Playwright, Director and Choreographer (Working In The Theatre #286)


(APPLAUSE) Once again, a warm welcome to the
American Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars, now in their 27th year,
coming to you from the new Graduate Center of the City University of New York. These seminars provide a wonderful opportunity
to learn from 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 remaining and working in the theatre. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the
Board of the American Theatre Wing. I think you will enjoy and learn from today’s
experience. But now, let me introduce our moderators for
this seminar. First, a distinguished member of the theatrical
community, and Chairman of the Board of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, George White. And Pia Lindstrom, theatre critic and TV personality. Thank you very much, Pia and George. (APPLAUSE) Thank you, Isabelle. I’m going to begin by introducing our panelists. On the far right – again, not a political
statement here (LAUGHTER) – David Esbjornson, who has been Artistic Director of the Classic
Stage Company and is currently represented on Broadway with the production of RIDE DOWN
MOUNT MORGAN. On my immediate right, Lynne Taylor-Corbett,
who claims that her understandably proudest achievement, is her son Sean Taylor-Corbett
(LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL), but has also choreographed TITANIC and is the director and choreographer
of SWING! And next to me we have David Leveaux, who
is represented by THE REAL THING on Broadway. And he’s a heavyweight director, having
done many other things, which we will discuss. Next to him is playwright Becky Mode, whose
first play, FULLY COMMITTED, is a smash hit. We want to know how she did it! And next to her Richard Nelson, whose JAMES
JOYCE’S THE DEAD is on Broadway right now. He’s also Honorary Associate Artist of the
Royal Shakespeare Company. And I want to know how a guy from Rhinebeck,
New York (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) got to be in the Royal Shakespeare Company! Well, about fourteen years ago, the Royal
Shakespeare Company did a play of mine called PRINCIPIA SCRIPTORIAE. Not a very good title, but they did it. And it went fantastically well! And the week after it opened, they asked to
commission a play, and I wrote a play for them called SOME AMERICANS ABROAD. Then the week after that opened, they asked
to commission a play. (PIA LAUGHS) And on and on and on it went,
until over about a thirteen year period they did nine plays of mine. And by that time, I think they figured they
had to give me some kind of title, and I became an Honorary Associate Artist of the RSC. I mean, it’s an extraordinary thing for
someone who doesn’t live there, someone who isn’t English, to be sort of embraced
and given a home like I was, is truly remarkable. Well now, you’ve adapted, which is something
I wanted to, I think, start with – this wonderful production going on now on Broadway
of THE DEAD. And you’ve also directed it and adapted
it and done the lyrics. And there has been a lot of talk about whether
playwrights should direct their own work, and of course this is sort of your own work,
but it’s also James Joyce. Would you perhaps give us a little insight
on what you do when you adapt, as opposed to write something from scratch, as it were? Right. And I also made the coffee every morning for
the actors. (LAUGHTER) I forgot that, you’re absolutely right! Well, the adaption (PH) of Joyce, it was hard,
but this particular piece came out of two things. One, my wanting to write, or try to create
what I would call a Chekhovian musical, something that would seem to be a bit contradictory. Something that would be a musical based on
small incident, a small gesture. And at the same time, I wanted to work with
this amazing composer, Shaun Davey, who’s Irish, lives in Dublin. So when you start to think of a subject, the
idea of Joyce comes to mind, obviously, when you’re thinking of Ireland and Shaun. And “The Dead,” part of “The Dubliners,”
was a perfect sort of adaptation for this concept of the Chekhovian musical. So the adaptation was really quite simple. I tried to keep as much of the Joyce as I
could. I tried to embrace the Joyce as much as I
could. I tried to frame it in a different way, because
it was a play, you know, an adaptation. Trying to find those things that make it a
play, from just a tiny little difference. In the short story, there’s a great revelation;
there’s a great moment where the main female character remembers something. And this happens at the end of the story,
really, almost towards the very end. And in the adaptation, we put this much, much
earlier, so that there could be an evolution of drama, just dramatic event through the
story. So, trying to bring something into sort of
a theatrical context was the journey. And at the end of the day, we kept on saying,
“Are we being faithful to Joyce? Would Mr. Joyce roll over in his grave or
just, you know accept this?” And hopefully, he’s okay. He hasn’t appeared as a ghost yet. (LAUGHTER) The two Davids are, in fact, doing plays of
living playwrights. Now, that must present a problem. You can’t exactly start futzing with the
[material]. (LAUGHTER) It’s another kind of [thing]. What do you do with Arthur Miller, when he
comes and says, “That’s not what I had in mind!”? (LAUGHS) Well, it’s been a remarkable experience,
and I’m so struck – and this may sound a little silly – but I’m so struck by
his youthfulness, by his fearless sense of experimentation. It actually was really wonderful to work with
him on this project, because he encouraged all sorts of expression and interpretation. And obviously, the playwright is the primary
artistic expression, the play itself, and we all take our inspiration from that. But when that happened, then he gave back
something, you know? And he began to respond to what we were bringing
to the table. And it becomes a lovely kind of dance, you
know, where you respond to the play and the playwright responds back. And you end up creating something that’s
quite unique, a synthesis of those two expressions. How did Tom Stoppard [work]? Well, Tom, it’s interesting listening to
Richard, because I think there is a clear distinction in my mind between those writers
who have a practical and active experience of the theatre and those writers who write
for the theatre who choose to be much more private and not be directly engaged in the
process of production. There are advantages for a director in both
of those things at different times. And Tom Stoppard is certainly somebody who
wants to be involved very closely in that process, but not in a way that intervenes. He’s extremely graceful in that way. I was thinking of just leaving Tom aside for
the moment. The closest experience I’ve had with a living
playwright is with Harold Pinter, the British writer Pinter. This got so close on one occasion that I actually
ended up directing him in his own play, NO MAN’S LAND, where I made a kind of contract
with him at the outset, which was that he had to come to the rehearsal as an actor,
and then on Friday evenings we could have a drink and he could be the writer. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Which he was very
happy to do! (LAUGHTER) For those of you who don’t know
Harold Pinter, one of the things he’s very famous for is being really very, very rigorous
and severe about the accuracy with which his text is delivered. In fact, this is simply because it’s written
so well, and it is true that if you deviate from it, then you can feel a quantum loss
of energy. But I do recall going into his dressing room
one evening during the run of NO MAN’S LAND to give him a note, because I felt that he
was coming in on a particular line rather too quickly and this was causing a moment
of, really, incomprehension in the narrative for the audience. So I, of course, brought this to his attention,
as you would (LAUGHTER), as the director to an actor. “No, actually you can’t do that. We really need the space there.” And initially, he bridled, rather. “Well, look … (LAUGHTER) … but I think
we found, as we were playing it, in the audience, we found that actually we need to move it
on there.” And I said, “Well, actually, that’s not
really the experience of sitting out there where I am, Harold.” And he said, “Well, you know, I mean it
just … it feels just more … comfortable to get on with it there!” And finally, I could sort of feel that was
going to be rather a tense exchange, I said, “Look, you know, I have to tell you, not
only do I think this is a pause, but I think that you need a silence, you know?” And at this point, I had an inspiration, which
was, of course, to pick up the script. And I was hoping against hope that this was
going to be borne out. And I got to the moment, and indeed he had
written “Silence.” And I could put it, and I said, “There you
are, you see?” And there was this silence that followed this,
and he then said, to everyone else in the dressing room – because they were all sharing
a dressing room, this was a small theatre in London – he said, “What the director
is telling me here is when the writer wrote ‘Silence,’ he knew what he was doing! (LAUGHTER) And I shall observe that!” That’s great. Becky, what’s your take on this? Now you, of course, there are a lot of things
I want to ask you. I’m just bubbling over with things. Your first play got on, basically. And how did you do that? And tell us about the collaboration. You didn’t direct your own work. No, no. I mean, I was thinking, my collaboration was
with the director [Nicholas Martin], but also with the actor [Mark Setlock], because we
developed it together, so I would take my cues from him. And most of the time, when something wasn’t
working, when it wasn’t sounding right to me, it was generally my fault, something that
I had written wasn’t working. So that was a real education to me. And we had a wonderful director, so you know,
I learned a lot from both of them. How my first play got on is a mystery to me! (LAUGHS) I can’t answer that! I mean, you didn’t throw it up over a transom? They don’t have transoms any more. (LAUGHTER) But you took it for your own life. You were a – Right. A coatcheck girl and a waitress. This is good preparation for, you know, writing! (LAUGHS) Yeah! It was good material. And I guess the only thing I could say is,
the desire not to be a coatcheck girl and a waitress (LAUGHS) was a strong motivating
force. And also, just working for a long time, workshopping
it, working with the director and the actor, doing readings, getting feedback. Well, let’s back up before the coatcheck
girl, because you didn’t just decide to write a play, did you? I mean, you must have been trained. Tell me a little bit about it. I was trained as an actor. Okay. Where? I wasn’t a very good actor, as I was telling
you before. (LAUGHS) Because as I said, why didn’t she star in
her own play, if she’s an actress? There you are! I wasn’t good enough. And I was lazy. It takes a lot of work to do what this actor
does. So I guess, sort of as an observer, I was
around writers and directors and actors and the theatrical process for a long time, but
never as a writer. And then, you know, after stopping acting
I floundered around and I did theatre criticism and I did various other things, and sort of
stumbled upon writing, really. And then submitted it? Again, how did this start? How did it come to be? I’m thinking of people in the audience that
have written a play or want to write a play, and here you are as Exhibit A. (LAUGHTER) I guess, in our particular case, one step
in the journey was that I developed it, just working with the actor. We started off in my living room and with
improvs and putting a tape recorder on and then I would sort of listen to it and transcribe
it and develop it, make a story out of it, develop the characters. As far as how we got from here to there, at
one point, there was an article about the actor in the newspaper, saying sort of, “Reservationist
Takes His Last Call!”, because he got a job as an understudy for RENT. (PIA LAUGHS) And it was all about life in
this dank reservation office. And in the article it said, “And he’s
working on a one person show.” And from the article, a producer called us,
and that sort of lit a fire under me. We were sort of in the vague phase, there
were sort of pages here and pages there. And he was, like, “Well, I’d like to look
at the text,” and I was, like, “Ooh, there is no text! Uh-oh!” (LAUGHTER) So it sort of motivated me to do
things faster than I might have, and that was a stroke of luck. But really, the main thing I would say is,
the first reading was in my apartment in my living room, with ten people. And then we got somebody to lend us the theatre
and invited more people, and just kept working at it, truly, for three years. And listening to what people had to say, and
taking the first one, which was about two hours and fifteen minutes, to make it one
hour and fifteen minutes. And deciding that if ten people told you this
part was boring or this part didn’t work, then there must be something to it. And just keep trying to make it better. Lynne, you’re the choreographer as well
as a director. Yes, correct. And it seems as though the line between the
two is blurring these days. I think so. I’ve been fortunate enough to direct, you
know, in regional theatre, and that’s been fantastic, because it’s something I’ve
always wanted to do. My father was a writer, so I’ve always been
attracted to serious material, and in my commissions, I usually deal with serious subject matter. But when I’m hired as a choreographer, often
I’m hired onto projects that are, you know, more joyful and more like pure entertainment. So it’s really fantastic to bring, I guess,
both sets of skills into one project. And it’s interesting, listening to the writers
or the directors, because we started with a word, “swing,” and just had no script
or outline even, really, initially. And just the thought that it was a state of
mind, not a time. That it wasn’t just about the thirties and
forties, that it was our American expression, in terms of our American music and folk dance,
because it all arose out of youth culture, and it has re-arisen out of youth culture. And so, it was kind of a process, you know,
such as (TO BECKY) you had, I think, really a trial and error. We had three workshops. We, you know, gathered the old favorite songs
that you say, “Cannot do a show without these!” And of course, half of them fell away. Then I was so lucky to have Ann Hampton Callaway
and Everett Bradley and Casey [MacGill], you know, to write new material, so that you lay
the old and the new side by side and you say, “What is it about this that vibrates in
us as a people?” I found, in working on it, that the joy that
it brings is as deep as, you know, quote, serious material. It’s sort of a different kind of material
than I’ve ever been involved with. And as Richard said, you know, “trying to
be true to,” you know, was I true to “swing”? I found that we could be true to the spirit
of swing and we had to amplify quite a lot of the forms to fit into the theatre, because
they’re generally forms that are done in a small competition area or in that kind of
arena. So we finally made [a decision]. I said, “I just want it to be an event that
tumbles off the stage and hits you and you never know what’s going to happen next.” And that in itself was a sort of strange authorship
that involved many, many people and a lot of collaboration, but you know, ultimately
was just the most remarkable experience I’ve had in the theatre. Well, now, you’re a kid. (LAUGHTER) I mean, I know about swing! And where did you go for your research for
this? Well, first, I have to say that I have five
sisters, I have a huge family, we grew up in Denver. And in the car we would sing those songs,
because my dad, you know, sang them from, I guess, the war. So we would go along, you know, shrieking
out at the top of our lungs (LAUGHS), “I’ll be seeing you … “ and you know, all the
tears flowing and so forth. So we were a pretty passionate bunch. But then I really did a lot of research. Paul Kelly originated the idea and Paul brought
it to the Frankel (PH) Organization, and there had been a lot of research collected. And then I just, you know, went to competitions,
I reviewed competitions, I read all the big band books, and I just tried to put myself
in that state of mind, which is really a special place to be. And it was just a lot of meeting the gurus
of the different forms of the dances, the new forms and the old forms. And you know, really traveling all over the
country. I felt I was a Charles Kuralt of “swing”
(LAUGHTER) for a while, and I had a wonderful time. And you know, just feel I grew a lot as a
person, in terms of the need to collaborate with so many people, too, because it’s like
speaking fourteen languages. You just can’t do it, one, two, three. You have to give over and pull people in,
and I had a great team. It seems like dance is becoming more gymnastic
on the stage. I mean, people are doing incredible things. Is this coming from all the aerobic training
(LAUGHS) that people have been doing? It’s strange. I know, it is a bit of a trend. Is it? Well, of course, the original swing dancers
were unbelievable. I mean, if you look at the old movies, they
just were fearless. But I do think there has been an introduction
of different forms into the Broadway culture. I mean, RIVERDANCE, and you know, bringing
back all the Fosse. And Savion Glover. And Savion, yeah, exactly. So I think it’s diversity. It’s, you know, more of a world culture. And I think what’s fantastic about it is
that we’re experiencing the same things, you know, virtuosities, that we have not experienced
in the Broadway theatre. So I think in a funny way, it’s the Broadway
theatre that’s diversifying and allowing all of this great new stuff in. Yeah, it seems quite different than the old-fashioned
dance. Yes. I want to know, when did we begin talking
about director-choreographer and choreographer-director? That’s only recently that that kind of billing
has come about. And how did that start? And who has – not the upper hand – but
who has the last direction, between the director and choreographer? What is the difference and how does it work? I think that’s also a very good point, Isabelle,
because you not only have a director-choreographer, but you have someone like a Julie Taymor,
who is a puppeteer and a director, and all those lines are beginning to [blur]. I think I know the answer to that. I think the first choreographer who also directed
was Agnes De Mille, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO in ’47. I think you’re right. So that began, and she was the one who really
started to do that, more and more. Certainly, in the fifties obviously it became
a much more [common thing]. Jerry Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett. I would guess that the division depends on
the kind of piece it is. If it’s a strong, big dance piece – I
know that in the musical that I did, THE DEAD, I worked very closely with the choreographer,
a wonderful choreographer, Sean Curran. But everything was about character, everything. If you saw the piece, it’s just a little
story of a party, really. And everything was about what one of these
people could do. And they were taught steps, but they were
taught steps as if they were part of that society. What steps would these characters have known? And then free them. There was a certain part, there’s a little
moment towards the end where five men come in and they’ve prepared something for this
woman who’s dying, and they sort of thing and they make some movements. And we tried many, many different things to
do. Until what we did, finally, is just sent the
five guys out into the hallway and said, “You’ve got ten minutes, come back with what you do.” And that’s exactly what we put in, because
that was the real situation. So I assume it really just depends on what
kind of piece. I agree. I think there are works that require, you
know, a huge amount of musical numbers and also a huge amount of book scenes. And I think, you know, sometimes two people
together can be a fantastic team and other times it’s a type of piece where it just
sort of flows from the same source more easily. And I think it just depends on the situation
and the willingness of people to share their talent and try to see the same picture. I mean, you can’t project it on the wall
out of your head. But you know, the communication is just so
delicate and so important and has to happen. You know, sometimes I love being the choreographer
and other times I love being, you know, the person in the whole driver’s seat. I think both have their own joys, really. Is this the first time that you’ve done
them both? This is the first time in the Broadway arena. I’ve been fortunate enough in the regional
theatres to do that. And before that, it was either directing or
choreography? For myself, I came up more as a choreographer,
a commissioned choreographer in the concert arena. Were you a dancer? Have you studied movement? Yes, I was a dancer. I was the only white member of the Alvin Ailey
Company when I was a kid and had a very strange, circuitous path. I danced on Broadway in several shows, including
I was a floating Cassie in CHORUS LINE for a while. I always knew that I had to be on the other
side, though. You know, if I came out the stage door and
someone approached me, I would look behind (LAUGHTER) to see who was behind me. I couldn’t conceive of myself as that person. So I knew I was meant to be, you know, behind
the scenes. But you do traditional ballet as well, American
Ballet Theatre. Yes, I do, yeah. And so that’s not just Broadway theatre
at all. I feel it’s just a privilege to move back
and forth. Because you know, that’s a pure empty slate,
it all comes out of your own head. And then, when you have a text or, you know,
trying to find the characters – and a lot of the work I do now, in my commissions, is
character-driven – but it’s just a different kind of challenge. And I think the variety, we’re so privileged
to have the opportunity to have variety. How did you train? First ballet. A little church basement with my mom playing
the piano. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And you know, then
later on, better and better teachers. And came to New York at seventeen, went to
SAB [School of American Ballet]. Realized that, you know, Colleen Neary (PH)
was this thin, and I could see myself on either side of her! (LAUGHTER) I’ve got to go elsewhere! And I did, I got away that summer, and you
know, found my way to Harkness House, and Alvin Ailey saw me, and it was really wonderful
and unexpected. I didn’t have, you know, any sort of training
about what you’re meant to do. I didn’t go to university or anything. So I sort blew my own self sideways for a
while, you know, and happily landed in a profession that I truly love. But I think it’s one of the things that
these seminars do, is to show the various paths that people have taken, to come to where
they are, the participants that are on the seminar. And also, the value of having done all these
things, so that you know the other person’s role. If you have to direct or if you have to stage
manage or whatever you have to do, to know what it is, so to have that crossover of experience,
because it’s one of the most important things to bring to the theatre, and it’s so necessary. I’ve always wondered how directors – and
some of you seem very polite and very, you know, pleasant – how do you deal with the
enormous egos of some of the performers you have to deal with? (LAUGHTER) And how do you keep them in line? Who? (LAUGHTER) Who? You know, you just – oooh! (LAUGHS) You know, you’ve dealt with some
of the important [ones]. I suppose, yes. But you seem very mild-mannered. I’ve dealt with some egos, I suppose! I mean, you know, egos come in different forms. I mean, in the main, I think you have to start
from the premise that actors – or performers of any nature – are in an incredibly exposed
situation. I mean, more exposed than sometimes it’s
possible to imagine. It’s highly vulnerable. It’s very, very vulnerable and it’s very,
very frightening. And without, you know, crossing the line between
directing and therapy, (LAUGHTER) which is a line that I hold to very rigorously, you
know, I would say that unless you start from that premise, that you are dealing with somebody
who is enormously gifted, who lives their working life at a level of intensity and vulnerability
that is very difficult to match elsewhere, that you have to filter what it is that you’re
receiving from them through that particular thought, through that medium. There are, of course, occasions when, you
know, in any group of people, there are influences or pressures on that group or on the work
that may seem to be inappropriate, that could potentially be destructive. And I think it is very important to be able
to establish with a group of people, you know, as far as you can, what the shared objective
of this event is. What, if you like, the grammar, the rule [you’re]
working with here is. And then you must say, if somebody is departing
from that or is in some way distorting it, without actually transforming it into something
useful, you must call them on it. And you should do it early. (LAUGHTER) And you should do it early, yeah! But it’s not something that necessarily
always has to be done in kind of a poisonous [way]. Well … it’s sort of anticipating before
it becomes a real problem. (LAUGHS) Yes, if you’re lucky! Yeah. (LAUGHTER) Well, let’s name names. Patrick Stewart is an enormous performer. Yes. Yes. Well, how did he not just run away with the
play? Did you have to hold him back? Well, I think with Patrick, it really started
out as a partnership. I went out to California and met him. I didn’t know him. And we talked about the play for six hours
straight in his back yard. And I don’t think he intended to do it,
when I went out there. But by the time we finished the conversation,
we realized that we had a connection about the material and that we were both very excited
by the prospect of working together. And it’s on that basis, you know, that we
continued to work on this play. And I think that if that hadn’t been the
case, we just wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. I mean, Patrick is an incredible actor in
the sense that he has wonderful charisma, but he’s also extremely hardworking and
he’s very serious. And if the challenges are there, and you’re
prepared to meet the challenges with him, there’s not a problem. He’s absolutely game for anything and he’s
fearless. How much were you informed by his other work? In other words, when you were out there? Well, actually, the other work is more of
a problem. That’s what I mean, exactly. Yeah, because people tend to think of him
as Captain Picard. Exactly. And his image is based on that. And I think what I needed to know from him
is whether he would be willing to get down and dirty in this part, because it’s a part
that really asks that you’re not liked. I mean, you have to be prepared not to be
liked on occasion. And it’s a bigamist and it goes against
a lot of people’s morality. And I was really struck by the fact that he
was brave enough to take that on, and he was not interested in maintaining that image of
the Star Trek captain. Were you the one who gave him the toupee,
to break that image? We talked about that. I mean, seriously, because, you know. Yeah, we talked about that, and I can’t
remember if it was he or I that brought it up first. It might have even been the costume designer! But we did want to present an image that was
different from what people expected, yeah. What gave you the background, or the ability,
to deal with these two strong, legendary figures, both in the acting and in the playwriting? You have Arthur Miller and Patrick Stewart. And you’re a very young person. Were you not intimidated? Well, not that young. (LAUGHTER) Fairly young, I would say! Were you not intimidated by this? Oh, you know, I mean, I still pinch myself
that my Broadway debut is with Arthur Miller, taking a new play of Arthur Miller’s to
Broadway! But you know, I think that it really comes
down to everyone wants to be respected in this business and everyone wants to feel as
though what they contribute is important. And when there is mutual respect within a
group of people, in the way that I think there is between Arthur and Patrick and myself,
I think a lot can be accomplished. A lot of wonderful things begin to happen. You were talking about, you know, actors and
vulnerability. And if you’ve ever been on the stage, you
know that there’s nothing more terrifying than not knowing what you’re specifically
doing. It feels like you’re a car on ice and you’re
just skating off and you’re gonna crash. So I think that the best thing that you can
do as a director is to bring a very specific and detailed approach to the work and to make
sure that the moment-to-moment actions of the play are clear to the performer and that
you are articulating what the author intended. And if that begins to happen, people start
to relax and trust. Were you an actor? In an amateur capacity. How about you, David? I was, very briefly, a very very very bad
actor! Actually, my greatest contribution to the
British theatre was giving up acting. (LAUGHTER) Now, having said that, I’m, from
selfish reasons, very grateful that I did that. Yeah, me too. Because I actually think you probably, as
a director, learn more from being a bad actor than you do from being a good actor. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Exactly. Because if you a very good actor, you don’t
necessarily know how it is that you do things. But if you’re a very bad actor, first of
all, in the main you get to work with, you know, equally bad directors. Right. Which sort of, you know, tends to increase
the chances of that experience that you’re talking about, being on the stage and not
knowing what you are doing. I mean, if I could tell you, something that
haunts me, that I keep at the back of my mind, and I don’t usually actually tell companies
that I work with this, but here I am, you know, actually (LAUGHS) mentioning it on TV. But I’ll tell it anyway! One of my early acting jobs was to play all
the messenger parts in KING LEAR (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL). Which incidentally, taught me that if I ever
directed KING LEAR and we had a very short rehearsal period, I would direct the messenger,
because King Lear can look after himself. (LAUGHTER) He’s got several goals, you know,
to get work. Being a messenger is, you know, pinpoint precise. You can’t [be vague]. (LAUGHTER) And there is one message that you
have to deliver in KING LEAR, which is mysterious, and I can only think that Shakespeare may
have intended it to do to an actor at the time in his company what it did to me, which
was that you come onto the stage and you say to Cordelia, “Madam, the Duke of Cornwall’s
forces approach withal.” And she says, “We know of this before.” (LAUGHTER) Now, the problem I found, which haunted me
for the whole six weeks of this run was how to then leave the stage? (LAUGHTER) And you know, it was a “Shakespeare”
production, where messengers tended to come on and kneel. I mean, it’s not something that the Royal
Shakespeare Company does any more, and certainly since I’ve directed Shakespeare with the
RSC – and partly for this reason – we have no kneeling for the messenger! (LAUGHTER) Because to get up from the kneeling
position, after you have run, allegedly, twenty-five miles to deliver a message which Cordelia
has already heard (LAUGHTER), the thing I found just instinctively happening to me was
a kind of shrug. “We know of this before.” Well, huh [DEMONSTRATES SHRUG]. (LAUGHTER) And I spent six weeks trying to suppress a
shrug, and this exit became enormous to me. I mean, you know, looking back on it, it’s
hilarious. But there’s also, you know, a basic truth
about an event like that, which is that, you know, as David is saying, the absolute responsibility
to reach a point with your company whereby every actor on that stage is connected into
the narrative, has a sense of purpose, and knows why they’ve come on and how on earth
they get off! – is really, you know, the bare bones of this job, before one even gets
into areas of mystery or truth. Yes, staging and stylized. Yes, fundamentally, you know, you must do
that. And I just recall so vividly what that was
like, and I shall never forget it, and I’m glad I haven’t! (LAUGHTER) Were you an actor, Richard? No, no. Thank God, thank God. How did you begin? What is your background? Well, I’m a playwright. I started writing plays when I was fifteen,
and wrote between the age of fifteen of twenty-five, maybe twenty plays, most of which I did myself
in various ways, college and whatnot. And twenty-five years ago this year, had my
first professional production in Los Angeles. And all the plays up to then I had directed,
but at that point I stopped directing completely. And then about four years ago – three years
ago? – Adrian Noble, head of the Royal Shakespeare
Company, they had commissioned a children’s play from me and from a friend named Colin
Chambers. And we wrote this play called KENNY’S (PH)
FIRST PLAY and someone else was going to direct it, and that person pulled out a month before. Adrian said, “Will you do it?” and I said,
“Mmmm … “ And I made him swear that he would come to a runthrough in the rehearsal
room. And in all my years working at the RSC, no
artistic director had ever come to a runthrough in the rehearsal room. And he did, and I found that I enjoyed it
again, and he came to see it and he, blessing, just said at the end of it, he stood up, looked
at me and said, “See, I told you it was easy.” (LAUGHTER) And left. And that sort of lit a fire. But mostly, for me, the training has been
very simple. I spent twenty-some years sitting next to,
close to, behind, around some of the greatest directors of the English-speaking world, just
one after another. People from Trevor Nunn to Liviu Ciulei to
David Jones or Roger Michele (PH) or John Madden, an extraordinary group. You’ve got a number of people – Peter
Gill – amazing range of directors and I learned from each and was in awe of each and
enjoyed each. And it’s come a time, in my own writing,
that I’ve learned that now what I want to see on the stage and how it works are so entwined
that I feel that maybe I’m the best person, or the easiest person, to convey that, relay
that, and organize it. So it’s a big, big change for me in my life,
the last few years, to come to that conclusion. And it changed everything! You change your personal life. Because I love the life of a writer, there’s
nothing greater. You know, I have a nice desk and a stream
and I pick up my kids from school. And now, you know? Suddenly I’m eating in restaurants and watching
late-night TV! (LAUGHTER) And you’ve also done something else, which
I’d like to get in a little bit. You’ve also collaborated with other writers. And particularly on MISHA’S PARTY, you worked
with Alexander Gelman, who speaks no English and I don’t think your Russian is fluent. How did you do that? Well, Sasha – Alexander Gelman is one of
the truly great playwrights in the Soviet Union, when I started to work with him in
Russia. And we worked through a long process. We were commissioned to write a play together,
from scratch, by both Royal Shakespeare Company and the Moscow Art Theatre, and it would be
done in both places and it ended up being done. And so we started. I met in Moscow; we worked through an interpreter. And our biggest chunk of time working was
the MacDonald (PH) Colony, bless it, which is just incredible. They brought us to the MacDonald Colony, gave
us a cabin in the woods, rooms to stay in. You know, fed us, left a little basket on
our front porch for lunch. And we had this amazing interpreter, translator. And at about six o’clock, we’d break out
the vodka and start to work the evenings. And I remember one time – I speak no Russian,
none. I don’t know the alphabet, I don’t know
anything. So we’re talking through this translator,
and one of the character’s name is Mary. So I was saying this and Sasha was saying
in Russian, the translator’s back and forth. And finally, the translator says to me, “Well,
what if Mary does so-and-so?” And I thought, “That’s not a very good
idea, but it’s not a terrible idea.” I said, “Okay, Mary can do so-and-so,”
you know. And the translator comes back and speaks,
“Sasha says he doesn’t like that. Why should Mary do so-and-so?” (LAUGHTER) I said, “I thought it was his
idea!” and the translator said, “No, no, that was my idea!” (LAUGHTER) So I don’t know who wrote the
play. That’s very funny. And so, this play happened. I mean, it was a slightly more organized process. What happened was, we agreed on the story
and the characters, on a very tight scenario. That’s what we were about. We didn’t try to write the dialogue together. Then I took that away and then I wrote the
scenes, I wrote the dialogue, which I then read to him through an interpreter back in
Moscow. And then he gave me his notes. And then we agreed at that time to part, meaning
he then took my play and then he adapted it, and changed even the location, made some significant
changes in it. So they’re sort of two different plays – slightly
different plays or whatever – one in Russian and one in English. And it was done at the Royal Shakespeare Company,
where it ran for its typical two months in rep, and it’s at the Moscow Art Theatre,
where it’s been running six years! Oh, that’s great. My goodness, very exciting. Becky, what is your next play? I don’t know. (LAUGHS) My latest production was a baby. Oh! Okay. I had a baby four weeks ago, so I haven’t
been thinking of much else! (LAUGHTER) That’s a production. It’s a production! I have an idea, a germ of an idea for a play,
but I haven’t even gone to [the next step]. There’s sort of a step I’d like to take
of immersing myself in the world, and I haven’t even done that. But I figure I have to start sleeping five-hour
stretches (LAUGHS) before I can do any of it! Did you study? Did you go to a school to learn playwriting
or read any books? Is there some advice you could give all the
people who might like to do what you did? As I say, only just again by soaking up as
an actor. You know, I was in a theatre company in Boston. I struggled for a while here. I went to the American Repertory Theatre as
an acting student. So you know, by observation, basically. So there’s no text that one could purchase? (LAUGHS) I defer to Richard! I don’t know. What’s the best manual? Write a lot and see a lot. That would be the thing. I made a clear, conscious decision, when I
was in my late twenties, to involve myself both in classical theatre and also to adapt,
translate classical plays, and I’ve done a lot of that. One, it’s lucrative, and two, it also teaches
you a lot of the form of theatre, and that’s very significant to do. I think one of the dangers that exists now,
from the time that I was a young playwright, people do think that there are books. When I grew up, I think that people didn’t
think there were books. So what you have is a lot of advice now, a
lot more advice than [I got]. My advice was, “All right, we’ll do it. All right, we don’t do it.” This was what I got. This is like, “Let’s do a reading and
then let’s all talk about it and let’s do another reading and let’s all talk about
it. Let’s do maybe a workshop, and now we’re
investing in the audience, we don’t really know if they’re responding in a real way
or in a workshop way and then let’s talk about it.” I think that, by and large, more plays are
lost that way than made that way, but that’s my opinion. I agree. What do you think? I agree. I was working, directing something at the
Directors’ Circle and I was part of that, watching that process for a while. And there was some wonderful work. And it just seems that what happens when it
passes through so many hands and so much processes, is that whatever was the passion that was
that original piece – you know, it just goes so circuitously through the hands of
so many people. And oftentimes, in those various workshops,
it changes directors. And you know, what I said to the author I
was working with, “I would love to see your original script, because what made you write
this? I’m not getting where the passion is.” And I went back to a much earlier draft and
worked from there. But I think it’s partly the economics of
someone who isn’t established. Luckily, you know, you were able to get your
plays produced before all of this new kind of economy in the theatre. And so, you know, it’s difficult. I know for the young choreographers, for the
young writers, I think it’s a much, much harder world. And when people ask me, “Oh, how did you
do such-and-such?” I say, “It’s a different world. I can’t give you advice based on this, because
I’m now at this age, you know, having already had some sort of a profile.” And it’s difficult to, you know, start now. Well, I have to say, for me, it’s probably
a different level, but the workshop process for me was valuable. I mean, I know it can sort of fold in on itself. It wasn’t always valuable. But I felt, again, over time, if I got the
same message from people that I trusted, it helped me. I was just saying, it’s a problem when it
becomes playwriting by committee. Yes. That’s where the danger is. But I think there’s such a responsibility
as a director in helping a play to arrive. Because I think there is often a tendency
to want to make something like what you already know, rather than listening to the specifics
of that material or that voice. And I think that that’s the most important
thing that you can do as a director, is encourage both yourself and the actors to listen to
the writer and to hear the rhythms and the nuances and the subject and even the structure
of the piece, because that’s when you actually get something very unique. You discover something unique, and you don’t
turn it into what everybody already knows. Now, you moved the play, from the Public Theater
to Broadway. What happened to it, textually, to RIDE DOWN
MOUNT MORGAN, from the Public to Broadway? A lot? Not a lot? Well, I think the majority of that kind of
movement was done at the Public. I think the physical vocabulary for the play
was arrived at there. There were rewrites that happened, as a result
of going to Broadway, but I think most of it was directorial interpretation. Arthur did write a speech for the end of the
play, which Patrick actually took on and read in one of the previews, and we began to feel
that that was right. And then once that was established, we removed
the ending of the play that we had created down at the Public, because now we felt like
the play should end in a different spot. So I think the thing that struck me, in terms
of this idea of listening to the play, is that Arthur had written a play that was very
abstract and non-linear. And the character would go into fantasy, would
go into memory, anything to escape his present situation of being discovered as a bigamist,
with two wives on either side of him in a hospital room. So what I began to discover is that there
are conventions to plays, and there would be a convention set up in the writing, but
then I began to discover that when the character got into trouble, he would break the convention
of the play in order to escape his situation. And it began to be a lot of fun to think about,
“Okay, well, we can do this, and now we can just bag that. He no longer has to be in the hospital bed. Now he can get up and run around.” You know, and it just went on like that, and
it felt like a liberation to me and it felt like a discovery. And I felt like I began to understand what
he had always had in mind. And so, I think with that in place, then whatever
rewrites came into the process were appropriate to that initial vision that Arthur had always
had, but he had to wait around for us to discover. To follow up on George’s question, did you
have to enlarge the play? Did you have to open it up more when you came
to Broadway? Also, why did you want to come to Broadway
with the play? Well, the main thing I think about coming
to Broadway is that I feel like Arthur Miller and Broadway are synonymous. I feel like the play has finally found its
audience and that it is an audience that loves and respects this writer. And it’s so wonderful to be in the theatre
and to see that happening. It’s really extraordinary. And as far as moving the play, we didn’t
have to do a tremendous amount of changes to the physical production, because the space
was pretty close to what it was down at the Public. But it has more height in the Ambassador Theatre,
which gives it a little bit more air and breath. And we also wanted to just sharpen things
up, make sure that our ideas that we initially created for the Public were just taken to
the next level. And I think we were able to do that. Things are quieter, they move quickly, edges
are sharper. Do the performances have to be larger? We try not to do that. I think it can be kind of a disease for a
big theatre, where everything gets so big, there’s no nuance left, so we try not to
do that. The Ambassador is actually a nice space, because
it allows a kind of intimacy for it. It’s a perfect theatre for it. But I think what we discovered, as we went
uptown, is we found more humor in it. You know, I think Beckett said, “There’s
nothing funnier than unhappiness.” (LAUGHTER) And we were able to deepen the
play and consequently find more comedy in it. That’s interesting. When you say, “Do it louder,” I was thinking
of the mikes that are now used in almost all Broadway plays. How do you writers and directors feel about
that? It’s a terribly difficult question, this. Because you know, I come from a theatre culture
where the idea of voice reinforcement is met with horror, because there is a kind of almost
Puritan ethic about the fact that it is up to the actor to project and to be clear. I think you have to take into account levels
of expectation. When you’re, say, moving a play from one
culture into another, you must take [it] into account. There’s no point hanging on to some principle
for its own sake. Ultimately, it’s not delivering the experience
of a play to an audience. I have to say, I mean, sometimes people say
that this is due to the fact that the modern actor is less equipped to project than they
were twenty years ago. I think this is only marginally true. It’s not that. It’s just, actually, our expectation of
volume is actually different. (MURMURS OF AGREEMENT FROM THE PANEL) We are
accustomed to that compressed, intensified sound that comes out of the television. The movie theatre. The Walkman, the CD. Right. Yeah. You don’t have to reach for it any more. That’s right. You don’t have to work. It just comes at you. It comes at you, so that it’s an essentially
passive process, where I think, you know, twenty, thirty years ago, it probably was
a much more active process in audiences. Yeah. But I also think, you know, we’re living
in noisier cities. (LAUGHTER) I mean, the fact is that most of
the theatres in London were of course built at the time when the noisiest thing that would
go past would be, you know, a horse and a carriage, which could be noisy. Well now, you know, we have fire trucks, we
have ambulances, we have our police who got those nice sirens from over here and installed
them over there. (LAUGHTER) In other words, silence has more
or less been privatized now. Right. It’s not widely available. (LAUGHTER) And you have to find a way of overcoming
that. I think that [what] David said about trying
to find a way in which one can maintain nuance and a level of reality in the acting, when
you go into a bigger house, is so important. Because it’s very easy to become anxious,
“We’re suddenly in a big house, nothing is true any more!”, that sort of thing. It’s absolutely true, but you have to negotiate
somewhere. You have to negotiate. Actors are going to have to speak up. They going to have to fill spaces that they
didn’t have to fill before. And to be honest, I think sometimes that can
also reveal other things about the play, you know? Right. (GENERAL AGREEMENT FROM THE PANEL) That’s very exciting, too. The idea that whispered, allegedly psychological
naturalism somehow is true and anything louder is not true fundamentally doesn’t seem to
me to be the case in the theatre. In the theatre, you have all sorts of levels
at which the truth is spoken. Give me an example, “negotiate,” how and
what you’re saying. Okay. Sometimes it’s a question of rhythm. For instance, you know, in my case, Tom Stoppard’s
play THE REAL THING actually started life in this production in a small space, very
small space in London, the Donmar Warehouse. Now, in the Donmar, it is possible to move
faster. It’s a very small space, a very intimate
space. In other words, an actor can speak at the
speed of thought and nothing is lost. As you get onto the bigger space, if you speak
at that speed, it literally doesn’t arrive in the audience. (GENERAL AGREEMENT FROM THE PANEL) They don’t
get it. Right. It gets garbled. Yes. So what we had to do was slow some things
down. And you know, the play takes a little bit
longer. I remember Adrian Noble, actually, at the
RSC, telling me when I was working there that there was a line rate in Shakespeare in the
smaller space, the Swan Theatre, which was entirely different from the line rate in the
big house. I think it was something like fourteen lines
per minute in the Swan and eleven to twelve in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the big
theatre. And this was just timed by Terry Hands (PH)
over a whole season. It’s in those areas, where you almost have
to get used to what feels artificial to begin with, but don’t lose faith. Right. But some of it is also energy. Taking the energy through the line, articulating. You know, just sort of basic things of speaking
for the stage. And that buys you a lot. But we talk about it – there’s a certain
point in the rehearsal process, it’s usually in one of the previews early on, where the
audience isn’t quite getting what they need from the stage. It almost always happens, because you come
out of the rehearsal room, which was intimate, and now you have to be in the space, and that
adjustment is very delicate. And so, we talk about “sharing the play
with the audience,” and I think it’s a good way of discussing it. Could I ask you to hold that thought (LAUGHTER
FROM THE PANEL) and share it with us when we come back? Sure. Because we’re going to stop for just a minute
here. And everybody’s going to stretch and rest
and do whatever they have to do very quickly, and come right back, and we’ll continue
with the American Theatre Wing seminars. (APPLAUSE) This is CUNY-TV, Channel 75. (APPLAUSE) 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 remind you that the Wing is more than a sponsor of seminars and more than
our famous Tony Award. The award is presented for excellence in the
theatre, as many of you know. The Wing is an organization whose year-round
programs are dedicated to serving the theatre and the community. And since one of our goals is developing new
audiences for the theatre, we have created meaningful programs for students, like “Introduction
to Broadway,” which began eight years ago and has enabled more than 80,000 New York
City high school students to attend a Broadway show, many for the very first time. And through our “Theatre in School” program,
professionals like these in our seminar, panelists that you see today, go directly into classrooms
to work with and talk to students about working in the theatre. In addition, we have a hospital program, which
dates back to World War Two, when we operated our legendary Stage Door Canteens. Today’s version of the program brings talent
from Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the cabaret world to entertain patients in hospitals,
senior day and nursing facilities, AIDS centers and child care facilities in the New York
area, bringing the magic of theatre to those who are unable to get out to enjoy the theatre
themselves. We are proud of the work we do and delighted
with the wonderful working relationship we have with the theatrical community. We are grateful to our members and everyone
who makes possible all the American Theatre Wing does. And so, having said that, let’s get back
to our seminar on the playwright/director/choreographer. I’d like to start part two with a question
myself, and I’d like to start it with David, if you may. David Leveaux, that David. Do you rely on workshops in the English theatre
as much as we tend to here in New York? Probably not to quite that extent, no. Although we have, you know, a fairly thriving
workshop culture. Attached, for instance, to our Royal National
Theatre is a studio which is dedicated to the development of work, in a workshop situation. I think that what Richard had to say about
the idea of the endless workshops, defusing the original energy of a play or a piece of
work, is a very genuine danger. And I think it comes from a sort of misplaced
notion of refinement. A word that I particularly hate – which
you don’t hear so much in the theatre, you hear it more, I think, in the movies – is
the word “polish.” I hate this word (LAUGHTER) because what it
conjures up is the notion that somehow you can sort of burnish off the sort of awkward
corners and edges of this thing until it actually becomes acceptable, in a sort of rather homogenized
fashion. In reality, we’re all of us about making
a piece of live theatre. And there is only one test that I ever think
of applying to that, which is simply, is it living or is it not living? Sometimes something that is very gawky, apparently
badly structured, has got all sorts of built in contradictions and moments when the machinery
creaks, it can make the most fantastic theatre. That if you attempt to soften or refine or
polish, very often what is vital and energetic about the piece just flows out of it, and
it becomes a rather sort of bland exercise. And I just think on that score, from a directing
point of view – because when I began directing, I was so desperate, you know, for every production
to be terribly good, that inevitably one tried to sort of smooth over any of the difficult
moments, either by making it simply go faster or introducing some startling lighting effect
or, if the worst came to the worst, a piece of music (LAUGHTER) that people could leave
the theatre humming, you know? (LAUGHTER) And it took me some years, really, to discover
certainly that, no, you know, when you meet a moment in a play where this seems to contradict
this and it’s a very awkward corner that we’ve all got to get around, that rather
than trying to, as it were, shave off the edges until they became the same thing, it
was actually much more energetic and exciting to extend the space, so that the contradiction
became larger. And as it becomes larger, very often you find
in that place, in that awkward turn in the play, that energy literally floods in to the
scene. And you may find something that is coming
from some very deep place in the play that starts to reveal that play, as David said,
because you used the word “revelation.” That is a very proper use for a workshop,
is to reveal a play. I think a dreadful use for a workshop is to
refine it, so that you can get it past the critic at the New York Times. (LAUGHTER) It’s a disastrous idea. It will never work. I think the other thing, just to expand on
that idea, is that sometimes you can only about so far without some production around
you, because that is a layer of a play that is vital. I mean, in our real lives we have stuff around
us and there is a design and there’s a choice made. And that part of a collaboration takes something
further. You know, you can’t just say, “Imagine,
if you will, a living room.” You know, eventually, you have to take the
chance of saying, “I have a vision for it” or “My collaborators have a vision for it,
and we must be there in order for this to reach its fullest potential.” And I think, for myself, workshop was incredible. We were speaking about it, you know, that
because there wasn’t a script and because we were inventing vignettes, we needed a lot
of time. And we never, ever showed the work in a linear
fashion. It was very, I think, disturbing to my producers
at times, because we had to show, “Okay, here’s something that’s developing and
here’s something, and eventually those two islands will connect.” That is not a comforting thing to hear, you
know (LAUGHTER), for a producer. But God love them, they hung in there and
so that was very helpful. But I don’t think that we could have continued
much further than, you know, having to be shoved onto the stage. Because literally, we had the opportunity,
and then it took a huge leap, and that was very important. I think there’s a question of what a workshop
is for. I’ve worked at the Studio at the Royal National
Theatre, doing a workshop. It was very, very useful. But no one from the theatre ever saw what
we did. It was only for us. And that was a very useful thing, only for
us, to get people together to try to sort something out. It’s a problem in a workshop or reading
or anything like that, if it has an element of judgment over it. Right. That you are doing this workshop to see if
something works, and therefore see if you can go to the next step. That’s a big problem, and it’s a very
confusing one for a playwright. Because people can’t separate what they
see in a reading or a workshop from the work itself. So if you have Meryl Streep who plays the
maid in your reading – she’ll never play it in a production, but she does the reading
– at the end of the reading, the people say, “Oh, the maid was fantastic!” (LAUGHTER) And then you have another reading
in two months and you don’t have Meryl Streep and the people say, “What’d you do to
the maid? (LAUGHTER) You should work that up. I remember it so much more vividly.” And you can get incredibly confused. You can move this way and that way. As a playwright, I’ve had many different
productions of the same play, and so you can see how different directors have taken things,
sometimes when you work with them and sometimes when you’ve just gone to an opening night. And it’s amazing. I once had a play, real big problem, where
a director like almost has his hands around your throat as a playwright, saying, “Cut
it! Change it!”, whatever. In another production, no problem at all. And to learn that, learn what is your center
and what your place is, as opposed to going left and right and being bounced around. It’s the hardest thing. Well, and readings become commercials, in
a way. Yeah. And so there’s a pressure to present them
in a way that will get producers interested in actually going to the next step, and that
isn’t a very useful investigation, if that’s what you’re doing. Although it can add a certain level of excitement
at the moment, can’t it? I won’t rehearse readings, because of that. You know, it has to be raw, because I don’t
want people to misunderstand. Explain that. Just go in there the day of and tell people
what you want and talk about the character a little bit and let it fly, you know? And you don’t have formalized readings? Well, it’s formalized. I mean, it would be in front of an audience. But what I’m saying is, rehearsal is deadly
with a reading. Umm-hmm. Because you take those first impulses and
then you talk about them and deal with them and take them to the next step, and you’re
not ready to do that. And so sometimes it can kill a play. Well, there is a point where the rehearsal
of a reading demands that you either do it for eight hours of rehearsal, just so you
know where it is. Right. And once you’re beyond that, then you’re
into three to four weeks. Right. You’re into a whole other arena. Because you can’t explore it deep enough,
and you’re just skating on air, and then it gets confusing and crazy, I think. In the playwright/director, who has the last
word? Who makes a decision, when you’re one? You know, I like to make decisions with a
playwright. I don’t feel like it’s ever useful to
work at cross-purposes. But I think that there’s kind of an adage
of the theatre, which is that the playwright conceives the play. Arthur said he hears the play as he writes
it, and then he’s lucky if he ever hears it again. (LAUGHTER) That’s great. But then, at a certain point, the playwright
gives that play over to the people that are going to interpret it, and I think at that
point, it becomes the director’s. And then, there’s another point at which
you, the director, deliver it and sort of give birth to it, and it becomes the relationship
of the actor and the audience. And so, I think that there’s – But that stage is gone. There are stages of responsibility. But I think it’s not that delineated. You always want to refer back. You always want the author’s opinion in
the process. You want the actor’s opinion early on, as
well, you know? I always, if I’m directing my own play,
on the first day I tell the actors that I’m going to do what I think every director I’ve
ever worked with has secretly wanted to do, and that’s throw the playwright out of the
room. (LAUGHTER) And I start there. And then, it becomes very useful, because
during rehearsal, if there’s a certain time where someone wants to change something, I’ll
say, “I’ll just have to go consult with the writer.” (LAUGHTER) And then you walk a few steps and
you say, “No!” (LAUGHTER) What happens if you’re the playwright and
the director? How do you get yourself out of the room? Well, I just throw myself out! (LAUGHTER) They’re confused by that point
as well. See, I love having the author in the room,
because when the author talks and sometimes reads the play – I mean, not too often any
more – but just the stories that they tell, the way they speak. Those are all really strong indications of
how the play should be [done]. Do you find that having a playwright read
the play out loud – and sometimes I have – is very instructive, both as a director
and to the actors? Yeah, I do. I think to a certain point. Yeah. I mean, otherwise it becomes intimidating
to the performer. But the other thing is, just the stories that
they tell. What interests them, what are their politics
like? And like I said, the rhythms of their own
speech, which I think actors pick up on. They absorb that, and you can get pretty close
to the material that way, very quickly. We’re going to interrupt this once more,
as we have questions from our audience. And so, we’re going to come forward with
the first question, please. MARGOT EVAN GOLDMAN
Hi. My name is Margot Evan Goldman (PH). I’m an actor. And this question is directed to David Leveaux
and to Richard Nelson. Can you hear? MARGOT EVAN GOLDMAN
Can you hear me? Okay. The question is, can you describe the differences
between American and British audiences? (LAUGHTER) Richard? (LAUGHTER) I think the most important thing is the difference
between the British and American theatres. And people will say, “Oh, there’s a certain
kind of training,” or there’s a certain kind of whatever. I would say the difference is simply product. That in a theatre like the Royal Shakespeare
Company, they’re going to do something like thirty productions a year. And at the Royal National, another thirty
productions a year. That’s sixty productions of classical work,
in some way. Just simply, that’s so much! And I think that breeds an audience, a knowledgeable
audience, a kind of theatre-going audience who has seen X, Y and Z. And I think that’s basically the difference. There is more product. There is more to see. There is more classical work being done. You know, we were just talking about this
back there, before we came out here. (LAUGHTER) I think there is an increasing
divide between particularly what you might call old-school producers here believe, for
instance, the New York audience will take or not take to. That in fact, there is an audience here which
I think is simply sensational in the sense that it is open, flexible, has a way of coming
to the theatre, and from the word “go” is prepared to accept whatever comes off that
stage. You have maybe about two minutes before they
can start to become disappointed or whatever, but from the word “go.” You know, last year we brought a production
of the Sophocles ELECTRA into New York, with Zoe Wanamaker. And I didn’t really think about this play
coming into New York at all. In fact, it started life in London, and I
was very keen that it didn’t come to New York as some sort of horribly shiny British import
of a classic. I mean, who needs it, you know? It sort of had the kiss of death to it. So what we did was we went to Princeton, to
the McCarter Theatre there, because Zoe and I wanted to work on the play again. And we cast it, and we had, you know, a fantastic
American company. And then there was the sort of necessary heat
to move it, you know, roughly into New York. But (LAUGHS) the very interesting thing was
the amount of advice I got before this actually happened, from producers here, one of whom
– who shall remain nameless – who said to me, “David, you have to understand. The New York audience don’t like Greek choruses.” (LAUGHTER) Well, where? Where is the evidence, you know? It’s a typical story. Of course they do, if it works! Of course, of course they do! But what Richard says is true, you know, in
London it is very highly literate audience. I don’t think the audience here is illiterate,
but [in London] it is an audience which actually tends to go to plays sort of rather in the
way, you know, they have meals. And therefore, you know, they can have a great
time, because it’s really enjoyable and say, “Not bad,” you know, and then leave. There’s no [big deal]. You know, “Not bad, that’s great. That’s fun. Okay, we’ll go eat, you know.” (LAUGHTER) So if you die in the theatre in
England, it’s death by indifference, and here it’s death by fire. (LAUGHTER) You know? It’s up to you. And I think the latter is more energetic. (LAUGHTER) Does the laughter come at different spots
with the American audiences than with the English audiences? I think it does, but I don’t think there’s
any science for that. I think it does. I think that some things, for instance in
an English play like THE REAL THING, written by – well, really, actually by a Czech masquerading
as an Englishman, Tom Stoppard! (LAUGHTER) – you know, there are some things
that the English just take for granted, which perhaps seem more sort of surprising [here]. People can’t sometimes quite believe – Like the cricket bat. Like cricket, yes. And sometimes here, you can feel an audience
not quite being able to believe anybody would say what they have just said. (LAUGHTER) And there’s an excitement about
that. That’s great. Come to think of it, that would probably be
so about Off Broadway audiences and Broadway audiences as well. Is that so? Becky? Is there a difference? Or California and Chicago and New York? I don’t know. I mean, one of my experiences with just taking
our play from place to place is we went upstate to the Adirondacks and people told us, “Well,
it’s a very New York play and people won’t get it in the Adirondacks.” (LAUGHTER) Or in Rhinebeck. Or in Rhinebeck! (LAUGHTER) And it was a different type of
audience than we were used to, but I was sort of prepared for an icy silence. And the thing that was nice for me was seeing
how just different audiences respond differently, that they did respond to it, but they responded
to different things in the play. And it seemed to me a little obnoxious that
they weren’t giving them credit, as though “New York audiences” were somehow smarter
and more gifted and more smug. Well, maybe they got different references,
but it was an equally good audience. In fact, it was a great audience. Between Broadway and Off-Broadway, I don’t
know. But I will say between our non-commercial
run and our commercial run, there’s a different expectation. You know, partly they’re just paying more,
so you feel sometimes they’re crankier if it’s not what they thought it was going
to be. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) What do you attribute that to? Money. (LAUGHTER) And also, what you said about dining
out. That you know, it’s sort of a “show me”
attitude. You know, “Here I am.” Whereas if you sort of seek something out
in the non-commercial circuit, it’s partly just because you love going to the theatre
and you want to be surprised, not necessarily entertained or have something proven to you. Yeah. So what we’re doing is helping people to
go who love the theatre, and that’s the most important thing. We have more questions here. Would you please come up? This is to the panel. I’d like to know how often you attend the
performance after it opens. (MURMURS FROM THE PANEL) You understand that? How about David? You want to start this off? Start at this side! (LAUGHTER) You know, it’s interesting. When I ran my theatre downtown, Classic Stage
Company, I would go periodically through the run of the show. In fact, I felt like a lot of really important
work got done in front of an audience, past the preview period, and I found it was a way
of really honing and sharpening the play. I think it’s important to give over the
play to the actors and to trust them to do it the way it’s been rehearsed, and to allow
them to deepen it and change it in small ways. But I do think every now and then it’s important
to stop back. I would say, maybe once a week or so at most,
just to see that everything is still on track and that the stakes are high and that everything
is as it should be. I found that I go back. I have been working out of town quite a lot
since my show opened, but I go back because the show is so complex. And at Jerry Zaks’ suggestion, actually,
I put a new number in, a quiet, quiet number in the first act. And you know, just to see how that flows and
how it feels and how it’s affected what’s around it. I agree, though, that you can’t go back
and be a massive presence walking into the theatre. You have to realize that there’s been morphing
and change and dynamics have moved on, and that’s a wonderful thing. But I think it’s important to the actors,
also, to know that you care about the production and you come back and, you know, it still
matters that things go well for them. Umm-hmm. Yeah. I go about every two weeks. We have time for one more question. KATHERINE LILLY
Thanks. My name is Katherine Lilly (PH), and I’m
an actress, a dancer, and a little gymnastics. (LAUGHTER) Sometimes. But I’d like to address Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Tell me about your transition, going from
a dancer to a choreographer, and how difficult is this to achieve? Well, for myself, I loved my dancing career
very much. I always was looking around and sort of noticing
other people and thinking, “Oh, if only he had done that,” you know? As I’ve said before, I knew very early that
my mind was not on myself as a performer as much as the creation around me and you know,
really from the other directors and choreographers I was working with. I had a dance company called Theatre Dance
Collection that toured with the wonderful National Endowment [for the Arts] when we
used to have a National Endowment – We still do. (GESTURES WITH HIS FINGERS TO INDICATE THAT
IT’S MUCH SMALLER) — that really supported arts. Yeah. Anyway, it meant a lot to my growth and the
growth of a lot of other people, that would not have otherwise had careers, I think. And that company nurtured six or seven of
us, actually. And so, I was able to make a transition into
doing commissions because of the profile of that company. You know, American Ballet Theatre and some
commissions, and then eventually was able to get into the commercial arena. And I think it’s just a different path for
everyone. But now, we have videos and everyone wants
a video. You know, we didn’t have to do that when
I was sort of coming up. But I just keep hoping, you know, that there
are more arenas opening up for young choreographers. And Jacob’s Pillow has one, DTW [Dance Theatre
Workshop]. I just keep hoping that there would be more
places to experiment. Thank you so much, Lynne, and thank you so
much for being here. Once more, I have to interrupt you, and I
just wish we could go on and on and on until curtain time! (LAUGHTER) Just listen to you people sharing
your experiences and your knowledge with us. But unfortunately, it has to end, and I have
to say that this is the American Theatre Wing seminars on “Working in the Theatre,”
coming to you from the new Graduate Center of the City University of New York. And this seminar has been on the playwright/
director/choreographer, and I can’t tell you how important and how knowledgeable what
they have had to say has been to all of us. Thank you very much for being here. (APPLAUSE)
(MUSIC)

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *