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Q & A with theater director Marshall Mason, who discusses the process of creating life on stage


Here’s another of my past Great Plains Theater Conference pieces, this time a Q & A with noted director Marshall Mason. In keeping with the theme and subject of several recent posts, I am repurposing theater stories and interviews I’ve done about that event and some of its guest artists as well as about other aspects of Omaha theater, all in celebration of the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference (through June 4) in Omaha.

 

 

Q & A with theater director Marshall Mason, who discusses the process of creating life on stage

Based on an interview Leo Adam Biga did with Marshall Mason for The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Though not a household name outside theater circles, director Marshall Mason owns the kind of credits that befit a luminary. He’s a five-time Tony nominee, a five-time Obie winner and a co-founder of the famed Circle Repertory Company in New York. He’s also been recognized with several lifetime achievement awards for his directing. The veteran artist brings his expertise to Omaha for the May 26-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference, where he’ll conduct directing workshops.

In the early 1960s the Texas native was a directing prodigy at Northwestern University. Soon after graduating he left for New York to work off-off-Broadway. He soon established himself a consummate director at the experimental theaters Cafe Cino and Cafe LaMama. Those venues introduced him to playwright Lanford Wilson (The Hot L BaltimoreFifth of JulyTalley’s Folly), whose work Mason would become the primary interpreter of. In ‘69 Wilson and Mason, then only 29, formed the Circle Rep, where they made their legends the next two decades.

Mason has directed extensively for Broadway, regional theater and theaters around the world, including a 1985 revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the National Theatre of Japan in Tokyo. He’s also directed television adaptations of some of his greatest stage successes. He’s also a noted teacher. Now semi-retired, he divides his time between Mazatlan, Mexico and New York, only taking an occasional directing gig. These days, he said, “I’ve now put all my energies really into writing.” His book Creating Life on Stage: A Director’s Approach to Working with Actors was recently published. He’s writing two new books, one on the Circle Rep’s founding and another on the many icons with whom he’s worked.

This will be his first visit to Nebraska, home to two figures from his New York heyday. Playwright Megan Terry is a longtime Omaha resident who was playwright-in-residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre. Her Hot House was produced at the Circle Rep. Actress Swoosie Kurtz is an Omaha native. She won a Tony in Mason’s production ofFifth of July.

Mason, speaking by phone from his New York apartment, exuded a youthful voice and gracious manner.

LAB: Theater is a living, breathing experience that communicates the human condition with an audience. Is a director’s ultimate task to bring the text to life?

MM: “That couldn’t have been a more perfect question because Heinemann (Press) has just published my first book…in which I make that exact point. That a director’s main job is to bring the text of a play to spontaneous life on stage so that the audience experiences the play.”

LAB: Did the process of writing the book help you coalesce your own ideas/theories on directing and, in a sense, reinvigorate your approach to your craft?

MM: “Absolutely, yes. It was a long process. I started writing the book around 1990 or so when I was living in Los Angeles. Then in 1994 I moved to Tempe, Arz., where I became a professor of theater at Arizona State University…I taught both acting and directing and as a result had to find a way to communicate my ideas about these subjects to the students. It was tremendously instructive to me in terms of clarifying my thoughts and giving me the ability to systemize in away what I was talking about. The big breakthrough for me, however, came when I wrote theater criticism for a weekly newspaper there called the Phoenix New Times.

“I had an editor who was very exacting about the use of words…and I learned so much in terms of being simple and direct and clear. That was a step that was so tremendously important in terms of my being able to take what is a difficult thing to describe — the creative process — and find a way to make it clear and simple enough to understand.

“My mentor Harold Clurman, who was a great director and teacher, was of course a critic. When I was first in New York…I became a participant at the Actors Studio directing unit. Lanford Wilson also was participating — in the playwriting unit. We both studied there with Clurman and (Lee) Strasberg…Clurman was our regular playwrighting teacher and I attended all his sessions.

“Then of course later after I started the Circle Repertory Company Clurman became one of our really, really good friends. He was a critic who loved our work and wrote about it in glowing terms and was the person to whom we could turn and actually ask advice. He had been with the Group Theatre and we were coming along sort of in the footsteps of the Group and trying to create our own living theater in New York.”

 

Circle Rep production of Julie Bovasso play, Angelo’s Wedding

 

LAB: Do you have a sense for why you felt pulled to be a director?

MM: “When I directed my first play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at Northwestern when I was 19, I discovered I had been a director all my life. I’d just not really known it. Back in the 3rd grade I wrote a Halloween play that I ‘put on,’ The Night the Witches Rode. That’s what you call it in 3rd grade — putting on a play. Later you understand putting on a play is what a director does.”

LAB: How old were you when you first went to New York?

MM: “I was 21. I was the youngest member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers when I joined the SSDC in 1963 when I was 23 and became essentially a professional director. And then many years later I became the president of that union.”

LAB: You really were a prodigy breaking new ground.

MM “As a matter of fact when I started directing in New York young people didn’t direct. It was something only middle-aged people did. I was the only director of my age and when I would have auditions actors twice my age would come in the room, look around and say, ‘Where’s the director?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s me!’ It was strange.

“Of course since then there’s been a profusion of (young) directors, in film particularly. People now go to school and get an MFA in directing and come out and try to start a career. When I was in school people became directors from some other position. Usually they were stage managers first…and then they would eventually take over directing. It was not common practice when I was at Northwestern to study directing as a profession. Now it’s very common.”

LAB: Did your real education in theater commence once you got to New York?

MM: “I would say both yes and no. Certainly I continued to learn a great deal in New York, but the basis of my work really had been laid in firmly by the great teacher Alvina Krause at Northwestern. So I had a firm grip of my techniques when I came to New York; what I learned is how to apply them in professional situations.”

NOTE: Krause was a legendary figure in Northwestern’s fine theater department. Besides Mason, other Krause-trained notables include Oscar-winning actors Charlton Heston, Jennifer Jones and Patricia Neal. Neal will join Mason in Omaha.

MM: “I was trained in the classics. I would call Ms. Krause from New York and say, “I really want to do the classics. When do you think I’ll be ready?’ And she said, ‘You’re ready now.’ But when I got to New York, especially at the Cafe Cino, I began to meet young American writers.”

LAB: Like Megan Terry…

MM: “Like Megan Terry and many others. But it was Lanford Wilson who basically said to me, ‘You should really concentrate on new plays because these old dead guys like Shakespeare don’t need you. We need you — to put our reflection of our contemporary world on stage.’”

 

Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson

 

LAB: What accounts for you and Wilson enjoying this long, simpatico relationship?

MM: “It’s because of trust Lanford has had in me as a director. We first worked together on his Balm in Giliad. He felt I understood his play. I told him the fact his play is set among drug addicts and prostitutes is incidental because what his play is really about is the commerce between people, and it could happen just as well on Wall Street as it could on the streets. He was tremendously impressed by that because that’s exactly what he had in mind.

“The first thing I did in my first rehearsal was to break the play down into beats of action for the actors to mark in their scripts. Lanford was sort of fascinated by this because he’d never seen a director do this before.

“That first production was enormously successful and after that, sort of as a self-preservation thing, he said, ‘If you’ve got something that really works, why would you take a risk and try some other director?’ He’s worked with many directors of course over time, but the two of us found a compatibility with the way we thought about theater. He valued acting that didn’t look like acting and I was able to deliver performances that didn’t seem like acting.”

LAB: Is it true you and Wilson got off to a rocky start?

MM: “Yes. It was our very first meeting. Joe Cino introduced us. Lanford had already done four productions at the Cino. I had seen all four. The current one was Home Free. I’d seen an earlier production of it, too. The play is about an incestuous relationship between a brother and a sister. In the original production you didn’t discover they were brother and sister until the last moment of the play, which was tremendously powerful. But Lanford changed the play and the brother-sister thing came in right in the first line of the play.

“When we met he said, ‘Haven’t I done a really wonderful job of revising it?” and I said, ‘No, I think you’ve ruined it’  — starting our relationship off with a disagreement right up front. I think the good thing about that was he recognized right away I was going to deal honestly and tell him what I thought, no matter what.

“I’ve now come around to feeling he was probably right to do it that way (reveal the bombshell at the start).”

LAB: You two developed this phenomenon known as the Circle Rep.

MM: “Balm in Giliad was such a remarkable ensemble of a living play that Lanford said, ‘My God, we’ve got to keep these people together…’ He was a very important influence in terms of insisting we at some point form a company. It was actually four years later that I bit the bullet and said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’” At first I thought, I’m too young to do this. But by the time I was 29 I didn’t feel so young anymore. The first production I did at the Circle Rep was Chekhov’s Three Sisters in two contrasting productions that played in rotating rep. One was a traditional approach like Stanislavsky (the Russian actor/director/theoretician who developed an influential system of dramatic training) and everybody had always used with Chekhov. The other was a truly experimental Chekhov.”

 

 

LAB: The Circle Rep became known for its lyric realism style.

MM: “In a way I regret the phrase because the critics picked up on it and it sort of became our tag, The thing is the Circle Rep did many, many plays of all different kinds of styles. But we got tagged with this thing of lyric realism, probably because it’s what we did best.”

LAB: How do you define lyric realism?

“What is it? It has a surface of realism. As the New York Times put it, ‘Real plays about real people’ with a rather linear plot you can follow. However unlike let’s say (William) Inge, who wrote realism but was never able to lift the experience above the mundane, lyric realism elevates the realistic experience to a poetic experience  through things like eloquent language.

“Lanford was recognized…as being the next voice of lyrical writing in America since Tennessee Williams. Their writing is in the same vein, only Lanford’s is less florid. Tennessee’s first play, Battle of Angels, had its first New York production under my direction. It was 30 years from the time he wrote it until if came to New York. Tennessee and I were just planning to begin work on a new production of Night of the Iguana with William Hurt when he died.”

LAB: What kind of shape was Williams in when you worked with him?

MM: “He was in great shape. It was after his druggie days. I was terribly afraid of meeting Tennessee. I admired his work so much and I heard such terrible things about his personal life that I didn’t want my idol to have feet of clay…The New York Times did a big spread on the Circle Rep and me and I mentioned Tennessee had been my inspiration from high school on up, so he called up and asked me to come to dinner. If he actually invites you to dinner you can’t say, ‘No’…So I went to dinner and it was an amazing experience.”

LAB: Do you attend many gatherings like the Great Plains Theatre Conference?

MM: “I haven’t for a long time. Edward Albee and I went to Valdez, Alaska to help Jody (Metro Community College President Jo Ann McDowell) found her Last Frontier conference up there. She first met me, and Edward too, at the Inge Festival (in Independence, Kan.). Edward’s been a tremendous supporter of hers. This year I was persuaded it would be a good thing to go again. I’m really looking forward to it. I feel especially with the book I’ve got a lot of new ideas to share…”

LAB: Are forums like this vital for theater artists who live outside of New York?

MM: “It is really great because it decentralizes the theater and makes it available in the far reaches of the country. People can come to Omaha that would find it really difficult to come all the way to New York or, on the other hand, Alaska. So I think the Great Plains is a wonderful place to have a theater conference.”


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