We hear much talk nowadays about the theater of participation in which the audience and players fuse and become part of one another. The impulse which prompts propaganda for that sort of theatre is a healthy one. It harks back to the theatre’s origins. Its recurrence now as a battle cry of the younger generation has social meaning. But it should escape no one that the theatre is and always has been the product of such fusion. The theatre is inconceivable in any other terms.
Theatre is a particular mode of expression through which a community realizes itself. The audience is the theatre’s wellspring, it’s leading actor. This is not a metaphor; it is an historical fact.
Questions and Answers…
If the sources of the theatre are rooted in the community in which it is situated, does this not restrict the choice of plays to the narrow interests of the local scene?
Though I deplore a theatre which neglects the patrimony of the past, I confess a predilection for the newly created. Not because the latter is superior to the old – obviously this is not so – but because the art of theatre, an art of presence, is the art of the present. Shakespeare and other masters of the past are, as Jan Kott and others have pointed out, our contemporaries. Their greatness transcends the limits of time and many cultural differences. In the theatre they reveal their contemporaneity only when they are felt and projects in response to our innermost needs. This is not to be construed to mean that they must be made ‘topical,’ e.g. Julius Caesar as Mussolini, Shylock as an East Side peddler or King Lear as an example of latter-day nihilism.
The theatre is not a museum, a treasure house to commemorate absent wonders; it is a vehicle for the manifestation of the joys and travails of our existence. The greater the scope and profundity of it revelations, the more universal it becomes. But it always begins with the now.
What do I do about the resistant actor, the one who disagrees with your interpretation of a part?
Before answering the question point blank it is important to realize that refractoriness in an actor has diverse, not always immediately recognizable causes. Vanity may enter into it, or a too-great susceptibility to criticism, a fear of disapproval, a ‘star’ complex, unfamiliarity with the director’s mode of procedure and other peculiarities.
Every director invents or improvises ‘tricks’ to deal with the individual actors’ hang-ups. An actor in whose talent Stanislavsky believed lacked self-confidence. He was always breaking down with a sense of inadequacy after his finest flights. Stanislavsky instructed his company to prepare placards on which were inscribed something like ‘Y is a superb artist.’ Whenever Stanislavsky noticed an attack of inferiority tremors was about to overpower the actor, he would call on the others to parade around the despondent man. This always produced the desired affect: the actor felt refreshed.
In directing Thomas Mitchell as Willy Loman in the touring company of “Death of a Salesman,” I found no matter how brief a remark I made about some small point, he would elaborate with extended comments of his own to show me not only that he understood what I had said, but that he understood more and better. After all, he was a veteran actor and director many years before I had begun my career. I realized that if I betrayed impatience or attempted to silence him he would resent it. On the other hand, if I let him continue to interpolate his disquisitions at every bit of direction I proposed, the rehearsals would deteriorate into hours of futile discourse.
I ceased offering him any direct guidance. I would turn instead to whomever he was playing a scene with and say something like: “You are annoyed because your father has just reprimanded you,” or “Willy has begun to plead with you so touchingly that you answer in kind,” or “You see in Willy’s face the clouds of anger gather and you try to calm his impending fury.” In other words, I directed Mitchell through his partners in the scene. The stratagem worked.
But my principal maxim in cases of personal difficulty with an actor is: Never, never, never win an argument with him, never persuade him that he is ‘wrong,’ just get him to do what you want! The director who beats an actor down by the force of his own authority does so at his own cost. The director-martinet is an obsolete phenomenon today – and should be. A director who insists that he is always absolutely right is indulging his own ego. Much rehearsal time is wasted through such indulgence.
Still! When an actor tells me that he differs with me, I usually say, “Don’t talk, show me.” If his demonstration fails to convince me, I can explain why what he has shown me doesn’t fulfill the play’s or the scene’s demands. Or I choose two or three possible directives, not previously proposed, which he may follow. The actor more often than not will then turn back to the directorial suggestions which he had initially rejected.
Does the director call additional rehearsals after the play has opened?
He should. It is difficult to keep a production in shape after three months of playing. We rejoice in a long run, but it is artistically debilitating. A director should check on his production at least twice a month.
I say this glibly, but the truth is that during my first years as a director I positively loathed seeing one of my productions after it had opened; I was nearly always disappointed at my failure to accomplish all I had hoped for. But since then self-discipline has prevailed.
Apropos of this, I recall speaking to the brilliant Czech director, Ottomar Krejca, about his beautiful production “The Three Sisters.” Though I admired it, I found much in it subject to cavil. A year later, on seeing it again, I told him that now liked it much more. “Ah, but we’ve been working on it ever since we opened,” he said. The play, to begin with, had been rehearsed for many months. It was in repertory.
Elia Kazan once told me that after six months of a continuous run, actors are unable to retain either the glow or the just proportions of their original performance: they lose their resilience. I agree.
There are exceptions. I saw Walter Huston in “Desire Under the Elms” four times over a period of twelve months. Each performance was better than the previous one.
One day after many months of playing in “Awake in Sing,” I noticed Stella Adler examining the “book” of her part. I asked her why. “I’m looking over the notes I took at rehearsal,” she answered. I’m trying to see if I’ve lost something of the original intentions and if there are new ways to recharging the battery.”
A sixteen-year-old student once asked me: “What is the worst thing that happens to a director?”
My answer was: “You see from all I’ve told you how thoughtfully, how painstakingly, how sincerely and how knowledgeably I labor on a production. Yet for all that my efforts to bring about the hoped for result may be in vain. The magic doesn’t happen I fail.”
“What do you do then,” the candid youth asked.
“I forgive myself.”
In the judgement of theatre we must first of all understand what goal is being sought, what the artists are endeavoring to communicate. No holds barred in the theatre, but we must believe in what we see and ascertain what value we attach to what we see and are asked to believe.
I believe in the Noh Theatre, I believe in the great clowns. I believe in Edward Villella’s leaps, I believe Violette Verdy and Allegra Kent, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham. I believe in superb acrobat. All have their reality – as well as deadly imitators. Whether we think of their different realities as an “imitation of life” or not matters little except to pedants: they are manifestations of life. What do we expect from the theatre? It is not merely a question of novel techniques for these must be ultimately judged by their contribution to our human needs, our aspirations, moral concerns and philosophies. These questions lead to the role played by the audience in the theatre. • 1972.
Excerpts from On Directing, Published by Macmillan Books. Reprinted with the permission of Ellen Adler and J.C. Compton.
Harold Clurman by Al Hirschfeld Reproduced by special arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, The Margo Feiden Galleries, NY.
HAROLD CLURMAN - A dynamic force as Producer, Director, Drama Critic, he founded the famed Group Theatre in 1931 with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford. Mr. Clurman directed the original productions of Awake & Sing, The Member Of The Wedding, Bus Stop, A Touch of the Poet, and Incident At Vichy among others. His classic account of the Group Theatre, The Fervent Years is a must read for all theatre lovers, as well as his On Directing, Ibsen, and All People Are Famous. A recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award, he was known as the “elder statesman of the American Theatre.”