Playwright, Director and Choreographer (Working In The Theatre #310)

(APPLAUSE) Welcome to the American Theatre
Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars, coming to you from the Graduate Center of
the City University of New York. Now in their 31st year, these seminars give
you the opportunity to learn from the professionals, as they share their experiences in working
in the theatre. Today’s seminar is with a panel of playwrights,
directors and choreographers. These are the artists who provide the greatest
part of the theatre, and it’s their work that we will learn about, while we discover
how the magic of theatre is created. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the
Board of the American Theatre Wing. I would now like to introduce our moderator
for this seminar, Lloyd Richards, renowned director, Tony Award winner, and distinguished
member of our Board of Directors. Lloyd, would you please start your part of
the show? Lloyd Richards. (APPLAUSE)
Thank you, Isabelle. It’s a pleasure to be here with you, and
with all of you, to talk about the thing that I guess is closest to, certainly the people
who sit on this panel, and probably in some way or other to you, or hopefully will be. Now, what do these people who are up here
do, and how did they get here? So I’m going to let you find out from their
mouths just who they are and what they expect of themselves and what they are looking at
one kind of cautiously for now. (LAUGHTER) All right, so why don’t we start
out with David Petrarca. David? Hi. What can I tell you? Well, who are you, David? Who am I? I am David Petrarca. I am a director. I’ve been working at the Goodman Theatre
as a resident director for the last fourteen years, as well as a freelance director here
in New York. Pretty much grew up in the not-for-profit
theatre. Have been directing recently A YEAR WITH FROG
AND TOAD, which is on Broadway, a new musical, and KIMBERLY AKIMBO, a play by David Lindsay-Abaire,
that was at Manhattan Theatre Club this year, among many other projects. Thank you. I think we’re all a bit more acquainted
with a very talented director in the theatre. Beside me is Richard Greenberg, looking very
much as he looks! (RICHARD DOES A TAKE; LAUGHTER) He’s reputed
for looks. And he has an important job in the theatre. What do you do, Richard? Well, I’m a playwright. Oh! Yes. And I’ve been a playwright, more or less,
since I attended Yale Drama School, during your regime, Lloyd. (LAUGHTER) I use that in the nicest sense
of the word! I mean, you ran the place, after all. And I’ve written a lot of plays over the
past I-don’t-know-how-many years. And right now, I’ve got one called TAKE
ME OUT, which is, I think, why I’m here. And that’s me. That’s pretty good. That’s good enough! Thank you. And you’ve come a ways since Yale. (LAUGHTER)
Since Yale. I hope so. Yes, it’s been a long time. Yes. We’ve both come a ways, since we were there. I hope so. On my left is someone that you may not have
met, but you will today, and you will in the future. And when you hear the name, you will now have
a face to associate with it. We have Suheir Hammad with us, and she will
tell us what she does. I know what she does, but it’s going to
be a surprise to most of you. Suheir? I am a poet, and I love being a poet. I’m currently on Broadway in RUSSELL SIMMONS
PRESENTS DEF POETRY JAM. It’s nine poets and a DJ, and it’s all
poetry on Broadway. And for all of us, it’s our first time on
a Broadway stage, and it’s been an amazing experience. After Broadway, I will continue to be a poet,
but this experience has been magical for me. Thank you. And sitting on her left is a person – I’m
sure you’ve heard the name, and now I’m going to give you a face to go with it – Bob
Balaban. (APPLAUSE) Who knows enough to bring his claque! (LAUGHTER) Bob knows that! Bob has been around. We’ll see you after the show! I do a number of different things. I’m an actor and a director and a producer,
occasionally, and I won’t go on. I’m a little diverse, and I sort of refer
to myself as “It’s the best thing you can have if you have ADD, is about twenty
different things you have to do every day.” Because you can give the illusion of being
organized and knowing what everything is, and yet, I’m just jumping about. Why I suppose I’m especially glad to be
here today is I have a play running in New York that’s been on for about ten months,
called THE EXONERATED, which are true stories in their own words of six men and women who
are on death row, who are innocent, who were exonerated. It’s just been a terrific experience. And I’ve directed in New York a couple of
other times, in the theatre, and some movies and some other things. But I’m a producer of this, and I’m getting
a really interesting insight into a lot of things about theatre that as an actor, I had
no idea were going on, and even as a director, I wasn’t exactly sure of. And it’s been interesting. We’re about to go to London with the play
and we have a national tour forming. And this is something that was so tiny and
such a labor of love, we had no idea we would ever get going, and it’s going beautifully. Thank you. Or well, at least. (LAUGHTER)
All right, okay, both of those! Well and beautifully. Luis Perez, who needs no introduction (LUIS
LAUGHS), to his family. (LAUGHTER) But to most of us, he does. If he were to stand up, you would know immediately
what he does. He moves beautifully, and he encourages others
to do that, also. And why and how, he might tell you, but I
want you to meet Luis Perez. (APPLAUSE)
Thank you. I’m Luis Perez, and I’m a choreographer
on Broadway. I’m also a fight director on Broadway, and
I’ve done quite a bit of directing Off-Broadway and other places. And I was a performer for thirteen years. I’ve done thirteen Broadway shows as a performer,
and before that I was a principal at the Joffrey Ballet. So I don’t have ADD, but I have kind of
(LAUGHS) bounced around quite a bit within the performing world. So I’m very, very glad to be here. Thank you. Well, that’s it. That’s the panel, and they want to share
their experiences and the knowledge that they have acquired, in that process of getting
from wherever they were to this point on this stage at this time. And we’re going to try and get a little
bit of that out of them. But why don’t I start at the beginning,
with the word? How does the word begin? So Richard is pulling away from me, ‘cause
he knows I’m going to him next. A poet is on your left. The poet should start about the play? Well, that’s really the core of the word,
isn’t it? Is it? I don’t know. I think so. Well, I’m going to accept your suggestion,
‘cause I know that behind it there is something else that’s called terror.(LAUGHTER) So I’m going to turn away from
the poet [SIC; HE MEANS PLAYWRIGHT], and turn to Suheir. I ain’t scared! (LAUGHTER)
You ain’t scared? You ain’t scared of nothin’! Nnnn-mmm. So how do you start the word? What provokes the word? I think it lives inside of you, until you
write it down. I think our experience with the show has been
that all of these poems that we’re performing came from personal experiences. They were reactions to the things that were
going on around us. Often, they were what was missing in what
the world was telling us about ourselves. And as a poet, you carry this around with
you until, I guess, it comes out. Not fully formed, but it comes out in a shape
that you can then edit and manipulate, either for the page or for the stage. But it’s all personal experience, that if
you do not say, will make you sick. It’ll stay inside of you. Do you mind if I ask Suheir a question? No, I don’t mind if you do. Before this experience, had you often gotten
up in front of people and read your poetry out loud? I had learned to. I had learned to, because people all around
the country had my books. And so, when you go to sign books, they want
you to read the poems. So I had to learn how to dramatize what I
had written solely for the page, in the way that the audience responded. And people who love your poetry, or love your
plays and essays, they want to hear your voice. There’s something magical about the producer,
and the voice that you bring to it, and all of your family and your history and what you
believe comes out of your mouth. And it means a lot to people to hear you say
what you write. That’s what I found. So I learned to do it, but definitely not
at the level that I do every night, eight times a week! (LAUGHTER) It’s real different! (LAUGHS)
So the word-maker becomes a performer? Mmm-hmm. Tries. Tries? Attempts, yeah. Without acting lessons? No, we had an assistant director who worked
with us. We have an amazing stage manager. We have an amazing director. So there was a lot of work. I think I needed a lot of work. You needed a lot of work to transform from
the maker of the word to the sayer of the word? Mmm-hmm. And when you hear your words spoken by other
people, does that often give you another insight into what you’ve said? I love it. You love it? Yeah. Why? Because then they claim it. They claim their own experience. I can write a poem and it means one thing
to me. And when someone claims it and performs it,
I learn from the poem, and I become the student, when it’s a well-crafted poem. And that’s what you try to do, is create
poems that last after you. Okay. Richard –
What do you think about that, Richard? (LAUGHTER)
Is that how you feel, too, when you hear your words? Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I don’t, really. And I suppose when you’re writing, you know,
dialogue, when you’re writing things between people, I have such a specific sense of how
it goes. And it’s protecting (PH), it’s wrong of
me. And occasionally, I can allow something that
completely surprises me in. Actually, often I can do that. And that’s probably, finally, more rewarding
than when I hear just what I’d heard, do you know? Because you’re right, you just want to see
the experience extended, beyond the page. And it’s quite wonderful when it’s beautifully
embodied. Now, in the play I have now, I have both the
nicest and the most talented cast I’ve ever had. And so, there’s a sort of surprise and joy
to it every night. Also, for me, there’s a kind of wonderful
surrender, since when I’m done writing – you know, I sit in rehearsal, and more and more
as I go along, I pretend to take part in the process. Because really, after so many years of rehearsing,
I’m very interested in results, and results are a terrible thing to bring into a room. So I’m constantly suppressing my real reactions,
which are “Please get it right!” (LAUGHTER) And “I know what it is – why
don’t you?” Do you know what I mean? (LAUGHS) I hear that! It seems self-evident. So what’s great is, you realize it isn’t
self-evident. You realize you’ve supplied a text that’s
open to various interpretations, and even more mis-interpretations. And part of the deal with being a playwright
is entering into that bargain, and accommodating to it, and of course, it changes every night. I had had some weird, errant desire in youth
to be a performer, and then one of the things that I think clinched playwriting for me is
I realized that when things are going badly I can leave, do you know? (LUIS LAUGHS) And I like that sort of freedom
and that separation. (LAUGHTER) No, it’s a nice feeling. You know, you’re stuck on stage with a hostile
crowd, and you can’t let go. And I remember actually having moments at
the Yale Cabaret where I thought playwriting was the right choice for me, because I was
on stage, you know? So it’s a mixed bag, you know. You go back, and then you start seeing people
loving stuff that that you don’t – you know, the great George S. Kaufman line, “We’re
going to come and take the improvements out”? Right. Do you know, you see all the improvements
and you see the embellishments. Right. And you just want simplicity. But it’s basically an astonishing thing
to give it over. And it’s an amazingly gratifying thing when
you see exactly what you’d had in mind but had been unable to express. I mean, because you can’t express the physical. I mean, I can’t. I have a very vague, a very abstract sense. It feels specific, but really, if I were to
put it into words, what I’m seeing, it would be “blue,” do you know what I mean? “I think it should be blue.” And then, you know, when you have a director
who’s keyed in and designers who are keyed in, suddenly you see what you meant by “blue,”
but it’s broken down into thousands of minor gestures. So yeah, it is a different thing, isn’t
it, when someone else is doing your words from when you’re doing it. You have complete control, but you don’t
have the gift of stepping back and being both the audience and the creator. And that can be a really glorious thing. Would you define for me the word, as you used
it, “mis-interpretation”? Umm, yeah. Well, do you know, there’s the rhythm you
hear in your head. I write for my own ear. I mean, I know exactly as I’m writing, how
it’s meant to sound. One of the things I’ve noticed, all the
novelists don’t do that. You can hear, do you know? Even really good novelists sometimes write
very, very bad dialogue. It’s because they’re not hearing it. And I had a novelist when I was a student
telling me in surprise – he read something of mine and said, “I think you hear when
you’re writing when you have people speaking,” and it occurred to me that he didn’t, and
that was startling. So I hear it and I know how it goes. And there’s that sense of, you know, the
extra step that isn’t there? Sometimes when you’re hearing people who
are off-rhythm, off your rhythm. There are two kinds of things that happen,
though. One is additive, one enlarges your own knowledge
of what you said, your own knowledge of what you’ve written. Because if you’re writing freely, you are
writing, in some sense, subconsciously, or from the subconscious, so there’s more to
it than you’ve controlled. And if you’ve controlled everything, chances
are it’s dead. So there’s the wonderful thing when they
bring out what you didn’t know was there. And then there’s just the bad thing when
they have no idea what they’re saying, do you know? And that sometimes happens, do you know? And I also have this very kind of advocacy
kind of ear, where I can sort of feel, “No, no, no. The emphasis is supposed to be on that word,
not on that word. And it makes no sense, so why are you constantly
– ” You know, I’m churlish that way. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL)
But sometimes there are these people who – you know, you do, and you realize there are some
moments that either haven’t been directed correctly or there’s the kind of amazing
thing that happens with mis-casting, where people are playing roles to which they’re
non-aligned, or opposite to, do you know? There are people whose every impulse is against
the grain of the role he’s playing, and why you cast him, you don’t –
Is that a good thing? (SIGHS) You know, in the rare instances when
someone triumphs over it, it can be a fascinating thing. But it can be a really (LAUGHS) frustrating
thing, otherwise. I mean, I think it’s great, because the
whole idea is to play what’s not you. But then there’s being (WAVES HIS HANDS)
– do you know? Now, does “mis-interpretation” mean “interpretation
not as I envisioned it or heard it” or actually “mis-interpretation”? I mean it as mis-interpretation, because I
have been delighted by what I didn’t know was there. I mean, it’s a kind of wonderful thing,
and you have to give up your ego and your authority, do you know? Your authorial feeling –
Yes. When you realize that, “Oh, there’s a
world that I was not cognizant of in my writing!” And it’s thrilling. But there’s just – there are people – do
you know, nnnnh, you know, I don’t want to say. But –
Do tell! There is bad acting. Well, there’s just bad. There’s bad acting. Yes, there is. There is bad acting. There’s bad directing. And there’s bad playwriting. (LAUGHTER)
I’ve heard of that. (LAUGHTER)
Yes. Most of us have experienced it. No, we’re not mentioning any names, and
I don’t in any way feel implicated (PH). No. But yeah, there is bad acting. There are just people who miss the point,
and you start thinking – it’s that amazing thing when you realize that people don’t
share a vocabulary. Because I think we go along in our lives,
and even if we think we’re cosmopolites, we’re really parochial, do you know what
I mean? (LAUGHS) And we somehow think, well, assume
that people are thinking basically what we’re thinking, or the people in our circle are. And then sometimes you get into a rehearsal
process with someone you didn’t know, and you realize the fundamental sentences you’ve
learned are not the fundamental sentences this person has learned. And the fundamental approach is different,
and you weren’t even aware that this way existed. This sort of, “Let’s ignore what anyone
is saying. Let’s not break the scenes down.” Do you know? It’s just startling. Does any of that, at any point, suggest the
possibility of another play to you, from what you’ve heard from what they’ve said? Oh, that’s interesting. That’s a very good question! It hasn’t so far. Real mis-interpretation, I think, doesn’t
suggest anything except, you know, another career path. (LAUGHTER) Do you know? But a sort of angle can be really fascinating. And I don’t know that I’ve had the experience
where, you know, the light bulb went off because of some radically divergent interpretation
of something I’ve written. I haven’t had that yet, although it would
be interesting to have it. Do you stand at the back of the theatre or
do you sit in the theatre, when you are watching your play evolve in, say, previews? As long as there’s an audience, I’m never
among them. That terror that you spoke of so glibly actually
does express itself. Oh, I know it exists! Anyway, it expresses itself – you know,
audiences are terrifying, really. Yes! Aggregates, do you know? Crowds – or actually, until I discovered
baseball, I never knew there was such a thing as a good crowd. But audiences, I can’t be among them, because
I’ll focus too much on them. And do you know, a response only seems uniform
sometimes, but really it’s diverse. Also, do you know, when you sit in the last
row, it’s a really bad thing to sit in the last row, because you’re sitting behind
the person having the worst time, because they have a bad seat. (LAUGHTER) So it always seems to be going
badly, you know? Because you’re there with the people who
are bored and checking their watches and sort of, you know, leaning into their boyfriends,
and so you always think you have a flop. So I try to separate myself and just sort
of see the play and then get a sense of what’s communicating and what isn’t. But no, I can’t be in the midst. You never learn anything from an audience,
from sitting in there, amongst them? Uh – I can’t remember the last time I
did it. (LAUGHTER) So I guess I don’t. I mean, I guess I don’t. Well, it’s the thing that –
Do you do that? I insist that a playwright does, at times
in the process. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about what he’s saying? About the sitting in the audience? Yeah, I want to know. I actually think, to a large extent, it is
the director’s responsibility, to some extent to be the liaison between the audience’s
experience and the play that Richard has written or anyone has written. I mean, I always find that that’s part of
my responsibility is to sit there and experience the horrendous scene that is not working and
try to kind of dissect it and to remove myself from the terror, to breathe through that terror
and kind of find another way of seeing it. So the interaction and the reaction of the
audience to the writing is extremely important to me. I mean, that is a very big part of what I
do, is find a way to interpret it – not to be affected by it to the point that I’m
operating and making choices out of panic, but to try to really hear it, to hear what
is going on. Are they bored? Are they not understanding what’s going
on? Is it too slow? How do you get that feeling from them? How do you get that? Oh, my God, for me, the audience tells you
immediately. I mean, I just sense it, being among them. That’s why I think it’s a most important
place for a playwright to be, is right in the audience where you can sense from them
what they’re thinking. In the audience, though, you know, you’re
really just responding to the four people around you. And you’re making up very particular histories. I mean, when you’re just a little bit behind
them, I think when you’re sort of standing and leaning over the rail, you get kind of
the aggregate response, which is much more important than, I think, the four people who
you’re feeling all sorts of paranoia about, (LAUGHTER) do you know what I mean? And are particular in having their individual
response. There is something about an average of response. When you feel a general restlessness –
Right. Chances are, you’re not getting your point
across, do you know what I mean? Right. Less (PH). That’s what any of those people, if you
ask them at the end what was wrong with the play, they will tell you quite specifically. And they will be wrong. Right. They will wrong, in terms of their own response. And what you find when you sit yourself in
the middle, is you find the truth. That’s interesting. You know, I always thought, like with movies
– Yes. You know, when you do movies, they force you
to attend, much of the time, these horrible screenings, with experts who then – they
have people who watch the movie, and then afterwards they fill out cards, and then they
select a focus group and say, “What’s wrong with the ending? And what should this character be doing?” And then, they completely change the movie,
based on what ten people [say], who are completely an anomaly, because they’re willing to talk
right away. That means they’re different from the rest
of the people who are watching it, you know. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And I love the idea that
you can feel things, but you mustn’t ask them questions. Well, then you make a movie-maker out of them,
and they’re not movie-makers, and they are not expert storytellers or playwrights, they
are people responding to provocations from your play or your whatever. And that response, not as they articulate
it, but as they have it, is the most honest thing that you can get. The audience is only one part of a broader
collaboration. Yes. I mean, you can’t give them too much importance,
as well, either. I mean, I think between the designers, between
the actors, between the writer, between the text, between the particular community that
you’re doing the play in, all those things have an effect. I mean, theatre is extremely local. No matter what anyone tells you, it is local. Where you do it is as important as what you’re
doing. And knowing who your community is. I mean, I guess on Broadway it’s a little
different, because you’ve got a vast audience that comes from all over the world to take
part in the experience of sitting in the audience. But you know, I do theatre all over the country,
and I’m always very cognizant of the community that I’m doing that particular play in and
how it will resonate, or not resonate, for that particular audience. So I think it’s a –
What are the differences in audiences across the country, to Broadway? But it depends, I think, on what particular
size theatre you’re in, what the makeup of the community is that you’re in. You know, are you in a very ethnically mixed
neighborhood, where the theatre is? Are you in a predominantly white theatre? I mean, these things are very important to
choices that you make, as an interpretive artist, in a community. I mean, without the community, there’s no
act of theatre, so to me that’s always important. Is your Goodman audience more intellectual,
do you think? I think we have a pretty diverse audience. You know, and again, the audience reflects
the programming. And over the years, our programming has tried
to talk to many different audiences, so therefore, we kind of get a pretty good mix. So no, I wouldn’t say that – I’d say
it’s a pretty broad base there. Being a kind of flagship theatre, it’s got
a broad base of an audience, so. In the many hats that you wear, as a one-man
person, how do you feel about it? Which part, Isabelle? I’m sorry, about different audiences? About the audience, and you do mostly one-man
things. Well, no, different things. I think the audience is – it’s silly to
say – but you know, very important. But as David says, you know, please let’s
be careful, because God forbid you should give them what they think they want, you know? Right. I just think that committee is a very, very
dangerous thing in anything that’s artistic, at least. You know, theatre, movies, poetry, anything. So it’s a balance, I guess. It’s wonderful to notice when people are
bored. I mean, that’s the simplest thing that you
get from an audience. You make a movie, and you actually have no
idea how boring it’s gonna be (LAUGHTER) because everybody who’s sitting there and
thinks it’s the best thing they ever saw. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) But when you break
it into the little pieces that you see every day at the end of the day, nobody ever left
dailies and didn’t think they were the best thing you ever saw, you know? Right. Then you see it in front of an audience in
its entirety, and things that you were falling on the floor over, crying, you’re sitting
there just wishing you could die and disappear. (LAUGHTER) So to me, I mean, the audience
is just a great barometer of what’s flying or what isn’t flying. And it’s why we love theatre, I think, because
the audience and the play changes, every time you do the play. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Which nobody outside of
theatre ever really believes. And I’m in theatre a fair amount, in different
occupations, and I’m constantly amazed. I mean, my wife will come to see something
that I’m involved with and, you know, she’ll say, “Oh, yeah, well that works, that doesn’t
work, and this is like the bit.” And I’ll say, “Well, you didn’t see
it last night.” Right. (GENERAL AGREEMENT)
And I do the same thing. I mean, I’ll go to see something, and I
will not understand why the critics were raving about it, except if you had been there opening
night, at that one, or three nights, when something was happening. And then, there are other plays that seem
to transcend temporality somehow. I mean, I guess it’s because – well, they
don’t really, but those actors in that play, they will experience themselves, as we know,
as having terrible evenings, and yet – I mean, in the evening I’m involved with right
now, in THE EXONERATED, we have ten people in the evening, three of whom are rotating
stars of some kind. So the evening changes, every week or two,
drastically. And I find it very upsetting to see the play
regularly, because I have my favorite people, and I only want to see them doing it! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And yet –
What about the play itself? Does what it have to say to you change that
radically with who’s saying it? In this case, it doesn’t actually. The emphases are different. Some people will find certain parts of the
evening more moving than other parts. Well, our evening is a strange bird, in that
it’s people basically telling stories, and then there is some dramatic interaction amongst
the characters, but it’s kind of different. But because it’s true, and because we announce
at the beginning of the evening that every word that you’ll hear in the evening was
spoken by the character who’s saying it, the audience adjusts in a very different way. And we try to be very – in the way that
I directed it, that was always foremost in my thinking, all the time. Is what we’re going to do, even though you
know we’re actors up here, but I was always terribly concerned that what we were doing
seem real. You know, that at no point would you start
thinking that we were actors up there, so that was very important. And yet, it’s very dramatic, and there are
brilliant actors doing it, who do an amazing, very, very theatrical job. But the sleight of hand was always to make
you effortlessly slip into the minds of the people. I find, in our evening, that the stories are
so compelling to people that evenings where I will go, “Oh, my gosh, that person didn’t
reach that kind of dramatic moment that the person last week did,” I don’t find that
the audience tends to notice that, because they’re listening to the story being told. And if it’s honest and if it’s not – there
are certain things it just doesn’t want to be, too decorated or different things. But I find that our evening holds together
because the story is true, and really complicated and interesting, and people get involved with
our stories. And they sometimes are more interested in
what’s happening on the left side of the stage than the right, but the evening is still
there. I don’t think that’s true of all plays. You know, I’ve seen things that flew one
night, and the next night they were boring or nobody laughed. And then, if you’re on Broadway and a great
hodge-podge of people who’ve read good reviews, I was in a Neil Simon play – I was in PLAZA
SUITE when I was in college, this wonderful – it would be demeaning it to call it a
“laugh machine,” but it was a laugh machine! I mean, it had great characters, wonderful
actors, George C. Scott, Maureen Stapleton. And I got to watch these people night after
night. And even before the reviews came out, when
they knew it was a Neil Simon play, they were so excited to be in the audience that the
curtain comes up, I came out and said, “Everything all right, ma’am?” and then everybody
was laughing. (LAUGHTER) I mean, it was so interesting! And we’ve all been in plays that did smashingly
well in previews and they get disastrous reviews, and suddenly, the things they were laughing
at, they walk in and they’re like, you know, “What is this horrible thing you’re showing
to us?” Right. It’s why we love what we do, because it’s
completely unpredictable. And every night you’re there, sitting there,
something is happening just for you, and you’re influencing it, dramatically? Do you find the same thing happening in your
poetry evening? Yes, absolutely. It’s true. When we tell people all the time, “It’s
a different night, every night,” they find it really hard to believe, because it’s
the same poems in the same order. But it absolutely is different every night. You have a poem that it kind of introduces
you to the audience, and depending on who the audience is and what kind of day they’ve
had, they get it right away, and other times, they don’t care! They just sit there. And then, there’s the climate of New York
at any given time. Depending on where we are in the world on
that day, the audience comes in for relief, they come in for escapism, they come in to
blame, and you, as a performer, deal with it. I think, within our show, because we’ve
written these poems, it’s hard not to take it personally. But we’ve done it long enough now that at
least I don’t take it personally any more. Plus, I go backstage to the stage manager
calling the shots and say, “Did they hate me tonight?” and she’s like, “No, not
really.” (LAUGHTER) And they next night, I’m like,
“They really hated me tonight!” and she’s like, “They’re tough,” and that means
they hated me. (LAUGHTER)
Then you have to go back (LAUGHS) and do another poem again, and that’s why you have to let
it go. You have to let it go before you go back on
stage, because otherwise you’ll be angry at the audience. Or you’ll get too comfortable and say, “Oh,
they loved me the first time.” Then you come back out, you’re doing a completely
different poem, completely different intention with the poem. You can’t rely on whatever got you over
the first time, is what I’ve learned. But yeah, I mean, New York City audiences
– I’m from New York, so the minute we step out on stage, I can read the audience. Like, I can tell where they’re from, what
they ate, where they’re going after the show. (LAUGHTER) It’s true! It’s true. It’s right. So I bring my own assumptions, and you try
to drop them as much as you can. No, it’s just the night after something’s
gone spectacularly well from the beginning, and then the next night, the show hasn’t
really changed that much, you can tell. But it’s going spectacularly badly from
the beginning! And you want to just poll the audience. You want to say, “What did you all do together
before you came here? Because something has – ” It’s odd,
I don’t understand why an aggregate has a personality. Oh, it does. But somehow, an audience takes on a personality. Because we’re all sheep! I know, but how does it start from the beginning? We don’t read, we don’t think. I mean, people are afraid to like have their
own opinion. I know, but why does it change so radically
from one night to the next? But there’s also different energies on the
stage as well. Well, there are, but sometimes I think –
Because you have your own – I mean, there’s really different energies
on the stage. And you’re feeding the audience, and the
audience is feeding you back. Yes, there are some nights, God forbid that,
you know, I mean, I’ll be sitting out and watching LA MANCHA, and it’s dead! But there are differences in a performance. I mean, there is a such a thing as “second
night.” I mean, I’ve been up there, I’ve done
it. And you’re up there, and you don’t know
what’s going on, but you ain’t there. Right. (GENERAL AGREEMENT)
What do you think’s missing, on that second night? I don’t know. I really don’t know, but it’s a phenomenon
that anyone who’s ever gone through a brilliant first night can tell you about, that second
night. I don’t know if it’s the focus. I don’t know if it’s just that little
thing that clicks you over – The adrenaline is wrong. Into a place where you’re so open that you’re
really just giving out, so that it can come back at you. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Because it is about putting
the energy out, to have it come back at you, especially in movement, I think. Well, of course, the first night when it went
beautifully, you didn’t know it was going to go beautifully. You didn’t know it, exactly. No. The second night you were expecting it, which
is very hard to reproduce. Right. Or you’re letting something down, something
within you that was some furnace within you is kind of on a lower setting or something. Well, you’ve started to encode the expectation
of the audience response into your performance. Suddenly, that’s changed, you know. I think that may be part of it. I mean, the expectation of something happening
may be a part of it. But that’s again – I mean, maybe in musicals
it’s different, but getting back to the original thing, I mean, an audience is indispensable
in a musical during previews. Oh, absolutely. I mean, to help structure it, even. Because you can, maybe more with a musical
than a straight play, feel where there is something that is starting to drop and you’re
letting that ball down. You’re letting air out of it. And you can do it through – we have a lot
more tools, I think, that possibly a straight play. You can change choreography, you can change
tempos, you can change lighting, you can change different things that will help buoy that
up, so that you get over that little section, so that you can get into your next section. I mean, obviously a musical is structured
very differently than a play. But that’s where we all feel, or most of
the people that I associate with feel, that the audience is the final collaborator. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) You don’t change it
to their liking, but there’s ways to manipulate it so that you can pass through a section,
if you’re not going to cut the section or rewrite the section, to pass through a section,
to make that section more interesting, to keep it forward moving so that you’re plowing
into the next. How would you –
We had the terror of an audience of, you know, nine hundred children at A YEAR WITH FROG
AND TOAD. And you talk about an audience that keeps
you honest, I mean — (LAUGHTER) They’re the best! I mean, my ten-year-old will tell me exactly
what plot points are missing, ‘cause – The first preview in Minneapolis was the most
terrifying of my life, walking in and screaming audience! And I was like, “Oh my God, how are we going
to do this?” (LAUGHS) “I can’t believe we’re going
to keep their attention for ninety minutes!” And it was amazing to watch them, though. And that joy of watching an audience, every
night – after that first preview, there is no terror. I have utter joy, sitting in that audience
every night, watching children who have never seen a play, have never been exposed to the
theatre in their life, for the first time, to watch them have a reaction that is not
edited, not cynical, completely honest. Whether they love it or they don’t like
that, they’ll just tell you. And they speak up, and they tell you. And there’s moments in the show where (LAUGHS)
Mark Linn-Baker asks a question, and some nights, the kids just answer! They just answer him, and he’s like, “Oh,
my God!” And to watch the actors do that. And then on other performances, like we have
a Saturday night show, there aren’t many kids there, it’s mostly adults. So the actors are continually having to shift
their performance, which is really wonderful for them. I mean, it keeps it very fresh, and it’s
really working without a net, which I think is everybody’s goal to some extent in the
theatre. Absolutely. Is to not have that safety net, to go out
every night, first night and the second night, and to recreate it, in the moment, right then
and there. And I think that’s part of what happens
on the second night, is you’re working without a net on the opening, and the adrenaline is
taking over. You’re not thinking about it, you’re in
it. And then the second night, you’re trying
to recreate what you did the first night as opposed to remove that safety net and be in
the moment again. As a playwright, how quickly can you recreate? You don’t get an audience reaction until
that first night, and whatever that reaction is, you’ve got to address it. How quickly can you write to change it or
not change it? Well, you can do it pretty quickly! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) But again, you know,
I had thought, given the volatility of response, the thing that I most want to know from an
audience, I want to know what the reasonably intelligent people find confusing. Right. Do you know? ‘Cause even if it’s boring, maybe you’ve
written an authentically boring play (LAUGHTER), but at least it’s your authentically boring
play. (LAUGHS) Right! And you’re not turning it into a machine
to make people love you, do you know what I mean? You find out, with any luck you’re intelligent
enough to have some idea of what doesn’t work and where you’ve cheated and what you
don’t like yourself. And there are tragic portions that never get
better. And you know, finally you just stop writing
because the actors make you freeze a script. I mean, I don’t know that I’ve ever stopped
writing, you know, I don’t know if I’ve frozen a script before Sunday when the critics
are starting to come Tuesday. I think that’s when the play is finished. The last play, you know, because TAKE ME OUT
is this baseball play – and here’s another thing about an audience, it’s a baseball
play and we started in London! (LAUGHTER) So I mean, there was a lot we couldn’t
really learn. A lot of program notes! The dramaturging went on for – it was like
WAR AND PEACE. (LAUGHTER) Just trying to get people to sort
of get in touch with it. (PH) I didn’t know why we did it in London. That’s funny. I mean, it went great, but I kept thinking
that people are going to – Your play’s got granite. (PH)
Well, it turned out well. It works there, it’ll work anywhere. Well, in fact, that’s right, that’s right. But there, you had to know that there were
passages where they were being very patient, when clearly they didn’t know what was going
on. But their patience was telling, because it
meant that there was enough pulling them through that they didn’t have to have some sort
of, for them, arcane knowledge to get the play. So that was fine. But I wasn’t going to rip this out, since
the play was chiefly intended for American audiences. Did you find you wrote more for the London
audience, and then removed it when you came here? No, they had more just because it was an earlier
draft. Right. And you know, any play that’s worth anything
is worth cutting. (LAUGHS) Because the more you cut, the more
you get to what’s there, do you know? And all those lovely phrases that mean nothing
come out. But yeah, you’re rewriting pretty steadily. I was working with Joe Mantello, who’s a
really, really wonderful and kind of arduous director to work for, because he never drops
anything, even when he seems to. (DAVID LAUGHS) Even when you’re revisiting
a section time and time again, and you say, “You know the information is necessary,
and I think it’s the best I can do, and I know it’s not the high point, but every
play has to have lulls.” You know, you use all those alibis! (DAVID LAUGHS) And he’ll just say, “Oh,
okay … ” And then a month later, he’ll come back to it, and finally it gets better. It gets better. But we ended up actually cutting, after we
opened at the Public, because we’d had so little development time on this sort of massive
play. That was actually fun. We were cutting through the run, and then
between the Public and Broadway, I think I probably did the most significant rewrites
of the play. And it had to do, once again, Joe is exactly
what you think a director should be and what you think a playwright should be (LAUGHS),
which is all ears, and takes everything in, and then distills it and figures out – you
know, he extracts the essence of it. So he was coming out, and he would say – once,
we were having understudy auditions, and at the end he said, “So do you want to know
what I’ve been hearing?” And he just told me what continued to confuse
people, and what people were not buying. And I don’t read reviews, and I’m sure
some of it came from reviews, too. And from that conversation, the most important
rewrite that really, really fixed the play – I mean, made the play much, much better,
so that it is much better now than it used to be – came from just that distillation
of response, of people’s confusion and people’s, you know, incredulity. You know, so it’s constant. And as I’m preparing to publish it, I’m
still changing things. How do you go about getting a director? Yeah. You know, that’s hard. The weird thing about directing is that I
think nobody – people don’t know what directors do, really? Mmm-hmm. I think people outside the theatre have no
idea. And even in the theatre, you’re sometimes
not so sure what the function is, because in a way, it’s almost a catchall. It’s almost everything. It’s a guidance, it’s interpretive, it’s
creative. It’s sort of everything. And it’s hard. I worked for several years with the same couple
of directors. And they’re wonderful directors, and once
you find a director you like, you tend to stick to him or her, because it’s so hard
to find a good director who you get along with. Joe was somebody, I hadn’t worked with him
before, but I’d really loved his work. I’d seen his production of LOVE, VALOUR,
COMPASSION. I thought it was incredibly, poetically, beautifully
directed, and had wanted to work with him since then. And there was one play that had had a production
somewhere else that I gave to him and he got attached to it, and we never ended up doing
it. So when I wrote this play, I just sent it
to him. He knew nothing about baseball, and it turned
out it didn’t matter. He learned what he had to know. It’s just I knew that what he put on stage
would be a beautiful vision (PH) and we forged a relationship that was based on respect. Do you prefer a director that doesn’t listen
to you or one that does? (LAUGHTER)
Yes, a director who doesn’t listen to you is really my ideal one. (ROLLS HIS EYES; LAUGHTER) No, a director
who doesn’t listen to me – I’ve never had a director who doesn’t listen to me! Well – no, I’ve never had a director who
doesn’t listen. I’ve had directors who are unable to –
You’ve never selected a director who doesn’t listen to you! No, I’ve never, but the great thing, I like
a director – it turns out, I like a director who never stops hectoring me. Yes. (GENERAL AGREEMENT)
I loved [it]. And it was hard. It was exhausting. And there were times I felt like sort of,
I’d come to my limit, “I can’t do this any more.” And we had fights. Not antagonistic fights, but you know, I’m
really good about cutting. I’ve usually been self-motivated, and I
like cutting. But he wanted to take stuff out I didn’t
want to take out. And finally, he was always right. He was always right! He was always right. (LAUGHTER)
We’ve had performers here that have auditioned directors, who say, “Now, tell me what you
think the play is about.” And if it isn’t what they think it is, it’s
a “No.” And so, it’s a privilege to be able to do
that. But also, how many of you would be able to
do that? Do you audition a director, and does he have
the same kind of thinking about your play? You know, finally, I think that’s actually
– it sounds sort of imperious. You know, because only actors who’ve achieved
a certain level are going to be able to get away with that. But it’s sort of a good thing, since it’s
all about a relationship. It’s not really about – you know, highly
talented people don’t always work well together. I don’t always respect an actor or an actress
who, you know, in an “offer only” situation where they’re not going to audition, don’t
they want to know who they’re going to be locked in a room with for six weeks? I mean, you may be a wonderful actor, I may
be a good director, and we may not be simpatico. So I always take that as a bit of a strange
moment of saying, “Why don’t you come talk to me about the play?” When people don’t –
You might not like me! I might not like you. And we’ll be stuck for six weeks together. Of course – are we segueing over to the
audition aspect of things, do you think? Yes. Well, do you want to go there? Well, I don’t know. I could say one or two things, from an actor’s
point of view, but I don’t have to, though. Oh, please do. But sort of bouncing back and forth, being
on both sides, I’m constantly aware of how important auditions are, because even if you
know somebody terribly well, you don’t really know how they’re going to do that part. That’s right. But on the other hand, I’m also aware that
some of the best performances in things that I’ve directed have come from people who
audition terribly. So it’s such a mystical procedure, and yet,
a wildly necessary evil. And I’ve also, as an actor, I have fooled
people at auditions occasionally, by giving just a spectacularly spot-on audition that
I could never, ever possibly do again, you know? Right. When I say that, it’s because, I don’t
know, I didn’t know what I was doing. I happened to be in the mood. The material didn’t really work, but just
like one good night, we’ve all, you know, had plays that worked well once only, sometimes
a really job-getting audition doesn’t happen again, necessarily. And Barbara Barrie is one of my most favorite
actresses and can’t audition. Right. I mean, she never gets a part in anything
if she has to audition, and she knows it, and she tells people that. And people who’ve seen her in the theatre
or in a movie or anything are thrilled to work with her, but she knows that if she has
to audition for something, she will never get the part. I know actors who don’t have careers because
of that. Really brilliant actors, and every now and
then they get a job, and you wonder why they aren’t enormous stars. And it’s because they haven’t somehow
fluked into enormous stardom, and have to audition, and just don’t work. Well, you develop your own rep company, I
think. Mmm-hmm. Anyone who works in the theatre, you end up
over a period of time, as a choreographer, writer, you start to have this vast group
of people that you’ve worked with over the years, and then you think of them again for
something. And you have your own rep company to some
extent. Yeah, you develop it. And then you add people in and sometimes you
remove people out. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) But I think we all
do that. And I think about (TO BOB BALABAN) the films
that we were just talking about that you did, that’s obviously a kind of a rep company
of sorts. Well, I think it’s my favorite situation
in anything, is to work with people that you know that you like, that can challenge you. Yes. Because it’s no fun to work with people
who are saying “Yes” all the time, and many bad things come of that, I think. But the idea that you’re working with somebody
that you trust. I’ve had experiences in rehearsal with playwrights,
who just were dying during the rehearsal period, because they wanted to see the performance
at some point. And I, fortunately, in certain cases, was
able to say, “This isn’t going to happen until Tuesday night. I mean, not necessarily the opening, but I
know how they work. And the thing that’s going to make us love
them, eventually, is the fact that they’re still in rehearsal right now. They’re under no obligation to entertain
us right now.” Right. That’s one of the things that they don’t
do in Playwright Development courses, teach you when to leave rehearsal, and not demand
(PH). Mmm-hmm. I’ve mastered that. (LAUGHTER) Sort of the beginning of the second
week, I’m starting to take days off. Because I know, I think I bring – people
tell me that I suppress it, but I think because I’ve done so many productions, that I bring
a kind of anxious energy to the room. I think I’m waiting, and I think I’m liable
to say a sentence too many, do you know? Well, you know, you get out of that by all
of the actors coming to your study where you work and standing around the typewriter while
you write. (LAUGHTER)
While you write! That would be a help! (PH) No, I’m fine,
I’m fine, I’m good. You can handle that? I can handle that! (LAUGHTER) I’ve actually had that. No, it’s a great story. I’ve actually –
You could handle that? No, unfortunately. Okay! (LAUGHTER)
You don’t want ‘em there? No! I don’t want ‘em there. No. But I have had people – yeah, yeah. Because then it’s not mine, to give them. But I wanted to go back to what you were saying
about dimming your furnace, right? Yeah. Because how do you figure out when you’re
on high, and when you’re, like, dimming it? Because if you’re on high all the time,
you would burn out. I don’t know. I mean, with dance, it’s a great thing that
we have a technique. Right. You know, the more you work on your technique,
the more that you can kind of rely on that, for the nights when your furnace isn’t on
high. So we have a real, defined technique. There’s nothing subjective about it. It is very, you either hit two pirouettes,
or you don’t hit two pirouettes! There is nothing about, “Oh, well, on this
night” – no. You either hit the two pirouettes, or you
don’t hit the two pirouettes. But some nights you feel like you’ve soared? And we work very hard. Some nights you feel like you can hit those
two pirouettes, stay there, breathe, say hello to your mom, eat a sandwich (LAUGHTER), and
then, you know, and that the music has actually slowed down and you’re in total control. I mean, you hit that athletic groove that
takes you further. I know singers who feel the same way, and
I know actors who feel the same way, those nights. It’s just we, I think, are luckier in the
sense that we do have a technique that you can actually feel and grab onto, that’s
very definite. That, you know, we work for years and years
and years to accomplish, so that then you can forget it. So that then you can do Fosse, you can do
Tharp, you can do, you know. I was lucky, I was with the Joffrey, so the
amount of people that I got to work with in dance was hugely eclectic, hugely, from De
Mille to Ashton to, you know, everybody. So it was great, but it all stemmed from the
same kind of a technique, and it all related back to the same kind of a technique. So with that, we’re luckier, in the sense
that we can rely on that technique, for the nights that inspiration ain’t there, the
two years you’re in the run of a show (LAUGHS) and you’ve still got to out there and make
it fresh, you know? I think singers have the same thing. You either hit the note, or you don’t hit
the note. And then, you just trust that with a really
well-structured show, and with opening yourself to whatever you can do and relying on your
technique, there are still going to be those nights that you’re soaring, you’re sailing,
and nothing’s affecting you, and nothing can touch you. Rely on your technique. That’s one of the hardest things for actors
to understand now, that technique that is involved in the process of acting. In discipline. The discipline of it is really the thing that’s
going to stand you in good stead, in all of those tough times. And it’s so much more clear for a dancer,
you know, than for an actor to understand that. But there are actors –
Oh, there are actors who do understand it. I mean, I’m fortunate to be working with
people like [Brian] Stokes Mitchell right now and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, both
of which have impeccable techniques. I mean, eight shows a week, they can arrive
at the same place. Their technique is impeccable! And their discipline is impeccable! They take care of themselves like professional
athletes, and they treat what they do with the care and a love that each show is truly
given for that show. And that’s the beauty of what we do, of
theatre. I mean, that’s the beauty, is each night
is an individual present to that audience, that will never, ever, ever be repeated, ever! It’s gone! And the actor and the performer and the dancer
and the singer and the person that looks at it in that way, you know, that discipline
comes out of that love. And it’s just a circle, you know. Yeah. That’s the one thing –
Lloyd, I think this is a time that you have to say we’re going to take a short break
(LAUGHTER) Yes, I was going to say something else before
that. Oh! You could do that, too. But I’ll say that maybe when we come back. The seventh-inning stretch, is that what it
is? Excellent. There you go. I think it’s referred to as the time that
we’re going to really listen to Isabelle and see what she has to say about the Wing. Before we get back to the American Theatre
Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminar on Playwright, Director and Choreographer,
I would like to remind you that these seminars are only one of the many year-round programs
that the Wing undertakes. You are probably familiar with the American
Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards, given for achievement of excellence in the Broadway theatre. Well, we also have an important grants program,
providing aid to Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatres. We have expanded our scholarships to promising
students to pursue studies in the theatre arts, and we offer a comprehensive guide to
careers in the theatre to those seriously interested in entering the profession. As a long-established charity, dating back
from World War One, and World War Two, and our famous Stage Door Canteen, all of our
programs are designed to reward and promote excellence in the theatre. We just love to introduce young people and
their families to theatre and the magic it unfolds. We take pride in the work we do, remain grateful
to our members and everyone else whose contributions help make possible the dynamic programs of
the American Theatre Wing. Our work is so important to the theatre and
the community and we are proud to be a part of this exciting industry. So now, let’s return to our panel on Playwright,
Director, Choreographer, and our moderator, Lloyd Richards. Thank you very much for being here. And Lloyd, now start. (APPLAUSE)
Thank you, Isabelle. And how can I go wrong? I’ve got such a wonderful panel, people
who I’ve never had a chance to sit around and chat with, now here. It has been arranged at the Theatre Wing that
these very talented theatre artists come and be with me. Now, you can’t ask for more than that! So thank you, Theatre Wing! Thank you, Isabelle. It had occurred to me – well, it may not
have occurred to me, but I was just wondering – I’m a director. I’m sitting here among writers, choreographers,
even other directors and such. I’ve even been a producer. What do you want from me? What, as a playwright and I am a director,
what do you want from me? When am I serving you? When am I not serving you? Richard, you’ve got that look on your face. (LAUGHTER) Let me know, let me know! You know, I want you to – I guess I want
you to give me my play, but when I give it to you, I won’t really know what it is,
do you know what I mean? Before we were talking about how hard it is
to define the task, and I think it’s not because it has too few, but because it has
too many functions. I mean, with a new play, it’s very, very
different, you know? With a new play, I don’t want the first
production to be the revisionist peg (PH), do you know what I mean? In a way, I think I want a director to be
more humble than a director needs to be with an already established play. I guess I want to be served in that way, do
you know? I want to see what the play is before it’s
turned into something that it isn’t. I think later on, it’s fine to turn it into
something that it isn’t, or something else it can be. So you know, I want to see this story that’s
still probably vague to me, somewhat vague to me, as I give it to you, unfold. I want it clarified, and I want it given over
to an audience. And to me. I want to become an audience to my own play,
which means I want to then sort of, at some point, be surprised by something that I originated. That’s pretty hard. I know! To become the audience and the playwright
at the same time. It is, but I think it’s what you want, finally. What you want? I want to have the experience. I think there’s so much in the aura of what
we do, there are so many side effects, do you know? There is so much personal ambition, and you
want to run, and you want to make money. But finally, if what we mostly wanted to do
was make money, we wouldn’t be doing this. There are more effective ways to do it. (LAUGHTER) There really are, do you know? So finally, you come down to the root of it,
and the most exciting, the most exhilarated I’ve been has been standing in the back,
a few feet away from the audience, watching my play, and having it happen to me. Experiencing the event as if I didn’t know
what was about to happen. And feeling the others, and feeling that an
audience is getting what I mean. And the director is the crucial link. And so, a director has to somehow, at some
point, understand me, my play, better than I understand it myself. That’s hard. That’s asking a lot. Well, that’s what you should get. I remember asking not quite that question,
but something like it, to a playwright in the middle of the night. We were walking outside, and the sky was bright
blue and we had seen a play. And I said something like that, something
like, “What do you want?” And he said, “Lloyd, I want to see my picture
on the front page of the Sunday edition of the theatre section of the New York Times. (LAUGHTER) That’s what I want!” And that’s very honest, and very real, but
it represents a lot of other things! But it is something to be wanted. What do you want from a director? Our director, Stan Lathan, predominantly works
in television. And so, Stan, when he worked with us on our
individual poems and the arc of the show, from one poem to another, kept asking, “What’s
the intention of this poem?” Because he was being educated by the poets
about their experiences and the world that they wanted to create. And I guess with me, because I had had no
performance experience at all, he kept asking me, “Well, what are you trying to say?” And I think I disagree in the seeing him give
me what I wanted, because what I really wanted was to make people slightly uncomfortable,
but then I couldn’t deal with it as a performer when they were uncomfortable. That’s what the poet wanted. The poem wanted to confront people, but then
I as a person couldn’t deal with what happened when I confronted people with my poem. And so, he stayed true to that, and I trusted
him. I couldn’t have done it with anyone else,
and I trusted the people that he brought in to light the show, to stage the show, to help
us with our voice and to help us with our posture. And if I hadn’t trusted that he would give
me my intention, despite the obstacles that I put, my own insecurities that I put between
me and the audience, I wouldn’t have realized the intention of the poem. Two phrases. “I couldn’t have done it with anyone else.” “I trusted him.” That seems somehow to be a very important
component, a combination of components that is essential in the working together of any
group of that group of artists who create a theatre piece, or create theatre. Trust is something that is essential to that
coming together of those minds. Anything else? I’d like to know about the playwright’s
role in casting. Are you there for casting? How does that happen? Who has a say in casting? Oh, yeah, you have to be there. For most people, I think casting is the most
crucial moment, I think. It’s where you can go really, really, very
badly wrong, or very wonderfully right. So yes, you’re there at every audition. And it’s weird – I don’t know what the
sort of structural – if there is a hierarchy. I don’t know if there’s, in some rule
book, somebody has last say. There is. Oh, yes. Is it me? Is it the playwright? Oh, yes. As a director, I can tell you, it’s not
the director. (LAUGHTER)
It’s not the director? Okay. And the producer? I don’t really know. It’s you. You have to have the say. Well, it really isn’t, though. It really has to be a kind of a team. Because if the director isn’t seeing it,
if the director can not see an actor in that role, even if the playwright does, he or she
is not going to be able to have a relationship and is not going to get the performance. So there is a moment of compromise, and there
is even some sadness sometimes, when you just feel something that’s so right that someone
else doesn’t see. And it can also be a moment of discovery. You hear these scenes over and over again. Are you there for auditions, for the casting? Yes. You are? Yeah, you’re there for every audition. You’re there for all the callbacks, and
the post-audition discussions, and the whole thing. A playwright has final decision on all the
cast who function in his play. Also on all the words that are spoken on the
stage, the playwright has the responsibility for them. Finally, though, it’s a bit of a template
for the relationship, is how you deal with casting, what the conversation is and how
you come to see the play. And also, I think it’s a wonderful thing
for a director. Because I know that Joe, casting TAKE ME OUT,
got ideas from people’s auditions. Often the auditions of people he wasn’t
even remotely considering for the roles, but they’d bring things in, and he’d suddenly
understand the play. So it’s a bigger process than just finding
actors, it’s finding the play and finding, do you know, sort of the world of ideas. It’s kind of the first time that you actually,
as the collaborative team, with the writer and the director, it’s the first moments
that you have to kind of talk about the play, to some extent. You may have talked about the play, but until
you’re actually in a room with somebody saying it, and you’re dialoging about an
actor and saying, “Well, what did you think? I thought that was fantastic,” and the writer
looks at you like you’re out of your mind, you start to kind of develop –
It’s all abstract, until the actors are there, it’s completely abstract. You’re talking qualities, you know? How do you find, as a writer, working with
– do you ever get a chance to work with a designer? Because that has always been an interesting
thing for me. I know that on many of the shows that I’ve
done, you have the design conference, and the playwright is not there. Really? Really? Yes, yeah. That can happen. I’m surprised. And having worked with so many designers,
who I thought were wonderful in terms of conceptualizing a play, and knowing that a designer can not
put pen to paper until he understands the play, that he goes through a lot in terms
of that understanding. So I instituted one thing at the National
Playwrights Conference when I was working there – well, there were sessions, of course,
between the director and the playwright and everybody else and the playwright, but no
sessions between the designer and the playwright. So they would happen between the director
and the designer. Well, I instituted a meeting where the designer
would meet with the playwright, and the director was required to be there, but to keep his
Whoa! Really, because I had found that the designers
sometimes asked the same questions that a director will ask, but he asked them from
a different point of view, and very interesting things happen that way. But it’s one of the areas that’s changed. That doesn’t always happen. But it’s interesting, too, because it’s
the key difference between movies and theatre again, is that in movies the director is king
and can throw out the script and cast. That’s right. Except I worked with Paddy Chayefsky in a
movie once, and he had a Dramatists Guild contract in a movie! Wow. Which never happens. Never happens. This was the movie of ALTERED STATES. And if you were on the set in Los Angeles
and somebody came in and said, “Could I say ‘Please pass the butter’ instead of
‘Pass the butter’?” they’d have to call New York and talk to
Paddy. Which you don’t get too often in a movie. Wow. But also, I was surprised, as a producer,
to notice that in a Dramatists Guild contract, you also have ultimate approval over everything. Everything! Hot damn! (DAVID LAUGHS)
You have approval over the designer and you have approval over the –
You didn’t know that? Somebody should have told me this! That’s news to me. (PH) (LAUGHTER)
The cast of the national companies – I mean, basically everything. I remember, though, John Guare once talking
about the design issue. I think it was actually at Yale. And he said he found the only way he could
be sure of getting what he wanted was to write it into the dialogue. (LAUGHTER) So he’d put in something like,
“You just sit there on that blue sofa”! (LAUGHTER)
Interesting as this is, I can see from the kind of shining expectant faces in our audience
that there are things out there that they want to say, too! They don’t just want to listen all the time. So I hear that there are a few interesting
questions that we should listen to, and see if it’s possible for us to answer them. If not, I’ll find a way to get us out of
it. Excellent! (LAUGHTER)
The question, please. My name is John Francis Fox (PH). My question is for Richard Greenberg. First, I think you should have won a Pulitzer
Prize for THE DAZZLE. And I heard you say, on “Theatre Talk,”
that you started to watch baseball as a way out of reading Proust. But did Proust or any other writer have an
influence on your development as a writer? Proust didn’t, although it was actually
“re-reading Proust,” which is one of the like real pretentious buzzwords, people talk
about re-reading Proust? (LAUGHTER) But it was the summer, and I had
nothing to do, and so I started watching baseball accidentally and then became obsessed. The writers, you know, that’s a question
that writers always get asked. And I’ve been influenced by exactly the
same writers that every other playwright I know has been influenced by, and I find it
sort of demoralizing to answer the question. But among contemporaries, do you know, when
I was just starting, I wrote plays very quickly, in order to get into Yale, because at the
time I applied, you needed two plays and I’d only written one. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And so, I just kept
writing plays quickly, and I was constantly ripping off Lanford Wilson, so blatantly that
I’m sure it was actionable. Luckily, none of those plays ever got produced. And like many other – again, I’m bringing
up John Guare – so many playwrights, among contemporary living playwrights, he’s been
incredibly important to me. I’ve tried to figure out why playwrights
love him so much, as they seem to. And I think it’s because he gives off the
sense of being so happy to be so talented. There’s a kind of incredible exuberance
in his work that just draws you to it, and a sort of a tragic exuberance that makes the
joy and the love in it feel not un-serious. I think it’s very hard to be so kind of
life-loving, and also be a serious writer, and he manages that. And I’ve come to know him a little, and
he’s also this incredibly great, embracing guy. It’s very weird, I still have trouble calling
him by his first name. You know, he calls me by mine, but that seems
appropriate. I still have that kind of youthful awe of
him. So I think that’s it. I always want to know where you came from. Not from Virginia or wherever, but how did
you get to where you are? Did you study? Did you work in a small town? Did you work in a theatre? No, I came up at seventeen years old and got
into the Joffrey Ballet, and went from the Joffrey to musical theatre, and stayed in
musical theatre until I switched over to direction and choreography. So I’ve been here for the last twenty-seven
years, from Florida, originally. (LAUGHTER)
Bob? We have another –
I’m sorry. We had another questioner, who has been looking
at me and smiling (LAUGHTER) in such a way as I had to say, “I don’t care who I cut
off, you’re going to be next!” (LAUGHTER) So, you are. And your question is? Hi, my name is Nicole Stoyka (PH), and my
question is for the panel. How can an aspiring director best prepare
for a professional career? Assist. Yeah. Assist. Become an assistant director. I mean, try and find – there’s really
good programs through SSDC, and there’s some very good programs through the Lincoln
Center Directors Lab. But if you can find a director that you can
work with, and try to assist them, that’s where you’re gonna learn the most about
direction. Because there’s more to direction than just
working with the actors, there’s the whole scenic element and all the things that they’re
talking about, all the hats that a director wears. And when you are able to assist, you can sit
back and watch what the director is doing, without being in the hot seat, and it’s
actually a nice thing to be able to do. It teaches you more about the craft than you
could possibly learn in any book or any university, I think, having come up as a grunt, as opposed
to going to school. I also think you have to create your own opportunities. Don’t wait for somebody to give you a job. Find a writer, work with a writer, find a
way to get that project seen, even if it’s, you know, for five dollars in a production. But you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to learn by doing it, as well. I mean, I agree with him about assisting as
well. But that, and also, you have to have a point
of view in the world. So it’s not about theatre. It’s about reading the newspaper. It’s about going to an art museum. It’s about finding out who you are, so that
you have a point of view to offer as a director. As opposed to just having a “career,”
because it’s not about having a career, it’s really about having a point of view
in the world, and that’s important. That’s correct. It’s important to recognize what you’re
asking, you know? Yes. You’re asking someone to “Put your life
in my hands,” you know? “I know what to do with your work better
than anybody else in the world!” That’s really what a director is saying,
“Trust me. Give me your future, your life, your hopes,
your dreams, everything you’ve been able to accomplish up until now, and trust me with
it, and I will take it someplace.” That’s what you’re saying. That’s why you go to any producer and you
say, “I want to direct,” he says, “Why should I? Why should I trust my life to you?” And you’ve got to be able to answer that. That’s all. Thank you. We have the next question. My name is Chris (PH), and I have a question
I’d like to offer to the whole panel. What kind of action can a playwright take,
in order to help get his work produced? All right, anybody want to handle that? How do you get a work produced? I sent my work in to the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival
three years ago, and it was produced last summer, a play I wrote called BLOOD TRINITY. And I just kept sending it to festivals that
I knew were small and open and could use my name as much as I could use theirs, in a way. And I know it’s hard to say, “Just send
it to festivals,” because you get more rejections than anything else, but because I’m not
from the theatre world, all I knew was, here’s a festival where the audience that they were
going to be bringing in was the audience that I wanted to reach. And so, I just sent it in and I was lucky
enough to have it produced. And I wasn’t even here. I was in San Francisco, working on the show
when it was up, so I didn’t get to see it, which sucks! (LAUGHTER) But I hear it was really good. I think my one thing is, you have to be incredibly
inventive, and don’t stop at anything, as you have to in all these areas. I think it’s the same thing. I did a play at the Public Theatre eighteen
years ago, and this is how it got produced. The playwright, seven years earlier, had sent
his play to the Public Theatre, where it sat in a stack of three thousand plays! And one day, they were cleaning out the offices
at the Public Theatre, and some reader actually was assigned to read, finally, all three thousand
plays, or they couldn’t throw them away and clean the office. And the play got read and it was produced. And the playwright, when they called to announce
to him that they had chosen his play, didn’t really remember it, particularly. (LAUGHTER)
I was going to say, seven years! That’s a wonderful story! And then his play got produced. You never know. No, you don’t ever know, and you just have
to be prepared and trust everything, and work! Work at it. You must work at it. It’s not just going to happen for you, like
it does in the movies. This is the theatre, so work for it! Yes, another question. Your name? My name is Caroline Agrinage (PH), and I have
a question for Suheir. Do you think there’s likely to be more and
more poetry on the Broadway stage? I don’t think so. Our show has not done well financially, and
like all Broadway shows, you can see our returns in Variety (LAUGHS), and in the press. And unfortunately, though we’ve received
what I hear are the best reviews in three years from all the major papers, there’s
still a level of fear and, I guess, ignorance that has kept people from coming into the
seats, and that really matters to producers who will put on a show after us. And I think with our show, it’s not only
that we are nine poets and a DJ. We’re also predominantly – we have one
white guy in our show, as you know! (LAUGHS) So a predominantly people-of-color
show. And I think, on Broadway, there have of course
been shows that reflect an experience that is not Euro-American, but they’ve been in
a particular aesthetic, or they’ve come from a particular school. And this aesthetic and what these poets are
saying is new, very new for people. And I’m glad that so many people have come
out to see it, but I’m really concerned that when we close, it’ll be more of a fearful
lesson to people, that you need so much money to keep it going until the rest of the world
gets it. So in the meantime, hopefully people who are
doing new theatre all over America will see that you can actually effect change in people’s
lives and in their souls. People have come back to our show five and
six and seven times, and every time it’s different. And so, we’re very, very proud of it. But having been introduced into Broadway and
into the theatre world, I understand now that it’s not only about changing people’s
lives, there’s a bottom line that has to be met. And I really hope we’ve opened the door,
and that the next people who come along are actually more fortified with money, to keep
it open until people get it. There’s nothing else we could do. We put our hearts out there every night, and
we got the reviews, and we just stay there until we can’t any more. And so, just keep writing poetry anyway! And someday, like Lloyd said, you will get
up there, and hopefully somebody will open up a door again. When your chance comes, be ready. Yeah, yeah. That’s what luck is. It’s being prepared. Yeah. Any other questions? Any questions from up here, to one another? To me, to Isabelle? Isabelle! I’m going to go back to my question. Where do you come from? Shall we go in order, this way? Yes, why don’t we start here. Right. I’m from Chicago and –
Oh, you want to start? You’re not the end of the line! I already went. (GENERAL AGREEMENT)
Oh, you already told! Oh, okay. I spoke. Well, do you want to change your story, Luis? (LAUGHTER)
No, I still come from Florida! He looks like he came from Colombia or someplace. I’m still Cuban. I’m still – (LAUGHTER)
He’s still Cuban? That hasn’t changed. That’s great! (LAUGHS)
I’m from Chicago, and I always wanted to end up in New York, so I did. And I got here by way of Colgate University. I went to NYU, and my girlfriend at the time
said, “They’re casting an Off-Broadway musical for short people.” (LAUGHTER) It’s completely true! You had to be five foot six or under. And I didn’t hear about that? I don’t know where you were! And I auditioned, and I was the original Linus
in YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. Oh! Oh. You know, and then I stayed in New York and
got into some movies and, you know, did different things. (GIGGLES) That’s so funny! Yeah! (LAUGHTER) What they weren’t thinking of,
though, if we were all short, then who would know, you know? (LAUGHTER) I mean, the point is, maybe there’d
be scenery. Short. The story would be tall! Just make big scenery! It would have been fine. That’s hilarious. But we were all little people, relatively,
and that’s how I got here. Oh, my God. Well, good. It’s a wonder that you did! It seemed – well, they always need – it’s
interesting, the very thing that you think is the thing about you that will prevent you
from ever getting anything, is usually the thing that ends up making you different from
somebody, that you might have an opportunity. Well, yes. That’s true. I know. I went through that, you know. But I didn’t know that, as an actor – of
course, I was black, to begin with. So I started out not getting work for that
reason. Then I discovered that I wasn’t as tall
as Sidney Poitier! (LAUGHTER) And so, I didn’t get roles for
that, and just kept getting the reasons! Till finally, they said, “Oh, you direct? Well, why don’t you direct this?” And they said, “That’s acceptable.” Your height doesn’t matter when you’re
directing, or your weight or anything else. Lloyd? Yes. Where do you come from? Where do I come from? What’s your background? Oh! I was born in Toronto, Canada, and went to
Detroit, Michigan, by the time I was four years old. I went through my entire education in Detroit,
Michigan, which taught me, essentially, that I wanted to be in New York (LAUGHTER) in the
theatre. And so, as soon as I had finished the education
part of it, which I left for Detroit, I came to New York. That was a number of years ago. I decided I wanted to be on Manhattan Island,
and since I got here, ooh, that many years ago, I’ve been on Manhattan Island. But that’s where I come from. I come from a longing for the theatre, and
that’s why. And how did you get to Yale? How did I get to Yale? How did I get to Yale? I got to Yale by virtue of having been to
NYU. And I went to NYU to teach when they started
the professional training program there. The people at NYU I knew, and I said, “Okay,
I want to teach here.” But I had taught before that, with Paul Mann,
so I taught there, and then they wanted me to teach at Hunter. I taught at Hunter. And then, when they were replacing Robert
Brustein at Yale, I seemed to be one of the few people in the country who was trained
both in education and in the professional theatre. There were surprisingly few people who had
that, so I think I was one of two people really considered. I’m so sorry to interrupt everybody. This happens all the time. There is so much more to be said, and you’re
all so wonderful and so generous in sharing your knowledge with us. But we have to say this is the American Theatre
Wing’s seminar on “Working in the Theatre,” coming to you from the Graduate Center of
the City University of New York. These people on the seminars have been so
generous and so wonderful that I am indeed proud to be part of this profession. And for you, Lloyd, I am so dearly grateful
to you, for everything you’ve done for the theatre and for the American Theatre Wing. You are indeed a very special man. And so, that ends the American Theatre Wing
seminar for today, on “Working in the Theatre.” (APPLAUSE)

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