Watch the most recent video in our MAKING OF A CLASSIC series, featuring a conversation with Duncan Sheik, who composed original music for CSC's production of THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE.
Click here for more information on THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE. Click here to purchase tickets.
CSC's current production of Bertolt Brecht’s THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE featuring Christopher Lloyd, directed by Brian Kulick, and featuring new music by Tony Award-winning singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik, will extend for two additional weeks through Sunday, June 23.
Comedic Actress LEA DeLARIA will succeed Mary Testa, who has a previously scheduled conflict, as the Governor’s Wife for the extension weeks.
Click here for additional information and tickets.
Can you talk about your experience as an actor when you first came to New York?
Photos: Joan Marcus
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 me 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.
Can you talk about playing Kaspar Hauser in the Handke play?
KASPAR was kind of, as they say, my big break. I used to go to the Chelsea Theatre with Robert Kalfin. There was a complex there with an opera, symphony, theatre, and he ran a company there. And I’d been up to see him, to audition for a number of plays over time. He was always very nurturing, very helpful, very supportive—whether I was hired or not. And then one time, I got a call. It’s funny, because I finally got a call to do an Off-Broadway play, a Lanford Wilson play. I got a call to do HOT L BALTIMORE. I was ecstatic. When we just started rehearsals for that, I got a call from Robert Kalfin, asking if I would be interested in coming in and reading for Kaspar Hauser. I went to the Drama Bookshop and I got the play, and…I didn’t know what the hell it was about. Some of those who have read the play have said “it’s spinach to me,” and it was spinach to me when I first read it. But I suddenly thought, my God, I understand this guy. So I went in and I auditioned for Bob Kalfin and the director happened to be an assistant director for Bertolt Brecht. So they called and said I got it. I was in the midst of rehearsals for HOT L BALTIMORE, we had a break, and I answered the call that said I got this part. I went back to rehearsal after the break and told Lanford Wilson and Marshall Mason, “I’m sorry but I’m going to go do this.” I really did not feel good about it, and they were not really happy about it. But Kaspar was just such an extraordinary role. KASPAR was just amazing and went very well for me. That kind of lifted me up a couple of rungs and I got more work, more steady work.
It’s interesting to note that the Meisner Technique and the Americanized version of The Method are your foundations and yet, some of these roles [Kaspar Hauser in Handke’s KASPAR and Azdak in THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE] require a different kind of performance technique. How do you tap into what you’ve learned from Meisner in relation to these types of performances?
Well what I learned is that Meisner is applicable to everything we were doing. Taking the reality of the situation that 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 Azdak in THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE?
With Azdak, it’s 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, whatever 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. Azdak 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?
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.
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 coming back?
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.
THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE runs through June 9, 2013. Click here for tickets.