Theatre is life and death for director Ron Link, but what he loves in actors is joy and spontaneity.
I discussed acting with award-winning director Ron Link at the busy Wolfgang Puck's on Sunset, and few nights later, saw his extraordinary production of Melody Jones: A Striptease in Two Acts at Theatre/Theatre (a revival of his 1992 hit). Both the interview and the play mirrored this complex, passionate artist, whose gift is a Cirque du Soleil-like ability to express the magic of life.
Ron Link began his directing career in New York in the 1960s after several Off-Broadway stage managing and producing credits. He was a fixture of the Off-Broadway scene for 10 years until his production of Women Behind Bars, which he had done in New York and London, brought him to Los Angeles. He's been here ever since, amassing an impressive array of credits, including the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award-winning productions Stand-Up Tragedy and Bouncers; the LA Weekly award-winning shows Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down and Delirious, and the Back Stage West Garland award-winning Seven Out, as well as Twist of Fate and Blade to the Heat.
Last year, Link received the 1997 LA Weekly Career Achievement Award, and on Mar. 16, he will be honored by the L.A. Drama Critics Circle with its prestigious Margaret Harford Award for sustained achievement. The latter is typically bestowed on theatre companies, not individuals, but it's a fitting tribute to the West Coast theatre institution Link has become.
Back Stage West: Tell us about the journey of your directing career.
Ron Link: Well, I was born in Columbus, Ohio. At 15, I won a trip to New York by selling subscriptions to The Columbus Dispatch. From then on, it was, "I'm out of here at graduation." I went straight to New York and got into the whole Off-Broadway scene. That was a big period for acting troupes. I always thought that "troops" were for armies: I believe that people are special and individual. I wasn't interested in getting lost in some troupe with someone's name at the helm.
Then, after the huge success of Women Behind Bars, I wasn't offered the stuff I wanted to do. People only thought of me as wild or wacky. I took a sabbatical for two years and staged fashion shows all over the world. I got an offer to come out to L.A. to do Women, and, while I didn't really want to do it again, I did. And everything in my life seemed to fall into place to move me here. I came out here and the choices were different. I did Delirious and Bouncers, and I started to do a different kind of more serious theatre.
BSW: Do you think there's a Link style? Your personality seems to infuse the work so definitely. There's a kind of energy and sensuality and wildness in your productions.
Ron Link: I do that deliberately. I hire and cast "sexy." It's not always an obvious sexuality--not Hollywood, pretty, sexy. I do a lot of new work, so I have to cast very carefully. Actors come with a lot of gifts. What I try to do is create an arena where those gifts will unwrap themselves. As a director, you try to create an atmosphere which is playful, cajoling, not dictatorial. I'm very open. I don't care where the ideas come from, as long as they go into my eventual vision. I think people respect that I know what I want. A director can be very open when they know what they want, because they'll know what fits and what doesn't. They're not afraid of a suggestion.
So I want actors to be very participatory--but there's a time for that. Collaboration means that we're going to work together, but you have to take from me and me from you. When I say, "I don't want that information today, let me think on it," there can be no petulance, no punishing behavior, no sitting on emotions for two or three days. I resent that the most in acting. That, and if someone won't try something. You can always go back to what you did before, so what's the fear? I don't ask actors to jump into the pit of hell, but I like to invite them over to take a look into the precipice of that danger zone of acting.
I'm shocked and amazed that some actors read a play, beg to work with me, do a great job auditioning, and then fight me. I do not understand that relationship. It sets me on fire. I believe there's a reason that this happens, particularly out here: Actors are often treated really poorly. They're often treated like they're stupid and don't know anything, so they have an armor on. I can't blame them.
BSW: Is there such a thing as a Ron Link actor?
Ron Link: The only kind of actors I like are people who are obsessed with acting or obsessed with what they do. That immediately is very attractive to me in a person. Theatre is life and death to me, so I hate it when it's not that way with the actors.
BSW: Sometimes those obsessed people tend to be a little crazy, though.
Ron Link: Crazy is a good thing. The world is crazy. Anyone who isn't a little mad or angry in the 20th century could hardly be alive as an artist. The artist's job is to bring order to chaos. In the '60s, we loved to confuse people--a lot of plays didn't have endings and it was sort of left for the audience to figure out. That doesn't fly anymore. People want some order. That's why they seek out art to begin with: They want something more in their daily life. So when they come to you, you have to fulfill your job. You have to bring order.
I believe that most actors should sit down and ask themselves "Why do I want to act?" Is it because you want attention? Is it because you have something burning inside of you which you just know you have to offer? (Which, to me, is preferable.) Or is it strictly ego-bound? Those people are not the people who care about studying their craft. As an actor/director, I'm very lucky to have studied with the people I have. A lot of acting teachers in this town just want a check. They teach poorly and pretend it's technique.
And this word, technique, is bandied around too much. What is a technique? In theatre, a technique used to be what gets you through eight performances a week, because you're not always going to feel like doing the show every night. It's focus, attention. No one tells the actor what technique really is. A lot of actors build up a defense mechanism around what they think it is, making it extremely complicated.
BSW: But you need the technique before you can let go and just breathe onstage.
Ron Link: I'm not underestimating that. But I think the imagination is the key ingredient. Actors have to exercise the imagination buttons in their psyches and keep exercising that muscle. Otherwise you go dead and all you're doing is spitting out the same old stuff. It's kind of artistic cannibalism, where all the actor is doing is watching other people acting and imitating.
BSW: So how can a young actor exercise his imagination?
Ron Link: Read a lot, as much as you can, because as you get older, you don't always have time. You're busy making a living. You need to go to museums and look at painting. It doesn't matter if you understand it or not, just take it in. And music: I find I work very well with actors who have a musical background. Or movement. A lot of actors don't do that anymore. I think it's very important to know how to describe a piece of text with your body as well as your mouth. Language fails us sometimes in terms of texture, colors. I always talk in terms of colors. It's part of my directorial language.
And I can always tell when an actor doesn't understand or is not hearing me by the eyes. You can always tell if you're over-circuiting or overfeeding an actor. It's in the eyes. When I first directed in France, I wondered how, even with an interpreter, I would be able to tell good acting. I found that there are two things that don't change all over the world: the eyes and the truth. It's interesting that no matter where I direct, I find that there are some notes that I give over and over: urgency and emergency, tell the truth, stop lying, and why would we put something on the stage that's not important?
I've always felt like I'm on a mission. Actors who aren't can get very disgruntled with me as a director. You're trying to thrust a light on their soul and they may not always want that spotlight on. Actors to me are wonderful: They're like diamonds, they have all of these facets--but not until they're polished. That's a director's job. You need radar in casting to find those facets--to find out where this person is, are they going to be fun, will they come along with me, or do they just want to audition for their next job? I know I can be very harsh. Sometimes I'm harsh on purpose, because it's a shortcut to what I feel is the truth. So I might say something like, "That makes you look older somehow," which will register with an actor long before a psychological panorama of language comes out.
The best thing an actor can do is to make the audience think the play's happening at that moment and has never been done before. I always ask actors, when they go out there each night, to pick out the things in the text that they've "just thought of" that night. Stella Adler used to say, "Don't turn the page on your character," meaning: You've read the play, your character hasn't. I love that.
BSW: What is your process of directing?
Ron Link: I don't like talking around a table a lot. I like actors to be on their feet almost immediately. I let actors free-form and meander for a while and we start to create the geography from that. It's more of a collaboration, as opposed to me moving you around like a toy soldier. Once the choreography's set, though, I'm merciless if you change it. One thing that I'm always looking for in theatre is continuity.
In terms of actors, I have to have absolute trust. Until I fail you, you really have no right to mistrust me. Then, once you give the stage over to the actor, it's theirs. Therein lies the trust of a director: If you trust me in rehearsal, I've got a big trust coming up for you, which is when I can't sit in the audience any longer and tell you how to do it, I have to trust that you'll go and do what we planned together for this journey.
The other thing is size: I don't think people are being taught size. If you're going onstage, you have to have size. I'd rather see more of it and have to cut it down than never see it at all. It's about the largeness of life. Nobody's interested in tiny. That was the joy of doing summer stock: You could play on a big stage and experiment without worrying about whether or not they liked you. People don't come to the theatre to see small problems or small ideas. I've done some of those plays. They're terribly unrewarding--they're not where you want to go out of the theatre and tell everybody what you just saw. It has to be large.
BSW: I think, in Hollywood, there's the fear of being too big for the cameras, so people with size learn to shrink.
Ron Link: It's the casting director's job to make those adjustments for the actor. In this hellhole, nightmare town for actors, how dare you audition an actor without giving them an adjustment? You might as well ask the actor to come in and hang themself. I hate those people. They are the enemy. They are the killers of art. A lot of casting people I know hate actors.
BSW: What do you do if you can't find that size in an actor?
Ron Link: I usually can. But if I can't, we part ways. My theme is, Hire good and fire early. You have to know the precise moment when to part with somebody. It's like a relationship. Otherwise, they can take your ship down. If you're just prior to opening, you can't fire somebody. It's like in film: Where there's already so much film in the can, actors know they can't be fired. It's why television actors can be such monsters; once you've done three years on a series like Grace Under Fire, it's not so easy to replace the lead. That's how an actor can be allowed to spin out of control. But actors don't have to be neurotic to be good. They don't have to go there.
BSW: But isn't it true that that compulsive, passionate thing that you like so much in actors is the same thing that can make them neurotic?
Ron Link: Of all of the people that I've worked with, my best shows have been the ones where the whole group is with me--Melody Jones, Stand-Up Tragedy, Women Behind Bars. You try to put the people together who you think would work well together. There's no recipe. Of course, you make mistakes; I just dealt with somebody this week, an understudy, who I would say has low expectation levels--she treats acting as a hobby. I go crazy when that happens.
I think that we have to be very careful, as actors and directors, not to take our gift for granted. If there's a real demon in the world, I think it's apathy--the sweet, gentle voice of, "Why bother?" It can be easy to fall into that, because acting isn't like other arts; you can't do it alone. Lee Strasberg used to talk about the fact that when a pianist goes home, he's got an instrument to play. An actor doesn't have that. To be a painter, to be a writer, you can be alone. There is all kinds of art you can do alone. Ours, we can't. You must be in the arena, out there, taking a chance to get better.
BSW: Describe your audition process.
Ron Link: At auditions, actors always ask if I have anything to tell them. I always say no, because I want to see their spin first. After the first reading, I will always give an adjustment. Then I try to talk with you and see what your life is like. I'm trying to put out as many antennae as possible. The resumƒ, the background tells me an enormous amount. I look to see what the stage experience is. I like to see who they've studied with. I'm a fan of people who've really studied. I don't like resumƒs where you can see it's dilly-dallying, as opposed to even a mini-track record of study.
Then I talk to you. I don't like to give false hope. In an audition, it can be a tricky line to not cross. If I talk to you too much, you may think you have the gig. For me, all that talking is an effort to see the person as well as what they just did in the reading. This is very important to me, because I have to know that you and I are going to get along. There's always some point in the rehearsal process where both actor and director go, "Why am I doing this?" So, in trying to make that moment easier, you look for people with joy. I especially look for joy and spontaneity.
And I hire vocally. When I'm hiring a group of actors, I'm musically hiring you. I'm a big voice freak. I love people with great voices, particular voices. When I was a kid growing up, you used to be able to go into a movie house, close your eyes, and you knew who was on the screen. You'll notice, when you come see any of my plays, that each person has a different musicality, because I view dialogue as music.
Then, I like to see people who are comfortable onstage. It's my theory that you have to take care of the audience for two hours. They want to know that you're going to take care of them. Vocally and physically, you have to let off an aura that you will take care of them. The last thing you want an audience thinking is that they have to take care of this actor. A lot of times, you'll see an actor and you're worried about them: They don't give you a feeling of confidence that you can just sit back and watch.
And, of course, you look for focus. You don't expect to see the performance on a dime, obviously, but you want to make sure the person has a feeling for working your way. If you're dealing with eight actors, you can pretty much count on dealing with eight different acting styles. That makes a big job for a director. One actor, on a given day, may be ready for some information, while another actor isn't. You have to give them time to lay the brickwork. You cannot expect a performance every day. This was one of my quibbles in working with Neil Simon. He wanted to see the play performed every day. That is so taxing on the actor. That is so strenuous, because you're looking for approval every day instead of having the luxury to try things that might bellyflop.
I also like a person who will play with me--I mean literally. Some actors from television, that drives them nuts. They want to be told where to go and they don't like making changes. I really want some kind of signal that you're going to be a good time. I want to cast you knowing that I'm going to want to come to rehearsal. So, in the audition process, I like to see a twinkle. And I need the callback situation to see if they can do it a second or third time.
The biggest thing, though, is energy. If you're talking onstage and it's not important to you, why should I listen? Why do I have to listen to you? I can turn on the tube for that. That's why the theatre is a last vestige of storytelling when it's exciting. If it becomes too much a sitcom for the stage, it'll be wiped out. The theatre is a useless item unless it maintains some kind of standard. Because of film and video and the largeness of the face on screen, an actor onstage has a big job to do. A lot of actors aren't ready for it. They watch actors on television and they figure, "I can do that." It's not that simple. There is a science to it, just like law or being a great surgeon. It's taking a character apart and then putting it back together. That's what directors can help you do--to put it back together and get rid of the stuff you don't need.
In my opinion, the one unforgivable sin is being boring. If anything is boring, it's gotta go. Life is on slow; you want your theatre on fast-forward. BS