Playwright, Director and Choreographer (Working In The Theatre #274)


(APPLAUSE) A warm welcome to the American
Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars, now in their 25th year, and coming
to you from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. These seminars offer a rare opportunity to
explore with the panelists the realities of working in the theatre. Today’s seminar is devoted to playwrights,
directors and choreographers. We will learn something about how they became
professionals, their work ethic, and their reasons for being in the theatre. We hope that you will enjoy and learn from
today’s experience. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, chairwoman of the
Board of Directors of the American Theatre Wing. And now, let me introduce our moderators for
the seminar. First, a distinguished member of the theatrical
community, Pia Lindstrom, who is a director, an author, and a critic. And George White, who is director — are you
CEO or are you Chairman of the Board? — George White, Chairman of the Board of
the Eugene O’Neill Foundation and a member of the Advisory Board of the American Theatre
Wing. George, would you please start the whole bit
right now and go through everything that we have to know? Thank you, Isabelle. On my far right, is a playwright/director/
choreographer, also contains lanolin! (LAUGHTER) — Chris Durang, who was last represented
on Broadway with his play SEX AND LONGING with Sigourney Weaver, and is coming in with
a new play shortly Off-Broadway, with the intriguing title of BETTY’S SUMMER VACATION,
which has a lot of resonance. (APPLAUSE) To my immediate right is the Tony Award winning
director of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, I found that it was called today, Garry Hynes. Welcome. (APPLAUSE) Thank you. And on my left, I have a dual personality
right here, which is Michael Chepiga. He is both a lawyer and a playwright. He is represented now on Broadway with GETTING
AND SPENDING. It’s his first Broadway play, not his first
play, but his first play on Broadway. And I read that he spends his time between
the bar and the boards. (LAUGHTER) Next to him is Graciele Daniele, who is the
fabulous choreographer. She has done RAGTIME, of course, we know about
that. She’s now preparing ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. She is a nine time Tony nominee, a six time
Drama Desk nominee. She won the Fosse Award and she’s about
to get the George Abbott Award. So, she knows a lot! (LAUGHTER)
And next to her, we have Joe Mantello. He knows a lot, too, about acting and directing. CORPUS CHRISTI is the play he’s just directed,
which was a very exciting experience I’m sure he’s going to tell us about. He directed LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! As an actor, he was in ANGELS IN AMERICA,
and he got a Tony nomination for that. He’s no stranger to controversy. (LAUGHTER) So, with that, Joe, what does all
the protest that surrounds a play, that might be happening out in the street, do to the
creative process inside the theatre? Well, we tried very hard, while working on
this play, to keep our focus on the play itself and to not respond in any way to the controversy,
since I think we had very little to do with the creation of it. It’s very difficult, you know. This thing sort of blew up in the middle of
our working on this play together. And Terrence McNally and I sat down and said,
“Okay, the play needs work. We have to cut. There’s rewrites. We’re still shaping it. Let’s make a promise to each other that
we will not answer any of the criticism or answer any of the controversy while we’re
working on the play. We will try to make the play the best play
that it can possibly be, and that’s our only obligation.” I don’t know. It’s sort of a no-win situation, and I think
that we did our best to sort of block it out. Manhattan Theatre Club was really supportive. They kept us. It was actually a fairly normal rehearsal
process, other than the bomb dogs! (LAUGHTER) The metal detector that you have to go through
to get in. The metal [detector] — well, that was later. That was later, yeah. So in this instance, it was fairly unremarkable,
in terms of the rehearsal process. I don’t know that I would ever want to go
through it again. There is something to me obscene, really obscene,
about walking into a theatre, going through a metal detector. I can’t imagine, I’ve been in rehearsal
or previews now for about six weeks and I have not slept in about six weeks. And I can’t imagine adding to that the stress
and the strain of metal detectors and dogs. I am barely coping with a very uncontroversial
play, except maybe until the reviews come out. Very uncontroversial, and it’s taking all
I can do to deal with it, and I can’t imagine adding that on top of it. It’s just mind-boggling to me. What is your play about? Other than about two hours, I mean? (LAUGHTER) Well, I never know how to answer that question,
whether to tell the story or what I’ve finally found out after six years of working on it. I’d say a couple of things, that life has
to be about more than getting and spending, or that if you believe in God or love somebody,
you have to do things you don’t want to do. And that’s what I’m coming to understand,
after six years of grappling with this material. The story is very simple, the woman investment
banker who has made eighteen million dollars in insider trading and has given all the money
away to the poor, to build housing for the homeless. She gets caught and is about to go on trial. She wants to get the best defense trial lawyer
of her day, a man who has been fed up with it all, with life out here, and has retired
to live in a monastery. And she goes down, seeks him out, finds him,
and drags him out to defend her. And the story is about the two of them and
how they deal with each other, with the situations they find themselves in, with the courts,
with the law, with what’s right, and with each other. Are you in this? Did you base it on yourself? Well, the first day of rehearsal, the play
was done at the Old Globe in San Diego. And we met in a rehearsal hall, and everybody,
you know, went around the table, made introductions. And an actor said, “I’m So-and-So, I play
this part,” and we went through all the seven parts. And I introduced myself and said, “I’m
Michael Chepiga. I think I’m all of you.” (LAUGHTER) So yeah, there’s something of
me and something of everybody I’ve ever met in every character in the play. But there’s no specific event or no real
case or anything. It’s all just the product of an aberrant
imagination. (LAUGHTER) That’s what we need, aberrant imaginations. That’s good. Graciele, coming from Argentina, did you have
a problem? Were you a dancer first and then worked into
choreography? How did you make your mark? Because that’s also a fairly [unusual thing],
the equivalent, you know, as a director, be a choreographer, in a culture like Argentina? Yes. Well, I left Argentina, as I said, we run
away from Argentina, when I was very young. I was about fifteen, sixteen years old. And I didn’t come here directly, I went
to Europe. I was a ballerina then. I was working mostly in ballet companies. And it was not until, I think it was 1961
or ‘62, I was living in Paris and working in Paris and I saw WEST SIDE STORY. And you know, I’m not the only one. It changed the lives of so many people, so
many people. I saw that, and I thought, “I have to go
to New York and learn how to do that.” I mean, there was something so extraordinarily
complete about it. Which I did, and I just came here actually
to study. I just, you know, got a little money and I
came just to study. How did you learn? Who did you learn from when you came to New
York? I went to study and I went to Matt Maddox
(PH), who was a jazz teacher, the perfect descendant of Jack Cole (PH). So I learned the real thing, you know. (LAUGHTER) And I went, of course, to Martha
Graham, and I went to Ballet Theatre. But it didn’t last too long. Within a month of being here, Matt Maddox
was choreographing a Broadway show, called WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? by Bud Schulberg (PH). And he offered me, there was a part for a
Spanish-speaking lady, and she had to be a dancer and blah-blah. So that’s how I got on Broadway. It was just an accident, and a marvelous accident. I mean, within a month! (LAUGHTER) You know, it was amazing, amazing! And so, I really started from, you know, being
the chorus girl, learning my material very slowly. And then, I was extremely lucky that Michael
Bennett chose me as assistant to him, and that’s when the creative side started. I did not know that I had it. I had no idea that I could be a choreographer. I still don’t know that I could be! (LAUGHTER) I think it’s an accident! Everything is like, “Oh, my God!” And I tremble every time I start something,
that they are going to find me out. (LAUGHTER) So it was a natural progression. And you know, learning from a genius like
Bennett, and then I worked with Bob Fosse. And again, you know, I learned so much from
him. And then, they actually pushed me into choreography. And from there, you know, I started directing. So you know, it’s interesting. I always felt like I was kind of a person
that is at home, somebody knocks at the door, they open and say, “Do you want to come
out and play?” And I go, “Yeah, okay!” (LAUGHTER) I have no idea why I’m doing
it. It’s fun, you know? It’s something new that I have to learn. You know, like right now, I’m directing
and choreographing a revival of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. It’s the first time that I am doing a revival. I’m scared because, you know, I don’t
know if I can do it, because I want to bring something new into it. But that’s what is exciting about, you know,
the theatre. Michael, this is your first play. Yes. When did you first meet your director? Well, I’m just learning my first mistake
was to let him read the script. (LAUGHTER) Because he’s been making me rewrite
it ever since. Well, track here, in a sense, your career. How did you get going and all of that stuff? Well, my first introduction to professional
theatre was through you, George, at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference. That was not a setup, Michael. (LAUGHTER) No, but it’s a fact. I was a playwright at the O’Neill National
Playwrights Conference in 1978 and again in 1980, and saw how hard it was to be a playwright
and then went to law school afterwards. I had always written. I had written in high school and in college
and throughout law school. I left law school and started working at a
large firm, had two children, and between the job and the children didn’t have a lot
of spare time, so went for a few years without writing. And then couldn’t keep away from it. The idea particularly for GETTING AND SPENDING
kept forcing itself on me and the only way to get rid of it was to sit down and write
it, so I did. And I met a director, John Tillinger, through
Marty Markinson (PH), the producer. Marty found the script, contacted me. We talked on and off about it for a year or
two, while I was rewriting it and rewriting it and rewriting it. So it was several years before it actually
came that you had met the director? I met Marty in 1995, and he read the script. You know, we talked about it for a year or
two. Sometime in ‘96, he gave it to John Tillinger,
who responded to it. We met for lunch. We didn’t spill anything on each other or
have any obvious problems, so I guess it was decided from that moment on that we would
work together. And it’s turned out to be a great blessing
for me. He’s a brilliant director, and a play editor
and dramaturg. We worked on the script for a while, and then
it was arranged that it would be done at the Old Globe in San Diego this summer. We wanted to try it out, far away from New
York, and were successful in finding “far away from New York.” (LAUGHTER) It was about as far as we could
get. And saw it there, and Marty said, “We’re
going to do it in New York,” and here we are. Did Joey get the play to the Old Globe or
did you or did your agent? How did it get out there? Marty did, the producer, sent it to them. He did? Oh, I get it. And the story that I hear was that Jack O’Brien
read it on the plane on the way back from directing THE LITTLE FOXES and said, when
he landed, called and said, “We’ll do it.” Is there any tension between the law firm
and your colleagues in the theatre? The only tension is that in the theatre — when
I mean the theatre, the people there, the actors, the cast — all they want to talk
about is law and the economy. They want to ask me what’s happening in
the market. (LAUGHTER) And at work and with my clients,
they only want to talk about the play. (LAUGHTER) So I feel a little schizophrenic,
but that’s the only tension, ever. Have there been many changes made in your
words, with the director feeling that it should go a different way or making a different feeling
out of it? Yes. How do you react to that? I think the play is where it should be, and
luckily, I think we have the same vision for the play. But he encouraged me to take it in a certain
direction that I did not initially do myself. The play, I find it hard to describe, so I
just call it a play. Audiences laugh, it’s a funny play, but
it is not a comedy. And he encouraged me to develop not the comic
side of it but the more serious side of it, which I did. And I think that’s the right choice, and
I think it works. And there are constant laughs that come, even
at very tense or dramatic moments, which I think works well. So it’s a combination. It’s been called a comedy, a courtroom drama,
a morality play, a tragedy, everything. Is that part of the director’s role, to
look at the whole and say, “But I think it should go this way,” and to be more dramatic
or less funny or more sad? I don’t think I’ve ever said to anyone,
“It should be less funny.” (LAUGHTER) “More jokes!” No, I think it’s a combination of putting
yourself in the place of an audience member and saying, “I don’t really understand. Can you tell me what you mean here or what
you’re going for here?” And hear the playwright explain it and say,
“Oh, well, I’m not getting that. Maybe, you know –” I try not to make suggestions. I’ve been lucky to work with really terrific
people, who I feel are smart enough to solve the problems. I’m just there as a sort of a sounding board. So yeah, you know, Terrence McNally is under
no obligation to write the play that I think it should be. He has no obligation to write, you know, my
journey towards spirituality. It’s his play. It’s my job to interpret that, I think. But you were an actor, so doesn’t that influence
the way you handle actors, as a director? I guess so. Yeah, I think. I mean, hopefully — there are those who would
disagree with me on this! — but hopefully, I have a sensitivity towards actors, having
been there before. Well, you know the vocabulary, too, which
sometimes I find directors don’t know that vocabulary. And then I know that in CORPUS CHRISTI, you
have a pretty large, sprawling palette to deal with. You’ve got all kinds of things that resonate
both for Terrence and you to have to deal with, with the Biblical part and the modern
part all woven together, which I can see and I give you, obviously, full marks for weaving
that together. But it’s very, very tricky. You’re not just dealing with a new concept
as a script, you’re also dealing with the New Testament. Yes. And that must be very, very tricky in how
to weave those two together. Well, it was so daunting that I chose not
to deal with it, you know. Again, I think my job is to tell the story. Is the story being told clearly? Is the audience following where we are? You know, is it entertaining? I’m interested in directing comedians. And you are also a comedian yourself, of course,
but I mean, you direct people who are funny on stage. And I was wondering, I get the impression
that comedians come with their own style and their own reading. Is it more difficult to direct them, if they’re
funny to begin with? Oh, well, you know, I’ve only done a little
bit of directing. I’ve done more acting than directing. Gee, I don’t actually know the answer. You’ve been doing some dancing, too, I read. You even appeared as a dancer, briefly. (LAUGHS) Oh, well, I think I said I tried to dance. I was very thrilled to be in this musical,
PUTTING IT TOGETHER, which actually was Julie Andrews’ return to the stage, frankly before
VICTOR/VICTORIA, like two years before. And it was all Sondheim songs, and I’m an
enormous fan of Sondheim and I was just thrilled out of my mind to be in it. Because I first got a call saying would I
be the narrator, and I said, “Well, yes, I would, although do tell them if I got to
sing, I’d like that even better,” because I like to sing. And they said, “Oh, you do sing?” and
I said, “Oh, yes.” (LAUGHTER) So anyway, mostly it was a stand-still musical,
except the first day, Bob Avian was the choreographer and they gave us this one dance step. And I saw Julie Andrews, Rachel York and Michael
Rupert get it like that. And Stephen Collins got it a little, and I
got it not at all. (LAUGHTER) Broke out into a cold sweat. I never really did get it well. It was really nerve-wracking. I wish I were a better dancer, but I’m not. You ever have to choreograph for people like
that? Yes, I love to! (LAUGHTER) Well, actually the one number, Bob Avian was
terribly sweet to me there. I had a solo number, which was the song “You
Could Drive A Person Crazy,” and with Sondheim’s permission, I changed it to “I Could Drive
A Person Crazy,” so it was about my character. And Bob said, having seen that I wasn’t
good at copying dance steps, he said, “Well, if you just were hyper and moved in rhythm
to the music, what would you do?” (GRACIELE NODS) And I remember it, because
no one was in the room, and they all had to come and I had to sort of show it to them. Well, anyway, I just did my best, and at one
moment, I remember sort of just flinging myself across the floor, right up to Julie Andrews,
who looked sort of startled. (LAUGHTER) Anyway, so they let me make up
that choreography. (LAUGHTER) Very good, very good. Hence, you’re a choreographer, too. Exactly, yeah. That’s our secret! (LAUGHTER) That you let them just invent? Well, choreographers, we do that a lot. Well, except Bob was so wonderful to do that. Yes! Because he actually saw, and I don’t know
why, maybe if I rehearsed for six months, I’d get better at following steps. But telling me just to do what came naturally
was a really good way to do it fast. But that is, I mean it’s not a secret, but
we do very much that. You follow the body of the person. Absolutely, exactly. We have the dances to put in the bodies of
the dancers, our style and our thought of motion or whatever. But when we deal with actors who actually
are physical actors, all we do is encourage them to physicalize their character through
motion. Not words, but just do it, how would that
character move? And I find it absolutely wonderful, because
each one has his own style, or his own interpretation of the character. I love that! That’s right. I love it. That’s what I loved about RAGTIME, that
opening number, when everyone sort of broke off individually, and you could tell some
of them were dancers and some of them were [not]. I thought it was so thrilling. All I do is, you know, to me everybody dances. Walking is dancing. Eating is dancing. Fighting is dancing. Making love is dancing. Everything is dancing. So if the actors seem to somehow be nervous,
you know, their language is the words, but dance is another language to tell the story
and to express the character. So once they understand that, they liberate
themselves. And I find that much more interesting choreography,
in general, than whatever I can come up with, if you understand what I’m saying, because
it’s like life in the street. No two people walk the same. No two people act the same. And that is what attracts me. So you don’t choreograph in your imagination
at home a whole sequence and imagine dancers doing it? Well, yes. I mean, choreography for the musical stage
is very much like directing. You do have a certain vision of what the tone,
the language is, the style of it. And the one thing that I do the most in pre-production
is structuring the numbers. This is what this number’s about. Because usually, on a script in a musical,
when it comes to the moment where people dance, where there are not words, all the writers
do is “Dance Break.” And what do you dance about? I mean, you know, in an opening like RAGTIME,
what are they going to be dancing about? This is about three tribes confronting each
other. So the idea of confrontation and all that
comes from pre-production. But specific steps, unless it is dance for
dancers, motion, I’d rather go to the actor, just like a director, and say, “What is
your character about? Are you an immigrant? Where are you coming from, Italy? Create a history. And what are you doing here? Are you looking for your mother with a picture? Now walk, and put it in a rhythm. Just walk, but show me how you [do it].” So it’s really more like acting through
motion, I guess, isn’t it? Now, you come out of a tradition. As you say, you were in Argentina and then
you worked in Paris. There is, obviously, a strong tradition in
Latin America that you bring with it as growing up, which perhaps does not often happen in
the United States. Umm-hmm. And did that influence you a lot? Maybe. Maybe, perhaps, yes. You mean, about like social dancing and how
physical we are? Yeah, exactly, sure. Yes, we are. We are very, extremely, you know, extroverted. In RAGTIME, for example, when did you come
in and what directive were you given? In a musical comedy, there are so many creative
parts in it. There’s the director, the music and all
of that. When does the choreographer come into this? At the very beginning. I mean, in the real development of a musical,
a choreographer is hand to hand with a director, because a choreographer is the one who is
expressing, when the word stops, what the piece is about. And therefore, it has to be a total marriage,
a perfect marriage with a director. As a matter of fact, it’s more work, but
I find it easier to do both. Because one of the difficulties as a choreographer
is that I have to serve the piece and the director’s vision, so that it is seamless. And sometimes it’s harder to guess what
is in a director’s mind. I mean, there are some directors that are
extremely articulate and very clear and some that are not and some who don’t know what
they want! So therefore, it is a little harder, you know,
to just do choreographer. But in a new piece, the choreographer should
be from the very beginning. I mean, working with the writers, working
with the director, everybody together. We can come up with an idea visually that
might save four pages, which of course writers don’t like, but — (LAUGHTER) Save four pages! (LAUGHTER) Save! I knew they were going to say that! Garry, have you done any musical comedy at
all? No, not musical comedy as such. But I mean, I was just interested in what
you were saying, really earlier, about in fact what you’re doing is telling the story
through how the people shape themselves on stage. And I think direction is exactly the same,
really. I mean, once you actually pick the cast and
begin the process of rehearsal, in a sense it’s a dual process that’s going on, because
they’re beginning to tell the story to you and you’re beginning to tell it back it
to them. Exactly. And that’s, I think, how it evolves. What does a playwright say to a director on
the first meeting? I don’t know. After hello? (LAUGHTER) Have you ever had anyone as a playwright say
to you, “Tell me what my play is about, so that I will know whether we’re on the
same wavelength”? It’s never been quite that formal or that
confrontational (LAUGHTER), “Tell me what my play is about.” It’s very sort of fluid. Again, I’ve been lucky. You’ve been very lucky. I’ve been very lucky to work [with them]. So it’s been very fluid. It’s just been sort of having lunch. You can tell. I mean, if you go on a date with someone,
a blind date, you can tell if it’s working or if it’s not working. It’s a very similar kind of [a thing]. It’s chemistry. It’s chemistry, with Joey, too, don’t
you think? That’s right. You have to sense whether this person wants
to invest his time, talent and energy in this project. And that’s what’s important, a sense that
there is that interest, that commitment. So I don’t know if there’s any formula,
but you gradually, maybe a couple of lunches, but it either is there and it works and it’s
lucky and it works for you, or it’s not. It’s by what you choose to talk about, how
you choose to talk about the play, how you see the play. It may even be actors that you have in common
that you see in the play. You know, if I’m saying Mickey Rooney and
he’s saying George C. Scott (LAUGHTER), then you know, we’re not in sync. We don’t see the same play. It’s like being at odds. Yeah. So it’s everything. It’s everything that you use in life. We keep hearing the word in these seminars,
the word “trust.” And I guess that’s part of what you’re
saying, too, that you trust the instinct of the person, whether it’s the director trusting
the playwright or vice versa. Now, Chris, you’re in pre-production now. Or you’re not in pre-production as such,
but you’re going through that. Well, we’re in auditions. Yeah, auditions, and you’re going, I guess,
today to look at [something]. Yeah, later this afternoon. So maybe you can — Yeah, tell me about it. About the auditions and the relationship to
the director and what you’re doing. Well, the director is Nicholas Martin, who
just did YOU NEVER CAN TELL at the Roundabout and has done lots of plays at Williamstown. And I’ve heard very good things about him,
but this is my first time working with him. And the play is called BETTY’S SUMMER VACATION. It’s at Playwrights Horizons. We’re presently in auditions. And I very much identified with what Joe just
said, particularly when you got to if you’re thinking of some of the same actors. Because I sometimes do find it hard to know,
in that blind date aspect of it, how to evaluate how the play will filter through the particular
director. And sometimes, just connecting on an actor
or actress gives you great sense of “Oh, good.” I remember actually with my play BEYOND THERAPY,
which had been done Off-Broadway with Sigourney Weaver and Sigourney wasn’t available any
more when it was now being done on Broadway, and the director was John Madden. And he and I were talking about the play. And I said, “Do you know the actress Diane
Weist?” And he said, “Oh, what a great idea!” And she hadn’t won her two Oscars for her
performance in Woody Allen movies yet, she wasn’t as famous. But I felt such comfort that he had such,
you know, an excited response to her. And then, I once met the film director Robert
Altman, who was going to make a movie version of BEYOND THERAPY, and he did, and I think
it’s terrible, I’m sorry to say. (LAUGHTER) And he’s a very charming person,
and I was so excited he wanted to do it that two things happened. One is, in his charm, in a way I didn’t
really get what he was going to do. And then I also sort of heard what I wanted
to hear, I think. And I do remember there was one moment where
he did have what I thought, in my gut, was a truly bad idea, which he told me at the
first meeting. It was that the two therapists should have
their offices next to each other, which is okay. It’s not in the play, but that’s okay. But that they have this little alarm clock
that goes off and they suddenly run in and have sex together and then run out again. (LAUGHTER) And the therapists are actually
meant to be opposites and hostile to one another. It just made no sense. And I said, rather politely, “Oh, really?” And he said, “Oh, don’t worry, you know,
we could film it so that if it didn’t work, we’d just cut it out.” Well, really, these are famous last words. I mean, the minute I signed the contract he
wrote his own version, which wasn’t contractually correct, but he was also the producer. And so, anyway, that was an unhappy experience. But in retrospect, I realize that I did hear
that one clue and chose to not react to it. That’s awful. That’s the difference between theatre and
movies. In the theatre, you would not have signed
the contract, and in the theatre you also have the complete right, the author has. Oh, yes, the difference in contract in theatre
is very significant. The author has the last word, right? That in theatre, the tradition is that in
the contract is says that no one can change your script without your approval, which is
a wonderful thing for the writer. Now that doesn’t mean that a director or
an actor can’t say, “Please change this, we hate this!” (LAUGHTER) And you really do try to listen
and compromise, but you do, bottom line, know that you can do it. On the whole, it does work against it sometimes. So many times things have to be cut. Yeah. And the author is insistent that it not, and
then it comes out and it is too long and it should have been cut and they did know that,
but the author has been so close to it that you don’t do it. Tell us about the audition process. Can you tell the moment the actor comes out? Does he have to read at all? (LAUGHS) Well, you know, apologies to the actors present,
but it is sort of true. Not immediately, no. What I would say, in the first twelve lines
you can sort of hear. Oh! It’s tough. Although, you know, maybe it’s also my writing
tends to be a little stylized, and it might be truer in my work than in some other people’s,
because it requires a very strange combination of genuine sincerity of believing what you
mean — and I remember Joe Orton, the playwright, wrote this thing about acting tone where he
said, “Please don’t do an exaggerated acting tone. I’ve already exaggerated my material. Let my exaggeration stand and you find the
reality underneath,” and that’s really true for me, too. So that, for instance, I’ve written a terrible
macho pig of a person named Buck who comes in and just is so sexually over the top and
inappropriate. But I’ve noticed that the part will not
work at all if the actor comes in and shows us that he thinks the character is a fool,
so he’s actually playing, “I’m a fool.” As opposed to the person who comes in and
is just so happy to be there and is just flirting, and then let what I’ve written be the horrible
part, but don’t show me. I think that’s so true, actually. So much of the line between acting what the
character is and acting your opinion of the character is so thin sometimes. Yeah. And it’s not just for the actor, but for
the director, as well. It’s one of the hardest things to get right. What do you give the actor that’s auditioned
for the part? Well, I mean, I find auditions a pretty horrendous
process. I think it’s a very erroneous process. It’s open to error, all the way along. Because really, you’re having the smallest
possible experience as you possibly can. That doesn’t mean just in terms of them,
but in fact, in the engagement between the director and the actor and whatever script
they’re using. And all it can be is a nod towards a longer
engagement of some kind. And I always think, I mean, essentially the
only real way you’re going to be able to apprehend an actor and putting them together
with the play is you actually see them on stage. And it doesn’t matter that what you’re
thinking of them for is completely different to what you see. You then start to have some idea. Because what you’re not employing is a set
of talents or skills, that’s a given. What you’re employing is a personality,
an attitude, a way of moving air, and it’s the engagement of that person, the whole of
that person, with the script and the role which is what happens, in the best acting. Well now, there’s a tradition, and Michael,
I can talk to you about this, too, because you’ve gone through the auditions, and you
have the play, you know, in rehearsal and preview. First, did you go to the auditions? Yes. Because there are some directors that don’t
want the playwright around. And secondly, there’s an old tradition,
as I say, that the actor was never to speak to the playwright. (LAUGHTER) That the director was in the middle,
and I don’t know whether that was because they wanted to, “Hey, my part, could you
give me a few more lines or something?” I don’t know. Do you feel that? Have you talked to the actor? Either, anybody. Jump in. Yeah, I have spoken to the actors on occasion. Good morning! (LAUGHTER) No, the first time, not GETTING AND SPENDING,
the first play I had produced many years ago, I was not aware of the existence of this tradition
and found myself talking to an actor, I thought in all innocence, until the director saw me
and pulled me [away]. Have not had any of that with GETTING AND
SPENDING. It’s a very free exchange and it works very
well. But I guess it’s part of the relationship
you do have to find. I think it’s also in the contract that the
playwright has approval of cast, as well. Casting, right. So it’s another difference with screenwriting
and playwriting. I don’t want to sound like a lawyer, but
I think it’s in the contract. (LAUGHTER) So I did go to the rehearsals and
the auditions. And did you give your opinion? Did you say, “I don’t think so?” (SIGHS) Well, maybe I can tell a story and
say why I’ve been a little reticent to do that. The first play I produced, many years ago,
was in Chicago. And we had one role that we couldn’t cast. And the director of the theatre and the director
said, “We’re going to take you to see a play over at another theatre tonight. This play is ending this weekend. This actor is available. He’s not the right age, not the right type,
but he’s a good actor.” I went, saw the play, I thought he was terrific. I said, “But he’s not the right age, he’s
not the right type.” So I didn’t take John Malkovich in the play. (LAUGHTER) And so, I’ve since then deferred
to [the director]. Before we return to these wonderful panelists,
I would like to point out to you that the Wing is more than a sponsor of seminars and
more than our famous Tony Awards, which is granted for excellence in the theatre. We are an organization whose year-round programs
are dedicated to service in the theatre and the community, with a goal of developing new
audiences. And to achieve that goal, we have created
audience development programs for students, like “Introduction to Broadway,” which
began seven years ago and has now enabled more than 70,000 New York City high school
students to attend a Broadway show, and for many of them, for the very first time. And through our newest program, “Theatre
in School,” theatre professionals, like these on our seminars and the panels that
we bring to you, they go directly into classrooms to work with and talk to students about working
in the theatre. In addition, we have our hospital program,
which dates back to World War Two and our legendary Stage Door Canteen. Today’s version of the program utilizes
talent from Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the cabaret world, to entertain patients in nursing
homes, veteran’s hospitals, children’s wards and AIDS centers. We are a year-round organization. We bring the magic of theatre to those who
cannot get to the theatre itself. We are proud of the work we do, and happy
for that wonderful working relationship we have with the theatrical community. And we are grateful to everyone who makes
what the American Theatre Wing does possible. And now, let’s get back to our seminars
on the playwright, director and choreographer. I want to know what it is, George, that makes
a playwright? There was a wonderful critic who used to work
with us, Edith Oliver at the New Yorker, who would say to a playwright, “Okay, once upon
a time, what?” (LAUGHTER) And that’s, to me, what makes
a playwright, is to tell a story and in doing so, having something to say when they do it. And something has to touch me. Something somewhere within that has to be
a universal meaning, a truth that I can connect to. And it can be a story about outer space or
it can be a story about gorillas, it doesn’t matter what the subject is. But somewhere in there, I have to have a little
feeling that I felt, you know, some emotional connection to it. I wanted to know, can you really teach playwriting? And I want to say that about directing, too. Is it such a thing? Or do you, as a teacher, shape what is already
there? I think the latter, because I went to Yale
School of Drama and found it very valuable. I went, you know, twenty years ago by now. But I don’t feel that any of the arts can,
quote quote, be taught. But I do think it’s valuable to get feedback,
especially when you’re in development and frankly, later on too. And so that that’s kind of what I view teaching
to be, especially in terms of playwriting. And at Juilliard, where I’ve taught for
the last four years, and this year I have taken a year off and hope to go back, but
I’ve been co-teaching with a playwright, Marsha Norman. We’re literally in the same room at the
same time. And one of the things I’ve ended up liking
about that is, as a solo teacher I feel kind of nervous because it is very subjective,
one’s opinions. And if you’re the only teacher in the room,
you sort of feel like, “Oh, I don’t want the power of saying, ‘Oh, I don’t like
your play,’ and then they go home and they get depressed and they rip it up.” I don’t want that power. So I find that, because Marsha and I, we end
up agreeing far more than I thought we would, given the differences in our style in writing,
but we do have different takes, in a way, which I think is very valuable for the students. And we also say things like, you know, “This
is what we think, but feel free to ignore it.” But I do think that teaching is a mentoring
sort of thing, and that’s the stuff I found useful when I was a student. You belong to the Naked Angels group, and
I was wondering if you’re a part of a group, if that isn’t a teaching experience as well? I would say not so much Naked Angels, but
for years I was a member of a company, the now defunct Circle Repertory Company. And that was really, really crucial in shaping,
you know, who I am today. Because it sort of ties into your question,
I was not trained as a director per se. But the training that I got was that Tanya
Berezin, once a season, would let me direct a show on the mainstage. And if it failed, or if I fell on my face,
I did a show the next season. And I think that’s the only real way that
you can really learn. I mean, there are theories. There are certain tricks that you can learn. But until you get in front of an audience,
until you’re doing, until it becomes practical, you don’t know it, you don’t get it inside
of you. So that was really, really crucial, in terms
of my becoming a director, those years at Circle Rep. So you never studied directing at the Yale
Drama School or anything? I did not. You just were an actor and then you evolved? I trained as an actor at the North Carolina
School of the Arts. Uh-huh. I did not go to drama school. I think the best teacher is the audience. And after we’ve rehearsed a play for weeks,
it takes a number of performances in front of an audience. And you’re always learning from the audience. I’m always learning from the audience. I’ve been rewriting things, as recently
as a few days ago. Not major, not new scenes, but you can always
learn from the audience. And I think maybe teaching and courses can
help you accelerate that process, but I agree with Chris, I don’t think you can teach
or give someone something that isn’t there, but you can help. You know, let me throw in, because I agree,
how much you learn from the audience, I also found at drama school, and at Juilliard too,
that as a writer you learn a great deal from the actors who then present it to the audience. Yes. And I found that when I was at Yale, I started
to value some of the feedback I got from actors a little more than some of the feedback I
got from other writers. Not that the writers weren’t smart, but
they sometimes came so much from their own point of view, that an actor usually is coming
from “How can I make this piece work?” And so, the feedback they give you is just
very, very valuable. Broadway and the theatre’s desperate for
product, but I was wondering how hospitable you felt Broadway was to receiving new works? Well, I may have mentioned at the beginning
of this session that I haven’t slept in six weeks, so that tells you how hospitable
I feel. (LAUGHTER) It’s a daunting process. Friends ask me all the time, “Aren’t you
thrilled and delighted and isn’t it your lifelong fantasy?” And I say, “Yes, but also, terror swamps
everything, I think.” And not just the terror of critics and being
reviewed, but every night there are four or five hundred critics in the audience and the
play has to speak to them and capture them. And that’s a struggle. Not an active [one], I don’t sit there and
do it, I just sit there and watch. It’s the actors who have to do it. But every night, it starts all over again. Each performance is different. There are things one night that work completely
perfectly and well, and the next night, I say, “Didn’t they hear it? What happened?” So it’s a daunting experience, all around. And then when I look back on the series of
chance occurrences and flukes that got me here, it’s amazing to me that anything ever
gets done at all. (LAUGHTER) It’s just amazing. I’m in constant awe of that. Can you teach choreography? Look, I think that one can teach. It’s like life, you can give information. I can give information to somebody, the formulas. There are certain formulas. But until you live, until you’ve experienced
something, you do not know. Knowledge comes to me from just going out
there and doing it, like Joe says. You know, do it, fail, succeed. Even the failure, success, is relative. It’s the doing. It’s the process. That’s learning. I didn’t have any academic, you know, knowledge
in choreography at all. I just learned as a dancer and working with
a great — But you worked with Jack Cole. And what did you learn from Michael Bennett,
too? Yes, but that’s not choreography, you see. I mean, really, choreography is like writing. It’s very close to writing. You have a piece of music and you have an
idea. And then you have to paint and design right
in the space, and it’s very ephemeral. So I would say, yes, there are ways of teaching
the formulas, yes. But the choreographer has to go out and do
it himself or herself. I think actually a director probably, me as
a director certainly, learn more from the failures than the successes. I agree. Because the successes, you say, “Thank God!”
and don’t think about it. (LAUGHTER) And the failures, you’re forced
to reflect on what is it that went wrong there. Exactly, yes. That’s good to know. And the strange thing about it is, when you
have a failure or something that’s, say, not successful, there’s no formula. You can’t sort of avoid it the next time. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) You’re never working
towards a sure thing. It’s always, constantly case to case, just
so different. Yeah. But you can see kind of a general sort of
[thing]. Yes. You are forced to think about what the process
was, how it came to be, what’s there. And just the asking of that, I think, certainly
it helps me to move on. But it’s absolutely true. You end up in the first night, and I mean,
it’s always the situation. You go into something, it’s a terrific script,
you’ve got a terrific cast, everything is right, and everything just sits down on the
floor and dies. (LAUGHTER) You go in, you say, “I shouldn’t
be doing this, I don’t have the right, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba!” And shoop! Yeah, but it’s always like that, I think. Yes. You’re constantly surprised in the rehearsal
room, and stuff that works in the rehearsal room, that you think like, “I am a genius!” (PATS HIMSELF ON THE SHOULDER; LAUGHTER) It
gets in front of an audience and foomp! Yeah, bang. And there’s stuff that you just can’t
figure out, and it gets in front of an audience and it hits the air and it takes off. And there is that element all the time. It’s thrilling, but it’s also extremely
frustrating. Nerve-wracking. Yeah. Well, there is an old English teacher of writing
called Sir Arthur Quiller Couch (PH) that nobody reads any more. But he wrote about writing, he said, “Murder
your darlings. When you think something is so good, watch
out, because it’s going to come up and bite you in the wrong way.” You mentioned something that hadn’t been
said before, that the audience is the critics, and each night there are four or five hundred,
whatever it is, of critics in the audience. Each night’s reaction is different. In the early stages, which ones do you listen
to? Which night, which critic is telling you something
that will change, reinstate or whatever it is, as you as a playwright? It’s a good question, because we have this
discussion. We say, “Well, is it our fault, or was this
just a bad audience?” (LAUGHTER) You know, is it their fault, were
they sleeping or whatever? We had a problem last night with the performance. One of the headsets that someone was wearing
starting getting the Yankee game (LAUGHTER) at the beginning of the play. And the first line in the play is calculated
to, and in every performance I’ve ever seen until last night does, get a nice laugh, and
it tells the audience that they can laugh. And it didn’t last night, and I was in the
back of the balcony, and I went downstairs and they told me what had happened, and I
thought, “Oh, okay, they didn’t hear it!” But we have that discussion all the time,
you know, and how many audiences does it take to get the message? Sometimes one, right away you know it, it’s
not them, it’s you, and you change it. But it’s always a delicate thing. And talk about murdering your darlings, I
know you have to. It’s very difficult to do it, but you do
it, and you have to do it, and the audience tells you when to do it. And it’s an ongoing process of learning
from them. It’s also interesting, I think, I mean as
an actor I was in a play once that during the three weeks of previews was what we thought
was a complete disaster, I mean the audience was just bored, bored, bored, you know? A review came out in the New York Times that
said, “This is the most fantastic thing.” (LAUGHTER) And from that moment on to the
end of the run –! That’s right. No, and I’m not saying, I don’t know if
there is such a thing as the power of the New York Times or if it just freed people
up. You know, someone said, “It’s okay to
laugh.” There is that phenomenon that happens occasionally
with plays, I’ve seen it before, that once people write about it or once an opinion starts
to form, even if the opinion is all over the map, then I think the show organically becomes
whatever it’s going to become. We’re going to questions now, and I’m sure that there will never be enough time to ask all the questions, to take advantage
of this wonderful panel, but I’m going to try. So would you please ask your first question? Hi, my name’s Brianna (PH), and I’m a
theatre student at NYU. And my question is, after the initial meeting,
can you describe the collaboration between the writer and the director? Well, I’m sure it’s different every time. And even with the same writer and director,
would be different on different plays. But once you agree and come to terms that
you have made a mutual commitment and you want to work and realize this project, I think
it becomes very important to see that you’re working on the same play and that you have
the same vision. And I think that a fair amount of tension
and energy has to go into that process. I have worked with directors who, it turns
out sometime down the road, we realize we aren’t reading or seeing the same play,
and so that’s a major part of the process to come to terms with, in the very early days
after the first meeting. Joe, would you like to answer that, too? What is the initial process? What starts? I think for me, a lot of it is about gathering
information. I love to have the playwright in rehearsal. I love to spend time with the playwright. “What music were you listening to when you
wrote this? Is there an artist, you know, what does it
look like in your head? How did you see it?” Not that I’m going to try to replicate that,
but any information that the writer can give me about what made them create it, why they
created it, things they saw, they smelled, events, it helps me to sort of interpret through
me what ultimately the evening is going to be. And you never know how that may come back
to help. Right. Weeks later. Go ahead. No, I was just going to say, I think it’s
been said earlier as well, I mean, it’s sort of a human relationship like many others. Some writers are very good friends, and the
relationship goes far beyond the actual professional relations. Others are less so, but one way or the other,
you are two people thrown together in the middle of a very intense process. And I mean, as you say, I remember a particular
play, called WHISTLE IN THE DARK, written by Tom Murphy, an Irish writer. And I did actually a revival of the play twenty
years after it was written. And he told me that when he was writing it, he was twenty-six, and he was so angry about what he was writing
that he characterized it as “The powder was coming off his teeth as he gritted them
together.” (LAUGHTER) And I have never, ever forgotten
that, throughout the entire course of rehearsal. I do think that one difference is that I think
that the writer does need to leave the rehearsal room at a particular time. It doesn’t matter for how long, but at some
point, they do, because I think what can happen is that they can tend to see the play too
much from the point of view of the production and to become involved in the production’s
problems or difficulties or whatever. And I think to be able to leave and come back,
they are able in some ways to give a better judgment and in a sense, to hold the production
accountable to what they originally wrote. And may I add something, too, because I think
for me it’s very important, in that pre-production time of the work, between the director and
the playwright, there are many things sometimes that we directors, we do not agree with. I feel that instead of people fighting them,
I feel, as a director and a choreographer, it is my duty as an interpreter, because I’m
not a creator, I’m the interpreter, to put it up on the feet and show it to the writer. Hopefully, the actors, you know, when it is
fleshed out, then hopefully the writer will be able to see and understand what I’ve
been trying to tell him intellectually and I will be able to show him. So I think that it’s something that we have
to do, that it gets to a certain point, the writer has to be served. You know, that’s my feeling. I have great humility for whoever invented
that. I hate hearing the words, “Well, let’s
show you the scene the way you’ve written it.” (LAUGHTER) Oh, you feel we do it on purpose? (LAUGHTER) Would you like to ask your question? Hi, my name is Don Febrio (PH) and I’m also
a theatre student at NYU. And my question is, is it very hard to make
the transition from being a performer or an actor into being a director or a playwright? Joe, that sounds like you. That’s you! (LAUGHS) Is it easy? No, it was not. (LAUGHTER) I think it’s more about temperament. I mean, if you sort of are a very controlling
person (LAUGHS), it’s very easy to make the [change]. No, it wasn’t like that. How about from a performer to a playwright? Or a playwright to a performer? Other than not questioning sitting on the
floor. Well, I remember when I was growing up, I
was very impressed that Noel Coward, my mother loved his plays and I read them, and I saw
that he, you know, had acted in many of his own plays. So I feel that there are lots of people who
are drawn to theatre who are drawn to all aspects of it. And Harold Pinter also started as an actor. I think that being an actor inside a play
can teach you good things about writing as well. And I know, again when I was at Yale, to my
surprise I ended up doing acting, because I was in the playwriting department. And sometimes I was in my own plays, but sometimes
I was in other people’s plays. And being in with the other actors, struggling
how to make it work from moment to moment taught me a great deal. So I think it can be useful and not hard,
actually. Thank you. Your question? Hi, my name is Vickie Bennett (PH) and my
question is basically for Garry Hynes and Joe Mantello. Actors are very vulnerable when they’re
working on a piece and they need to feel safe while they’re working. How do you create that trust with your acting
company? I think it’s not something I would think
of specifically, how do I do that or how will I do that? But I think it’s what I want for myself,
because as a director, I’m vulnerable too, in a sense. And that is to create a rehearsal room which
is a place where people can relax and can work and can talk about things that are difficult
and do things that are difficult. So it’s very much for me about the rehearsal
room and the set of relationships and the warmth. I mean, if I’m not having fun in a rehearsal
room, there’s something terribly wrong, and I can’t really function. And I sort of think that goes for everybody
else as well. So it starts in there, and continues in the
pub. (LAUGHTER) Thank you so much. And once again, I find myself saying there
is not enough time. And there never is, but I am indeed grateful
for the time that we have, to be able to have the talent that we have on this panel today. And it’s the American Theatre Wing seminars
on “Working in the Theatre.” They’re coming to you from the Graduate
Center of the City University of New York. Today’s panel, the seminar has been on the
playwright, director, and choreographer. And I think it tells a whole story, almost,
of theatre, because you have the word and then you have the people that made it work
and that brings us all to the theatre, that makes the theatre so alive. And that there is nothing else like it, but
live theatre. And so, from someone who adores the theatre,
thank you so very, very much for being here. (APPLAUSE)

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