The American Theatre Wing Presents "Working in the Theatre"Performers on Preparation and Professional Discipline

Performers in current Broadway shows shared their secrets, vulnerabilities, and concerns in a lively exchange, Tues., April 28. The panel, introduced by American Theatre Wing President Isabelle Stevenson, launched this year's ATW "Working in the Theatre" spring seminars.

On hand for the Performance Seminar were Broadway's Natasha Richardson ("Cabaret"), Alfred Molina ("ART"), Brian Stokes Mitchell ("Ragtime"), and John Vickery ("The Lion King"), as well as two cast members of "The Deep Blue Sea": Blythe Danner and Edward Herrmann.

Actor-writer-director Jim Dale and ATW Board Member Dasha Epstein, co-moderators for the seminar, questioned the performers about their theatre training and career highlights, as well as techniques of their profession. How, for example, did they prepare for roles?

"An old friend said I've been preparing for this [Sally Bowles in "Cabaret"] my whole life, and in a way I have," answered Richardson. As a youngster who loved the "Cabaret" record and movie, she had staged little shows, pretending to be Liza Minnelli. But the real, grown-up musical was another matter. "When the opportunity came, I realized how much work I would have to do, particularly vocally because I am not a trained singer."

Others prepared for roles, they said, by reading background material or, as with Doctorow's "Ragtime," reading the novel, or by immersing themselves in the period (if it was a period play). Most important, was being open to the play itself.

"Generally, I like to start from scratch with the play," said Herrmann. "Obviously I read the play quite a few times, but you want the rehearsal to generate and percolate things."

When Epstein asked Molina whether the London and Paris productions of "ART" had influenced his own preparation, he replied, "I am a great believer in stealing. Stealing from the best is an honorable thing to do. I steal shamelessly."

The real key to "ART," Molina explained, was developing relationships among the actors--getting to know each other. "We would rehearse all day and go and have dinner in the evening."

Reviewing their theatrical origins brought varied responses. Chance played an important role for some. John Vickery had originally planned to be a mathematician. "I was drafted by an English teacher in high school to play Sir Toby Belch. I stumbled into this, had fun doing it, and decided to take it seriously." And Jim Dale explained that he had begun as a not-very-good impressionist, but discovered his flair for acrobatics. Molina worked as a not-very-successful stand-up comic. "My first acting job was the back end of a tiger in a children's theatre-and it's been downhill ever since."

Blythe Danner recalled her student year in Berlin, where she performed in a drama group. Audiences included escapees over the Berlin wall: "We were up there singing, and they had escaped with their lives. It was a surreal experience."

For Herrmann, it was a process of elimination at college, with drama the winner, followed by work at the Dallas Theater Center. Brian Stokes Mitchell, on the other hand, knew what he wanted at an early age. At 14, he began studying dancing, singing, and acting at a high school for performing arts in San Diego.

"Your Body Knows"

Over the years, have any of the panelists forgotten their lines? Every one, moderator Dale included, admitted to that experience on occasion. "I hope to God I'm not the only one," said Dale.

Often, but not always, fellow actors in a play have come to the rescue, ad libbing or moving on with the dialogue. With miked shows, Mitchell said, one could always mouth the words and blame the sound system.

"We all have panic attacks," said Molina. "Forgetting your lines is just one manifestation."

"Before, in L.A., I had huge anxiety attacks," admitted Mitchell. "You try to breathe and trust that it's in your body I found the panic attacks were when I was thinking too hard. Your body knows what to do."

Going on to Epstein's question about "that big break," Molina replied, "The biggest thrill was the first time I realized I had actually started earning my living as an actor. I've never quite gotten over that."

As to the difference between American and British audiences, Molina mused, "American audiences seem to be, generally speaking, much quicker to let you know how they are feeling I find it delightful." And Dale added, "I think audiences in England seem to be copying Americans. They are getting better. Both are very enthusiastic--if the material is good."

Addressing all the panelists, Dale said, "The thing that you all have is presence, magic. There is a confidence, of knowing who you are. When did all of you acquire that?"

"To me, it isn't something you have," Richardson replied. "It's something that comes and goes . Every time, you have to start all over again. I think it's ephemeral."

"Then you get it back?" Dale asked.

"It's work," said Richardson.

Writers & Directors on Collaborations and Career Transitions

By Amelia David

How do you make the transition from actor/writer to director, or from stage to screen, while weathering all the pitfalls in between? These and more informative questions were answered Wed., April 29, at the American Theatre Wing's Playwright/Director/Choreographer Seminar. Moderating was Wendy Wasserstein, who admitted--with an amiable allusion to her newly released screenplay--that the object of her affection was "to be sitting among all the panel's talented guests." She was joined by co-moderator Thomas Cott, who brought to the day's discussion his background in Lincoln Center's marketing and special events. The seminar featured Broadway and Off-Broadway's Jeff Baron, author of "Visiting Mr. Green"; Moisƒs Kaufman, author and director of "Gross Indecency," Warren Leight, author of "Side Man"; Michael Mayer, director of "Side Man" and "A View From the Bridge"; Lonny Price, director of "Visiting Mr. Green"; and Matthew Warchus, director of "ART."

The reason for the seminar's relaxed and humor-filled atmosphere--besides the fact that many of the panelists are known for their comedy writing--is that many have worked together previously or have experienced comparable career paths. Both Price and Mayer began as actors; prompted by Wasserstein, they amused the audience with stories of their transitions. "Friends told me I had already been directing them for years," Lonny Price deadpanned. He added on a more serious note, "As an actor I was the victim of many directors. I wanted more artistic control." Later, answering an audience member's question about directors training to be actors, he suggested, "It's helpful for a director to have a little training in all aspects from design to performance. I know I've always responded more to directors trained as actors."

Michael Mayer set the bantering tone of the panel by informing the crowd he "still resented Price for getting all the parts." Then Mayer shared that he had "tried to do the audition thing, with less success. There comes a time when you look in the mirror and say, 'These are the facts. What do you want to do from here?' "

One of Mayer's New York University classmates was Tony Kushner, and that relationship began a collaboration. When asked about the difference between collaborating with a live author versus doing revivals for which you may no longer have the author's imput, Mayer spoke with great exuberance about the youthful enthusiasm of Arthur Miller, and of how exciting it was to have him there giving notes on "A View From the Bridge."

"I've never acted, although I now see it's the way to get jobs directing," playwright Warren Leight slyly observed to the audience. About his background writing patter for the High Heeled Women and other cabaret performers, he confided, "I was writing for 11 performers and was just lucky they never watched each other's shows." He noted that writing for the theatre provides "the least money, but the most expression" and that screenwriting allows the least. This prompted Wendy Wasserstein to offer her positive experience with working on "The Object of My Affection." Leight, who is writing screenplays himself these days, touched on the difficulties of casting actors during pilot season. He gave the actors in the audience the wise advice that a great time to get jobs and replacement work is when other actors are leaving.

Moisƒs Kaufman offered the room his experiences in developing a theatre company--New York's Tectonic Theater Project, Inc. And he described how pilot season affected productions of his "Gross Indecency" on both coasts. He told about his star turning down a high-paying movie with a lousy script, to continue working on the play. Kaufman also talked about the rare experience of having his show be SRO Off-Off-Broadway, even though it couldn't seem to get reviewed during its first three weeks, and about how a New York Times review can change your life.

Often during the seminar, British panelist Matthew Warchus pointed out the differences between directing in the U.S. and in Britain, observing that, unlike in the U.S., each new cast in Britain is presented as a new production with its own design and direction, so actors and especially agents don't have concerns about being in a "replacement cast."

Jeff Baron, who had a corporate career before writing for television shows, led a discussion about how a writer's words are protected in the theatre. Writers are given casting approval, while in television they may not be able to recognize or be proud of their finished scripts, and are often not allowed on the set, let alone asked for their opinions on casting.

The panelists shared many aspects of their work and personal stories in this highly informative, lively seminar. It was replete with tips for those interested in all branches of the industry, as well as for its fans.

This year's annual spring Working in the Theatre seminars also included two panels on Production: "The Lion King" and "Ragtime," held April 28 and 30, respectively.

Past and present American Theatre Wing seminars can be seen in the five New York City boroughs, on CUNY-TV, Channel 75, five times a week: Fridays, at 9 am, 2 pm, and 7 pm; Saturdays, at 11 am; and Sundays at 5 pm. This spring's Performance Seminar first airs on Fri., May 29, to be followed throughout the month of June by the remaining three.

Watch future issues of Back Stage for announcements of ATW's fall '98 seminar series.