Playwright, Director and Choreographer (Working In The Theatre #289)

(APPLAUSE) Once again, I am pleased to welcome
you to the American Theatre Wing’’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars. These are coming to you from the new Graduate
Center of the City University of New York. Now in their fifth year, these seminars
give you an opportunity to look behind the veil and share with the panelists their experiences
in professional theatre. Today’s seminar focuses on playwrights,
directors and choreographers. These are the artists that provide the creative
heart of theatre, and they give a sense of thrill and life to the legitimate theatre. I hope that this discussion will show us how
the magic of theatre is created. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the
Board of the American Theatre Wing. And I would now like to introduce our moderator
for this seminar, President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, and an active
member of the Board of the American Theatre Wing, Theodore Chapin. Ted, would you now take over? (APPLAUSE) Yes. Thank you, Isabelle. As Isabelle said, this discussion this morning
is on directors, choreographers and playwrights. And we have a distinguished and color-coordinated
group this morning. (LAUGHTER) I’d like to introduce them to
you. From my right, David Auburn, playwright, author
of PROOF. George Faison, director and choreographer,
in this instance, director of FOR COLORED GIRLS, that recently played at the American
Place Theatre. David Marques, choreographer, about to go
into rehearsal with THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER. Charles Busch, playwright of THE TALE OF THE
ALLERGIST’S WIFE. Jerry Mitchell, choreographer of THE FULL
MONTY. And John Rando, director of THE DINNER PARTY. And I want to start this off by asking John
the first question. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) It’s not that
funny yet! (LAUGHTER) THE DINNER PARTY played what I
think is a slightly odd, but still traditional, role of opening out of town before coming
to Broadway. And if I’m right, it was in Los Angeles,
and was supposed to come, but the plan was stopped and changed? Yeah. Well, not exactly. This is Neil Simon’s play. And when we first talked about doing the play
and he worked with Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., he literally said,
“Look, I just want to put on the play, like any playwright might want to do someplace.” It happened to be in Los Angeles. That’s where Neil lives. And we had no really concrete intentions of
coming to New York. There was no theatre set up, there was nothing
like that. It was basically to see what this play is. Neil Simon’s THE DINNER PARTY is really
a kind of departure for Neil in his writing. It’s a new territory that he was exploring. So you know, when we did it out in L.A., it
had this wonderful audience response. The audience seemed to love it. The press wasn’t sure about it. Some were very positive and – very mixed. But it had a terrific run, sold-out run. In fact, we had to add shows in L.A. And the
last weekend that we performed there – we performed, I think, eight weeks – the last
weekend we performed there, the producers from the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
came to see the show. They fell in love with it, and they said,
“We want you to come and do the play in Washington D.C.” This was January 2000, when we had done it
in L.A. So this summer, we had a chance to do it again,
at the Kennedy Center. We had to change some of the cast members
because of scheduling, and Neil did a lot of rewrite on it. And Mark Taper Forum is this enormous thrust
stage. And we went from a thrust to a proscenium
stage, which changed the play dramatically. Neil did some rewrites, actually fairly extensive,
and we had these cast changes. And it was a tremendous success in Washington
D.C. Audiences loved it, and press loved it. And we thought we were going for a summer
vacation, really. (LAUGHTER) We thought, “Well, this will
be fun. We’ll be in D.C. in the early summertime. It might be really nice, you know.” And that’s what we thought, it was sort
of a summer theatre. And by the time we had opened and were getting
the kind of response we got, suddenly the producers from New York now became interested. And that’s how that happened. So now we’re at the Music Box, you know,
here in New York, and it’s quite a journey for the play. So the Kennedy Center turned out to be a pre-Broadway,
but it wasn’t intended to be that? Was not intended. No, no, had no intentions. Although, you know, this is Neil Simon we’re
talking about. (LAUGHTER) I mean, you know? Yeah, but the last play he did was Off-Broadway,
and it sort of seemed like he was trying to venture into slightly different ways of doing
his shows. Yeah, yeah. And I mean, for him it really is about the
writing and about how the audience responds to his writing. And I think that’s what he really wanted. I mean, he’s had a tremendous career. And as he told me, you know, he doesn’t
really need to do another play. (TED LAUGHS) But you know, he can’t help
himself! (LAUGHTER) I mean, he’s such an extraordinary
writer. I mean, it really is amazing. So. I was lucky enough to have an experience early
in my life, and I remember standing in the back of the theatre with Neil Simon. And to listen to the way he was listening
to every single expression that audience made. Yeah, yeah. And there was one line he couldn’t get. He couldn’t figure out the word that everybody
would understand, and he just finally had to give up on it. You know, you’d see the audience go, “Ha-ha-ha-ha. (INDICATES TURNING THEIR HEADS TO EACH OTHER)
What’d he say?” (LAUGHTER) It was amazing. I mean, he really is like an amazing radar. And when you think about it, since the early
sixties, writing plays and listening to audiences, from that time to our present time, it’s
extraordinary, his career. Yes, and we do have that. And then, he used to talk about pacing, you
know, back in the back of the house. He doesn’t do that any more, he still sits. But I pace. So, you know, between me pacing and him sitting,
we’re both listening. That’s great. Now, Jerry, THE FULL MONTY did have a fairly
classic out-of-town, although it was a long way out of town. How did that all come about? There was a plan! There was a plan, there was a plan. I got involved with THE FULL MONTY, I guess,
a little over a year ago, maybe a year and three months ago. Got a call from Jack O’Brien, he said, “I’d
like you to choreograph the show.” And I said, “I would love to choreograph
the show, and if you wouldn’t have asked me, I would have been heartbroken!” since
I teach everyone in town how to strip once a year for BROADWAY BARES. (LAUGHTER) So the plan was, we all met in San Diego. Terrence McNally, Jack O’Brien, David Yasbeck,
myself and our two producers, Lindsay Law and Tom Hall. And we spent a week sort of talking about
the show and how we might adapt it for the stage. It was always Terrence’s plan not to put
it in Sheffield and to put it in Buffalo, upstate New York. And you know, where would songs go, all that. So we spent a good time together. Then we went away, and Terrence had already
written a first draft and David had worked on a few songs, I think four. And we came back to New York in the fall,
in September, and we did a two-week reading of what was written in both music and script. And after that two-week reading, I spent two
weeks in a dance studio with some dancers, working on some ideas, and Zane Mark (PH),
the dance arranger. And then we got together for another two-week
reading in the spring. Then we went out to San Diego. We did the show in San Diego, which was, you
know, heaven-sent, to be able to work on a new Broadway show in that sort of atmosphere. And the plan was always to do the show there,
open it, continue to work on it, make changes. Although when we opened the show, it was pretty
much everybody was amazed and, you know, the audiences were – like, they were just unbelievably
in our corner and rooting for us. And so, we didn’t stop working, even with
all of that. We continued to work, rewrite, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh. And then we came to New York, which was always
the plan, a year and a couple of months later, and continued to work. And now we’re open, and hopefully, we’ll
be around for a while. (KNOCKS ON THE COFFEE TABLE FOR LUCK) I think so. (LAUGHTER) A silly question. Why Buffalo? Why not Birmingham or Boston? Why Buffalo? I don’t know, you’d have to ask Terrence
that question. Okay. I mean, you know, I think working class is
working class, no matter where it is. And that’s sort of what the musical really
talks about is, you know, it reaches – you know, everybody comes to THE FULL MONTY thinking
they’re going to see stripping, “Whoo! We’re going to see stripping!” And then you leave THE FULL MONTY, and you
say, “I listened to a story about guys who, you know, are down-and-out, and they succeed. They somehow succeed. And they’re average Joes, and everybody
gets a chance to root for them, and that’s a different feeling than stripping. (LAUGHTER) I was in London recently, and somebody asked
about, you know, the opening. And there was conjecture as to whether THE
FULL MONTY musical, when it goes to London, will it be Buffalo? Yes, it will be Buffalo. It will stay! (LAUGHTER) I think Sheffield and Buffalo probably
have a lot in common. I also notice that the two producers, and
kind of an extraordinary, risky venture, and I don’t know, I’m curious as to where
in the process – they both basically left their jobs to focus on THE FULL MONTY and
the life of THE FULL MONTY. Lindsay Law, from Searchlight Films, and Tom
Hall, who was the Managing Director of the Old Globe. Well, Jack O’Brien and Lindsay have a long
history. Lindsay used to produce theatre for PBS, for
Channel Thirteen, American Playhouse. And Lindsay’s, you know, a huge fan of the
theatre. And then he started to do these movies. And there’s an article in the Times today
about it. Actually, he felt like – you know, I had
actually gotten the call two years ago from another producer in New York, asking me if
I would be interested in choreographing THE FULL MONTY. They were going to get the rights to the show,
and they wanted me to do it, because they also had seen BROADWAY BARES. And they said, “You’re the perfect person
to choreograph it.” This was two years before I got the call from
Jack and Lindsay and Tom. Did you get the call from an agent or from
the producer? No, from Jack O’Brien. Jack O’Brien called me directly. Manny Azenberg had introduced me to Jack O’Brien,
when I was the associate choreographer to Jerome Robbins on JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY. And he said, “You must work together. The two of you must work together!” Well, that was 1989. So Jack and I tried to do a revival of CARNIVAL,
which never happened. Then we tried to do HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS,
which he’s doing at his theatre and I couldn’t do it, I was doing CHARLIE BROWN at the time. And the third one was a charm. (LAUGHTER) That’s great. It’s interesting that both David and Charles
have plays that played what has now become a more standard, quote, “out-of-town”
engagement, because they were both plays done by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Does underneath City Center on 56th Street
count as “out-of-town”? (LAUGHTER) Some days, it feels like out-of-town! (LAUGHTER) Which is what’s great about it. I mean, it’s a very safe place to put on
a show, because it’s an non-profit theatre, obviously, and they do a great job of making
you feel very comfortable there and keeping you focused on doing the work. And you have a subscriber base, which gives
you a certain amount of kind of safety. You know there are going to be people sitting
in the theatre on the first day of previews, you know, a lot of people. So you know, it feels good. I mean, you know you’re going to get New
York critics coming and New York audiences, which is the flip side of it. So in a way, it kind of combines the two worlds. And did you know at the time that it was going
to transfer? How did that happen? No, we didn’t know at all. I mean, we thought we were in there for the
two and a half months, or whatever it is, that’s the standard MTC run. And about halfway through, we started to get
a few hints that people were interested [in transferring it]. Ultimately, it was Jujamcyn Theatres coming
to us and saying, “We have the Walter Kerr Theatre, which we will offer you for the show,
if you can bring other investors on board.” So that was what kind of got the ball rolling. But no, we had no idea. I mean, certainly, when I wrote the play,
I never dreamed it would go to Broadway. I was really just hoping I could find somebody
to put it on. (LAUGHTER) I didn’t know who it would be. So I felt excited when MTC said they’d do
it, and you know, had no real expectation that it would go anywhere after that. Were they the first to do the show? Or had it been done before? They were the first to do a production. I had a kind of workshop of it done at the
George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, but it was a week. So yeah, this was the premiere production. Well, that’s great. And how did THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST’S
WIFE come about? Manhattan Theatre Club. Well, a couple of years ago, I wrote the book
to a musical called THE GREEN HEART. And Rusty Magee wrote the music and lyrics. And it wasn’t very well received at all,
but I established a good relationship with Lynne Meadow, who’s the Artistic Director
of Manhattan Theatre Club. And the opening night, after the reviews came
out – and we knew, you know, that was kind of curtains for that show! (LAUGHTER) – she said to me that she’d
love to produce my next play, whatever it was. And you know, I had nothing in the trunk. I never have anything in my trunk except – An old, old writer! (LAUGHTER) Old wings and a couple of pairs of shoes,
that’s it. I have that same trunk. Yeah! But I thought that was an amazing gesture
of faith, you know. So I thought, “All right, I’ll write you
a play!” And I had a character – I did a one-man
show a couple of years ago, called FLIPPING MY WIG, and I did kind of a six minute monologue
in that show where I played this very raging, over-articulate Upper West Side housewife,
who finally, since her kids are grown, she can finally express herself creatively. And she does her tribute to Edith Piaf at
a little club in the Village. (LAUGHTER) Anyway, it was kind of the best six minutes
of my career, and I always thought that she’d be a great character to, you know, evolve
into a play, and it was just very hard finding a plot to contain her. (LAUGHTER) You know, a great opportunity,
and yeah! So we did it at MTC, not with the idea that
it would soon turn into a transfer, but when we opened and we got these marvelous reviews,
immediately, there was like, “Mmmm, mmmm, mmm!” Had there been workshops of it prior to that? Or was the script done, and they said sort
of, “Let’s do it! Let’s produce it!” We, you know, did readings every once in a
while. But we wanted Linda Lavin. I kind of wrote it for Linda Lavin, and then
she kind of kept us at bay for about a year, and I just was outrageous. I just pursued this woman. I stalked her! (LAUGHTER) From coast to coast, really. Letters! I found her at Joe Allen’s one night, I
attacked her there. (LAUGHTER) And I heard she was doing a play
in L.A., and you know, I ended up in Los Angeles at the same time and got her there. And finally, she just buckled! (LAUGHTER) To get rid of you attacking her! Yeah. “I’ll do the play, I’ll do it!” Yeah. See, decisions are always made for artistic
reasons. Yeah, yeah. But we did different readings of it, and the
play was in pretty good shape by the time we started rehearsing. I think that’s great. So in a way, it’s sort of a bunch of shows
that acknowledge the old school of sort of, “When it’s ready, it gets done!” It doesn’t get workshopped to death and
stuff like that. Yeah, yeah. Now, I haven’t avoided the choreographers
here, but there was a rumor before that actually perhaps you, George, had given these guys
their Equity card? He gave me my Equity card. I did my first industrial in New York City
with George Faison. That’s right. And I’ll never forget it! (LAUGHTER) You can’t. I mean, George is here as a director, but
it’s fair to say that you are both a director and a choreographer of a lot of fascinating
and interesting things. Right, fascinating and interesting. Well, I produced one of them, that’s why! (LAUGHTER) Right, right! And that was a great forum for new shows as
well. But getting back to not expecting something
to do any kind of transfer, I reluctantly did a 25th Anniversary production of COLORED
GIRLS. Irene Lewis, down at Center Stage asked me
to do COLORED GIRLS, which I didn’t like when I first saw it, because of the male-bashing
(LAUGHTER), you know, that you can take from that. But I wanted to find a way – (GESTURING TO HIS SIDE OF THE STAGE) As all
of us sitting here understand over here! (LAUGHTER) Yes! I was trying to find a way of making it more
accessible to an audience, so I put your mothers in it, your girlfriends, your aunts, your
uncles and so forth. So all of the voices were actually different,
so there weren’t just a bunch of, you know, raving females running to the stage. So we were able to make each one of the poems
stand as little vignettes, so we created a world around each one. And since the women ranged from 20 to 60,
it gives you a different reading. So when your mother gives you advice or when
you see a black woman say, “I was your colored girl,” it resonates in a whole different
other way. So people then began to see the brilliance
of what Ntozake [Shange] was trying to do. Because when I first saw it, I said, “She
can’t be, you know, this young and speak of such things, that required all of this
background and, you know, this time on the planet.” So it was, you know, really great. So we opened, and it was very well received
down there in Baltimore. And then the curator from the Schomberg (PH),
you know, just decided to bring us up for a week, so we did that in March. This is January. March we came to the Schomberg, four weeks,
and that was very well received, and then we get a call to bring it to the American
Place Theatre, by June we were running there. So it’s like amazing, you know, how things
can happen, especially when you can get producers to be moved in such a way. This particular producer, Nicola Trenton (PH),
who is in charge of Bocci (PH) in Baltimore, is just a friend, so I invited him to come
and see it. And he was so devastated by, you know, the
final scene in the piece and how could this all happen? And then, you know, a couple months later,
he asked if we would be willing to go that distance. Wonderful actresses, you know. It’s unfortunate that there are not enough
roles, you know, for black actresses of a certain age, you know, when they can’t find
work and so forth. But we took this piece and we turned it, you
know, completely around. It became very enjoyable for not only the
actresses, and fulfilling for the actresses, but for the audience as well. You know, I wanted to ask you that, because
I heard you say that. It sounds like the director was messin’
around with the script there. And we have writers on the panel! (LAUGHTER) And I was curious to see what – No, we didn’t! Add to it? You know, sometimes, yes, a writer will write
something that fits perfectly in one mouth. And then, there are other things that resonate
and ricochet, because there are many voices and many attitudes, you know, involved in
that one speech. And they can be divided. They’re kind of schizoid, right? (LAUGHS) Did you have freedom to mess around? Oh, yes. Because I asked Ntozake, I said, “Okay,
after all this badgering and back and forth and so forth, who’s to blame?” And she said, “Both of them. Men and women.” And that changed it all for me. So I could look at the piece. So in the opening poem, where the Lady in
Brown, which is an earth tone, you know? The Lady in Brown, which is actually the oldest
one, she says, “Somebody, anybody, open up your arms and let a black girl in.” So that way, I could make the ritual, I could
go to the playground, I could go to the tenements, I could go down the streets, I could go to
smart, like, cafes and so forth. Like the three women were all after the same
man and so forth. You know, it was just open. I could go to the bayou for Setchetine (PH)
and so forth. So the writer responded to your ideas? Terrence McNally was very much the same way
on THE FULL MONTY, with Jack O’Brien and myself, because we were trying to take a script
that was first made popular on film and transfer it to the stage. And as a choreographer, there are a lot of
scenes, one in particular that I could mention, the “Hot Stuff” scene from the movie,
that I said to my, you know, incredible talented pals, I said, “Guys, we ain’t gonna be
able to do this on stage. First of all, the audience is going to expect
it, and there’s no way we can top the movie. So we have to find that beat in the script,
because they’ll be expecting it, but we have to find it our own way.” And one day, we were in rehearsal, and we
were doing the funeral scene, and I go over to Dean, the drummer, and I say, “Play,
brrrrrrrrrr-boom! Dun-dun-dun, brrrrrrrrrrr-boom!” Then I go over to John Conley, and say, “John,
on this, go, (DOES A BUMP AND GRIND) brrrrrrrrr-boom!” And so, they’re in the funeral, watching
the priest speak, and suddenly, down the line, you see them all go brrrrrrrrr-boom! like
they’re practicing their strip. So we found the beat in another way and delivered
it. But one of the toughest things we had, that
Jennifer Beals scene, which you could do in the movie – you can’t do that on stage! What are you going to do, drop a big projector
and show Jennifer Beals dancing? No, thanks! Not in the theatre, you want something live. So we had to find another way to do that,
and that translated to Michael Jordan’s ball, which ended the first act, which was
originally written in the second act. You know, so it’s just finding a way to
make the script work. And when the collaboration works, the best
idea wins, right? Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Well, the idea that’s most appropriate I
think – Yeah, yeah. — is what, I guess, for lack of a better
term, wins. You all make it sound so easy, as you find
your way, to find another way of presenting something. How does it come to you? Where did you come to know these things? What’s your background? Where did you learn how (DOES A LITTLE SHOULDER
SHAKE) “boom-booms” go? Well, I think dancing allows you, you know,
to create in an empty space, just like a writer. I mean, the loneliest profession is probably
being a writer, because you take on all of the emotions and all of the characters, and
you’re trying to make them make sense. Like you were trying to find a play for your
character. And it’s like, you go into a studio, there’s
nothing but the four walls, and you have to create a life. And trying to make it happen, a beginning,
middle and end. Did you study? Is there any place that you studied this,
or is it just the experience of being in the theatre? Well, it’s all of your experiences. Yes. It’s like all of the women that I wanted
to contain in COLORED GIRLS are women that I knew. And you know, not all of them were black women. So it’s like all of the women and all of
their shared experiences is what it brings to you. And then you try to find things that bind
them together, and it’s their mutual understanding, (LAUGHS) trying to cope and deal with men. Well, also, I do think, though, I think what
you’re saying, I imagine each one of us has come to the theatre in our own sort of
path. You know, there’s never one way, one sort
of trajectory to get into the theatre, you know? And so, like for me, it was kind of an odd
thing. You know, I always wanted to perform. I didn’t really want to be a writer, particularly,
I just wanted to be on stage and I had to find some way to do it, because the message
I was getting back was that I was a little too offbeat or weird, you know? (LAUGHTER) So I just, you know, “I gotta
be on stage somehow!” So I started writing my own material and I
became a writer kind of out of necessity and just kind of, hopefully, grew into a good
writer. But I started doing, right out of college,
a one-man show, because I couldn’t afford to have actors, you know. (LAUGHTER) So I decided, “I have at least
myself!” So I just wrote all this material. And I was very industrious, I booked myself
all over the country. I would just show up in Indianapolis (LAUGHTER)
and just, you know, find a list of all the non-profit theatres and you know, just show
up and audition in the office. And then, if they liked me, they’d say,
“Come back in six months,” and I’d show up again. And you know, all I needed was just me and
a chair, you know? It was just getting the right chairs! Right! (LAUGHS) It was always a cheap act, you know, they
could book between plays. I would show up and say, “All I need is
an armchair!” But you’d get there and there’d be a spring
going up here (GESTURES TO THE MIDDLE OF THE SEAT). You know, “Just one good chair!” Yeah, so I learned. In a way, really, it was kind of like being
in vaudeville in a certain sense. For six years, I did all these solo pieces
and learned so much about exposition and characterization. Since I was working on a bare stage, how to
establish where I was, what the time of the play was, you know, in an effortless way. So I learned a lot, and kind of that was my
education. And if writing is a lonely profession and
you were the actor, too, that must have been doubly lonely! (LAUGHTER) It was very lonely! Oh, God, you know, showing up in Santa Cruz
on a rainy Tuesday is grim. Where did you come from? You know, for me, the interesting thing is,
I grew up in Texas, in Houston, Texas. And when I was in sixth and seventh grade,
I came across a speech class, a very good little class that had “duet acting.” So I thought that would be a lot of fun to
do, and my friends told me it would be a lot of fun to do, and so I did. And I had to compete. And so, the first thing that I ever actually
performed in was a scene from THE ODD COUPLE by Neil Simon. And I played Oscar, and very successfully. We actually went to competitions and won some
awards. And then, from that, I became an actor, and
then I moved on into directing through graduate school at UCLA and in Europe. And then, from there, I was an assistant director. I worked, in fact, with Jack O’Brien, who
directed THE FULL MONTY, for many years, and many other directors. And then, out of the blue, I got a call about
directing a Neil Simon play. And it’s an amazing journey that I’ve
had, that I’m able to work with this writer whose work actually initially turned me on
to what it meant to be funny, to what it meant to be inventive in the theatre. And that relationship between the writer and
the director is a very complicated relationship, that has many different facets to it. With Neil, a lot of times, by saying nothing
to him, you say a lot. He would call and send me a rewrite of a scene,
he’d fax it from Los Angeles. And I would read it, and I’d realize it
wasn’t yet finished. And so, I would call and say, “Hello, Neil,”
and there would be a pause, and then he’d say, “Okay, I’ll go back to work on it.” (LAUGHTER) You know? I wouldn’t even say anything. If it were only that easy! And then, he’d send it back later on, the
next day or later that day, another change, and I would read it. And I would immediately call, and I’d say,
(MORE EAGERLY) “Hello, Neil?” And he knew. “Yeah, it’s great, isn’t it?” “Yeah, it’s great. I think it really works.” (LAUGHTER) And for me, you have to understand,
I mean, I did his work, you know, my first time, as what? A twelve year old. I’m doing his play. And now, I’m having this conversation with
him about his work. And I think writers and directors, it’s
a great relationship. It’s a complicated one. But you notice that so many come from acting
to directing or writing. Is there anything – And dance. I mean, dancers become choreographers and
then become directors. You always start – not always, but a lot
of the times, the choreographer and the director first performed, on some level. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And you must have performed,
you started performing, because it’s the easiest way to get involved in the theatre,
whether you’re in eighth grade and you’re performing in the high school show, the school
show or whatever it is, that’s how you start. That’s how you get, you know, get bit! How important is that, when you come into
either directing or choreography? It was amazingly important. Like, George is talking about when you get
to this level, what you then present on stage is a part of all the experiences you’ve
had in your life. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) From the very first one. I mean, that’s how each of us is here and
how each of us is different from each other, because we come from different backgrounds,
we’ve had different training. I was very blessed in the theatre, because
when I came to New York, the first time I was ever in New York, I was on spring break
from college, I went with a girlfriend to go audition for BRIGADOON, the Broadway revival,
1980. How far did you come from? Webster College, in St. Louis, Missouri. And I was on spring break, and she didn’t
get the job and I got it. Agnes De Mille picked me for the show, first
audition ever. I came back to New York, did the show, and
I never stopped dancing. Now, I had been choreographing already, but
what I was doing was I was dancing with Agnes De Mille, I was dancing with Michael Bennett,
I was dancing with Jerome Robbins, I was dancing with George Faison (GEORGE AVIAN), Ron Field. The list goes on. I was dancing with all of the greatest. And Bob Avian (PH). And I was assisting Michael Bennett and Jerome
Robbins. So somebody who wants to choreograph, to be
dancing for them and watching the way they’re working, and then to be asked to assist them
and work with them and learn how to construct a number, how to work on a number. And not just from a choreographer’s point
of view, but from a director’s point of view, because those gentlemen didn’t just
choreograph. I think that’s really the key, is the relationship
between the director or choreographer and the performer. Would you explain that? You have to know exactly what an actor goes
through. You have to know what their process is. You have to know how they approach the script,
and you have to facilitate that. And if you’ve done it, if you’ve performed
eight times a week – Then you understand. you know! (LAUGHS) You know what’s going on. You know a little bit more about what it takes
to get through it. Yeah, yeah. Is there ever a moment – do you think some
people move from acting to directing, for example, because they perceive that they have
limitations as an actor? Certainly. Yeah. I started off doing acting, just on an amateur
level, in college, and I was performing in a student troupe that wrote sort of Second
City style sketches. And I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t
a very good actor, but you know, I was a much better writer than I was as an actor, and
if I wanted to get laughs in the sketches, I’d better write myself some stuff! (LAUGHTER) Because I wasn’t funny enough
to put it across, the way some of the other people, who had kind of a natural acting gift,
could. So I think, I mean, obviously, you were a
successful dancer before you became a choreographer. But at least for me, it was a kind of question
of overcoming a limitation in one area and trying to really [do another]. But you were also part of a specific training
program for playwrights at Juilliard. Right. Explain that. Well, after I moved to New York, I spent a
couple of years working different, strange jobs. And I eventually got into this Juilliard program,
which was just starting out. And unlike a lot of sort of graduate programs,
where I think you’re meant to “learn” playwriting, somehow it was just a residency
where you could be at the Juilliard School, write plays under the supervision of the playwrights
who were running the program, Chris Durang and Marsha Norman. Incredible people! (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Teachers! Fantastic teachers. So you got the benefit of kind of their wisdom
and experience, but mostly you could write plays and have them done by these terrific
Juilliard actors. And I mean, learning how to write for actors
is one of the hardest things, I think, for a playwright to do. Because it’s really difficult to be at a
place where you have enough freedom to learn what the process [is] that the actors are
going through, what kind of questions the actors ask about the script, and incorporate
it into your script without kind of worrying about what the reaction will be. So that’s one of the great things about
a school environment. And in your play, PROOF, I mean, Mary-Louise
Parker’s performance and Ben Shenkman’s performance, I mean, it’s like a wedding
between your writing and your ideas and the casting that’s sublime, I think. I mean, just the way they handle your text
is amazing. All four of them, I think, just amazing. It’s an amazing group. Yeah, it’s true. And when you were writing it, did you have
them in mind in the beginning? Like you said you had Linda Lavin always in
mind. Yeah. No, I didn’t have anyone in mind, really. I mean, I was sort of worried, because I didn’t
know who could play this lead role, this kind of big, complicated part for a young actor. I didn’t know who could take it on. The theatre actually proposed Mary-Louise,
and I thought that was a great idea. And we had a reading at Manhattan Theatre
Club, a cold reading. She came in, I had never met her, we didn’t
talk at all, there was no director there. She came in – I guess she had read the script
through once – and just sitting there, with her at a table, she was the part in a way
that was really stunning to me. I mean, she went for it and was brave enough
to be as crazy as the character needed to be and as hard as the character needed to
be. And I thought, to make that choice in just
a reading setting, with people sitting around casually with their, you know, coffee cups
in their hands, was really pretty amazing. So it turns to the question, after that reading,
did you begin to write it for her? And did the character change a lot after that? Did you begin to shape it more for her? The script didn’t really change substantially,
after we went into production. But one thing that I did, I think, gain from
having her in the role was, the character originally had more kind of jokes, more one-liners
or wisecracks, in earlier drafts. And Mary-Louise, I think, let me know that
she would be willing to lose some of those, in exchange for, you know, a deeper intensity
in the part. And I was kind of amazed by that. I mean, very few actors are willing to give
up laughs in a show. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And you know, there
were moments where we agreed, “You know, maybe this is becoming a little too Catskills. Or maybe we can lose the laugh here in exchange
for something else.” And she embraced that kind of choice in a
way that I think is pretty unusual. And the director was observing this, supporting
it, encouraging? Yeah, facilitating, I would say. I mean, Dan Sullivan, the director, is extremely
good at kind of hanging back and letting things happen. Making choices, pulling out what’s best
and pinpointing good ideas. And I was interested that John said that he
had moments with Neil Simon where he didn’t say anything, because that is really valuable. I mean, at one point, when PROOF was in rehearsal,
I went away for about a week and a half, because they were blocking it, and there’s not a
lot that the playwright can really contribute at that point, and also, it’s just really
boring to watch it. (LAUGHTER) You start getting miserable, right. So I kind of stayed away, and I was thinking
nervously, like wondering, “This is like my first big show, what’s going on?”,
you know. And I finally came back into rehearsal after
a week and a half, and I was really anxious to kind of sit down with Dan and say, you
know, “How did everything go? What’s going on? How is it?” And he looked at me and he said, “It’s
good.” (LAUGHTER) And that was it. And I knew it was good, and he was being very
straightforward, and if there had been anything that I needed to worry about then, he would
have told me. So that’s great. Yeah, yeah. We had an interesting rehearsal process. You know, we knew it was a comedy, and we
had these very skilled comic performers, Tony Roberts and Linda Lavin and Michelle Lee. And Lynne Meadow, our director, kind of did
an interesting thing, because there’s actually a rather rich emotional life to the play. She actually rehearsed the moments as if they
were doing HEDDA GABLER. We knew they’d be funny, you know? Right. And we’d heard at the readings that we’d
done that it was going to be a funny play and we got a big reaction from the little
audiences that would just listen to it. And it was fascinating, particularly watching
Linda kind of build this foundation of very rich emotion underneath the play. And of course, you know, by the third week,
I was beginning to wonder, “When is she going to be funny?” (LAUGHTER) Yeah. But you just kind of had to, like, you know,
[wait]. It was sort of fascinating, I had never seen
anybody quite work this way, where all the blocking that they did was strictly out of
behavioral things. Linda won’t – No pratfalls? Well, she just won’t, you know, cross the
stage. She has to cross the stage ‘cause she’s
picking up a glass to refill it, you know? And so, the play really had this very strong
emotional foundation. And then, at just a certain point, all of
a sudden, I don’t know, like a little animal that suddenly changes colors in the spring
or something, you know? All of a sudden, the laughs started coming
and then it was hysterically funny, and it was really a magical process. In San Diego, the night before the first preview
of THE FULL MONTY, we had been rehearsing the show for four and a half weeks in a room
with no one to laugh or respond to anything. And you know, you’re working on something,
Terrence’s book is hilarious. I’ve never heard people laugh so loud and
enjoy themselves so much in the theatre. And David Yasbeck’s lyrics, equally, are
hilarious. So you have no idea what the audience is going
to do. It’s first preview, and we’re at dinner,
and Jack O’Brien turns to me, and I had choreographed this little strip routine. The show starts out, you’re in the club,
it’s a Chippendale’s kind of setting, the girls are there, they’re “Whoo!”,
girls’ night out, and a stripper walks onto the stage and starts doin’ his job. And Jack says, before dinner, “We may have
to cut the strip. We may have to cut the strip, I don’t know,
maybe it’s too long, I’m not sure.” And I said, “Well, Jack, you know, I am
all for telling the story. Jerome Robbins always taught me, whatever
tells the story is the way to go, cut your dance number, whatever.” So they get to the first preview, (LAUGHS)
and the audience is there, and we had sixty stenos in the first four rows of the theatre. (LAUGHTER) And the actor, Dennis Jones, comes
out, Annie Golden introduces him and he walks out, voom! Walks down the stage and he goes like this
(GESTURES) and he rips his pants off, and the house goes up in screams and hollers like
I’ve never heard. People screaming for this guy at the top of
the show, stripping! And Jack said, “Well, it worked!” (LAUGHTER) You know, you never know. You don’t know how they’re going to react. You know, you think, you hope, you pray, but
you really don’t know until they get in front of people. I wanted to refer back to the story about
THE ALLERGIST’S WIFE and Linda Lavin, because I have something a little different, but I
think similar in a way. Henry Winkler, who’s in the play, THE DINNER
PARTY, with this extraordinary cast, John Ritter and this great group. And Henry – because we didn’t know what
the play, because Neil had written a kind of extraordinary farcical play, but also a
play that deals with very serious issues about divorce and how human beings relate to each
other in the divorce situation. So when we first approached it, Henry in particular
approached it with a zest and a vigor and a kind of farcical take on the part. And during the course of the run in Los Angeles,
and then we had this extraordinary chance to do it again in D.C., we began to slowly
pull things away, and in a very interesting way, do it the opposite, building a character
from sort of the outside in. And I can remember, specifically in Washington
D.C., because we had pulled his performance way back – and what I mean by that is just
trusting the text, trusting his own inner instincts, and not having to put anything
“funny” on it – and I remember, literally, in the dressing room, before the press came
to see it in Washington D.C., he had developed this walk which was quite funny but unnecessary,
this sort of quite comical hunched walk. And I remember him, in the dressing room right
before he went on, I said, “Okay, Henry, walk for me. Walk for me!” And he’d start walking, he said, “How’s
this?” I said, “It’s too much. Just relax. Relax your shoulders, relax your back. Okay, that’s it. That’s it.” “Are you sure?” “That’s it. Okay.” And he literally, just from the dressing room,
walked out, stood in place and then went on. And it’s that kind of sort of pulling back
and restraining of the performance that enabled us to find the play, which was very different,
I think, and yet extraordinary, for someone who hadn’t been on a stage since 1973. Henry, you know, did an extraordinary thing. He’s so flexible. It’s wonderful, it’s great. Yeah. David, I wanted to ask you, we have a lot
of talk about shows that are up and running. You’re in the vulnerable position of being
in pre-production for TOM SAWYER. Yes. How’s that going? Well, it’s wonderful, but it’s a little
intimidating, because they’re talking about experiences that they’ve had or are having,
and I am only anticipating it, so it’s a little difficult. But I feel very, very good about it. I think it’s a wonderful piece. I just think it’s extraordinary. Is it a fairly straightforward telling of
it, or is there an angle? It is [straightforward]. Well, I guess the only angle is to try and
tell it well, you know? (LAUGHTER) With respect to Jerome Robbins, tell the story
well. Yeah, try and tell it well. I think the book is wonderful. Ken Ludwig has written a wonderful book. The music is extraordinary, it’s by a gentleman
by the name of Don Schlitz, who is very well known for all of the award-winning songs he’s
written, among them the best-known being “The Gambler,” that Kenny Rogers sang. And the music is so accessible and it’s
just so wonderful, and it provides an opportunity – (HITS HIS MIKE) Oooh! Pardon me! – it provides an opportunity
for me as a choreographer to have a wonderful launching pad to begin. So my head is full of visions of loveliness
(LAUGHS), but you know! Well, to talk about telling the story, you
did a version of MARTIN GUERRE, did you not? Yes. A story that has had lots of trouble trying
to find a way to tell it on stage, I think it’s fair to say. Yes, I did it at the Chicago Goodman Theatre. David Petrarca directed it. It was a musical and you choreographed it? Yes, it was a musical. Yes, I did choreograph it. That was the only musical where I only had
a very small part in it. In terms of an actual dance, there was only
one dance and it was only about a minute and a half long. And it was sort of a dance of Martin’s frustration
at having to wed someone he wasn’t exactly excited about wedding. So you put a title in your bio, and I have
to ask a question, and it’s a one-and-a-half-minutes! I apologize. Yes, it’s one and a half minutes. But I feel very good about it. And I learned a wonderful thing from David
Petrarca. I learned that my vision isn’t necessarily
always the one that’s going to work. And there was a wonderful stepping stone. Stressful, very stressful. You don’t know quite when you’re beginning
how something’s going to turn out. And I came into the production, (GEORGE LAUGHS)
I was so excited! Because I thought, “I’m going to be, you
know, yeah! I’m going to be jazz and dancing and all
of this stuff!” (LAUGHTER) And he said, “Well, let me see
what you’ve got,” and I showed him the dance. It was finished and I was so proud of it and
my assistants and I were sitting there. (LAUGHS) And we showed it, I get up and do
it for him – (LAUGHS) Oh, it’s so odd! Because I’ve worked with David Petrarca
as well! I did DINAH WAS with him and I did a minute
and a half! (LAUGHTER) I did the job, because it was just
so easy. So it was just like, fine. So a lot of the time, it is just servicing,
you know? He said, “Yes, go home”? I want to end the story of MARTIN GUERRE. Oh, well, no. See, it’s interesting that there was only
a minute and a half. A minute and a half! That’s what I’m saying, it’s always
a minute and a half! (LAUGHTER)
OVERTALK (MIMES A PHONE CALL) “I’ve got a minute
and a half for you here!” Right, “I’ve got a minute and a half for
you,” so I went there. It was about Dinah, and it was about the relationship
that she had on the one weekend with this one guy, this whole sexual thing. So we took a song, “You Got What It Takes,”
and we had them go to bed. You know, from the strip to the bed to the
sheet to the next day to his leaving. So it telescoped that entire relationship. So sometimes, that kind of economy really
works then, you know. Well, I want to hear the end of the story. But the vision! Doing a real flat-out dance and all he wants
is [a minute and a half]! Well, you think, you know, I had just become
a choreographer in New York. I’ve been choreographing for a very long
time, but in New York, you know, you don’t really start until you do it in New York. And it was my second show. I had just done a workshop with Pete Gurney
and John Tillinger of a Cole Porter musical, and I had had like thirteen dance numbers. And you know, it was only sort of a workshop,
and it never really sort of went anywhere. But I came off of that with this sense of,
“Whoo-hoo! (LAUGHTER) I’m going to go and I’m going
to do another big musical! And I’m going to be great!” And a lot of the people Jerry’s worked with,
as well as Jerry and George, are some of my mentors. They don’t know it, but – (LAUGHS) Now they do. And so, I kind of come from that sensibility
of, you know, straight on and for the audience and make sure big jazz hands, and all of that
stuff. (LAUGHS) And I love all of that stuff! So when I came to MARTIN GUERRE, I expected
that that’s what I was going to do, is present a really serious sort of jazz hand version
(LAUGHTER) of what I was doing! Jazz! It’s the middle ages, of course! So, it’s the time that David says, “Why
don’t you show me what you’ve got?” And I show it to him, and I’m leaping and
jumping and all of this wonderful stuff that Martin’s frustrated about. And he goes, “Can you do it again?” And I said, “Sure.” And he goes, “Okay, that!” And I said, “What? This?” And here’s your tap dance. (BANGS ON THE FLOOR) And he goes, “Yeah,
that! That’s what it is!” I said, “Well, what about the rest?” and
he said, “Oh, no, no, no.” (LAUGHTER) Because David has danced before. Yes. But here’s a really great thing for a choreographer
is, you know, when you start out as a choreographer and you get a show, you go, “Okay, what
do I gotta do? Okay, I gotta choreograph these four numbers.” And you come in for the first day, and you
do your four numbers, and you think, “I’m done.” And one of the great things that I learned
with FULL MONTY was, I took the six guys and I let them tell me how to choreograph it. I used their acting talents to choreograph
their bad stripping. Mmmm, absolutely. Because I can’t choreograph bad stripping,
I have to choreograph it on somebody’s who’s going to do it poorly. And I always wanted them to look pedestrian. So for me to go in, with, you know – I mean,
I went in with some stuff, the basketball number was done. But the moments when they had to be guys,
like practicing their belt and failing, I had to use their acting ability, just like
you’re doing a scene. And that’s part of what you learn as a choreographer
as you work. Right. And fortunately, I just recently saw THE FULL
MONTY, and I’ve known Jerry for a while, and like George, Jerry almost gave me my first
job (LAUGHS) once upon a time as well. But after seeing THE FULL MONTY, he solidified
an idea I had about THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER. And I was very terrified of it in the beginning,
but related to the David Petrarca-Goodman Theatre experience, I learned to trust my
collaborators, that they might have an idea that actually was, you know, more appropriate
than mine. But when we were discussing TOM SAWYER, I
wanted to make sure that I had dancers, I wanted to make sure they would be, you know,
doing Michael Kidd jumps and all this stuff. And then I thought about, “Well, you know,
the warmth of this piece, the style of it, one of the concepts is – I hate that word,
concepts – but one of the ideas is that we want it to be expansive, not so country-western,
because he’s not a country-western writer, he’s a songwriter, and he’s a wonderful
songwriter. And we wanted it to have a very grand sort
of scope. And so, I immediately thought, Michael Kidd,
SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, Tony Award! (LAUGHTER) Of course, who doesn’t want to
think of a Tony Award with something like that! (LAUGHTER) Jazz hands! Of course, jazz hands, exactly! But you know, in the auditions, I found that
all of the dancers who were able to jump and leap – the children – weren’t necessarily
able to be real and be actors and then sing. Where are you gonna find them? (PH) And after seeing THE FULL MONTY – so, reluctantly,
I conceded to hire not dancers and go, “Okay, if Jerry can do it with THE FULL MONTY, I
can do it with TOM SAWYER.” And I’m still, you know, just doing this,
so I think that it’s important to be appropriate to the piece. Yeah, you have to hire the actor. It’s always more fun to watch an actor dance
than it is to watch a dancer try to act. (LAUGHTER) Also, there’s an interesting thing about
choreography, which fascinates me, being nowhere near that part of the world, but saying “the
jazz hands” and stuff like that. Obviously, we talked about that part of choreography
is telling the story, part of it is being a director for a section, the dance section
of a musical. When do steps come into that? Last, for me. For me, last. In telling the story? Yes, when you’re choreographing and you
have the story, when? In the Michael Jordan’s ball number in THE
FULL MONTY, I never thought of a step. I heard the song and I went into the room
one day, and in about three minutes, I choreographed the first half of the number. It came out of me. Because it was the right number for me to
do, it was the right song, I grew up playing basketball, I played basketball my whole life. I knew what I wanted to do, I knew that through
the movements of basketball, I wanted the audience to think for the first time, “These
guys are gonna be able to strip.” And it just kind of – the first half of
it just, like, went “Plehh!” And then, the last half was just shaping it. I think trusting the words. Yeah! The words set you up, and I think if you believe
them enough, if you put yourself in that position, that oftentimes, the words will help you choreograph
that way. And if you just follow through, as an actor
would, in expanding the idea, you’re then there. Because sometimes you don’t have words,
because many times a dance happens without anything but music. And so, what you’re doing is basically imagining
the throughline of the actors. So you have to create your own idea of what
would happen from the moment you begin to work with them and take their storyline through
to the point where you hand it back off to the director. But do you think, sometimes, you hear a song
and you think, “Leaps!” Oh, sure, sure. I mean, yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s not the same sort of bag of
tricks. No, personally, for me, I can never choreograph
the same number twice, because no two pieces of music are identical. And I never, ever, ever see a piece the same
way. And sometimes, it takes me, like Jerry said,
no time at all, and sometimes I’m still working on it, you know, right up to opening
and I’m terrified. Absolutely, there are some times when that
really happens. It’s just the nature of it. The enormity of the moment that you’re trying
to capture, you know, will take you three or four stages to actually get to that point. And sometimes, it’s things that you don’t
have any control over, like costumes, sometimes. (LAUGHTER) You know, a costumer’s idea of
what the piece should be is counter to what you’re trying to convey. And you know, sometimes you take a scissors
to costumes. (LAUGHTER) You go … ! (HE GESTURES, GEORGE LAUGHS) Yeah! But the final thing is the audience. Right. When the audience is screaming, everybody
backs off! (LAUGHTER) It’s the same thing in a straight play at
times, too, though, where, you know, you go through this process and you rewrite a whole
scene, and then you try it out in front of the audience and it’s just awful and you’ve
really wrecked it up. But then when you go back to the old scene,
you might have just found one line from the rotten scene, and so it was worth the process. Yes, absolutely. A painful one, but it was worth it. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Yes, painful. Yes, very painful! You have all those people involved. And sometimes, you can turn a whole piece
around. You know, because if you’re going to do
a piece like THE WIZ and stuff, “We’re going to create a classic!” (LAUGHTER) Right? No! They’re always creating a classic! (PH) Right, absolutely. And then, you know, like you have to take
away half of the stuff. I mean, they created trains. And more material than you could ever really
work with. And then, all of a sudden, by flipping it
over your arm (PH) and adding a pole or something like that, you create even a more classic
image of something, so it’s like, it oftentime works. I just want to add, briefly, talking about
this, because we had talked about, you know, how plays come into being and the journeys
they make. And since we had a chance to work on THE DINNER
PARTY for a third time when we brought it here to New York, we went back into the rehearsal
hall and there were some rewrites and some changes that we did. And after two weeks of work, Neil came from
Los Angeles to see a runthrough, which frankly did not go that well! And I and the actors had sort of developed
some new staging and some things that we thought we were improving on. And he very, you know, candidly, and in a
way, a remarkable thing, and I think this happens in any craft – but he related a
story of when he was a boy and he used to love balsa wood airplanes and fly them. And he said sometimes he would sand them to
make them fly better, and sometimes he would keep sanding and keep sanding, and then they
wouldn’t fly at all. And that is also another thing about the process,
and sort of what you’re saying, is that sometimes the work can get, like you say,
you have to write this whole new scene and throw things out, it’s making that balsa
wood plane fly. And then sometimes the rough edges help it! (LAUGHS) Knowing you have to take that sandpaper and
putting it aside. Yeah. What’s the pecking order? Choreographer, director, playwright? Who oversees the other? What’s the difference between the choreographer
and the director? It depends on who’s the oldest. (LAUGHTER) And whose vision it is, and who’s guiding
that particular stage of the piece. Every production’s different. I mean, you know, I can only speak mostly
for musicals, ‘cause that’s what I’ve had my experience on, but it’s very collaborative. It’s very collaborative. Don’t forget, there’s another category
– Can you hold it there for a sec? I think it’s time for us to take a break? Yes, take a break! Hold that thought, we’ll come back! (APPLAUSE)
MALE VOICE This is CUNY-TV, the City University of New
York. (APPLAUSE) Welcome back to the American Theatre
Wing’s seminar on “Working in the Theatre.” Before returning to our panelists, I would
like to emphasize to you that these seminars and the Tony Awards for excellence in the
theatre are only a part of the activities of the American Theatre Wing. We may be best known for these activities,
but the Wing is so much more. As a not-for-profit charity that serves both
theatre and the community with its year-round programs, the Wing works to develop new audiences
for the theatre and bring theatre to those who would otherwise not be exposed to its
magic. Our meaningful programs for students include
“Introduction to Broadway,” which in its eight year history has enabled more than 80,000
New York City high school students to attend a Broadway show, many for the first time. The Wing also introduces young people to theatre
and to other worlds, by bringing professionals into schools, for workshops, as a part of
our “Theatre in School” program. Additionally, the Wing’s hospital program,
dating back to World War Two, when we created the legendary Stage Door Canteens, continues
to entertain patients in hospitals, nursing homes, AIDS centers, child care and hospice
facilities in the New York area. With volunteers of talent from Broadway, Off-Broadway
and the cabaret world, the Wing continues to bring live entertainment to those who are
not able to attend theatre. And our grants and scholarship program provides
a central support where it is so needed. We take pride in the work we do, remain so
grateful to our members and everyone who makes the work of the American Theatre Wing possible. Our work strengthens the ties between theatre
and the community, and we are proud to be a part of this great effort. And so, now I would like to return to our
seminar, and I think we’re going to start with questions from the audience. Would you like to start now? ADRIAN MARTINEZ
Hi. My name is Adrian Martinez (PH), and my question
is for the panel. What would you say are the most impressive
things an actor can do at auditions? (LAUGHTER) Be good! I think they can come in the same outfit that
they wore the very first time, because that makes it easy to remember them. It’s true! That also kind of marks the performance, and
you know, put it with the clothes and the face. Some people I’ve known have changed outfits,
changed their personality, so that instead of that red blouse making you feel a certain
way, you wear a green one and then you come in feeling another way. Wear the same clothes! (LAUGHTER) I think another thing that an actor can do
when they audition is be aware of the room they’re walking into. You have to come in, you have a very short
amount of time to make a great impression. You have to come in and be sensitive to what’s
going on in the room. Actors should think of the time they’re
auditioning. If it’s ten in the morning, you know, we’re
ready to go. If it’s six o’clock, we’ve been here
all day long and you should come in and get to the point. Do a good audition, be honest, be open, don’t
try to out-do, you know. And also, be prepared for your audition. Know what you’re coming in to audition for. Make sure you have a picture and resume stapled
together. And know, if you’re auditioning for, you
know, I don’t know, LES MIZ, you’re going to sing something like in that vein. You’re not going to sing, you know, RED,
HOT AND COLE. Know the show you’re auditioning for. Certainly, on a musical level. I’m auditioning a play right now. And I was in the room with a pretty extraordinary
audition. And this is a play by Herb Gardner called
A THOUSAND CLOWNS. So it always depends on what the piece is. And what I mean by extraordinary is, here
was an actress who connected to the text, who gave the text something that surprised
us, and didn’t mean to surprise us. It just genuinely surprised and brought something
into the room that, as a director, you say, “Oh my God, that is something that I can
work with. That is fresh. There are some new thoughts about the play. There are some new thoughts about the character
that I had never imagined.” So you want somebody, I think, that you feel
like can bring to the table a lot. Yeah, a collaborator. The other thing is people, we want you to
be good. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) We want you to come in
and wow us, you know? We don’t want you to come in and fall flat
on your face, we want you to wow us! I like friendly conversation in it, and you
know, to try to make it easy for the actor. I try to, you know, be supportive and really
listen and help. Would you like to ask the next question? BREELAN BROOKS
Hi. My name’s Breelan Brooks (PH). And I’m curious – this is for the whole
panel – where there is a difference between the author and the director, what’s the
best way to resolve that? A good fight! (LAUGHTER) Yeah, I’ve been so lucky, you know? Each director I’ve worked with has been
such a close collaboration that I’ve never really had a conflict, where just we were
at loggerheads. In fact, my problem is I’m too quick to
sort of, you know, “Well, that’s a fascinating idea!” and give up my own. So gosh, I can’t answer that. David? But I think that’s the best way to be, to
be open to change. Yeah. I think the idea can live and die within a
second or so, you know, and you’re on to the next idea. I’m always helped by something, yeah. And you find so many people, you know, entrenched
in ideas that don’t work, and you spend weeks, you know, sitting there, waiting, nursing
that bad idea, when it takes only a few minutes just to try or just to be open to another
thought. Communication. It is, it is, really. I think that initial conversation is really
important. I mean, I’ve been really lucky, too. I’ve never had any major conflicts with
a director, but I think it’s because when you’re first starting out, you make sure
that you both have essentially the same idea of what you want for the play. That he doesn’t think he’s directing a
farce when you’ve written, you know, something that’s more serious. So there’s kind of like basic questions
of tone, what kind of production should this be, should it be an essentially realistic
production or something more abstract? If you’re on the same page with those things,
I think, then any disagreements you have further down the line are going to be relatively minor
and things that you can work through. I think disagreements are also very useful,
because they end up defining what it is you’re trying to do. Exactly. So you can have a disagreement about casting,
say, in the audition process. And from that disagreement on this particular
actor, you learn what the play can be. So you know, the disagreement is part of the
dialogue, ultimately. Well, I think if two parties are not in agreement,
then you haven’t quite reached what it is supposed to be or what you’re trying to
achieve, because I think the objective is to have everybody who is collaborating on
what the piece is. Yes, absolutely. And that, the ship is usually driven by the
director. Certainly, on THE FULL MONTY, with his unbelievable
brilliance and his ability to really be the arbiter, Jack O’Brien was magnificent – Yes, absolutely. — at taking Terrence and David and myself
and allowing us at all times to say whatever was on our mind and be very much involved
in the process of making the project the best that it could possibly be. JOHN FRANCIS FOX
My name is John Francis Fox (PH). My question is for Charles Busch. Since ALLERGIST is quite a departure from
your previous work, do you intend to return to your old style, or continue in a more conventional
form? That’s a very good question. Everybody, including my own sister, keeps
asking me that. (LAUGHTER) And you know, the thing is, yeah,
my dream really would be to have a career doing everything. THE ALLERGIST’S WIFE is a more naturalistic
kind of play for me, where I’m just the writer. So to kind of grow as a writer, I had to kind
of write a play that I wasn’t in, because as a performer, I have a very specific thing
that I do. But I’d love to write myself just a fabulous
new drag role! (LAUGHTER) And I have blueprints for half
a dozen. So I haven’t packed away my heels so quick,
you know? (LAUGHTER)
MELANIE SEINFELD My name is Melanie Seinfeld (PH). The question is for all of you. Audience reactions can change from performance
to performance, and I was wondering if you let their reaction influence you during previews,
to make any changes? Oh, yes! Yes, particularly in a comedy. You know, it was fascinating. If they’re not laughing! Well, it was fascinating. I did a certain amount of rewriting between
our MTC run and the Broadway production. And there was a scene where I sort of fleshed
it out a bit more. And so surprising, that this one joke – no,
it wasn’t a joke – just this one little section that got a huge laugh, just died. And nothing is more scarier than a laugh that
dies in a Broadway house! That’s just hard. You hear the wind going through (LAUGHTER)
and so it left (PH). So we cut it! You know, it was one of the best laughs at
MTC. But somehow, the new stuff that went before
it must have killed it. And we tried it every which way, too. Lynne Meadow, the director, she had the actors
far apart, she had them closer together. She had them this way or this way, and just
some strange alchemy blew it. Yeah. With dance, it’s a little bit different,
I think. You use the audience to gauge whether you’re
hitting it, I think. For me, I don’t know – I may not necessarily
know if a number is working until the end of the piece, which is when you get the response
from the audience. It’s kind of like a punchline. At the end of the dance number, if they’re
going like that (CLAPS UNENTHUSIASTICALLY), well, then you’re not finished! With THE FULL MONTY, I used Jack O’Brien’s
dog. (LAUGHTER) Punky would come to rehearsals,
and if she barked at the end of a number, I knew I had done a good job! (LAUGHTER) That’s the honest to God truth! Also, just wanted to add one little quick
thing. You know, plays during previews, they tend
to breathe. And what I mean by that is that the actors’
performances tend to breathe. And so, sometimes one night you may not get
the responses that you want. That doesn’t mean that they have to laugh. That also means that the audience may be moved
or whatever. And rather than having to approach the text
or staging, it may just be a conversation backstage about the show and why some essences
were lost or whatever. And so, it’s a very fine thing. Previews are so helpful in that way. In THE FULL MONTY, also, it was very, very
important that during the preview period, we didn’t let the audience tell us how to
play the show. And Jack was very good with the actors about
keeping it real and not getting too slick. “Remember, you’re steelworkers. You’re unemployed and you live in Buffalo. You don’t know how to dance, you don’t
know how to sing.” And he was so clear about not letting the
audience’s reaction or laughs get the actors to become more schticky. And I thought that was a brilliant [thing]. Like you’re talking about, you have to be
secure in what you’re playing and not let it take you either way. DWAYNE CYRUS
My name is Dwayne Cyrus (PH), and my question is for all the panelists. You’ve just been speaking about whether
the work is right, once it’s presented to the audience. But my question is, how and when do you know
it’s right, before you even present it? I don’t know. I think that when you agree to do a play or
you agree to do a musical, there should be something about it, some truth about the piece
that is very close to you. Something that will, through all those turbulent
times, through all the conversations, compromises, and all the things that you have to do, that
will guide you through that, above everything. The truth, in a sense, will set you free,
but you have to really be out for that truth, you know? Even if it means, you know, curtailing some
of the things that you are doing, or compromising your vision in lieu of somebody else’s. So it’s like you have to believe in it,
beyond everything. Because, in your most dire moment, when you
think failure may be around the corner, that’s one thing you’re going to have to rely on,
your faith and your belief in the piece to start with. As a writer, I think there’s kind of an
inner clock that you have when you know that you’ve kind of done as good as you can to
this point, before you go into production. And you’ve done so much rewriting that that’s
just sort of it. And then once you start rehearsal, then all
of a sudden you get your, you know, sizzle back and you start rewriting again. But there’s this kind of inner clock, and
sometimes it comes sooner than others. I mean, certain pieces I’ve written, I don’t
know, I’ve just tinkered with it a little bit and I thought it was in perfectly good
shape. And other things, I’ve just tortured to
death, forever. And you’re still waiting! (LAUGHS) Still, yeah! And it’s almost a hunch. You know, with comedy, it’s just your hunch. It’s not even necessarily a line that you
think is particularly funny, and you’ve kind of worked it out, you know, just sort
of methodically, it’s got all the right elements, it should get ‘em laughing. And it’s just a hunch. And it’s so thrilling, every time, the very
first time you hear a play read aloud, at the very first reading. And you hear, “Oh yeah, that one!” (MARKS A SCORE WITH HIS FINGER) You know,
“They got that one! They got that laugh.” (CRINGES) “Ooh, ooh, ooh, they didn’t
get that one. That was a bad one.” But it really is thrilling, even in a tiny
room. But that first reading, really, that’s the
most suspenseful moment in the entire process for me, more than going in before an audience
for the first time. Because essentially, I never really know until
you hear the first reading, “Is this play basically interesting to people or is it basically
not interesting to people?” I mean, I know it was interesting enough for
me to finish it. But I don’t know if whatever the central
kind of line of the play is or what you’re telling the audience is worth sitting around,
waiting to find out. You don’t know if they’re going to grab
onto that. So always, at least for me, it’s kind of
a leap of faith that you’ve got something, you figure, “It’s kept me occupied for
six months. We’ll find out what other people think of
it.” You know, too, as a director, scripts come
to you and it’s that initial relationship that you have with a text. When Neil Simon sent me THE DINNER PARTY and
I read it, and I recognized that there was a lot of wonderful old Neil Simon style to
it, and then there was this new piece, new thinking on his writing, and especially a
play about an emotional reconciliation between divorced couples. And I remember reading it very quickly and
finishing it and thinking, “Wow, this is going to be interesting. This is a play to work on. This is a play to do.” And I think that’s what happens to directors
when they get pieces. I think some scripts you may have a different
reaction toward. But it is that first reading, on a private
level, and then the next would be the cast. Certainly. And feeling a passion for it, what you’re
going to say. It’s like that thing that we were talking
about earlier, though. You kind of have this history, you have this
bag of history that you take to each text you read. And you’re always thinking, “Oh, I want
to find something different for myself,” or “I want to find something new for myself,”
or “I want to find something that can stretch my own artistic ability.” Right. It speaks about where you are, personally,
I think. At least for me. Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s what happens, when you
first read a play. So hopefully, that’s the reaction that your
audience will have, you know, ultimately, that initial reaction you had when you thought,
“Oh, let’s do the musical version of the movie THE FULL MONTY. Wow, boom! And I can understand how that would work.” Or a new play. And I know for myself, that I must enjoy it
myself. I mean, the initial [reaction], for me it’s
not words, of course. I mean, it’s the music. And when I listen to the music, if the music
doesn’t move me, I can’t move it, you know? (GENERAL AGREEMENT) It’s just that simple. And if it does move me, then I just have to
remember how it moves me. And you can’t forget it, really, if you
continue to listen, and you just simply follow it and you let it guide you. I always say that I don’t choreograph music,
music choreographs me. And I really believe that that’s the way
I know that I’m on the right track, by allowing myself to be guided, and then you have that
throughline, which you don’t have to be really responsible for, if you listen. Okay, I want to ask one question, go around
and have everybody answer it, since you’re all people who have made the theatre your
profession. So the question is, what was the first moment
and what was the first move that you made when you decided that was going to be your
profession? For me, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. In college, I wrote a play, and kind of on
a whim, I submitted it to this fellowship program that Universal Studios used to run. So I went out to Universal after I finished
school and I wrote two screenplays. And I still had no idea what I was doing. I had sort of stumbled into it, I felt like. And the fellowship ended, and I was sort of
sitting there in L.A. with these two screenplays that no one wanted to make into movies, and
I just really didn’t know what to do. And I had a pretty clear feeling that if I
was going to go broke, I would rather go broke trying to be a playwright in New York than
trying to be a screenwriter or something else in L.A. (LAUGHTER) And that was the moment
of clarity kind of thing. I mean, I’ve had plenty of doubts since
then, but that was the thing that kind of sent me in the direction of New York, thinking,
“I’m going to spend, you know, a couple of years, a decade, whatever, trying to do
this.” I guess my experience would have been, you
know, making the decision to leave an organization, you know, that had sheltered me. I had time to grow and so forth. So when I decided to leave the Ailey company
and kind of strike out on my own, I kind of asked myself, what was I going to dance about? You know, because Alvin had, in a sense, covered
the black experience, you know, very extensively. But then, you know, I didn’t realize until
that point that I had a life, too, you know? And that’s what I was deciding at that particular
time. So we had had the experience of going to Europe
the first time, seeing Africa the next time. And all of those ideas exploded into telling
me or showing me a way, another way, of making dances that would reveal another side of me,
completely separate from his vision and so forth. And then deciding whether that was good enough
to survive on. So I made a pact with myself, that [if] I
didn’t make it or if I didn’t make enough money to do my next concert – because I
did the costumes, I rented the hall, I hired the dancers and so forth. So I equated it with the money aspect and
whether I would be able to continue to tell my story, or continue to be independent, you
know, of all of the outside forces that are around. So that’s how I kind of decided that I would
go on. And it wasn’t a huge profit or anything,
but it just gave me enough to allow me to at least think about what were the other dances
that I wanted to do and what were the other subjects that I would like to attack, in my
quest to have people understand who I was and who, you know, [would] get better insight
into my experience. All right. David? Could you just clarify the question for me? (LAUGHTER) The moment when you decided this was going
to be your profession. And what did you do? How did you go about it? I think it was probably in high school. I had never even heard of a musical. I was in my freshman year, and they were auditioning
for GUYS AND DOLLS, which was all, you know, hieroglyphics to me. I had no idea what any of it was. And I just remember thinking, “Oh, that
sounds interesting.” And I sort of ran to the audition and it was
over. And there was a woman there, the choreographer,
her name is Jane Mueller (PH). (WAVES TO THE CAMERA) Hi, Jane! (LAUGHS) And I just remember asking her if
she needed any boys? Which, little did I know back then, was like
a commodity. Like gold! Especially in northeast Los Angeles, you know? And she just said, “Sure,” and she just
sort of put me on the stage. And I remember, as soon as I got on the stage,
I looked out at all these empty seats in our auditorium at Lincoln High School, and I went,
“Oh, my God, all those seats are looking at me!” And I went, “Oh, I like this!” (LAUGHTER) And I just kind of remember that I wanted
to stay right there in that spot. I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to do
it for a career. I just knew that I wanted to be there, the
center of all of that attention. And then I just sort of contributed – I
wasn’t asked to contribute! But I sort of contributed by saying, “Hey,
what if, you know, we go shake-shake-shake and roll?” You know, I never made a decision, I guess,
is what I’m trying to say. Exactly, exactly. It just sort of happened before I knew it. I auditioned for JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY,
and there was a man named Jerry Mitchell who was going, “You’re doing fine!” (LAUGHS) And I was terrified. And I wasn’t getting hired in regional theatre
in California. I was like, “Wait a minute, there’s something
really weird! JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY is saying, ‘We
like you,’ and you know – “ California is saying no? “ – Civic Light Opera is saying, ‘No.’” So I’m like, “Well, maybe I should go
to New York.” So I came to New York, and that’s just sort
of how it happened. That’s great. Charles? I guess I was in college. I went to Northwestern, and I wasn’t cast
at all in any of the plays, and I just didn’t know if there was any place for me in the
theatre, because I thought Northwestern was kind of a microcosm of show biz. And I wrote a real wacky little play about
a pair of Siamese twin showgirls, named Hester and Esther (LAUGHTER), and I put it on with
my friend Ed and I in drag. And I wrote it and I acted in it and I directed
it and did the whole thing. And the day of the show, in the daily Northwestern
newspaper was a big picture of Ed and I in drag and it said, “Degeneracy reigns at
Northwestern!” And I knew I was on the right track! (LAUGHTER) And it was a great success! They’re still talking about it at Northwestern. I did kind of think, after it was over, I
actually became ill. I was so – oh! The whole experience was just so overwhelming! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) That being sort
of the dramatic type, I checked myself into the infirmary for a sleep cure. (LAUGHTER) For a week, you know? (DRAPES HIMSELF BACKWARDS OVER THE CHAIR,
GESTURES) A sleep mask, you know? And when it was over, I had my catharsis,
I thought, “I think this is who I am! And everything that’s weird about me is
what’s special about me.” That’s great. Jerry? I was five years old. I went to tap class with my next door neighbor,
Annie Firestone (PH). And I sat in the seats and I watched her take
tap and baton, and she was dancing to “The Baby Elephant Walk.” I was not in the class, I was just watching. I went home, she put on the recorder, and
she was on the back porch and she was trying to remember the routine. And I looked at her. I said, “You’re not doing that right.” (LAUGHTER) And I got up and I grabbed the
baton from her and I showed her the routine. (LAUGHTER) And to this day, she reminds me,
that day I went home and I sat my mom down. I said, “Mom, I’m going to be in theatre. Don’t get in my way.” (LAUGHTER) I was five. I was five! That was it. Very good. John? I have a family story. I had already gone to graduate school in directing
at UCLA. I had a Fulbright to study theatre in Europe. I had assisted at the Old Globe Theatre for
a year and a half. And I had no money whatsoever. I went home to Texas to visit. And I had no prospects, no plays coming my
way, maybe another assisting job. And I was heading back, actually at this time,
to New York. And my father was driving me to the airport. My father is an aerospace engineer for NASA,
has been since 1965. He builds the space stations and things like
that, really does not understand what the theatre is. Thirty seconds! And he said to me, “I work with guys your
age who have houses, who have cars, who have divorces (LAUGHTER), who have high-paying
jobs. And I see them at their desks, and they’re
very unhappy.” And he says, “You have one thing. You may not have any money. You may not have a house. You may not have anything. But you have one thing that they don’t have. You’re doing what you love. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) So don’t stop.” And that’s it. I’m so sorry to have to interrupt you. That’s a good place to stop! Yes. I’d like to hear more of that, and I’m
sure the whole audience would, too, but we have to say goodbye and say that this is the
American Theatre Wing seminar on “Working in the Theatre,” and it’s on the choreographer,
the director and the playwright. And it’s a wonderful combination. You’re all so articulate. I wish that we could just go on and on with
this, because I’ve learned a great deal. So thank you so much for being here, and thanks
to everybody for being here. (APPLAUSE)

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