Culture Vulture: Jean Genet, Shirin Neshat, IT’S A SIN, and NOMADLAND

February 21, 2021

I have a theory that we will look back on this winter as the hardest time of the pandemic, second only to March and April of last year when it first came crashing down. Starting in November, when the weather started to turn cold, and lasting through whenever spring starts to thaw us out, we’ve been confined to quarters, enduring horrible news, ongoing dreadful death rates, excruciating isolation, mind-numbing boredom, and pretty universal depression. In New York City, Andy and I have been combating that somewhat with weekend art excursions.

We started our Saturday afternoon art adventure by watching the first explicitly erotic gay film – Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950), a silent film about prisoners and the sadistic guard who spies on them masturbating (an astringent sound score by Simon Fisher Turner was added later) – and ended the evening watching the latest gay erotic show, It’s a Sin, the latest HBO series by Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies.

In between we trekked to the Chelsea art district to see Shirin Neshat’s show “Land of Dreams” at the Gladstone Gallery. I’ve been a huge fan of Neshat’s work since I first saw her images combining veiled Muslim women holding weapons and Persian calligraphy. Neshat’s Iranian parents sent her to Los Angeles to attend high school, and she was enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley when the Iranian revolution occurred. She has not been back to Iran since 1996 and currently lives in New York.

For her latest show, she travelled around New Mexico meeting people, taking their photographic portraits, and asking them to tell her their latest dream. At the gallery 111 of these portraits hang, each of them with calligraphic additions – their names, their birthdates, sometimes the text of their dreams, sometimes images from their dreams.

In an adjacent gallery, Neshat shows a two-channel video installation that is a fictionalized version of her travels through New Mexico, juxtaposed with scenes from a sinister sort of factory employing dozens of lab-coated “dream scientists.”

Shortly after we walked into the gallery, a woman asked Andy to snap a picture of her and a male friend of hers. It turned out to be Neshat, who showed up to rendezvous with her friend and collaborator Youssef Nabil, an Egyptian photographer (above). So we got to meet the artist and chat with her a little bit, which excited the fanboy in me. I can’t remember if she told us this or if we heard her say it in one of the several YouTube videos we watched later, but she doesn’t actually think of herself as a photographer. She said she doesn’t own a camera, and indeed in videos she’s seen directing a cameraman who actually takes the photos. She has made a number of films, most of them – like the one playing in the gallery – pristinely shot in black and white, juxtaposing weathered unusual faces with wide-open stark landscapes. The two-channel video can be viewed on the gallery’s website at certain hours of the week, along with a 25-minute documentary about the making of the show.

While we were in Chelsea, we poked our noses into a couple of other galleries. The Jack Shainman Gallery is hosting “Half and the Whole,” a show by photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks of images from 1942-1970 that document the civil rights movement, including some beautiful candid shots of Malcolm X. I was struck by this curious, anomalous image from 1962 called “Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York.”

Some dazzling and trippy geometric prints caught our eye at the Dobrinka Salzman Gallery. They turned out to be early works by an Italian artist named Riccardo Vecchio.

Once you’re in the art trance, even trash on the street starts looking like readymades.

We had two more predetermined destinations. One was the new Daniel Moynihan Train Hall, with its gleaming interiors (currently sparsely populated of course, but envisioned to be teeming with commuters sometime), spectacular skylights, and all kinds of artwork including this colorful three-part stained-glass piece by Kehinde Wiley called “Go” on the ceiling of the 35th Street entrance.

After that spectacle, a walk up Ninth Avenue brought us into the armpit of Times Square, the stunningly ugly backside of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

In the grimy underpass across the street, one of several vacant storefronts in the neighborhood featured artwork sponsored by Chashama, the public art project enterprising curator Anita Durst operates using disused corners of her family’s vast real estate empire.

Our final art destination was the storefront for Playwrights Horizons, one of NYC’s great Off-Broadway theaters. It’s been shuttered since last March, like all theaters in the city, but incoming artistic director Adam Greenfield enlisted our friend David Zinn, the Tony Award-winning set and costume designer, and Avram Finkelstein, one of the founders of the AIDS-era art collective Gran Fury, to curate a lively public art project keeping the block activated.

The first artist they commissioned was Jilly Ballistic, who created a gigantic mural in the form of a dollar bill regularly updated with a reference to the number of Americans who have died of covid-19.

Being on Theater Row at dinnertime led us to one of our favorite local restaurants, Mémé Mediterranean on 10th Avenue at 44th Street. They were being scrupulous about allowing indoor dining with a limited capacity; there were only two other tables dining when we sat down for a delicious tagine and a shawarma royale.

It was a very satisfying expedition. We spent the after-dinner hours with It’s a Sin (just the first episode) and Shirin Neshat interviews on YouTube. Sunday afternoon we watched Chloe Zhao’s new film Nomadland on Hulu, an extraordinarily beautiful and moving collaboration between the director (I recently saw and loved her Songs My Brother Taught Me) and actress/co-producer Frances McDormand, who gives yet another spectacular, vanity-free performance as a miner’s widow living in her van barely scraping by as a day laborer on a series of hard low-paying jobs. Long wordless scenes of her rolling through Nevada, Arizona, Nebraska, and South Dakota eerily echo the wide-open spaces we saw in Shirin Neshat’s film the day before.

And then, as we generally do, we repaired to our separate abodes to cook food for the week. Andy set about making a big pot of jambalaya, and I applied myself to following Gabrielle Hamilton’s recipe from last week’s New York Times Magazine for Russian salad, which is refrigerating overnight and gave me a chance to sample a new taste treat I discovered at the farmer’s market yesterday – pickled hard-boiled eggs.


Culture Vulture: revisiting the Wooster Group’s TO YOU, THE BIRDIE! (PHÈDRE) on DVD

February 10, 2021

The Wooster Group’s contribution to pandemic theater-adjacent entertainment debuted a couple of weeks ago: “Fran and Kate’s Drama Club,” a monthly Zoom chat between Frances McDormand at home and Kate Valk from the Performing Garage, where the company is rehearsing a new production of Brecht’s The Mother. The Drama Club’s first episode showed some short documentary films by Julie Lashinsky from the Wooster Group’s extensive archives and brought on Hilton Als as talk-show guest. Als will return for the second episode, which happens Thursday February 25. See here for details and tickets.

Fran and Kate met in the process of creating To You, the Birdie! in 2000. This was the Wooster Group’s adaptation of Racine’s Phèdre, based on the translation by the late Paul Schmidt, a renowned man of letters who was a member of the Wooster Group for several years. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, the production featured the core Wooster Group actors – Kate Valk as Phèdre, Ari Fliakos as her stepson Hippolytus, Scott Shepherd as Theramenes, and Willem Dafoe as Theseus – joined for the first time by  McDormand, a Yale-trained stage actor who’s spent most of her career acting in films, including Fargo, for which she received an Academy Award, playing Phèdre’s maidservant Oenone.

I’ve owned the DVD of the Wooster Group’s To You, the Birdie! since they first made it available in 2011, but I never watched it until last night. Andy had never seen the show but had heard me talk about it numerous times, so we watched the whole thing. The single camera video couldn’t possibly convey the vibrancy and presence of the live show, so it was somewhat disappointing to me. I was more excited by the documentary clips that came as a DVD extra. But I was astonished at how much of the story and the play came through for Andy, much more detail than I’ve ever comprehended. We talked about how the first time you see a Wooster Group production you’re watching for narrative, for storyline, and that is often extremely frustrating because LeCompte (I’m going to call her Liz) could care less about that. When you see the show again, you relax your story-seeking mind and let the multisensory experience wash over you, letting your eyes wander all over the stage, where there is always something going on, sometimes comprehensible, sometimes cryptic. Impossible to see it all.

After seeing the show at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn at least twice (possibly more – and I might have seen some work-in-progress showings), the impressions I retained were stark and scattered: Ari Fliakos’s flawless naked body, Scott Shepherd’s phenomenal vocal performance speaking all of Phèdre’s lines sitting in front of two microphones at the back of the stage, the noisy and hilarious badminton games, the heightened sound score throughout (including snippets of female harmony singing created in collaboration with Suzzy Roche), Kate Valk’s absolutely diva-esque commitment to embodying Phèdre (with all the crazy things this staging asks her to do), Frances McDormand’s equally fierce commitment to ensemble playing.

One of the pleasures of following a company over time is watching beloved performers stretch and grow and do different things and build on previous performances. Opera buffs and balletomanes can get very geeky about bodies of work. I loved following the Twyla Tharp company in the early days, whose names and personalities I knew as well as the members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The core Woosters (Kate, Ari, and Scott) are absolutely rock stars to me, and I enjoy not only their bravura performing skills but also the humor embedded in the nutty, sometimes perverse things they (under LeCompte’s direction) push themselves to do. Case in point: throughout To You, the Birdie! all three of them repeatedly scratch or wipe their crotches, pits, or butts and then sniff their fingers or the towel afterwards. Like all running jokes, it gets funnier every time you notice it.

And then there’s the crazy scene where Phèdre is receiving some kind of colonic treatment conducted by a trio of female attendants holding a douchebag and insanely long drainage pipes while Hippolytus is holding the queen steady on an awkward porta-potty contraption. And the whole time Kate and Ari are playing some kind of game where she’s nibbling or licking his naked torso and trying to feel him up discreetly and he’s swatting her hand away. Some of this is just impy fun, but it’s never unrelated to the essence of the story being told, which in Birdie/Phèdre revolves around the humiliations of unrequited love, physical intimacy, life in a body.

After watching the video, I got inspired to haul out Andrew Quick’s fantastic 2007 scholarly volume, The Wooster Group Work Book, for which he pored through all the rehearsal tapes and written notes for five Wooster Group productions. I thought I’d devoured the whole book when it came out, but I discovered that I’d read all but the last section about To You, the Birdie! So I had the delightful experience of reading all the documentation and Quick’s interviews with Liz and Kate having just watched the show again. I’d heard that the project originated from Kate’s desire to play a queen, having played any number of maids and functionaries in Wooster Group productions. She brought in Schmidt’s version of Phèdre and the actors read it aloud, but Liz found the text boring and struggled to find a way to make it come alive, which only happened when they borrowed from Japanese theater the idea of one performer (Kate) playing the physical character while another (Scott) gave the vocal performance. Hearing a male voice speaking Phèdre’s lines reminded Liz of Paul Schmidt, so in some way the production developed as a tribute to him. (Schmidt died in 1999 of AIDS at the age of 65.)

Badminton was always key to the staging. “I usually need some kind of distraction, so I can think in the space,” LeCompte told Quick. “I’ll get people doing something that I can watch in the space and this lets me consider the possibilities without them all sitting around waiting for me, because I’m much slower than they are. So, I’ll often start with a game or something like that. So no, I had no idea how the badminton was going to work out. I was just pretending that I knew what I was going to do with it…I was battling to get some irony into a sincere performance and an idiotic text.”

The Wooster Group has always made sophisticated, eccentric use of video and sound technology in its theater pieces. Two practices that began as experiments have become central to the company’s performing style: in-ear devices (like the kind through which TV producers communicate to on-air newsreaders) and TV monitors playing clips that only the performers can see. Once I became aware of these tools, I’ve been wildly curious to know what information pours into their eyes and ears that the audience isn’t privy to. Sometimes the actors are receiving their lines, freeing them from the pressure to memorize; other times they’re hearing something completely unrelated to the work they’re performing. For this show, it turns out the director was sitting in the audience whispering directions and encouragement throughout the performance.

AQ: The fact that it’s you giving the instructions to the performers via the in-ear device seems to make perfect sense in To You, the Birdie!

Liz: I don’t do it in any other piece. I have no desire to.

For this piece, the TV monitors played scenes from Marx Brothers movies and dance performances by Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. Unbenownst to the audience, the performers interact with these video clips according to an elaborate, tricky set of rules devised during the development of the piece. The TV monitors present the actors with gestures, facial expressions, movements, or video effects to imitate with their bodies, sometimes tightly choreographed, sometimes left to improvisation. It sounds impossibly difficult to juggle these various tasks; it sounds a little monstrous, as if the director is manipulating the actors by remote control. But that’s what makes the Wooster Group so exceptional. They approach these complicated performance scores with the verve and skill of Olympic athletes while also looking like kids having fun playing.

In this passage from The Wooster Group Work Book, Quick’s questioning teases out of LeCompte a fascinating exploration of the difference between egotism and narcissism.

Liz: I like to set things up and steer them out of control.

AQ: I remember you talking about this in relation to the actors responding to the material that’s on the TV monitors that the audience doesn’t get to see. You describe it as something between imitation and sketching. You seem to want the performer to be working off the material in a way that allows them to bring a certain abstraction to their response. The relationship is natural, but a little off-kilter, but always done in real time.

Liz: Yes, doing something in real time.

AQ: It’s hard for actors, isn’t it?

Liz: Well, it depends on the actors. It’s not hard for Scott or Ari; it’s not hard for Katie. They do it naturally because it’s really the basis of great acting. I think the problem for a lot of stage acting is that it’s so often concerned with the actor’s desire to make sure that he or she is connecting with the audience. So, there’s always this little thing, this patronizing thing, that they are always one little second ahead of the audience, telling them what they should feel and what is coming next. I don’t want performers to be responsible for this. This should be the responsibility of the piece as a whole. It’s not down to individual performers.

AQ: So the ego of the performer has to push to the back?

Liz: In some ways, in other ways it’s pure narcissism. You have to have a certain kind of narcissism because you have to trust that the audience will watch whatever you do. A lot of actors have egoism, but they don’t have this kind of narcissism. Maybe, the egoism comes from film, where the actors always want to make sure that they are doing something important – this is so different to the narcissist, who simply doesn’t care.

AQ: This is quite a demand that you’re making of actors – to relinquish that control.

Liz: A lot of people I work with can’t do it, especially performers new to the company. For instance, Frances wouldn’t wear the in-ear device, she refused point blank – not that I demanded it of her. It was offered to everyone and everybody wanted to use it, except Frances. But for me, the fact that she didn’t take up the offer was brilliant.

AQ: Because of the role she was playing?

Liz: Partly, yes. But also because, without the in-ear, she’s the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on. She’s not in control because I can tell people on stage that she’s in the wrong place and I can have them move her, change her position – so she has to respond to the impulse.

AQ: It’s fascinating that in one of the rehearsals Frances is trying to persuade Kate to take the in-ear out.

Liz: Fran was going around to everyone and saying, “Take the earpiece out – rebel, rebel,” which I loved. That was exactly what I was looking for in Frances’ performance.

AQ: Because Oenone is so rebellious in the play?

Liz: Yes. So, I needed to channel this rebellious energy in her actual performance. Frances would be great in rehearsals, because she was really rebelling against me. But then, when we would go into a performance, she would suddenly become an actress and all that fun and naughtiness, which was directed at me, would disappear. I would say, “What happened to that energy you had in rehearsal?” I knew she was acting, that she was kidding me. I wanted to retain that quality she had in rehearsal in the performance.

I’ve often understood the various technological devices that operate in Wooster Group theater pieces sometimes as expressive sculptural objects – non-human characters in the show – and sometimes as masks of a sort. In the closing essay of his book, “Only Pragmatics?,” Quick writes very perceptively about how the Wooster Group performers use masks for liberating and expressive purposes.

When Valk speaks about what might be at the “root” of her own mode of performance in these works, she often invokes the metaphor and the physical reality of the mask to describe a means for moving beyond her own desire to generalize and control. According to Valk, the mask can appear in many guises. It is most obvious in the use of blackface in Route 1 & 9 (1981), L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…), and The Emperor Jones (1983), but it is also at work in the persona of the facilitator in Brace Up! And Fish Story, and in the on-stage relationship with the video camera, the TV monitors and in-ear technologies in House/Lights and To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre). The mask, however, is not solely a device that disguises and hides the personality of the performer. Nor can it be explained as a Brechtian device to expose how the operations of power and ideology shape social structures through the non-psychological medium of gestus. The mask has three functions. It establishes a sense of distance between the performer and the audience, creating a barrier between a two-way process of potential psychological identification; the performer with the audience and the audience with the performer. The mask also pushes aside the burden of always having psychologically to embody the character that is formed in the fictional world being negotiated on the stage. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, the mask works to displace the performer’s construction of their own subjectivity, the requirement psychologically to be themselves on stage. In this sense, the mask operates as a mean through which the performer is able to let certain notions of the self fall away. This leaves the performer free to engage as immediately as is possible with what the stage presents to them. In an unpublished interview from 1991, Valk explains this process by referring to the function of the mask in Noh Theater: “They say the mask is the device that allows for ‘spiritual possession’ because you deny your own self by donning the mask, and then you deny the existence of the mask.” In the Noh tradition, the mask acts as a barrier to the representation of a performer’s subjectivity. Then, in a crucial second stage, where the mask itself is denied, the performer moves into the complete state of dispossession (thus able to be spiritually possessed), which allows contact with the immediacy (the reality) of the on-stage experience. This is why the use of the mask is such a liberating device for Valk: “You truly discover through this two-step process of denial – that by denying your own physicality, and then by going a step further within your own consciousness to deny the existence of the mask.”

A footnote at the very end of Quick’s book led me to an essay I’d been looking for since I encountered it in the program notes for The Emperor Jones and Fish Story on tour in Europe. In my memory it was a long essay by LeCompte about watching TV as a form of meditation. I had it wrong. It was two pieces, a very short Roland Barthes-like list of “Rules for TV as Meditation” and then some “Notes on Form” compiled during the development of Brace Up! bouncing off of an essay about cinematography by French filmmaker Robert Bresson.

  • The TV monitor is visible to the TV performers and is used as a mirror of themselves. The mirror/monitor is used as a means of transformation from self to “more self.”
  • Actors are searching for masks of themselves — not for character. Who they are on the stage is who they are on the stage — period. They must be more “themselves” than in life.
  • Approach the play as a monologue of the playwright’s, not a dialogue among the “characters.”

It’s not necessary to know any of this to see and enjoy a Wooster Group performance. And even knowing these things doesn’t necessarily explain what you’re watching. It just makes this dense, vibrant, multilayered work that much more alive with mystery.


R.I.P Hal Holbrook

February 4, 2021

In 2009 Lincoln Center Theater celebrated its 50th anniversary, and I was asked to interview  some of the actors who had appeared on those stages for an article to be published in the excellent Lincoln Center Theater Review. What a plum assignment! I got to speak to 12 of the most impressive performers I’ve ever seen in my life: Kelli O’Hara, Billy Crudup, Leleti Khumalo (the South African actress who starred in Sarafina! as a teenager), Amy Irving, Patti LuPone, Kevin Kline, Philip Bosco, Audra McDonald, Cherry Jones, Sam Waterston, Meryl Streep, and Hal Holbrook. (Okay, I didn’t actually get to speak to Meryl Streep – she submitted her perfectly formulated remembrances of LCT by email.)

I’ve interviewed a couple of hundred actors over the years, usually when they were promoting a movie or show they were in. This occasion generated a very different kind of conversation, sprinkled with quirky, mundane details from the life of an actor. Many of the things these actors said to me were incredibly moving, vulnerable, and unexpected. None more so than Hal Holbrook, who died last week at the age of 95. Holbrook of course is best-known for portraying Mark Twain in a widely produced one-man show and for playing any number of august roles (including Abraham Lincoln) in movies and on television. He played that kind of savvy paterfamilias in Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter, which Lincoln Center Theater produced on Broadway. But our interview for this article centered on his involvement at the very beginning of Lincoln Center Theater, when he spent two seasons as a member of Lincoln Center Repertory Company, one of the many valiant yet ultimately unsuccessful attempts to create an American national theater with a resident acting company. The company was launched with great fanfare under the leadership of director Elia Kazan (famous for staging Death of a Salesman  and A Streetcar Named Desire) and esteemed Broadway producer Robert Whitehead, with director/critic/Group Theater co-founder Harold Clurman as executive consultant. When the first season didn’t get great reviews, Kazan and Whitehead got axed. Herbert Blau and Jules Irving (Amy’s father), who had been running San Francisco’s prestigious Actors Workshop, came in with their own acting ensemble and got rid of the previous company members, including Holbrook. [NB: The company for that first season included, among others, Faye Dunaway, Roy Scheider, Laurence Luckinbill, John Philip Law, Graham Jarvis, Salome Jens, Joyce Ebert, Tony LoBianco, Harold Scott, James Greene, and Crystal Field.]

Fifty years later, after all the roads he’d traveled, all the roles he’d played, and all the acclaim he’d received, Holbrook recalled those early days at Lincoln Center with a vivid sense of hurt and disappointment at how he was treated, which I found very touching. He also conjured poignant memories of working with Barbara Loden and Elia Kazan. I used only a very few lines from the interview in the article that was published, which you can read in full online. I offer here the full transcript as a tiny portrait of Holbrook not as Broadway/Hollywood celebrity but as a working actor with a strong commitment to the ideal of repertory theater.

Phone interview with Hal Holbrook, Jan 15, 2009:

An American Daughter had almost nothing to do with Lincoln Center. We rehearsed at Julliard and performed at the Cort Theater on Broadway under the banner of Lincoln Center Theater.

My main Lincoln Center experience was the beginning of the Lincoln Center Repertory Company. It’s a sad memory for me because it was something that I poured my heart and soul into. I wanted really bad to be a part of it and stay a part of it. They wouldn’t let me. I was forced out of the company by [Herbert] Blau and [Jules] Irving. Very upsetting. It was too bad what happened to that company. It was just beginning to come alive in the second year and they killed it off before it had a chance to flower.

The first year down there [1964-65] it was a very cold place. I don’t know if this is what interests you. When you came into the backstage door, my dressing room was with David Wayne at the very far end. You’d walk down that long cement corridor past door after door. Nobody said hello. It was not…it wasn’t the kind of theatrical company that you expect to have. Where everybody relates to each other and tries to be cheerful and helpful. It wasn’t that way. Why? I dunno. All kinds of reasons I suppose. A lot of the younger people were disappointed because they’d been promised a lot of stuff that never came true. There wasn’t the coming together, the feeling of a company that you above all wanted to have to start what’s supposed to be the great repertory company of the American theater. That’s a heavy load to dump on the shoulders of these people.

But the second year, when Bill Ball came in [to direct the 1965 production of Moliere’s Tartuffe] and brought with him all these actors who’d been out there [in San Francisco] acting mostly because they loved it – Larry Gate, Sada Thompson, Michael O’Sullivan – all these terrific actors who were friendly. They were fun. We had a great time together. Bill Ball surprised everybody with a remarkable production of Tartuffe, it became our first really solid hit. The whole second year became quite thrilling, especially since they forced dear Bob Whitehead out. Hardly anybody’s ever met a finer theater person than Bob Whitehead. They forced him out. Somehow it brought the company together standing up to Bob Whitehead, trying to do a good job. After the Fall [Arthur Miller’s play, based on his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe] played well. I was lucky enough to take over the role … I started playing the matinees a year before when Jason [Robards] was on overload because they started doing a lot more performances because the other plays weren’t working out. So I took over the matinees. Then he left, and the second year I had 3 great roles – leading in After the Fall, one was [Miller’s] Incident at Vichy, I played the major and apparently did very well. John Simon, our beloved critic, wrote that it looked like Hal Holbrook could finally act after all. Then I had this wonderful little five-minute routine in Tartuffe that Bill Ball and I put together. Working with Sada and dear Larry Gates. Larry was so much fun. After David Wayne left, Larry and I were roommates. He took over David’s place. Larry would get all dressed up as Orgon to go on, and he would stand in the doorway and he’d say, “Look at me! Being paid to dress up and look like this!” It was really wonderful. We had fun!

We had spirit, and the company started coming together…and they axed us. They took away the opportunity we had to build a company. That remains a sad memory in my life. The thing I wanted to do more than anything else was to do exactly that – to be in a repertory company and play all those different kinds of roles.

How did you join? It was a hell of a shock. I was out on tour with Carol Rossen, who later became my second wife. We were on a Theater Guild tour in the summer. In August, I was approached to take over George Grizzard’s position as an actor at the Tyrone Guthrie Rep Company. I think I was going to be able to play Hamlet. It was a great opportunity. I’d visited the year before when they started the company. Then George decided to go back, so that was out. Carol said to me, “Why don’t you have your agent call the Lincoln Center people and see if they would like to have you?” I said, “Come on, are you kidding? Kazan, Clurman, why would they be interested in me?” She said, “Hal, just call your agent.” I did, it was Milton Goldman, he called and they wanted to put me in the company. Just thrilled. I found out a year or so later that it was Harold Clurman who wanted me in the company. I always treasured that. I joined the company. [NB: The company for that first season included, among others, Faye Dunaway, Roy Scheider, Laurence Luckinbill, John Philip Law, Graham Jarvis, Salome Jens, Joyce Ebert, Tony LoBianco, Harold Scott, James Greene, and Crystal Field.]

The corporate heads of Lincoln Center uptown…they were building it, we were working downtown there in a wonderful theater they’d built for Man of La Mancha before we came. The corporate heads fired Bob Whitehead. Kazan was either fired or left. The top echelon of our people were either dismissed or left, because there was considerable disappointment on the part of the people running and creating Lincoln Center up there over the failure of this new company catching on and becoming instantly the American treasure that it was designed to be. Well, people who know anything about the theater do not ever expect a company born one year to become any kind of a treasure inside of quite a few years, if it’s a repertory company doing a number of different plays. So that opportunity didn’t get to happen.

Blau and Irving ran a very fine theater [the Actors Workshop] in San Francisco. I saw Michael O’Sullivan in Beckett’s Endgame. They had to get rid of us because they wanted to bring their own company in. We all had contracts for 2 ½ years, and they couldn’t fire us unless they forced us out. So they forced everybody out. You got down to Joe Wiseman and me left, and I just kept hanging on and saying “I’ll play anything, I’ll do walk-ons, I don’t care.” As long as I had one role in the whole season, just a role that had enough to it that I could make some kind of impression. I’m a guy who was playing significant parts in three productions running at that time. All I was asking for was peanuts. But one peanut where people could notice me. I was willing to start over and work my way up. They kept saying they didn’t know what the plays would be. We had three meetings. The third was in a coffee shop, we sat in a picture window, the three of us. I said, “Look, the New York Times announced the 12 plays you’re considering for your first season.” Maybe it was down to 6. “Out of that, just give me an idea of one role that I might have when I could make some kind of impression. The rest of the time I’ll carry a spear.” Well, they couldn’t tell me. I said, “Come on, we all know Hamlet. In the cast of Hamlet, what character might be the best that I could get out of the first season?” They hemmed and hawed and finally one of them said Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. At that point I knew that I had lost the battle with these people. I gave up and quit. The only person who stayed with them was Joe Wiseman, if I remember correctly.

The greatest experience I had, aside from working with Bill Ball and that company, the most meaningful experiences and one of the most important in my life as an actor was working with Barbara Loden in After the Fall. I did 87 performances of it all told. Working with Barbara Loden onstage was…I’d never been onstage with an actor who gave every single ounce of her guts. The commitment that she made out there was so…almost frightening that you couldn’t help learning something about acting by being out there with her. I developed a very warm lovely feeling toward her even though we hardly knew each other offstage. I developed a real affection for her in an unspoken way which we played out onstage. She taught me a lot. It was so immediate. It wasn’t anything you could get set for. Every time out it was a new animal. It wasn’t any feeling that you were repeating something, which is a wonderful feeling for an actor. When you’ve been brought up in another tradition…this is the thing we all strive for. It’s called by some people spontaneity, but it’s more than that – a real gift is another. I know a lot of people who are spontaneous, but it stops there. This girl, she lived through this role so thoroughly that you were caught up in it and you had to go right along with her.

I had one other good experience that I’ll always remember, with Kazan. I played a little walk-on in the original After the Fall, so he gave me the role of some guy with 3-4 lines with Jason. So when I took over for Jason, I had to create that whole goddam role myself. I had no help. I learned all the lines and worked on the role by myself. I was going through a very bad time in my life, and in some ways this role saved me from falling apart. This role of Quentin. That’s what the psychiatrist told me. I had two rehearsals with the cast, and they were not happy. They were not happy that I was playing the role as far as I could see. They all looked at me with cold eyes. Zohra Lampert would sit in the front row while I was running through this, no help, no encouragement. I knew they’d say, “Why the hell did they pick Holbrook to do this?” It wasn’t helpful. That’s not the theater that I love. So for the second rehearsal, Kazan came before I took over. He sat out there, 6-7 rows back. At the end of the second act, Quentin comes down these long stairs in this enormous soliloquy, which I had interpreted as a realization of his guilt. When Arthur Miller had me come up to his place in Connecticut to talk about the role, I stayed overnight at this cold place he lived in. I told him I thought the man was guilty and the play was about his guilt. I don’t think Arthur liked that, but that’s what the play was about. I started the speech, Kazan is out there, I’m all worked up inside and emotional. Suddenly I get hit with this tremendous emotion of what was going through in my own life, my marriage was breaking up, and I started to cry. But I stopped myself, kept stopping myself, could hardly get through the speech. I didn’t intend to cry, I felt so ashamed. I just sat down at the end and stopped. There was a long silence. I felt like an idiot. Kazan walked down to the stage and sat down beside me on the steps and he said, “Why are you afraid to cry?” I said, “Christ, I don’t know, it’s ridiculous. I don’t know what happened. It’s ridiculous!” He said, “It’s OK to cry.” He put his hand on my knee and got up and left. That was a wonderful moment for me as an actor to be given that wonderful encouragement by such a great director.

I could thank Barbara Loden for beginning to find my way into that kind of freedom. I could thank Kazan. At that time, her boyfriend was a Mafia guy, the kind who’d put the hand by the nose. He’d come around sometimes, a shadowy creepy figure. You heard this or heard that. We understood that this boyfriend was a tough Mafia guy and Kazan better watch out. I guess she was a tough girl, to go through what she came through, came out of the smoky hills of North Carolina, strangely vulnerable.

An American Daughter – my memory of the show … I had a lot of fun. I love Kate Nelligan. I learned a lesson there. People tell you before you meet someone, “Kate Nelligan, she’s rough to work with.” When I met Kate Nelligan in the rehearsal room at Julliard, she got up and smiled and me and said, “Hal!” and gave me a hug. There was never anything but wonderful feelings between me and Kate.

I also have lovely feelings from the rehearsal room. Dan Sullivan and dear Wendy Wasserstein. Wendy was remarkable. She was not precious about what she’d written. She’d change words around for you if somebody wanted her to. She’d come back every day and rewrite a few things if they were required. She was so in tune with the acting part of the production. Dan was the quiet black Irish type character who didn’t show much of a sense of humor. But he was patient with me because I was living in a hotel on E. 76th St, and I’d walk across the park and I’d always have some story to tell him when I’d come into rehearsal. I realized that I’d hold up rehearsals for five minutes to tell stories. After a while, I realized that Sullivan was being patient with me … then I could see him smiling after a while, he was getting a kick out it and so was Wendy. It was a nice feeling to create in a company.

The idea of a permanent acting company is so precious. It’s so wonderful when you are in a company where you generate these kinds of feelings for the work and each other. I really wanted to be part of that. I had to go out to regional theaters for the rest of my life. Tried to find it at the Old Globe with Jack O’Brien doing Lear, Shylock with Michael Kahn, Gerry Freedman Death of a Salesman in Cleveland. I had a good time doing all that.

I’m a clear believer that the health of the American theater, the true health has finally become the theater out there. The theater in the country, out there where people live. There are some wonderful companies. The Old Globe Theater under Jack O’Brien was a wonderful organization. Seattle Rep, Minneapolis, Louisville. I worked also at Hartford Stage. I saw wonderful productions there. I saw Richard Thomas as Hamlet there, I was astounded. I worked with Greg Boyd at the Alley Theater in Houston, that’s one of the finest theaters in the country. I worked there, my wife [Dixie Carter] has worked there. I’m going down to play Galveston again, just to get a chance to see the Alley. What Michael Kahn has done in Washington is quite remarkable. We should be enormously proud. I remember when I was a young man starting out reading books. Harold Clurman wrote this book about the future of theater in America, and he talked about the hope of theater spreading out, like it was in Europe, to cities where people live, who can’t afford to go to NYC to see plays. It became a quiet ideal planted in me by Harold and other people I’d read. Over the years, I saw it happen. It happened, it’s here.


Culture Vulture: Sunday afternoon at the Morgan Library

January 31, 2021

On a museumgoing roll, Andy and I met our friend Robert at the Morgan Library as a light snowfall dusted the city. I was keen to see “David Hockney: Drawing From Life, a smartly curated show focusing on the British artist’s drawings over several decades of a small handful of friends (his early boyfriend Gregory Evans, his dear friend Celia Birtwell who designed clothes for the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, art dealer Maurice Payne, plus self-portraits) and the final day of “Betye Saar: Call and Response.” When we walked in, we heard live music: a (masked) duo playing violin and cello. After we checked out the two exhibitions, we hung out in the East Room, where we happened to witness a marriage proposal.


R.I.P. Lee Breuer

January 28, 2021

Lee Breuer, the playwright, director, and co-founder of Mabou Mines who died January 3 at the age of 83, was one of the most original, uncompromising American theater artists of the last century. As a director he applied his wild imagination to classics by Beckett, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wedekind, and Tennessee Williams, on a scale from intimate (his production of Beckett’s The Lost Ones was staged in a stairwell at the Public Theater) to spectacular (The Gospel at Colonus, his adaptation of Sophocles with music by Bob Telson, enlisted two chamber ensembles and a massive institutional gospel choir). His own writing consisted of dense performance poems streaked with jive and jokes. A trio of animal-related Animations (Red Horse, B.Beaver, Shaggy Dog) led to an ever-expanding cosmic-comic mythological epic revolving around the recurring characters of Rose, a lovelorn dog, her faithless master John, and the “art martyr” Gonzo Porco. A true postmodern artist, he immersed himself in pop culture (beatnik poetry, rock and roll, Hollywood movies) while also cultivating serious scholarship in Japanese theater technique and absorbing everything he could from Bertolt Brecht as theoretician, iconoclast, and brash self-mythologizer.

Some artists labeled “downtown/experimental/avant-garde” are content to toil in a hermetically sealed aesthetic environment, but not Lee Breuer – he kept track of everything and followed all developments in regional and commercial American theater. In his own way he craved mainstream success; he got closest with The Gospel at Colonus, which became a Broadway show, a PBS special, and a Warner Bros. original cast album co-produced by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and was one of the most ecstatic performances I’ve ever witnessed. (When I first saw the show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I sat next to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, behind Leonard Bernstein, and a few rows away from Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close — everyone wanted to see this show.) His work with actors was phenomenal. No one who saw them will ever forget David Warrilow in The Lost Ones, Bill Raymond in A Prelude to Death in Venice, Karen Kandel voicing all the roles in Peter and Wendy, and Ruth Maleczech (his first wife and the mother of two of his five children) in Hajj, An Epidog, and basically anything she did. The late playwright Harry Kondoleon, who observed Breuer working with students at Yale, said, “He digs around in the back of your bottom drawer til he finds the dreadful secret part of your personality you try to keep hidden away, and he brings it out and makes it the powerful center of your performance.”

I’ve written a lot about Mabou Mines over the years and interviewed Breuer with other members of the company on several occasions – for a Soho News cover story (co-authored with Robert Coe), for an article in American Film about Hajj, for an Arts & Leisure story in the New York Times about Ecco Porco. The only time I got Lee more or less alone was when I interviewed him for an American Theatre cover story on Mabou Mines, when he was juggling multiple projects outside the company: an undercooked The Tempest for Shakespeare in the Park, a brilliant production of Wedekind’s Lulu for the American Repertory Theater in Boston, The Gospel at Colonus and a second project with Bob Telson, The Warrior Ant. When I look back at the unedited transcript (see here), it’s a characteristic slice of Lee in conversation – philosophy and practicality mixed with wide-ranging literary and musical references but delivered in a steady stream of casual, engaged, chatty conversation.

I like this picture I took of him in 2015 at the party celebrating Jim O’Quinn’s retirement as editor of American Theatre, next to Teresa Eyring (CEO of Theater Communications Group) and longtime Mabou Miner Greg Mehrten – a titan of American theater with his hand in his pocket and a sly grin on his face.


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