exactly. But awe and reverence, no. It doesn’t work. I mean, some systems allow for it. Opera it seems to flourish in that sort of
thing. (LAUGHTER) But theatre, I don’t think, can. It’s funny, we used to do shows with David
Merrick, and David Merrick’s theory was the opposite of what we’re all talking about,
which is, he hated to see a happy company. (LAUGHTER) It was a deliberate decision on
his part. And if he had a company that was happy, he
would do things to try to make it unhappy. Wow. Because his feeling was, “Well, all you
people love each other, but you’re not the New York Times. And when they come, I want everybody questioning
everything. I want everybody at everybody, you know?” (LAUGHTER) And plus, that was sort of his
nature, anyway. He wanted to go to the public in the same
way. He wanted to exacerbate everybody. That’s right. And certainly the critics, he made fun of
them. He made fun of their reviews. Sort of keeping everybody on their toes. That part is good, making fun of the critics! Open season! Did he do that to you as well or was it mostly
to actors? Oh, he did it to everybody! No, nobody was safe. Maybe Mary Martin. (LAUGHTER)
EVERYBODY IN UNISON Maybe. You know, when the wind was blowing north-northwest. (LAUGHTER) How much are you changing RENT? Oh, we’ve made a few small changes. And that’s your decision on this now? Again, with collaboration, from Lynn Thompson,
the dramaturg. I still really seek out Jim Nicola’s opinion. Shall we get back to “dramaturg,” and
what is a dramaturg? I can start. Try, yes, because it’s fun to try to do
that. A dramaturg, I think in the American system,
which is slightly different than the European system, generally works with a writer creating
a piece for the first time, and helps to shape and focus the material with lots of discussion
from the director. It’s essentially someone who is an enabler
(LAUGHS), who enables a director and especially a playwright to focus and clarify what the
writer wants to do. Certainly, at the O’Neill, you have a much
better definition. Well, we ask this question all the time, because
it’s one of the questions that’s asked at our seminars. Right. And I think the paucity. For so many years, there was no dramaturg
here in America. It’s been an evolutionary process. We’ve done it at the O’Neill. Is it absolutely necessary? Depends on the process, depends on the dramaturg. Some dramaturgs are necessary and some aren’t. (LAUGHTER) I must say, I think I’ve said this before
at one of the seminars, but Edith Oliver is a wonderful dramaturg and once defined a dramaturg,
“like the old-fashioned washing machine that had a crank on the side.” She said, “I am the crank on the side.” (LAUGHTER) And that’s what it is. Who pays the dramaturg? At regional theatre, the La Jolla Playhouse,
that I’m now the artistic director of, our dramaturg is an important part of the artistic
staff. And part of the executive/artistic salaries
go to the dramaturg. That’s in a non-profit situation. And I think that the majority of respectable
non-profit theatres in the country have dramaturgs on staff. Do they have the same dramaturg as they do
for a musical, if they do one, as they do for a play? It depends on the theatre, it depends on the
project. Can I interrupt this just now? Because it’s time to take a break. And we’ll go back to this, because I think
it’s very important. And I’m sorry that I have to do this, but
I’d like to know more about it. So everybody, break time, stand up, stretch,
and come right back to this. (APPLAUSE) This is CUNY-TV, Channel 75. (APPLAUSE) We’re continuing the American
Theatre Wing’s seminars on “Working in the Theatre,” and this seminar is on the
playwright and the director and the choreographer and the composer and the lyricist. We’ve got them all here. And we’re going to continue this discussion
on who is working with whom and how it all comes out for the audience. So George, will you pick up where we left
off, in describing some of the back story? Well, yeah, actually I wanted to go into something,
because we’re talking about collaborative process here, too. And although I realize we have a choreographer
and directors and people to talk about, I want to get into the business, particularly
because what I’ve heard about now about BRING IN ‘DA NOISE and also RENT, where
the director is also almost a playwright, tell me about the casting of this, because
casting is not like just auditioning people. They become almost playwrights as well. And I wonder if either Michael or George would
talk a little bit about, do you bring in people that you know? Like Ann, you said, that you did before. Is the, quote, audition, unquote, process
different in these cases? Or what are you looking for, in your cases? Which I think would be different than an open
call, “I want somebody, you know, five foot two,” whatever. Could you go into that a little bit? I think that the audition process for RENT
was very similar to any audition process I’ve ever participated in. Really? In that I think you look for people whom you
feel match spiritually the characters that are created by a playwright. One of the things we looked very specifically
for in RENT was a vibrancy and a youth and a roughness and a real, you know, to be real,
a real compatibility with the life that we hoped the musical would present. Which meant that we perhaps looked in other
places than I’d looked in for other projects, but in terms of who really excited me when
they walked in the room in relation to the material, it was very similar. We had a terrific casting director, Bernie
Telsey, who’s still with the project, who really, you know, scoured the streets and
called a lot of different kinds of places. You know, drag clubs and lots of rock managers,
in order to get people who we felt could vibrantly portray these characters. But the process was very similar in that you
want to match up parts and souls. That’s interesting, parts and souls. George? It was unlike anything I’d ever done before,
because in many respects, there really wasn’t an audition. An audition process came late. Savion, who’s twenty-two, there was a group
of dancers that he had been mentoring for ten years. I mean, so he started as their mentor when
he was twelve (LAUGHS) and has been training them and working with them, because ever since
the time he’s been twelve, he’s been going around the country doing workshops and classes
and seminars. So that therefore, he’s been sort of hand-picking
and selecting these people who he feels, one, a deep emotional kinship with, but also who
can dance his style of dancing. So those people came on board. There were a couple of people that he met
during the course of JELLY’S LAST JAM. And then, there were these guys who used to
play the drums in front of JELLY’S LAST JAM while it was performing, so that they
became friends with Savion and they started touring around. So there were these various groups of people,
and the way the show was on a certain level, there was a genesis. Savion and I wanted to work on a project,
but then at the Public last summer we had a series of Mondays at the Delacorte Theatre
in Central Park which we would invite different cultural institutions around the city to come
on a Monday night when Shakespeare wasn’t happening. And so, there was this evening which we asked
Savion to do, in which it was old tap dancers, young tap dancers, all sorts of guys doing
an evening, which is sort of like an entertainment. And that’s where I saw some of the young
dancers and I thought some of these older dancers were really wonderful. Whereas that was more– I’m looking for
a better word– not quite a showcase, because I hate that phrase and the whole concept of
it, but it was sort of a chance for me to learn this world more, because it’s a very
specific world and I’m no tap dancer, so I really don’t know anything about the world. So to see these young guys, and they came
on stage, and they were dancing with a combination of ferociousness and joy, and I just went
“Oh, I want those guys in the show, Savion!” So it was more like adding on, and then, you
know, Savion and I talked about the importance of a female energy. Should it be younger, should it be older? Then Ann Dusquenay and Savion said, “Yeah,
perfect.” And then there was a poet, Reggie Gaines,
who we had talked about him doing something else at the theatre, and it seemed to be a
right mix because of the way he rhythmically does language. It seemed like he could be right in the room. So we really weren’t just looking for actors,
if you will. We were looking for people who were going
to help to shape the piece. So it was very important. Dell Waterson (PH) and Zane Marks (PH) I’d
also worked with before, so they became involved in the music. So it was more like forming some little cult
(LAUGHS), if you will, of who would be in the room when the work was happening. And one of the things which was really interesting
and very fascinating and very challenging is there were a certain number of people in
the project who had never done a play before. So there was a whole system about being on
time, showing up every day (LAUGHTER) for rehearsal. One of the guys called the rehearsal period
“being under house arrest” (LAUGHTER), because you were there all the time. And there were one or two people along the
way who we lost, because they couldn’t adjust their sense of a schedule and time and responsibility
to what the theatre requires. And at the same time, you have someone like
Savion and Jimmy Tate and Dulays (PH) and the Cats (PH), who had been performing since
they were nine, and on Broadway. So you have these twenty-year-old “old pros”
mixed in, but being the exact same age as some people who have never done a play before. So it was very interesting. I mean, it was like, “No, you can’t change
your costume.” You had to teach them spontaneity and the
discipline to get it. Precisely. Exactly, so that therefore it was incredibly
fulfilling and every day we would stop rehearsal and for anywhere from thirty minutes to an
hour, just talk. “Okay, where are you? What are you thinking? Talk about your world. Let me talk about my world. Let’s talk about where we are.” And the differences, because in crafting the
piece, I wanted to make sure that when it came to the nineties section of the piece,
that it was very much their world and not my world, because the 1990’s that I live
in is very different from the 1990’s that they live in. So I wanted to absorb as much information
as I possibly can, but also to let them know that “I’m seriously interested in who
you are and what your world is and you must be seriously interested in being on time and
doing everything that is required.” So it was this very intensely, intensely,
intensely personal process. Theatre always is, but there was another level
in the room– A different level. A very different level, and also because they
are brilliant, brilliantly evolved artists, but still emerging young men. And that gap, I’m sure the same thing with
you, maybe not as much so because a lot of those actors have been working for a long
time. How did you deal with that? Well, we went through a lengthy casting process. We had the happy experience that you described
of there being a really great collision of some people who had been in the business for
over a decade. I mean, Anthony Rapp has been a performer
for more than ten years and had been in PRECIOUS SONS and, like, knew Broadway and things like
that. And then we have a number of people who also
had never been in a play before and had really never gone to a play before (LAUGHTER) and
had no interest in going to a play before. And I think that kind of energy and that kind
of sensibility really kept us honest and on track. How to develop those two audiences. Absolutely. That’s right. Put ‘em in a show. What do you do about understudies, though,
when you have that? I mean, I know with COWGIRLS we had to have
people who could sing and play at least two musical instruments and act. And that took a couple years to just find
a cast and it took us a long time to find understudies. How do you do that? We’ve been very fortunate, because, I mean,
there’s a very tiny network (LAUGHTER) of dancers who can “hit,” according to Savion. So I go, “How about this dancer?” “He can’t hit.” Can’t hit. (LAUGHTER) Can’t hit. So “No, can’t hit, can’t hit, can’t
hit.” So we really did, you know, it was like a
nationwide search of tap dancers who could hit and there were these two guys. There was this wonderful, brilliant story,
I wish it had turned out, where these dancers drove nonstop from like Nebraska somewhere
and got four tickets, came in, auditioned, and then we didn’t cast them. If we had cast them, it would have been a
wonderful story. (LAUGHTER) It didn’t work out. But we scoured and now we’ve added in four
additional dancers who can hit. There are a couple, they said, who have the
skills but they can’t hit, so they’ve been working on teaching them how to hit. Hitting. You can learn? It isn’t something you’re born with? I mean, like some dancers just hit and some
don’t? Well, Baakari, when I was asking who was in
the show, who was really wonderful, told me one day, he said, “They have it down here
(POINTS TO FEET), but they don’t have it up here (POINTS TO HEAD).” I went, “Oh, okay.” So this is “hit”? It’s the connection between your psychological
and spiritual understanding, because these guys want to be connected with your being,
doing what your feet require. So it is something you’re sort of born with. It’s like a total, I mean, it’s a religion
to them, almost. I mean, I’ve never been involved in a tech
rehearsal where they’re teching and they’re dancing and then we call a break, and they
dance on the break. And they form a circle and they dance with
each other, and then the break is over, and we go back in tech, and then they dance. And then we work, and we stop and start and
we call another break, and they go into a circle and they dance. It is this incredibly intense, wonderful thing. It’s like COWGIRLS. Everyone would break and then pick up another
instrument. Something they’re not playing in the show. How did you find your energy? I mean, that’s wild. I mean, did you audition it? Liz Woodman should get a [medal]. Liz Woodman, yeah, was our casting director. And she, not unlike you, went everywhere looking. It’s thrilling to find people from other
disciplines. Oh, yeah. I mean, try finding opera singers who can
act. But man, you gotta go through a lot of ‘em. Yeah, I was going to ask you where you got
these kids? Well, it was the same thing. It was endless, because we needed people with
operatic voices who could act. And I was seeing people, day after day, who
had never spoken words. You know, who had never spoken them. (IMITATING) And did they talk like this? (LAUGHTER) Oh, a lot of them– That happens with musicians a lot. We would have people come who would be great
musicians and you give them a script– They come in and rip on the banjo. So you just look for that seed, you look for
the possibility. J. Hunter Morris (PH) who’s the tenor in
the play has never been in a play. And I don’t know if he remembers this, about
two weeks into rehearsal, he said, “You know, Lennie, you know I’ve never been in
a play.” And I said, “Yes, I know.” And he said, “You know, I’ve never seen
one.” (LAUGHTER) And he had never seen anything
where people didn’t sing. But these are very, you know, talented, disciplined
people. But it’s entirely different, the discipline. Tell me about the accompanist. Oh, and the accompanist. I mean, you know, you’ve got a play with,
first of all, you have this kind of role that Zoe plays. And then you need three singers who can act
in a play by Terrence and a classical pianist who can act. How did you find this particular pianist? Where did you look? Well, David Loud is an extraordinary talent. You know, he works. He’s such a presence on stage. He’s such a presence. What I did was, I don’t know if they even
realize why I did this, is when it got down to the few guys, once we knew that they could
fulfill the demands of playing classical music, I had them come in to play for the last round
of singers. So each one of them played for an entire day,
because I knew so much of it was going to be just his presence, because he just sits
there for the entire play. And David’s watching this, he’ll know
why he got the role, is he was the only person that sat erect the entire day. Every other accompanist, you know, when the
singer was reading or something, would just flop off. And David sat there and his presence was such
a calming, lovely presence. Isn’t that interesting. You feel it. And he has to speak and he has to act and
he plays beautifully. So it’s exciting to look for people from
other disciplines and see, how are they going to fit into this? I have six singers, the three that are on
stage and then the three that are off stage, which I think in my play, now I’ve learned
a lot in terms of doublecasting. I’ve learned a new thing, “vocal rest,”
(LAUGHTER) which is very, very scary. Vocal what? Vocal rest. All of a sudden, you get a call one day and
So-and-So has gone to the doctor and they’re on two weeks of vocal rest. (LAUGHTER) Just don’t go to that doctor. (LAUGHTER) Don’t go! (LAUGHS) I spent more time on phones with
doctors saying, “What do you mean, they can’t go on for the next two weeks?” “Well, there’s a slight inflammation on
the side.” I mean, something like the Broadway singers
kind of will, you know, just push through it. So my standbys have been on almost as much. And I have six of them. Three, half of them have never been in a play
before. Vocal rest. In I DO, I DO, the two people, eight performances
a week, they have twenty-two songs that they share between the two of them, plus all the
scenes and all the costume changes and they never miss, you know, they’re there. Oh, I know. You want to say, “He sings for three minutes!” (LAUGHTER) But you know, it amazes me. You’ve got to hit that B flat. They’re like baseball pitchers, in there
every four days. You know, but the interesting thing, I mean,
it’s quite an extraordinary thing for the tenor in my show. It’s like we spend ten minutes talking about
a B flat and he better have it there. And there are times when he doesn’t, because
they’re not machines. But you know, we end the scene differently
when he doesn’t hit it. There are different lines. Really? Well, we try to create a real experience. Yeah, of course. You can’t fake it. You can’t pretend he hit the B flat. And so, we realized, out of town, we better
have a different way out of the scene if he doesn’t hit it. So it always is that particular experience
for that particular audience of someone hitting it or not hitting it. There goes “hitting” again, you see? (LAUGHTER) Was Terrence in on the casting? Oh, yes, yes. And then, at the last round, even Zoe, because
you know, we just had to make sure that that was happening. And you know, it’s not an approval thing,
but you know, when it comes down to casting– I don’t know if this is your experience–
I’ve never had an experience where there’s been a big disagreement, because it’s always
so obvious. Yeah, yeah. You know? Not always? No. Oh, no. Oh, really? All right, what is it? Oh, there were times when I disagreed with
a writer about an actor and you know, sometimes I’ve been right and sometimes I’ve been
wrong. But more often right. (LAUGHTER) And George, do you feel the same way? Yes! Oh, yeah, because particularly when you work
with very forceful writers, they have very, very, very strong opinions about how they
see it. It’s also very interesting when you work
for writers, how they see the character who is really them. Oh, man. Oh, yes! That, how very, very fascinating. You know, the romance versus– They’re always very attractive. (LAUGHTER) The romance of who they want to play them. That is always the most difficult role to
cast, the playwright, yes. Oh, it unquestionably is. It unquestionably is, who the playwright is
in the play. The vanity comes out astoundingly. Of course, in Terrence’s case, he’s an
opera authority, too. So someone who cannot hack it vocally, he’s
going to know instantly. Right. I mean, he’s right there. Those of you who have listened in on the Metropolitan
on Saturdays. Oh, I know. I mean, there were things that he saw in the
pianists, that I hadn’t. Because I’m not an opera authority. I think I functioned in the same way you did
with LA BOHEME. I started doing a lot of research on opera,
and then I realized, “No, no, no, my place, because I’m not an authority and I’ve
been only a few times in my life, my place is to be the conductor to the audience,”
the people, you know, that don’t know anything about the opera. And so it has to get by me, you know, and
then, maybe they’ll understand it. Hi, I’m Alex (PH). In this collaboration process, I was curious
where the actor fits in, and what part do they get to add in what they see as their
character, as their part? And what kind of relationship developed between
you guys and the actor? It’s to anyone. Why don’t you take that up? Well, there’s an interesting juxtaposition
of classical music and country music. And the woman who plays the lead role in my
show was in Nashville for four years, songwriting and all this, and sometimes we would not pass. You know, I was writing music and I’d have
this song for her, and she’d go, “No, you can’t do that, because that’s not
country.” I’d go, “What do you mean, that’s not
country?” “That ain’t country!” It doesn’t hit. Doesn’t hit! (LAUGHTER) But I depended on her quite a few
times. I mean, it is theatre, after all. It isn’t a country concert. And some of it you take and some of it you
discard, but I used a lot of what she [said]. Everybody in COWGIRLS was responsible for
some change in some line somewhere. Yeah. I mean, by the end of it, they know the character
a whole lot better than you do, and if something isn’t ringing true, they know. It’s a very delicate line, though, I think,
with actors. Sometimes. Yes, it is. Very, very delicate. It’s like you can get to, “And So-and-So,
he wouldn’t say that, or she wouldn’t say that.” And you know, your job always has to be to
look at the whole of the play and what’s going to serve the play and not always to
serve their particular character. I did say, on more than one occasion, “This
is not a democracy.” Yeah. Yes. And ANGELS IN AMERICA was the time where it
was sort of the most severe, because actors had been performing Part One for many months. Right. Oh, yes. And we were working on Part Two, and they
were living, breathing, had become those people, and they would go, “No! No, that’s not right for this character!” (LAUGHS) I mean, it was a severe sense of
ownership and so it was a very interesting space to negotiate sometimes. A wonderful thing that can happen, and I know
this is true of Terrence’s work, and it happened a bit on RENT, is when the playwright
or composer can be inspired by the company, the actor, and the work is affected in that
way. Yes. And I think some of the absolute best material
in RENT occurred because Jonathan got to know some of the actors portraying those characters. It was great. Everything in BRING IN ‘DA NOISE was literally
built on the bodies. On those folks, yes. Built completely and totally on the bodies
and the powers, in the sense of what those people can and cannot do. Hello, my name is Rosalind Curry (PH) from
the Random Act of Kindness Foundation, and my question is directed to George Wolfe. I’d like to know, was there a conscious
decision not to include female dancers? And if so, why? It’s very interesting. There were major discussions about it. There was this one girl, a tap dancer, who
Savion completely and totally respects. She was tied up in another project. And there was this other young woman who was
at NYU who wanted to quit school to come do the school. You know, and I just went, “I can’t do
that. So you need to stay.” And we tried very, very hard, early on, to
add them in, with the one woman who Savion is very into who was not available and this
other woman. It was just a very complicated thing. And then I decided at one point, “Okay,
well, let’s let this be what it is and let’s explore in a very specific way these young
men and the dynamics that play at that.” And then, as a result of it, I think the intensity
of Ann’s role in the project took on another, sharper and deeper focus as a result of that. It’s very well balanced, I think. Yeah, yeah. It turned out to be. You wouldn’t think it could balance, but
it does. Thank you, dear. My name is Harriet DeVito (PH) and I’m an
actress. My question is directed to Leonard Foglia. What changes in the production do you anticipate,
working with Patti LuPone? Well, you know, it’s all collaboration. I really don’t know until we start. You know, she and I will start privately at
the beginning of May when we start rehearsals. Well, she’s a wildly different person, and
the play is probably one third the real Callas, one third Terrence’s invention, and one
third the woman that will inhabit it. So I think it will be very different. It’s a different generational thing, she’s
younger. It’s hard to anticipate. All of it is exciting and thrilling. I’m so pleased, you know, that she’s doing
it. And so, I can’t say specifically. I hope to use the fact that she is a musician
and she is a singer. We’ve talked about this already. And to see how that can be integrated into
the piece. And so, that’s the one thing that we’ve
talked about in advance, is how to use her own vocal ability, so that’s the one thing
I can see right now. What’s your feeling about working Off-Broadway,
as all of you have, and all of you have come on Broadway as well, what’s the difference
in your work? What’s the difference in your attitude? Do you feel the pressure, obviously, or not? Well, MASTER CLASS is my first Broadway show. And luckily, we had done it enough places
so that my work was done before I came in here, and I’m really pleased about that. But you know, I wouldn’t look at the marquee,
because I kept thinking, “I’m just in a little theatre on 45th Street.” (LAUGHTER) But I feel lucky that my work was
done. But hopefully, we always have that situation
that you talked about, where you’re not thinking about the future. And this wasn’t, either. We just went to Montana to workshop some play
that Terrence was writing, and it developed and it turned into other things. I think if someone handed it to me and said,
“You’re opening at the Golden in two months with this and Zoe Caldwell,” I don’t know
what that would have been. It evolved so naturally, that hopefully we’ll
always be at that place where you can’t look at the venue. Because if you do, I think [it doesn’t work]. You think that’s just this project? Sometimes, when you’re setting out to create
a Broadway show, I mean, the expectations are different. Like, all of the new things sort of all started
in a smaller venue, not necessarily created to be a Broadway show. Does that somehow free you so you’re not
thinking of money and budget? Well, this is my opinion, but I don’t think
you should ever think about anything being a Broadway show or Off-Broadway show or anything. I think you just set about, “How do I tell
this story?” Because
working on a show seems to me sort of like falling in love. You keep it private until you feel as though
it’s strong, and then you expose it to all your friends, who go, “Why are you with
that person?” You know? And I think that’s so much like doing a
play, that you have to protect it and not think about expectations. I mean, something like VICTOR/VICTORIA or
BIG or some of those things, they start off– They’re clearly designed for their world. Tom, your view here? Well, I think, you know, musicals created
for Broadway, a lot of people are trying to force you to think in terms of, “Oh, you’ve
got to have more production. Oh, you’ve got to do this. Oh, you’ve got to do that.” And that hurts it, do you think? Maybe not for some people. I think it does, because I think you just
do the piece. And my thinking is that it’s probably easier,
at least in musicals, to just do the piece Off-Broadway than to just do the piece on
Broadway. For one thing, you have to raise eight million
dollars, ten million dollars, and then a lot of people are trying to make you make a lot
of compromises. I think it’s also very important that you
allow yourself a chance to discover– I’m sorry to interrupt you. I think I’m going to have to ask you all
to come back and have an extended run here. (LAUGHTER) And I hope that you will, but I
must bring this to a close. This is the American Theatre Wing’s seminar
on “Working in the Theatre,” and this seminar has been on the playscript, director,
the choreographer, the composer and lyricist. And an absolute wealth of material and knowledge
has come out of this. I’m Isabelle Stevenson and I’m President
of the American Theatre Wing, and this is just one of the many year-round programs of
the American Theatre Wing. Thank you so much for being here. (APPLAUSE)

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