Albert Innaurato Gives Part II of an Exclusive Interview with SV's Bob Shuman.
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/.
Why won’t you work with Streisand?
I almost did, when I had jobs out there. But I can't imagine writing anything that would resonate with her in any way. But she is a very smart person, and I bite my lip in furious jealousy at Larry Kramer's getting to work with her.
What do you hope for when getting a play produced? What kind of actors do you look for? What do you need from a director?
Getting a play produced seems like a dream to me now, harder than it seemed when I was young in Philadelphia–when I was merely dreaming about a career.
Today, we have the not-for-profit movement, which in my view has produced and promoted tons of crap and also-rans and, despite its category, is essentially the worst kind of commercial theater, with none of the advantages the actual commercial theater had for playwrights
Institutional theater only does so many plays a season. They plan seasons more than a year in advance. Most of them need money. Because they need money, they are in the business of sure things. A play should be a good prospect for rave reviews, from a worthless press full of ignorant idiots. The raves should draw producers, who are genuinely able to “move” the play to a commercial run. Having produced a lot of these plays gives the theater a “great brand.” A great brand is crucial in not-for-profit arts for raising money from funders and donors, who want to feel proud of where they put their money, and who also are being solicited by dozens and dozens of beggars–I mean artists.
For the playwright, who receives the privilege of what may mean many compromises in mounting the work, financial payment is minimal. He or she also promises the theater company a large percentage of any income that accrues from the play. So, considering the chances of the work getting sold to the movies, being produced often in the bigger regional theaters, and getting a commercial mounting in London are important factors when the boss chooses what play to do. Some theaters try to come up with gimmicks to generate press: a season of all female playwrights, a season of playwrights under thirty, a season of political plays, and so on. Because money is an issue, only one or two of these theaters will consider a play with a large cast (more than four people). They must be sensitive to the ever-shifting winds of PC, the new censorship.
Incapable of being politically correct myself, I’m not interested in the new censorship, this contemporary effort to smother any truth and certainly, any individual perception or understanding in everything. We are a society that can no longer tolerate risk, shock, rage, intense disagreement, confrontation, or scandal.
When was the theatrical climate better?
Better is an odd word. It’s always tough; artists are usually thrown away, and many struggle for money throughout most of their lives. But if I argue that the most important thing is to be able to practice your art, then at one point, say in the 1960s and ‘70s, Off-Off-Broadway was better. Certainly this was in a nearly bankrupt New York, not heaven. Plays of all kinds were possible–as many as 500 plays were done in a season. One didn’t need to prime the pump to come up with cisgender female playwrights; they were everywhere, the best America has produced: Rosalyn Drexler, Rochelle Owens, Megan Terry, Corinne Jacker, Maria Irene Fornes. They, and their female colleagues, dealt with everything from heterosexual complexity to lesbian shame and celebration. They were all more original than most of the cisgender females whose plays I encounter today, and they were pioneers, confronting hostile misogynists who hated the very idea of their existence and expressed it.
Today’s newest hot subject–and we can expect seasons devoted to it–is the transsexual movement, which was dealt with then without having a name or any societal endorsement. Writers, who identified as male or female, regardless of birth gender, wrote of the confusion, stresses, and bigotry that they encountered and celebrated a sense of freedom.
How were you paid?
This was a theater of poverty. No one was paid. The hat was passed the last week a play was presented. New York was cheap enough to just get by with a not too demanding day job, and foundations actually gave grants to playwrights. Was that “better”? Every playwright near my age, younger and older, had plays produced only in this arena: Lanford Wilson, Terrence McNally, John Guare, Leonard Melfi, David Mamet, Christopher Durang, and a host of gifted people now forgotten. All were products of a sensibility that had been banned from the commercial theater.
The entire transgressive movement, called Ridiculous Theater, was a product of this creative free-for-all. There was wonderful work, created by Ronnie Tavel, Ethyl Eichelberger, Black-Eyed Susan, Lola Pashalinska, and Charles Ludlam.
Ludlam, in my opinion, was the most astounding creative talent in the American Theater of my generation. Just as he was becoming widely known, and only a few years after he had created an organized (more or less) institutional theater, Ludlam died of AIDS–a massive loss.
Discuss the reviewers of the time.
Because this was a theater of poverty, it disregarded the reviewers, most of them then, as they are now, morons. But the theater was what theater must be, spontaneous, confrontational, celebratory, brave, ferocious, outrageous. Plays were done because those doing them believed in them, whether strange or relatively conventional. It cost very little; production values were achieved by designer imagination and illusion–I saw some miracles managed on fifty dollar budgets. Performers could vary in talent and experience, but marvelous actors appeared and some of the more organized places were ensemble theaters. Because it was cheap to get in, audiences took risks. Theater is the riskiest art form; it is the art form that changes lives in an instant, otherwise it is sitcom. TV is better for that. An audience must be willing to be shocked, horrified, bored, or angered. If powerful emotions are too dangerous to evoke, including bad ones, then great emotions, even transformative ones, can’t be evoked.
Two reviewers did catch on to the dazzling talent: Mel Gussow, the second stringer at The New York Times, and Edith Oliver, a remarkable lady of advanced years, who wrote for The New Yorker. She would climb the eight flights of stairs at the Ensemble Studio Theatre with a bad hip to see plays by writers shrugged off by “established” theater people.
Frank Rich, when he took over at The New York Times, eventually got rid of Gussow. Rich had his issues, but he was the best they’ve ever had; he’d been proceeded by the corrupt, drunk Clive Barnes (I know all about him firsthand) and for a short time by someone called Richard Eder.
How do you work with actors and directors?
I have always said that the marriage in the theater is between the playwright and the actor; the director is midwife or abortionist.
Of course, there are very gifted directors who can get a lot out of a less than fully realized text and/or hypnotize willing, but erratic, actors into giving persuasive performances. But, in my experience, as a writer and a director–and long ago as an actor–that is a miracle if not a myth.
Actors must have brains and bones, work their way to an intuitive and organic understanding, and have sufficient technique to master the demands that the play makes. They also must have the intelligence to deal with the tone of the play, especially if it is not typical—for example, if it’s twisty or volatile. And they must be very brave.
A playwright will kill to have those kinds of actors in his or her work, and love them forever, forgiving them every vanity, insecurity, and frustrated outburst actors are naturally born to.
I have worked with actors who killed themselves to make the play work and couldn’t. Sometimes it was my fault, sometimes theirs. But I know how hard those actors worked and how much they suffered, and I love them, too.
And I have never seen a director who could help. In fact, I have seen more than a few who made that situation worse.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been wonderful directors, or that there are no bad actors.
A problem now is the exodus to LA, which began before I arrived in New York in 1974 and has continued apace. Writers who are “bi-coastal” can sometimes manage to live in New York, going out there when needed. But actors have to be available for whatever comes up when it comes up and those who try to juggle usually give up and try to manage out there. When I was young, LA was very cheap, far cheaper than New York, and this continued to be true into the 1990s; but that has all changed. Into the early 1990s there was still an emphasis on American actors on TV and, aside from English sirs and dames, in movies. We still had American movie stars.
Now, there’s been a massive Commonwealth invasion of able people who work cheap. And after all, in the comic book and action-only movies, what need is there for the distinctiveness of a movie star? The roles are generic cardboard cutouts anybody can fit.
Writers have always been the lowest form of fungus out in LA, the trade-off being money. But about actors for a play, it more than ever depends on who is available, for how long, and at what cost.
If you could put two plays in a time capsule—and one of them was yours—what would they be?
I’d skip me. I didn’t do as well as I could have. I might put in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. If the creatures on planet K81^Z can decipher the work, it encapsulates where we’ve come as a society, and, if they have a planetary theater, it has juicy roles. I might include Antigone. It shows what Western Theater has been, historically. Aristotle’s principal of “A Unity of Opposites” is demonstrated. That means that central to drama is the inevitable marriage of two powerful opposite impulses expressed through compellingly drawn characters. Blanche and Stanley in Streetcar would be examples in an American play. Antigone and Creon are both right and both are wrong. Each has entirely defensible motives: for what gives her no choice but to sacrifice her life, and for him, good reason to execute her. It dramatizes the importance of ritual over truth in Western Culture. Their fight is over the proper treatment of heroes who were traitors. It doesn’t matter whether either character “believes” in the “gods” or the “religious power” of the burial rite that Creon denies them, and Antigone insists on–she sees it as her duty to her brothers. It is about the rigidity of power, masking itself as religion, which rationalizes killing and blood feuds. That can only lead to more and more slaughter, in the name of the “gods,” or Christ, or Muhammad. Maybe on K81^Z they are wrestling with these same impulses, maybe they have transcended them. But the play shows a lot about life on earth as it continues today.
What do you feel is your most underappreciated work–and what went wrong or right with its writing and production?
I love Gus and Al, given twice at Playwrights Horizons by Andre Bishop. Al is me; Gus is Gustav Mahler. Al, in despair, time travels back and meets up with Gus as he is reading all the pans of his Fourth Symphony. Al has also had a play panned (Coming of Age in Soho), and they bond over the viciously personal attacks. For a short time Al becomes part of Gus’s life–and his meeting with Alma Schindler, who Gus eventually married, his “session” with Freud, and the hopeless adoration of Nathalie Bauer Lechner, who keeps a passionate diary about Gus. Al has some surprising things happen to him, too, before he returns to the present (the late 1980s). The first cast had the great Lois Smith as Natalie; she was phenomenal, heart breaking, but had some trouble with a few lines. The young director insisted on firing her. I thought we should fire him, but I was aware that I had this reputation of being a monster. I was not, nor was I unprofessional. Bishop and I decided to let that director make the decision. For the second, the next season, a fine actress came in. But there is only one Lois Smith and when she departed so did the soul of that production. Gussow loved it; Rich killed it. I don’t believe it has ever been done again. Everyone involved meant well, but my luck had turned for good, I think. It was not the last time I was asked to fire a director–the next time, by the producer. But again, I was tired of all the lies about how “difficult” I was, so I left it up to her. She backed down and he killed that play. Lesson, “fuck the arts police and guard your plays like they’re your children.” But, in real life, that’s not always really feasible.
Tell us why your new play is not a movie?
I love the theater. That someone can die on stage, or in the audience, during a performance, or that a community can come together to watch one another laugh or cry–or that a stage actor is his or her own close-up, camera angle, special lens, and final edit–this is magic to me. It always has been and still is. Movies are about directors who serve money. There’s nothing human about it. Let the vast industry buy flacks who pretend it matters. It doesn’t. But for the writer who can service this manipulation on his or her knees to the satisfaction of the money people, the rewards are considerable. So I should have fought harder to do the jobs I was offered, which is something you may not know in your bones in your thirties –but you certainly know in your sixties.
Give the answer to an essential question about yourself that you realize won't be asked here.
I am dying. Oddly enough I was told I would die within months in 2011 and am somehow still here. I declined a new, very risky operation that I was assured would save my life. Actually, I didn’t have the money for it to be a real prospect anyway.
I saw no reason to keep living. The four years of problems (I can live with them) that have followed haven’t persuaded me I was wrong. I’ve had my life. I am not sentimental about it. I burned many bridges, I know that, and have been made to pay. We live in a status-determined world, and I have no status, so I am invisible. There is much I could have done better or “played better” in the game of career. I peaked early, which colors subsequent opportunities and deforms your mind. I have been screwed over, of course, but I haven’t rallied, as it is up to the artist to do. I chose the life I lived and, for a time, success came against the heaviest odds. Although I don’t discount villains, fools, and the shifting of the culture, I take responsibility for where I am and how I am living.
It is my time to die. But I saw enormously gifted young men, boys, really, in their twenties and thirties, die in agony knowing contempt and blame, during the AIDS catastrophe. I held a few of them as they wept, dying, desperate to live, to create, and to have their chance. I escaped that, but instead of making the best use of the extra time, I wasted a lot of it. I feel hatred, fury, and resentment, but I also know it doesn’t matter. I will be gone soon enough and that will be that. I won’t forgive those who have hurt me. In fact here are a few names–why are you running away, Bob? But, I think I will forgive myself for fucking up. I did what I could. Not perhaps ALL I could have done, but WHAT I could do.
Is all art political?
Art is political when art matters. When it no longer matters it can’t be political. It’s mostly musicals that reach a large audience today, and they are generally meaningless commodities. I don’t think spoken plays matter. In a recent survey only 2 percent of Americans expressed an interest in spoken plays, only opera did less well.
What’s a group that you think is marginalized in theatre today?
Theater is marginalized today. In my lifetime there were plays that electrified the entire country, at least those people who were thoughtful. There were actors who were stage stars and whose appearances, far from New York City, were great events. It was considered a good that people from all classes know something about what was going on culturally. There were many more newspapers and magazines, and they all had arts pages that covered what was happening in all the arts, breathlessly, but often with more sophistication than one sees in the big papers today. The arts we inherited from the 19th century, the theater, the symphony concert, the opera, the ballet; they are all dying. History is dying too.
Theatre was all I could do. I was kicked out of it. One does what one must do to live somehow, but writing is hard-wired in a person, just as sexual orientation is. Maybe, like sexual conversion camps, there should be places to cure playwrights of sinfully desiring that their work be seen. Writers, more than the sexually confused, are probably the more damaged.
© 2015 by Albert Innaurato (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.
Photo: Richard Perry/The New York Times
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