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

June 2, 2011 5 comments

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.”


Playwright-screenwriter John Guare talks shop on Omaha visit celebrating his acclaimed “Six Degrees of Separation”


Back when the Great Plains Theatre Conference and its founder Jo Ann McDowell brought in a veritable who’s-who of American theater, playwright John Guare was one of those luminary figures who came and dazzled locals. The following story I wrote for the City Weekly was based on a phone interview I did with the artist. The Omaha appearance referenced in the story was not for the festival itself, but for a production of his play Six Degrees of Separation by the Blue Barn Theatre. Guare made himself available to the cast and crew and was reportedly quite impressed with the production. I saw the show directed by Susan Clement Toberer and I must say it was well done.

 

 

 

 

Playwright-screenwriter John Guare talks shop on Omaha visit celebrating his acclaimed “Six Degrees of Separation”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the City Weekly

 

Metropolitan Community College president Jo Ann McDowell’s world class theater ties made possible this weekend’s Omaha appearance by celebrated New York playwright John Guare. Guare is a Tony, Obie and New York Drama Critics Circle Award winner. He’s coming here at McDowell’s express invitation to discuss his best known work, Six Degrees of Separation (1990).

He’ll be in residence at MCC’s Fort Omaha campus, host of the May 26-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC) that McDowell co-directs with Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee. Guare can’t make that event, but his April visit is a nod to the theater colony McDowell’s forging at Metro and a preview of the GPTC, which is all about craft.

In Omaha Guare will introduce the Blue Barn Theatre’s April 21 production of Six Degrees and participate in a talkback session. On April 22 at Metro he’ll present a noon screening of the same-titled 1993 film he adapted from his own play and attend a 1:30 p.m. reception.

By phone, Guare discussed his work, the state of American theater and why theater angels like McDowell are important.

Six Degrees is inspired by a real-life incident in which a young black man posing as actor Sidney Poitier’s son insinuated himself into the lives of rich, white Fifth Avenuers. The piece unfolds as a breathless tell-all that’s meant to, as Guare says, “go like the wind. It’s a story these people couldn’t wait to tell us. So urgent, we had to grab the audience by the lapels and tell it to them.” Thus, characters directly address the audience at times.

“This is really life or death that they tell this most extraordinary thing that’s come into their lives,” Guare said.

To accentuate this naked need to bare all, the staging calls for a minimalist set that exposes people in stark relief. “I just wanted to concentrate on the story and not get tied down in all naturalistic trappings,” he explained.

For the film version, which he “loved,” he never considered having characters talk to the camera. “You can’t do that. See, movies are essentially…a documentary medium. The color camera is recording documentary reality. The theater is a place of poetry, where the text creating the scenery, the lighting, the costumes creates the life of the play in our engaged, enrapt minds.”

He uses farce to express the greed, ego, white guilt and fear behind these WASPish “victims” compulsive retelling of events. “We see how the story helps them rise up the social scale as more and more people want to hear this story,” he said. “Their main fear is losing their life(style). That they’re just one step ahead of the sheriff.”

Laid bear is the human conceit of ever knowing someone different than ourselves.

Even when he focuses on lower class denizens, as in his play The House of Blue Leaves or his screenplay Atlantic City, his work is about lost dreams and disconnected lives. Or, as he puts it, “what people tell themselves in order to get through the day and what happens when that gets challenged, and that’s the same thing whether it’s people in the trailer park or on Fifth Avenue.”

Desperation drives his characters. He’s written that “avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives.” Otherwise, he leaves the idea of his themes “for critics.”

He enjoys farce. “Well, I just love to laugh. I mean, I love the freedom. You come to the theater to let down your guard and there’s no better way to let down your guard than through laughter,” he said. That liberation allows him to express our modern hysteria. “That’s exactly it,” he said. “I think we live in farcical times.”

That’s not to say all his works are farces. “My Lydie Breeze play are certainly not farces,” he said, “although they have farcical elements in them. You don’t write out of the same mode every time. It’s what the material demands. And that’s what makes it hard for critics because you keep changing your hats all the time. You have to keep changing your hats so you don’t become bored or become stale.”

He adores Omaha native Swoosie Kurtz. She won a Tony for Blue Leaves “and was brilliant,” he said, filling in for Stockard Channing in Six Degrees. He knew this was Kurtz’s hometown, but was surprised it’s the adopted home of playwright Megan Terry (Viet Rock), a Yale Fellow with he and Sam Shepard in 1966. Terry, a veteran of New York’s Open Theatre, was playwright-in-residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre. “I have very fond memories of Megan,” he said. His only previous stop in Nebraska came on a ‘64 cross-country road trip. When he couldn’t pay a speeding fine, he holed up at a Lincoln Y until friends sent him the money.

 

Swoosie Kurtz house of blue leaves

Swoosie Kurtz in The House of Blue Leaves

 

 

Guare’s also well aware Omaha’s a theater haven thanks in part to Metro’s Jo Ann McDowell, whom he credits for nurturing American theater.

“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “Jody is an absolute fountainhead of inspiration. You should know how lucky Omaha is to have Jody, who is this force of nature about ensuring there’ll be a future and bringing the generations together and getting the best out of everybody.”

He said figures like McDowell are vital given the “perilous state” of theater in America, where “things are difficult because the arts get meager support from the government compared to every other nation in the Western civilized world.”

Events like the Great Plains allow established artists such as himself to pass the torch. “You’re passing it on,” he said. “You have to let young people know there’s a theater out there waiting for them. I love teaching. I love working with other playwrights.” The Queens native has taught at Yale and previously at Harvard and New York University. He began the playwrighting program at Juilliard.

Despite challenges, he’s encouraged by what lies ahead for theater. “There’s work today that’s absolutely thrilling,” he said. “A student of mine at Yale named Terrell McCraney is just the future. He’s just a magnificent young writer.”

Guare and his wife Adele Chatfield-Taylor live in New York and, for three months each year, in Rome, Italy, where she’s president of the American Academy, a center for artists and scholars doing independent study. Located on 11 acres on the highest part of Rome, he’ll be at work there while the GPTC unfolds here. He has a new play opening at New York’s Public Theater next season.

 

Kooky Swoosie: Actress Swoosie Kurtz conquers Broadway, film, television

June 6, 2010 4 comments

It’s always a pleasure to interview a star you have admired.  That certainly was the case when I did a phone interview with actress Swoosie Kurtz.  The occasion was a Tony nomination for her role in Frozen, a drama co-produced by friends and family in her native Omaha, which if you’ve been reading my article posts you know by now is my hometown and place of residence.  She was every bit the fun and funny bright spirit I had come to expect.  The Omaha connection extended to her having worked with Alexander Payne on his debut feature, Citizen Ruth, which was shot here. My own career has intersected with Payne, whom I have been covering since he completed that project in the mid-1990s.  As I write this, I am about to call Payne to arrange a face-to-face interview with him about his recent shoot of The Descendants in Hawaii, where he just wrapped on Friday.  One final Omaha connection involving Swoosie is my having written about the Omaha company that co-produced Frozen and my scripting a documentary that that same company shot and edited.  Small world.

My Swoosie piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

Kooky Swoosie: Actress Swoosie Kurtz conquers Broadway, film, television

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Frozen
Omaha native Swoosie Kurtz, that sometimes kooky stage, film and television actress with the dizzy name to match, is dead serious about her work. The depth of this consummate artist’s craft is on full display in the current Broadway drama Frozen, in which she plays a mother coming to grips with the void of her missing daughter, whose terrible fate she doesn’t know for 20 years.

The story revolves around the daughter’s disappearance and how this event connects the girl, the mother, the serial killer that took her and the therapist trying to discover what set this tragedy in motion. The theme of child abuse looms large in the killer’s own past and drives him to revisit his horror on others. Brian O’Byrne won a Best Actor Tony for his performance as the killer. Critics are calling Kurtz’s Tony-nominated portrayal of the shattered mother a tour de force.

 

 

Brian O’Bryne and Swoosie Kurtz in Frozen

 

 

“My character goes through this 20-year journey of having her child taken and not knowing she’s dead. She goes through all the stages — mourning, anger, depression — and, finally, into acceptance, but in a very beautiful way. The second act of the play, particularly, is uplifting and life-affirming and redemptive,” said Kurtz.

Her process is a melding of the interior Method approach that uses emotional exploration and the more classical exterior approach that focuses on body, voice, movement, makeup, et cetera. “What works best for me is a kind of working from the outside in. When I can picture a character — how they sit, how they walk, the kind of clothes they wear — it tells me a lot about the inside of the character. The process is partly intuitive and partly technique. I think a lot of actors starting out today rely too much on the intuitive and the instinctual. You have to learn your craft,” she said in a 1999 Tony Awards Online interview.

Roots
Born in Omaha as the only child to a war hero father and society matron mother, she did part of her growing up here — attending Field Club School — before her family moved west. Her career military father, the late Col. Frank Kurtz, was the most decorated U.S. airman of World War II. She was named after the B-24 bomber he flew, dubbed the Swoose after a Kay Kyser song about a half swan, half goose. Before the war, Col. Kurtz was already famous as a world class platform diver. He won a bronze medal in the 1932 Olympics and competed in the ‘36 Berlin Games.

Her mother, the former Margo Rogers, authored a book, My Rival the Sky, about being the wife of an absent war hero. Margo hailed from an old money Nebraska family headed by her father, Arthur Rogers, a cattle tycoon who headed the Omaha Livestock Commission in the stockyards’ heyday. Kurtz recalls him taking her to the yards, plopping her atop a horse and playfully telling her to “wrangle those cattle. I weighed about 45 pounds, but because he told me to do it, I thought I could. I never questioned it.” Her enterprising grandma, Gigi Rogers (formerly Conant), built three downtown hotels — the Conant, the Sanford and the Henshaw.

Kurtz had one familial tie to show biz. A maternal great uncle, Homer Conant, was a set and costume designer for legendary impresarios Ziegfeld and Shubert in 1920s New York. “So, I’m revisiting the scene of the crime here on Broadway,” she said.

Kurtz stayed with her grandparents in Omaha when her much-traveled parents were away on missions and war bond drives. Of her grandparents, she said, “They were a huge influence on me in my formative years. They were incredible. They had this big country house that my mom grew up in and I partly grew up in. When I was in town doing Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne’s 1996 film), I went to the house, just to see it, and it brought back amazing memories to revisit it.”

Her father’s many transfers meant frequent moves for her and her family. Being an only child forced her to cultivate her imagination. “I would play different games with myself and become different people and talk to myself in different voices. The characters would talk to each other. Only children have their own way of survival.”

A Eureka Moment
The theater first enchanted her when, as a kid, she attended Broadway plays with her folks. Her earliest stage acting came at Hollywood High. “I was in this drama class at Hollywood High and I did this scene from Dark Victory or some other Bette Davis movie and it was like, Whoah. Something fell into place in that moment and clicked and it was like, I can communicate with people this way better than I can on my own. It was just a eureka moment.” She began formal dramatic studies at the University of Southern California, where her parents graduated, before crossing the pond to complete her training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. There, she fully immersed herself in acting.

If anything, her Tony-nominated turn in Frozen is a reminder of Kurtz’s versatility and penchant for sinking her teeth into challenging roles. Much of her best-known work has seen her essay women-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown in plays by some of the world’s greatest living dramaturgists. Her whimsical, lost souls are tinged with a deep well of sadness and display a sharp wit.

Among her stage triumphs are her turns as Gwen in Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July and as Amy John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves. Her many film portrayals include: a hockey groupie in Slap Shot; the wry hooker in George Roy Hill’s The World According to Garp; the frothy wife in A Shock to the System; the ambitious mother in Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons; “the world’s laziest woman” in David Byrnes’s True Stories; and a scheming abortion war fanatic in Payne’s Citizen Ruth. For television, there was her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of high society living, cancer surviving Alex in the popular NBC-TV series Sisters and a socialite dying of AIDS in the HBO drama And the Band Played On.

Dangerous Ground
Even though its subject matter put her off, she felt compelled to do Frozen. The play’s executive producer is an Omaha cousin, Thompson Rogers, whose Oberon Properties owns the screen rights. “This play just knocked the breath out of me,” she said. “I hadn’t read anything like this ever. I think the issues of child abuse hit me the hardest. What struck me on my first reading of the play is that the serial killer character of Ralph, who takes my daughter, has been horribly abused as a child. And I firmly believe what the play is hypothesizing is that when children are abused…certain parts of their brain get stunted and the part that has empathy and compassion and remorse simply doesn’t develop in the way that it should.”

Playwright Bryony Lavery’s disarming examination of abuse, trauma, loss, regret, forgiveness and grace drew her in. “Just the sheer poetry of the way this subject is handled,” she said. “It’s a subject we see all the time on television and, so, we think we know all about it, and then this play comes along and presents this in a way that defies any expectation you have.”

She knew Frozen was a must-do project when reading it unnerved her. “When something scares me as much as this play did, I have to do it,” she said. “It’s so dangerous, this piece. It’s so risky. I thought, How are we going to rehearse this play? How the hell do you work on something like this and not just be a wreck? And, actually, we laughed a lot in rehearsal, which sounds really irreverent, but that was the whole key — to be irreverent about the material. Because the audience’s experience of it is very different from ours. We have to do it and go through it and it’s up to them to have the emotional response.”

Kurtz believes in challenging the gods rather than playing it safe. She recalls the time she essayed identical twins in Paula Vogel’s play The Mineola Twins, which not only required her to be two separate people, but to be on stage for all but a few seconds. Again, she asked herself, How am I going to do this? As usual, the motivation of the challenge allowed her to find a way to make it work. That discovery and accomplishment, she said, is what makes the journey into the abyss worthwhile. “And then it’s such a great feeling when you prove to yourself that you can,” she said. “You’re like, You know what? I did it. I took the leap.”

Making real the ultra-sensitive, bereaved, even mad characters she inhabits means muting the obvious comic notes to express the inner beauty. It’s about being nonjudgmental “and also having great compassion for the character,” she said. “I always find I turn a corner in rehearsal when somehow the character moves me.”

She said she learned not to play the fool when the legendary Jerry Zaks, with whom she worked on House of Blue Leaves, gave her “the best piece of direction I ever got. In my mind, I thought, I have to let the audience know right away that this woman, Amy, is a little out of touch with reality. I had this line, ‘Is it light yet?’ And I was doing it kind of spooky, like a strange woman would. And Jerry said, ‘Swoose, you are the happiest, most normal housewife in Queens.’ It was a brilliant thing that resonated through that whole piece and everything I do because people who are on the edge or neurotic or insane think they’re totally normal. And it’s that everydayness or normalcy what is sometimes so shocking.”

Citizen Ruth
If ever a performance has embodied the power of subtlety over histrionics it’s her rendering of Diane Siegler in Citizen Ruth. In this one character, Kurtz plays an arc of extreme types, but believably so within the framework of Diane’s fanaticsm. When we and the title character, Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) first meet Diane, she appears to be a prim holier-than-thou pro-life advocate. Then, as we and Ruth learn, it turns out Diane’s only posing as a pro-lifer, but in reality is an openly gay pro-choice agitator who’s infiltrated the enemy camp in order to spy and reek carnage on their campaign. Diane’s hilarious “coming out,” complete with removing her dowdy wig and eye glasses to show her true identity and sympathies, is all the funnier and more surprising because Kurtz underplays it so matter-of-factly. “What was so great about that was I got to do play two people,” said Kurtz.

 

Swoosie Kurtz, Laura Dern, and Kelly Preston in 1996's "Citizen Ruth."

Swoosie Kurtz, Laura Dern, Kelly Preston from Citizen Ruth

 

 

She was impressed with fellow Omahan Alexander Payne, who co-wrote Citizen Ruth and made it his feature film directing debut. “He was so grounded and so real in his approach to everything,” she said. “Well, you know, he’s from Omaha. But he is so smart, on so many levels, that I think he sometimes had a plan in mind that we didn’t know about, and we didn’t have to know about it. He had his map in his head very clearly, but he was also very open to experimentation and open to whatever was happening in the moment.

“If we happened to ad-lib something, he was delighted with it and very often would use something. He just came up with these great sort of subversive, out-of-the-box ideas. He’d just throw some curve at us right before the take and it’d be something I would never have thought of in a million years.”

As an example, she recalls a scene in the kitchen at the country house where she and her lover (Kelly Preston), are putting up Ruth Stoops. The phone rings and Kurtz’s Diane Siegler “answers the phone as the lesbian liberal activist and then” — when it turns out the caller’s a pro-lifer — “I put on my (eye) glasses in order to talk to her. And that was Alexander’s idea. And I thought, Oh, my God. What an incredibly bizarre and amazing idea” to have her put her defense/disguise back on.

Payne is equally impressed with her. “I remember her as being so delightful and cooperative and professional. She knows her dialog. She comes prepared. She has good ideas. Highly directable. I mean, she’s a total pro. And she’s funny,” he said.

The film, still unappreciated among general movie audiences, is a favorite of hers. “I’ve never seen a movie like it. It’s just unto itself. It’s an amazing film,” she said.

Feeling the Most Alive on Stage
Kurtz has been nominated for eight Emmys (winning one for Carol and Company) and has stolen scenes in dozens of big and small screen pics, but her stage work is what makes her a living legend. She has two Best Actress Tonys to her credit (for Fifth of July and House of Blue Leaves) in addition to Drama Desk Awards, an Outer Critics Award and an Obie. She moves effortlessly from one medium to another, but the boards is her true calling. It’s where she feels most engaged as an artist.

“An actor on stage has more responsibility than in any other medium,” she said. “You are so much more responsible for what happens out there on the stage. Film is definitely the director’s medium. They shape the film. They take what of your performance they want. They choose what the audience is looking at at any particular point. Your face may not even be on camera at that moment. On stage, you control everything. You control your body, your voice…whether the audience is seeing your profile or the front or back of you. You control how loud you are. You control the timing of everything.

“I’m not sayng film and television are easier by any means, because they’re all enormously challenging, But, ultimately, you are much more accountable in the theater for what happens that night on stage.”

Acting, for Kurtz, feeds her like nothing else. “It’s when I feel most alive,” she said. “I definitely think when I’m acting I’m my true self. You know how in therapy they talk about your true self? I think that joy just comes out. I mean, I was on stage the other night thinking, I’m so happy right now. I’m so alive.” Where real life once seemed boring compared to acting’s hyper intensity, she sees it differently now.

“I’m getting a lot more enjoyment now out of real life. Thank God, because there’s a lot of that around,” she said, unleashing her happy, kooky, bright spirit’s laugh.

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