An American playwright, screenwriter and actor. His plays include “Orphans”on Broadway starring Alec Baldwin, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge, original production directed by Gary Sinise at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre before its successful Off-Broadway run. During its London production, Albert Finney received the Olivier Award for his performance in the London West End production. “Orphans” was also made into a film directed by Alan J. Pakula, starring Matthew Modine and Albert Finney. The play continues in repertory in the Tokyo Theatre Company Kaze in Japan; “The Watering Place” (on Broadway with William Devane and Shirley Knight), “Possession,” “Unlisted” (premiere at LA’s Tiffany Theatre with Charles Robinson), “Burning Bright,” “The Family Circle,” “The Engagement,” “The Viewing,” and “Robbers” (premiere at Long Wharf Theatre with Judd Hirsch). Mr. Kessler began his career as an actor. His stage appearances include the Philadelphia premiere of “Waiting for Godot” opposite Bruce Dern, and recently as Albert Einstein. He also appeared in several films, including “James Dean” as Lee Strasberg, with whom he studied with at The Actors Studio. He is the Head of the Playwright/Directors Unit at The Actors Studio. Mr. Kessler was a Rockefeller Foundation Playwriting Grant for his play “The Watering Place,” and received the New York State Council on the Arts Playwriting Award for “Burning Bright.” His films include “Gladiator,” “The Saint of Fort Washington” (also executive producer), and “Touched,” in which he also appeared in. Mr. Kessler and his wife, Margaret Ladd are the founders of the Imagination Workshop at U.C.L.A.’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. The workshop brings together actors, writers and directors who create scenes and original plays to be performed by psychiatric patients, veterans and "at risk" students in the L.A Public Schools. In 1998 they won the Ovation Award. Mr. Kessler and Mark Rydell are the co-moderators of the Playwright/Directors Unit of The Actors Studio in Los Angeles. He also served as the Director of the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab, and participated in the Sundance Screenwriters Conference in Hungary. www.lylekessler.com
Are you in the midst of some new projects?
I have two original plays that I have been working on over the last couple of years. We’ve been having readings and developing them; they’re major pieces of material. Austin Pendleton and my wife and I have been trying to move them to a venue. They’re wonderfully character-driven pieces. I’m always in the midst of writing new one-acts. You never know what you have until you get the play worked on. You find out if you need to make adjustments. I feel they’re closer to where they should be. One is set in Philadelphia. I tried to escape from it, so I took a break from Philly so I could work on the other play. We had some terrific people a part of the reading: Bobby Cannavalle, Stephen Lang, Angelica Page, David Margulies – it was nice, the reading went great. I remain on a journey to discover what I want to say and how to say it.
You first started out as an actor. When did you find you were heading towards being a playwright?
I came out of that generation as a teenager who sat down in the movie theater and watched Brando in “On the Waterfront,” and was transformed by the beauty of Kazan’s work. I realized it was a ‘passage’ – a way out of the dilemma I was experiencing as a kid. So it’s what got me into acting. And I’ve also kept acting. I just played Albert Einstein in a new play about when Einstein met with Paul Robeson at a theatre uptown in Harlem. It was a terrific experience.
When I went to Temple University I was struggling. I began to study at an acting school in Philly; one of my classmates was Bruce Dern. He and I ended acting together in the premiere in Philadelphia of “Waiting for Godot.” We were Estragon and Vladimir and got great reviews, but no one wanted to see Beckett in those days.
It was amazing time for me, we’d work on scenes from Williams, Miller, Odets and it made me read other playwrights. I read Ionesco’s work and the other writers like him, and it got me interested, in terms of perhaps, writing was something that stimulated me.
My family probably would have preferred me to do something else. My father actually had been a bit of an entertainer, he was always “on” telling jokes. He was a display decorator of women stores through Pennsylvania. Someone said once your father had the mannequins in the windows that were frozen but you made them walk on stage and I agreed with them.
I had no idea I’d be a playwright at that point. I loved science fiction, and I began publishing a science fiction magazine; I knew all the top science fiction writers, Asimov, Ray Bradbury, a lot of the others.
When you came to New York City you studied acting with Lee Strasberg, where you wrote and directed your first one act play, “The Viewing,” which you subsequently directed at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York.
Yes, I was in Lee’s private acting classes. Dustin Hoffman was in my first class. I saw the first scene Dustin did. He told me, “I don’t know how to get inside this character,” but he pumped up his energy and found a way.
When I first began I was still acting, and doing some directing. Lee invited me to come into the Directors Unit at The Actors Studio. When I was looking for something to direct for my first piece, I just sat down and wrote it.
It all began at a particular session when the one-act play I had written was first presented. Cheryl Crawford (one of the co-founders of The Actors Studio) happened to bring a producer with her. It went over phenomenally well. Lee reacted favorably and Cheryl ran up to me and told me how wonderful it was. I felt good about it. It allowed me to continue writing plays.
How would you describe what The Group Theatre, and those who founded The Actors Studio (Elia Kazan, Booby Lewis & Cheryl Crawford), meant for the theater?
They brought basically brought a sense of truth into the American Theater – the journey for truth. Lee was really a scientist with a magnifying glass looking for the germ of truth in every actors’ work and encouraged them in that direction. At that time with Strasberg and Kazan and Clurman. It was a really magical time in the theater. I was just reading a new incredible book about Kazan’s letters. He was talking about the survival of the theatre and his development in it.
I’d occasionally see Kazan; I was up for a part for his film, “America;” but I didn’t get it. Cheryl and Clurman would come and moderate and talk at the Directors Unit. Lee told me: “Why don’t you do it for the Clurman.” So I did. Clurman was a very different director than Lee. He was very theatrical, dramatic and would stand up and make his point and would talk very fervently and fast. I felt he sometimes would talk ‘past himself.’
I thought I was able to create living and breathing characters and learned to be a playwright, not by going to school. I picked up Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” reading it over and over, and saw where Tennessee stopped the first scene, and where he picked up the next scene. I saw the dramatic moves in the play, the issues that happened that didn’t need to be dramatized.
I feel the main consideration as a playwright is: understanding the characters you write, writing colorful characters and creating a true dramatic action. A lot of people can write characters but they don’t know how to refine the structure. They don’t keep the story moving forward moment to moment onto the next thing. I write really from my guts. I try to keep my intellect out of it.
It’s a big battle, allowing the knowledge and impulse of the imagination to happen. It’s great to be able to let my imagination in the beginning loose, to write the material slowly to allow the structure occur, rather than making notes, which you have to do writing movies. Doing feature films is a very different process. Plays really come out of the guts and imagination.
One of your most well-known plays is your first full length work, “The Watering Place.”
I had first written it as a one-act about a solider returning from the war – about the family of his dead prisoner cellmate. He had promised him he’d come back. The full-length – three acts, shows how he brings a brutal truth back with him, and in doing so, unravels the family. He’s pretty brutal and brings that brutality to the family situation. It was picked up immediately, opening on Broadway. Michael Langham was the first director but he was fired in preview. Alan Schneider came in and took it over.
The first production was abstract and much more powerful, but then it became naturalistic. Bill (William) Devane played the lead. Robert Duvall, DeNiro, Pacino had wanted to do it. I actually wasn’t pleased how it all turned out. I was missing what happened with the first production; somehow the peak emotional issues weren’t there. I also felt it needed a stronger conflict, a re-thinking how the style of the piece should be presented. Alan sent the production to Israel, and it became a big hit at the Cameri Theatre.
What should a playwright expect from a director?
That he’s realizing and fulfilling the playwright’s vision of a play, not imposing side issues on it that have nothing to do with the play. In my acting class I tell the actors I’m not really in the words, I’m much more interested in the behavior, in truth. The director should be the captain of the ship and stay on the ship even if it’s burning down.
When Gary Sinise directed “Orphans” at Steppenwolf, it was such a relief to me to have a true committed artist. He took on the burden and values so well which were in the play, without any ego, and brought the play to life. It was an incredible experience. I think with his stardom on TV it’s a big loss for the American Theatre.
Albert Finney and Jeff Fahey in Orphans at The Hampstead Theatre
“Orphans” certainly struck an immense chord in America when it first opened in 1983, and then around the world.
Alec Baldwin and Tom Sturridge in Orphans in New York City
The play is not autobiographical in any sense. I was unknown to myself, working out unresolved issues. These characters embodied in a pure way, parts of myself. One brother – scared, withdrawn – the terrified part of myself, and his brother – the uncivilized part of himself who has no control. Harold, who arrives, is the integrating force that brings it all together. I didn’t think it all out; it’s just how it worked out. The play has a certain purity to it; I think that’s why it’s done all over the world over and over again.
My wife and I were invited to Japan; a big production in Tokyo broke all records, and then another production was taken on tour – the Japan Theatre Kaze Company. They mounted a bus and truck tour all over Japan, to places that had never seen this kind of theater. They’ve now been doing the play for over fifteen years. My wife, Margaret Ladd, and I joined them on their bus tour, and we went to the most amazing places. They performed the play at a theater near a beach or we’d climb high into the mountains and the play would be performed deep in a grove. The whole experience between actors and audience revealed deep emotions between them.
Original production of Orphans at Matrix Theatre
When the Grove Press edition of “Orphans,” was published, I wrote in the introduction how “Orphans” was developed and how it survives through this kind of interplay between audience and actor.
When it first began, there was a Los Angeles Equity Waiver Theatre that was interested in the play. John Landi, an acting teacher and director, asked Lane Smith to play Harold, and Joey Patanglione played Philip. Joey was amazing and when we did it there, it was very successful, and that’s how Gary (Sinise) picked it up and did it at Steppenwolf in Chicago.
Steppenwolf’s original production of Orphans with Gary Sinise. Ken Anderson and John Mahoney
I know you were in a production of “The Miracle Worker” – well, I actually have in my preface, a quote from Helen Keller when she said: “Before my teacher came, I wasn’t there; I wasn't in the world.” She didn’t exist for herself, which is similar in “Orphans.”
The two boys were trapped in a violent situation and were trapped in their own world. When Harold comes, he brings them what Helen Keller got from Annie Sullivan.
Audiences relate to this tough guy, which goes past sentiment to the really raw feelings. I didn’t realize when I first wrote it in Los Angeles that Harold would die. Until then Harold didn’t die in the play. There was a part of myself that didn’t want to ‘kick him off.’ But I wasn’t happy with the ending but when they did it at Steppenwolf in Chicago, I kept writing the end. Gary (Sinise) was directing the cast with Terry Kinney, Kevin Anderson, and John Mahoney.
Finally, I was in a corner and I realized he had to die. I thought that through his death we’d discover these gutsy, real feelings. The other version worked but it didn’t have this new gut-wrenching change.
Is there a particular time or way you write your plays?
When I was younger, living in California, even before all the success I’ve had, I would write very early in the morning. I would try to beat the sun. I would get up at 4 am, and be done at 7. There were times I would go longer. But as I get older I can’t try to write in the morning, so I try to be closer to my dream state.
What you’re reaching into the unknown, the intellectual side of you is demanding you to do it in a knowledgeable way, but the dream state can take you anywhere. The imagination will take you places that the intellect would never go, letting yourself travel into that time and space.
Do you approach writing films differently than the way you write for the stage?
Again, with movies, I try again for it to come from the character. The first thing for me are the characters and the conflict. Some stories lend themselves towards film and I have studied film. We all I think we’ve gotten better. With a film, I break it down with the scenes laid out on cards, and the different beats. But if I did that with a play, I’d feel frozen. I’m able to let my imagination out within the film parameters.
With the film director, Mark Rydell, you co-moderated the Writer/Directors Unit of The Actors Studio West at Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles. Now you’re the Moderator of the Playwright/Directors Unit of The Actors Studio in New York City. Why is that important for you?
When I was living in LA, I’d go to The Actors Studio West and the acting sessions were helpful for my imagination. They’d trigger off my mind seeing really good acting. They were thinking of having a Playwright/ Directors Unit like the one in New York, and Mark wanted to have a playwright to be a co-moderator. Mark and I had a wonderful relationship. We really developed it together.
It’s been functioning really well. Bruce Goldsmith, a playwright and a novelist has been leading it now too. There are sixty writers and playwrights which are a part of it. I want to do the same kind of thing here in New York City. I’d like to bring in some major playwrights; it’s an incredible opportunity.
When I returned to New York City three years ago, Bobby Waltham had a Monday night class of graduates of The New School, and he invited me to come and bring some of my writing. In the summer I was asked to run the class. I didn’t really want to because I'm an actor, and as a writer, I really understand both crafts really, so I decided to try to do it.
Orphans with Tom Sturridge, Alec Baldwin and Ben Foster in New York City
They were very impressed by what I said. So over the last couple of years I’ve been doing it. We’d work on new material and we’ve had some good people come and be a part of it as readers of the new work. Alec Baldwin came in, Jesse Eisenberg, Terry Kinney. I’ve been working on a new piece of mine, and it’s been incredible to see where it goes. It’s sort of like being a composer, and having your music played beautifully. All these actors are so talented and committed. It’s really been a master class for actors, and for writers who want to bring in new material to have it done.
Why does live theater remain important in our culture?
While film gives us all these wonderful images and story-telling, and all the digital innovations, with live theater what you get from a real person on stage speaking truth is that’s happening at that moment and will never happen again. There is a feeling of religiosity; a truth in spirituality that happens with theater, you also find it when you hear music. A real dialogue is occurring and it goes a long way to human progress.