Playwright, Director and Choreographer (Working In The Theatre #251)

(APPLAUSE) Welcome to the American Theatre Wing’s “Working in
the Theatre” seminars. This is the 23rd year that we’ve been doing these
seminars, which are coming to you from the Graduate Center of the City University of
New York. We are celebrating, also, the 50th Anniversary
of the American Theatre Wing’s Antoinette Perry Tony Awards. And we are so pleased to be able to bring
you these seminars, which offer a wonderful view of what it is to work in the theatre,
what it is to hear from performers, the producers, the playwrights, the directors, the designers,
the choreographers, and all the people that make the theatre come alive and bring the
magic of theatre to the audience. It is a rare opportunity to be able to hear
right from these professionals that work in the theatre. We are awfully pleased to be able to say that
since we first introduced these seminars, there have been over eight hundred of Broadway’s
and Off Broadway’s and Off-Off Broadway’s greats [here] to be part of the seminars,
which is perhaps one of the best archives of theatrical history that one could have,
as we go back through the years and see and listen to the people that have been a part
of “Working in the Theatre” seminars. Many of you already know that the American
Theatre Wing is famous for its Tony Award, which is given for the achievement of excellence
in the theatre. And it’s a wonderful award and it’s stayed
pretty much on target through all these years. But the American Theatre Wing does more than
just the Tony Awards. We are a service organization, and throughout
the year, we say “theatre” to the community, though the theatre. We achieve that goal by bringing as much theatre
as we can to public schools, to high schools, to hospitals, nursing homes and AIDS centers. We particularly target this to young students
in high schools, who are coming to Broadway for the very first time to see a Broadway
show, this made possible by the cooperation of the producers and the American Theatre
Wing and the Board of Education. In addition, our newest program, “Theatre
in School,” has professionals like [those] you will listen to today, that go out to the
schools and talk to the students on a one-to-one basis, on what it is to be a director or a
playwright and how to be a choreographer and what it takes, and giving them role models. And it’s a wonderful program, and we are
indeed pleased that the American Theatre Wing has this wonderful relationship and respect
of the theatre industry that we can call upon these people to do this. We are proud of the work we do, happy to be
here, and pleased indeed that the theatrical community is so cooperative, and we are indeed
grateful to all of you who are represented here today of the community. I’m going to go on with this seminar, which
is on the playwright, the director, and the choreographer today. And we have Brendan Gill, co-chair, with George
White. Brendan, what are you now? You are a reviewer-in-residence or a critic-in-residence
at [the New Yorker]? Call me anything. (LAUGHTER) He is anything and can be anything, but head
and shoulders above anything else, he loves the theatre and is the most knowledgeable
man. And George White, who is President of the
O’Neill Foundation in Waterford, Connecticut, is a director, an esteemed one at that, both
here and abroad. And I’m going to turn this over to them
right now, so they will get into what it is to work in the theatre, from the viewpoint
of the playwright, the director, and the choreographer. George, Brendan? (APPLAUSE) Thank you. Names and weights of all the players. Farthest on my right is Marlies Yearby, who
choreographed the current hit musical RENT and is working on the Boston production of
that same show. Boston is a small city somewhere to the north
of us. (LAUGHTER) She has worked all over the United
States, creating work for many theatre and dance companies. And next to her is Melvin Bernhardt, who is
the director of THE BLUES ARE RUNNING at the Manhattan Theatre Club. He has directed the New York productions of
CRIMES OF THE HEART, DA, THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS, and A.R. Gurney’s CHILDREN. And right next to me is Mary Rodgers, composer
of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, President of the Board of the Juilliard School, daughter of
Richard Rodgers, representative of the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization, author of children’s
books, and mother of five, which is impressive even to me, who am the father of seven. (LAUGHTER) George? Thank you, Brendan. On my far left is David Henry Hwang, whose
play GOLDEN CHILD is now at the Public Theatre. He wrote M. BUTTERFLY for Broadway and also
was the author of F.O.B., THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD and FACE VALUE, and was appointed
in 1994 by President Clinton to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Next to him, on David’s right, is Nicky
Silver, who wrote the play FIT TO BE TIED, which is playing at Playwrights Horizons. His other plays include FREE WILL AND WANTON
and several more plays with very interesting titles. (LAUGHTER) On my immediate left is David Warre,
who earlier this season directed Tennessee Williams’ SUMMER AND SMOKE, and at present,
his production of FIT TO BE TIED can be seen at Playwrights’ Horizons. He has also directed two other of Mr. Silver’s
plays, PTERODACTYLS and RAISED IN CAPTIVITY. And I would like to, I think, get the puck
on the ice as they say, just so we can keep everybody on their toes, you never know where
I’m going to start, but I will start with Melvin. Talk a little bit about, if you would, or
help us talk about the playwright’s relationship to the director, the director’s relationship
to the playwright. Of course, a lot of that is chemistry. It has to do with the interpersonal relationships,
very, very tricky. Would you start by talking a little bit about
that, because I think this would be a good way to get going? Well, when I was thinking about this subject,
I started out as an assistant to the director Alan Schneider. I did not work on WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA
WOOLF, but he had done that and it was an extraordinary production. While I was working as his assistant, someone
else had done a production that was totally different from Alan’s production, it was
abstract in most ways and so on. And I asked Alan about that approach to it,
and he said, “The responsibility of a director, when he is working with a playwright on a
new play, is to put the vision of the author on the stage, and his first responsibility
is to do that, rather than to take off in any kind of interesting direction of his own.” And I asked Elia Kazan, the father of my generation
of directors, once about the fact that he had given up directing in the theatre in order
to write novels, and he said he felt that as a director, his job was to get inside the
head, the mind, the spirit of the author, and with his craft skills, to execute a production
as if the writer was doing it. And he said he finally got very frustrated,
because he felt he was being Tennessee Williams, he was being Arthur Miller, he was being Robert
Anderson, but he wasn’t being Elia Kazan, and he started to write those novels. And I think that we do have a responsibility
when we do the initial production. Why do you suppose he didn’t start writing
plays? I think he said he didn’t think he had those
gifts. Because a novel is easier. You can do anything you want in a novel and
get away with murder, literally. (LAUGHTER) But not on the stage. That is the hardest possible form. But it would be interesting, are there any
other directors that, feeling the same frustrations, have tried themselves more to write plays? And I can’t think offhand of anybody who
has done that. I can’t, either. Several, we can hope. (LAUGHTER) Well, actually, David, what has been your
experience with directors? Have you had, generally, a relationship with
one director throughout, or one that you would like to continue to direct your plays? No. I seem to have no continuous relationships. (LAUGHTER) You know, I’d like to. But in general, I’ve worked with a variety
of directors. And I think what’s always tricky is trying
to have that moment where you meet the director for the first time, and you try to decide,
in a relatively short period of time, are we going to get married? And somebody sets it up. You know, it’s sort of like a date. And you sit there and try and judge from how
they talk about the play and how I talk about the play whether or not we’re compatible. And really, on very little information, you
then go into this quite extensive collaboration that’s, you know, quite intimate in a certain
way. And when I was working with John Dexter on
M. BUTTERFLY, for instance, John, I think, had a method that was quite useful. He had us read the play together out loud. And he took half the roles and I took half
the roles. And that way, without having to sort of discuss
the theory of it, per se, we were able to see if our approaches to the characters seemed
to be similar. And that was sort of a very interesting way
to have that kind of date. And in general, you know, there are so many
ways that you try to determine from a brief meeting whether or not a director is right
for the material. David and Nicky, you guys can talk about it. I mean, you have worked together a lot. What is your take on that? Both of you, in terms of obviously you’re
on probably the same wavelength. Well, we also read M. BUTTERFLY together quite
a bit. (LAUGHTER) We knew it was gonna work! Well, I think I would agree with Melvin, I
guess quoting Kazan. When you do a new play, it isn’t your task
to have a take on the play as much as it is to help the author give birth to the play. It’s a kind of midwifery, if that’s how
you say that word. Unlike Kazan, at this moment, to me that’s
very exciting. It doesn’t seem like a subordinate role,
it seems like a very creative and exciting role. But I think that it doesn’t happen unless
the director and the writer have a kind of essential connection, a sort of aesthetic
connection. And I think that Nicky and I do, so I trust
his vision and he trusts mine, and we sort of like working together. I think that goes a long way. How long has it been a tradition in the theatre,
if anybody knows, to be a director? Not that long. Like a hundred and fifty years. No. It’s amazing. It’s like there never were conductors of
symphony orchestras in the old days, and then that became a new profession. The profession of director is probably maybe
a hundred years old, but maybe not more. Beerbohm Tree and people like that always
directed themselves, and in this country, that was always the tradition. And I don’t know who the first director
was, but it’s wonderful how in America we multiply professions anyway. We’re always thinking of brand new ones. But the work done has to be done, I would
think, with a sense of comradeship. I can’t imagine its working otherwise. Of course, Kazan was a great, vehement personality. He was tremendous. He could have cowed a less strong playwright
than Arthur Miller, for example, who’s not going to be cowed by anybody. But your method would not be to cow people. Well, I think all of us who direct feel that
this is a collaborative thing that we do. You collaborate with the writer. It’s very difficult for writers to take
their work and hand it over, but indeed, that’s what happens. And then the other collaborators come in,
the designers and the actors, and then ultimately, the audience. Mary, have you done directing, as well as
everything else? (LAUGHTER) No. Not yet. No, and I wouldn’t know where to begin. It’s this arcane activity, as far as I can
make out. I should think, though, that it depends a
lot for a director on how much the writer has indicated. For instance, Terrence McNally, in LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION!, evidently had no scenic instructions
at all, which gives the director either more leeway or a horrifyingly loose thing to aim
at or try to satisfy. That was true on the show I’m doing now,
with two things. The author and I did sit down and read the
play together. I read the play all the time, with David. And I have with other directors. I don’t read with them because if I’m
not talking, I’m not listening. (LAUGHTER) But I just will read the whole
damn play. I’ll just sit and drink and smoke and read
the whole play to them. No, it’s a two hander. And we actually read this play to each other,
and that’s how we got married. But the point I was just about to make? (LAUGHTER) I don’t know. Oh, yes. We had no scenic indications, except from
the dialogue, I discerned that this play takes place in Central Park. And the collaboration with Jim Youmans, the
scene designer, and Ken Posner, the lighting designer, and the sound designer, Ray Schilke,
has just created a whole [thing]. It’s challenging, because there are different
realities in the play. But I would think that’s a very stimulating
challenge. Yes. Because you know, unlike — a word from my
sponsor! — Eugene O’Neill, who wrote everything
out (LAUGHTER), where every chair was to be, this would, I would think, give you much more
fun to collaborate that way. Marlies, I was going to say, since you are
a choreographer, how do you work in relationship to the director? Do they lean on you in the nice sense or in
the pejorative sense, in terms of making things happen? Well, actually, most of the directors that
I’ve worked with tend to give me a little room in that, the way that I work, because
I use gesture as a basis for the movement language, is so connected to the script, that
in a sense, as I’m working with the actors, there’s a bit of directorial language that
goes on in getting them to connect to the movement as if it was a second language for
them. So I tend to have a lot of leeway and I tend
to have to really sit close to the director, in that I don’t tend to go away on my own
a lot. I tend to sit there, even when there are scenes
going on that I may not choreograph at all, because it’s very important for me to know
who the actors are as people and then as they are as the characters and then to hear the
language of the director, so that when I go off and begin to work, we don’t bump heads. How in the world did you learn that silent
language, back and forth? Oh, gosh. Because that’s a hard thing, you can’t
be taught, you have to have experienced it. Now, what was your experience? Well, I’ve had a vast experience. (LAUGHS) I would say that I noticed that this
gestural language that I started playing with happened when I was in San Jose State University
and I developed this piece. I don’t even remember the name of the piece,
but I started playing with it, but eventually, it became a piece called “The Sometimes
Crazies.” I’m also a choreographer that works in the
contemporary modern dance scene, so that’s the basis by which I work. And I think that I really connected, I realized
that a lot of my language came from a relationship with my mother, who was a contemporary dancer,
in her time, what was called an interpretive dancer of her time. And I didn’t realize it until I saw myself
improvising on video. And then I realized it was like speaking. And it had a real relationship to jazz music
in that way, which is sort of what she improvised to a lot, in that there was a call and response,
or there was a language. It was all about language. And so, as I choreographed, I just became
very interested, and I called them gesture dances. And I worked a lot with contemporary writers
and directors, who are sort of working in alternative theatre forms, and sort of that
marriage of how I work just fit right into it. So it was great to see it come together in
RENT, where it was a whole different thing. Well, you must have started as a baby, then! Yes! (LAUGHTER) How? It was all in the family. I would say my first choreographic work was
in my bedroom with some friends to James Brown. (LAUGHTER) You know, and I just jumped up,
and started creating work that way. And from there, I did some formal training
as a youngster, and then just fought against it. Where did you go? Oh, in Okinawa. (LAUGHS) It’s a long history. But I traveled a lot, because my father was
in the service. And I’m not an “Army brat,” because
that’s the language that’s used a lot. It was actually very difficult, but exciting. And so, I just have a vast experience. I did disco dancing for a while, between high
school and college, and made money, snuck in the clubs and did disco dancing. Studied modern dance from people like Aaron
Osborne, who’s sort of like a Lar Lubovitch kind of Jose Limon sort of style of work. Actually never studied jazz, but then again,
from the experience of my mother, had it in my body, so found that when I would go to
take a jazz class, a good jazz class, because there’s not so many good jazz classes around
any more, that I could naturally do it easily. You sound like a character in a Nicky Silver
play. You ask a question and the answer comes out,
“Okinawa”! (LAUGHTER) Now, that’s a very daring thing. You do that kind of thing all day long. What kind of things are you talking about? What does that mean?! (LAUGHTER) The things that you talked about, when you
first met the director, is that the way it happens and this marriage that’s going to
take place, this responsibility that you’re turning over, is it just in first meetings,
casually like that? Don’t you have a say in who the director
is that you want? Certainly. But I mean, that’s why you have these meetings. You have these meetings to try to determine
who it is that I want to work with in this play, or whatever the particular situation
might be. You know, obviously, there’s a multitude
of different ways that these meetings come about. And it may be that there’s someone whose
work I admire and who I’ve always wanted to work with, and we set things up. And by the way, it’s not just a matter of
the playwright approving on the director. It’s also the director trying to decide
if he or she wants to get into this marriage as well. So for any particular reason that this pairing
comes about and this lunch or whatever it is, that’s usually where the decision starts
to be made as to whether or not these two people are going to commit to working together. Have you ever broken off the relationship,
once you got into it? Yes, you say? Oh, all the time. I mean, haven’t you? Yeah, it happens all the time. Now, after a few years, I mean, I have sort
of a couple [people]. I work with David a lot. You know, I’ve worked with Bob Falls, I’ll
probably work with him again. But the first play of mine that David directed,
I had been working, like directing my own plays and producing them myself in what’s
ostensibly a garage, like on Eleventh Avenue, for mostly hoboes and hookers. But they were a very appreciative audience! (LAUGHTER) Because it was heated! (LAUGHTER) And they were so good that I had
very long plays, because they could just sit there in the warm. And so, I mean, they weren’t really very
good, but anyway. And then Doug Aibel, he runs the Vineyard,
he wanted to produce PTERODACTYLS. And I didn’t know, I was so poor. I couldn’t afford to ever go to the theatre. And I had been out of school for a long time. So the American Theatre Wing, that brings
theatre to schools, had passed me by. (LAUGHTER) So I didn’t know who any of these
people were. So I had lots of meetings with directors,
and they were much more established than I was, so they would sit down and tell me what
they thought my play was about and what style it should be. And I said, “Well, it was really nice meeting
you, and darn, I think I left my tub running,” or something. And I didn’t actually meet David. We committed because of a phone call. I had this list of directors that Doug Aibel
gave me, and I had met with several of them. None of you, I’m sure, saw PTERODACTYLS,
but there is a dinosaur skeleton throughout the play, and one of the first directors I
met, who’s a sort of an ipsy-pipsy big deal. I was impressed with the credits! (LAUGHTER) And she said to me, “I think
you should cut the dinosaur.” Well, the play is called PTERODACTYLS! (LAUGHTER) Yeah, so sometimes you do [not
click]. So anyway, I was in Washington, directing
this play at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and they had this phone number and I called, and
I had left the fax with David’s credits, but I remembered I was supposed to call him. So I said, “This is Nicky Silver,” and
he had read the play already. And I said, “Listen, you know, I’ve met
with all the directors, like ten directors in the last week, and they’ve all told me
what they thought my play was about, and I didn’t really agree with any of them, so
I’ll tell you what it’s about. And if you agree, fine, and if you don’t,
then that’s fine, too. We can just part.” (LAUGHTER) So I told him what I thought it
was about, and he said — (LAUGHS) I said, “All right.” He said, “All right, sure!” And then I said, and he was really insulted
by this, but I didn’t realize it at the time. But really, it was very bad form. Because I had lost the fax of his credits,
and I said, “Now, what the hell have you directed?” Then he told me. Well, it was embarrassing. I mean, sometimes it is a strange blind date
that David has described. Ideally, the writer has some sense of the
director’s work, so there’s some context. Had I had a sense … (LAUGHTER) As you know. But I remember feeling very offended, because
I thought, “Well, you know, I have credits.” But I loved this play so much that I sort
of got over myself, and I kind of recited my credits. And then he said — “Oh, you’re much too big a deal to work
with me! You’ll never take me seriously. You’ll just dismiss all of my ideas!” (LAUGHTER) And that was how we got married. Yeah. And I would say the most important thing for
me with a director is a director who can yell at me and feel like it’s all right and whom
I can cry in front of and feel it’s all right. (DAVID LAUGHS) But then that sort of is our
relationship. He yells, I cry. (LAUGHTER) Which they don’t really teach
in school, how to figure that out, because that’s the most important thing. Because it’s very emotional, and you need
to know — the leakage here is terrible, there’s a horrible spill going on off camera, it’s
very disturbing to me! — but you need to know that you can just have a fit. You want to tell people what the spill is,
before they get really alarmed? Mr. Hwang had an accident. (LAUGHTER) Do you remember? We had an actor on the panel one time, a fairly
successful young man, and he said that he auditioned directors, he would go for a part
— I saw that, and it was so offensive! (LAUGHTER) Well, but the interesting thing was that he
would say to the director, “Tell me what you think the play is about,” having read
the play, and if the director had a completely different slant than he had visualized it,
he thought, “Well, no, I don’t want to work with this director, because we’re not
going to be able to work together if we’re so far apart in our thinking on the play.” Well, I think that’s true. I mean, it’s true in the writer/director
collaboration. I actually teach directing at Brooklyn College,
and my students often ask me, you know, “What do you do if the writer won’t make these
changes that you think he should make?” And I always say, “Well, if you’ve gotten
to this point where you’ve formed teams, you’ve made a terrible mistake. Either you oughtn’t be working with that
writer, or he or she oughtn’t be working with you, or you’ve done something wrong.” If you’re not all sort of serving this play
together, if you don’t kind of essentially agree, if the writer doesn’t trust you enough
to really listen to your ideas, and you don’t trust the writer enough to listen to his or
her ideas, you’re not really, in my opinion, a director of new plays. You don’t really understand the interaction. I would hope, there’s nothing that Nicky
ever feels he can’t say to me or ask me about. “Well, why does the actor make that cross? Couldn’t he sit earlier? Don’t you think that light cue is being
called too soon?” If he looks at a costume sketch, “Why green? Why not red?” I mean, if we can’t ask each other those
questions, sort of in the spirit of collaboration, then I think, as a director, one should only
direct revivals. Do you change your attitude with other playwrights? No! I love working with writers. First of all, I like having them around. In fact, when I directed SUMMER AND SMOKE,
I invited Nicky a lot (LAUGHS) because I liked having a playwright around! Is it better with a dead playwright? It is? No, it’s not that. They’re completely different. It really is apples and oranges. But I like being able to say to the writer,
you know, “We’re having trouble with this moment. What does she really want here?” You know, I can sort of tap dance with an
actor for fifteen minutes, and the writer will say, “Well, no, the character is lying. She doesn’t mean that.” And then the actor sort of finds clarity. I would rather say, at that moment, “Nicky,
what is going on in this moment?” My ego doesn’t sort of get into the way
of that, and I think if one’s ego gets in the way of asking those questions and involving
the writer in that way, then, as I said earlier, you should direct revivals, where you’re
the star of the show. I wanted to pick up on it, too, about dealing
with the text, with the script. And Melvin, to throw a bouquet, I know that
you are really a genius at this, in dealing with text and with scripts. How does one learn that, to deal with script
analysis? Do you learn that or are you born with that,
in terms of analyzing a play, bringing something as a director to it other than just moving
people around? It’s practice, I suppose, if it’s anything. I think you just immerse yourself in the material,
and it tells you where to go, in the best of circumstances. Yeah. And if it’s not there? If it’s not there, then you shouldn’t
do the play. And how do you feel about dead playwrights
versus living playwrights? Living ones are more fun. They’re better conversationalists. Yeah, that’s right. What were you before you were an assistant
director? Waiting to be. I always wanted to be [a director]. Waiting to be an assistant? Were you an actor? Oh, yeah, I did some acting. All right, that’s what I wanted to know. But you wouldn’t have wanted to see it. (LAUGHTER) No, from the time I was twelve
and saw the first live theatre, I just knew I had to be in the theatre. Yeah. The majority of directors that have been here
have been actors before, I think, more so that actors into playwrights. It’s mostly actors into directors. You know, in the old days, it used to be — (IN AN “OLD” VOICE) In the old days, yes. (LAUGHTER) It used to be that you got to directing via
being a stage manager. I did that! Yeah, and so you directed the road production,
and that was how you sort of wove [a pattern]. I guess this has changed a lot. It’s changed a lot now. There are other changes. For instance, in the old days, whenever they
were, directors I think didn’t always have the kind of partnership that you guys are
talking about. You had somebody like George Abbott and you
did not argue with Mr. Abbott, and he wasn’t terribly interested in what your vision of
the play was. He was interested in what his vision was. Right. And I don’t think there are, fortunately,
that many directors left like that, not that George wasn’t wonderful. But you have to be willing to be captain of
the ship and adept at it, if you take on that kind of responsibility. Well now, Mary, you’re going into a revival
of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. And as the person that created this, do you
have, one, a say about the director, a major say? Obviously, you would. What did you bring to this? What did you look for in the director, because
obviously it’s not the same go-around. And also, it’s obviously different from
a revival, because people remember this, or some people do, and some people, it’s fresh. So all of these, obviously, are going on in
your head when you do this. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? It was a little different for us, because
Gerry Gutierrez and I have been hoping that this show would get revived for something
like twenty years. He’s always wanted to do it, and he’s
a perfect person for it, because he is a trained musician who then turned around and was in
the first graduating class of Juilliard in the acting division. I didn’t have to look for anybody, and I
can’t imagine anybody better to work with. He’s very bossy, too, which I kind of like,
because I don’t know anything about directing, and it would be interesting to find out what
David and Nicky feel about all that. Because I have no idea how anybody directs
or what it means, and I can’t even tell the difference until I see a good show and
then a bad show, of the same show, what a director’s contribution necessarily is. I don’t even go to rehearsal very often,
because at this point, they’re moving people around the stage and I’ll just get in the
way or not know what they’re doing. Interesting. Would you like to speak to that, David? I mean, I’ve directed a couple of times. I mean, I directed some of my early work,
and I’ve directed some other plays, mostly in the Bay Area, when I was younger. And I think what I basically found is that
I don’t mind directing, but I’m too lazy to do it. (LAUGHTER) I don’t really like having to
show up every day. You know, I like sitting at home and sort
of writing and, you know, seeing my kid. And you know, that’s a good life. And like, right now, my show is in tech and
so they’re doing twelve hour days and focusing lights and I don’t have a great deal of
interest in that. And I also think that I’ve learned that
I’m sort of conceptually visual, in that I’m able to sort of create situations that
I think someone who was actually visual could stage in a way that it would be interesting,
but I don’t know how to do it. I mean, I’m not very good at thinking of
sets or that sort of thing. So, as a result, it’s best for me I think
just to be a writer. “Just”! But directing, I think, doesn’t finally
appeal to me. As a writer, how early on did you decide to
be a playwright, rather than a novelist or a poet? Almost everybody begins as a poet, as far
as I can tell. Yeah. No, I always wanted to only be a playwright. I mean, I didn’t always want to be a writer,
but as soon as I got to college and began seeing some plays, I don’t know. I just started to think, “I can do that,”
or I liked the idea of having live people I could manipulate around. I mean, it might be sort of megalomaniacal,
I’m not sure. But no other form of writing really interested
me. What was your first play? I wrote a play about the comic strip character,
Green Lantern. I saw that! It was fantastic! (LAUGHS) And you know, sent it to people. I didn’t realize you had to get, you know,
rights at that point. (LAUGHTER) I sent it around to theatres. And actually, this GOLDEN CHILD is a co-production
between the Public Theatre and South Coast Rep. And Jerry Patch, who’s the dramaturg
at South Coast, actually wrote me a very encouraging letter. He has no memory of this, but he wrote me
a letter, and it was the first sort of encouragement I had gotten from a real theatre. So it’s kind of special place in my heart
for Jerry. And then what? Then, go on a little bit about you. Was this when you were in college? Yeah, that was when I was in college. And I grew up in L.A., I was born and raised
there. And so I was home in L.A. for the summer,
between my junior and senior years, and I saw an ad in the L.A. Times calendar. It said, “Study playwriting with Sam Shepard.” So I thought, “That’s good,” and I clipped
it and sent it in. And it turned out to be the first year of
the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, which since then became pretty well known. But because it was the first year, there were
only two of us that applied to be students. We both got in. (LAUGHTER) And that summer I began to sort of learn about
writing from my unconscious and stuff, and started to realize that there were some concerns
in my unconscious that had to do with, you know, issues of my background and ethnicity
and culture and stuff like that, that started to come out in my work. And I wrote F.O.B., which became my first
play, that eventually went to the O’Neill Festival and then got staged in New York at
the Public. And then, I sort of had a career! (LAUGHTER) And an agent? Yeah, I got an agent after the O’Neill. How did that happen? Michael Feingold, actually, who’s a critic
for the Village Voice, said, “Have I got an agent for you!” And I signed with Ellen Merrill, and she was
my agent for a number of years, and we had a very nice relationship. Should anybody be talking about, do we want
to get into the whole sort of ugly-slash-interesting topic of what the director actually owns these
days? Because that concept is changing. Sure, why not? I think it’s a very important issue. The shirt on his back, maybe. (LAUGHTER) But I just want to say, before you do that,
that I go to every single rehearsal. I am at every minute of tech. I am at every design meeting, every note session. I look at every light bulb, thread choice. How does anybody get any work done? (LAUGHS) I know, it’s a shock, isn’t it? I do. What about casting? I’m at every audition. But the thing is, Nicky’s presence in those
meetings and in those rehearsals is neither intrusive nor sort of dominating. I mean, one thing he always says, and I think
it’s true, is that he sits at home and writes alone all the time. He wants to be there when we’re rehearsing. He wants to sort of be part of that process. That’s the reward. Yes! I mean, it seems perfectly appropriate to
me. As a matter of fact, if Nicky’s personality
in rehearsal were — Like it is now! (LAUGHTER) Was disturbing for the cast in some way then,
you know, I would talk to him about it. But the fact is, it’s not, and he’s actually
just a kind of beneficent presence in the process. And I like to have [him there]. Probably a very reassuring one, too. Yeah, absolutely. And I like the actors feeling comfortable
with him, and being able to say to him, you know, “Help me with this line. Do I need to say it? I feel like I’m already playing this.” And if he were some kind of intimidating stranger,
who just made occasional appearances, I think perhaps we’d all be more nervous about having
him around. Well now, Nicky, you also said that you started
directing your own work. And do you think that taught you something,
both positively and negatively? Yes. But I imagine positively, too. Oh, positively. It did. I mean, having worked for about six years
in this garage-type [theatre]. It’s called the Sanford Meisner Theatre. It has no relationship to the man whatsoever. It was simply named that so that they could
have an event that would hopefully get some publicity, and they called, like, his foundation
and they said, “Can we name it the Sanford Meisner Theatre?” and they said, “Oh,
all right.” But you know, it was like Judy and Mickey. We built sets, we hung [lights]. I mean, it was exactly that, for about six
or seven years. And you learn how to do everything, and you
learn when to shut up and when to talk — well, not completely, obviously, but! (LAUGHTER) You know? But it does, you learn how to get everything
[done]. I only wanted to bring up that I go to everything
because you have these two stay-at-homes, making it sound like, (LAUGHTER) “Well,
I don’t know, then move around!” I’m there every single damn minute and enjoy
it immensely. I don’t like to watch the play. I can’t imagine that anybody does. (LAUGHTER) No, I don’t like to watch the
play, that makes me uncomfortable. Tell me about one thing, which comes up with
directors all the time, but you said actors often want to make more than mere suggestions,
that they really begin to think that the play is theirs, so that the director has to mollify
that character, that actor who is pushing a little too hard. Yeah, but again, I don’t know how you let
the event become so distorted that that’s happening. Obviously, the playwright wrote the play and
the actors do not write the play. If an actor is that uncomfortable with the
role, early on in rehearsal, I would take the actor aside and say, “If you don’t
believe in this play, go find another play.” Jean Smart was saying yesterday that the moment
she read the play, she knew that that character was a character she wanted to play. She was mad to play the part! Yeah. Well, it’s the only woman in it! (LAUGHTER) There’s that, yes. There’s something also about the actors
that can assist the writers in helping to find what it is that they’ve written in
the process. Absolutely. And they do. I mean, I think Jean made some interesting
suggestions, had some very sort of important questions about several events in the play. And that does help the writer. But again, it helps the writer. Right. If an actor views his or her job as being
some kind of dramaturg/editor, then maybe they should become writers. No, not so much a dramaturg/editor, but I
think that there’s something incredible about the process of theatre, about the process
of putting a work together, that there is discovery. Absolutely, yes. And that, you know, yes, sometimes you can
create work and you can know everything about that work, but in reality, most times we don’t. You know, most times, whatever it is that
you’ve done, whether it be that you’ve written it or you’ve choreographed it or
directed it, the process and wonder of putting the work together is the process of discovering
what all is there, and maybe, even what is there that is not obviously there. I think the actor’s role is really important,
because most of us who write plays, we write a lot in rehearsal. We come into situations where the beginning
of rehearsal we get the play to be as good as we can, but once you hear it and once you
start to see it in front of an audience, obviously things change. And consciously or unconsciously — I guess
consciously, because I’m talking about it! — I find myself sort of writing for the actors
that have been cast. Still trying to hold onto my vision, of course. But basically, the form is literary but at
the same time it’s about creating an event. And the event has to do with the particular
individuals who we’ve now decided should inhabit these roles. And if there’s something that they’re
better at or they can do more strongly than something else, I have a tendency to then
start to move the rewrites in that direction. That’s interesting, because in dance you
take the same thing for granted. In the old days, Moliere, Shakespeare, all
those people, they all wrote for specific actors, because there were also companies
in those days, so you knew what you were doing. Moliere wrote all those parts for himself. He had a bad cough, so he put his bad cough
in the play. Everybody laughed at him, every time he coughed. But it isn’t traditional any more for playwrights
to think, “Now I’m going to write a play that would be good for a certain actor.” But you can do that in the course of rewrites. Now, have you, Nicky, ever written for a particular
person? No. And I think — I don’t think — I think
it is — I think — oh, my God, if I say “I think” one more time! But I believe (LAUGHTER) that it is only the
foolish writer like myself who does not, because the way to really make money these days is
to write plays, good, bad or indifferent, for huge movie stars and get them on Broadway. And that’s really where the money is. And the play might be fabulous, it might be,
you know, not so fabulous, but if you write a great sort of tour-de-force for some Hollywood-esque
glamour puss, you’ll rake it in, baby! So I think I’m going to go home today and
actually start that kind of project. (LAUGHTER) This, like, purging my soul has
been very nice, but you know, I think it’s really time to do that, you know. Everything has an exception. Ed Harris, a great movie actor, is also giving
a great performance. I didn’t [mean that]. No, they usually do give great performances. But I think there is this very sort of obvious
trend, you know, and I don’t want to obviously be specific, but where plays get rather lukewarm
responses but have very grand performances in them, and usually it’s a big movie star. You know, they make a lot of money. So I need a typewriter! The late playwright Harry Kondoleon, who was
a friend of mine, said, “If you want to get a star in the play, what you have to do
is write one of these plays where one person is on stage the entire time and everybody
else just comes in and out.” And so, I wrote M. BUTTERFLY. (LAUGHTER) There we are! In RENT, you’re dealing with a lot of people
who have not been on stage before. How do they take direction? How do you get through to them? How are they? I think it took a while for some people just
to understand the language. I mean, we had to develop a common language,
because I come from a particular [place]. The interesting thing about RENT, I think,
between the collaboration of the actors, the director, and the designers, is that we all
came from different worlds. Some of the performers, who are now actors,
came from a musical background, so they were very musical oriented. And as they looked at the music, they immediately
sang from a certain place of their own passion, as singers would, on stage. So I think it took a while. Michael [Greif] had to discover a language
that worked with all of us, and then in turn, we had to understand his language, and then
together sort of create new language, so that we could all understand each other. So I think that they took the directions well,
once that began to happen. I think he had to begin to speak with certain
performers, like Adam, through a place of music and he attached to that immediately. Idina is another person [like that]. How did you instill the discipline of theatre
into them? Rehearsal! (LAUGHS) That rehearsal process. Because that’s where it is distinctive from
almost every other medium. Right, the process. They’re smart. They’re all very smart in that way. And all of them, I think, had a sense of performing. I don’t think that anybody has not performed. It was just what their form was, you know? Some, like I said, were more musical, music
background, singing rock or blues. And some were actors and some were more dancer
first than actor. So I think all of them had a sense of discipline
about performing. Then it was just about understanding that
particular craft of theatre. It’s a great job. I want to get back to Mary, the nitty-gritty. That’s just where I was about to go, too. And I wanted to start, Mary, by saying that
you obviously come out of a world-famous theatrical background. Did you find that difficult to break in with
MATTRESS, because of that? I mean, how did you get that production going,
which was wonderful? And also, P.S., did you have Carol Burnett
in mind, or what? I started writing children’s songs for Little
Golden records, when I was twenty-one or -two. I mean, those were my first sort of paying
jobs, which were actually for hire. I didn’t ask for royalties because I didn’t
know any better, and you’d think I would! (LAUGHTER) Considering who my father was,
he knew about royalties! He didn’t help you out with that contract? It was too late. My mother and father both would say, “People
will take you at the price you put on yourself, and if you keep doing these songs for three
hundred dollars, they’ll think you’re just cheap.” And I said, “Yeah, but they’ll hire me,
because if I don’t do it that way, there’ll be nine hundred other people begging for the
job.” And I do believe that. When you’re an underling, you do whatever
you have to do. After doing those children’s songs for quite
a long time, Marshall Barrow, whose idea it was originally to do a spoof of the Hans Christian
Andersen fairy tale, had in mind to do it with Nancy Walker. We expected to do it with Nancy Walker, she
wanted to do it. This was after our preliminary thing. She would have been great. Yeah, she would have been wonderful. But guess who said no? Nancy Walker? Mr. Abbott. No, Nancy Walker said yes. And we were all set, and Mr. Abbott had a
production meeting, this is everybody now, this is the designers, and you know, everybody. And he said, “Well, now, I’m going to
do this show, and I have about May to do it in, so how many people here want Nancy Walker
in the production?” And all the hands went up except George’s,
and he said, “Well, I guess I’m outvoted here, but I’m not going to have any fun
if I have to do it this way.” And so what do you do? George Abbott is the person from whom you’re
going to get money or you’re going to get investors, and we wound up with Carol Burnett. What a pity! (LAUGHTER) Interesting. Now, picking up on that a little bit, also,
if you will, Mr. Abbott’s contribution. And Melvin, you’re on the board of SSD&C. Not at the moment, but I have been. All right, but you have been. You ought to explain what SSD&C is, whether
you’re on the board now or not. I’m sorry, yes. It’s the Society of Stage Directors and
Choreographers, which is the directors’ guild, if you will. Directors’ and choreographers’ union. We’re actually a union. He has a union and the writers don’t have
a union. You have a guild. And I’m quite cranky about that. (LAUGHTER) You have to take that up with Peter Stone. Well, he’s cranky, too. (LAUGHTER) He’s always been cranky! What’s the difference between a union and
a guild? We’re a labor union. We are, in fact, a labor union, and the Dramatists’
Guild is an association of writers, I think, who work together, but have no — The difference is that we don’t have any
clout, like you. Well — (LAUGHS) No, no, a guild really doesn’t have the
same kind of clout. As a director and a member of that union,
you have to do what that union tells you to do. You do not have to do what the Dramatists’
Guild tells you to do. It can only be a recommended, voluntary action. And sometimes that works, and sometimes it
doesn’t. You don’t abide by certain qualifications
that the guild puts down? We try. Especially the people who are more successful,
or who have gotten there, feel that it’s their responsibility to set a decent example
for the younger kids. But if you’re twenty-four and you have no
money and you’re doing stuff in a garage, and Manny Azenberg comes along and says, “I
want to produce your play on Broadway, but I’m going to give you fifty cents a week,”
if you’re Nicky and you’re desperate because nobody’s ever paid any attention to you,
you’ll say yes. Then the Dramatists’ Guild is supposed to
go to Nicky and say, “You can’t accept that.” And it’s often very, very tough, and it’s
the very rare young writer who has the balls to say, “I’m going to turn this down,
because I believe in the strength of a voluntary union of the writers.” Actually, that deal was hypothetical that
you were just [talking about]? Yes, but I could work that out for you later. All right. Because that sounds good! (LAUGHTER) But Melvin, so there are times, and I know
we’ve been through this, where the director has felt, “Look, I have shepherded this
play from the beginning, you know, from West Mastodon Nostril Montana Rep now to Broadway.” Now the playwright wants to get somebody else,
or the producer says, “I won’t, because you don’t have a name. I want to use somebody else on Broadway.” And the director says, “Okay, that I don’t
like, but if that is the case, I own –” What? This, that? And how does that [work]? That’s really a problem now, more and more,
I think. “I created this idea.” Well, what we do is always in service to the
play. But just as the writer can get fifty cents
in the garage, you know, if Manny wants to move the play, the director, you know, Manny
can also say, “But I could get Mike Nichols.” And so, somebody who spent a couple of years
working on a project, it’s not like — How are you protected by your guild, though,
from that happening? Don’t they have to give you a piece of the
action, the way Equity now demands it for actors who are in workshops of plays? We have it in some jurisdictions, but not
all. And the problem is that before there’s a
producer, there is a director working with a writer. And so, you know, the contract, as it were,
must be between the director and the writer. Well, what I think a lot of people out here
who are younger, by far, than I am need to know is that that wasn’t always the case. There was a very important function for something
called the producer in those days, and it was the producer who worked with the writer. And together, they found the director. And the producer now has almost no function,
most of the time. You can name on one hand the number of creative
producers, as against in the thirties, forties, fifties, where those people made a tremendous
artistic contribution to the work, and functioned as a third eye. They had a continuity, too. Yes. That was Robert Whitehead, for example. He’s about the only one left. Whitehead is one of the last ones. One of the last ones, yeah. And Manny Azenberg. And Manny, and Roger Berlind. Yes, although I don’t think Roger would
be, and he’s a lovely man with extremely good taste, but he’s not an active creative
participant in the theatre, that I know of, in the way that — Kermit Bloomgarten. Or Weinman. Or Shumlin. I think that that role, to a large extent,
has been taken over by artistic directors of not-for-profit institutions. That’s it. Lincoln Center Theatre, Playwrights Horizons,
the Public, South Coast Rep, these are theatres that have artistic directors with commitments
to writers. It’s a great argument for Off Broadway. Yeah. But the director has taken on a lot of what
used to be producer function. I think that’s true. When I started out, I mean, a producer called
up and said, “I’ve got this play. We want to open in New Haven on such-and-such
a date, starting rehearsals four weeks earlier. Then we go to Washington, then we go to Boston. The New York opening is February 26th.” And that was the way it worked. And the script was ready to go. Now we do a play in a regional theatre, and
we try to get producers to come and see it. Well, first we do a reading at the O’Neill. (LAUGHTER) Then you do a workshop and then
you do a production. Exactly. You know, at a first class regional theatre. And then you do a tour, and then it comes
to New York. And then you do another regional theatre the
next year, trying to incorporate everybody’s suggestions. Right. If you’re doing all that, what’s wrong
with Nicky Silver taking fifty cents in order to get his play on Broadway or Off Broadway,
whichever, and then if it works — I’m going to Broadway for fifty cents! (LAUGHTER) Okay, all right. I’ve contributed this much in this place,
and actors, and all the arguments that one hears about what you get out of the play. And then, if it works, then some kind of a
standard that he must apply himself to, of a Dramatists’ Guild or whatever it might
be. But why not have the opportunity that actors
want, to perform? Sure. Because that’s the only thing they have,
is an audience? From a director’s point of view, though,
we are also working for fifty cents. When I did DA, we started at the Hudson Guild
Theatre. I was paid two hundred dollars, all together,
for directing DA. And after we got reviewed in the Times, the
next performance was like a meeting of the League. Every producer in town was there to see the
show. And then they were bidding on the show, and
we wound up doing it on Broadway. I could have been replaced! I had no guarantee that I was going to continue
with the show. Your membership in the union, though, meant
that you couldn’t be replaced? No. No! We didn’t have any of that then. I see. We had nothing. I couldn’t have been bought out. I mean, I could have been just discarded. And I would have put all that time in for
naught. And the reverse of that is that’s still
true in a lot of jurisdictions. It is still true in a lot of jurisdictions,
and after, it seems to me — we were lucky with DA, because in the same season, it moved
to Broadway. But sometimes Lloyd Richards and August Wilson
work three or four years on a play, in various venues, before it appears in New York. Now, Lloyd certainly should be entitled, I
certainly hope he gets, some percentage of the subsidiary rights. Well, I think this is a very important part
of the discussion, and I’d like to continue, but we’re going to have to stop right now
for a minute, to take a breath, stand up and stretch, and then go on with this. And I think that it’s one of the most important
things that’s come out of the playwright/director seminars, because this is what people want
to know, how you’re protected, how you’re not protected, and the responsibilities of
the playwrights. So, please, everybody, stretch, stop for a
minute, come right back and sit down, and we’ll continue. (APPLAUSE) MALE VOICE
This is CUNY-TV, Channel 75. (APPLAUSE) We’re continuing the American
Theatre Wing seminars on “Working in the Theatre,” which are coming to you from the
Graduate Center of the City University of New York. And this seminar has a panel of directors
and playwrights and one choreographer here. But we’re all talking about what role each
one plays in the development of the play, that you eventually, the audience, sees. So we’re going to continue that right now
with George White and Brendan Gill, co-directors. Robert Frost once said that poetry was the
application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, and in a sense, that’s
true of playwriting. But how does one learn how to become a director? Because we talked earlier about being a stage
manager. But David, perhaps you could talk a little
bit, and Melvin, about how do you really learn? You talked about having mentors. Right. But now we have directing programs. Yeah. And I think they are great. I teach in one now, as I said. I didn’t go to graduate school, and I had
a kind of an odd path. I don’t know that I can recommend it, because
it was so strange, but it worked for me. I worked as a design assistant. When I first got out of college, I assisted
a couple of set designers and also worked as a prop person. So I never had one of those horrible day jobs. I was always sort of in the real theatre. And I learned a lot, and I worked with an
amazing generation of set designers, the set designers who are now in their forties, sort
of a generation ahead of me, like Tony Stragies and John Arnone and Adrian Labelle. And I learned about the director/designer
collaboration from the other end, which has stood me in very good stead. And then I sort of went through a period of
being mentored, I suppose. I assisted James Lapine for about two years,
and Des McAnuff. And those two men, really, were my graduate
school. And I learned by just, you know, sitting quietly. (LAUGHS) And I think there’s a lot to be
said for that. I mean, I think directing is such an odd thing,
because you can only do it. And that’s why a directing program is useful,
because in a good directing program, you direct a lot, and people like Melvin Bernhardt or
whomever will come and say, “Here’s how I would have changed that, here’s I would
have done this differently,” but you’re actually directing. What did you think you were going to do when
you were in college? Where were you in college, here in the East? I went to Sarah Lawrence College, and I studied
philosophy. What a terrifically difficult thing to study! (LAUGHTER) Well, everything has seemed easy since then,
you know. And the pay’s better. (LAUGHTER) But I have it to fall back on! If this directing thing doesn’t work out. Make money as a philosopher! Make money as a philosopher, yeah. How did you happen to go for that? I also was always interested in theatre. Did you do theatre at Sarah Lawrence? I did theatre also at Sarah Lawrence. My focus was philosophy, but I also studied,
and in fact, actually directed at Sarah Lawrence. So by the time I graduated, I knew that that
philosophy thing (LAUGHS) wasn’t going to really work out, and I had a feeling that
theatre was where I ought to end up. So I left undergraduate school knowing that
I wanted to direct, which is a little unusual. I think most people come to directing a little
bit later, after having been an actor or a stage manager. But I sort of hit the ground running, and
assisted a couple of directors. Like Gerry Gutierrez was my very first job,
I assisted Gerry. How did you get that job? I was an intern at Playwrights Horizons, where
I have directed FIT TO BE TIED. I was, you know, a directing intern. How did you know about being an intern? How did you know about Playwrights Horizons? How do you know where to go, that first step? It’s all sort of a strange chain of coincidences. Andre Bishop, who was then the artistic director,
had an assistant. Her name is Rachel Chanoff. She was a student at Sarah Lawrence and she
was sort of assisting him. And she said, “There’s this intern program
and I think you should apply.” And I applied, and I spent a year, my senior
year of college, and I assisted Eleanor Renfield, a director, and Gerry. And it was a very exciting time to be at Playwrights
Horizons, you know, because it was when they were doing MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS and SISTER
MARY IGNATIUS and THE DINING ROOM. And Chris Durang and Wendy Wasserstein and
Albert Innaurato were all sort of in residence at that theatre, and it was very exciting. So it was a terrific move for me. And Peter Parnell. So that’s how I learned. In terms of playwriting, Nicky, perhaps you
can [respond]. Maybe you got involved working with David
because your work has not been compared to Immanuel Kant or anybody else. (LAUGHTER) But seriously. Immanuel who? Not yet. Manny Kant, never mind. I’m familiar with Emmanuel Lewis. Okay, there you are. (LAUGHTER) But you know, tell us a little
bit about [it]. David got going, and you started working on
your plays. Did you always want to be a playwright? Were you an actor? Well, I don’t know what I wanted to do. I grew up in Philadelphia, and I just wanted
to get out of Philadelphia more than anything else. (LAUGHTER) I mean, not that there’s anything
[wrong with it]. Philadelphia is a lovely city, with many fine
vistas. (HE ROLLS HIS EYES; LAUGHTER) But I think
I wanted to have sex. So I left. Which I didn’t feel comfortable, in my parents’
house having. And neither, particularly, did they, it seemed. (LAUGHTER) So I left. With them, or with each other? I mean, once or twice, I mean, sort of. (LAUGHTER) I left when I was sixteen and I
went to NYU to study theatre, but I didn’t think I would be a playwright. I didn’t know what I would do. I just wanted to be in the theatre. I wanted to have some career in the theatre. And I studied art and I studied theatre. And I was in plays. I went to the Experimental Theatre Wing, which
was great. And the idea there was, you did a play with
Liz Swados for four weeks, and then you did a play with Charles Ludlam for four weeks,
and then you did a play with Meredith Monk for four weeks. And the idea was to expose you to all these
different aesthetics, and you were supposed to pick one that you liked. And I didn’t. I just ended up sort of smushing them all
into writing. And you know, I had horrible, miserable, creepy,
pathetic, wretched jobs, unlike classy David, who was assisting James Lapine. (LAUGHTER) I was like, sweeping up hair in
a barber shop. It was just so grim! (LAUGHTER) You know, I had all those restaurant
jobs and everything. And then, eventually, I ended up working at
Barney’s, which was like very glamorous to me. (LAUGHTER) And after I finished college, I wrote my first
play, and it was called BRIDAL HUNT. It was this very, very mean-spirited, very,
very vulgar — hard to believe, really, isn’t it? (LAUGHTER) — play that the Phoenix Theatre,
which is no longer around, did a reading of. And I gave it to a friend of mine who worked
there, and she was a secretary, and I said, “Tell me if you think I can be a playwright.” And she gave it to Steve Rodman and David
Copeland, who ran the theatre at the time. And they said, “Prepare yourself, because
it’s a very dirty play for our subscribers. It’s just a reading, and they’re going
to be very offended.” And it was. It was filthy. It was a filthy piece of tripe. And so, like, the doddering, sort of like
Manhattan Theatre Club subscriber audience (LAUGHTER), they like schlepped in there with
their walkers. You couldn’t fill the theatre, because they
had like oxygen next to them. It was so frightening. And within five minutes, you realized you
can not be vulgar enough for these people. They just roared at it! (LAUGHTER) And the play at the time was TWO FISH IN THE
SKY, it was Cleavon Little, a play I bet you don’t remember, that was running at the
Phoenix Theatre, because the next day they announced that they were going out of business. (LAUGHTER) I like to think I had a hand in
it. So that was that. But I did get my first agent. He was at it. I invited, like, every agent I could think
of, and several screamed at me because they were so, like, [horrified]. How did you know about the agents? I didn’t! They didn’t know where it was going to be. The Phoenix had no theatre any more. And they had rented wherever they were doing
TWO FISH IN THE SKY, and what a title! (LAUGHS) And eventually, it was at New Dramatists. And they said, “We don’t know how many
people you can have,” but I knew you had to have an agent. So I went to like the Yellow Pages or the
White Pages and I sent like twenty-five or forty, a lot of invitations that I went and
had them made to look like wedding invitations. The play was called BRIDAL HUNT, so I had
it look like wedding invitations and everything. And then they called me and said, “You can
have eight people.” So I had invited like forty agents, and now
they said I could have eight people. Now, as it turns out, there are only like
ten literary agents for the theatre anyway, and most of them were, like, you know, agents
like if you murder someone and you want to write a book about it or something. They were those kind of agents. So I had to call and un-invite several. But then they came and they contacted me and
I interviewed with them. And now I feel I’ve gone on too long. But what was the question? Sorry. You answered it. I want to get back to what we were talking
about before, protection and over-protection as well, about your various unions and guilds,
your organizations. It seems to me that it’s hard to get an
agent, because today everything is so stylized, in this sense, that you’ve got to go through
the channels. How does a young man do what Nicky did today,
or young woman? Aggressively. I went up to Tufts last week and talked to
some of the theatre kids up there. And one of them said, “You know, there doesn’t
seem to be any musical theatre in the Boston area, and do you know of any?” And I said, “No, not offhand,” and asked
the others. Nobody knew of any. And I said, “Then, get to New York!” The thing is that you can’t just sit around
waiting for it to fall in your lap. I said, “Call up producers.” Hal Prince, write a letter. Hal Prince is a terrific guy, he hires fifteen-year-old
kids. Will he answer the letter? Yes! Because that’s what we get back to, will
he answer it? But the point is, whoever answers, somebody
will. Exactly the way David got there. I’m not a producer. But feel free to write me, because I can always
use a dog-walker. (LAUGHTER, ESPECIALLY FROM NICKY) There’s another approach, though. If all these people want musical theatre in
the Boston area, start one. Absolutely. We’ve got to make theatre happen. There are no holes waiting to be filled. We have to dig the hole and then say, “I’m
here to fill this hole.” Well, you know, this is true. As you know, Derek Walcott, who grew up in
Trinidad and won the Nobel Prize, he came from an island where theatre did not exist. So he went out and he trained his actors,
built his scenery, wrote the plays and directed them and created the theatre, and didn’t
wait around for an agent. I mean, he really just did it in that theatre. Well, that costs money. No, it doesn’t. No, that takes determination. It’s like your garage syndrome. It doesn’t take money. I mean, I did the first production of a play
called FAT MEN IN SKIRTS at the Sanford Meisner Theatre, and I think the budget for the whole
show was eight hundred dollars. Which I saved from scooping ice cream cones,
was my job at the time. I did graduate from college, those of you
who are in college. This is what it prepares you for. (LAUGHTER) And it was eight hundred dollars. The same play since then has been produced
many, many times over in New York, with Marisa Tomei, directed by Joe Mantello. It’s been in Copenhagen and Oslo. But it doesn’t take money. It takes a personality that is so alienated
from the mainstream of society that there is no other outlet for it. (LAUGHTER) Where did you go to college? NYU. Someone was joking! (LAUGHTER) Well, I’m glad to hear that, because I think
that’s very important. That’s a question that we keep being asked
all the time. It’s almost like a Catch-22. You can’t get in and you can’t be seen
and you can’t in until you get started and you can’t get started unless you’ve got
the card. But it is sort of tricky for a director, because
a playwright can wake up and say, “I feel like writing a play today,” and write a
play. A director, it’s not quite as easy to wake
up and say, “I want to direct a production of THE IMAGINARY INVALID today.” So there is a bit of a Catch-22 when you’re
a young director, when you’re just starting out, in that no one will hire you because
you have no experience and you can’t get any experience because no one will hire you. But I think, as Nicky pointed out, if you
just have to do it, and if you really have something to say, you will find a way to say
it and someone will hear you. I think that, to a certain extent, talent
SESSION) She’s leaving! (LAUGHTER) You’ve [upset] her terribly. David, go on. As a playwright, it’s important to do your
research, and also to know where you’re sending your scripts. Because with my first script, with F.O.B.,
I mean after the Green Lantern play, I sent it to several major regional theatres and
I sent it to the O’Neill. And I never heard back from the regional theatres
and the O’Neill, which is devoted to, the raison d’être to some extent is trying
to find new writers, accepted the work. And then after it was done at the O’Neill,
the regional theatres came up to me and said, “Well, why didn’t you send me this play?” (LAUGHTER) And it was one of those rare moments
in your life where you get to go, “I did!” and feel some satisfaction. We have questions here, and I know there are
an awful lot of them that need to be answered, but we’re going to start right now with
this young lady. Hi. My name is Jenna Esposito. I’m a first year student at Sarah Lawrence
College. (GIGGLES) I’m focusing on directing and
acting, so I have a question for Melvin and David. A lot of what I’ve heard in my directing
classes is that ninety percent of the directing comes from the casting. And I wanted to know from you how much you
think that’s true and how much of it has to do with how you work with what you have? Shall I go? Go ahead, I’ll join you. All right, just correct me! (LAUGHTER) I think that casting is clearly
a big chunk of the work. And I also say this to my directing students
a lot, you have to learn to recognize what an actor is in neutral, because that will
never really go away. An actor who has no sexuality will never have
sexuality. You can figure out a way to help him indicate
it. You know, an actor who is not particularly
intelligent will never really seem intelligent. You can then sort of come up with ways to
make that actor seem more intelligent, by, I guess, dumbing down everyone around him. (LAUGHTER) So it is important. Except for the moron coming in. Well, usually you have one or the other, I
hope. But sometimes, you have to sort of work [it
out]. Particularly, you know, in a college, I tell
my students this all the time, you have to figure out, what is an interesting choice
for a role? You know, maybe this person is, in some way,
sort of the opposite of what you would want, but can you find a way to attach that odd
casting to the play in a way that would be interesting? Does that give you what you want? But I think, Melvin, leap in, because you
[had something to say]. Come back, Sarah Lawrence girl! I agree completely with everything David said,
and no matter how versatile an actor is, there are certain qualities that are present or
not present. But I think, in terms of directing, I had
the experience once of doing a show with Julie Harris, and when it was on tour, Sandy Dennis
replaced her. Now, these are both very talented women. Very different performances, totally different,
and both satisfied the needs of the play. So there is something for a director to do,
given a talented performer. Or that the play is so important that anyone
can step in and do it? I wouldn’t say anyone. Not anyone, Isabelle. All right. Thank you. Hi. My name is Roberta Surrette, and I call myself
a writer. This is for Nicky. I saw your FOOD CHAIN, and I liked it very
much, and I respected very much your ability to take high risk. Now I see that your whole life is one high
risk! (LAUGHTER) But did you consciously strive
for that when you were writing? No. (LAUGHTER) We’re speechless. What do we do? No, it never occurs to me. I don’t know, I’m just being honest with
you. You know, I grew up, I guess I was aware of
the theatre in the seventies. Sort of like 1979, 1980, would be the formative
years of my theatrical mind. What a nice dance I did about it. And I think the theatre was much riskier then,
to be perfectly honest. You know, if you look back at what was being
produced and what was being seen by a big cross-section of the public, I think it was
much more daring, and that’s sort of where I got my aesthetic. And it never occurs to me, I don’t think
anything I do is either risky or safe. I don’t think you can think about it. I mean, (TO DAVID HENRY HWANG) don’t you
think? I mean, you’re so lucky, you feel so happy
to have a germ of an idea, you can’t go, “Oh, too damn risky!” or “Too damn safe!” You’re just happy that something came that
day! (LAUGHTER) No, it’s just an expression of
your unconscious more than anything else. But I do think that that formed, because it
was a more adventurous time. We’re living in a very theatrically conservative
time, I think, sadly. ROBERTA SURRETTE
Yeah. Thank you. Hi. My name is Marian Kennedy and I’m a stage
manager for special events at the Juilliard School. This question is for David Henry Hwang. My question to you is, how do the critics
affect your productions, do you feel? The critics don’t affect the production
itself very much, that is, what goes on stage. I think it certainly affects whether the production
lives or dies and whether it has a life. But you know, the two Broadway experiences
I’ve had, we got pummeled out of town in both cases. And one ended up being a hit in New York and
the other one ended up being a flop. But in neither case do I think that the out
of town reviews changed what we were doing. I mean, we sort of knew that these problems
were named in the play, and we kept working on them. And it’s a lot easier, obviously, to get
good reviews, because you know, had we done so, say, with BUTTERFLY, then we wouldn’t
have lost so much money out of town, we wouldn’t have had to like crawl into New York. But I think in terms of what we did on stage,
we really tried not to be very influenced, in both cases, by the fact that we got bad
reviews out of town. Does that answer it? Thank you. Hi, my name is Ronald Rand. I’m an actor and a playwright. I just spent the last five years writing a
new play about the Group Theatre. And I’ve done a couple of readings here
in the city, and I was wondering, what is the best way to proceed now, to get it produced,
either regionally or in New York City? Hmm. Interesting question. Five years?! Five years? To what? Seurat was faster! (LAUGHTER) I can’t imagine. It boggles [my mind]. I mean, I would never. I just don’t have the patience or wherewithal. That’s why I don’t write novels. My God, five years! Didn’t you run out of paper? (LAUGHTER) I don’t know. Send it to the O’Neill. You know, it’s basically just a question,
since you’ve had readings of it, I assume you’ve invited producers and people like
that. You’ve sent it to agents, you’ve done
all that. Right. Do you have an agent? I have an agent who’s interested in it,
yeah. Good luck. Actually, I will leap in a little bit on that. Obviously, as David talked about the O’Neill,
yes, indeed, submit it. Also, I advise a lot of playwrights to go
to the Theatre Communications Group, they have a major booklet called Theatre Profiles,
and that organizes [it]. You go through there and it really gives you
a profile of theatres that really legitimately do new work. Or you know, even if they don’t say that
and you look at the plays they’ve produced in the last two or three years and you see
how many are new, that will give you an idea, and it helps you organize your submission
process. Because then you won’t be sending it to
someplace that only does Moliere and Shakespeare, but that does new work. And that would be a way to focus your submissions. One of the things that we haven’t touched
upon that’s important, is that when the play is running, how often a director or playwright
stops in to see the play and gives notes or doesn’t. Do you have a policy on that? David, because M. BUTTERFLY ran what, two
years? Three? Two, yeah. Did you go and see it a lot? No, I didn’t. Nicky, were you serious when you said that
you don’t really like to go to performances? Because I don’t. No, I go all the time. Well, it depends on cast changes. Yeah. Well, when you have to. And it depends. I call and they say what famous people are
coming tonight, (SNAPS FINGERS) I’m there, baby! (LAUGHTER) All right, well, you don’t know the guest
list, what happens? I probably would go maybe once every couple
months, once it really settled into a rhythm. Or if there’s a cast change. And do you find, in a long-running play, such
as M. BUTTERFLY, do you find that there have been changes taken? Yeah. Well, I mean, sometimes things get really
sloppy, sure. And there’s a case with a particular production,
you know, the play runs about 2:40, and after a month it was running like 2:15. So everyone just started [rushing]. So that sort of thing is useful, and that’s
why I go. But basically, I feel uncomfortable when I
watch my own plays with an audience. I feel like I get paranoid that they’re
going to, like, stone me. What about in RENT, for example, in a long
run? Contractually, I have to see it every eight
weeks, unless I’m working out of town. And then if I’m working out of town, I come
back in town and have to see it. I’ve seen it more than that, just trying
to keep it on its toes, particularly because my aesthetic is, I guess, I’m being told,
unique for musical theatre. I have a particular kind of eye, and I’m
just getting to have a strong relationship with Yassmin, who is the dance captain. And just sort of being clear on how to talk
about the work. So I’ve seen it more often than not. But it begins to run loops in your head. (LAUGHS) But do you find that your performers are getting
away from the choreography, or not? Initially, that could happen. Just very easily, it can change to something
else, aesthetically. Particularly certain numbers like “Santa
Fe,” that really the whole thing was based on breath. And it can sometimes get very sharp and punchy. They’re bored and they’re dancing now
sharp and punchy. So I have to come in for them sometimes and
just sort of, you know, begin to talk about what it is and get them back to what it is. But now, that doesn’t happen as much. What I come in now and see is that they’ve
transformed it to another level, and that’s exciting, when I see that. I have learned that a production will inevitably
drift, and if you don’t take care of it, it will become distorted. That seems to be something that you can sort
of assume will happen. I was very busy with FIT TO BE TIED when SUMMER
AND SMOKE was running at the Roundabout. And after a couple of weeks, Mary McDonnell
called me and said, “David, I need help. Come back, something is changing and I need
you to look at this.” And so, Jean Smart broke her ankle that day
and so, we had to cancel the preview, so I had the night off. And I went over to SUMMER AND SMOKE, and I
was very upset, not with anyone, but it had changed. Mary is smart enough to know it. I took about two hundred notes, I sat down
with the actors, and they were all really happy to be told again, “This is what we
did. This is what this moment is. If you put a huge pause in here, it completely
changes the meaning of that event.” So I think they do change. It was a lesson for me, and I think that you
have to go back. And I know that there are people who don’t
go very often, and it’s very shocking to me. FOOD CHAIN ran about eleven months. There were three Beas, four Amandas, three
Ottos, thank God only two Serges, and one Ford. And it wasn’t at the same time, so after
the first two months, there was someone new, in a five character play where one of the
characters doesn’t speak, so there was someone new every three weeks, just about, is what
it felt like. I was there constantly, and it was a grind. Melvin, how do you feel? Well, there is certainly a deepening process
that happens as the play settles in. But then, no matter how good your stage manager
is at keeping the show the way you left it, the stage manager is seeing it eight times
a week and is noticing the little changes but not noticing them when they become major. And when you start to drift off, you keep
going that way, and you can get pretty far afield. That’s exactly right, it’s gradual. It’s very gradual. I hadn’t been back for three weeks, and
suddenly, there were enormous changes, each of which was comprised of tiny little changes. Well, that’s why, thank God you have really
an intelligent actress like Mary, who’s a particularly bright person, who can see
that and alert that. And you don’t always have that luxury. Yes. Right, right. I’m sorry. There is so much more to be said. We really need a lot more time to continue
with this. It’s been a wonderful discussion, a wonderful
panel of playwrights, directors, and choreographer. And this seminar is coming to you from the
Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and it’s but one in a series of
seminars of the American Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre.” And today, I think it’s been extraordinarily
helpful, interesting, wise, witty, and just wonderful. And I am very grateful to all of you for being
here. Thank you very, very much. (APPLAUSE)

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