Albert Innaurato Gives an Exclusive Interview with SV's Bob Shuman—Part II will Be Published September 2
Innaurato’s short play Doubtless, produced by John McCormack, appeared at 59E59’s Summer Shorts series in 2014. Gemini, winner of the Obie Award, became the fifth longest-running play to appear on Broadway: premiering Off-Off-Broadway in 1976, and moving to Broadway in 1977, it ran for four years (1, 819 performances). The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie won a second Obie in 1977. Other plays include Passione, Magda and Callas, Coming of Age in Soho, Gus and Al, and Dreading Thekla. While attending the Yale School of Drama Innaurato wrote The Idiots Karamazov, I Don't Normally Like Poetry but Have You Read Trees, and Gyp, the Real-Life Story of Mitzi Gaynor with Christopher Durang. He was also nominated for an Emmy Award for Vera: U.S.O. Girl; additional television credits are: The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and short plays for PBS, including Death and Taxes. Innaurato has directed many operas, premiering new work as well as interpreting classics, for a small company in Philadelphia, where he moved to work at the Prince Music Theater. Adjunct at Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and Temple University, essayist, and cultural critic in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and very frequently in Opera News, Innaurato blogs about serious music and opera at: http://mrsjohnclaggartssadlife.blogspot.com/.
What’s the nicest thing that someone ever said to you about a play you don’t want to be remembered for?
I am so amazed when people remember that I wrote plays that I'm thrilled for a minute or two. I don't expect to be remembered as a person, let alone as a playwright. I've written some lousy plays, God knows, but really, people who remember the good or the bad, are so rare and so sincere, I'm grateful.
Who told you that you could be a dramatist and are you still in contact with that person? Why?
I began studying music (piano) at five, and got into a local conservatory program for "young musicians" at 10. We studied harmony, basic theory, music history, and composition. I auditioned over and over for the "young" composer's class but was always rejected. When I was fifteen or so I submitted a long song to a prose text. It was shamelessly cribbed from Boyhood's End, a piece by the great composer Michael Tippett. The words he set were written by William Henry Hudson; they are marvelous but I wrote my own. I worked hard on it. To my shock, the composer who was teaching accepted me.
The class did a lot of exercises, as a matter of course, but also critiqued pieces people brought in. On the first day, we were told to have a long piece in mind and to be working on it through the class–I think it was 12 or so weeks.
I wrote an opera, Mildred Vagina. It was about my mother. I loathed her, and her family, but I fictionalized it all. It was bizarre. When the text was passed around in the class (and in those days I had to mimeograph it, a nightmare)–they roared with laughter. It was actually hilarious–I'm not sure I really intended that.
Two weeks later, I had to play and sing two long segments I had finished. One was Mildred's aria, as she ate her husband's sex organs, and the second, a fugue (well, sort of) that she, and her three monstrous sisters sang about how fat her son was (I was a fat child). The class was hysterical all the way through–and they cheered when it was finished.
At my evaluation, the composer said to me, "the texts you've written have been terrific. I think you should write plays." I was hurt but after the recital, where most of the composers got pieces performed (I was one of two or three exceptions), I realized he was right about my lack of talent.
Luckily, I was going to a great high school for "advanced" students, all the way across the city from where I lived. I joined the drama club, run by a wonderful man named David Rosenbaum. I showed him Mildred Vagina and also another play of mine, where a group of nuns eat a beautiful boy while a fat boy sings and a pretty girl dances naked.
He did a "studio" version of the nun play, expurgated–we got the girl, rather chubby, who wore thick, decorated pajamas, from our "sister school," Girl's High. The nuns were played by boys, “very much in Greek style,” said Mr. Rosenbaum, whom we all called Rosie. It was so successful with the high school boys (it was an all-boys school), that he gave it a second performance before the principal shut it down.
Rosie said to me, "you are a writer, whether you want to be or not, but a shrink might help you as a person. Whether you do that or not, though, you have to keep writing EVERYTHING–but I think plays first."
So I started writing plays. He was a great person in my life, a healer, and I've never forgotten him. He’s now dead, and I am quite an old man. I can't say it was the most practical advice I ever got, but he is the one. Of course, for the work itself, I am to blame.
Do you ever find yourself writing about a place you don’t want to be in? Please give an example.
Perhaps my last play [Doubtless] was really about my living in Philadelphia now, although it wasn't set here. Earlier plays had been set in Philadelphia, but after I was sure I had left it for good, never to return. And here I am.
How hard is it to write about your childhood—and where was it set?
I have never written literally about my childhood, although I have used incidents and feelings; and the occasional character has been a composite of people I knew. I grew up in Philadelphia, but I call my city “a Philadelphia of the mind," a real name attached to a made-up place. Not all of my plays have been set there.
It's never hard to write about something if you feel you must, actually, whatever its source. Nothing is off limits. Of course, if the results are worth anything–and if you can get someone to do it–are other questions.
What character are you in Chekhov?
Uncle Vanya, a man of sensibility, and perhaps some talent, but lazy, shiftless, loveless. I am "dead alive," and Vanya and his niece, Sonya, end up "dead alive" at the end of the play. I always feel that Chekhov tells the truth about people. And it's not an uncommon late-in-life feeling.
What Beckett character are you?
Pozo, certainly; on a good day, Ham.
Why would Meryl Streep decide against performing in one of your plays?
She has been in a play of mine, co-written with Christopher Durang, The Idiots Karamazov. It got us all our first raves in The New York Times. He and I had just graduated from Yale; she was in her last year. But that was then. Now, she wouldn't know who I am. But she would have the very best question: "Why?"
What's the first play you ever saw?
I had an arty aunt who loved that Philly, in those days, was a great tour city. My first vivid theater memory was of the Old Vic; we saw The Way of the World. The company came every year for a while, and we saw The Importance of Being Ernest with Gielgud, Richardson, and Dame Edith Evans. I have a memory of Gielgud’s announcing Ernest’s death–the audience cheered. Then the Drama club got comps to the first tour performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We were just old enough to understand how amazing a play it was, although I’m sure none of us boys got it fully.
Where were you trained as an artist and how did you afford it?
I had a “free ride” at California Institute of the Arts, Music, and Drama. I was in my last year there when Howard Stein, the Dean of Students at the Yale School of Drama called my father. Howard–a most wonderful man and important in my life–had been dialing people with the name Innaurato in the Philly phone book-–there were lots of them, hard to believe, right? Finally, he found the right one. “We want your son to come to Yale, and we’ll help with the cost.” That meant a “package,” scholarship, loans (far less than they are today), grants along the way, and work study jobs.
For example, I was paid for substituting, as receptionist, for Howard when his full-time assistant, Anne Marie Appicella, had had enough for a few days. Hers was to be the very first voice I heard from Yale.
But I was determined never to come back from California. I was going to go to graduate school there in music (free ride again). All the teachers in music were pupils of the great Arnold Schonberg. I adored him, his famous pupils, those influenced by him, and those teachers, so my view of music was–maybe–a little skewered. My father was frustrated with me (and would scream, “But you don’t even fuckin’ drive!”).
Howard told him to have me call immediately. I didn’t. But my father did call him and gave him the phone number of Leonard Stein, with whom I was working in music. He told Leonard he would call at a certain time, and I should be there, as I didn’t have a phone.
Cal Arts was new and pretty shaky then, so both Leonard and Herbert Blau, who was head of Drama, and with whom I also worked, told me I should be in Leonard’s office at the appointed time. They were great men, and I realized they were really serious.
On the appointed day the phone rang. I picked up and this loud, twangy voice screamed, “Dis is Anne Marie Appicella, and I yam calling from da office of Doctor Howard Stein. Is dis you?”
That’s how I got to Yale, and the job in his office paid the best.
Tell us about your first job in the theatre.
At Yale, I ushered at the Rep and also did crew, for which I was paid. It was decided I could do the least damage to myself and others in a menial capacity in costumes.
The most dramatic thing that happened there was that William Ivy Long, who was in my class, and his assistants, one of whom was Paul Rudnick, then an undergraduate, stole my diary while I was doing something in the shop. I was quite a compulsive diarist at the time, and I was in love with another student. It was a blighted love, full of sorrow on my part.
I went crazy looking for the diary when I returned from the shop. They pretended not to know what I was talking about. I was sent on another errand. When I returned, there was the diary–-with a torn paper taped to it. It was an unsigned note:
“We got the gist, but your handwriting is impossible to read. Just WHO is it you want to fuck so badly?”
I think my first real world job in theater was reading submissions to The Ensemble Studio Theater of that era and writing reports on them. Curt Dempster was a big believer in me (sadly, he committed suicide), and they had gotten a grant to pay playwrights to analyze submissions. No one else could bear to do it for more than a few days. But I devoured all those plays and wrote very seriously about them. So I made decent money (relatively).
What’s the worst job you ever took to keep yourself afloat as an artist—and how long did you stay in it?
I coded for the phone company (MA BELL) in the big monopoly suit. It was insanely boring, and I was fired. Then I was a messenger. I always over-tip delivery people today. I’d have to climb six and seven flights of stairs and, too often, get attitude and a dime. That didn’t last. I was “trained” as a waiter and dropped an entire tray three times–I was fired from my training.
(End of Part I)
(Read part II:
Copyright © 2015 by Albert Innaurato (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.
Photo by Walter McBride. All rights reserved.
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