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CENTERSTAGE

Zoe Caldwell:

A Master with Class

She began acting professionally in her native Australia at the age of nine. She earned a scholarship to Stratford-on-Avon, where she performed with such notable actors as Sir Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Paul Robeson, Albert Finney, Mary Orr, and Sir Ian Holm. She joined Canada's Stratford Festival Theatre, and was the only non-American to perform at Sir Tyrone Guthrie's theatre in Minneapolis. She is the recipient of four Tony Awards, among many other honors.

Zoe Caldwell, an actress (and director and teacher) of distinction and great achievement, spoke about her career before an industry audience early last week when the League of Professional Theatre Women invited her to be profiled for its Oral History Program. The event, presented by Joanne Pottlitzer, chair of the program, was videotaped by the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts Theatre on Film & Tape Archive. TOFT is under the direction of League member Betty Corwin.

With League Co-president and interviewer Harriet Slaughter, Ms. Caldwell talked in detail about her stage experience, the people she worked with, and her preparation for particular roles. One of the first questions asked was to describe the women who had influence on Caldwell's life. Ms. Caldwell explained that as a child she had a problem with certain motor skills, so she couldn't stitch, or write, but she excelled in dance and took ballet and tap classes. When she was seven, her Mom took her to a woman in Melbourne who taught voice. This was during the Depression, and the woman, Winifred Moverly Brown, agreed that she wouldn't charge any money; she wanted to see if young Zoe had any talent. She worked with Zoe up until she was 18 years old, and never asked for any fee.

"I guess I was a daughter substitute," stated Ms. Caldwell. "However, she opened up a lot for me, apart from my voice. She also took me to galleries and opera, and gave me books to read and we'd discuss them afterwards."

Another influence on Caldwell was Dame Judith Anderson. Dame Judith had come to Australia to open the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, an acting troupe that young Zoe was part of. "We were all in awe of her and we rehearsed for three weeks before she arrived, and she, like a great diva, came in and pushed us around," Ms. Caldwell admitted. "She wasn't nice, she didn't care about us... but I watched her. She was bloody good at acting. I watched her to learn what it is to be a woman. And I learned a gigantic lesson from her-that the theatre could not be all my life. That I had to have a marriage and kids-if I could rustle them up. There had to be something after the show was over that you went back to and were absorbed into."

Interestingly, Zoe Caldwell and Dame Judith became friends many years after. It was in the early 1980s when Ms. Caldwell's husband, producer Robert Whitehead, was asked to do another production of "Medea," and Dame Judith suggested that Zoe play Medea. "But," stated Ms. Caldwell, "she wanted to have me play Medea like she played Medea." Dame Judith insisted on sending Zoe her costume, which she did, and which, coincidentally, fit Ms. Caldwell perfectly. "But as soon as I put them on... I knew that I'd never be my Medea, I'd be Judith's Medea. So I said, "Judith, you've always said you wanted children. You're being a very bad mother to me. You not only want to choose the bridegroom, but you want me to wear your dress, your blue garter, your wreath and veil. No! I've got to do it my way.' And she stood by for that whole time, never offered advice, but she was there. And so, in point of fact, she became the most wonderful mother to me."

At age 18, Zoe was an original member of the then-brand-new Melbourne Union Repertory Company, and got to play different parts every two weeks for the two-years she was with the company. Barry Humphries was a member of the same company, Ms. Caldwell recalls. ("He was thin as a pin with greasy black hair.")

When the Elizabethan Theatre Trust started, the actress was now touring around Australia and met another woman who had great influence on her career. It was Elsie Byer, who had been the head of H.M. Tennent, a producing company in the West End. "She took a shine to me and guided my career," Ms. Caldwell explains. When the company was going to London, she advised Zoe not to go, insisting that if she did go she would be going as an Australian actress. "I want you to go there as an actress," Byer insisted. Soon after, Byer arranged for Caldwell to perform at Stratford-on-Avon, starting as an understudy. After having always worked constantly, Ms. Caldwell stated that "I was now in a position to watch all those actors at Stratford, in rehearsal, watch them on the stage. Eventually, during the season, I took over playing some parts."

And she played with the finest, as I mentioned earlier. But it was Dame Edith Evans that Ms. Caldwell was in awe of. In one show, she played opposite Dame Edith with Tyrone Guthrie directing. "You'd have to be a bit of a wimp not to come up to snuff," states Ms. Caldwell emphatically." Guthrie took a liking to Caldwell and would bring her into rehearsals to liven everybody up. He called her "Miss Melbourne." In a production of "The Three Sisters," Caldwell played Natasha, and Guthrie wanted her to do it with an American accent. (Here, Caldwell imitated the way she would pronounce all the Russian names.)

She was very unhappy with the role and told Guthrie how she felt. His reply: "Trust you. Fix it." "So," admits Caldwell, "he actually was not such a good influence for me. But he was such an extraordinary man. And such a man that made you go to limits. It's always good to have someone around like that."

Caldwell was with Guthrie the first season when he established his company in Minneapolis. "He knew I'd grown up on companies, and he needed a company member," Caldwell states. It's here that she met Hume Cronyn. Her future cousin-in-law (first cousin to husband-to-be, Robert Whitehead), and Cronyn admitted to Caldwell that he was one of those Equity members who thought it wasn't a good idea for her to be with the company. Caldwell saw that all the other company members catered to Cronyn and she said to herself, "Not good for Hume, not good for the company." She described her relationship with Cronyn onstage as a "tennis match." "That's good when you see danger in the eyes of the other actor; it's very healthy... you have fun, the audiences have fun. You can't be without challenge all the time in the theatre."

Ms. Caldwell was asked about her West End debut. It was years later, in "Request to the Nation," and she played a role, opposite Ian Holm, where she had to put on lots of weight. ("But that's what I tend to do. When I played Medea, I became anorexic-not great for the body.") She admitted that on opening night of "Nation," she insisted on not wearing any underclothes (accurate for the historical period). Princess Margaret attended that performance and watched Ms. Caldwell in the role of Emma Hamilton get out of bed in the first scene. Her advice to Ms. Caldwell: "Keep your knees together!"

Ms. Caldwell's West End performance was followed by two seasons at Stratford, then back to London at the Royal Court. She was then invited by Michael Langham to join Canada's Stratford Festival Theatre. "I played there for a season because I always took the next job, whatever the next job was," Ms. Caldwell states. "So I was never out of work. I played in some strange plays, parts that I was too young for, too old for, too fat for, too thin for. But it didn't matter; I was never out of work and I never auditioned. I never auditioned because I always went into the next job."

She returned to Australia to star in "Saint Joan," then back to the Guthrie, and then to Broadway to take over for Anne Bancroft in "The Devils." "But I played it totally differently than Anne," Caldwell adds. One night Bancroft played the first part of the play and, because of a bad back, couldn't make the second act. Caldwell was called in, and stunned the audience with her "true" curvature of the spine. "Anne played it as if she had a teeny shoulder problem," Caldwell explains.

The actress's next job was in "Slapstick Tragedy," a new play by Tennessee Williams, directed by Alan Schneider, also starring Kate Reid. Caldwell had difficulty with the role, and wanted out, but Schneider convinced her to stay. The play lasted 10 nights, and Caldwell won her first Tony Award. But she insists, "I didn't win a Tony because I was so good in it. I won a Tony because Tennessee was so good. I just did what he demanded."

It was back to Canada again, where she met and fell in love with Robert Whitehead, then off to Stratford, Ontario, playing Cleopatra opposite Christopher Plummer.

She returned to Broadway soon after starring in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," for which she won her second Tony Award and then in "Medea," for her third Tony.

Other roles included Lillian Helman in a one-woman play "Lillian." ("I did not have a happy time. I drank a lot of vodka, and I smoked a lot of cigarettes. I told Maureen Stapleton, "Lillian gets healthier and healthier, and I get sicker and sicker.' Maureen said, "She'd be so happy!' ")

It was in "A Perfect Ganesh" that she began her association with playwright Terrence McNally, who wrote "Master Class" with Zoe in mind as Maria Callas. She won her fourth Tony in that extraordinary role.

Toward the end of the session, the interviewer stated that a career in the theatre calls for total concentration.

"Yes," responded Ms. Caldwell. "When I'm working I'm not a wife or mother, I'm just involved in the play. Between the time the curtain comes down and about one o'clock, we have a good time, but the rest of the day-the moment you open your eyes, you're preparing for that evening. Kids know it, husbands know it, friends know it, even the dogs know it..."

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