Playwright, Director and Choreographer (Working In The Theatre #279)

(APPLAUSE) A warm welcome to the American
Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars, now in their 25th year, 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. I’m Isabelle Stevenson. I am Chairman of the Board of the American
Theatre Wing. And we hope that you will enjoy and learn
from today’s experience. But now, let me introduce our moderator for
the seminar, a distinguished member of the theatrical community, and President of the
Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and member of the Board of Directors of the American
Theatre Wing, Theodore Chapin, known as Ted. Thank you. Would you please now go on? (APPLAUSE) Thank you, Isabelle. The dialogue between playwright and director
is one of the most important collaborations in the theatre. And we have a distinguished group of playwrights
and directors and choreographer. I should point out I’m not sure that any members
of the panel have worked together, with each other, but I’d like to introduce them to you
now. Starting on my right, Robert Longbottom, who
most recently resuscitated the musical THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, and in previous seasons,
directed and choreographed SIDE SHOW and Off-Broadway’s PAGEANT. Next to him, Scott Ellis, the director of
the Second Stage production of THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON. He is currently the Associate Artistic Director
of the Roundabout Theatre. In addition to directing revivals of plays
and musicals, he was in on the beginning of AS THE WORLD GOES ‘ROUND and STEEL PIER. Next to him, John Tillinger, nominated three
times for the Tony, if I counted correctly. I don’t know. His directorial credits include this season’s
GETTING AND SPENDING and the National Actors Theatre production of NIGHT MUST FALL. Next to me on the left, Paul Rudnick. Plays and screenplays include THE MOST FABULOUS
STORY EVER TOLD, I HATE HAMLET, JEFFREY and THE ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES. He is rumored to be quite close to Premiere
magazine film critic, Libby Gelman-Waxner. (PAUL LAUGHS) Next to him, Robert Falls has directed Brian
Dennehy in the current DEATH OF A SALESMAN and in two productions of Eugene O’Neill plays
at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where he is currently Artistic Director. He has also directed Shakespeare, musicals
and operas. And next to him, David Marshall Grant, the
author of SNAKEBIT, which is his playwriting debut. As an actor, he was in ANGELS IN AMERICA,
for which he received a Tony nomination and has appeared in several films, including that
late night favorite, FRENCH POSTCARDS. (LAUGHTER) Now, to start it, I wanted to ask Paul Rudnick
a question, since we should sort of start at the beginning. THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD, did you
just wake up one morning and decide, “Forget Adam and Eve. What about Adam and Steve?” (LAUGHTER) Where did it begin? Well, it began – I think I was sitting at
the Empire Diner with Chris Ashley, who’s directed almost all of my plays. And we were talking about the Christian fundamentalist
remark, that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, which is about as light-hearted
as Christian fundamentalists tend to get. (LAUGHTER) And it just struck me, “Okay, take
them at their word. What if you did begin with Adam and Steve,
and the first two lesbians, Jane and Mabel, (LAUGHTER) and go from there?” And it’s funny. At first I thought, “Oh, it’s just a small
idea. It’s just a skit. It’s just ten minutes.” And then it began to grow. It felt like, “Wait, if you really wanted
to examine issues of faith and religion and the possible rumored existence of God, this
might be a fresh approach.” So that was how things started. And you’ve worked with Chris Ashley for a
long time. How did you get together with him? We were introduced by a wonderful woman named
Helen Merrill, who died about a year ago, who was an agent and something of a legend
in the New York theatre. And she was a wild woman, and she was quite
devoted to new playwrights and new directors. And she was German and she had been in this
country for forty years, and her accent got thicker every year. (LAUGHTER) And so she loved making matches. And she put Christopher and I together on
JEFFREY, an earlier play of mine, and it was, for me, just an absolute dream. I think a director, when you meet someone
where there’s a real kind of soul match like that there, it’s a matter of prayer. It’s someone who I always felt I could be
(LAUGHS) completely foolish in front of. You know, someone where it’s very ego-less. Just the best kind of collaboration. That’s great. John, have you ever been sort of put together
with a playwright like that, that someone said, “I think you two should [work together]?” Not really. I think Pete Gurney was the only one that
I’m aware of that he was looking for a director, and David Trainer, who had been directing
his plays, did not want to do this particular play. It was GOLDEN AGE. And I was (LAUGHS) free at the time, so I
said, “Yes.” But that was the only one. They have found me, and I feel very fortunate
that people like Terrence [McNally] and Arthur Miller and so on have sought me out. So it wasn’t that kind of a match. It was, you know, they liked my work and asked
for me. That’s great. Since we’re on beginnings, David, your first
play, SNAKEBIT, is Off-Broadway now. And it’s an extraordinary play. You’re basically an actor, or you were basically
an actor. How did this come about? Well, I was at the diner listening to Paul
and Chris (LAUGHTER), and I thought, “Well, I can’t write that play, so …” Well, you
have a lot of free time as an actor, usually. (LAUGHTER) And you know, you can go to the
gym only so many times, and at some point, you just feel like you want to be productive. And I started writing, I don’t know, about
ten or fifteen years ago. And I just started writing things. And the fortunate thing about it was I had
absolutely no sort of careerist goals in mind. It didn’t cross my mind that anyone would
want to read it, much less perform it. So I was able to sort of do what interested
me. And the problem is, the more you do that,
the more you start to think, “Well, it’s not that bad!” And then, you know, uh-oh! Then you start submitting it to people, and
then you’re in trouble. Any of the directors on this panel get this
play submitted to them? No! (LAUGHTER) No, but I did see an earlier incarnation in
Chicago, which was a wonderful version of the play. We were fascinated to hear that you’ve been
rewriting it and reworking it. I mean, how many years ago was that, in Chicago? ’94, I think? What happened was, I would get a production,
I would rewrite it for the production. And then, that was it, you know. It would just sit in a drawer for three years. And then someone would call up and say, “I
think I saw a production of that, like three years ago. Can I do a reading of it?” They would do a reading of it, and they liked
it, and they would do it, so I’d rewrite it. And then it would go away again for four years. This was about an eight or nine year process,
where I would rewrite it for every production. Which was actually not a very (LAUGHS) effective
way of writing a play, but it’s a very good way of doing it, because you have the most
amazing perspective. You have four years to look back at what you
wrote and think, you know, “What was I thinking?” or think, “There’s some value in that.” You know what’s going to happen? In about two years, a university’s going to
do the play, and they’re going to compile the eight versions you’ve written (LAUGHTER)
and put together a version. That happened, actually, with me, with a playwright
that I was put together [with], similarly, by my agent at the time. Sam Cohn said, “You really should work with
Steve Tesich.” Steve is best known probably for BREAKING
AWAY, he won an Oscar for the movie BREAKING AWAY, but he was a wonderful, wonderful playwright. And we worked together for almost four years
on a play called THE SPEED OF DARKNESS, through a production in Chicago and then on Broadway. And during that period of four years, he wrote
six different versions of the play, four of which were published. Wow! I mean, Samuel French published one version. American Theatre magazine published another
version. The Fireside Theatre published a version. So we were in Los Angeles, working on another
project, and we picked up the newspaper one day and saw that SPEED OF DARKNESS was playing
at a theatre in the Valley. And we called them up and said, “We’re coming,”
and they said, “You’re coming?! The playwright’s coming to the theatre?!” (LAUGHTER) I said, “No problem. He’s really excited by it.” We arrived at the theatre, and sure enough,
they had taken all of these versions and made their own version out of the play. And was it better? It was no better, no worse. (LAUGHTER) It was different. It happened with Terrence McNally, too, with
LISBON TRAVIATA. There are, I think, about three or four versions
of the play. Right. Because, as we did it, from Off-Off-Broadway
to Manhattan Theatre Club, to the Promenade, and then finally, the right version was out
in California, where he really worked on it again. But all four versions, I think, have been
published. And there are no disclaimers. Right. And I just did a play, a revival of a sixty-five
year old play, and there are about five versions of that, too. And I did, in fact, put bits together. Oh, so you’ve set a precedent for all the
other people? (LAUGHTER) I have, I have, yes. What happens? Do you have to get rights for each different
version that you’re going to use? Well, I don’t know. Emlyn’s dead, so I didn’t really have to get
in touch with him. (LAUGHTER) But I just think that they’re so
happy to get the show on that they will just say, “Whatever you want.” And in fact, he had re[written]. The final version I got was one that he had
adjusted. Two or three years ago, there was a production
of it in London with Margaret Tyzack. And he had, in fact, edited it down, because
he felt that people didn’t want to listen quite as much now as they did in 1935 or ‘4,
whenever it was done. And unfortunately, I thought he cut a lot
of very good stuff out, so we put some of that back in. Most of it, or just some of it? In this version. Oh, just some of it. Oh, no, no, no, just some of it. Otherwise, we’d be there all night, you know. I wanted to ask Bobby, who has done something
which [is unusual], I know of two other Broadway musicals that after they had their official
Broadway opening were then worked on by the authors, being WISH YOU WERE HERE and CAMELOT. But what you did with THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL
is certainly not done often. (BOBBY LAUGHS) But you sort of created another
version while the original version was playing, correct? Yes, indeed. They had approached me about doctoring the
show a little bit, coming and fixing a couple of musical numbers, which they knew I could
do, the Madison Square Garden folks, because they produce the Christmas show at Radio City,
which I’ve directed for a few years. And I looked at the totality of the evening,
and I said, “It’s really not about enhancing a number here or there.” I think there were problems with the narrative
of the show and the structure of it. And I said I really wanted to take it apart
and collaborate with the book writer and see if we could find a different way to tell the
story, using the same songs and scenic elements. And we had to put all of this together while
they were doing the old show eight times a week. It was tough. It’s also not the most desirable position
to be the step-dad on a show. I can imagine, because the cast did not change. Most of the cast did not change. Two of the principals did, and a few other
people. But a lot of these folks had to lose bits
that they had done, things they had recorded on the cast album. And it was very tricky. Did you get resistance from the writers? Not at all, no. They were very eager to help the show, to
make it better, to improve the copyright. And I think we’ve done that. No new music was written, but we cut a couple
of things. A song that was basically used as background
in the second act became the opening number and sort of the metaphor for the entire evening. So it was a great experience. Perhaps you could talk to Bob, since he’s
going to be doing it with what he’s doing next. Revamping the Disney. Yes, revamping the Disney AIDA. Which will be coming next year to a theatre
near you. (LAUGHTER) So I could use some tips on all
of that. Had you gone down to see it? I particularly like that idea that you kept
most of the cast, except for the people you brutally and bitterly fired. (LAUGHTER) And the leads! And the leads, right. But other than that, it was the same cast! It’s not fun to do that. It’s not fun to do that. I know. And you’re going to do it again! I’m about to do it again. We’re going to scale the show down so that
it can tour and make more sense financially, and then reopen at the Neil Simon. It’s a huge show. It would never have been such a big show,
had I directed it from the beginning. Smaller technically, smaller cast, too, I
would have done. I think it’s interesting that whether it’s
a trend that anybody likes or not, there are institutional producers. And I think part of the reason why I believe
anybody had the wherewithal to do this was one of the producers, somebody told me, he
has owned – I don’t know if he still does – an airplane manufacturing company. And he said, “If the engine is lousy in an
airplane, I’m not going to throw the whole airplane out, I’m going to fix the engine.” So he said, “Why are we closing this show
and just saying it doesn’t work? Let’s go back and fix it.” That would be Ted Foresman (PH), yes. That would be. He was not afraid of commitment, financially. No. And he’s a individual, but a very wealthy
one. That’s nice. Which is what it boils down to. He had the money to do it, you know, and was
willing to do it, which is great. And to credit, the original producers kept
it open long enough – To be able to do it. — so that he could ride up and save it. How long did it take you? How many days or weeks was it that you actually
made the changes that you made? Fifteen days of rehearsals, when I could only
rehearse basically five hours a day, because they had to do the show at night. So we had to have everything figured out,
everything mapped out. And they would be doing one show at night,
while you were changing the other show? Yes, yes. So it wasn’t a gradual shift? Was it just like, after fifteen days, another
opening, the same old show? We opened. We closed the show, had eleven days of tech
and re-opened, essentially. It is clear, the show you’re talking about? THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. Yes. Because you’ve all been talking as if everybody
knows the show. We said it once at the beginning, very precisely. (LAUGHTER) Right. I was most scared of that, of having the critics
come back and review this. It had not been warmly embraced at all. I thought, “This is really putting my own
head in the guillotine here.” But we were able to change some minds, and
at least, acknowledge that it’s an entertaining evening. Which is what it is, I guess. And clearly, what you did is a controversial
thing within the industry, because certain people seem to have picked up the telephone
and talked to some of those charmers in the press. Because one does read about this, you know,
in an unfortunate kind of way. I think one of the tragedies here is that
in the forties and fifties and thirties, certainly, a play would go out of town, a musical would
go out of town. I mean, the stories about FUNNY GIRL on the
road or MY FAIR LADY or, you name it, CAMELOT, were so appalling, and then they came to New
York and they were big hits. But the shakedown or (TO DAVID) the thing
that you had, I mean, it’s horrible to have it stretched over eight years, because you
forget why you first wrote the play. But I think that that has been taken away
from us. And Mr. Sondheim says that that whole process,
which was fabulous in this country, has been taken away and nothing replaces it. So you’re a hit and miss thing, and they give
you three weeks of previews, and bang! You’re on and you’ve got to be fabulous. Well, also, out of town, too, if you are out
of town, it seems to be, once it’s open, we’re told back here, “Yes, either it’s a hit or
it’s a flop.” And that’s it, and it rarely changes. And so, where is that place where you can
work on it and you can do the creating? I don’t think it’s there any more. Although, interesting, I had a play. When it was in New York, at the WPA, it was
called THE NAKED TRUTH. And when it first opened, it was pretty much
a mess, but a very educational mess for me. And then we did a whole other version of it,
up at A.R.T. in Cambridge, when I changed the title and it was called THE NAKED EYE,
just to confuse Playbill bios endlessly. (LAUGHTER) And it was a wonderful opportunity
to work on the same material, with actually some of the same cast members. And so, I think ultimately I’m going to try
and do a third version that might return to New York. So I did have that opportunity, thanks to
a lot of wonderful kind of not-for-profit institutional theatres. There are people who are, it’s rare, but who
will take a second chance on a previously produced work. It’s interesting, because I just had a call
the other day from a terrific playwright, who had a play done two seasons ago, which
had gotten fairly great reviews, except from one paper. And he’s very passionate about the play and
wants it to be re-looked at again. And I said, “Absolutely, I’ll look at it.” But my fear was, will anybody take another
chance on it? You know, would someone take another chance,
specifically only two years ago, but would anyone take a chance to say, “You know what? He’s able to look at it again or to rearrange
it.” It’s a shame. We should be able to look at it again. It should happen. I don’t know if producers are out there who
are willing to take a chance. There should be another life for it. Absolutely. I don’t know how you can do that, but it’s
something I think that everybody ought to think about. But there is this current trend, which I think
is going to be very interesting, where there is no such thing any more as an ultimate flop
musical that just goes away. There’s always going to be somebody that goes,
“You know, I can make that musical work,” in Seattle or Omaha or Chicago. I mean, I’m waiting, you know? CAPEMAN is hours from being revived somewhere. (LAUGHTER) It’s in America right now, Encores! And I’m saying that almost about every show
that’s sort of deemed an interesting failure. It’s ultimately reworked by somebody. You know, you look at MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG,
which has had like four or five incarnations. And certain other projects keep kind of going
around, coming back, going around, coming back. There’s almost no such thing any more about
letting them just go. They can’t because no one’s writing enough
new ones to keep us busy. That’s right. So the interesting ones want to get reworked. I think there’s a lot of pros and cons to
that in the sense that, you know, I think we’ve come to a place where perhaps reviewers
are not able to open and close a show as much as they used to be, especially in the musical
world. But by the same token, I think that producers
have learned the art of selling a show. And suddenly, you know, that’s something that
really has a kind of objective reality to it. You can learn those skills. And suddenly, I think that skill is becoming
the majority thought process. And the quality of the show is not as important. “Well, we can sell it,” you know? It doesn’t matter any more. Marketing is everything, you mean. Yeah. And what happens is, you know, I think it
is more difficult now. Because you have productions outside of New
York City and I think a lot of people coming. I mean, especially if you’re an established
playwright, people come. And they make decisions then and there. And well, I mean, I sound so naive, but it
is just so much about the business of the theatre now, I think perhaps more than it
used to be. Again, maybe I sound so naive, but it just
seems that the work itself may be less important to producers than ever before. Well, I think that theatre outside of New
York City is thriving. People want to see theatre, especially a New
York City production is very important. As a playwright, would you be willing to go
back and say, “Well, it didn’t work on Broadway, but I think it would work in Chicago or St.
Louis or wherever it might be,” and go back and work on the play, for something that would
not have another New York opening? Would you work on it again? Sure. Although I also think there are some plays
that should be allowed a graceful death. (LAUGHTER) You know? There are. I think it’s funny. There’s NOT ABOUT NIGHTINGALES, which is a
wonderful play, and how great that Vanessa Redgrave unearthed that manuscript. And what would be nice is if also then there
was more attention paid to later Tennessee Williams’ work as well, which were often lambasted
by the critics. And I think this might be a nice opportunity
to say, “Wait, let’s look at the entire body of work.” But then again, sometimes I think there are
early things that I wrote, where I hope no one ever, ever gets their hands on them! (LAUGHTER) Oh, they will, they will! (LAUGHTER) They will! And they’re all set in prison, too! It’s odd. (LAUGHTER) Well, my reputation, I suppose, was made with
doing the Orton plays. And I put on ENTERTAINING MR. SLOAN a long time ago. I mean, I was one of the producers as well,
and I was trying to raise money. We put it on for seven thousand dollars. And I couldn’t get people to commit to it. They said, “Oh, that play! They’re awful people! They’re terrible!” And you just said, “Well, I think I see something
that might change your mind,” and in fact, we were lucky and successful and had a great
cast. But the whole perception of Orton in this
country, I think, changed as a result of that one and LOOT. Because LOOT was a big flop on Broadway. You know, it’s a very peculiar writer. And I think he’s great, but I think that I
was given an opportunity. And maybe because he was British, maybe because
he was dead for ten, fifteen years when I did it, that people were prepared to look
at it. But I wish other plays or playwrights would
have the chance to go out and try it again. I mean, I think THE LISBON TRAVIATA was spectacular
in Los Angeles because of all the work that Terrence did in Los Angeles. I want to ask Scott, you have directed a series
of revivals. A lot of them that you’ve directed, the original
authors are still around. Yes. And for the musicals, they all were shows
that went out of town. Yes. Were they helpful? Did they want to take another look at their
work? I always tell this to directors, “Well, how
did you get your start?” I say, you know, most writers, if you go – and
this is a compliment – have a healthy ego. And if you go to an author and say, “I love
your play,” or “I love your musical,” they will do anything for you. (LAUGHTER) Anything. Especially if it was something that was not
successful the first time. And if it was, it doesn’t matter. They want to see their work done and seen
again in new generations. So I have found nothing but great support. I mean, having just done CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON
with Jason Miller, he was terrific, you know. Was there anything that was rewritten? Interestingly enough, CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON
was done with two intermissions. And I know this seems like a simple thing,
but I said I wanted to take the intermissions out and run it straight through. And he had a lot of problems with that. He felt that he wrote it, in his mind, like
a basketball game, and you had to take the quarters, and that was what that was about. (LAUGHS) Knowing absolutely nothing about
basketball, I said I didn’t care! (LAUGHTER) I just felt that I was looking
at it a little differently. But to his credit, I said, “Please let me
at least try. I promise I will put the intermissions in
if we feel it did not work.” And sure enough, it worked. Big liar! Total! (LAUGHTER) I turned to Carole Rothman, I said,
“You understand I will never put the intermissions in, don’t you?” (LAUGHTER) But he was great. And we did some cutting, you know. But again, I felt the same thing, that the
author wanted the piece done and wanted to see it. I want to pick up on your comment to Carole
Rothman. Basically, you said, “No. It doesn’t really matter who has the power
here. I don’t really want this change.” Obviously, between playwright and director
and choreographer, someone’s gotta be in charge. A director has to – well, I feel a director
is there to support what the playwright is writing. To me, the playwright is the final word. It has to be. It’s their words, it’s their language. Hopefully, there’s a collaboration where you
can come to some sort of understanding. And if you have a great collaboration with
a director, obviously, that’s terrific. But no, ultimately, I can not do something
if the author says, “Absolutely not.” You know, I can’t cut something if he says,
“I don’t want it cut.” I can beg, you know, I can pay money, I can
do whatever I try. And I say, if it’s a good collaboration – I
did this new David Rabe play last year, and he was terrific. And we certainly had, you know, things that
we disagreed with, but I think there became a respect and an understanding where at least
we were able to try. My thing was always, “Can we just try it?” And he would say the same thing, “Could you
just try this?” And ultimately, what you see up there is going
to tell you what’s working and what’s not working. So I think the best thing is you find the
collaboration where you find that balance. But no, ultimately, it’s the [playwright]. It’s a good question. I’d like to hear what – I was going to go to one of the writers and
see if they want to respond to that. Well, being an actor, I’d like to speak up
for them in this collaboration process, because I find that a director is so important. And my limited experience with writing is,
I would like all the comments and help I can get. And so, a director is instrumental in doing
that. But I also think that actors are profoundly
important to listen to. An actor telling you, “This doesn’t work”
– I mean, first, you just have to make sure that they’re just don’t want to wear those
pants because they don’t look good in them. But once you get past that, which is usually
not the case, they’re telling you that something doesn’t make sense. And if it doesn’t make sense to them, it probably
doesn’t make sense. And I think it’s a really great way of sussing
out where you’re at. And when I was rehearsing, I was constantly
listening. I mean, I would listen to anybody. I would listen to, you know, anybody. But the actors and the director, to me, were
on equal standing, in terms of what they had to tell me. Yeah, because I think some playwrights are
far too overprotective of their work, that everything is golden. And I always think, especially when you’re
working with comedy, if the audience isn’t laughing, if it isn’t working, fix it, cut
it, get rid of it. You know, and it’s something that Scott said,
that’s so important, which is everyone has to be willing to try everything. Try it without that line, without that character,
and just see. As long as everyone involved will make an
equal attempt. And what David said is also so true, if you
cast wonderful actors, it’s priceless. And often they say, “Oh, no, I’ll try it. You know, I’ll make it work.” And you think, “No, it’s my problem. Because if you can’t make that work at your
level of skill, this trouble lies in the script.” It’s also one of the differences between the
movie business and playwriting. In movies, the script is up for grabs (LAUGHS)
on every possible level, and the writer is usually banished from the room, from the set. And in the theatre, legally, among other aspects,
there’s a lot more respect for the word. So that I think a playwright can count on
that, and then feel free enough to, you know, listen to absolutely everyone’s opinion. But the movie people have paid you a lot of
money to have the right to trample on your words. You bet! (LAUGHS) And in the theatre, you own your words. Haven’t you heard that playwrights have been
banned from the theatre during rehearsal, because their input was too strong and was
very difficult to overcome? Well, that’s an interesting question as to
when playwrights should be in rehearsal, shouldn’t be in rehearsal, are asked to be in rehearsal
or not. But they can’t be, can they? I mean, aren’t they legally [entitled to be
there]? I have them in the rehearsal the whole time,
and I love them being there. And I agree with you, having been an actor,
too, I just believe in the intelligence of actors, and what they contribute is remarkable. I mean, there are some actors you have to
watch out for. (LAUGHTER) Yeah. But some who really, really want to make it
better. And I think, I don’t know what experience
you had with Arthur Miller, but he’s the most pragmatic playwright, I said, “You should
go around the world and teach.” Because when you said – and this was a play
that he’d written many years before, which was AFTER THE FALL – I said, “This doesn’t
work,” and he said, “Cut it! Doesn’t work, cut it!” And I said, “But it’s published,” and he said,
“Who cares? Let’s go!” I mean, that whole character was cut out in
my production with Diane Weist. And with the new plays I did with him, he
was absolutely open to any kinds of suggestions and moving speeches around and so on. I think a lot of people think that all the
directors do is move characters around and choose the scenery or something, but we work
a lot on the text. And we are there to enhance the text, to serve
the text. I mean, it’s not for nothing that Kazan was
such a great director, because he took those plays and shook them into some kind of coherence,
and they were brilliant. Jace Alexander was so important, in terms
of cutting and shaping SNAKEBIT. You know, it really was important. Along with the actors. Well, I think where playwrights can get into
trouble is in terms of kind of a chain of communication. I’m very careful to not sometimes talk to
the actors directly, if they have a question or a problem. I think it makes far more sense for me to
talk to Chris, to the director, and then he can talk to the actors. Sometimes, you can just have general discussion. But I think you don’t want that sense of two
different opinions – Yeah. — because I think that’s actually a nasty
thing to do to the cast, that they suddenly have to say, “Who’s right?” And also, the communication, I think, has
to be through one voice. Yeah. And you’ve set up your communication in how
a director speaks to an actor, and I think that has to stay clear. It’s interesting, though, what you said, because
I feel – I don’t know, it would be interesting to talk to the authors – I wouldn’t want
the author there for the whole time, and I respect you to be able to do that. I think I’m too insecure. I just feel like, “Oh, God, I’m going to screw
up here!” I’d rather just have them at the beginning
around the table, which is so important, for the first readthrough and questions and stuff. But once I get it on its feet, I prefer not
the author there, let me play around with it, then come back in and see if we’re all
on the right track. But that’s just me. I agree. I let them come and go. I am not insecure at all (LAUGHTER), I just
let them think I am. But no, I let them come and go. I mean, Arthur gets very bored after a certain
point. Yeah. I was going to say, that’s actually a deliberate
directing technique of mine, is to try to bore the pants off a writer. (LAUGHTER) Drive them out of the room! You’ll have your hands full with the AIDA
crew! What about a new playwright? Arthur Miller is something entirely different. What about a new playwright? A new playwright tends to be there all the
day. I mean, I’ve just done a play by a novice
playwright, I mean, she’s well into her sixties and she was there every day. And it was brutal for her. It really was brutal, because we said some
terrible things, and a couple of times I looked across and tears were pouring down her face. (LAUGHTER) And I said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! But –” And she, you know, gritted her teeth
and said, “Okay, all right,” and she went out and she rewrote a scene. And I admire her a lot, to do that at her
age. Joan Vail Thorne, it’s a play with Frannie
Sternhagen. And I just think that it’s tough. It can be very tough. But I don’t think you want to get to where
John Osborne finished up, who wouldn’t have a word or a comma cut. And as a result, his plays got worse and worse
and worse, and were so boring by the end that he deserved everything he got. (LOOKS UP) Sorry, John! (LAUGHTER) I think that the playwright can be put in
restraints, but still kept in the room. (LAUGHTER) Yeah. What I find to be exciting, which is why I
think a playwright should be very careful about interfering, but if I can watch the
play or watch the rehearsals, it’s very helpful because I can see what’s not working and try
to avoid as much later humiliation as quickly as possible. Right. And there are some moments where it’s exciting,
because I can think of something and then tell the director to tell the actors and it
happens all at the same time. And it’s wonderful to be able to build on
a moment like that. It’s important for that to happen, but I think
too many actors reach for results much too quickly, which can often be the wrong result,
which makes the playwright nervous. And I prefer also to have some time very much
alone with the company and show things. I do, generally, as well. And you know, the playwright’s always invited
and it’s entirely up to the playwright, and the playwright usually is extraordinarily
helpful and is there from the beginning. But I need another pair of eyes to come in,
to stay away a little bit. What I also find is really interesting, from
an acting point of view, particularly if it’s a very famous playwright or a very good playwright,
or a very good and famous playwright, is, talking about shortcuts, the actors want to
just jump to a short cut by leaning in to the playwright and saying, “Now, what does
this mean? What is the meaning of that?” And while the playwright knows exactly what
the meaning is, sometimes – Knows exactly! (LAUGHTER) Half the time he doesn’t know. But you want the actor to find their own process
of discovery, down to just simple things like the biography of the characters. Your meanings. You know, it’s like you’re working on a play,
you want the actor to invest it and to make it completely their own. And sometimes, you don’t want a playwright
saying, “No, actually, your great-uncle did die during the Second World War.” Yeah. It’s like being, you know, a really bad shrink. Right. You’re just like, you know, “Well, your problem
is,” (LAUGHS) you know? And you don’t let the patient sort of figure
it out for themselves. There’s a bit of mystery. Yeah. There’s always a certain amount of mystery
around the play, that I think the actors and the directors need to sort of wallow around
in, without the writer present. But isn’t it true, too, for the playwrights,
that there are also surprises that you hadn’t thought about or there are ways that, you
know, the actors bring something that you totally didn’t see? Oh, yeah, absolutely. What Paul was saying that I think is really
important, that I enjoyed being in the room for, was that I learned so much about my play! And I started thinking about, “Well, wait
a minute, we should have a line here, blah-blah-blah-blah!” And I would write it as they went, which I
suppose is maddening in some ways, but for me, I was able to realize the play more, because
I learned enormous amounts. And I think – you know, I’m trying to defend
my job – but I do think to have a director is very important. When writers direct their own stuff, I mean,
Marlborough and Coward notwithstanding. But I do think that playwrights are sometimes
amazed by what [you find]. “Oh, I didn’t think that that meant that. Oh, it means that? Oh, does it?” And Terrence sits through rehearsals quite
a lot. He does leave. And he has this terrible look on his face,
like this. And all the cast come up to me always and
say, I haven’t done a play of his in a while, but they say, “Does he hate everything we’re
doing?” And Terrence isn’t even listening to them. He’s working on something else, or he’s listening
to a rhythm and trying to get it all changed around. But I do think that that way, it becomes a
concerted effort. Right. And you know, I mean, LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH
APART, if you’d been there, Nathan and Terrence and everybody just – I mean, I’ve never
heard screaming like it. And it was fabulous! I mean, it was just fabulous. I mean, everybody was hurt and people were
throwing scripts down. And people said, “Well, that’s not the best
way.” And I agree, it’s not the best way, but as
Arthur Miller said, you know, it took him a lot of pain to write the play and it should
take us a lot of pain and so on to explore it. You know, I have to tell you, you talk about
Arthur Miller, and if I could tell a quick story. Because the DEATH OF A SALESMAN that’s running
now was created purely in Chicago. It wasn’t really meant to come to Broadway,
and the fact that it has has been extraordinary for all of us. And Arthur, while I invited him, I said, “Arthur,
please, I’d like you to be involved.” And I discussed casting with him and concept. He said, “Well, you know, I’ve seen the play
a few times before.” (LAUGHTER) And I said, “I know! And I think this one’s going to be rather
different.” And he said, “Well, I know it’ll be rather
different. But still, I’ve seen the play many times before.” And finally, what happened was, he was sort
of forced to come see the play. He sort of had to, because a number of producers
wanted to bring it to Broadway. And it was ultimately up to Arthur to decide
which producer was going to move it to Broadway. So we, as a company, never worked with him
at all. So when we came into New York, we went back
into the rehearsal room for two weeks, to put the show back together, and Arthur was
there for that entire two week period. Well, I can tell you, that first day of rehearsal,
you know! And obviously, we knew he liked the production,
or it wouldn’t have been on Broadway. But sort of sitting there, you know – the
most nervous that I have ever been was sitting through that first rehearsal with Arthur Miller. And of course, you know, as John said, he
puts you incredibly at ease. He was working on it as if it was the first
time he’d ever worked on it. He had suggestions, he saw things, he was
adding. He was like a kid. He is like a kid, yeah. He really like rolled up his sleeves, and
it was like, “Let’s work on this play.” And particularly in some of the performances,
you know, he was just thrilled with what they were bringing [to it], because they were things
he’d never seen before or had imagined in his work. How different was the play from Chicago to
New York? With Arthur being there? Not very. It was very much the same production. One of the funniest things was at the end
of the first day, you know, we kind of read through the play and he saw a lot of the interpretation
that we were doing there. He took all these notes on a legal pad and
left the legal pad there, and all the cast went up (LAUGHTER) and they ripped the pages
of the legal pad off, so they could have a framed notepad from Arthur Miller! But I think it’s interesting what you say,
and it’s nice to hear. Because I think directors really want the
playwright to like what they’re doing. Yeah. And to really say, “Yes, you are connecting
with my piece.” Yes, it’s always nervewracking, because you
want to please them, too. Absolutely. You want them to say, “I really like what
you’re doing.” I mean, if they don’t, it’s like your parents
saying, “No,” you know? So it’s a very nerve-wracking, but extremely
uplifting, wonderful moment when they say, “You know what? That’s terrific,” or “I like that,” or “Can
we try this a little bit?”, you know? And I really lean heavily on the playwright,
especially toward the end, as you said, to have the third eye. Because after a while, I can’t see it as much. Yeah, you can’t see anything. And they come in, and they can shape, and
I go, “I want that.” And sometimes I agree, sometimes I disagree,
but for the most part, it’s like, “Terrific! Great!” More times than not, when the playwright has
been out of the room for ten days or something, or eight days, in a long rehearsal period,
when they come back in, it’s fantastic. Yeah. Because they really are able to look at it. And you’ve gotten through the boring bits. Right. Which is really staging and having to listen
to actors ask these interminable questions about the characters. (LAUGHTER) And then finally, you know, the
playwright can come in and see the work in some shape, and really usually kick it into
another place. Absolutely. And almost every playwright I’ve ever worked
with has been able to do that. Has always kicked it to a new [place]. It’s always an exciting place, because they
have kicked it into the next place. When you accept the job, you’re going to be
the director, how many meetings do you have with the playwright? How do you know that you both are thinking
along the same lines, director and playwright? It really depends on the playwright and the
play, you know. So that you haven’t really settled in until
you’ve had a discussion with the playwright? I had a playwright once say to me in a first
meeting, “Why don’t you tell me the story of the play, and I’ll see if it matches my
story?” (GASPS OF HORROR) Oh my God! I don’t do that! (LAUGHTER) You? No! And it was actually sort of a handy device
for sort of making sure that we were sort of on the same track, just from the telling
the story of the play. There’s a story, I hope Arthur won’t be offended
by me telling you it, of him doing that play – oh, I can’t remember its title. In London, with Alec Guinness and Tony Quayle,
the Jewish play about the – a Jewish play! THE PRICE? No, no, no. The one about being sent to the concentration
camps. INCIDENT AT VICHY? THE INCIDENT AT VICHY. And Arthur Miller was there, and Tony Quayle
and Alec Guinness, and I think Peter Wood directed. And Arthur ran up from the audience and said,
“No, this play is about this and it’s about this and it’s about this!” And Alec looked at him and said, “No, it’s
not.” (LAUGHTER) That’s being secure! But for English people, theatre is a blood
sport. (LAUGHTER) So I mean, you know, if you can
kill, you can kill. I wanted to follow up on Isabelle’s question. Both Scott and Bobby have, in recent seasons,
mounted on Broadway in a commercial setting, a brand-new American musical, which must have
been hard experiences in both instances. But sort of following up on the “When did
you get involved with the process?” question, how did those shows come about? Well, SIDE SHOW was an idea I had had, based
on seeing these two girls and this movie they had made years ago. And it had haunted me and stayed with me,
and I did research on them. Could I go back even first, before that? How did you get to SIDE SHOW? Where do you come from? Where do I come from? Yeah. I’m a dancer. I danced in Broadway shows and national tours,
and worked my way up that way. Knew one day I would stop dancing and choreograph
shows and direct. Okay. So I had a good friend, Bill Russell, who
wrote the book and lyrics to a show Off-Broadway I did called PAGEANT. And he also became interested in this. And we approached a composer and we worked
together for six years. I was never not involved in that process. I’ve yet to have a show where someone said,
“Do you like this musical?” or “Would you like to direct this play?” It’s been more, I’ve been there from the get-go
and helped shape the piece and helped decide what stays, what goes. Which ends up to be a little more stage-ready
at the end, because I’ve helped structure it pretty much. With STEEL PIER, I came up with this idea
of musicalizing THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? And that was a story I always liked, and we
all agreed on it, Kander and Ebb, and we approached Kander and Ebb on it. And over the period of time, we started doing
all this research on marathons, and just tons and tons of research, as we were trying to
get the rights to THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? Ultimately, we could not get the rights to
THEY SHOOT HORSES, but by that time, we had done so much research that we literally sat
on the living room floor, the author and Susan Stroman and myself and said, “You know what? Why don’t we now take the characters and some
of the information we know and let’s try to create something from scratch?” And that’s literally how it happened. I think the difficult thing is, we didn’t
have an out-of-town tryout. For a musical, it’s so expensive, but I feel
it’s so important. It doesn’t mean it would guarantee anything. What we did do was a workshop, which I still
feel very strongly about workshops, but I also think they’re dangerous, because you’re
in a very small protective room. And what is in a room does not mean it’s going
to translate on stage. And you never know. And so, for myself, I would still encourage
myself to say, “Yes, I want to do a workshop,” but to be a little more careful. But it’s a Catch-22. So you go out-of-town – some producers don’t
want to do that any longer. And there’s no guarantee, and you know, it’s
tough. It’s very tough. One aspect of going out-of-town always was
you could invite your friends to come out-of-town. And when Williams, apparently, went to see
SOUTH PACIFIC and cut SOUTH PACIFIC for his friends, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Josh
Logan. Who do you lean on to help with feedback and
stuff like that, in a fishbowl like previewing on Broadway? It’s tough, because as David was saying, everyone
has an opinion, and they’re all just swarming down. The most horrifying thing (LAUGHS) I’ve ever
experienced was during STEEL PIER. I would actually get letters – we all would
get letters – from people, from Joe Blow from Illinois, saying, “Well, this is what’s
wrong with it. (DAVID LAUGHS) And call me if you want me
to give you any more suggestions.” (LAUGHTER) And you look at these letters,
and you’re just horrified. But you try to just clear out, focus on the
people that you respect and that you have some sort of connection with. But for the most part, you keep as a group. You have to trust the group that you’ve collaborated
with, and that’s how you try to figure that out. But there’s no way of keeping it to yourself
once you’re in New York. No. And do you have any influence – you, it’s
your baby – of saying that in this large budget now, the reason for not going out-of-town
is because it’s so terribly expensive. But since everything is so expensive, and
the budget is so large, you really have to include an out-of-town week, two weeks, whatever
it might be in the show. Because I feel, as you do, that there is no
way of keeping it from all the advice that you get and all the things that are being
ironed out right in public. And so, by the time you open, there already
has been the whole thing, “Well, we hear it’s in trouble,” or “They need to cut,” or whatever. I think that’s the difference, is that we’re
now in a world where people somehow want some sort of failure or want something to write
about. So a show’s out-of-town and you’re in trouble,
you’re basically dead. I mean, I’m trying to think of a show that
was out-of-town – I’m thinking of musicals, just because of the expense and the hardship
with it – that actually was in trouble out-of-town, everyone said it was trouble, and it came
in and succeeded. I don’t think it’s happened for quite a long
time. Not a long time. A long time. HELLO DOLLY! is the famous example of a show
[like that]. Oh, absolutely. But I think it was allowed somehow, and now
it’s not. But didn’t SPIDERWOMAN get negative reviews
when it was out-of-town? Oh, it was very negative. Well, that was another production. It was more like your play, where it died. It died and then it came back. Its first production died. It went away, yeah. And then it came back. I just can’t remember one that was [like that]. I mean, either it works great, CRAZY FOR YOU,
LA CAGE, just off the top of my head. Yeah. But the ones that were in trouble out-of-town,
I can’t think of any that came in and [made it]. No, not for a long time. And that’s one of the great romantic notions
in our profession – Yeah! – is Tommy Tune on the road in SEESAW. And he fires everybody and he fixed the show! Or Gower Champion fixes the show and it comes
in. And one rarely hears about that any more. No. The Internet has made, you know – phone
calls are apt to happen two days later. I mean, people speak of the production instantly. Oh, God. Horrifying. And they too easily champion someone’s failure. We were able to do a workshop on a stage for
SIDE SHOW, so I felt good about the physical production when we left that phase, knowing
that we were never going to be able to go out-of-town with the show. But that brings up the whole marketing discussion
of the end of our business, how critical that is. But why couldn’t you ever go out-of-town? The big shows did go out-of-town. You’re adding another million, two million
dollars. A million to two million dollars to go. And so many of the out-of-town situations
are subscription. And it’s just very difficult to make a habit
of it, with no stars. And when do you do the work? Yeah. It’s hard to do the work, too, in those settings. Because you’re just booked in for a limited
period of time. Most of those theatres are designed for, you
know, road tours. Which is still, I mean, actually there are
some shows [like that]. I mean, Sondheim has been rather smart. INTO THE WOODS had that version at Old Globe
prior. And you know, there have been some plays that
have had some involvement in the non-profit theatre, that I think have had significant
work prior to [coming in to New York]. Certainly, plays obviously are so much easier
– Right. – to have that experience. The expense, the opportunity to just go and
really get away from it. Where with musicals, you know, it’s hard. It’s easier to try to hide yourself if you’re
not a musical. You can try to find a smaller theatre. Yeah. And hope no one comes down. But it’s amazing how they do. Although we did MOST FABULOUS STORY up at
Williamstown last summer, on their smaller Second Stage, and a lot of new plays are being
done there now. And that was wonderfully helpful. And it was a short enough run so that it also
cut down on the gossip factor. Absolutely. Not entirely, though! Well, you know, it was helpful, I’m sure,
you know, for you as a writer and stuff. But the truth is, I did hear how fabulous
it was! Well, that was from me. (LAUGHTER) No, but it’s true, though. It’s an amazing reality. “Did you hear? I heard Paul’s play is so great up at Williamstown. You gotta go up and see it, oh just blah-blah.” It happens. It’s amazing. Theatre and gossip? (LAUGHTER) Do you think? No, it’s hard to escape, you know. It’s true, yeah. And it makes it difficult to mature. But you’re a little more protected up there,
otherwise. Oh, well, yeah. It’s nice. I’m actually going back up there this summer
for two new plays, and it’s nice, because there are no reviewers up there. Oh, yes, there are, but they’re in the Pennysaver. In the Pennysaver! (LAUGHTER) And you try not to look at the
Pennysaver in Williamstown. Oh, no, no. Except they’re sort of wonderful, because
the critics there, they’re the most local critics imaginable. So they’re either incredibly nice to everyone
at all times, or they’re the most bitter human beings alive, ’cause they’re writing for the
Pennysaver! (LAUGHTER) And so either way, it’s a refreshing
glimpse of a whole other response. Yeah. But also, Bobby and I are working on a project
which hasn’t [even started] – there’s an outline of it. This is a version of FLOWER DRUM SONG. There’s an outline of it. As far as I know, that’s all there is. It’s been in the paper four, five times already? For some reason, it’s so intriguing to members
of the press to write about, and we get called. There’s a first act. It’s good. Oh, the first act? I’m waiting for it, I’m waiting for it. (LAUGHTER) But I think it’s different. You know, I mean, it’s all very well to say
that it’s easier with plays, but if it’s a new play that’s headed for Broadway, the expense
is just as high. And you’re at the mercy of all that nonsense
out-of-town just as much as you are with a musical. And I mean, it can be lethal. But I think that I, as a director, have what
I call three or four torpedoes, people who come in who just tell me what they think. And (LAUGHS) if they confirm what I think,
I’m in deep trouble when it’s negative. I’m always interested in directors. Do you have directors that you actually trust? (LAUGHTER) From a director. I know it seems like a funny story, but we’re
such an odd group, I think. We are. It’s very odd and it’s really horrible. It’s terrible. Because there are directors on this panel
that I truly respect, but we never communicate. And you would think we should, because we
all go through the same problems. And I always just want to ask other directors,
do you have other directors that you say, “I trust you. Would you please come in and just take a look
at this?” It’s funny, it’s a phone call. Because that is certainly something that happened. Where do you learn to direct, other than as
an actor? Where do you start before you’re chosen to
be a director? I was an actor, and I sort of thought, “Well,
I can do better than that!” (LAUGHTER) No, no. Well, that is part of it. I’m afraid it is. Yes. The majority of playwrights are directors
and actors. I just was an actor, and I was putting this
production of ENTERTANING MR. SLOAN together, and the late Joe Maher, much
mourned by me, said, “I think you should direct it, because you know more about this play
than anybody else.” And I did, and I found I liked it, and it
was a success, and I never looked back. How long had you been an actor before that? (SIGHS) I’m very old. I think about twenty years? I don’t know, I can’t remember. Fifteen years, something like that. Fifteen or sixteen years. That’s interesting. What about you? Same thing, I was an actor. And I must say, I had sort of the same feeling
after working with some directors, “You know, I think I can do that!” And I’m very fortunate, I think, with pros
and cons of directing. But I feel my strength is that I understand
actors. And that, you’ll never forget being on the
other side. Never. No. So I have a true understanding of what an
actor goes through, and that’s something that I don’t think I would have had had I not been
an actor prior to that. And I often say that when you go into a rehearsal
situation, an actor comes in and there’s a wall and it’s halfway. And it will either come down very slowly or
it will go up very fast. And once it goes up, it will never come back
down. And so, it’s just that trust, that you have
to start working with an actor so that wall starts coming down, so there’s a give and
take. And I know I felt that as an actor. You know, the moment, you got in there, you
knew, “Oh, the director doesn’t know what they’re doing. Forget it, I’m protecting myself.” Uta Hagen always says, “You’re in this class
to become director-proof, because most directors don’t know what they’re doing.” And it’s true. It’s interesting. In a previous incarnation, I was an assistant
to Alan Arkin, on the original production of THE SUNSHINE BOYS. Alan, as a director, knew actors. And the opening night in New York, Jack Albertson
was blowing the performance, and in those days, opening night was a real thing. And he went backstage at intermission and
talked to Jack Albertson, and I remember thinking to myself, “A director is going backstage
to talk to an actor halfway through the opening night performance?!” (SNAPS FINGERS) He knew. He had an instinct. He knew that that actor, at that point, you
know, whatever was going on, he as an actor could say something to that guy and fix the
second act. I was [terrified]. I have such admiration for him. I would have been in a bar, drunk. (LAUGHTER) That would have been my logical
response to the circumstances of that one. I would have been drunk. I don’t even see beyond the first scene. I think it’s – ooh! (LAUGHTER) But now we don’t have opening nights
like that. I mean, it’s a seven – It’s a marathon. Marathon! A horse race! Yes! I mean, you have to get the actors back up
there and they have to ride again and back up there. And you know, they got a cold on the third
performance, it happens to be a very important performance. You know, it’s funny. As an actor, I always felt that I did my worst
work in front of critics. And I thought this was unique to me, my panic
attacks, you know. And being able to be on the other side of
it, I realize that it’s probably true. I think critics see actors in their absolute
worst light. There is no question that, you know, once
the critics are gone, suddenly they’re like, “Oh!” And they relax, and the show, it’s astonishing
to me. It improves beyond belief. It’s a pity that we don’t have opening nights
like we used to. Really, someone should do a story about going
back to see a show, you know, three months after. And it’s amazing how it’s much more relaxed. Umm-hmm. And for that, better. Yeah. Not always, though. I think sometimes the fear factor – Really? — really keeps a show where it wants to be. Yeah. You know? I built something into the end of PAGEANT
where there were six different endings, because the audience voted on the outcome. And these guys in the show really began to
take that to heart. “I’m scoring low tonight. What have I done wrong?” And I thought, “Perfect!” (LAUGHTER) You know, “Just keep trying!” That sounds like good advice on all plays. You could vote on whether Willy really kills
himself at the end of SALESMAN. (LAUGHTER) Whether he runs off with that woman
in the hotel room in Boston. Good idea, yeah. And just keep that excitement going. Depending on how they’re performing that night,
everybody should vote. Absolutely. Or maybe the audience should just give letter
grades every night. (LAUGHTER) Or they could hold up score cards like the
Olympics. Nine point two. I think that’s great. There’s an interesting article in the American
Theater magazine, a dialogue between two formidable critics. And one of the things I found interesting
about it is one of them is Brustein, who runs a theatre now. And his comment about how when he was a critic,
he didn’t realize how much went into producing theatre, and he’s looked back and thought,
“Maybe I was a little nasty.” And even Frank Rich, who now isn’t a critic
any more but writes for Op-Ed, said, “In this job, I’ve become more aware of what goes into
the theatre.” One of those unanswerable questions, but interesting. Because the critics are something. That’s another whole subject, if one wants
to go there. No, we don’t. (LAUGHTER) I did have the idea critical experience once. A critic gave me an absolutely savage, deeply
personal review, and the next day he died. (LAUGHTER) It was so deeply satisfying! (LAUGHTER) I had a glow. And I kept thinking, “I must be a terrible
person,” and I didn’t care. (LAUGHTER) Really, to this day, I just can’t
have a shred of sympathy, and it just warms my heart. (LAUGHTER) I’m going to leave you with that, because
right now we have to stop for a minute and take a break, stretch and turn around and
do whatever you have to do, and come right back to your seats and on to how you got where
you are, because we really haven’t explored that. And how you work. (APPLAUSE) This is CUNY-TV, the City University of New
York. Welcome back to the American Theatre Wing’s
seminar on “Working in the Theatre.” Before we return to our gifted 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 created for excellence in the theatre. We are an organization whose year-round programs
are dedicated to serving the theatre and the community, with a goal of developing new audiences. And to achieve that goal, we have created
various audience development programs for students, like “Introduction to Broadway,”
which began seven years ago and has enabled more than 75,000 New York City high school
students to attend a Broadway show, and for many of them, the very first time they’ve
ever been to the show. And through our newest program, “Theatre
in Schools,” theatre professionals like these on our seminar panels 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. But back to today’s version of the program,
which utilizes talent from Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the cabaret world to entertain patients
in nursing homes, veterans’ hospitals, children’s wards and AIDS centers, in the New York area,
bringing the magic of theatre to those who can not 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. We are grateful to everyone who makes what
the American Theatre Wing does possible. And now, let’s get back to our seminar on
playwrights, directors, choreographers. I’d like to start Part Two with my question
to the panel. How did you all get to where you are today? How did you know that you were going to be
a playwright, director, coming from being an actor? So would you now try and go around and answer
than question for me. (LAUGHTER) All right. Who wants to start? I have no idea. (LAUGHTER) I had no intention of becoming
a director. It never occurred to me to be a director. And then I directed a small piece with a bunch
of actors and found I enjoyed it. And really, the first time it happened was
with ENTERTAINING MR. SLOAN, and also a play of Tom Dulack’s at
the Long Wharf, where Arvin [Brown] was supposed to direct it, and I was the dramaturg there. And I had prepared the play for him to take
over, to direct. And then, suddenly Al Pacino wanted to do
AMERICAN BUFFALO, so Arvin dropped out, and Tom Dulack said, “Well, you know more about
the play. Why don’t you do it?” And so, that’s how it started. And then, a few weeks later, I did ENTERTAINING
MR. SLOAN. But I had no idea – I still am surprised! (LAUGHTER) So, that’s it. I mentioned a little bit before, just having
been an actor before. And I was in a Broadway show called THE RINK
that John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote. And I approached them about a show called
FLORA, THE RED MENACE that they had written years ago and said, “I think it should be
revived.” And it was a failure the first time, and they
said, “Oh, that sounds like a good idea. Who would direct it?” And I said, “Me.” (LAUGHTER) And they gave me their lawyer’s
phone number, and I called them and I got the rights. And three years later, we put it up and it
was a success, and that’s sort of how it started going. And same thing, I realized I enjoyed it is
really what it is. I just really had a great time doing it. And that’s why. Do you want to act? Never, never. (LAUGHTER) Never. Never, ever again. Two for two. Once you’re on the other side, you just never,
ever want to go back (LAUGHS) on that side, because it’s just so hard. I mean, it’s difficult, what we do also, but
I don’t envy what the actor has to do. I have so much respect for actors. I’m in awe of them and they make me a much
better director. But I let them do that, and I’ll stay here. David, are your acting days numbered? Well, I brought some resumes here. (LAUGHTER) For directors, if they want them! No, I hope not. I think acting is difficult. And acting pushes your buttons sort of in
a way that nothing else I’ve ever done does. It just puts you in touch with demons that
you just never thought were possible, you know. And to overcome that is really a therapeutic
thing, I think. And I hope I have the courage to, you know,
keep wanting to do that, because I think it’s good for you, somehow. I mean, in some ways, you have the same sort
of contact with, you know, these demons as a writer or as a director, but somehow it’s
a more private thing. You can go across the street to the bar and
get drunk. But you know, to experience it in public,
in view of, you know, so many people, it’s scary. Do you ever want to act again? No. Or dance again, no. I got that out of my system. And I started directing and choreographing
community theatre at eighteen and needed to come to New York and dance. That’s all I really wanted to do. And happily, got that out of my system with
the right shows and the right decade that I arrived here. And while I was in FORTY-SECOND STREET, along
with the rest of the ensemble, started putting together this idea that became PAGEANT. And that gave me the confidence to go on and
direct, keep going. Didn’t you go to Yale? I did, but undergraduate, so I didn’t go to
the drama school, that has produced so many great people. I always wanted to be a playwright, as far
back as I can remember. And I’m from central New Jersey. (LAUGHTER) So it was an odd ambition. But I think I owe a lot of the encouragement
to my parents, who took my brother and I to the theatre constantly. We were always going across the river to New
York. And especially before you get to about thirteen,
I had no critical facility, so I loved everything! (LAUGHTER) Just as long as it was onstage,
I was thrilled. And when I see shows now, usually my first
response is, “Okay, if you took a kid to this, would he or she want to come to the theatre
again?” And it’s made me far more forgiving, because
I think, “No, this would excite someone, even if it’s flawed in many ways.” So yeah, it’s just that theatre gene. I think that’s a very good point about the
moment when the jaded quality comes in. I still try to convince the Irving Berlin
daughters that MR. PRESIDENT is the best musical ever written. (LAUGHTER) I saw it at the Colonial Theatre
in Boston, and I was like you! I did wonder why the clock said quarter of
one when we left the theatre (LAUGHTER) for an eight o’clock curtain, but it was a little
long. I’m next, aren’t I? Sure, why not? We’re there. I think I’m miffed! I actually grew up in a small town in Illinois. I grew up in a farming community, and it didn’t
even have a movie theatre. Sort of like THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. There was a movie theatre that closed in 1959
with a movie called PETE KELLY’S BLUES, and it remained on the marquee for the next twelve
years in the town I grew up in. So even going to a movie was about an hour
drive. And I was obsessed with movies as a kid and
wanted desperately to make movies, when I was like nine or ten. So I started doing plays of movies that I
had seen. I directed, for example, a fine production
of Robert Wise’s film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. (LAUGHTER) As a site-specific environmental
production in our local park, using the water tower as the space ship. And charged the audience, you know, like a
buck, very high price, to be taken around the playground, while I would explain narrative
gaps. Then we would have little scenes presented. And it sounds strange, but I never stopped
doing that. (LAUGHTER) Anne Bogart did that, right? (LAUGHTER) Anne Bogart, for those of you who don’t know,
had a company called En Garde Arts, which was site-specific theatre in New York, and
now she’s taken a big job on the West Coast, and I notice that she’s folding up her tents
here, and you know, En Garde’s [over]. Well, a very big thing in the eighties was
site-specific theatre, but I was doing it a long time ago, in the early sixties, in
Ashland, Illinois. And you know, I just loved telling stories
more than anything else. I was a puppeteer and a magician. It sounds so Mickey and Judy, and it was. (LAUGHTER) I was constantly organizing shows,
you know, in garages. And then went to school to study theatre. Where did you go? I went to the University of Illinois, in the
cornfields of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. I thought I wanted to be an actor. That was, you know, what I really thought
I should do, until I was told by a teacher than I was way too tall to be an actor. (LAUGHTER) Which I thought sounded right,
because I always had a distinct sense of being out of proportion with the people I was talking
to on stage. So I decided that I wasn’t going to be an
actor, and I said, “I can direct. I know how to direct.” And I just started doing it. And I never stopped. And then started running a theatre in Chicago
at the age of twenty-one. And I’ve run two theatres, since I was twenty-one
years old. Was that the first professional job that you
had, with the Goodman Theatre? As a director? (LAUGHS) No, no, no. The first professional job I had as a director
was in my own theatre, which was a theatre called the Wisdom Bridge Theatre, on the North
Side of Chicago. And it was part of a sort of explosion of
theatres in the early seventies, that included Steppenwolf, Wisdom Bridge Theatre, a theatre
called Victory Gardens, David Mamet’s work in the Goodman Studio. The Remains family. Right, Remains Theatre Company, Organic Theatre
Company. And there still is an enormous amount of theatre
created by young people, who’ve arrived from various places in the Midwest in Chicago,
and are able to sort of carve out little theatres. The theatre that I became the artistic director
of, you know, had formerly been a karate studio and a whorehouse and a Chinese restaurant
and a dirty bookstore. (LAUGHTER) And it had the equally glamorous
life of becoming an off-Loop theatre in the early seventies. And I just started directing plays and staying
in the rehearsal room, and very lucky. I wanted to ask you something that I think
you talked about earlier, that you were the dramaturg at one point of the Long Wharf Theatre. Right. I’ve always been a little confused as to what
that is. I mean, maybe it’s what Scott was talking
about, of the directors who will come and see the shows and help you with it. If you’re confused, I’m even more confused. And you were one! I was one. You just read plays, and you decide whether
this is a play that is right for your theatre. And then you work with the playwright and
try to improve it, and that can be dangerous or not dangerous. You know, we weren’t able to do readings too
often up there. But we worked on these plays and got them
ready for the director, and hopefully we did some good. And I think we did some good, because we were
not able to have tryouts and so on. I think earlier I said, you know, how plays
have a problem coming to Broadway. And I think that one of the reasons there’s
such an influx of British plays is because they are there mounted in England, and they
are rehearsed and beautifully acted, and the producers say, “Well, let’s take this and
bring it over here.” Whereas there is a dearth of new American
plays on Broadway, because we haven’t been able to have a shakedown with that. And it’s very sad for me – though I speak
funny, I’m not English – that American playwrights are always delegated Off-Broadway and European
plays are always put on Broadway, and it seems to me very unfair. There’s only one American play on Broadway
this season, as far as I know. Well, there was one I did, which didn’t last
very long. But SIDE MAN is the only American play. Well, who’s behind that decision, do you think? Is it audiences? Is it critics or producers? Producers! I think it’s producers, mainly. I mean, people jump all over the British,
it’s not their fault. They’re asked to come to America and paid
a huge amount of money and why shouldn’t they, you know? I mean, I don’t like it too much. But the producers see this production in London,
and there are some very go-ahead English producers, like Robert Fox, and he says, “I can take
this over for six months or four months and make a great deal of money.” And also, they have movie stars stuck into
them. You know, you have Liam Neeson or Judi Dench
or whoever, and that is a way in to finding an audience. Do you think part of it, though, is the expectation
of Broadway? I mean, I saw SNAKEBIT the other night, and
part of what I enjoyed about it was a little sense of discovery. I mean, it’s open, it’s gotten good reviews. You know, people know about it. But going into the Century Theatre on 15th
Street and seeing a cozy place and a play that, you know, is on a sort of conventional
set. I mean, there’s actually doors and things
like that. And I thought to myself, “I think there was
a time when plays like that would be done on Broadway.” But I wonder, you know, if someone had said,
“I want that play on Broadway, not Off-Broadway,” would you have been enthusiastic about that? (LAUGHS) Nah, I would have gratefully thanked
them, but no. (LAUGHTER) No, I think that it would have
been very dangerous. I mean, I think Broadway has expectations
that are commercially generated, but you know, make it difficult. You know, you see a small play on Broadway,
what is essentially a small play, and somehow they’ve done something to the set, to indicate
that “This is a Broadway show!”, you know? And that’s why you spent all this money. And the notion that an intimate evening of
theatre, which is what must [have worked], you know, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, GLASS MENAGERIE,
the millions of plays that were done in this country with the great heyday of that kind
of theatre, isn’t somehow worthy of Broadway is, I think, a really dangerous notion, at
least to playwrights. And the English productions, they come over,
and it’s a completely domestic play, until the last few minutes when the set opens. And oh, that’s Broadway! Yes! And then it closes again. And I mean, it’s absurd, I think. You know, what is that thing suddenly opening
there and closing and doing searchlights on us? Years ago, I did a play called BENT, and the
first time we did it was at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference, and we used module
sets. It was great. Just little things. And it was a great evening in the theatre. It was a great moment. It was the purest version of that play, yeah. And then we did it on Broadway, and it was
a wonderful production, and I was very proud of it, but (LAUGHS) I wasn’t responsible for
it, but my part of it. But I mean that it became a huge set. You know, things moved in and things were
rolled out, and they always got stuck, because it was 1980 and nothing worked well then. But the point is that it didn’t need that. And it probably would have been, in some ways,
a more accessible evening if they didn’t do that. But it was Broadway. But we also are getting pressure. I mean, I don’t know how everyone else feels. But every project that I’ve worked on or am
working on, the producers are always mentioning names. Oh, well. Always, always. It’s a given now. “Well, yes, we’d like to do this, but we need
a name,” you know. Yeah. And it’s Off-Broadway also now, you know? Unless it’s a production that I guess has
been crowned as “Okay, it doesn’t really matter.” And a lot of them are from out of town. But to come in, I feel that pressure all the
time now. But Off-Broadway and Broadway is a question
of economics, really. But still, Off-Broadway they’re asking for
stars now. That’s right. It’s changing all over, as it’s changing in
England, as well. But Ted, I’d like to get back to a dramaturg. How you all feel, because it’s now become
almost a necessity in all of the shows now, as it once had been in Russia. But what does a dramaturg give to you? Well, I work with a dramaturg all the time,
a resident dramaturg at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. And that person is one of the people who I
trust to sort of come in, who knows my work and knows the theatre and knows the work. I mean, I include them very early on, you
know, be it a Shakespeare production I’m directing or a new play. I try to involve them in the process. And what I like is that that person doesn’t
have the responsibility of the directing, the design, and all of these things. They can sort of purely look after the text. So I find it very, very helpful. Who pays, and who selects a dramaturg for
you? I pay, and I select. (LAUGHTER) You’re the boss! No, in my case, I’m a producer as well, and
I’m running a resident professional theatre. But that is a staff decision. All right. So we eliminate you. Who pays? Do you all work with dramaturgs? I’m a little weary of dramaturgs, because
there actually have been a set of lawsuits, in which dramaturgs have sued writers of plays
and musicals, claiming partial authorship. Really? Well, one, at least. Well, one, at least! (LAUGHTER) But a big one! But a big one! For RENT, sure. And what always interests me is, these lawsuits
tend to only attach themselves to hits. (LAUGHTER) You know, a dramaturg rarely will
sue a flop, and say, “I wrote part of that bomb!” (LAUGHTER) So it makes me very wary of those
conflicts. Also, I find that my working relationship
with Chris Ashley, with the director on most of my plays, is so intense. And we’ve really honed it, so that the addition
of a third party actually can be harmful. You don’t want someone who you have to be
polite to. You really want to get in there and get the
work done. So we somehow haven’t found it necessary. It just seems I’m never quite sure what their
job really is. And now, since I became a director, I’ve tried
not to use a dramaturg. (LAUGHTER) I’m sorry to put it that way, but
I agree with you. It gets so intense, and then this person with
a degree from somewhere or other says, “But, unh-unh-unh!” and you just say, “Oh, shut
up and go away!” (LAUGHTER) Because we’re trying to get it
together, and a third voice really sends you for a loop. And also, I think there’s another seminar’s
worth of conversation about directors and writers and whose contributions. I know there have been some lawsuits as well
about directors’ work, having been taken without any authority for other productions of a playwright’s
work. Fuzzing the line between whose rights are
whose. It’s a difficult topic. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Because you know, I had
to go to Japan to do a show. I didn’t do it in the end. But there were two productions of plays I
had done in New York, putting it into another country. And they were facsimiles, the moves, the sets,
everything. And I got bupkes, you know? And I don’t like that. It’s a Jewish word, meaning “nothing.” (LAUGHTER) A Jewish word meaning “dramaturg.” (LAUGHTER) Dramaturg, yes! Okay, let’s go to Isabelle, who has some questions
from the audience. Yes! What would you like to know? Hi, my name is Bree (PH). And my question, I have two, actually. I was wondering, for those of you that started
out as actors, did you ever go back and get any formal training for writing or directing,
respectively? And the second question was, how much input
do each of you have in the casting process with the pieces you’re working on? As far as casting is concerned, with playwrights
of musicals or plays, I find ultimately the director has the final say. But I always feel if you don’t have some sort
of connection with the playwright as far as an agreement, it will probably be difficult
down the line. Hopefully, you’ll find that you both agree. And usually, that happens, because you’re
on the same road. Only one time did I turn to John Kander and
Fred Ebb on a musical that I said, “You have to trust me on this one. I know this is right, and if it’s not, I’ll
take full responsibility and I will recast.” I was right, you know. (LAUGHTER) But I think, in the best of all
possible worlds, you’re on the same wavelength and you both agree going in that this is the
best possible choice for the person. Anybody else just want to [add to that]? Do you have a question? I just think it’s a good litmus test to see
if you’re on the path as the director is casting. Not so much, you had mentioned like “Tell
me the story of your play.” But just give me some ideas of casting, and
I can tell you whether we’re on the same page. Right, right. Also, I’ve found that it’s exciting to write
for specific actors, especially once, with Chris and I, we worked on a series of plays,
and there are performers that we just mutually adore. And it’s very exciting, because you start
to picture them in the role. And then, of course, they won’t do it! (LAUGHTER) But often, they will, and that’s
thrilling, to say, “Oh, my!” Although you get so attached to them, and
you think, “Oh, I never want to see anyone but Peter Bartlett do this part.” And then you get paranoid and think, “Maybe
it’s not a funny part. Maybe it’s just this brilliant actor.” But still, it’s just a special joy to be able
to write directly for just superb performers. Thank you. DAVID
Hi, my name is David. We know that you all hate critics, but they
are a fact of life, unless you’re lucky, like Paul Rudnick. Is there any way that you think that critics
could be helpful or positive in the theatre today? What advice would you give them? (LAUGHTER) Anyone want to take that one on? I’m not going to touch that with a barge pole! Well, since I had the mourning experience. (LAUGHTER) No, it’s funny. We were talking, actually, at the break, that
there are critics who are completely worth reading. I love reading criticism. I mean, it’s sort of a dark secret. I always find it’s like reading gossip or
something. And there are critics whose opinions you can
actually value. People who, even if they’re positive, negative,
you think, “No, this is someone who at least seems to know what they’re talking about,
so pay attention.” About your own work? Never. (LAUGHTER) No, but both. And then, there are critics where you think,
“Wait, there’s something else going on in this review that seems to have nothing to
do with the play or the production involved.” So my only advice to critics would be to,
you know, adore my work, of course! (LAUGHTER) I think Noel Coward said it all. We all have a mean streak. He said, “There’s nothing so pleasant as that
gentle tickle at the back of one’s throat, as one is reading a very bad notice for a
very good friend.” (LAUGHTER) I would also urge people to look at this American
Theater magazine, because there’s a lot of articles in there about criticism. And I read it last night on the subway, and
there’s only one completely idiotic article. And the rest of them are quite interesting,
about what’s the obligation of a critic? You know, is it to guide people or not? I mean, Brustein prides himself on writing
for a magazine that he doesn’t think the people who read it have the slightest interest in
going to the theatre, so he doesn’t care about that. But it’s an interesting question. But it also just still boils down to a person’s
opinion, you know? And you can look at, you know, the same show
with five different reviewers, and it can be very different. And ultimately, I always feel like I’m my
worst critic, and I still have to hold onto that. Yeah. And I feel like, if I think it’s good, that’s
it. If I don’t, I don’t. But to listen to one person’s opinion, it
becomes a little frightening. I think it’s mostly what Paul was saying about
the agenda. I mean, if the agenda is to be critically
insightful, it can be very helpful. And if the agenda is to be as cruel as you
can be, so you can sell more magazines, you know, you’re useless, really. But is it really insightful? Because the play is on, you’re not going to
change it, you know. They should come to rehearsal, if they really
want to do something. Yeah, exactly. Well, I mean, it can help you. I think it can help, in terms of the future. Of your writing? Yeah. I mean, it can. It’s just tonally, sometimes, they’re so mean. Well, yeah. That is what I object to. That’s true. We have one more question. Hi, my name is Joan (PH), and I wanted to
know from everyone in the panel, if there was one person or event that significantly
changed your careers? Go around with that quickly. I was actually talking to somebody in the
audience that came from my hometown. And you know, for me it was a high school
(LAUGHS) teacher. It really was. I mean, he, you know, gave me my future, period. And childhood moments like that can be extraordinary,
and it was true for me. Yeah, I similarly had an acting teacher in
college who was particularly brilliant and difficult and tough, and sort of demanded
incredibly high standards. And I would say I learned more from him, and
he sort of inspired me to many things. So there was an individual. Yeah, I would say actually meeting Chris Ashley,
who’s directed so much of my work. And the gift of that working relationship
has meant the world to me. And yeah, it’s completely changed my life
and my work habits. I would just say Alan Arkin, who I mentioned
earlier, with whom I worked out of college. And it was the hardest and most interesting
thing to have for a twenty-year-old. I think coming to New York at eighteen, and
seeing A CHORUS LINE and realizing that there was something different that could happen
to the form that I knew and loved so much. And saw my life up there, and it certainly
has informed many of my choices and what I love about the theatre. I went to the Goodman School of Drama. And that education that I got is still the
backbone that I live by. So that changed my whole life. With me, it was Joseph Maher. I did three plays with him, and it was a fabulous
collaboration, and he taught me so much. And my life changed, and I saw things in a
very different way. So that’s where it started. I’m sorry to have to interrupt, but I have
to tell you that this has been one of the most wonderful seminars. And I’m so pleased that you were not actors,
that having been actors, you didn’t stay at it (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL), but you shared
your words and your directions with us. This has been an American Theatre Wing seminar
on “Working in the Theatre,” and this seminar has been on the playwright, director and choreographer. And it’s coming to you from the Graduate Center
of the City University of New York. It’s just one of the American Theatre Wing’s
year-round programs. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, and I’m Chairman of
the Board of the American Theatre Wing. And I thank you, the audience, and everybody,
the students and this panel and Ted, for being so very, very generous with your words. Thank you. (APPLAUSE)

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