Playwright, Director and Choreographer (Working In The Theatre #315)


(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 30th year, these seminars give
you to 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 creative
heart of the theatre, and it’s their work that we’ll learn about, while we discover
how the magic of the theatre is created. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the
Board of the American Theatre Wing. And now, I would like to introduce our moderator
for the seminar, the distinguished critic, professor and editor of the Best Plays book
series, and a member of the Wing’s Advisory Committee, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins. Jeffrey? (APPLAUSE)
Thank you, Isabelle. Robert Anderson famously remarked that you
can’t make a living in the theatre, but you can make a killing. The people who are with us today, though,
have found ways to make lives in the theatre. I don’t know about any killings that might
or might not have been made along the way. I want to start by introducing to you our
distinguished panel of playwrights, directors and choreographers. Our first guest is Jonathan Butterell, choreographer. Theresa Rebeck, playwright. Arthur Kopit, playwright. Susan H. Schulman, director. And Joey McNeely, choreographer. Now, I think we’ll start first with Jonathan
Butterell, one of our movement specialists today. (JONATHAN LAUGHS) You know, I know that you
have a couple of Broadway credits, and you’re going to be the choreographer of the upcoming
production of the revival of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, that’s due to come into the Minskoff,
I think is where it’s going. That’s right. And David Leveaux is the director of that,
correct? Correct, yes. And what I’m also interested in, though,
is I noticed that you were credited for movement in ELECTRA, the Zoë Wanamaker production
of ELECTRA a few years ago. And I’m just fascinated by how that came
about as part of your choreographic work. The director that production was David Leveaux,
again, who I started a relationship [with] when I worked at the Donmar Warehouse, when
we did NINE together. This production of NINE that’s now on Broadway
started its original life back in London at the Donmar Warehouse. And we found a way of working that was kind
of integral, that there wasn’t a place that I was looking in one direction, he was looking
in another, we both were looking in the same place. And he asked me to come and work on ELECTRA. And I remember somebody saying, who came to
see ELECTRA, (LAUGHS) “There’s very little movement in this!” (LAUGHTER) And I said, “Yes.” That wasn’t my role. What was wonderful about what one person said
was actually, he said, “I remembered seeing the chorus of people” – of which there
were only three – “and one time they’d be over there. And then the next time I looked or blinked,
that person had somehow got over to there, and I never saw it happen. So there was practically no movement at all
in the show.” And I said, “That’s movement.” (LAUGHTER)
Right. It’s present, but it’s absent at the same
time. It’s actually just about communicating stories,
the thing we all do. And my responsibility was to help enable David
to tell that story. And I worked with the actors very closely,
on working with their bodies, and particularly getting a sense of their relationship with
the earth. And I think that’s essential, whatever we
do and whatever our medium, that actors have a relationship with the ground. From the ground, they get their energy. And so, we spent lots of time playing with
our bodies, using our bodies in a sense to get in contact with the earth. Therefore, we get in contact with our voices. And so in a sense, it’s a way of just accessing
an actor’s body. Because very often, actors can have great
access up here (POINTS TO HIS THROAT) and lose a sense of what this is (POINTS TO HIS
FEET) and the power of this. And that’s something I strove to do. How does that shift, then, when you shift
from a production that’s a play – and you’re also an experienced director, you’ve
directed plays. Have you directed musicals, as well? I direct musicals and plays. And how does that shift, then, when you move
into musicals, say for the current production of NINE, of which you’re the choreographer? There’s no shift at all, really, I think. I come from exactly the same place, if I choreograph
dance as if I do movement in a play. It’s about actors communicating character
and story. I have no dance background, myself. I’m not a dancer. I never trained as a dancer. I fell into being a choreographer, completely
by accident. And so my route is as an actor, I started
my life as an actor, and that’s my understanding, is an actor’s understanding. And an understanding of rhythm on stage, and
not only rhythm in terms of choreographic rhythm, musical rhythm, [but] in terms of
pictorial rhythm as well, how the relationship between that actor over there and the rhythm
between this actor down here actually communicates story. Well, that’s fascinating. Because Joey McNeely, of course, was a dancer
before he became a choreographer. I’m fascinated by that! And I think your first choreographic work
on Broadway was SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ, is that correct? Correct, correct. And you’re the current choreographer for
THE BOY FROM OZ. Yes. Now, this is sort of interesting. I’d kind of like to engage in a dialogue
here. I never heard of that. I haven’t seen or heard of a choreographer
that never was a dancer. I find it fascinating! I never – I mean I never –
Now he tells us! (LAUGHTER)
I had no aspiration at all to be a choreographer. I was an actor. I was very happy being an actor. But just the process of getting choreographic
work, from that perspective, is quite different, because you don’t think like a dancer, you
think like an actor, but you have to translate into a physical movement. My body dances. Which is a little opposite than as a dancer. Yes. I’m a dancer, and I need to try to figure
out the movement through an actor’s perspective. You know, it’s a flip side of working. I have a question. When you say that the body gets its energy
from the earth, can you expand on that a little bit? Or is that just it? (LAUGHTER)
Is that specific to ELECTRA? I think it’s specific to all actors. Yeah. To all actors, that actually you can cut yourself
off from your power source. And your power source is actually this thing
here (STAMPS ON THE FLOOR), this thing that gives us breath. If you lower your sense of gravity, even just
very technically, if your diaphragm drops, you have more breath, you have more power. The power of an actor comes from his breath. You know, to communicate, that is the power
and the source. And that ultimately comes from the earth. I was working on a show this summer with some
people who were not trained as actors. And they thought, “Well, how do I do it? What am I acting?” And I said, “Well, first of all, you have
no bad habits to break, so you’re at an advantage.” (LAUGHTER) But then – and it wasn’t thinking
what Jonathan was saying – but I was talking about “This piece of territory is your territory. No one’s going to –” Once they realized
they weren’t standing on a stage. Where were they standing? And they had to own this space, what it meant. They were Native Americans, and so they had
a lot of reference towards what holding your ground meant, what ground meant, what it meant. And it was really a psychological aspect. And you could just see the difference. If you took a photograph, you might not notice
it. But suddenly being empowered, that “This
is my ground, and now I have a relationship to this,” it was a completely different
thing. And the other actors, who were trained actors,
looked at them and just were stunned. Several of them said, “I just learned more
about acting because they just did it like that.” They said, “Ah,” and then you couldn’t
move them. What was this production that you were working
on? It was a musical, based on Lewis and Clark,
using a lot of Native Americans. Oh! Yes, yes, yes. But it was making movement meaningful, so
that it represents something. You just don’t cross the stage. Why do you do it? And I think later we’ll go on to it. But my awe of what Jonathan did with David
[in NINE] is exactly that. It is just a continuation of a story, always,
by different means. And I am a very fortunate writer to have worked
with Jonathan and David. Well, that’s one of the lines of cross. You don’t see the director, you don’t
see the director. They just meld. Which is always best. It’s always one thing. The conversation between the director and
choreographer is sort of seen played out on the stage, as it were?
Mmm-hmm. Susan, you were starting to say something. I was just going to say that it’s very interesting,
because I was actually trained as a dancer, when I started out, till I found out I had
no talent at all (LAUGHTER), which was shocking to me, I have to say. I was crushed. But luckily, I had a role model in Vinette
Carroll at the time. But I always have felt, because I trained,
I feel with my body first and with my head second. Always! My instincts are always movement first. And that has never changed, even though I,
you know, long ago hung up the toe shoes. And I also find it very interesting that there
are people who are born with a kinesthetic sense of their body in space, and as Jonathan
said, where their power source is. And there are people who have no idea about
their body in space. They’re like ping pong balls, you know? They kind of bounce off things, scenery and
other actors and things like that. And I find that, very often, I will use a
choreographer that I’m working with and say, “Take that person into a room and just
kind of play. Just kind of get them used to, you know, feeling
how – just simple things, like how far they are from another person.” You know the actor who comes right up to somebody
like this [LEANS INTO JOEY] constantly, you know? He’s talking in their face, and you always
want to go, “No, no, no, you don’t need to be that close!” They’ll, you know, feel the communication. Well, it’s finding their language. Yes. Which I find, with each person, you’ve got
to change your language to communicate with them, an actor to a dancer, from someone –
Mmm-hmm, absolutely. Yeah. ‘Cause you know, a lot of times, there are
actors who, they see dance and they freeze up. And you have to figure out, how can I get
them to communicate, to move with their bodies and communicate like an actor? Sometimes, you go from an acting perspective
or from an emotional perspective. Or like you say, you get in touch with the
earth or something, they need [that]. And that’s a challenge, you know, working
with different groups. I find it’s always the objective, though. I know there are people who are frightened
of movement, just like there are some singers who are frightened of a certain high note,
you know? And I always say, “It’s never about the
note. It’s not the note! The note is there because it’s an emotion. It’s, you know, an objective, it’s an
image. Think about that, don’t think about the
note.” And the same thing, I think, is true about
movement, don’t think about the step. Right. Think about why you want to get there. But what I find – I have a kind of question
for the playwrights, though, because after just working with Martin [Sherman] on THE
BOY FROM OZ, he was able to get inside of a character’s emotional state and feeling
and then present that. And I find, you know, I have to dig – and
the same thing with directors – you have to take your cue off of what the playwright
has written. You know, they write, all the lines are right
there, and they say everything that they need to say, and you need to translate that. How do you find those voices, those unique
voices of each character? Because I try to find their unique physicality
within the character, but usually, I’m already taking it off the page. Theresa Rebeck, that’s actually a question
that I had for you. I mean, how do these voices come to you? How does this process develop? That’s what I found interesting about that
notion of your power coming from the earth. ‘Cause I actually – I’m going to digress
into some hippy-dippy chakra talk – That’s okay! We can take it! (LAUGHTER)
Because, you know, like somebody I met told me this, and you know, I’m sort of curious. You know, you’re a writer, you’re curious
about everything. And this woman I know told me that there is
this thing to do where you plant your feet on the earth and do a breathing exercise so
you can clear out your chakras. Yeah. Yeah, which I do sometimes, and I feel better,
you know. So, I feel like that –
It’s a yoga aesthetic, you know. Yes, I’m sure it is. But to get back to the question, it always
feels to me like you have to center yourself deep inside the body of the character, so
that the words can rise out of that. I mean, I know that this is sort of a – you
know, ‘cause sometimes I go, “Well, where do they come from? I don’t know.” Sometimes I’m lying there and I’ll see
someone in an orange sweater and think, “Oh, a person in an orange sweater! Her name might be this.” You know what I mean? It’s sort of the mystery of where ideas
come from. But you know, this play I just wrote with
a friend of mine, Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros –
OMNIUM GATHERUM. It’s OMNIUM GATHERUM. Okay. It’s okay! (LAUGHTER)
And it’s got eight people in it, and they are involved in a very complicated argument. And the more we worked on the play, the more
it became just utter – it was the same lesson you learn again and again – utterly clear
that what the play was about was sort of the deep emotional centers of all those people,
not the arguments at all. And that when the play is flying, it’s because
you’re invested in what everybody is invested in. And that even, you know, there’s one character
who’s a very highly educated and kind of provocateur Brit who’s very dazzling with
his language and his ideas. But you know, I finally went, “He’s showing
off.” You know, like there’s a deep need in him
to show off. It’s not about what he’s saying. It’s about the fact that he loves to show
off. And it was, again, just another lesson of
you have to ground yourself inside these people and then let the language rise out of that
emotional space. But let me ask you, because I’m always fascinated
by creating from blank pages, because we do that as choreographers, you know, and you
do that as playwrights – do you go in with a preconceived notion of where you’re going
to go? Or are you just, “I’ve got these people,
I’ve got these ideas, and let’s just find out,” and then the theme rises? Or do you go in with the theme first? Because I find that that’s always a challenge
for me, as a choreographer, you know. And also, like, directing stuff or trying
to create new materials, you know. Are you saying that you feel as a choreographer,
you need to work from theme, or that you work from story? Well, there’s different processes. What I’m curious about is when you’re
going from scratch, “I want to create an entity, I’m looking for, as an artist,”
and I’m speaking strictly from an artist’s perspective, you know. We go in with creative energy and we walk
into the space and we go (BREATHE IN), “Okay, let’s just – I’m feeling this, and this
and it becomes this sculpture.” Or do you go ahead and go, “I want to do
a theme about love, or a theme about power or something like that.” I never do that. I never do that. (LAUGHS) I can’t. That’s what I’m curious about, how do
you do it? I’m always sort of fascinated by conflict
or situation or people I’m interested in, and then I work it through until sort of what
I would call “the deeper subject” emerges. It just emerges out of it? Okay. Yeah, it emerges. Does it become for you, Theresa, about the
story you’re talking about it? I’m thinking through your plays. You know, SPIKE HEELS, the story of this kind
of class conflict and racial issues – well, class and racial issues are very much at play
in that play. And in a number of your plays, there’s a
good deal of conflict between genders, you know, there are gender issues. Now, are there stories that come to you, the
character? Because you’re saying that you think of
this woman in an orange sweater. Or is it these characters that come to you
and a story begins to emerge. Is that partly how the process works? You know, I have to say it feels very different
for me for every project. I don’t know what – (TO ARTHUR) I think
I’d be interested in hearing [what you think]. There was one – you know, I worked in Hollywood
for a while, on a sitcom, and it was one of the most psychotic experiences of my life. (LAUGHTER) I mean, I was sort of like, I didn’t
know what I was getting into, at all! And I would go home and I wouldn’t be able
to get out of bed in the morning. And I would sit in a room, like terrified. And I kept thinking, “I know there’s a
play here. This is just too strange a world for there
not to be a play here!” And then there was one day (LAUGHS) when I
was driving down the street, in this little old used car I had. And I thought it was like Lear, King Lear,
you know? It was sort of, like, all of a sudden, it
was all about power. And you know, the executive producer who was
this sort of demented monarch who was losing power and he was surrounded –
Okay, name names! (LAUGHTER)
No, no! You can pretty much insert numbers. And he was surrounded by, you know, yes-men. And then there was, you know, a younger guy
who kept climbing up, you know? And I thought, oh, this is – and for me,
that clarified how to write that play, which I then did. That was THE FAMILY OF MANN, right? That was THE FAMILY OF MANN. But you know, SPIKE HEELS started because
I was living in a very bad neighborhood and I heard these kids out on the street. And this is on television, so I can’t use
the language. But they were all like, they were just screaming
obscenities to each other, and there was a real music to it and a real rage, and it was
like a completely different language. And I thought, “If you were going to do
PYGMALION today, that’s the language, you know, that you would have to change.” And so that was how that one started. So I guess I feel like they start all different
ways. That’s funny, because you’ve used a lot
of classical references. I have no history background of theatre or
anything like that. It’s like, a dancer, I get a job and it
moves on. And not to go to college and study all these
classical, you know, pieces of plays. And it’s funny how you go back to themes,
because all the great themes have already been done. They’re layered, you know, in Shakespeare
and the Greek tragedies and everything. Is that a reference? Is that a great reference? Well, I mean, maybe for me, what I’m looking
for – it’s not a conscious choice. I think what I look for in a story is something
that’s got stakes. That’s got real – I mean, you know, one
thing when I teach, one of the plays that I use as an example to my students is THE
PIANO LESSON. Because you’ve got that piano in the middle
of the play, and you’ve got Boy Willie going, “I’m gonna sell that piano!” and you’ve
got Bernice going, “You are not sellin’ that piano!” Conflict, yeah, right. And they both have beautiful reasons. And you can’t take your eyes off it, you
know? Right. And so, I’m always looking for a story that
is going to fill the stage. I mean, I actually – I said to some students
one time, “You know, this is going to ruin your life, to be a playwright, so make it
worth it!” (LAUGHTER)
Right. Talk about making your life messier (PH),
right? I think you need to be personally engaged. I mean, in whatever it is. You’ve got to find something in the material,
I find, that moves you or enrages you, or sets you into some orbit. Otherwise, I think it’s just work. You know, it’s just washing dishes. Not that you can’t be creative about washing
dishes, I suppose! But I think unless you make it personal on
some level, I think it never lives and it never breathes. For me, sometimes it comes down to – I’ve
had a conversation with more than one producer over a casting issue, and they’ll go, “But
why this one and not that one?” And I say, “I can not tell you, except that
this person interests me! This person perks my imagination! This person makes me want to look at them!” That’s it! I don’t even think it’s a question of
talent. It’s a question of, I have stakes in that
person, for whatever those ephemeral reasons are. And I think we all deal in ephemeral issues. I mean, a play exists for the time it is being
performed. It is never alive until it is being performed. You can read it and it can be a wonderful
experience, but until it’s on stage, and then that experience is gone. So I think, until you yourself, as a creator,
find something that moves you in some way, I don’t think you can create. And that’s what I – you know, I always
look for “What is at the center of the piece?” I can’t direct “theme,” you know? I can’t direct “message.” So I can only direct emotion, conflict. I can only direct “I want, she wants,”
you know, that kind of thing. But what is it about it that moves me? And that’s where I try to focus on. Because I figure is somebody asked me to do
it for a reason, they didn’t ask someone else to do it. So that what they’re after is, you know,
my feeling. And when I had done SWEENEY TODD, I remember
calling Steve Sondheim and saying, “Okay, tell me,” and he said, “You tell me! (LAUGHS) You know, we had our chance. You tell me. What I’m after is what you see in him. What’s different about the way you want
to do it? That’s what I’m interested in.” And I thought, “Oh!” But you need pieces that have that, which
I find is always a challenge, ‘cause we’re not at the genesis of the material. We’re usually at the –
Well, sometimes I’m at the genesis of the material. Though, more often than not, lately, I find
that especially in musicals, I find that the director is very close to being at the genesis
of the material. I think they need to be, which I find is a
lot at fault. Which is very new, though. This is new in –
But I think the choreographers need to be there, because I find a lot of times, we’re
the last one in. Absolutely. I don’t disagree with that at all. I totally agree. And they’ve already formed where the dances
are. And I always say, “Why is there a dance
break here?” “Well, ‘cause it would be nice to have
a dance.” “Why is this person dancing? I don’t understand. What’s motivating them dancing?” I completely agree with you, Joey. Time for a dance! Yeah, right. And a lot of times they feel like, you know,
choreography is just for the dancing entertainment. It was like, “Well, no, I can be a storyteller,
too.” As you say, movement – you know, there’s
a way people move within the background and so forth. Movement is a big storyteller. Now, tell us a little bit about, in the case
of THE BOY FROM OZ. Here you’re dealing with a subject whom
many of us remember for his performance work. You know, he’s very much a part of our memories. How did you evolve your choreography in that? Did you go back to look at Peter Allen’s
earlier work? Yeah, we’ve done a lot of research for that,
yeah. Tell us a little bit about that, and how that
works. Because when you start doing history (PH)
– Well, within that show, I mean, the major
choreography was a little different, because each number that had choreography was a performance
number. Those are simple. You know, you’re on stage, “I’m here
to entertain!” It’s a performance, so you know, it’s
usually high energy, it’s usually keeping the ball up in the air, picture steps, razz-ma-dazzle,
you know, all that stuff. And everything else was a book scene, between
two characters. So there was a very clear definition of where
that place is. What I find I’m more interested in, ‘cause
I’m always trying to push my boundaries a little bit is, you know, from the playwright’s
perspective and a character’s perspective and as a director, to try to feel like, how
can dance movement become as integral to the story line as lyrics, as the notes to the
music? Well, it should be. It should be. And I’ve working on WEST SIDE STORY a great
deal in Europe, and I love it! I just adore that musical, because to me,
it’s perfection. All those elements –
Well, movement is a very interesting – – create the same story line, you know? Everything’s about character, the music,
the lyrics, the dance movement, which I feel like, you know, in theatre we need to do more
of that or be open to that, you know. Arthur Kopit, who’s sitting on my left here
– I want to bring him into this conversation! (LAUGHTER) – and that is, you’re one of
the few people, I think, few playwrights, who actually made a living on the Broadway
stage for many years. A sort of living, anyway? Well, it helped. (LAUGHTER)
But no killing, right? Temporary killings. (LAUGHTER)
Killings that come and go, as it were. Killings that come and go! Then college tuition comes along, and then,
who knows what to do? Oh, yes. Oh, yes! So how does that process of – you started
out as a playwright, and then you became a book writer for musicals? Or were you always a book writer? How does that process work? How do those two ways of working speak to
one another? One thinks of a playwright toiling away in
a room by him or herself. Right. Writing a book of a musical is no work at
all. (SMILES) I mean, it’s a different kind of
toil. What kind of toil? How do those two speak to one another? Well, they’re very different. I mean, writing a play is very different from
writing a musical. For one, there’s the collaboration, and
it’s not your piece that’s being expressed, it’s a collective piece. I’ve always loved musicals, I’ve loved
plays. They do different things. There’s some material that can be a play
and it can be a musical, but you have to ask yourself, well, why is this a musical and
what is it going to express that you couldn’t express without music? And then, you can study it, but you’ve seen
it. I think you have to have an instinctive sense
of how a musical’s story unfolds, as opposed to a play’s story. There are just certain aspects – they’re
not rules, but there’s a way the major elements are going to be sung, or they’re in music,
or else why is it a musical? And the reason for that is not because the
audience is there to be entertained, but because the emotion is so great that it can’t be
expressed only in words. If you can express it only in words, then
it undercuts the need to get to something that is secret and coded. And the very artifice of the musical enables
it in some ways to be realer, because all theatre is artifice. It’s all a con game! And so, you’re pretending. And when you have two people singing to each
other, you have to make the audience believe that this is actually happening, in some strange
place. So that once you do that, once you have earned
the right to play this game, you set up certain rules – and these are never conscious, they’re
just there, happening – and the audience trusts you. And because of what you can do, lights are
a part of it, the changing of a mood, of a tone, the changing of a light. One chord can change the whole mood. A movement somewhere, the shifting of the
eye, is all part of storytelling. So I mean, I think everyone does it differently,
but the kinds of musicals that I’m excited about writing – I’m excited by seeing
lots of shows that I wouldn’t write, I couldn’t write them well, I wouldn’t bring something
to it – but where it’s tapping into a different part of your energy than the writing
of a play. And it means that you are feeding into the
collaborative skills of a director, choreographer – they’re really meshed. Even costumes, the set, the way it looks. You don’t see it specifically, but everything
is creating the story. And if you stop to think, it’s scary, ‘cause
everything has to work, if it’s on that level, if the characters are layered. If there are themes and counter-themes, and
all of that’s happening, which you don’t put in consciously – I mean, thinking, I
think the worst thing is to think. So therefore, you have to think about not
thinking. (LAUGHTER) I mean, you have to think, in order
to put yourself in a state of mind in which instincts take over. But if you just let your instincts go, the
instincts might be, “I want to get out of here!” You know? So that collaboration, the beginning with
your sensibility and your consciousness and your intellect and that which has nothing
to do with it but is simply telling yourself a story, has to have a very fine line. Because you can’t edit yourself, and yet,
you are editing yourself. And you’re watching what’s good and what’s
not good. But yet, it’s not on the basis of “What
will the audience say?” You’re saying, “Is this honest or not?” But then, how do you define “honest”? It’s a constant dialogue with yourself. And in the musical, I mean, for me, the high
point, absolutely, has been this production of NINE. Because, I mean, it never occurred to me that
a piece of work that I was involved with could be performed, produced on such a level where
there’s a thrill where you’re involved with you didn’t do it yourself. It’s everybody came together and everybody
saw the same target. And that’s always said, you all have to
do be doing the same show. But in this case, there was such a microscopic
zoning in on what it was about that, for me, what Jonathan talks about was startling, because
it is the meshing of everything together. And I know for Maury and for myself –
Maury Yeston? Maury Yeston, the composer and lyricist. When you write a play, there’s dialogue. But I’ve always felt, and I try to tell
playwrights that I’m teaching, the dialogue is the least of it, absolute least of it. Too much dependence upon talk gets you nowhere. You don’t even need to talk. If I may, may I ask you, is like, what about
the dialogue between the creators? How often do you guys continue to communicate
and try to mesh things out? Well, you communicate in different ways. I have worked with directors who could explain
the play perfectly. They got on stage and they didn’t know what
they were doing. The same thing with actors. (SUSAN NODS) You can’t trust what you’re
saying. You get a feeling, and you see what somebody
does and how they’re working with an actor. I mean, before that, though. Before we get to the rehearsal point, you
know? You’d be surprised how little conversation
goes on! (LAUGHTER)
I know! I just –
You can’t articulate this. I can’t tell you. I know Edward Albee saying, you know, he’s
afraid that if somebody came in too soon in the process they’d asked him what he meant! You don’t know what you mean! I hate to do this, because this is when we’re
really getting lively here, but we need to take a short break. And Isabelle Stevenson is going to tell us
about the great works of the American Theatre Wing. (APPLAUSE)
Before we get back to the American Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminar
on Playwright/Director/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 Award, given for achievement of excellence in the craft of Broadway theatre. 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 Canteens, 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 and 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. And so now, let’s return to our panel on
Playwright/Director/ Choreographer, and our moderator, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins. Jeffrey? (APPLAUSE)
Thank you, Isabelle. Well, we’re joined, as we return, by Moises
Kaufman, the talented director of I AM MY OWN WIFE, which played successfully at Playwrights
Horizons theatre and is on its way to Broadway. And in your words – we went away to our
break, we were talking about the collaborative process. We were talking about how the collaborative
process evolves in the musical theatre. And I’m wondering – I know, Moises, that
you are well-known for your work in collaboration. Your plays, GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS
OF OSCAR WILDE, and of course, THE LARAMIE PROJECT, which was the story of the death
of Matthew Shepard and how it affected an entire community, and I think, probably, how
it affected an entire nation. How do you work in these kinds of collaborations? How do you build community when you’re working
with actors, that sort of thing? We’d like to bring in to this conversation
with us. Well, I think it’s rather different. The model by which we, Tectonic Theatre Project,
as a company, creates work, is very different, for example, than when I direct I AM MY OWN
WIFE. I AM MY OWN WIFE is not a project of Tectonic
Theatre Project. It’s a project that I was brought in to
direct, with my dear friend Doug Wright. So that is a very different model than the
models we use within the theatre company. In the theatre company, we’re very interested
in thinking about how the work gets made. I think that the most common model in American
theatre is that a writer goes into a room, writes a play, and then she or he comes out
of that room, gives the play to the director. The director goes into another room! Mmm-hmm. (ARTHUR LAUGHS)
Many times, the writer and director is excluded from that second room. And four weeks later, you have a production. I’m exaggerating, to make a point. But that’s kind of a model that we know
very well. And to me, that model is very profitable sometimes,
and very fruitful sometimes, but it is problematic that it is one of the only models that we’re
working with. So I think that one of the things that we
question at the theatre company is, what are the ways in which theatre can be made? For GROSS INDECENCY, we got into a room with
all of the sources about the trials of Oscar Wilde, and out of that emerged this play. For THE LARAMIE PROJECT, we, as a theatre
company, went to Laramie, interviewed the people of the town of Laramie for a year,
came back, and wrote the play as a company that ended up being THE LARAMIE PROJECT. So in our work, we’re very interested in
questions about collaboration. I think that we’re very invested in having
the director direct and the actor act and the writer write and the designers design,
and these are all very, very punctual jobs. And I think that that separation in the jobs
is very necessary, to have the form I described before work. You know, a writer writes a play and then
they come into a room. Everybody knows exactly what their specialization
is, and they do just that. I think, for example, in THE LARAMIE PROJECT,
the actors became interviewers. And then, when they were looking through the
material, they became transcribers. And then, when they were choosing the material
they wanted to show the rest of the company, they became editors. And then when they presented the material
in front of the company, they became actor/directors. So there’s a way in which I am interested
in kind of a Renaissance idea of a theatre person, a theatre artist. And is there something to be gained by having
each one of the collaborators know a lot about the fields that everybody else is involved
in? I mean, I think that creates for a very rich
environment. And there’s a lot of fights. (LAUGHTER) But it’s a very nurturing excitement,
you know. And that was very different from working on
I AM MY OWN WIFE. In I AM MY OWN WIFE, Douglas brought me in
early enough on in the process that we were developing it together in a way. And because it was only one actor, there was
a connection that was made from early on that really persisted. But I don’t know. I like theatre people. And these pieces all have in common, it seems
to me, a kind of what Emily Mann has called “the theatre of testimony,” that are based
on sources and then sort of fleshing that source out, and giving it a kind of a humanity
and bringing it to life, giving it breath, that sort of thing. Yes, I think there’s an element to that. I think that the difference between these
pieces and the work of Emily is that – you know, this always comes as a shock – but
I think that the documentary aspect of it is almost a side aspect of it? The important thing for me is to think about
forms, about theatrical forms, and why is it that we’re still stuck in realism and
naturalism, which are nineteenth-century forms? Where are the new forms of writing, you know? And I think that that’s more the focus. It’s not so much a theatre of testimony,
but a kind of formalistic question. May I ask you, do you find that people are
open to the new forms of theatre? Because I find there’s a certain resistance. Everyone – they’re so comfortable in what
worked in the past and they just want to do that. And I find it’s difficult, as a new generation,
as a theatre creative, to try to find the new voices, because everyone wants to keep
going in the past way of thinking. Well, my answer to that is very subjective,
because both GROSS INDECENCY and LARAMIE PROJECT have been very well received. So in my experience, I think there is a great
hunger for new forms. I think that the success or the resonance
of the plays has been, yes, because of the subject matter, but also because people are
saying, “Oh!” You know? “I never knew the theatre could do this,
or could behave that way,” you know? The question is, what is the thing that can
happen in the theatre that doesn’t happen in film and television? Okay, so I have to say something right now. I actually have to defend realism and naturalism
in the theatre, because I think that television and film does it badly. I mean, I think one of the reasons that people
respond to it is because it’s so thinned out in film and television and so corrupted
by, you know, layers of bureaucrats who just want to bleed all sort of sense and meaning
and examination of psychology [out of it]. I mean, there are many things that realism
does beautifully that can only be done beautifully on the stage. So I think that there’s that sort of necessary
embrace of form and content, that there are certain stories that must be told in that
mode. You know, that breaking it open or just doing
experiments on certain stories for no good reasons, we’ll just end up with bad theatre,
which also sometimes happens. I think that, you know, it’s not that I’m
– somebody said the other day to me, “Oh, so you think that there shouldn’t be no
more realistic or naturalistic plays?” and that’s not what I mean at all. Well, a lot of people think that, though. Yes, but I don’t! Right. Yay! (LAUGHTER)
I think it’s a form that does certain things that can be done very beautifully. But I worry that, right now, in our current
stages, ninety percent of the work one sees is realism or naturalism. I think that it is, you know, overwhelmingly
realism and naturalism! And as I say, I mean, I think there’s room
for that. But where is the questioning of –
I – Arthur? No, you can go. Oh. Susan? Yeah, I was just going to say, I actually
agree. And I find it even to be that way in musical
theatre. I think that they’ve gotten so literal. Yeah. And for me, it drives me crazy, because I
think the very nature of a musical is non-literal. And to then put it in a literal context, I
think if you have these two things fighting against each other, and so often they do not
work. I think you can find much more expressionistic
ways of presenting that story. I think, as Arthur had said earlier, once
people start singing, you’re not in a real or a natural world anyway! No, of course! Yeah. Or dance to communicate, you’re not in a
real or natural world. So how can you expand the milieu that you’ve
put these characters in, and still get honest emotion across? I felt your production of SWEENEY TODD did
that so beautifully. Really, I was so blown away by that, because
it was that perfect moment, where the whole thing was elevated to a place where it really
worked. Thank you very much. Well, those words, “realism” and “naturalism”
are very confusing words, anyway. Yes! Yes, forget it. And you know, we’re all sat here, we’ve
got an audience out here, being very real and very natural. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Would you want to
sit and watch them all evening, as they kind of just sit there? No, we wouldn’t, you know. That’s right. Right. I would watch. (LAUGHTER) I would watch. But actually, after a while, we’d actually
get very interested in that, because it would become heightened. By the very natural fact that we, as an audience,
are now observing you, it becomes heightened. Therefore, it doesn’t become “real”
again, we’ve become “observed.” As soon as you know you have a spectator,
you become – Right, it’s heightened. And let’s face it, we all perform all the
time. We’re performing now, we perform at home
in a certain way. It’s a different kind of mask that we wear. Well, of course. We’re all natural storytellers, you know. As soon as you start telling someone an event
that happened, how often are you telling it – are you reporting it? Aren’t you instinctively adding things,
embellishing, coloring, just by what you choose to leave out, what you choose to put in, how
your emotion colors that event? I mean, I think that you’re absolutely right,
there is no true naturalism, no true realism that exists once something is on stage. I think it’s all heightened, and it’s
all specifically chosen. I mean, I just, I go, “Oh, come on, Chekhov
was a genius, so beautiful what he did!” You know, you can’t, you know –
Well, one of the problems is something that you’ve mentioned, Theresa. What? It has to do with this notion of television
and film, which have sort of deracinated the theatrical expression. The story, yeah. And so much has been removed from it. Well, I have to say, that what’s the audiences
now have been trained. They’re not trained to think any more. Right. They, like, can only digest the simplest forms,
you know? And when you can push the envelope a little
bit, they go, “Oh, wow,” you know. But it’s like the majority of the audiences
don’t want that. They’re not responding to it. But this question has been asked for –
I don’t think that’s true, Joey. Sorry! Sorry. No, I was just going to say this question
has been asked forever, you know? Yeah. If you go back to Chekhov, you have Konstantin
in THE SEAGULL saying, “We need new forms! Something else is going to happen!” (LAUGHTER; AGREEMENT FROM THE PANEL) And he’s
terrible! You know, his new forms are useless and terrible. But at least, he’s saying that’s what
we need. That’s the argument. Arthur, you’ve been trying to get in here
for a second. I want to –
And it’s been building up, so I don’t know what’s [going to happen]. (LAUGHTER) I think I agree and disagree with
everything here. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) First, I don’t
think there’s any realistic theatre, in the sense that I don’t agree that there’s
realism and naturalism. Like, all catch phrases, it leads you astray. All good acting is real. And I think that it is real, because – and
I was just in Moscow – their actors are extraordinary, and they’re able to do things
that we can’t do here, because they work for four months, five months, six months,
on a play with directors who are used to that. And one of the things that Moises has is he
has a company that he works with. And our theatre is set up, and very much because
of financial problems that are put on by actors’ unions, and I understand that, but it really
inhibits the development of– Yeah. Not new forms for new forms. (TO MOISES) What I love about all the productions
of yours that I’ve seen, and they’re fantastic, is that it’s not new forms, it is ways of
telling a story. There is no self-indulgence. It is all focused, and it’s all real, and
the audience connects, and an audience understands it immediately. There’s no resistance, because they see
what it’s about. But you can’t do that in three weeks’
rehearsal, four weeks, five weeks, with a completely new cast. They know the vocabulary. You know who they are. They work in a shorthand. Most plays that are rehearsed here, in the
first five weeks or the first three weeks, you’re just getting to know who the cast
is. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) They don’t begin rehearsal
until the third or fourth week, and then it’s time for tech. You can’t do anything. And the commercial money comes in because
it’s so expensive to produce a play that the producer wants to know what they’re
going to get. When you start with a company that has built
up a rapport and a vocabulary and the kind of collaboration that should exist in great
theatre – nothing new, it is the essence of theatre. We need to do something. They don’t believe in this. And they’re going to find what the show
is supposed to be. And there’s no deadline, so you gotta do
it in two weeks. They’ll do something and then they’ll
do something, and they develop it until it takes its right form. There’s no resistance from an audience. They haven’t seen it and they can’t see
it, because the way the theatre is set up financially, it can’t be done. You can’t get the best actors out of Actors’
Equity to work in that forum, because the union will stop them, and they’ll say, “You’re
taking advantage of the actors,” which is nonsense. Not only are you not taking advantage of those
actors, you’re allowing those actors to flourish and grow and be seen. And be stimulated, yeah. And it’s terrible! And it has to be admitted. It isn’t that actors should be taken advantage
of, but actors who are great actors who are members of Equity would love to be able to
do something that stretches them and pushes them, and then they can go and make their
money. They are being seen, as well as writers and
directors. So that’s one of the great problems, is
that the union situation is set up against that. You need some sort of laboratory, yeah. Theatre, any – you put up a play that’s
supposedly in a real room, that’s folly! It’s not in a real room. We’re pretending to be real! The audience knows they’re not real. This is a convention, an artifice. It’s all pretending. And when it’s great, we believe the pretending,
like a little kid, and you say, “Hey, I’m dying!” You know he’s not dying. That’s not real. In a “real” play, if it was “realism,”
he’d die! You know, nobody wants that. So it’s all a convention that is used that
the audience understands, but it’s an easier convention. When you start to break those conventions,
you don’t have a ready template, so you have to find the new template. And you don’t know if you’ll get it the
next day, because you’re working to find what is real, and what is the real emotion
that expresses the emotion that’s in there –
What is “honest” maybe is better than “real” even, isn’t it? What is true. What is true. Yes. I’m sorry –
And so, you can’t define it with words, so it takes time. And so, we would love to all be working there,
I think, ideally. But even in a school, you can’t teach this. You have to go, and you have dedicated and
very gifted people who have a vision and they do it. And then maybe, all the groups that create
theatre will realize that for the theatre to flourish, it needs to make this available
to other artists, who want to do something that breaks the form, not for the sake of
breaking the form, but to get at something that is fresh and startling and true to the
human experience. Well, it’s certainly true, though, and I
certainly understand Moises’ frustration with the resistance. There is a certain amount of resistance. I don’t think it comes from the audience,
necessarily. But I think it is coming from somewhere, and
I think maybe it’s coming from the folks who rely on profits from shows to be able
to invest in other shows. And I don’t want to vilify producers. I’m not in that business of vilifying producers. But those commercial pressures often carry
a lot of weight. And I was thinking actually, when Moises was
talking about your production of SWEENEY TODD, I’m thinking also of the SOUND OF MUSIC
revival that you did, I’m wondering if when you’re working, Susan, on those kinds of
projects, on a revival, are there expectations from the producers to replicate something
that’s come before? Or you know, do you –
These were two very different situations. Okay. SWEENEY TODD started at the York Theatre,
where, you know, it was very much the situation that we were talking about, where you could
really work for longer periods of time, where people could collaborate with each other. It was very low-key. There was no budget. There was no problem with expectation. There had already been a wonderful production
of SWEENEY TODD not ten years earlier. So the show was a proven entity, it was a
masterpiece. Why I was doing it? I was out of my mind, obviously! (JEFFREY LAUGHS) But, you know, I felt, “When
else am I going to get a chance to do this show? So I’ll do it on a basketball court,”
which is what we had at the York Theatre. (LAUGHTER)
That’s exactly what it is! And you know, sometimes when you have nothing,
it really – You can make something. I tell you, adversity really (LAUGHS) does
help sometimes! And the shape of the basketball court, and
the closeness within this environment, so that we had to be sort of on top of each other
in many ways, caused a heat that I think I was able to then translate to the show. And also, it created a kind of strange humor,
that it became very darkly, very funny. I don’t know if that was the original – I
mean, Steve said it was – but you know, it evolved in a way that frightened me, actually. Because I sort of lost control! It took over, in a way? I don’t mean I lost directorial control,
but vision control. I understand, sure. It took over. And I said, “Okay, that’s great. Let it go. Let me see how far this goes.” I’m at the York Theatre! I’m in the Church of the Heavenly Rest,
who cares, you know? (LAUGHTER) There were no stakes. There was no money. It didn’t matter, you know, until the night
that Steve came back from Oxford and said, “Okay, where do you want me to sit?” And I went, “Oh, my God! The creator is here! He’s gonna kill me!” You know? And I think, “No, okay, well, if he doesn’t
like it, he doesn’t have to do anything. It’ll never go anywhere, and it’s fine.” And you know, he sat down next to me, took
one hundred and fifty thousand notes, and I thought, “My life is over.” (ARTHUR LAUGHS) But the end of which, he said,
“This is swell. This is really swell!” And of course, you know, for me to please
the writer (GESTURES TO ARTHUR) is everything! I think if you can in some way make that vision
alive, I think that’s what you’re here for. But then, so it started that way, and then
it moved to Broadway, because it got well-reviewed. So it’s going up in stages, sort of grows
through a process. Exactly, so it went up in stages, it took
on. And then, of course, when it was moving, I
became very careful that it moved into an environment that would allow it to sustain
what we had discovered by doing it on a basketball court. So basically, we found a little bigger basketball
court (LAUGHS), you know, uptown kind of thing. But there were commercial producers who wanted
to move it into a proscenium house. And I said, “Ah-ah-ih-ih … no!” You know? So that wasn’t going to work. SOUND OF MUSIC started out as a purely commercial
venture, in that I was called, I was asked if I wanted to do a revival of THE SOUND OF
MUSIC. And the first question out of my mouth was,
“What do you mean by a revival of THE SOUND OF MUSIC?” (JOEY LAUGHS) And I said, “Do you mean,
THE SOUND OF MUSIC as it’s always been done? Or do you mean, take a new look at THE SOUND
OF MUSIC?” And of course, they said, “Oh, no, no, no,
of course, a new look at THE SOUND OF MUSIC. You know, do with it what you did with SWEENEY
TODD.” I went, “Ha!” (LAUGHTER)
Completely night and day! Do you think? I don’t know! (LAUGHS)
Just go to the basketball court, and let her run away with this guy. Right! But also, I was dealing with SWEENEY TODD. I was dealing with a live author, and that
was a different collaborative situation. Here, I was dealing with relatives of dead
people who, you know, in some aspects were wonderful, in some aspects were very protective. So you were allowed to do only so much, and
then you couldn’t do other things. And now, even what I did, I’m allowed to
do, but no one else is allowed to do! So, it’s very difficult when you’re dealing
with a very established piece like that, and the authors are not alive. I always feel that if the authors were alive,
like with FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, because Jerome Robbins is gone, I think it’s more difficult
to do it. Well, Joe Stein’s doing this. And Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick. Right, right, yeah. Because people are trying to hold on. And Jerry and Joe, yeah, I know. But it’s so much Robbins’ production,
that to get a whole new breath on that I think is going to be a challenge. And that actually takes me right into the
next thing. Jonathan, how is that operating in bringing
this revival along of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF? It will be a completely new production. And this is a production that is kind of at
the heart of New York, in lots of senses. Yes. It has a great attachment to the people of
New York. And there’s this kind of idea, “We are
going to do a new production.” Does that mean we’re going to pull FIDDLER
ON THE ROOF into a new territory? No, we’re going to do FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Right. We’re going to tell that story. And we have three living writers, you know,
whose combined age is about two hundred and forty-five! (LAUGHTER) But they’re live, kicking, and
very very excited. And then there is the legacy of the man, the
genius who directed the original production and choreographed the original production. And there is an estate who is there to protect
what he did. And I have the responsibility of recreating
the dance choreography for this new production. And it is completely different, in essence. And the space that we’ve created this production
[in] is very different from the space that was created in 1964, because our audience
is very different. The theatre we work in now is very different. But my responsibility is to tell that story. And I also then have the responsibility of
recreating someone else’s choreographic work. There is no responsibility to actually take
on the whole production. We are allowed and given rein to actually
re-look at the piece. The three writers are very happy to re-examine
the piece and work collaboratively with us in rehearsal, as it was done originally. I just have the responsibility of recreating
the dance, which is very very exciting. To take someone else’s work, and in essence,
it will be fed through me. It can only be channeled through how I hand
that work over. But I think it’s more than just someone
else’s work. It’s Jerry’s work. Exactly! Which I think is just, to process that – it
was the best. Jerry was the best out there. Yes. With the greatest, greatest respect. And you have to –
Yeah. And it’s great to be able to have that privilege. But also, you have to, in essence, let go
of the legend as well, in order that you can actually see the work in its purest sense. Otherwise, you work from a place that actually
it’s a distance from you. And my responsibility to hand it over to dancers
or to fellow actors is that I can not have distance on it. It has to come through me. I have to channel, in essence, that man and
where he was coming from. And that’s going to be a challenge, because
my job is to take on that responsibility of recreating, but not in a way that it’s a
museum piece. Right. Not in the way that’s it’s just planting
something that was done that time. And he was a theatre artist, like I am, like
we all are, who observed the moment he was in. And I have to pay respect to him and observe
the moment I’m in, in the rehearsal room, with those actors. I have to actually take on that moment and
make that moment alive. And that’s what we all do, is we look. It’s very character-based. Yeah. Which, if you can just get into the character,
it all makes sense, yeah. Well, you know, we’ve talked a little bit
about the different ways of making a life in the theatre, and people who move through
dance to choreography and acting to choreography and directing. I’m sort of interested to know, particularly
in the cases of Moises and Theresa – I know that, Moises, you and the Tectonic Theatre
Project adapted LARAMIE PROJECT into a film. And I’m wondering how that process, you
know, changes. How does the process change when you’re
moving from the theatre into a film project? Well, I think that the main thing is that
it’s a different medium. If we are really saying, “Okay, what is
the thing that theatre can do that only theatre can do?” and then somebody comes along and
says, “Great! Now make it into a movie,” then the question
becomes, “What is the thing that film can do that only film can do? And what is the thing that the medium can
contribute to the telling of the story?” And it’s interesting, because I’ve heard
many times this panel say, “Well, going at form for form’s sake is a mistake.” And I find that so interesting, because nobody
would say, “Well, going at content for content’s sake is a mistake.” We think of form as something very divorced
from and separate from the story. And I think that that’s not two separate
things. You know, like I think it was Samuel Beckett
who said, “Form is content.” (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And there is a way in
which, the only thing that I consider a terrible mistake is to not pay attention to form. I think that as long as you’re aware of
both things happening at the same time. And you know, in Tectonic, we have this exercise
in which we talk about what the subject matter is or what the story is. And then we take a break, and we talk about
what are the forms that best express or deal with this? You know, so we keep both notions up in the
room. So that was something that we really did also,
we made it into a film. What is it that the camera can tell us about
Laramie? How can the camera tell us the story of that
town in the year after Matthew’s murder? How does the camera tell stories? Because I think form is all that we deal with. That’s all that we deal with! Because in essence, the real responsibility
we have is the two poles – the energy that occurs between two poles is the unknown, is
the thing we cannot control. And that’s the life of it. So we can actually only control the form of
it, because actually the life comes from a place that actually no one understands. And we can talk about concepts and work forever. Actually, why these are alive on stage is
a mystery, I feel, continually. You go and you see theatre. You know when theatre’s alive, and you know
when theatre isn’t alive, and the difference is a mystery. And we’re ritual-based. And you know in five minutes! (LAUGHTER)
You know instantly! You know instantly. Can I get back on the form issue? Yes. ‘Cause I was the one who said it, and I
still believe it. Being in Russia, because the directors have
so much time and the theatre is director-driven and the writers basically don’t write plays
on their own, they wait for a director to hire them to write a play, what happens that
I saw were very very many very gifted playwrights, but it seemed to me there was no overall narrative
arc to the piece. And the directors, very often the pieces had
dazzling theatrical moments, amazing form, but what I then discovered afterwards that
I was sensing from watching the play without understanding it was that there was no story
going from beginning to end. And the writers’ great frustration is that
they have no control whatsoever over this. And I was talking about American theatre as
contrasted with Russian theatre. And there, the form was being used as simply
an expression of a moment, but it didn’t come together. Absolutely, the form and the content are linked
together. But I know very often you get younger writers,
and I teach sometimes, that they’re starting out and say, “Well, I think this is a comedy,
and I think this,” and they’re trying to name it. And I say, “Do not name it! Don’t worry, the form will reveal itself.” It’s when you start to think, “Well, what
is it?” and you name it, and you say, “Well, it’s going to be realism. We’re going to have a dance that’s going
to do this,” then it’s dead. The two are completely wedded, but if you
think first – you know, I can think about form, and I’m really thinking the form is
coming in the proper direction. The two are linked. But when form for its own sake, then you get
Konstantin, “We need new forms! We need new ways to express something that
is a story!” So my reply, which is the same as yours, is
it’s all about story. And story is told through a form. So you have to know the story, and then you
allow the story to guide you to what the form of it is supposed to be. And that was this fascinating thing in Russian
theatre, where there’s amazing technique, but the directors didn’t understand that
these images must all match together and that there is a “Once upon a time” that happens,
in theatre, in dance. So I think it’s the same thing. You know, I’m also interested in, in terms
of what we’re thinking about process, it’s about the process also of becoming an artist,
you know? Yeah. Yes. (LAUGHS)
Those of us who teach always tell our students, and there are a fair number of students here,
and there are students hopefully watching us at home. And we want to sort of address that issue. You know, how does one become an artist? It’s a process. For me, becoming an artist is becoming a human
being, and we’re always becoming a human being, and that’s a great thing to say. But I’m sort of interested in how folks
got started. What kinds of training did you get? What do you recommend? Getting a benefactor. (LAUGHTER)
A benefactor is a great thing to have! Patrons. Loss of patrons is a real problem. The Medici, where are they? Yes, where are they? Yes, we need modern Medici! There are modern Medici, it’s true. I think of the Steinberg Charitable Trust,
and they’re great Medici of playwriting, in fact, in this country. But I’m wondering if someone could just
– like, Theresa, you’ve made a life in the theatre by making a life in television. I mean, you’re a very well-respected writer
of the “Law and Order” dramas, of “Brooklyn Bridge,” of “N.Y.P.D. Blue” –
Yes, but you know, and I have to say, I think that this is like perversely the opposite
of having a patron. Because over time, I became so – I mean,
because really, the difficulty – I started working in television because I needed to
support my family, and I felt grateful that I could do so, using my talent. And also, because if you’re not a playwright
who, like, hits, you spend a lot of time not working or just doing a reading here and there,
you know? And it was just, you know, that hunger to
work. You can’t underestimate it. And so, when I began doing it, and I worked
on some shows where I was really proud and challenged. “N.Y.P.D. Blue” in the early seasons was a great place
to work. But the more I did (LAUGHS), the more intolerable
it became, because there’s so much interference in the organic process. There are so many – you know, there are
story meetings and you have to sit around a room with, like, fifteen people deciding
what’s going to happen next. You go, “I want to go home!” And then the network’s calling, the this
calling, the that calling, I mean – and there was one show that I finally worked on
where I felt like my brain was being put through a sieve. And I just felt like that pressure, you know,
that pressure sort of pushed me into a direction where that became more and more intolerable. And sort of the artist erupts out of that,
I think. Yeah. Now, what kind of training have – Moises,
I know you trained at NYU. Did you work in this kind of company system
there? Can you tell us a little bit about [it]? You know, what I want folks to share is what
we can tell our students, the people watching us today. How can they prepare for a life as a theatre
artist? How can they make a life in the theatre? Well, I think that the best way to prepare
is to be in the theatre. You know, the first thing I did, I studied
in Venezuela first. And there was a theatre company at the University
where I was studying there. And I loved their work, so I came in one day
and I said, “I have some time off.” And for, like, five months, I was a follow
spot operator. And the particular show that was running at
the time, the spot was only lit two and a half minutes. (LAUGHTER) And I have to say, it was such
a thrill. And I think that, you know – and then I
joined that theatre company and I was with them for, like, five years as an actor. And then I realized that I really wanted to
write and direct, so I came to NYU, to the Experimental Theatre Wing. And the rest kind of like – there, you really
were able to find formally how to construct the kind of environment in which you wanted
to work. Theresa, did you? Well, you know, I actually had one thing that
I did tell my students for a while, and I think it’s very true, that you have to prepare
yourself for a chaotic life. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) You know? That you have to start to understand that
your life will not look like anyone else’s. Right, yeah. (GENERAL AGREEMENT)
And that you have to just learn to tolerate that and not put expectations on yourself,
that mirror of, like, social expectations. Right. That’s true. ‘Cause the whole work is the negotiation
between the pragmatic and the chaotic, you know? ‘Cause that is all the time. I also think the biggest word is sacrifice. To be an artist, you must sacrifice. What do you mean by that? We always think of the artist struggling in
his or her garret, you know. But what you mean by “sacrifice”? What kind of sacrifice are you talking about? Well, I think it’s, you don’t feel normal. I mean, as an artist, you feel like a misfit,
an oddity, because you feel from, like, the left side of your brain, and you have to function,
all those, the imagination. Your imagination becomes your intellect, in
a sense. And you become a slave to that. You’re married to your passion, you know
what I mean? And so, I think true artists, everything is
secondary. True artists. And I had to learn – I didn’t know that
I was an artist till about five years ago, you know? That feeling of difference, does that have
to do with just sort of the position that the arts have in American life? Is that part of the marginalization? No, I think it’s a position that it has
inside of you. Okay. Because I think as an artist, you go, “I
feel this! I have to do this now! I have to dance!” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) You know, it’s
like, “Oh, well, we have to go.” “Well, I can’t go, I have to feel!” You know what I mean? And actors are artists. I think actors are the closest thing to artists,
because they just get into this inside place, and they go, you know. As creators, we have to use the other side
of the brain to make sense out of that artistic vibe and put it on paper or communicate it
to somebody else, you know. I think the people who succeed in theatre,
especially, are just not fit for anything else. (LAUGHTER) I mean, really! I think that that’s the bottom line. You’re just not going to succeed anywhere,
so you might as well succeed here. You know, I always say that about myself. When people say, “Well, what else would
you do?” And I go … (STARES BLANKLY)
No, I think you can do other things. Like, what will make you happy, though. Except, I have to say, also, I know some really
quite brilliant actors, astonishing actors, who go for years without working. Or you know, who turn in an amazing performance
and then have the critics dump all over it. Right. Right, yeah. I mean, so there is – and you know, I know
a lot of actors who – But you have to not go away. I know, but there is real suffering in it. Well, I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s a sacrifice. You have to sacrifice. Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think it’s so simple that you
have to not go away. If it’s a choice, then the theatre is not
right. Right. Absolutely. Yeah, right. I mean, the world is not – it’s not like
you’re saying, “Well, now,” for a student, “I think maybe I should go to medical school. Should I go to law school? Should I become a playwright?” (LAUGHTER) You know. Yeah, exactly! You don’t choose it! You just do it! You don’t do that! However, this is the main difference with
film, you can today say, “Should I be a doctor, a lawyer or a screenwriter? I’m smart, I can do it, I’ll be a screenwriter.” That can be a very logical decision, and they
may make a lot of money. It’s a completely different kind of world
from a playwright, from an actor. If you’re an actor and you say, “I think
I’ll be an actor because I want to be a star,” you might be. But that’s not the actors that I respect. No. That’s not the artist. No. And it’s not the directors that you respect. There’s no choice. And it’s so scary, being a playwright or
being an actor. It’s probably scarier for an actor, because
you can get very bad reviews in a play in which you are doing what the director said
and you know it’s wrong, but you are a professional so you’re out there every night and you
gave a performance that you know you shouldn’t be giving, but that’s what you do and you’re
out there. And for a playwright, reviews can be savage! They’re like, “Why are you doing this? Why don’t they kill this person? If this person ever shows up again, we – you
know, how did this person?” And you may have a family or you have loved
ones and you see this, and if you wither, get out. Because it’ll only get worse. Yeah. You have to have some invulnerable core that
believes in what you’re doing and says, “This is what I do.” And then you’re okay, through all that,
because it is – It’s the only way you get through it. You have to believe it. Right, right. It is the only way! Because if you don’t believe in yourself
as an artist, anything, there’s so many things that pull you down. And as students, they need perseverance. And that is where, another thing is being
connected to other people who do the same thing in some way. Mmm-hmm. Having a community. Writers have to know other writers. Having community, and respecting other artists’
work. Being excited, thrilled by other artists’
work. And when a fellow writer or actor is moved
by your work, or an audience that you don’t know, there’s the juice. And the critics, when they come through, or
the commercial success, is an ancillary aspect. And if you luck out, you have a big success. If you don’t, you don’t. But you can’t live for that. You can’t depend on it. You can’t believe that because it’s successful,
you’re good. Other things happened. And because –
Well, I think, being an artist has nothing to do with having success. That’s right. It’s just being an artist. But that word, being an “artist” – very,
very personally – I think most of the time, I’m a fraud! (LAUGHTER) Someone is going to actually find
out that actually what I’m passionate about, what I do and I love, somebody’s going to
turn around and say, “How did that happen?” Because I feel a fraud most of the time when
I think – Well, that’s why you’re such a great artist! But that’s how it feels! ‘Cause it’s all lies. Yeah, it’s a lie. I’m kind of –
We’re all lying, but you lie to – there are certain masks that hide you. And some of those masks hide you, and other
masks reveal you. And I think it’s a great teacher’s nightmare,
is someone’s going to say, “You’re a fraud!” They’re going to say you don’t know what
you’re talking about, when you don’t know what you’re talking about. But you do! And that’s where this is not logical. This is where you say, “There is a truth
there, and that is what it’s about.” And someone else says, “This is nonsense.” And you can’t argue with that! No. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) It’s subjective. You can’t object to that. They didn’t like it? They didn’t like it! Right, right. Joey, what was that moment? You started to say, a moment ago when I interrupted
you, but what was that moment when you discovered that you were ready, you wanted to be a choreographer? That you were an artist of dance? I don’t think I had any other choice. You know, I was dancing. I got to dance with Jerome Robbins. And after dancing that, you know, JEROME ROBBINS’
BROADWAY, it satisfied me on so many different levels, technically, intellectually, emotionally,
spiritually. And I got to experience levels of choreography
that caused me to feel and act and emote and, you know, changed my life. And I couldn’t do step-ball-change to the
left any more. I just knew, right there, I can’t do it! I can’t do it. So I just said I needed to choreograph, because
I didn’t want to wait till I was forty-five and my dance career was over. You know, I should still be dancing. You know, on a timeline, I should do my eight
shows a week. That’s what I should be doing. I should have been doing that for the past
ten years, but instead I shifted to choreography, because I just had that feeling, and that
passion, that artist’s passion. And it wasn’t till, like, about four years,
after doing a few Broadway shows, that I finally went, “Oh, I’m an artist!” It was like, oh, I had started to care about
the process and everything. Before, “You should just get up and do some
steps!” “Oh, that’s just fun. This is cool. People pay attention.” And then you finally learn, no, you can actually
create out of nothing and move people and do storytelling. And that’s why I was fascinated. That’s why I ask a lot of questions of playwrights,
because I’m only now starting a new journey with collaborating with the creative side,
with the other creative people, as opposed to just going in, create a number! “Here do a little entertaining, duh-duh-duh!” No, I want to get into this room. You know, not worry about what the critics
say or how much money it’s making. I want to create the art and discover that,
because I’ve lacked that level, and that’s what I find most fascinating. Did you have a mentor who, you know, sort
of inspired you to do the work that you do? It sort of sounds like Jerry Robbins was you
– Robbins was it, yeah. Yeah. Can I ask a question? Which would be, what is the most exciting
part of what you do? That’s a great question. Is it in the rehearsal room? Is it when you’re conceiving it? Is it when the piece opens and you see it
works? ‘Cause I know what it is for me, and I know
for most playwrights – I’m not sure what Theresa –
And what is that, for you, as a playwright? Certainly, it’s not the play is open and
it’s a hit. It has nothing to do with that part. Probably the most exciting is in the writing,
when something is happening. Or it can be in collaboration, in rehearsal,
when something has suddenly emerged, when it’s collaborating. It’s when you no longer know who gave an
idea, or it’s a line and an actor does something, and then you see something you didn’t see,
and the director. And something happens there, and you say,
“Oh, my God, look what that can do!” Those are the magic moments. Those are magic, yeah, yeah. Or when I’m writing and suddenly it takes
over and I say, “Wow!” When you’re not – it has not – then
the piece is up, and I say, “Oh, thank God, it resembles what I want and the audience
is moved.” But that feeling is very different for me,
and I would think it’s when you’re not in control, but something is – I’m on
the right track? I think that’s right. You’ve said the right word, when you’re
not in control. Which is very interesting, because you think
of being a director, being in control. But actually for me, I love the rehearsal
process. That’s it. I mean, I could spend my life rehearsing. But there is that moment when something has
happened, and you don’t really know how. You know, yes, you put all those forces into
play, but all of a sudden, it all comes together. And it’s the music, it’s the choreography,
it’s the words, it’s the lyrics. Everything just comes together, and it just
breathes. And that, I think, those are the magic moments. I think that there’s also a moment when
that happens and you are completely without ego. So if you’ve written or you’ve directed,
or you’re an actor, it’s not logical. You can’t explain how this happened. Right, right. You knew you did the preparation. You’ve paid your dues. Something has occurred. It’s not inspiration. You haven’t sat around waiting for something
to strike. And you did something, and you’re an intermediary. You’ve discovered something. You picked up something and said, “Oh!”
and you were able to recognize what it was, and it happens. And then afterwards, it feels weird, because
then you are praised, “Oh, you wrote a wonderful play,” or you choreographed, you directed
it wonderfully. And in fact, when it was happening, I don’t
think that’s what you’re thinking. You’re there with this group and something
is occurring that takes you – Absolutely. You’re channeling it through the chakras! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL)
Someone asked me about a moment in SWEENEY TODD, and they said, “Well, how did you
ever come up with that? How did you ever come up with it?” And I went, “I’m going to really disappoint
you! I have no idea. It just happened.” That’s where some of the best ideas come
from. Moises, could you answer that question about
that magic moment that Arthur is asking about? I don’t know what – I think for me, there
are two moments. I was trying to debate, because there are
two moments that I think of when I think of those. One is just when I begin to think about a
project, and I begin to just – and I stop, and I find myself not being able to think
about other things. And when that kind of devouring thing begins
to occur where your mind, everything that happens only reflects and references what
you’ve been thinking about, that is thrilling. But then, equally as strong is, I really have
a great adoration of actors. I think that what actors do is just astonishing. And when I am in a room with actors, I find
myself always being elated. Even when a scene is not working well, this
crazy idea of somebody pretending to go through something or pretending to be somebody else,
or devoting their life to this idea of what is our humanity, fills me with such awe. Mmm-hmm. And just being in a room with actors, I don’t
know, it’s a big thrill. I still, the first day of rehearsal, or even
in the middle of the week, I’m like, “Oh, my God! Oh! If I could do that!” (LAUGHTER)
There’s a deep bond between writers and directors and actors, and you become the same
person. They extend you. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) They show you something
about yourself. You are connected. It’s not –
It’s that collaboration. It’s such a deep relationship that happens. And you, together, discover something. But what the actor does is awesome. And when they’re doing something, they’re
giving you a gift. They become naked. They’re on a tightrope and there’s no
safety net. And it’s also partially like giving birth,
because people come together and this thing gets created. And each moment, when it happens in a rehearsal
room or it happens in the pre-production between, like, writer, director and choreographer,
something, the musical director, you know. Which, he’s a – musical directors are
unsung heroes in musical theatre – Mmm-hmm. Because no one’s really aware of how much
work they actually put into the creative process. But you know, even when it happens on stage
and the audience goes “Yay!” or they start crying, those little moments, it’s like
you’ve given birth to something special. It’s alive. I worked with a Japanese director, Yukuni
Nigel (PH), and he made the same reference. He said that the playwright was like the father
and the actors were like the mother, and all the director was was kind of the midwife (LAUGHTER),
kind of just trying to bring this thing carefully, carefully into the world! How about you? What’s that magic moment? It’s very much the same. I mean, I actually really like it when you’re
in the room with them and something’s not working – this is my favorite part! Yeah, that part. Something’s not working, and then I can
go, “Wait a minute, wait a minute!” And you go, “Take that line out there. Do this, do this,” and you just – and
usually the actors know what you’re doing well before the stage manager or the director. You know, they’re like going, “Well, what
are you doing?” And I’m like, “Well, don’t, it’ll
work!” And then the actors all read it, and all of
a sudden it goes, kachung! Right. (GENERAL AGREEMENT)
It’s so exciting. There was a moment in – the Dramatists Guild
two years ago, had a gala in the spring. And the event that they showed for the people
who were there were a series of what were called out-takes. (LAUGHS) Right! I was there. Including an out-take from FIDDLER ON THE
ROOF, the initial opening moment from WEST SIDE STORY. A scene, Marsha Norman did one, David Henry
Hwang did a scene. Arthur Miller did an out-take from THE CRUCIBLE. And I was so proud to be a member of the Dramatists
Guild and to be a playwright, because every single one of those scenes was wonderful! And I thought, these writers absolutely, without
hesitation, cut a scene that you would give your eyeteeth to write. Not because the scene was no good, but because
the scene didn’t help the show in the long run. They knew – I wish that other playwrights
could have seen what good writers cut from their pieces. You do it all the time. We do it with choreography. You do it all the time! Right. You kill your first-born or your most loved! (LAUGHTER) Because you’ve got to save the
family! That’s the thing. If you’re a playwright or a director –
You know, one goes off the boat so everyone can make it, you know? (LAUGHTER)
If you can’t cut it out, this is not the business. That’s right. You’ve got to be able to say, “Hey, I’ll
do it again!” Mmm-hmm. “It doesn’t help? Poof! It’s gone.” It’s not good enough, right. Now, I know Isabelle has a question that she
wanted to ask. What does the theatre offer us that no other
media does? What is it that the theatre offers us that
we can’t get – Live! Live, yeah. It’s the danger of the live performance. It’s never the same. It happens that moment. That high-wire act. It’s a high-wire act, exactly. A high-wire act, and the actor gives you something. If they’re doing the job right, it is dangerous,
and it does something else. The audience completes the bond. Right. The show doesn’t happen without them. We can show a movie, and one person can see
it. I could see it by myself, and I’ll appreciate
it. One person can not see a play. This is a crowd, and this is what happens. And when that bond happens, and the audience
completes it. It’s why actors applaud the audience. They’re part of the production. Well, I think it’s more primal. It’s human nature. I’m live, I’m a human, and the audience
is a human. And together, it’s human behavior, it’s
like life, you know? It’s the cavemen around the fire. It’s dancing around the fire. Whereas, we’ve gotten so technologically
savvy. And we can feel all these emotions alone by
ourselves in a dark room. We can create the wall of –
Virtual everything. Virtual everything! The sound can be so perfect. And I think what theatre gives us now is,
we’re so in need of human contact. And that’s why, I think, theatre will always
survive, because we can’t recreate that. It’s a mother – you can’t recreate a
mother’s touch to the child, and you can’t create the family entity. And I think that’s why theatre is such a
bond, because you create family. Each show, we create a new family. We have to share and we have to love and hate,
we fight. And you have to be dependent on each other. And you have to be dependent. And I think that’s what theatre does. And we’ve created a little family here today,
with a little performance today! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) We’re just about
out of time, and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank this incredible panel for sharing
their insights into the theatre collaborative process with us today. And to thank Isabelle Stevenson for hosting
us today. Thank you. Thank all of you for being here! Well, thank you. It’s been so exciting to have you here. You’ve been watching the American Theatre
Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars, coming to you from the Graduate Center of
the City University of New York. Thank you for joining us. (APPLAUSE)

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