The Royal Family is George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 sweetheart of a play about a multigenerational family of actors—ostensibly based on the Barrymores—deeply committed to their craft and ultimately devoted to one another. Among the many stellar elements of the production currently at the Ahmanson Theatre are three generations of pedigreed theatre actors crafting the onstage family. But offstage they're even more familial, seeming to treasure their time with one another, reflecting on the skills and personalities each one brings to the stage.
Their matriarch, onstage and off, is Marian Seldes, who plays Fanny Cavendish in a dignified yet thrilling portrayal. In the next generation is Daniel Gerroll, who plays Fanny's bounder of a son, Tony, with a bottomless well of energy and a profile that plagiarizes John Barrymore's. And fortunately for the Cavendishes, Melinda Page Hamilton plays Fanny's daughter's daughter, the lithe and levelheaded Gwen.
The consummate New York theatre actor, Seldes is a Tony winner (A Delicate Balance) and nominee (Father's Day, Deathtrap, Ring Around the Moon, Dinner at Eight), as well as a winner of Obie, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk awards and a Lucille Lortel Award for sustained achievement. She has been a longtime member of the Juilliard faculty. Her long history of Broadway and Off-Broadway appearances has included Tiny Alice, The Boys From Syracuse, Dear Liar, and The Play About the Baby. At the Taper she appeared in Three Tall Women and Tongue of a Bird. She has been appearing on television since 1951, with credits from Hallmark Hall of Fame through The Education of Max Bickford. Her most recent films include Mona Lisa Smile and Hollywood Ending.
Gerroll, who trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London but now lives on the East Coast, has won a Theater World Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and an Obie for sustained excellence. On Broadway he appeared in High Society, The Homecoming, Plenty, and Enchanted April. His Off-Broadway credits include Psychopathia Sexualis, One Shoe Off, The Holy Terror, and Shanghai Moon. His television credits include Sisters, One Life to Live, and Sex and the City; film credits include A Far Off Place, 84 Charing Cross Road, and Chariots of Fire.
Hamilton is amassing regional credits: San Diego's Old Globe, the Guthrie Theater, Arena Stage, and Lincoln Center. Her television credits include CSI: Miami, Miracles, Enterprise, and One Life to Live. She holds an MFA from NYU.
The three meet with Back Stage West in Seldes' dressing room at the Ahmanson a few hours before curtain.
Back Stage West: How did each of you get cast?
Marian Seldes: I think that when they decided to go ahead with this production after planning it with another actress, I was going to do it in Williamstown, and then in New York next season. I had given them my word that I would do it. So when I got a call asking if I would like to play it here, I said with absolute innocence, I couldn't. I didn't want to let down the people I had given my word to—not realizing that the estate doesn't want the play done on both coasts in the same season. When that was pointed out to me, I just said I would do it, because it was a great part. And the chance to do something more than once is very rare. I played it before.
Melinda Page Hamilton: I did it the old-fashioned way: I auditioned.
Seldes: But you had played it.
Hamilton: I had played it before at the Arena Stage. When I had first gotten to L.A., about a year ago, I had written [Taper CD] Amy Lieberman a letter, because I had done a couple of workshops for them in New York. I met with her. She is an extraordinary, rare breed of casting director in that she's a passionate advocate for the actor. Then, when I heard they were doing [Royal Family] I kept my ear to the ground about it.
Daniel Gerroll: I don't really know [how I got cast], except I was just told that someone I'd never met wanted to meet me in the Polish Tea Room in the Edison Hotel in New York. It was [Royal Family director] Tom Moore. He looked at me and said, "Gosh, you'd be perfect for this. I had someone else in mind." I said, "You mean I came all the way from Connecticut for you to tell me you had someone else?" So I laughed. And a couple of days later he rang me up.
BSW: Who of you enjoys auditioning, and do you have any audition advice?
Hamilton: Auditioning for theatre is extremely different from auditioning for film and television, at least in my limited experience thereof, but the best advice that's been given to me and that's served me the best is to really bring yourself to whatever you're doing. It may not be what they want, but you will never err when you bring yourself completely into the role and be present and do your work. That's the best you can do. Beyond that, it's above and beyond your control. I got an agent from a play at the Old Globe [in San Diego]. He's was terrifically enthusiastic, and he gave me probably the best and most practical advice I've ever gotten from an agent. He said the thing about L.A. that's different from theatre is that in theatre you go in and transform yourself. In L.A. they've made their decision the minute you've walked through the door. If you're smart you can get a read on what that is, and really your only job at that point is, if it's "No," make it hard for them.
Seldes: I like to audition. If I don't audition, I'll always get the same kind of part. The way I look is so definitive. I haven't that chameleon quality some actors have that I envy so much. I want to try different things. A day I have a theatre audition is like an opening night. I figure out what to wear. And I love it. And then it's over. If I don't get it, that's OK. I don't see how I could convince someone I could play a part by sitting and talking to them. You've got to give it a shot.
Hamilton: That's something I don't quite understand about the general meeting, which is a big deal here [in Hollywood]. You want that opportunity to show what you can do.
Gerroll: I started working in England. And I used to love auditioning. Because [I felt like I was] auditioning myself. I want to know if I want to be in the part, anyway, and in a sense I'm auditioning the director. That's if you're in a position to choose your roles. It's like being invited for a cup of tea. There should be a certain amount of good manners. Tom was fabulous. [I don't like] when you walk in, it's very quiet, you do it, they don't say a word, and you leave. Whereas, and this sounds very jingoistic, but [in England] they spent 15 minutes describing how they were going to be doing this particular play, then we auditioned for quite a long time, then they thanked me profusely, and I felt I'd made a friend. And they didn't offer me the part.
Seldes: I think it's an investment in the future. And it puts you at your ease, that they're interested in you, that you're worth more than five minutes of their time.
Gerroll: For anybody reading Back Stage West who's thinking of directing or who does direct, I think too many directors might think it's a sign they've arrived if they can be brutally cold and austere in an audition process. That does not denote that they've arrived.
Seldes: But they are usually not directors who have acted. It's hard to generalize, but most sensitive and inventive directors have been an actor at one time. It doesn't matter if they were a good actor or not. That relationship, between the director and the actor—or actors—is the key to the rehearsal period.
Gerroll: I had [an audition] yesterday for a TV pilot. It was quite well written and it was very funny. I was playing a burned-out rock star. At the end the writer said, "Could you make it your own?" I said, "I just don't want to change any of the lines, because you're the writer, and I'm used to obeying." He said, "Oh, no. I want you to make it better. Feel free." He said really great comedic forces in sitcoms are about coming in and educating the writers, like Christopher Lloyd in Taxi. Where I really am not good enough for that sitcom world is that I am totally confined by the quality of the writing. The only thing I aspire to is being as good as the writing. The notion of being better than the writing, I wasn't brought up with.
BSW: Do any of you like a particular technique or method?
Seldes: I think each play is a beginning again for each actor. I don't think you want to bring something that you've [already] done. You want the freedom of inventing another character. It's odd, though, if you've worked a long, long time as I have, usually someone will come up to you—the director or someone—and say, "Why don't you do this the way you did…?" And it's so disheartening. We want to reinvent constantly.
Gerroll: I think you can be dog tired, bored, hung over, anything, but when you step from the dark into the light, you're just gone. I was very unhappy in a show awhile ago. It was an Ibsen piece. I wanted to see if it was possible to not to be turned on by stepping onstage. I always say it takes a nanosecond to say, "Oops, time to act." I decided not to give myself that. I went on, totally discombobulated, because I had all this acting energy, and I didn't know where I was. But because I was onstage my muscles were going, "We're acting, we're acting." And my mind was saying, "I forgot to come with you." I'll never do that again.
Seldes: It's schizophrenia, where you're you and you're watching you. The thrill for me is when that person who is watching goes away.
Hamilton: There's that energy place where you're not ahead of yourself, you're not behind yourself, you're just on that wave.
Seldes: And you can't make it happen.
Gerroll: I don't ascribe to any particular method, but I think that's where people search for methods. Some people need tools to achieve that. Some people don't. And even though I don't think I do, there are some plays where I look around and I have to pick up a tool, because I'm lost.
Seldes: Students sometime ask me, in the third or fourth year, "You keep using the word 'preparation.' How does one prepare?" And I hope you won't think less of me, but I say, "I don't know how you prepare. That is a secret for you. And if it's not working, you'll find another way." And you won't get it from another actor. You'll get it from how you prepare, before the moment, before the line. It's essential, and of course a great actor like Olivier could do it like that [snaps fingers]. I stood in the wings and would watch him turn from a man of whatever age he was into Henry in Beckett. I've used a thousand things. It's not the same for me in every part. I used to find a tune, a song, that if I hummed it I'd be all right. But to say to a class of actors, "Find a song," they'd laugh you out of the school. Or the smell of perfume. I use a different perfume for each character. And if you put on a whole face—even if it's straight makeup—you can spend a half hour preparing that way.
Hamilton: Getting dressed and putting makeup on is huge.
Gerroll: Penciling in my moustache is where, if it's one hair out, I'm not right, and if I get it just right I think, "Oh, I can go on now."
BSW: After hearing each of you chat in real life, it appears that you, Melinda, are the one who had to work the most on a period dialect for the play. And you did it so beautifully.
Hamilton: We had a wonderful vocal coach, Jan Gist. Also I was raised on movies of the '30s and '40s, and they all used their "can'ts" and their "mosts." And somewhere that gets into you, particularly if you're an innate mimic. And then you go to graduate school, and they teach you how to do it. And Tom was very keen on the upward inflection. In plays like this you never really go down, because there are usually three lines to tell one line's worth of story. There is technique required to sustain the momentum of that, so that there's nuance to each one, and the thought builds to its conclusion.
Seldes: And it's complicated to learn, because you think, "I've just said that."
Hamilton: But it's part of what this text demands, and Shakespeare demands, and that's where training becomes invaluable.
BSW: When you arrive at the theatre, do you have a vocal warm-up?
Seldes: This is awful to say, but I try to use my voice, whenever I speak, correctly. If I came to this theatre with the "mu, mu, mu" and the "mo, mo, mo," I'd fall down laughing. I learned to use my voice from wonderful teachers.
Gerroll: I had a very weak voice as a kid. Before my voice broke I worked really hard to make it deep, because I thought all actors had deep voices. And I almost wrecked my voice. But what was interesting, I started so young that the strength had got there, but very often the articulation is something I have to remind myself of. Also living in America, it changed a bit.
Hamilton: And your voice is the place where you live, you reach your emotional life. And the people who are talking from up here are living from up here. But for me it depends on the night. Sometimes you need it.
BSW: Tell us about the rehearsal process for The Royal Family.
Gerroll: Well, we started at different times. I started before you. We did a 45-minute sword fight that's now been reduced to three minutes. Then we all got together…
Hamilton: …and we did a table read, and then we were up on our feet the next day.
BSW: Onstage you had to deal with the curving staircase and the complicated sightlines.
Seldes: Our director had a staircase with platforms in the rehearsal hall, and a real couch, and an awful lot of real things to work with. I think it was almost like working with a choreographer. It's such a big company. The things that take care of themselves in a smaller company—such as sightlines and blocking—when you've got a lot of people onstage at once, it has to be terribly precise or it just looks sloppy. We can't see that as we are rehearsing. We don't know we're blocking [the audience view] of someone. Take another step and you don't see us. Tom was so precise, so prepared, that it surprised us to be asked to move one step. And when we got on the set it paid off. I can't tell you how many times he told us to let the audience see us.
Gerroll: The set [designed by Douglas W. Schmidt] has a lot to be said for it. It's huge. It's more expensive than most of the houses in Connecticut. I knew we were going to do the swordfight, so I asked them to fax me an early sketch of the design. The first thing I noticed was that he made it both a huge home and a theatre at the same time. And it allowed a certain amount of flamboyance.
Seldes: To be in a play and shut a door and the rest of the set stays still….
Gerroll: It's so rare.
Seldes: Isn't it, darling? Everything has a steadiness to it. I think everything you see on the stage is beautiful. The clothing [designed by Robert Blackman]. For someone like me it's like a childhood dream to have those clothes.
Hamilton: I think another thing Tom fostered, in addition to the choreography and tempo, which were from the get-go a priority, was that it had to have a lot of warmth and a lot of affection. That is something that is rare among casts of this size. It extends to everyone, from the understudies to the crew.
Gerroll: I brought all my negative, destructive, critical petulant self to rehearsal. It didn't last a minute. And what's particularly great is if you're doing a play about self-indulgent people, the real trick to pull it off is that you don't think, "God, what a horrible bunch of people." You can play somebody who can't help being histrionic or a cad, or somebody in Marian's role, a great icon of the period of the theatre. The easy choice is, "I'm terribly important, more important than everyone around me." But, and I think Tom recognized this—he never spoke it out loud, but now I realize why certain things he asked me to do make sense—there's always an affection for each other in the piece, as actors and as characters. When Tom asked me to be in it, he said. "Do you know the play?" I said, "Oh, I love the play," not having read it. And he said, "It's a great role." And I said, "Oh, yes." Because I'd heard. And I was out of work. What else am I going to say? And then I read it, and I thought it's sort of thin stuff. But the more I worked on it, it was rather like asking a carpenter whose been making very ornate carpentry to go right back to basics but with materials he's never worked with before. This is really advanced stuff.
Seldes: Even in the projection in a house as large as this. Even having the capacity to reach the back of a theatre like this without effort, without it seeming to be effortful. You need a lot of training. We're all grateful for everything we've ever learned that we can bring to the play.
Gerroll: Interestingly enough, because we're obviously microphoned in this, is that's been more of a challenge. You thought you could be left to your own devices, and suddenly there's this other element.
Seldes: It's not a problem I've solved at all.
Hamilton: It's that barrier between you, and that experience of the play in the rehearsal room versus the experience of the play in the theatre. That transition is so hard, because you're used to the intimacy and the sound and the reality of it. And then you have to fill the space and wear these costumes and live up to them but at the same time not sacrifice all that truth and warmth that you found.
Seldes: I think we're still looking, most of us. I think all the actors would say this. Of course we're still giving the performance we've been trained to give, but there's still a ways to go. And we all know it. And it's the joy of coming back. BSW