Category Archives: Interviews

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA INTERVIEWS STEPHEN SONDHEM, THEATER’S GREATEST LYRICIST ·

(Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interview appeared in the The New York Times, 10/16; via Pam Green.)

Lin-Manuel Miranda speaks to the man who has consistently remade the American musical over his 60-year career — and who is trying to surprise us one more time.

This story is one of the seven covers of T Magazine’s Greats issue, on newsstands Oct. 22.

Sondheim: I hope you don’t mind doing this upstairs, I’m feeling a bit under the weather.

It’s July 2017. We are on the second floor of Stephen Sondheim’s Midtown Manhattan townhouse, and he’s nestled on his writing couch. There’s a famous picture of him reclining in this very spot from 1960: young Sondheim staring intently at a pad of paper, Blackwing pencil at the ready, framed by two windows. His right hand on his face, deep in thought.

Sondheim: The writing’s not going well today.

Nearly 60 years later, Sondheim is on the same couch. He is 87 years old. He’s wearing his rumpled-writer T-shirt and sweatpants, he’s got a sour stomach. He is writing a new musical with David Ives for the Public Theater, an adaptation of two films by the late Spanish director Luis Buñuel, and he’s staring down a deadline. And here I am, interrupting his writing day for this interview.

It’s hard to overemphasize Sondheim’s influence on American musical theater. As a young man, he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the songwriting duo who revolutionized musicals with “Oklahoma!” in 1943. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote fully integrated songs that advanced the plot and revealed hidden depths in their characters; in their hands, musical theater matured into a storytelling art form. Sondheim built on Hammerstein’s innovations by experimenting relentlessly with subject matter and form: from his early lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s music in the seminal “West Side Story” (1957) and for Jule Styne’s music in “Gypsy” (1959) to more than 50 years’ worth of scores that have pushed the boundaries and subject matter of musical theater in every conceivable direction. He is musical theater’s greatest lyricist, full stop. The days of competition with other musical theater songwriters are done: We now talk about his work the way we talk about Shakespeare or Dickens or Picasso — a master of his form, both invisible within his work and everywhere at once.

(Read more)

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/16/t-magazine/lin-manuel-miranda-stephen-sondheim.html

Photos: The New York Times (Sondheim); HollywoodReporter.com (Miranda)

 

FIRE SCENE: BEHIND ‘BURNING DOORS’ AT LA MAMA WITH NATALIA KALIADA AND MIA YOO (INTERVIEW) ·

(c) Alex Brenner. Belarus Free Theatre presents Burning Doors.

NATALIA KALIADA, founding co-artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre, and MIA YOO, Artistic Director or of La MaMa, talk with SV’s Bob Shuman about their creative partnership, the U.S. premiere of ‘Burning Doors’, and how two companies set the world on fire.

The underground Belarus Free Theatre is in New York, at La MaMa, with Burning Doors, a production that examines how art persists under oppression. The troupe is everything Ellen Stewart wanted for her stage: illustrative and imaginative, their sacred theatre powerful, transformative, and moving.  Those who have read about the company know that they perform in apartments, cafes, at weddings and birthdays, and in the forests in their native country, stealthily hiding from established power, the situation so dangerous that founding members were forced to find refuge in England. They are beacons of resistance, bravery, morality in a world of human rights abuses, censorship, and brutality.  Stewart  found ways to bring them to the United States at the Under the Radar Festival, in January 2011, in a triumphant run—but it is here also where she died, leaving an unrecoverable emotional hole in her organization, as well as in the world’s theatre.  Six years later, Artistic Director, Mia Yoo, continues on at La MaMa, producing 60-70 plays a season; for two years prior to Stewart’s death, she was communicating with the founder daily on programming, as well as running the East Village-based company’s day-to-day operations. On the evening of Stewart’s passing, Yoo, gracious, smart, a stabilizer at the center of the madness of art, ensured that La MaMa’s signature cowbell rang, as it has since. Belarus Free Theatre took to the stage–an indelible image from Being Harold Pinter, one of its plays performed at the time, is of a young girl inside a plastic, transparent globe, trying to be recognized by punching her way out.  Two companies, from opposite ends of the earth–both reckoning with their own tragedies–entwined.

Today, just after humidity has broken in a warm October, Yoo recalls the first time she saw Belarus Free Theatre, at a Theatre without Borders conference, in 2009.  She didn’t know the company and was watching their play Discover Love, a true story of the Belarus opposition movement, finding herself moved not only by strength, but by vulnerability.   She found the work of the group intellectual and emotional—also of the body, about the body.  Unlike most theatre lovers, however, Yoo cannot simply praise:  she has to find production funding.  Around her, financial backing is drying up, particularly with the president’s destruction of the NEA, one of her theatre’s main national funding sources. 

Natalia Kaliada, founder and artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre. Photograph © Jane Hobson.

A group of singers for Simchat Torah is dispersing on the street below La Mama’s Fourth Street, third floor office. Natalia Kaliada, the founding co-artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre–and the co-author of Discover Love—is here to discuss Burning Doors, which, with Nicolai Khalezin, she co-directed and supplied Dramaturgy for.  She explains that the three dissidents her play highlights “put their voices on the front line, using their art to challenge the system”: Maria Alyokhina, of Pussy Riot  (she acts in Burning Doors and gives testimony regarding her nearly two-year imprisonment in the Russian system);  Petr Pavlensky (a radical actionist who sewed his lips shut after the Pussy Riot conviction, wrapped himself in barbed wire, and, as “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society,” nailed his scrotum to Red Square); and Oleg Sentsov (a Ukrainian filmmaker, fallaciously accused of terrorism, who has served three years of a twenty-year prison sentence). Kaliada herself may be accused of being a dissident, for her involvement in spearheading her theatre group.  When asked about Belarus Free Theatre, however, the Minister of Culture in Belarus responded by saying: “those people do not exist.”

Intense, visceral, and true to Yoo’s observation, Burning Doors is about the body.  Naked, sweating,  heaving, exhausted:  bodies as power, bodies as strength, bodies isometric, bodies scatological,  kicked, slammed, propelled, hit, choked, hanging, twisted, smashed, violated, betrayed, tortured.   The result is extreme-action dance, physical theatre, circus, combat training; a documentary of perception; an artistic expression of desperation and systematic violence, living unnoticed, unheard, under unknown totalitarianism (Burning Doors is performed in Russian and Belarusian with English surtitles). Kaliada and Khalezin are making a powerful statement on the horror of the failed state, a failed economy, the failure of justice, and the failure of democracy and freedom. The theatrical techniques used to produce such effects include use of the absurd, mime, dense sketch material, nonlinearity, existentialism, the appeals of the silenced, the folksongs of the deep past, cultural masterpieces by Dostoevsky, and philosophy by Foucault.  Kaliada calls her system:  Total Immersion. “We don’t talk about classics,” she clarifies. “We are not interested in them because today’s life is more challenging and interesting.”  Kaliada was not allowed to become an actress, her first calling at age sixteen, she explains, because her father was a former vice-Chancellor of the Academy of Arts in Belarus, and her name would stop her from advancing.  Her brother recommended that she become a diplomat, instead, because they also “pretend all the time.” She was hired by the American government, moving nuclear weapons from Belarus, but believes that had they not been transferred, Belarus would be more widely known today.  (Countries with nuclear weapons, as Kim Jong-un proves, have a way of getting noticed.)  “We do what we do because we believe in it. We have enemies. We also have families, mothers and fathers.”

Kaliada wonders what her children would think about her if she did not resist. Pausing for a moment, thin, her hair cut short, she says that, coming from Eastern Europe, she does not seem very polite, compared to those in the West.  “In a dictatorship, knowing that your friend has been killed, when death surrounds you, you become direct.  Belarus Free Theatre travels around the world. We work in illegal refugee camps in Africa and you understand that if people have a chance to access some arts and some money it would really help the world find solutions, peaceful solutions, nonviolent-resistance solutions.  My fear is that companies, like ours, may disappear.  We really tackle society.  You go to see other shows and there are so many jokes.  Human beings do not matter anymore! No one is connecting.  Humanity and the morality in politics are completely lost.  All the talk that the fourth wall was destroyed in theatre—that’s not true: It’s much stronger.”

When played, the recording of the discussion with Yoo and Kaliada reveals the insistent sound of the city’s voice: sirens, jackhammers, horns, traffic,  ringing and buzzing devices, which were not apparent during the focused interview.   These artistic partners—Yoo considers Belarus Free Theatre a resident company–one from a presenting organization, the other from a theatre company that’s creating vivid, critical theatre, work together, with missions that are aligned.  They are attempting to sustain and support what Yoo believes is “one of the most important theatre companies in the world today.”  She is not alone in her estimation.
“I hate to say that art has to come out of suffering,” Yoo comments, “but there is something to that, when you must push up against and challenge. There is a rigor and a boldness that comes out in the work that might not surface otherwise.  A different kind of theatre emerges.  There’s urgency.”

Urgent.

A theatre of urgency.

Burning Doors continues at La MaMa until October 22.

© 2017 by Bob Shuman, Mia Yoo, and Natalia Kaliada.  All rights reserved.

Photos: Mia Yoo (The New York Times); Burning Doors–men (Evening Standard); Pavlensky (widewalls.ch); Sentsov (the Voice Project). 

Visit La MaMa: http://lamama.org/

Visit Belarus Free Theatre: https://www.belarusfreetheatre.com/

Read the Stage Voices review of the work of Belarus Free Theatre from 2011: http://stagevoices.com/2011/04/19/belarus-free-theatre-in-repertory-review/

 

BELARUS FREE THEATRE

Returns to La MaMa with

NY premiere of

BURNING DOORS

October 12-22, 2017

 Cast includes Maria Alyokhina from PUSSY RIOT

 Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) – the internationally acclaimed troupe known for its stage works that confront some of the most urgent issues of the day – returns to La MaMa (66 E. 4 St. in NYC) with the NY premiere of BURNING DOORS:  previews are set to begin October 12 prior to a press opening Oct. 16.  La MaMa presents BURNING DOORS in association with Belarus Free Theatre, the only theatre in Europe banned by its government on political grounds.

 Devised and performed by Belarus Free Theatre, BURNING DOORS is directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada.  DOORS is written by Mr. Khalezin, with dramatury by Mr. Khalezin and Ms. Kaliada, choreography by Bridget Fiske and Maryia Sazonava and original testimony is by Maria Alyokhina. 

 The cast of BURNING DOORS includes guest performer and collaborator Maria Alyokhina of PUSSY RIOT, the Russian feminist punk-rock group, along with performers and co-creators Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Masheka, Siarhei Kvachonak, Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau and Marnya Yurevich.

 As governments clamp down and walls go up, BURNING DOORS examines how art persists under oppression, and how artists living under dictatorship illuminate complacency in democratic societies, reminding us of the true cost of freedom and the danger of passivity.  BURNING DOORS draws from the personal experiences of three dissidents who were arrested and imprisoned by the government of Vladmir Putin of Russia – Ms. Alyokhina, Petr Pavlensky and Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian national who has been imprisoned in Russia on terrorism charges after Russia invaded Crimea.

In the case of Mr. Sentsov, who has served three years of his 20-year sentence, his experiences are depicted as told to the creators of BURNING DOORS by members of his family, who have been allowed rare visits and received one smuggled correspondence from him during his time in prison.

BURNING DOORS debuted last year in London, where critics called it:

            “A scorching piece of theatre:  uncompromising, urgent and angry.  4 stars.”

                                    Financial Times

            “A spiky, furious mosaic.  4 stars.”  The Sunday Times

 

Belarus Free Theatre is the leading refugee-led theatre company in the UK. BURNING DOORS draws on the company’s own experience of political oppression and continues their campaign to stand up to artistic freedom and human rights across the globe.

Belarus Free Theatre has previously performed at La MaMa:  TRASH CUISINE, BEING HAROLD PINTER, DISCOVER LOVE and ZONE OF SILENCE.

BURNING DOORS is dedicated to Pavel Sheremet, Oleg Sentsov and all the Kremlin hostages.  The production features the following contributions: 

            –“Fear” and “Russian Contemporary Artist in a Russian Jail.” By Petr Pavlensky

            –“Final Statement” by Oleg Sentsov

            –Extract from “How to Start a Revolution” by Maria Alyokhina

            –“Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

            –“The Idiot” and “The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

            –“Lonely” by Boombox

            –Russian and Belarusian folk songs

BURNING DOORS was created in partnership with ArtReach as part of Journeys Festival International; Co-commissioned by Arts Centre Melbourne; Developed at Falmouth University’s Academy of Music and Theatre Arts (AMATA), and funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

La MaMa is dedicated to the artist and all aspects of the theatre. The organization has a worldwide reputation for producing daring performance works that defy form and transcend barriers of ethnic and cultural identity. Founded in 1961 by award-winning theatre pioneer Ellen Stewart, La MaMa has presented more than 5,000 productions by 150,000 artists from more than 70 nations. A recipient of more than 30 Obie Awards and dozens of Drama Desk, Bessie, and Villager Awards, La MaMa has helped launch the careers of countless artists, many of whom have made important contributions to American and international arts milieus.

La MaMa’s 56th season highlights artists of different generations, gender identities, and cultural backgrounds, who question social mores and confront stereotypes, corruption, bigotry, racism, and xenophobia in their work.  Our stages embrace diversity in every form and present artists that persevere with bold self-expression despite social, economic, and political struggle and the 56th season reflects the urgency of reaffirming human interconnectedness.

Scheduled October 12 to 22, BURNING DOORS will perform weeknights at 8 pm (no performance October 17), Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 4 pm.  Tickets are $30 ($25 for students/seniors) and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or online at www.lamama.org

PETER BROOK: ‘TO GIVE WAY TO DESPAIR IS THE ULTIMATE COP-OUT’ ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian 10/3.)

Sixty-five years ago, Kenneth Tynan identified the qualities of a young Peter Brook as “repose, curiosity and mental accuracy – plus, of course, the unlearnable lively flair”. Now 92, Brook may walk more slowly than he did but those gifts are still abundantly there. He is as busy as ever, with a new book full of aphoristic wisdom, Tip of the Tongue, and a new stage project, The Prisoner, due to open in Paris next year.

When we meet in London, he has just caught up with a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre, which he calls “one of the greatest musicals I’ve ever seen – a perfect combination of palpable emotion and dazzling spectacle”. To those who think of Brook as some kind of theatrical monk, dedicated to empty spaces and a refined austerity, his rapture over Follies may come as a shock. But Brook’s early career embraced everything from Shakespeare and boulevard comedy to opera and musicals. He directed Irma La Douce in the West End and Harold Arlen’s House of Flowers on Broadway.

(Read more)

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/oct/02/peter-brook-tip-of-the-tongue-the-prisoner-battlefield-olivier-gielgud

SHERMAN YELLEN’S OWN LIFETIME (iii): WRITING TIPS FROM THE WINNER OF TWO EMMYS, DEALING WITH HARD KNOCKS IN SHOW BIZ, AND WHAT HIS MEMOIR ‘SPOTLESS’ IS REALLY ABOUT ·

(SHERMAN YELLEN WILL BE INTERVIEWED ABOUT “SPOTLESS,” BY DONNA HANOVER, ON CUNY TV IN THE “ARTS IN THE CITY” SHOW.  THE PROGRAM FIRST AIRS ON FRIDAY, JULY 14TH, AT 10 A.M.  THE EPISODE WILL SUBSEQUENTLY BE SHOWN SEVERAL TIMES DURING THE MONTH—THE OFFICIAL SCHEDULE IS: 2ND AND 4TH FRIDAYS IN JULY, AT 10 A.M., 3 P.M., AND 8:30 P.M. THE SHOW THEN CAN BE SEEN THE FOLLOWING SUNDAYS AT NOON.  SHORTLY AFTER THE FIRST AIRING, THE INTERVIEW WILL BE ONLINE AT WWW.CUNY.TV. CLICK ON ARTS, SCROLL DOWN TO “ARTS IN THE CITY,” AND THERE THE SHOW WILL BE.)

Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, with a score by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which he and Harnick have recently reimagined as Rothschild & Sons. Sherman wrote the libretto for the Will Holt and Gary William Friedman musical Treasure Island, winner of the Broadway World Best Regional Musical Award (2012). Among his many theater works is his satirical sketch “Delicious Indignities,” which appeared in the New York and London revue Oh! Calcutta! His straight plays on and off Broadway include New Gods for LoversStrangers, and December Fools.

Sherman was librettist and lyricist for Josephine Tonight, an original musical he wrote with the late composer Wally Harper, about the early life of Josephine Baker, which The Chicago Sun-Times called “a shining new musical” and which the D.C. press praised for being “so hot that it sizzles.”

In his youth he worked as a librettist with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. Together with Sheldon Harnick they recently revised the Rodgers-Harnick musical Rex about Henry VIII. This new version had a successful premiere in Toronto.  Yellen’s teleplays have won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America broadcast on NBC, as well as an Emmy Nomination for his Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Beauty and the Beast starring George C. Scott. Sherman’s screenplay adaptations of classic novels range from Great Expectations to Phantom of the Opera. He has received awards in Arts and Letters from Bard College, and he is a frequent contributor of essays on the arts, literature, and politics to online publications such as The Huffington Post.

Sherman recently published his autobiographical novella Cousin Bella–The Whore of Minsk, available in a volume, which also includes his holiday short story A Christmas Lilly,” and a collection of three plays, December Fools and Other Plays (December Fools * Budapest * Gin Lane).  Sherman is married, the father of two sons, Nicholas and Christopher, and has three much loved granddaughters. He has lived in London and Los Angeles, worked in Berlin and Budapest, but home was, is, and always will be New York City.

Sherman Yellen talks, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new memoir Spotless: Memories of a New York City Childhood.  The final part, of this three-part interview, will appear, 7/5.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x 

Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, with a score by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which he and Harnick have recently reimagined as Rothschild & Sons. Sherman wrote the libretto for the Will Holt and Gary William Friedman musical Treasure Island, winner of the Broadway World Best Regional Musical Award (2012). Among his many theater works is his satirical sketch “Delicious Indignities,” which appeared in the New York and London revue Oh! Calcutta! His straight plays on and off Broadway include New Gods for LoversStrangers, and December Fools.  

Sherman was librettist and lyricist for Josephine Tonight, an original musical he wrote with the late composer Wally Harper, about the early life of Josephine Baker, which The Chicago Sun-Times called “a shining new musical” and which the D.C. press praised for being “so hot that it sizzles.”

In his youth he worked as a librettist with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. Together with Sheldon Harnick they recently revised the Rodgers-Harnick musical Rex about Henry VIII. This new version had a successful premiere in Toronto.  Yellen’s teleplays have won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America broadcast on NBC, as well as an Emmy Nomination for his Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Beauty and the Beast starring George C. Scott. Sherman’s screenplay adaptations of classic novels range from Great Expectations to Phantom of the Opera. He has received awards in Arts and Letters from Bard College, and he is a frequent contributor of essays on the arts, literature, and politics to online publications such as The Huffington Post.

Sherman recently published his autobiographical novella Cousin Bella–The Whore of Minsk, available in a volume, which also includes his holiday short story A Christmas Lilly,” and a collection of three plays, December Fools and Other Plays (December Fools * Budapest * Gin Lane).  Sherman is married, the father of two sons, Nicholas and Christopher, and has three much loved granddaughters. He has lived in London and Los Angeles, worked in Berlin and Budapest, but home was, is, and always will be New York City. 

Sherman Yellen talks, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new memoir Spotless: Memories of a New York City Childhood in the interview’s final installment.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x 

Best time of the day for you to write?

I rise at five or six and I write early in the morning.  Walk my dog at eight, and go back to work later that afternoon.   I love mornings when the world is beginning to awaken.  Living in NYC, the early mornings allow me to hear birdsong from the warbler who is sitting on the fire escape outside my window.   Stillness and quiet give me a blank page for thinking. 

Best piece of writing advice you can give someone?

To playwrights or memoirists?   Do not be afraid to produce a terrible first draft.  Be the totally driven writer, not the destructive self-critic when you start on a project.  Let the critic in you come out in your revisions, your subsequent drafts–but get that first draft down–and be generous with yourself as you start to work.  The ruthlessness can be put off for later.  And read–read plays–read Ibsen, read Dickens–just read during dry periods–and the company of a great book or a great writer will urge you to go on. 

What was the easiest part of writing Spotless?  The hardest?

The easiest part of writing Spotless was dealing with my mother’s early life on the Lower East Side, her life as a runway model, and her meeting with my father.  She had told me enough during my childhood to give me the material I needed.  And being a curious child I never stopped asking questions about the past.  As I note in the book she was an intelligent woman totally lacking in imagination–so she spoke the plain truth and although she had risen in the world from the worst poverty to affluence–mainly through her astonishing beauty–she felt no shame about her humble origins.   It was harder for me to write about my father.  I knew that I didn’t love him as a son should–because of his intermittent rages and the violence that often accompanied them, and I was afraid that I would demonize a man who was at his core decent and loving.   No, I did not love him in life and yet writing this book allowed me to look closely at his life and my own early years, so, strange as it may seem, I came to love him, if only posthumously.    Spotless also allowed me to live again with those I deeply loved, my late sister and my mother, and all the odd uncles and aunts who are long gone.  Although it is an intensely personal book ,so many readers of different backgrounds and religions tell me that they found their own past in mine, so it confirms my belief that the universal lives in the particular.  

You don’t seem to have been deeply religious, but how important is being Jewish, identifying as Jewish to you today?  Did it become more so as you wrote The Rothschilds?

I was raised as a cultural Jew.  That meant that in our house bacon had undergone a religious conversion together with milk accompanying meat, so that my mother’s two skinny children could put on some weight.   I had to do much research into Jewish life in the 18th and 19th centuries in writing The Rothschilds, since I decided only to use the first few pages of Fred Morton’s wonderful biography of the family as my material.   As readers of Spotless will discover in the last chapter, “An Italian Table Cloth” I came to understand the meaning of being born a Jew through life itself.   

How do you recover from failure?  Or the failure of not seeing your favorite works produced and embraced?  

The first answer is just keep working–you train yourself to live in the day and let go of the past failure, as best you can, or of the lost work that you loved.   Easy to say.  Hard to do. Not so sure I can ever do that with my musical Josephine Tonight or with my play Budapest–the best of my unproduced dramas –but I have the plays published in the book December Fools and Other Plays so if they do not reach the stage as I want them to do, they can reach the minds of readers.  

Spotless seems to be about New York, as much as its characters.   How hard would it be for you to leave it–or would that be easy for you to do?

For years NYC was my base.  I worked in London, Budapest, Berlin, but NYC was always my home.   Summers were spent in a ridiculously cheap farmhouse in Bridgehampton when it was a world of potato farmers and fishermen.  And there was a lost decade in Los Angeles when I worked in TV, writing the scripts that would allow me to pay for college for my sons.  But I am in love with my city and the people in it. Leaving it is inconceivable–certainly not at this stage of my late life.  Hell, I am eighty-five, still working, still hoping, still walking, still loving my family and friends and the world I inhabit. 

No, I do not leave NYC these days–not even for weekends.  The city has become one of my best late-life friends–and I assume that it would strongly object should I abandon Central Park and my surviving friends and family even for a weekend.  Spotless is more than about NYC–I think it is NYC.   At the end of the day it is not so much the story of a precocious child in an odd family but a love story between that child and the city of his birth. 

Thank you so much for this interview.

(c) 2017 by Sherman Yellen (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved. 

Read Part 1 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10594&action=edit

Read Part 2 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10694&action=edit

Read Part 3 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10782&action=edit

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x

Photograph permissions

Yellen photos courtesy of Sherman Yellen: (top to bottom) Sherman Yellen’s twin granddaughters; Sherman and collaborator Wally Harper; himself at age 40; Sherman’s wife, Joan.

SUMMER IS THE TIME FOR STRETCHING ·

(Dave Itzkoff’s, Erik Piepenburg’s, LauraCollins-Hughes’s, and Sophie Haigney’s article appeared in The New Yok Times, 6/28; via Pam Green.)

Relaxing on the beach? Dozing by the pool? Not these writers and performers, who are using the warmer months to take some risks, test themselves and expand their talents onstage.

Brad Hall

Over a span of some four decades in which he helped found Chicago’s Practical Theater Company, with an ensemble that included his future wife, Julia Louis-Dreyfus; acted for two seasons on “Saturday Night Live”; created the TV sitcoms “The Single Guy” and “Watching Ellie”; and wrote comedy movies including “Bye Bye Love,” Brad Hall says he has few career regrets.

“That’s because I have a selective memory,” Mr. Hall joked in a recent phone interview. A bit more sincerely, he added: “Those regrets that I do have are, exclusively, not doing plays that I wish I had done. So now I decided to say yes when people ask me to do them.”

Among the opportunities that Mr. Hall has embraced in this more receptive mode is the Gloucester Stage Company’s summer production of “The Effect,” by the British playwright Lucy Prebble.

Continue reading the main story

SHERMAN YELLEN’S OWN LIFETIME (ii): THE AWARD WINNER ON HIS FATHER AND FAMILY, FRIENDSHIPS WITH RICHARD RODGERS AND NORMAN ROCKWELL, AND WHAT THE DRAMATIST HAS TAUGHT THE MEMOIRIST IN ‘SPOTLESS’ ·

Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, with a score by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which he and Harnick have recently reimagined as Rothschild & Sons. Sherman wrote the libretto for the Will Holt and Gary William Friedman musical Treasure Island, winner of the Broadway World Best Regional Musical Award (2012). Among his many theater works is his satirical sketch “Delicious Indignities,” which appeared in the New York and London revue Oh! Calcutta! His straight plays on and off Broadway include New Gods for LoversStrangers, and December Fools.  

Sherman was librettist and lyricist for Josephine Tonight, an original musical he wrote with the late composer Wally Harper, about the early life of Josephine Baker, which The Chicago Sun-Times called “a shining new musical” and which the D.C. press praised for being “so hot that it sizzles.”

In his youth he worked as a librettist with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. Together with Sheldon Harnick they recently revised the Rodgers-Harnick musical Rex about Henry VIII. This new version had a successful premiere in Toronto.  Yellen’s teleplays have won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America broadcast on NBC, as well as an Emmy Nomination for his Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Beauty and the Beast starring George C. Scott. Sherman’s screenplay adaptations of classic novels range from Great Expectations to Phantom of the Opera. He has received awards in Arts and Letters from Bard College, and he is a frequent contributor of essays on the arts, literature, and politics to online publications such as The Huffington Post.

Sherman recently published his autobiographical novella Cousin Bella–The Whore of Minsk, available in a volume, which also includes his holiday short story A Christmas Lilly,” and a collection of three plays, December Fools and Other Plays (December Fools * Budapest * Gin Lane).  Sherman is married, the father of two sons, Nicholas and Christopher, and has three much loved granddaughters. He has lived in London and Los Angeles, worked in Berlin and Budapest, but home was, is, and always will be New York City.

 

Sherman Yellen talks, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new memoir Spotless: Memories of a New York City Childhood.  The final part, of this three-part interview, will appear, 7/9.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x 

What can playwriting teach a memoirist?

Plenty.  Playwrights learn to create a world onstage made up of scenes, comic and dramatic ones.   A memoirist, who has some experience as a playwright, can recreate the past in terms of scenes–and, just as a playwright must often choose to kill his favorite bit of dialogue, in order to advance the plot, a memoirist must know how to select from a full life of events, and select only those that are the most telling.  Although I have tried to adhere to the truth of the events in my life in Spotless, there are moments when I depended upon remembered dialogue to flesh out a character or an event.   I am about to become immodest but who cares?

Sheldon Harnick, after reading Spotless, wrote of it, “In Spotless, Sherman Yellen has brought his skill as a playwright to bear.  Reading his memoir is like watching a totally absorbing play: the characters come to vivid life and the event they experience registers as first-rate drama.  Bravo, Mr. Yellen! Bravo!”   I am not only kvelling inside, I am bowing.  

Your father suffered from depression–to what extent did you or could you understand him growing up? 

My father Nat’s depression was something I took for granted growing up.  It was simply part of the world, as I knew it.   As children we accept the most aberrant behavior as normal if we are faced by it daily.  Since he was also capable of euphoria and great generosity it was confusing as hell.  His was a world before tranquilizers, although his severe depressions ended in electroshock therapy–treatments that I took him to as a boy of fourteen.  As a small child I never knew who would walk into the room, that angry depressed man, or the loving, generous father.

My very calm mother kept the family together, despite the many tantrums of my father.  Divorce was not an option in those days. She balanced his instability; like many women of her time, she placed her children first, and protected us as much as she could–particularly when he became violent.   And despite having this unstable father, as the book reveals, there was so much laughter in the house. My sister and I grew up with a precocious sense of irony, an awareness of the ridiculousness of most human pretentions–and, later in life, I would try to bring that to my work.   As an adult I experienced some depression, that unwelcome guest who tells you he will only stay for a few days and always overstays his visit, but I managed to master it, and, for most of my life, I have been depression free–thanks, in part, to a life spent with a wonderful wife, great friends, and a loving family.   And a devotion to my work.

How did your father react to your going into the theatre?

My parents enjoyed my early success–I was one of the lucky few.  They saw my first TV show produced, when I was in my early twenties, and I was still relatively young when my plays were done.  They knew that I was living the life I wanted–and for all their concerns about my security (some of that justified)–they only encouraged my work.   My father loved theater and took my older sister, Simone, and me to theater every Saturday, from the time I was ten years old.  I am one of the few alive who saw the first NYC matinee of Oklahoma!, as well as the opening of Streetcar and Death of a Salesman.  Not appropriate for a kid?  Perhaps.  But I loved the truth that I saw in those plays on those stages. My father very much wanted us to enjoy our lives, but his demons often intruded on that enjoyment. 

You seem to have been witness to important people and events.  One of them is the crash of the Hindenburg–do you feel that there was a continuing impact because you saw that, or how do you think of it in terms of your own history? 

I don’t believe that my accidental viewing of the Hindenburg explosion–altered the course of my life.  These were not of my making, and even as a child, I knew that what was most interesting were not accidents but character.  I was, I suppose, remarkably precocious in my desire to study people and try to take them apart, like a clock, to see what made them work.  My first ambition was to be a fine artist, and I sketched everyone and everything I saw. As far as some of the notable people who came into my life–I can truly say I did not seek them out.  My friendship with Norman Rockwell, who provided a cabin in Vermont for my wife and I on our wedding trip, came from my friendship with his son.   Other notables, like Richard Rodgers and Sheldon Harnick, became friends because we worked together, in harmony. The experience of success or failure only drew us closer together.   It may seem odd to say this but I am a good friend–I care about the people in my life–and I learned early on that you do not abandon people in their difficult years–not if you wish to live comfortably with yourself, or your idea of yourself. 

You’ve worked with both Richard Rodgers and Eileen J. Garrett, two people from very different walks of life–but who would you say influenced you the most growing up?

You mention my work as an editor for the medium Eileen J. Garrett.  She was never a real friend–just a boss at my first after-college job as an editor at Tomorrow magazine.  Later, she was a patron who made it possible for me to live in London and work on a Shakespeare study by giving me a grant from her foundation.  A great year in my early life.  She told me that I had a wonderful “aura”–God knows what that is–I think it is a halo that mediums can see–and in this I feel she was off course in her mystical declarations.   If I ever did have a halo, it has slipped off me or tarnished in my eighty-five years.   I believe that she was the inspiration for Madam Acardi in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.   And I was told that she also inspired the character of Auntie MamePatrick Dennis having worked at her publication, a few years before I did.  I do love eccentrics–not as much as I love dogs and cats–but they come in a close second.  She was imperious, generous, a tad frightening, but I feel fortunate in having known her.  Through her I met Aldous Huxley and Gloria Swanson and other notables–great fun for a very young man. 

My friendship with Richard Rodgers is one of the subjects of my next book, Absent Friends.  I met him late in his life, when his health problems were tragically debilitating, yet I found him wonderfully creative, generous in praise, a true creative collaborator, and a man who did not look to blame others when a musical play did not succeed.  Rex, the musical that we worked on together, was not a success at the time–although after forty odd years, Sheldon Harnick and I have revised and reimagined it so that it is now the fine show we always wanted it to be.   It is soon to be seen, this summer, in repertory at the Utah Festival of Opera and Musical Theater in Logan, Utah . . . and to my delight, it’s sold out for its run.   Rodgers was very much a man of his time, one who did not show emotion easily–he expressed it through his music–and how wonderful that music is.  There is some stunning music in Rex, and I take no small pride in that, hoping that it is was inspired by my libretto.  Rodgers was a brilliant, witty man, a political and social progressive who lived what he believed–and he influenced my life in one important way.   I learned from watching him how one survives illness, old age, and losses by continuing to work–to keep drawing from within, rather than looking to the world for pity or comfort.   After Rex my wife and I were frequent guests of Dorothy and Dick Rodgers, both in NYC and in Connecticut–they were gracious and so appreciative of our friendship.   Friendship is a talent like any other.  It requires the ability to look beyond the self and take a true interest in the lives of others. Many biographers have stressed the negative side of Rodgers–a view encouraged by his late daughter Mary.  My experience, however, as his friend was altogether different.  But I know, from my early life, that we are many things to different people.  My father employed the handicapped and minorities in his sweater factory–nobody did that at that time.  He had an understanding of suffering and, in his work, he acted on his best instincts–this man, beloved by his employees, was an altogether different man than the terror we faced at home.  That is part of the mystery of being human. 

Do you consider yourself lucky?  

Yes, in family and friendships.   Some days when I consider the plays I have written that I love, those which have yet to find a production, and the best of my musicals  Josephine Tonight, written with the late composer Wally Harper, one that received superb reviews in Chicago and in Alexandria, I get exasperated that my best work has never come to NYC–I feel unlucky about this musical but I get over it.  It takes so much energy and so much financing to get a play on in this city today that I am happy that I can now devote myself to my memoir writing, and see my work produced in regional theaters.  

Thank you so much.  We’ll look forward to next week.

Read Part 1 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10594&action=edit

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x

Photograph permissions

Yellen photos courtesy of Sherman Yellen.

Sheldon Harnick and Sherman Yellen: The Forward.

Norman Rockwell: Saturday Evening Post.

 

SHERMAN YELLEN’S OWN LIFETIME:  THE AWARD-WINNING PLAYWRIGHT, LIBRETTIST, SCREENWRITER, AND LYRICIST ON OLD NEW YORK AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD,  CENTRAL PARK NOW, AND BECOMING  JOHN ADAMS, MAYER ROTHSCHILD, AND THE OBSERVANT CHILD IN HIS NEW MEMOIR ‘SPOTLESS’ ·

 

Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, with a score by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which he and Harnick have recently reimagined as Rothschild & Sons. Sherman wrote the libretto for the Will Holt and Gary William Friedman musical Treasure Island, winner of the Broadway World Best Regional Musical Award (2012). Among his many theater works is his satirical sketch “Delicious Indignities,” which appeared in the New York and London revue Oh! Calcutta! His straight plays on and off Broadway include New Gods for LoversStrangers, and December Fools.  

Sherman was librettist and lyricist for Josephine Tonight, an original musical he wrote with the late composer Wally Harper, about the early life of Josephine Baker, which The Chicago Sun-Times called “a shining new musical” and which the D.C. press praised for being “so hot that it sizzles.”

In his youth he worked as a librettist with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. Together with Sheldon Harnick they recently revised the Rodgers-Harnick musical Rex about Henry VIII. This new version had a successful premiere in Toronto.  Yellen’s teleplays have won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America broadcast on NBC, as well as an Emmy Nomination for his Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Beauty and the Beast starring George C. Scott. Sherman’s screenplay adaptations of classic novels range from Great Expectations to Phantom of the Opera. He has received awards in Arts and Letters from Bard College, and he is a frequent contributor of essays on the arts, literature, and politics to online publications such as The Huffington Post.

Sherman recently published his autobiographical novella Cousin Bella–The Whore of Minsk, available in a volume, which also includes his holiday short story A Christmas Lilly,” and a collection of three plays, December Fools and Other Plays (December Fools * Budapest * Gin Lane).  Sherman is married, the father of two sons, Nicholas and Christopher, and has three much loved granddaughters. He has lived in London and Los Angeles, worked in Berlin and Budapest, but home was, is, and always will be New York City.

Sherman Yellen talks, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new memoir Spotless: Memories of a New York City Childhood.  The second part, of this three-part interview, will appear, 6/28.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x 

How are the Yellens, the Rothschilds, and the Adamses the same; how are they different?

When I write about people I can only do so by connecting them to myself, my character, my beliefs, and my experiences.   All three: the Yellens, the Rothschilds, and the Adamses come from very different cultures, but what they share is a deep belief that the world must be better, and we must work to make it so.   It may sound foolish but, while writing these very different works, I became John Adams, Mayer Rothschild, and the little boy who inhabits Spotless, the saga of my family.  If we don’t bring ourselves to everything we write, there can be little truth or passion in the writing–it becomes a dry history rather than drama.   The trick is to find some part of yourself in every character you write, even the nasty ones.  For a while I had the joy of being John Adams, Mayer Rothschild, and, late in life, the observant child that I was.   

Did you ever believe that you would excel in writing about families–or how would you describe your new book?

I’ve always had a deep interest in families–what holds them together, what pulls them apart–probably flowing from the closeness of my own family– both my first family, the one in Spotless,  and the second, with my wife, Joan, which has lasted nearly 64 years.  I am deeply interested in how we remember those who are gone:  For me, Spotless was an attempt to recall and recreate what I had experienced as a child of the ‘30s and ‘40s–to go deeper yet into that world of my grandparents and parents: their journey, from European and Lower East Side poverty to affluence, and the cost of it, for everyone who traveled that very American path.   It is summed up by critic/novelist Christopher Davis who said, “Spotless is a story of family love trapped in the old world’s hurricane of desire to share in American dreaming.”

How did you decide on the title?  Tell us about it.

The title Spotless has several meanings–it certainly has little to do with that questioning, and somewhat judgmental, child on the cover of the book, a born observer:  indeed, the title has more to do with my mother’s use of the word to describe the character of a friend, a housekeeper, or the kitchen floor in our apartment.  In a sense it was her ideal.  She came from a world where half her family died of TB–spots on the lung were the sign of that disease.  To be Spotless was, for her, to be safe, healthy, and to be alive.  

You write that hardship “doesn’t often make people better, it just makes them harder.” You are referring to the Depression and the ‘40s.  Have you noticed other periods when people became harder–and have there been times when they seemed otherwise? 

My observation is a generalization, and, like most, it is only partially true.   There are people who rise up from their own despair to help others in the worst of times, but I have observed that many who have suffered are locked into their own cages of suffering, and they have not found a key to escape.  I do believe that we learn and grow more from kindness than from suffering.  Corny?  Maybe.  But I have found the truth in this over a long lifetime.

What do you miss most about the New York you grew up in (the book brings up cultural references, such as Baby Peggy, Olive Thomas, and Sonja Henie)? 

I miss so many of the old pleasures of the old NYC: the trolley cars in the Bronx, the double-decker buses on Fifth Avenue, the old Schrafft’s restaurants, where my parents took me for a Sunday lunch, and I miss the mom-and-pop stores that helped to create the New York of neighborhoods–I miss the old Reuben’s Restaurant, of the 1950s, which allowed my wife and I to dine with our schnauzer Gus seated beside us–before the health police took charge of the city.   I love the spirit of that city, before real estate became the King of New York, driving the small shopkeepers out and bringing in those ubiquitous banks and chain stores.  And I miss the affordable price of a theater ticket, and the smaller, more human scale of the city.  An example of that is the old MOMA.  I would go there with my friends and girlfriends, as a teenager at the High School of Music & Art–a kid who loved fine art–and it was a welcoming place.  Today, it is a glass palace, an expensive tourist spot, not the warm, second home for many art-loving city kids.  Needless to say, I loved the New York that didn’t have a Trump Tower and kept its Trumps sequestered in Queens.

I am not one who subscribes to the idea that the high cost of living in NYC is proportionate with the cost of living in the past.  Baloney!  The world was affordable for those who were not in the one percent.  It was there for most of the residents–even during the Depression.  I miss the courtesies that made for a gentler city, and oh Lord, do I miss those marvelous movie theaters–growing up, as I did, in the golden age of Hollywood.  Nothing short of heaven itself can replicate the grandeur of the old Loew’s Paradise, on the Grand Concourse, and its sister theaters throughout the boroughs.    I do not miss the bigotry of that time, but we may have traded it in for the repellant hard-nosed ambition that I often see today.   But oh, the beauty of Central Park now–almost nothing compares with it in the past–and the everyday mix of races and classes in NYC makes me proud to be a New Yorker.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x

 

(c) 2017 by Sherman Yellen (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Yellen family photos: Courtesy of the Sherman Yellen. All rights reserved.

Central Park: Fodor’s Travel Guides.

BEOWULF BORITT, SET DESIGNER, RENOVATES HIS HOME ·

(Joanne Kaufman’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/26; via Pam Green.)

What I Love

It may well be, as the saying goes, that doctors’ wives die young, shoemakers’ children go barefoot and car mechanics drive wrecks. But if Beowulf Boritt is any proof, set designers would sooner hand over their staple guns than give short shrift to home sweet (and soignée) home.

For 15 years, Mr. Boritt, who is 46 but looks like a graduate student, lived in a 1950s-era Sutton Place co-op in New York, where he and his wife, the actress Mimi Bilinski, combined a studio and a one-bedroom. The building may have been postwar, but the couple’s apartment was anything but.

“I did all my set-designer tricks to make it look prewar,” said Mr. Boritt, who added crown moldings, redid the baseboards and installed French doors.

(Read more)

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/26/realestate/beowulf-boritt-set-designer-renovates-his-home.html?_r=0

Photo: iapot.tv

DAVE MALLOY WROTE ‘THE GREAT COMET,’ BUT HE’S NOT MUCH OF A PAINTER ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 52/5; via Pam Green.)

The composer and performer Dave Malloy isn’t the kind of New Yorker who can look at a room and instantly tell you its square footage. How big is his rehearsal studio, on a block of old industrial buildings in Gowanus, Brooklyn? “I’m six foot tall,” Mr. Malloy, 41, said this week, eyeing the dimensions. “So if I lay down twice — it’s probably 13 by 11 or something like that?”

With an upright piano against one wall and a wooden thumb piano hanging from another, this unassuming space strung with festive mini-lights is where he writes — though the flurry of awards season has put that on pause for the past month. “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” his immersive stage adaptation of a section of “War and Peace,” is up for 12 Tony Awards, including best musical. His book, score and orchestrations are all nominated.

(Read more)

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/25/arts/design/dave-malloy-wrote-the-great-comet-but-hes-not-much-of-a-painter.html

 

CRAIG SMITH ON ORTON—50 YEARS LATER: THE PRODUCING ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF PHOENIX THEATRE ENSEMBLE AND ‘ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE’ (ONLY THROUGH MAY 14), ADVANCING THE STORY, AND DIRECTING A MODERN CLASSIC ·

Craig Smith is Producing Artistic Director of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.  He was an ensemble member of New York’s prestigious Jean Cocteau Repertory where he made his artistic home for more than 3 decades appearing in over 200 productions from Stoppard to Shakespeare and Sophocles to Williams. In 2004, Craig and four colleagues founded the award-winning Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.   Now under the direction of Mr. Smith and Artistic Director, Elise Stone,  Phoenix presents  3 to 6 productions of new and classical works annually, a reading and new play development series, and an arts-in-education program for NYC public schools.  He is the recipient of the President of the Borough of Manhattan’s Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts and Community Service.

Craig Smith talks with SV’s Bob Shuman about his new production at the Wild Project.

One question you’d ask Joe Orton if he was around?

Your work in Entertaining Mr.  Sloane has a tragic through-line that has the emotional impact equal to that of Arthur Miller.  You moved away from this with Loot and What the Butler Saw–why? 

One of the early reviewers of Entertaining Mr. Sloane called it a “dirty highbrow play.”  Is it? 

Orton was a 1960’s rebel–Ed and Sloane are in the words of critic Randy Gener, “rapacious bisexuals”–the play’s raw treatment of sexuality was new and titillating in 1964.  But the real dirt is the way family members treat each other–no one can inflict pain the way your family can.  “Highbrow”:  the language is sophisticated, like Wilde, Coward, and Pinter, such as “you superannuated old prat” coming from undereducated people who live in an isolated house, situated in a rubbish dump. This anachronistic use of selected words, here and there, is delicious. About the language:  It is a challenge to memorize in the way all really good language is—it does not come easily.  It is a singular voice.  When done well, it crackles. Language that is easy to memorize often comes off as ordinary and a bit uninteresting.

How would you describe what Entertaining Mr. Sloane is about?

A love story.  Four deeply wounded people in need of love.  It’s about a family–a family with very old wounds–hard facts that they have tried to ignore or forget.  But the introduction of Sloane to this family unit proves explosive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s more interesting?  Joe  Orton’s plays or his life (and death)?

Very difficult to compete with the colorful—some would say the outrageous–life of Joe Orton.  The plays have order–even the chaos has a choreographed order to it–but Orton’s life was not choreographed.  

Your greatest satisfaction from being in the theatre?

Breakthroughs in the rehearsal room.

Biggest obstacle for theatre companies today?  

The extraordinarily entertaining work being done on cable television.

 

Tell us about the casting process:  What kind of actors were you looking for—and tell us who finally won the parts?

Good actors . . . I knew I wanted Elise Stone (my wife and Phoenix Theatre Ensemble Artistic Director) to play Kath and John Lenartz to play Kemp–both great, talented actors who I have worked with for decades.  Ed is the most challenging role in the play, and I asked PTE artist, Antonio Edwards Suarez, to play this complex man who struggles with his sexuality.  But . . . I did not have a Sloane.  Then we went to see some director scenes that friends were working on–and I saw this good looking, interesting young actor with very intense eyes.  We asked him to join a reading we were doing of Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine.  Once cast, I could see that he had excellent instincts, took direction, and was a really nice guy–so after that, I asked Matt Baguth to play Sloane. 

At Phoenix Theatre Ensemble do you typically work with the same artists?  Who are your current collaborators?

Yes, we have an ensemble of resident artists, but casting is not exclusive to that group.  Over time these artists have developed a creative shorthand and a knowledge and appreciation of each other.  It is a great way to work and btw, I won’t work with difficult people.  

Does the company look for a certain kind of play to produce?   How does the ensemble decide on a season?

Many think that you just sit down and pick out some favorite plays or playwrights that you might want to produce.  It is a very complicated process, though.  We have to consider budgets, performance rights, plays that complement each other–we like a mix of new works and classics—spaces to perform in, and the challenge the season will be to our actors and directors.

How much liberty do you believe a director can take with an established script?

In 30+ years of theatre work, this is my directing debut.  I’m enjoying it immensely.  I take more liberty with scripts than others do or would.  As an actor, I’m legend for paraphrasing–particularly with scripts in translation–perhaps this has given me a sense of entitlement, some would say a “false entitlement.”  I am not of the opinion that actors and directors are interpreters only.  As a jazz musician will riff on a piece of music, I encourage the same thing in theatre.  Lots of people disagree with this–some vehemently, but I don’t really care. 

Tell us about your background. How did you get started in the theatre and how has your career evolved?  

As a young man new to the city, I auditioned for Jean Cocteau Repertory and then attended a performance of Waiting for Godot, 10:00PM on a Friday night.  The play was at their 50-seat storefront theatre in a neighborhood that I considered the downtown “murder district.” It was indeed a pretty rough area. I had never seen anything quite like that performance before; I went back the next day and asked if they needed help sweeping the floor. I stayed with them for 30+ years.

Most unlikely problem you’ve faced during the rehearsal process—and how has it resolved or how is it resolving?

The pauses–I have worked on quite a bit of Pinter and Beckett–masters of the power of the pause.  Orton was a fan of Pinter, and the script is littered with “pauses” and “silences”–way too many of them. If he had written this later in his short career, I think he would have been more selective. But regardless, I thought I had a good handle on this–the non-filled pause–the power of nothingness hanging in the air—but it is a challenge.   We continue to work on them.

Most influential director, person in theatre, or mentor in your life? 

Eve Adamson and Elise Stone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does knowing about the early ‘60s in England help in understanding Entertaining Mr. Sloane?  Or do you feel it’s not necessary to explain?

Well, young Matt, in rehearsal one night, referred to the time of Sloane as “way back then”–like it might have been an 18th-century play, which I found both humorous and sobering at the same time. There is a generation that doesn’t know who Orton is, who think that “edge” is only contemporary to the last few years.  In a way, this play could have only come out of that culture-changing decade–a decade I am so glad that I experienced. But the play is not stuck in that time period.  In my opinion, it is worthy of being considered a modern classic.

Does knowing about the current political or cultural environment in the U.S. inform your production in any way? 

I didn’t think it would.   We did Brecht’s Arturo Ui right over the election–it could not have been more timely, and we reaped the benefits.  I was relieved we were doing Sloane, because I thought it would be a break for us–and for our audience–from the overload of politics and the plethora of new works coming out in response to this U.S. administration.  But, in a very short time, we are now in a culture of repression and regression:  from the progressive victories of same-sex marriage to the horrors of Chechnya; from the rise of domestic hate crimes to the overall demise of compassion. So, unfortunately, we once again find our work being very, very relevant.

Give the answer to an essential question about yourself that you realize won’t be asked here.  

I find beauty in what others find to be gross and disgusting.

Best piece of theatrical advice you ever received? 

Don’t retreat–advance the story.   And also from a director, who gave me this note:  “it is, of course, complete hokum, but you must imbue with complete truth.”

Thank you very much.

Entertaining  Mr. Sloane by Joe Orton

When:   May 4–14; performances Tues-Sat @8:00 PM;  Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00 pm; Sunday matinee at 3:00 pm.

Full Schedule: Thurs 5/4 @ 8pm; Fri 5/5 @ 8pm; Sat 5/6 @ 2pm & 8pm; Sun 5/7 @ 3pm; Tues 5/9 @ 8pm; Wed 5/10 @ 2pm; 8pm; Thurs 5/11 @8pm; Fri 5/12 @ 8pm; Sat 5//13 @ 2pm & 8pm; Sun 5/14 @  3pm.

Information: http://www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org/;  212-465-3446

Tickets:   Tickets are $30 each; Call 212-352-3101 or visit www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org.

Where: The Wild Project @ 195 East 3rd Street (Avenue A and Avenue B)

Transportation: By Subway: F Train to 2nd Avenue; by Bus A14 to 4th Street and Ave A; 8th Street Crosstown. 

(c) 2017 by Craig Smith (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production of “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” photo credits: Gerry Goodstein.