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An Interview with The Caucasian Chalk Circle actor Christopher Lloyd
WHEN THE CLOUDS OPEN AND LIGHTENING STRIKES
Can you talk about your experience as an actor when you first came to New York?
CL: I came to New York in 1959. I’d been accepted to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre, which was a two-year course. The man who interviewed me for the Playhouse at the time was Sandy Meisner, who I had heard a lot about, so I thought that that’s where I wanted to go. I did the two -year course, but Meisner wasn’t there. He’d taken a sabbatical and was off doing other things. Then when I finished with the Playhouse, I still came out of it not feeling that I really grasped what I went there for. I wanted to learn how to act. I didn’t really feel I had a handle on it. I had the urge and the desire. One night I’d be out on stage and everything just really worked great and I was in the groove and all that, and then I could come back the next night, just wandering around, not knowing what the hell I was doing. So, after two years, I felt I still hadn’t grasped the technique. Then three or four years later, Meisner came back to the Playhouse. So I went to his professional classes which met a couple of times a week, you know, three hour classes. I did that for about two years. And I came out of that feeling that I really understood how to work and had a grasp on technique. It really changed things around for me. In many ways, it helped to understand myself in a way. Then I was in New York for a considerable amount of time. I did workshops all over the place, sometimes rehearsing at two o’clock in the morning, because some people needed to have other jobs you know, and the only time we were all available wasn’t until the morning. I did that all through the 60s. I took some other classes here and there, but none that really meant a lot to me, in comparison with Sandy Meisner. He had a way of putting down his way of teaching the Stanislavsky method that just made sense to me. I understood it, I knew how to apply it. He had a way and kinds of exercises he devised to be able to reach yourself through your own resources, and make a connection onstage with other actors, so if I was lost in the middle of a play, somehow I had a way of getting back in the groove, back in focus. It was a life-saver.
It’s interesting to that the Meisner Technique and the Americanized version of The Method is your foundation and yet, some of these roles [Kaspar Houser in Handke’s KASPAR and Azdak in THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE] require a different kind of performance technique. How do you tap in to what you’ve learned from Meisner in relationship to these types of performances?
CL: Well what I learned is that Meisner is applicable to everything we were doing. Taking the reality of the situation of what is written in the play, whoever wrote it, and keeping the reality alive, whatever kind of reality it is. If it’s comedy, drama, whatever, it’s just a way of working where you can maintain a reality and keep your character credible and alive on stage.
Can you talk about your experience playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman?
CL: There is a little theatre up in Western Vermont. And my brother, who is quite a bit older than me, well into his eighties, he was an actor. He went to this town in Vermont in 1952 or 1953, to do a season of summer stock there. Just a little modest, very idyllic place with beautiful hills. I used to go up there and visit him all the time when I was a kid, and then he would come to New York and act during the winters. And then he just said to hell with New York and he had a little private business of his own that he bought, and he was a state legislator for three terms, and he would do plays there during the summer. So I’d go up, and – a little bit of nepotism — he helped me do a season there, getting my feet wet. I went back there periodically and they still asked me to come back anytime I would like to, and I love it. They have wonderful people in every phase, you know, design, directing, music, whatever it is, they really bring talented people up there. And people love to come back. An idyllic place to work, and they’re doing good work. Now it’s two or three-week summer stock, and in the fall, they have special programs and all that. About four years ago I was there. There was a fundraising campaign and I participated and they asked me what I would like to do for next season. So I went back to my brother’s house to figure out what I was going to do and the only thing I really could think of was Death of a Salesman. So I told them the next day and they said “great.” And I was just so excited, it’s such an extraordinary play. And Willy Loman, my god, you can’t do better than that…unless it’s Azdak.
Do you think there is a fundamental difference in how you have to approach these two characters: Willy Loman and Azdak?
CL: I’ve thought about that, because I feel that the challenge of Azdak is not unlike that of Willy Loman. Willy Loman is such a part of American culture. I’d seen a production with Lee J. Cobb on a televised film, documenting his performance, and I saw at Circle in the Square sometime during the sixties, George C. Scott. And then of course there were the acting scenes done in classes, so there was like a familiarity with it. You know where he is coming from, the situations he is dealing with, getting older and trying to, you know, insurance, the family, bread on the table. This is something we are kind of innately aware of. With Azdak, its like clouds opened up and lightning struck and here’s Azdak. I have a long ways to go, but Azdak is a whole lot of things, from one moment to the next, there is no coherence. He’s a disenchanted performer; there is a lot of cynicism, but there is a lot of purity about him. He is very outraged by injustices. In his world, injustice is all over the place, he is surrounded by it. When I read the papers, it reminds me of Syria today. There are insurgents, beheadings, terrorist activity, and those who don’t care how many citizens die as long as they retain power, and it’s a nightmare. It’s not just in the Middle East, there are elements of that all over the world. So Azdak lives in the midst of that. He, as I say, deeply feels for the injustice that he sees around him. I wish I could think of it – there is a wonderful quote about Azdak from a book that I’ve read. By kind of an inadvertency, he ends up being a judge. Suddenly he is in a position now to enact justice, and a lot of it is haphazard. He’s not a lawyer, he’s not a judge, he’s a guy whose circumstances thrusted him into being a judge, so he is sort of figuring it out as he goes along. Not all his decisions make a lot of sense. But it finally comes down to a really deep profound issue of these two women who are each claiming the right to be the mother of this child. There is goodness about Azdak. He is able to see what is good, and it’s not always necessarily what the law says. It’s what’s just in terms of human issues, sometimes the law is not fair, or the law doesn’t really deal with the issue at hand in a just way. Azdak narrows it down, he fumbles, and in this instance he knows that, as he says, what there is should go to the people who are good for it, the children to the maternal that thrive. He sees this as his mantra. He sees that the biological mother is not good, she is not someone who is good for this child. The young woman who has taken this child, cared for this child, and loved this child, is the person who should have this child, because he will then grow up to be a decent human being. He is a bit of a rogue. He’s a bit of a manipulator, a guy who has survived. I love it, and I still have a lot to discover.
So tapping back into this idea that you get from your training, and the idea of maintaining a reality, what are you constructing?
CL: Well there’s a lot in the script. It’s confusing and I’ve been going over it and over it, trying to connect the dots. If he says this here, why does he say that there? It seems to be contradictory. Why is he like this here and like that there? What ties them all together? It can still be conflicting and confusing to the audience, but I just feel that I have to come up with what his rationale is for why he does what he does. His plight. Azdak is like a firecracker, you don’t know when he is going to go off, who is going to get hurt, and who is going to get saved. I loved it. But I have thought about him in the same vein, you know. I feel a very similar challenge with Azdak as I did when I started out with Willy Loman. With Willy Loman I was so concerned with getting as deep as the part is written and playing the crises in his life.
You continue to come back to the theatre, in a lot of different roles, with different playwrights, and in different spaces, why do you keep come back?
CL: I started out in the theatre long before film and TV, and it feels like home. The stage and all that. It’s a great high – when it works. I love doing it. I feel like I know what I’m doing; even if I don’t do it well. I know what’s expected. I love being in front of a live audience – feeling that symbiotic relationship. It feels very natural, like I’m going back to my roots.