‘Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer’ (a LPTW, NYPL for the Performing Arts Oral History Event)
Monday evening, 6 May the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women presented Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer. The event produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser with Sophia Romma was held at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center.
Linda Winer was chief theater critic and arts columnist of Newsday (1987-2017). She has taught critical writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts since 1992 and hosted the “Women in Theatre” series on CUNY-TV from 2002-2007. Recently (2018) she was given a special award from the League of Professional Theatre Women for her contributions to women and theater.
Tovah Feldshuh’s illustrious career spans decades. She is a six-time Emmy and Tony nominee. She has been awarded three honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters. Her prodigious career in theater has garnered her four Drama Desks, four Outer Critics Circle awards, three Dramalogues, the Obie, the Theatre World and the Helen Hayes and Lucille Lortel Awards for Best Actress. Noted Broadway performances include Yentl, Cyrano, Rodgers & Hart, Dreyfus in Rehearsal, Saraval, Lend Me a Tenor, Golda’s Balcony, Irena’s Vow and Pippin (the show stopping trapeze artist, Berthe).
Here are a few excerpts from the conversation Linda Winer held with Tovah Feldshuh who entertained the audience throughout the conversation by performing the role of her grandmother and her mother and others with heavy Bronx or European accents, while discussing her life and career. The piece has been generally edited to remove infelicities in grammar.
Linda Winer: So you’re a serious actress, with a life-time career, a cabaret star, wife, mother of two. You climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, you hung from a trapeze without a net in Pippin. You appeared in a lot of my favorite Law and Order Episodes. You’ve appeared in Walking Dead and in lots of TV and movies. You’ve said your career reflects your personality. Which one? (audience laughter)
The greatest advantage about growing older is the wisdom and perspective it gives you about life. And it’s taken me into my 60s to recognize and deal with the general existential fear of death…or dwelling on the idea that one day I won’t be here. The most important word in a successful career is the word “yes.” So when people ask me if I can do it? If it interests me, I say, “yes.”
I’m much pickier than I used to be because time has shortened. My mother lived until over 103. I’m in the last third of my life. But nonetheless, I’m clearer about what I want to do. I see it and I grab it when it comes my way. And if it doesn’t come my way, I’ve learned from my betters to create it. Dustin Hoffman didn’t just get Tootsie, he produced Tootsie. Jane Fonda didn’t just do her workouts she couldn’t get hired because she was considered a traitor by the U.S. congress and she created the workout program because she was physically fit. I did the pregnancy workout and was most grateful that I worked out up to the day that I delivered.
That is the explanation for a lot of the work you do?
I write and collaborate with various individuals. (An example of this would be her one-woman show Tovah is LEONA!) I went into one-woman show business for a reason, not only to fulfill my dreams. One of my children didn’t learn to read and I was so involved with my career, I didn’t catch it. My beloved sister-in-law said, “This child is not reading.” My sister-in-law is a reading therapist. I said, “What are you talking about, of course this child is reading.” “No!
she said. “This child is memorizing the sounds. He’s not coding right.”
Don’t worry. The child went to Harvard. So when I didn’t catch it, I stopped doing Broadway for 13 years. When one child went to Switzerland, and the other was accepted to the college of his choice, then I went back. There’s no free lunch here. People came up to me and would say, “How are you? Where’ve you been?” There’s no understudy for a parent. Here we’re supposed to be talking about theater. But when you bring human life onto the planet, it’s your responsibility to nurture those lives.
You like great titles. I have these scribbled down and they all have your name. You were smart about branding before it became the thing.
Well people had to know what they were coming to see.
A Touch of Tovah, Tovah Out of her Mind. Tovah Crossovah! Aging is Optional.
The roles I choose, particularly the one-woman shows I construct, I love playing multiple characters. And even when I don’t write the piece, for example, William Gibson wrote Golda’s Balcony, there was still the decision to work on it. The playwright gave us permission to put in all the verbs in the present tense, so we could retain the reportage which it was and turn it into an experience which it is. And that’s why the piece has persevered. The version of the piece that we do is not published.
I’m doing The Prompter now by Wade Dooley directed by Scott Schwartz (May 28–June 16 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor). When I was in my 50s I was cast as Golda who was 80. I’m in my 60s now, I am playing Irene Young in The Prompter who is 90. So if I keep going when I’m 80 or 85 I’ll probably play Methuselah.
How about your grandmother? Was she in shows.
Grandma Ada. She’s the jewel in my crown. Ada is actually a compendium of my family. It was my father who said, “Reach for the stars, you may land onto the roof. If you reach for the roof, you’ll never get off the ground.” My grandmother wanted to be an actress and she had this career in the Music Hall in London. So when she tried out, they said “Ada, show us your ankles.” She showed them her ankles. They asked, “Ada show us your knees.” She said, “Nobody sees my knees except Grandpa, and then not so often. (Tovah Feldshuh lays on a thick accent as she says these lines.)
So it’s a compilation of all my beloved forebears. They came across the waters from England in 1902. They came from England, Russia Germany Austria. I’m a real American mutt. Relating to Austria and Germany, if you say Feldshuh, it’s as familiar as Smith. When you were in Napoleonic times before we had last names, you were “Samuel, son of David.” But they needed last names for taxes. If you paid, you were Montifiore, “Mountain of Roses.” If you didn’t pay, you were named Feldshuh, “field boots.” That’s my proud name.
You were Terri Sue.
So I fell in love with a boy who was not of my tribe, not of my religion. He encouraged me to change my name. And he said what kind of a name is “Terri Sue?” You’re from the North. What else were you called? I said I was called Tovah in “Sunday School.” Actually, it was Hebrew School. I used to say “Sunday School” to fit in. I was embarrassed to say Hebrew School. By the way in Hebrew School, they give you a prayer book, it’s exhaustive, like Suzuki Judaism. In this prayer book, you can pray wherever you are in the world.
I was called Tovah in “Sunday School.” This was the 1950s. Jews were assimilating. There were no Mercedes in Scarsdale. To assimilate Jewish men men were going to Brooks Brothers to get their blazers and beige pants. These were the boys that made it, the GIs that came home from the war. They were Jewish. To get back to how I changed the assimilation name to Tovah, it was because of Michael Fairchild. May he go down for the ages. He became a photographer for National Geographic. On his encouragement, I changed my name from Terri Sue to Tovah. And I didn’t know the entire state of Israel would fall on my head. I had no sense of what would happen.
So what was the consequence?
It changed the whole landscape of my life. Juliet says what’s in a name. A rose by any other name is as sweet. Not necessarily so. A name characterizes. “Tovah” characterized me. Bobby De Niro is immediately characterized as Italian. Dustin Hoffman is something else. So a Tovah Feldshuh is a Danish name. So in Minneapolis when I worked at the Guthrie, they thought I was Danish (she imitates a Danish/Swedish accent). That was the one place in Europe that saved the Jewish community. So when I got to New York, my name, Austrian Jew, from Vienna? They said to me, “It’s a ridiculous name! You must change your name! (heavy accent). And 18 months later my name Tovah Feldshuh was on the marquee (applause).
Your parents in Scarsdale sent you to Sarah Lawrence. You were a philosophy major. You studied languages…and were/are a pianist. Did your parents think that changing your name to Tovah and becoming an actress was a mistake?
They thought being an actress was a mistake. When I told my mother I wanted to go to Julliard, my mother said, “You’re not going to a trade school.” (laughter) My older brother who is an MD, Ph.D. Dr. Dr. David Feldshuh, my mother called him Doc. My older brother went into the theater first. He went to Dartmouth and was a Reynolds scholar and was a McKnight Fellow at the Guthrie. He was the one who said, “Don’t go to law school. Why don’t you apply for a McKnight Fellowship in Acting?”
So I applied to law school, got on the wait list, got the McKnight Fellowship and went to study at Guthrie. And again, this changed my life. Sarah Lawrence was fabulous. My mother came to see Renard the Fox by Stravinsky. I think I had green hair and purple feet. She took one look at me and said, “Why didn’t you go to Vassar?” (Tovah Feldshuh imitates her mother with an accent) I applied and got in to Vassar but was encouraged to go to Sarah Lawrence by my mother. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Taconic Parkway had the highest mortality rate for car accidents. The road to Poughkeepsie was a long, dangerous road and she was preserving and protecting her young. I guess she wanted me near home. Then they sent me abroad. When I went abroad, I finally did my own laundry, otherwise I brought my laundry home to Scarsdale.
I was sent to Paris. At 13, I was sent to the Cote d’Azur. My father’s client was in Lyon. All their children spoke French and they had a summer home in the South of France. My brother and I were sent to the South of France for the summer. My mother said, “She’s not going.” My father said, “She’s getting on the plane, Lillian.” I had one parent who spoke like he was always in a courtroom. He dressed with the winged tipped shoes and the whole nine yards with the Paul Stewart suit. So I would ask, “Dad, was this the way you spoke when you were a baby?” (laughter) On the other hand, my mother was born in the Bronx on the dining room table, 1534 Charlotte Street (Tovah Feldshuh imitates where and how her mother was born). She had elocution lessons. The immigrants gave their children elocution lessons.
I had elocution lessons and it didn’t do me a bit of good. How is it that, not to use a cliche, how is it you have it all? I was at a women’s journalism luncheon. Barbara Walters said, “Women, you can’t have it all. You can have two of the three.” It’s very unusual to have three. You can have children or a husband or a career, but you can’t have all three. The thought she conveyed was if you try to “do it all,”you will suffer.
That must have been her experience. And I’m sorry it was. I never think of having it all. There are people in this audience who know darn well there are two sides to every coin. I have a great mate. Andrew Harris Levy who did originate Tovah Out of Her Mind. He’s very clever and he’s clean and I don’t just mean in the shower. I got the right mate. His mother was a concert level pianist who gave up her ultimate dream to marry Arnold Levy. She became a piano teacher. I was a classical pianist because my mother was shy and quiet and a classical pianist. And I wanted to be near my mommy. So I took piano; interesting we never did a four-handed piece. That was a bit of a heartbreak for me.
You were going to be a concert pianist.
I couldn’t do the concertos. I could only get to the Finals. I even played for Van Cliburn. It was very hard for me. “Mozart in D Minor,” “Rhapsody in Blue.” And I thought to myself, “You’re going to be an also ran. You better try out for something else.” So I did plays with music and I was immediately cast as Cousin Hebe in H.M.S Pinafore. I thought then…there are three girls singing in this operetta, and I am one of them. So that gave me hope. The next year I got Little Mary Sunshine in Little Mary Sunshine. And I thought to myself, hey maybe this might be something that I can do really well.
But the man I married and I were brought up on the exact same music, the same love of opera. (Tovah imitates her mother.) “If you’re gonna marry someone, marry someone of your race, your religion and your social class. You wanna fight? Fight at the opera.” The woman’s speech patterns that were fancy, devolved as she got older.
I have a certain sized bosom. You really can’t see it because there isn’t a breast pad left in Manhattan that isn’t in this bra. Anyway, I have a very small chest. My mother and my beloved daughter have a very ample chest. My mother looks at my daughter and looks at me and she says, “Well, I guess it skips a generation.” (laughter)
So why do I have it all? I had great parents, but I had the great luck of choosing a man who didn’t begrudge me my work. And his love for me had to do with him not stopping me. We’ve been married 40 years and it’s taken me decades to realize that. There’s times he comes in and he’s working on his law. He’s a fantastic lawyer, the head of a department of huge law firm and now he’s an accountant for the biggest law firm in the world. I will not let him retire. I do not believe in retiring, so I can go to Florida and do my nightclub act. Tovah Feldshuh segues to a joke. So I’m down there and I tell them. I’ll change the opening. I’ll change the closing. And they say to me, “Ms. Feldshuh, you don’t have to change anything. They’re all dead.” About retirement? No. In my experience you have to live for a purpose that is beyond yourself. Children are usually the easiest solution to that.
So I had these good parents. I loved my father deeply. He was a Harvard lawyer. I married a Harvard lawyer. My father-in-law was a Harvard Lawyer. My mother-in-law was a classical pianist. My mother was a classical pianist. I was a classical pianist. So we had enough synchronistic coincidences, that had nothing to do with each other until will met each other. That made vast areas of the marriage easy. And that’s why it was possible in my life, to “have it all.”
Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer was a delightful presentation. Though I didn’t include all of the lengthy conversation here, you may find it is at the NYPL for the Performing Arts. Tovah Feldshuh, did mention that she wanted to get this “on the record.” She has not had any plastic surgery!
I would credit her youthful appearance to her peace inside, her brilliance, cleverness and her luck in choosing the right partner, and of course, her obvious joie de vivre!
You can see Tovah Feldshuh in The Prompter May 28–June 16 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tovah is LEONA! is on its way to San Francisco’s Feinstein’s at the Nikko from September 20-21. You can find her on https://www.tovahfeldshuh.com/
This is a continuation of the conversation that took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center as presented in collaboration by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women. The event was produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser and Sophia Romma. For Part I Click this LINK.
Elisabeth Vincentelli: Could you talk about Mlima’s Tale. It was another different approach you took.
Lynn Nottage: It was commissioned by film director Katherine Bigelow (award winning director of Hurt Locker). And we were developing it together. She has incredible passion about elephants. Mlima’s Tale is told from the point of view of an elephant that’s been poached. And the play tracks the elephant’s tusks from the hands of the people who poach him to the hands of the people in China who buy his tusks. It’s a very stylized piece. Jo Bonny came in. And we decided that we wanted to make the piece very differently. It was based on my working with designers that was very collaborative. We decided that we wanted to work with designers from beginning to end which almost never happens. Usually what happens is that designers speak to the director during the first draft of the script and then they come back into the process during tech week. We thought we don’t want to make it that way. We want designers to be there very single day which is why I think the piece is more holistic and integrated on all levels. We were talking to each other and making creative decisions in the moment which was very exciting.
It was very imaginative with the lighting, music and movement.
We worked with a composer who had never done theater before. The equipment was all set up. During the first preview, a musician felt very deeply and he didn’t know he couldn’t just spontaneously sing. We had to say “Wait, you can’t do that.” (laughter)
What are the new musicals you are working on?
The first one is The Secret Life of Bees which is an adaptation of the book by Sue Monk with composer Duncan Sheik who did the music for Spring Awakening and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead who did Jelly’s Last Jam. Sam Gold is directing it and it will be at the Atlantic Theater Company in the Spring. And we’ve been working on it for a couple of years and it’s very beautiful.
Then you’re working on another musical of Intimate Apparel.
Well, it’s not exactly a musical. It’s an opera which is a co-commission between the Met Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre. It’s been interesting developing something which is kind of a hybrid and having Peter Gelb from the Met giving notes and Andre Bishop from the theater. Both of them have very different needs. (laughter) And Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer, is doing a brilliant job.
The third one which has been announced is?
The Michael Jackson musical. I’m writing the book on the Michael Jackson Musical. Michael Jackson’s written the music. (laughter)
What are the challenges for working on the book of a musical or opera,
The opera which is an adaptation of working on my own play Intimate Apparel? The challenge was in figuring out how to write a libretto from material I was so attached to. I didn’t want to let go of anything. And working with Ricky, the first time I handed him my libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play.’ The second time I handed him the libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play, again.’ And I asked, ‘How do I do this?’ He said, ‘You’re not trusting your collaborator. You have to understand in musical theater and opera, the music does 50% of the work. It is what makes it expansive. Trust that I’m going to allow people to feel and teach people to feel through my music.’ And once I trusted him, I was able to make some of those cuts and get rid of the exposition. I had to let him be the collaborator that he is, and allow him to do some of the heavy lifting. I had to let him do the story telling. He does beautiful story telling which allowed me to step away.
What about with Sue Monk’s Secret Life of Bees? How was it writing book for a work that was not yours?
Well Sue Monk gave us the license to do whatever we wanted. She was like ‘I’ve written the book.’ We made it clear that we made some massive changes and that we were not doing a strict adaptation of the book. We told her that we’re creating a piece that is inspired by the book that honors all her characters without making replicas of those characters.
How do you approach the writing of the book?
From my position of writing the book? I’m the architect of the narrative. It is my job to make sure that all the pieces come together. So I’m kind of like the contractor. I am there to make sure that everything is exactly as we want it.
How did you feel writing book for that musical?
It’s incredible and liberating as a book writer. So if get to a difficult point, I can turn to Susan (lyricist) and say, “You got this right?” (laughter) It’s the lyricist that’s doing a lot of the important story telling. I throw her the ball and she does the “slam dunk.”
You said you learned at Yale what “to do as a playwright and what not to do.” Could you elaborate on that?
Sure. When I arrived at Yale I had just gone from college to graduate school. So my assumptions when I was there was that they had a blueprint about how to be a good playwright. I learned a lot about structure, but I also think I also became imprisoned by a lot of what I learned because I didn’t realize I had the freedom to make my own decisions. I think that is what I meant.
Writing the play into a libretto are you turning it into prose or are you turning it into poetry?
I think it’s both. Some of it is definitely prose and some of it is definitely poetry. It’s a combination.
From the perspective of film how does that approach differ? What is the difference between a word and an image and what is special about each one?
The way in which film and theater function differently is clear. In theater we do a lot of problem solving through language. In film a lot of the problem solving is done through images. I think particularly in film there is the short cut you can take that you don’t have the luxury of doing onstage in the theater. You can quickly convey something by taking a character somewhere else in film, but because of the limitations of the stage, we have to use language sometimes to describe the visuals.
You were raised to appreciate the arts. What are you doing to advocate for young people in the arts?
I’ve been a professor for 17 years. I’m a teacher. And I think that’s the primary way to nurture young artists, because when I was young artist I didn’t feel that there were a lot of people to nurture young African American artists. I feel it’s essential to nurture the next generation and I’ve put in a lot of time and effort into helping directors and playwrights who are up and coming and emerging.
Which characters do you use to get their stories told?
I use the characters that assert themselves. The characters that come back and demand to be represented on the stage are ultimately the ones who win out.
Do you have a specific audience in mind that you are writing for?
I like to think that I’m writing for an audience who are friends. My friends are a very diverse group of people. So those are the friends I write for. But Intimate Apparel was very specific. It was for my mother. I don’t think I’ve written anything else with that kind of intention. I did this adaptation for this film director Lars Von Trier. (laughter) He would talk to me on the phone, but he would never direct any comments or questions to me. He wanted to speak to me through his producer. And this was on the telephone. The three of us would be on the phone and he would say, “Tell Lynn. . .” And I would respond, “I can hear you.” (laughter) The film was Manderlay.
Did you have any influencers?
I did have influencers. I had my parents who took me to theater. As a professional playwright, I didn’t have mentors who helped me nurture this career.
Now you’ve reached a certain point in your career, is there another medium you would like to work in?
Because of the past year or two that I’ve become so overwhelmed and busy, I don’t feel that I have the time to nurture my self. I haven’t had the time to read books and to ruminate. I have to endeavor, in the next couple of years, just to make time to think and think about what it is I want to do.
Did you have a sense that those two pieces that won your Pulitzers would stand out in some way.
The Pultizer came as a complete and total surprise. Technically, the Pulitzer is supposed to be a play that deals with American culture. And Ruined is set in the Congo. So when I got that phone call it was an absolute surprise. For Sweat I never thought that lightening was going to strike twice. So that was a total surprise as well.
Could you still comment on the lack of production opportunities for women in theater. We’re still below 20% and women of color are really at the bottom.
I think you put it very well. (laughter) It is a fact there is work to be done. And very recently there was another survey about theater and women. I can’t speak to the specifics of this in all the other areas, but for women playwrights they found that for white women throughout the country, there’s been an increase to almost parity. But for women of color and men of color, the numbers are still staggeringly low.
How can we change the dynamics of theater pricing?
I think there is a way to make theater more affordable and more accessible, as we did in Sweat. I teach a course called American Spectacle about how to evolve beyond the proscenium. And I teach it because of my incredible frustration with we as playwrights and directors and artists. We craft our productions very specifically for the stage and proscenium of Off Broadway Theaters that are limited in space and also limited in the audience that they reach. The audience that I want to reach doesn’t necessarily relate to the audience that I look and see is watching my play.
One of the things I realized is that I don’t have to be locked into that problem. We can be incredibly flexible. We can take theater to the people. And that’s what we discovered with the mobile unit. We can break out of the proscenium and bring theater into a gym and if there’s an audience for it, we’ve broken away from that limitation. The very first production that we did in Pennsylvania, people showed up with their kids. They had not been to theater. They didn’t know they were going to sit for two and 1/2 hours and so Stephanie Ybarra, the Artistic Director of the mobile unit, and I ended up holding people’s babies while people watched theater (laughter).
And I thought, ‘This is great. Why can’t we do this in Off Broadway theaters.’ The other establishing fact was we realized that most of those folks had never been to theater before. Not a single cell phone rang. People sat rapt. And I thought ‘…there’s something about that audience that’s different from New York audiences because they want to be there and not because they bought a subscription and have to meet the quota of plays’ (laughter). They are there because they want this entire experience. I think that in some way we have to re-educate the audiences that see theater in New York. I think that there are really bad habits that are being nurtured and we have to change that. (applause)
I’m here from a class at NYU and I want to know if you consider yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself a feminist. My mother was a feminist. And she was very outspoken on women’s rights and so I’ve been a feminist since the time I can remember.
Are you inspired by to write about what is going on in current politics and what is going on at the border and the lies that we’re hearing.
Yes. I’d like to write about it. At the very end of the mobile unit tour, we ended at a Native American reservation and one of the elders stood up and said something incredibly moving. He said, “I don’t understand what this border wall is. There are no borders in America. These fences that they’ve erected where they arrest people if they cross over mean nothing.” He and others understand that these obstructions shouldn’t mean anything because this is land that has no boundaries. That’s how I feel. And there’s part of me that wants to do a Walkabout and walk the length of the border and talk to people and collect their stories but it would probably take a very long time. (applause and cheering)
You can see Lynn Nottage’s play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Irene Diamond Stage. For a schedule of where Lynn’s plays are being produced and to learn more about Lynn, go to her website: CLICK HERE.
For more about The League of Professional Theatre Women or to become a member CLICK HERE.
Monday evening at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center, the New York Library for the Performing Arts and The League of Professional Theatre Women presented another Oral History event celebrating renowned women in theater. Produced by Ludovia Villar-Hauser with Sophia Romma, those in attendance enjoyed Elisabeth Vincentelli’s interview of award-winning, globally renowned playwright and screenwriter Lynn Nottage. Elisabeth Vincentelli writes about the arts and theater for various publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal to name a few of her many writing accomplishments. She also co-hosts the “Three on the Aisle” podcast with Peter Marks (Washington Post) and Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal) The following interview has been lightly edited. Look for Part II next week.
Elisabeth: You are the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize twice (applause) You have such a rich career. I wanted to anchor it by having you talk about where you grew up. It was right here in New York.
Lynn: I was very fortunate to grow up in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It was a community defined by people moving through it to get to other communities. It was a very marginal neighborhood at the time. My block was dominated by boarding houses. It was very multicultural. It was a neighborhood where people who were pushed out of other neighborhoods found refuge. And as an aspiring writer, I feel like it was the best place to grow up because it was so diverse and accepting and nurturing. It was a true community. Next door to me, for example, in one of the boarding houses, there was a woman who by day wore a full Burqa, a Hijab. She was completely covered up. Her husband was a taxi driver. At night when he would leave, she would actually take it off and put on a Kaftan. That was the type of community it was.
So I think it was inevitable that I would end up as a writer having lived there. As a matter of fact on the same block, if anyone knows the novelist Jonathan Lethem, he memorialized the block in the Fortress of Solitude. And the yard in back where everyone played was the yard where I grew up. Our house was the nexus point for the block. I started my first stories when I was five-years-old. I wanted to capture things that I heard. And the aspect of the place was very rich in texture. I knew there was something very special about that moment in time and about the people who congregated in that neighborhood.
Where did you go to college?
Before college, I went to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem. I was an aspiring musician. And when I got there, I discovered that I was not as good as the other aspiring musicians. (laughter) I decided to do something else. I went to Brown University as a Pre-med student with the assumption that I was going to be a doctor, not that I ever wanted to be a doctor. However, because I was very good in math and science, they decided to give me a scholarship and I got into Brown.
Even before I went to Brown I was writing plays and when I went to Brown I continued to write these little dramas that I managed to produce myself. When I was there I met two professors who were quite influential. One of them was Paula Vogel the first female playwright I had ever met. Up to then, there were only two other female playwrights that I had read. One of them was Lorraine Hansberry, the other was Ntozake Shange. At the time Lorraine Hanesberry had passed away and Ntozake Shange was not very prolific. I was under the assumption that playwriting was really a hobby for women and that it was something that I was never going to be able to make a living doing. Then I met Paula Vogel. She was the first woman who said, “You know, you can do this. And there’s strength in numbers.” There was another professor whose name was George Bass who was the executor of the Langston Hughes estate. He really taught me about the joys and the ritual of creating theater. Theater was not just about putting people on stage. But it was a place where healing could occur and where one could deal with community.
So at that point you’re still grappling with what you wanted to do.
I thought I was going to be a journalist. That summer I was working for a newspaper called The Villager. There were only four of us and we wrote the entire newspaper. For a very brief period of time I was the Arts Editor. And the only reason why I did it was because I could go to the Openings and drink wine. The Villager was located on East Fourth Street.
Did it compete with The Village Voice?
At some point it did. When I was there it did not. (audience laughter)
When did you decide to focus on writing?
I think my decision to focus on writing came when I was deciding what to do after college. I applied to Columbia Journalism School to be a journalist. And on a whim I applied to Yale School of Drama assuming I would never get in. I did. And I spent four very difficult, fraught years in Yale School of Drama where I learned how to be a playwright and then how not to be a playwright at the same time.
Did you go to the theater?
Not so much, then. I went to the theater a lot when I was young. I was fortunate to grow up in New York City. At the time there were a lot of rising African American Theater Companies. There was the New Federal Theater. There was The Negro Ensemble. There was the Billie Holiday Theatre. My parents, who were great lovers of art, made sure that not every weekend, but certainly a few times a year we saw plays. So I encountered the work of Charles Fuller. I remember when I was in High School going to see Giancarlo Esposito. I was with my girlfriends and we were so excited. The performance was electric. At that time theater was affordable. We could go as teenagers.
What about the Billie Holiday Theatre?
They did a renovation and it is thriving. There are wonderful artists that are working there and they are doing representative work emphasizing being inclusive.
You mentioned that you dropped out of playwriting?
The time I was in graduate school coincided with the time that was a crucial moment in American Social History. It was the AIDS Crisis and the Crack Epidemic. So in school we were losing students, we were losing professors. It was really hard to make art in that environment. It felt like there were many more urgent things that needed to be attended to. After I graduated from Yale School of Drama, I felt that I wanted to do something with impact. I sold my computer, if you could call it that. It was sort of like a word processor, and I went to work for Amnesty International, which at the time was the largest human rights organization in the world. I was a press officer and I spent four, intense really concentrated years doing human rights work. In many ways the time I spent with Amnesty International became my second graduate school. It really shaped me not only as an artist but as a person. By the time I left, I knew exactly what I wanted to do as an artist which I didn’t know prior to that time.
Did you feel that playwriting could convey what you wanted to say?
I did. I will tell you a story. It was the moment that I decided to go back to playwriting. A woman named Donna Ferrato, who is a quite famous photographer came to our office. She’d taken these beautiful and disturbing photographs of women arriving at a battered women’s shelter. I saw these images of women who were in a moment of absolute crisis, but there was a look of relief on their faces as well. I was incredibly moved by the photographs.
During that time at Amnesty International, we were struggling with the notion that women’s rights should be separated out from human rights. The organization wasn’t doing enough to address specific human rights abuses. I saw these photographs and I knew that there was nothing that we as an organization could do. But as a human being I felt that I needed to respond to those images. So I closed my office door and I wrote a play. It was the first time I had done that in four years. The play was Poof. Poof is a short play about a woman who’s abused. She tells her husband to go to hell. He spontaneously combusts and turns into a pile of ash. (laughter) She calls her best friend on the phone and she comes down and they have a discussion about what to do with this pile of ash. Finally, they decide to sweep it under the rug. (laughter)
I had returned to playwriting and it felt really good. I arrived at a total synthesis of the “human rights” brain and the “writing” brain. I thought, I can do both things. I don’t know why I have to compartmentalize. For me that was incredibly liberating.
Was Poof your first professional production?
Yes. It was my first professional production. I submitted it to it the Humana Festival. It won the Heideman Award. And Seret Scott who was a fantastic director became my first professional director and my first professional mentor who guided me through the process.
You had three plays in quick succession in the 1990s being produced around the country: Crumbs From the Table of Joy; Mud, River, Stone; and Por’Knockers. Could you speak about each?
Crumbs from the Table of Joy was my very first professional commission. It was commissioned by Second Stage which was still uptown in a 97-seat theater. The play was specifically commissioned for young audiences. I wrote this play assuming it would never get produced. They decided to do it.
It’s really interesting because it was directed by Joe Morton. People know him as “Papa Pope.” At the time he had a very robust acting career and in the middle of directing it he got a job and he was drawn away. So the previews went on for a really long time. As a result the play began to build an audience. By the time he came back, it actually was a success even before it opened. Word of mouth sold it. It starred Ella Joyce and she had just come off of a very popular series. And she used to go to the Beacon Theater which, at the time, was a venue for The Chitlin Circuit. And she would hand out flyers. She would say, “You think this is good, just walk down a few blocks.” People recognized her because she was on the series (Roc) and they followed her advice. She was really responsible for this robust audience that we had.
Mud, River, Stone was commissioned by The Acting Company. We actually developed it on the road before we brought it into New York. When it came to New York, we did a short performance at Playwrights Horizons and then were invited back to do a larger production. I never felt that I finished that play. Before we went into rehearsal at Playwrights Horizons, I had my first child. I was nursing and at rehearsal. Every time she cried, I’d sneak out. The day of the first preview, my mother died. So I had all of these major life events occur during that play. As a result, I felt that I never really had the opportunity to properly tend to that play. That was my great frustration with it.
My other play which was Por’Knockers began at New York Theater Workshop. It came out of this multicultural group that I was in. We presented a short evening of plays. The Vineyard Theater came to see the play which is about a group of terrorists who blow up an FBI building and inadvertently kill some children. They have to decide over the course of the evening whether to take responsibility for their actions or not. They each get their turn to go to the phone to inform others about the explosion. Each one has to figure out what is the price they are willing to pay for their beliefs. At the end, none of them are able to make the phone call. The play was enormously successful at NY Theater Workshop. Then we did it at the Vineyard Theater. But the world had changed. Six months before we did it at the Vineyard, Oklahoma City Bombing happened. The FBI building was blown up. And the day we opened at the Vineyard Theater was the Million Man March. So the play that was a social satire suddenly became very different and much more intense. As a result people just didn’t respond to it.
Now, we’ll move on to Las Meninas which is an outlier, but every one of your plays is an outlier. That’s beautiful. I love that. Could you speak about Las Meninas
Sure. Las Meninas was actually a play that I wrote in graduate school. The play is based on a tiny slip of history that I read about. It was the relationship between Queen Maria Theresa of Spain, the wife of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and her African servant, Nabo who was a dwarf. When I read about this, I thought this is fascinating. Why don’t we know more? I ended up doing years and years of research. True story. I found a book in the New York Public Library, the main branch. I think I was the first person to ever read this book. It was written in 1710 and it was a translation of one of the memoirs written by a mistress. In this memoir the mistress detailed this relationship. I wrote a little bit about this and became an almost expert. I was getting calls from historians asking “How did you find this?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m a playwright.” Because the play is so whimsical and is a costume drama, it doesn’t get done that often. But it is one of my favorite plays because it is so delightful and it’s a true story told from the point of view of their daughter.
Now we move on to a key play in your career, Intimate Apparel directed by Kate Whoriskey. Was that your first collaboration?
Yes. I describe our meeting as a theater blind date. Someone said ‘Oh you and Kate should meet.’ I remember that we met at New Dramatist, in their library which was very cold. We both talked to each other shivering. We decided to work together. I was excited to work with her. Intimate Apparel was a commission by Center Stage. And it was the first play that I had written after my mother died. My mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and I spent a lot of time caring for her. During that period, I didn’t have time to write. Also, I had a child. I was having to figure out, how do I make all of these pieces work. When my mother died, suddenly I became the main caregiver of my grandmother. My mother was just an only child. It was just my mother and my grandmother. My grandfather was there, but that’s a different story.
I was going through my grandmother’s things and literally, she would put photographs in the middle of magazines for some unknown reason. I found a photograph and it was the first time I had seen a photo of my great grandmother, my grandmother and her sister. And I was struck by the fact that my grandmother who had dementia, couldn’t answer questions about this woman in the photograph. I couldn’t ask my mother who was dead. And it really broke my heart. So I wanted to reconstruct her life. I went to the New York Public Library. I wanted to figure out who was this African American woman who came to New York at the turn of the century, by herself. Who was this seamstress? How did she survive? How did she make a living that enabled her to build a family and that led to me being on this stage today? So Intimate Apparel became an examination into my own ancestry.
You wrote this at the same time…you say that you work on a number of plays at the same time. While you were working on Intimate Apparel, you were working on Fabulation?
Yes, Fabulation is a social satire. I was imagining Esther who is the central character in Intimate Apparel. Esther is an African American seamstress who falls in love with a Romanian Jewish man and she’s corresponding with a Caribbean man. It’s this little love triangle. I was imagining who might Esther be one hundred years later, if she had gone through the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement and felt fully empowered. So Undine of Fabulation is Esther 100-years later. Also, I wanted an outlet. Intimate Apparel was a play I wrote for my mother. I imagined what play might my mother want to see? Fabulation became my escape…the place that I went, when I didn’t want to cry.
You were working on poems at the same time, also. But how do you handle the juggling act of writing two plays at the same time?
I have two screens. (laughter) Literally, when I would get stuck on one play, rather than step away from my computer and do something else, I can literally switch the screen and write something else. The plays are so different and use completely different muscles, I can enter in both worlds without feeling burdened by the other.
You have discussed that your plays are thoroughly researched. Then you transmogrify the information into drama.
I found in my writing process, that procrastination is a form of creative exploration. (laughter) When I’m not writing and beating up on myself, I just continue to investigate. When I was working on Sweat, for instance, I spent two-and-one-half years exploring. But I felt that I needed that time to explore. I needed that time to know my characters. Rather than to rush into writing, I felt I needed that time to know a completely different world and immerse myself. I did the same thing for Ruined. I spent three years of immersion with Ruined, going to and from East Africa trying to find a story that I wanted to tell. And I thought it was a very productive way to spend my time.
Ruined was a run-away success. It was extended numerous times. I remember one time I was seeing it with a school group in the audience, and I thought, “Oh, my God.” But they completely adored the story.
When you wrote Sweat, it was a fascinating project that you spent time researching, but you had a companion project with it.
It was a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that specifically invited playwrights to write plays about an “American Revolution.” The revolution that I wanted to write about was the Industrial Revolution in America. By the time I finished, I thought it would be history and it would be living history.
I went to Reading, PA, and spent a lot of time. I began forging these very deep, complicated relationships with people in the community. But I didn’t want to be a carpetbagger. I didn’t want to write this play that goes to Oregon, and travels to various theaters then comes to New York. I didn’t want to forget the play’s origins. I wanted to create something, a play that was still very connected to the people who were in Reading, PA and make use of these hundreds of hours of interviews that I didn’t use and didn’t filter into the play.
So after I did Sweat, the following year, I decided to build this massive performance installation that would be set in Reading, PA. We decided we wanted to re-animate the Reading Railroad that everyone knows from Monopoly. It had been abandoned since 1981. When it was closed down, it effectively shut Reading off from the rest of the country. Suddenly, people who used to get to Philadelphia in 55 minutes could no longer get there easily. They had to take a bus to Allentown and then go to Reading.
When I got to Reading, PA it was the poorest city of that size in America. When you walked around, you felt the sadness and the frustration and you felt all the things you experienced in a place that once had been an industrial powerhouse. It was literally withering on the vine. We thought, how do we revitalize this downtown area? The railroad station became symbolic. It was one of the few places that everyone had a connection to. At some point in time, everyone had passed through it.
We thought it was going to be difficult to get keys to the station. But the guy who had the keys said, ‘Yeah.” He tossed us the keys, and said “Here, just leave it in the same condition you found it.’ And we then went about building this installation that charted Reading from the moment the station closed down to the present. We wanted to create a space, like we said in our mission statement: “To create a space where a homeless person and the mayor could sit down together and recognize that they shared the same narrative,” and that they could sit side by side together. It’s not hyperbole to say that we achieved that. We didn’t get the present Mayor of Reading, PA. For various complicated reasons he was our antagonist. However, we did get two former Mayors who came and sat there and wept along with a lot of homeless folks. So it was successful and really gratifying to know that you could make theater outside of the proscenium that had resonance.
In 2017 Sweat was on Broadway. Then there was another stage in the Sweat saga with the Public Theater. (See This is Reading on Lynn Nottage’s website)
When we first produced Sweat at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we raised a grand to bring Sweat back to Reading, PA with the same cast. So the day we closed Sweat at the Public Theater, the next day we got up at 7:30 am and drove down to Reading and performed Sweat for 250 people in the Reading community. When we drove down there we were terrified about how the community would react to the production. However, we were overwhelmed by the response. We had a Q and A and people testified and told their stories and didn’t want to leave. We recognized that there was a real necessity for people who were going through the same predicaments as the characters in the play…for them to have an outlet for them to talk about their own struggles.
Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, was overwhelmed by the response. He said, “I’d like to do this on a larger scale.” The Public Theater has their Mobile Unit which moves around New York City, but never does that nationally. We spent a year to try and identify places to go. We decided to do a mobile tour of the Rust Belt. We selected five swing cities that first voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. We didn’t want to go to just places that were Red or Blue. We wanted to go to places where you would have a real dialogue and where you could bring people into a space where people would listen to each other. We did that in the fall of 2018. It was not just spaces, it was union halls, small colleges, we went to churches, we went to school gymnasiums. These were stripped down, bare bones productions. It was quite powerful. End of Part I
On Monday, 12 February the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center presented Baayork Lee in conversation with Robert Viagas. The show was produced in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Betty Corwin, with Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma. It was part of the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Oral History Program.
Baayork Lee is most noted for working with Michael Bennett as his assistant choreographer on A Chorus Line where she created the role of Connie. Throughout her career, she directed and choreographed The King and I, Bombay Dreams, Barnum, Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess and Jesus Christ Superstar and other shows for many national and international companies. The exhaustive list reveals her impressive energy and exceptional talent.
And that is not all. She is a generous soul. Her intention to give back to the community, her verve and vibrant enthusiasm moved her to create a nonprofit organization, National Asian Artists Project. Through her prodigious efforts the N.A.A.P. has established programs educating, cultivating and stimulating audiences and artists of Asian descent. They have produced classical musical theatre ranging from Oklahoma! to OLIVER! with all Asian-American casts. Baayork Lee, the recipient of the 2017 Isabelle Stevenson Award was honored for her commitment to future generations of artists through her work with the N.A.A.P. and theater education programs around the world.
Interviewed by Robert Viagas, journalist and author with thirty-five years’ experience on Playbill Inc., the Tony Awards and author/editor of 19 books on the performing arts, Robert Viagas has proved his mettle. For The Alchemy of Theatre (Applause Books) he worked with Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Hal Prince, Chita Rivera and others. His 2009 book, I’m the Greatest Star! (Applause) includes biographies of his A-list genius artists, forty musical stars from George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice to Nathan Lane and Sutton Foster.
Here are excerpts of the enjoyable and lively conversation between Baayork Lee and Robert Viagas
When you were five-years-old you were hired for the original Rogers and Hammerstein’s King and I. Tell us how that happened.
Well, agents came down to Chinatown where I grew up. They went to a school there and my father’s restaurant. And they were looking for kids. We all went uptown and I got the job. (applause)
What was it like working on that show with Yul Brenner and Rogers and Hammerstein?
I learned to sing and dance on the job. I always tell the story of going uptown and getting on the stage at the St. James Theatre. And seeing the chandelier and the red velvet seats. And being on stage for the first time? I just knew that this was where I wanted to be. And I saw the girls warming up backstage. What are they doing? I want to do that. So I knew everybody’s lines and all the songs. I knew the songs for the King and the other parts. I wanted to be in the business.
Even though you were five and even though you didn’t have years of training, you had lines in the show. You were one of the little princesses Ying Yawolak, and they wrote you a speech. Can you tell the story of the speech?
Mrs. Anna is going away and I have a letter I read to her. But I couldn’t read at the time, so my mother helped me and I memorized the lines. “Dear teacher. My goodness gracious. Do not go away…” (audience laughs)
You must have done a great job with that because you were hired for a subsequent musical Flower Drum Song. Tell us the part you played. I’m particularly interested in hearing the story of how you went on in the lead role and you were twelve-years-old.
Well, I was fired at eight-years-old from The King and I because I outgrew my costume. And Rogers and Hammerstein gave us something as a consolation. There were three of us. One girl wanted acting lessons. Another girl wanted piano lessons. And I wanted dance lessons. I got to go to The School of American Ballet and Jerome Robbins helped me get in. I started studying dancing and wanted to be a ballerina. And here comes along Flower Drum Song and Mr. Rogers remembered me and by then a double pirouette was nothing for me now. I was singing and dancing. I got into the show. I was one of the kids in the show. I sang “The Other Generation.” And I don’t know how I got the part. But Anita Ellis was the Fan Tan Fannie girl. She was understudied. And her understudy went on to somebody else and her understudy went on to somebody else. And all of a sudden there wasn’t anyone else but me. And I got to sing F”an Tan Fannie.”
And how did that feel?
At twelve you have no fear, Robert. You have no fear at twelve. You can sing all the songs, do all the lines. You can do everything.
And thanks to N.A.A.P. you’re trying to expand opportunities for Asian-American actors. There was nothing like that in the 1950s, 1960s. Yet you were able to maintain a career through those years. You worked pretty steadily. You got to know certain people and they obviously respected your talent. How were you able to survive and work and succeed as an Asian-American woman in the early 1960s?
First of all I was a kid. So every show is was in I worked as a kid. From Flower Drum Song I went to the Performing Arts High School. And I graduated and I got a phone call from Carol Haney who was a choreographer of Flower Drum Song. She remembered me and said, “I am going to do a show and it’s called Bravo Giovanni.” And we’re going to Broadway. I said I’m going to Julliard. I’m going to become a dancer. And she said “Why don’t you just come and do the show for the summer and then decide.” So that’s what happened. It was a flop. Bravo Giovanni starred Cesare Siepi and it was Michelle Lee’s first show.
But it did win the Tony for Best Score over a Funny Thing Happened…
Oh. You know all the facts, don’t you. So I was sitting on the firescape of the Broadhurst Theatre and I looked and they were putting up a sign for the next musical, Mr. President. So I said, “Hum that looks interesting.” So I auditioned and I got the show. And I played with Nanette Fabray, as Deborah Chakronin and I was a kid in the show. And then there was a knock on my dressing room door. They said, “There’s a man upstairs who wants to see you.” I went upstairs and he gave me his card. He said, “I’m doing a new show. It’s called Here’s Love. I really think you’d be good in the show. Please come and audition.” I said, “Yes, Yes, Yes.” I went downstairs and said this man upstairs? It was Norman Jewison. And so I went over and I auditioned. And I was one of the kids in the show.
That’s a musical based on The Miracle on 34th Street, music with a score by Music Man’s Meredith Wilson. Not as successful.
And so I was a kid. And Michael Bennett was in the show.
You knew him before. What was he like as a kid?
I don’t know. All I can tell you is when I got Flower Drum Song, Michael told me I was so jealous that day at dancing school that you got Flower Drum Song, your second Broadway show and I hadn’t even had one. (audience laughs). But what was he like? I don’t know. Except at that time he said, “I don’t want to dance any more. I want to be a choreographer.” And we all said, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure, sure.” But he was very, very serious. I got the call. The musical director was Elliot Lawrence. And he said I’m doing a new show Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr. And there’s a part for a shoe shine boy. Would you come and audition? And so I did. And I danced with Sammy Davis.
Michael did manage to choreograph a couple of shows and he did not forget his classmate.
No. So I danced with Sammy in Golden Boy. And Sammy took us to London. My first trip to London. And I got a call from Michael saying he was doing another show. It was A Joyful Noise. And Tommy Tune was in it and Donna McKechnie. And so I came back and I did that show. We came to Broadway. And I got a call for another show when I was in London for Promises Promises and I had to get out of my contract for that. And he helped me get out of my contract and he brought me to do Promises, Promises.
And you were the featured dancer in” Turkey Lurky Time.” I saw you in that show, one of the first shows I saw early on. That is an incredible number. Did you have to wear a neck brace?
We were at the chiropractor at least once a week. All of us. I’d seen the show for three years. I loved being in the chorus. I loved being in the back. I was having a great time. I loved signing in and getting into the theater early. And Michael said you are going to be my dance captain. I said, “Oh, oh.” There were rehearsals and all that, I thought. But he treated me well, so I became his dance captain in Promises Promises.
If you go online and see clips of these songs, you see they are time capsules. You see Joyful Noise, you see Promises, Promises. When you look at all of them you see one Asian-American. What was that like?
I was very lucky. Very happy. My cousin Chester said, “B? You better represent! All Chinatown looking at you!”
Was that a challenge for you? What was it like? Being the One! The One Singular Sensation?
Special. I felt very, very special. I always appreciated being there and representing. Absolutely.
Another special show you did was Seesaw. You were in the chorus of Seesaw, but you did have a featured number in that show. And when they feature that show, they always use the same picture. Tommy Tune who is 6’6’ and they chose you to do a duet with him. And you were attired in masses of balloons and were on point the entire time. I saw you and thought. “Who is this girl?”
I think “Turkey Lurky” may have been bigger. By the time I was in this show I was known and to dance with Tommy Tune was really quite an honor.
I don’t know. With “Turkey Lurky” you were one of three with Donna. But with this number you were next to Tune.
Ah, OK. Michae Bennett was very ahead of his time. We were not the standard kind of, the blonde, 5’5’ you know. But you have Tommy Tune, Baayork Lee and those in the show were all shapes, sizes and colors. And he was very ahead of his time.
Do you remember the conversation or phone call where he mentioned this show he was doing about chorus dancers? Do you remember him discussing the show that became A Chorus Line?
No. But I do remember all through my time working with Michael, he always said, “I want to do a show about dancers.” He’d been saying he wanted to do a show about dancers. Because dancers unlike actors never asked him why. They just did what he told them. (laughter)
He wanted you to be the dance captain on that.
First, he wanted me to be his assistant. At that time in the olden days, you had to have a choreographer or a director or you didn’t work. Jerome Robbins had his dancers. Bob Fosse had his dancers.
Special people that he worked with all the time.
Yes. Because they developed their own style. And they invested in their dancers and their actors. And so Michael Bennett had to get his klan together. And this was very important for me that I finally found a home. Because I danced with Michael Kidd and Peter Gennaro, I had gone from show to show, but I didn’t have an anchor where I would do every commercial, every Broadway show. Anything that that choreographer did, I was part of the plan.
Industrial. Millken Show.
They used to do commercials. Well, Milliken was a fabric manufacturer and the commercials were like shows, lavishly staged.
Yes. They brought in all the choreographers. And you had to be in a Broadway Show. And we got the clothes and at the end of a Broadway run we got a bonus. And when they gave us the checks they used to say, “And here’s one for little Baayork Lee, and one for so and so”…and it was ohhh. money, money, money!
You are not the height of a typical Broadway dancer. That is even written into a Pulitzer Prize winning show. Your height. How did you manage that height issue? Was that a struggle?
Absolutely. I wanted to be Maria Tallchief (renowned ballerina). I wanted to be in the New York City Ballet. I had to throw away my point shoes when I found out I couldn’t be in the company. I was too short. I was competing with Tanaquil Le Clerq (renowned ballerina) and all of his (Balanchine’s) X- wives. (explosive laughter)
On A Chorus Line, initially, I was the assistant. And I would handle the tapes. And then we would go into the workshop with Joseph Papp and I was the assistant. And I would say, “He wants you to line up.” And everybody would line up. And I would say, “He wants you to put your resumes…” Then Michael realized that this wouldn’t work. So he became “The Voice.” So that was the first workshop. And then the second workshop, Michael called me and said, “I would like you to put your life in the show.” And I said “Who wants to know about a short, Asian girl who wanted to be a ballerina?” (someone from the audience answers) That’s exactly what Michael said. And from then on, I was no longer his assistant. I had a role in the show.
Didn’t you have a song that was cut from the show?
Yes. It was called “Confidence.” Back in the old days, Equity wanted to have at least one ethnic person in the show, maybe the orchestra also. So my competition in A Chorus Line was Richie because they could take one ethnic person. And he was African American. So Marvin Hamlisch wrote us a song called “Confidence.” I talked about Flower Drum Song and King and I and he talked about being in Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey and we had to have confidence because we might not get the part. Only one ethnic person could. And then the song was cut. The show was 5 hours long. And we said, “Michael, we can’t cut the song because people need to know about these issues.” He said “I have bigger fish to fry. I need to put a Paul monologue in the show.”
Robert takes out one of the hats from the finale of A Chorus Line. And the original shoes.
It’s Thommie Walsh’s hat.
Baayork, I and Tommie wrote a book about A Chorus Line called On the Line, about the making of A Chorus Line. It’s on Amazon. When they first brought out that hat what did you think?
Well, we had our dance clothes on. And so that wasn’t special. And they said you’re going to wear the same thing, but in blue. And we were very uncomfortable. And the finale was going to be us working on the show, just us, then blackout working together. That’s the ending that Joseph Papp wanted. Michael Bennett had very different ideas. He wanted pizzazz, he wanted costumes, he wanted everything.
That’s the one moment you see the number of the show they’ve been auditioning for.
So when we saw the costumes we thought wow. I was in high heels, fishnets and the outfit was cut up to there.
Very sadly we lost Michael. And the person who’s been in charge and who’s carried the torch has been Baayork Lee who has directed the production in his place all these years. Is there a difference between Baayork Lee’s Chorus Line and Michael Bennett’s?
It’s always Michael Bennett’s Chorus Line. Opening Night downtown he came backstage and said, “It’s your show. You’re going to direct and choreograph this all over the world. But we were Off Broadway. And we didn’t know what this was. And he’s telling me all these things. Like you’re going around the world and you’ll do this and that. And we’re going, “Oh, yes, Michael. Oh yes.” And now forty-three years later I’m saying, Oh, yes, Michael. (applause) It’s Michael Bennett’s show. But A Chorus Line is about the people in the show. And every actor brings himself into the show. And that’s why we’ve evolved the show over the years because obviously we’ve gone to Chile and to Stockholm and Japan and Korea and the actors bring themselves to the rolls. And that’s what’s exciting about it.
Is it hard to direct the role of Connie Wong?
I just tell them me to watch me for five weeks. (laughter) She has to be feisty and high spirited and all those things.
I wanted to ask you about the Tony Award you won.
The National Asian Artist’s Project. I was thinking about forming a company for Asian artists for years and years. I was talking about it. Every time I did a show, we were doing King and I. And I asked Nina Zoie Lam, “Where are all these talented people going to go?” She said, They take their odds and ends jobs and wait for the next King and I or Miss Saigon.” And we did King and I again. Again, the questions came up. Where will all these people go? Steven, God Bless him he’s teaching tonight and couldn’t be here, said, “Let’s do it.” So finally Steven Eng, and Nina Zoie Lam and I founded the N.A.A.P. to give the talented Asian artists and Asians a platform to show their talents. And also to educate the young kids back in Chinatown where I grew up to go to their schools and give them the opportunity and give them a choice. They don’t have to go to Harvard. They can go to Broadway. (laughter, applause)
I’ve seen some of the shows. They don’t try to do Asian themed shows. They did Hello Dolly. They did Oklahoma. They did Carousel. And the amazing thing about it is that the nearly all Asian actors in it? Well, you’re not seeing Asian actors. You’re seeing Hello Dolly and Carousel.
They are talented, talented actors. And that’s the most important thing. (applause)
Of all the work Baayork has done, that is what she won her Tony for.
The evening closed with audience questions and photographs that Baayork took with friends. Indeed, no one was leaving the Bruno Walter Auditorium before they snatched the opportunity to congratulate and thank Baayork for her entertaining responses, love, enthusiasm and grace. It was a most memorable, uplifting evening. Below is a clip that Robert Viagas referred to as being a time capsule. It’s the rollicking number from Promises, Promises, “Turkey Lurky Time.”
Frances McDormand is a terrific actress. Her body of work encompasses both comedy and drama, both stage and film. Recently, she has been garnering awards for her work in Martin McDonagh’s searing film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Her “in-your-face” portrayal of a mother who stirs the fire under the police department of Ebbing, Missouri to get them to investigate her daughter’s brutal murder is both memorable and humorous. Indeed, in a matrix of powerful characters, who seek redemption and justice, the film is a tour de force between Mildred Hayes (McDormand), Sheriff Willoboughy (Woody Harrelson) and Jason Dixon (played by the brilliant Sam Rockwell. As Willogoughy and Dixon fight for the police department’s integrity and Mildred Hayes’ struggles to bring them to task for not effectively investigating her daughter’s rape and murder, the action deepens into a profound personal drama about redemption, love and solace of shared humanity and grace.
On Monday, April 23, 2012, The League of Professional Theatre Woman hosted an evening with Frances McDormand. Produced by Cheryl D. Raymond and funded by a grant from the Edith Meiser Foundation, the evening was presented in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women as part of their Oral History Series with the Public Library for the Performing Arts. Kudos went to Betty Corwin for producing the program. Mari Lyn Henry, a member of the League who was present at the time transcribed the interview that appears below between Frances McDormand and interviewer Sarah Ruhl. The interview took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium to an enthusiastic audience. Salient excerpts appear below and give one an understanding of how the amazing McDormand evolved along her journey. We see the tip of the iceberg into how she was able to mine her empathy and emotions to evoke the self-torment and desperate love that Mildred Hayes has for her daughter in her award-winning, intensely human portrayal in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Sarah Ruhl: Tell us about playing Lady Macbeth in high school.
I was 14, not a particularly good student. But I had a really good English teacher in Monessen, Pennsylvania. She said it was time for us to read Shakespeare and she had us read Macbeth out loud. And then we did a scene after school for family and friends. And so I found myself alone on stage doing the sleepwalking scene. And I think it was the power of the words, the power of being 14, alone on stage, and looking out and seeing a lot of adults quiet and attentive.
Today would you ever want to play Lady Macbeth?
I have not done her. I don’t think it’s ever too late. Right now I am concerned about doing it because I don’t want to do a bad production of Macbeth. Maybe because it is a supporting role. I feel like I have been trained for that. I have been playing wives, girlfriends, mothers for years now. So I don’t want to be in a bad production of Macbeth. I (would) want a good director.
What is a good director?
How do you find one Sarah? It is really difficult. By going to see what is out there. I am looking for a director who can serve the work. It is different in the theater than it is in film. Actors are in a better position in film because eventually we get a lot of power. In the theater you are in charge of it once the production is open. That being said my last work was with Daniel Sullivan. I worked with him years ago in Sisters Rosensweig at Lincoln Center and we had a horrible time together and I didn’t want to work with him again and then we did a reading of a play by David Lindsay Abaire. David and Dan had worked together before. We got into the room and it was magic and I adored working with him and I think perhaps because it was a different play, a different time. I was concerned about working at MTC. I haven’t always worked on Broadway and am not really attracted to working on Broadway. Probably more interesting audiences I have worked for have been Off Broadway. My favorite place to work is at St. Ann’s Warehouse (Brooklyn). They have performance art and a lot of different disciplines have been held in that arena. The audiences don’t have expectations. They could be going to the theater or to the circus. I have been so impressed with them.
Explain the value of the ensemble.
That was what I was led to believe I was going to do. That is what I was trained to do, a reason to go into the theater. I went to four years of college. I went to drama school for three years at Yale and I was trained as a classical theater actress.The only choice was to come to New York and start working in the theater. My goal and assumption was to become a member of a theater company. We were on the dying end of a program that had started in our country where drama schools were made to train actors to go into regional theater companies. When I got out of school you could still be a member of the Guthrie Theatre which I eventually worked at. But people went straight from drama school and that’s why drama schools were invented and were funded like in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theatre. It became like Pillsbury out there. All those companies and sponsors were bringing executives from the west coast and they had to offer them something cultural. So these companies like Seattle Rep, Trinity Playhouse, the theaters in Chicago, all those great repertory theaters had to have cheap labor coming out as trained labor and that is what I chose to do.
I have to say my first job was in Trinidad in a play directed by Liviu Ciulei. Liviu was with the Wooster Group, a theater company which I have been involved in for the past thirty years. We have used the same actors over and over and they also write for us. The Wooster Group has taken me in like a stray little lamb and I now feel like I have a home with them. What is really great about that for me is that Kate Valk, who is the queen of the Wooster Group and premier actress of that company has been honing her craft and working with them for thirty years. We got to work together on To the Birdie, an adaptation of Racine’s Phedre (2002). That was ‘magic’ and what an ensemble should be about.
There is a tremendous humility when you talk about your work and working with other actors and I find that very rare. I have seen your work and it wasn’t the role that attracted me but your interpretation and what you brought to it. Tell us about your process and how you create a character.
When I came to New York, I was fortunate, coming out of a major drama school. I remember a casting agency experience. An older woman said to me, ‘Frances you would be a perfect pioneer woman. Unfortunately they are not making one. Okay, okay, okay,okay! Finding my type I realized at first, I was not very castable. But I had to pay my rent and didn’t want to do anything else. I had jobs like cashier or at restaurants, but I was really bad at all of them. I had to figure out how to make money. So there was a Pabst Blue Ribbon commercial, regional theater jobs and so on, all the things that young actors have to do, but then I started thinking about this.
I was always getting feedback like ‘You’re too this, you’re not enough that. You’re not enough his. You’re not pretty enough, tall enough, young enough, old enough. I started putting all of this together and decided I am going to be the one that is not pretty enough and I worked hard at that. In most storytelling, not as much in the theater, but in film, the theater is the only place for women of all ages and types. But to support myself outside the theater I took on some supporting roles in films and realized that all genres of films are male protagonist-based. Put a woman or women in these roles but (like Thelma and Louise) they die in the end. That film is ground breaking with two women. But all those male protagonist driven stories need women in supporting roles so I found I was good at that. I did girlfriends to some of the best leading male stars out there. Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Gene Hackman. I’ve kissed them all but more importantly I made their characters more interesting. I was the off center, not very pretty, a little touchy—you know, mousy-brown-hair-uh-girlfriend. From a business angle, that is what I became.
In the theater I was very fortunate. My husband, Joel Coen, could afford to support me and believed in the theater. I could do theater whenever I could make that choice and not worry about the mortgage payment. It is not about the part, it is about the play.
What about achieving a balance between personal and professional lives? Can one lead a normal life?
One of my accomplishments was adopting a son and introducing my son to his father and my husband to his son. Your universe goes from being self-centered and self-absorbed. We wanted to rear a child our way. That meant living together and working together, avoiding publicity and keeping our private life private. No scandal.That is my life. I learned this from my mother.
Any roles you regret not playing?
Well if I didn’t do them, I didn’t do them. But there are a couple of roles. Orlando is one, Doubt is another. Well I have plenty of time to do Doubt but Cherry Jones was the actress for that role. So I didn’t give up anything.
You have played all the female characters in both Streetcar named Desire and Three Sisters. How did that come about?
With Three Sisters I wanted to be in a play by Chekhov. First time I played Olga when I was the youngest. My fourth job was playing Irina at the Guthrie directed by Liviu Ciulei. I was more suited to playing Irina at that time of my life and I was working with a wonderful cast. I played Masha at the McCarter for Emily Mann. It was an interesting treatment. I was Masha, Linda Hunt was Olga and Mary Stuart Masterson was Irina. And now I want to play Anfisa someday while I direct the play. Anfisa and the servants get what they want in that play. They know what they want, the sisters don’t.
I’m a transformative actor. I want to go inside a character and come out on the other side. Some actors are better at interpreting certain plays. I believe that I am a good interpreter (maybe not of Chekhov) but definitely of Tennessee Williams. I need a play that has a woman of my age and the parts that are my age are the parts that every actress is supposed to do. I never planned to do Blanche. I felt very successful as Stella, one of the best things I was able to work on as a young actor. I was given the opportunity by Michael Colgan who runs the Gate Theater to do Blanche in Dublin to an audience of extraordinary performers (you know every Irish man or woman can tell a great story) so when they come to the theater they are tough (Fran makes a face like them) and to feel the temperature of that audience every second is exciting. I had the opportunity to play Blanche which I am not suited for but the director wanted to do it against the traditional type. She was delicate but she was also a caretaker for the death of the plantation and the family who she had watched die in the family home. It was an interesting production. Everyone gets a role like this but you shouldn’t do more than one. That’s my opinion.
Sarah What do you think about plastic surgery?
What society has pressured men and women to do to capture eternal youth! I read an article about so many of these things that are being used—botox, ingesting into the system without any question. It hasn’t been long enough to know what effects it will have and what the emotional repercussions will be. When you are talking to someone who is stressed you feel their stress. If their brow furrows, your brow furrows because your empathetic nature is reaching out to what they need. If you can’t do that you can’t do that. Your neurological response sends a trigger to your brain to care about that other person, to care what they are going through to sit there long enough to read their expression and to find out what else is going on. If you can’t do that, you are not getting that signal. THAT IS PRETTY SCARY.
Literally I will walk down the street sometimes because we are walking around in a society that is absorbing without question people’s fear. One of the reasons that I haven’t done press or publicity for about ten years now in relationship to my work is the unspoken rule that we don’t talk about that. For me it is not the same thing as not talking about someone’s private life. If I have information about someone I have worked with who has a certain amount of celebrity, I would not share that with you. It is none of your business. I started feeling like I need to make a list and I need to start walking around with a sandwich board with a list of all the people I know who have somehow altered themselves for the service of something that they were perpetuating—I think we have to be careful.
Plastic surgery is the Greek mask of our generation.
I think that when someone ages beautifully, it is partly because of an internal condition and it can relate to what they have done from suffering or comes about as a result of suffering and I think that plastic surgery is an erasure of suffering.
What was your road trip like?
We took a road trip last summer and we hadn’t done that in a while. I love road trips and everything that goes along with them. One problem was that we didn’t get our AAA map guide. We could unfold it and figure out what road we wanted to take. Oh let’s go on that road instead. I had my iPAD with the little blue dot. I spent the entire time doing this (shows iPAD to face) watching the blue dot. ‘Oh my god where are we?’ We had to stop and get a map because we were not enjoying the trip. This is my map and I can pick where I want to go, what direction I want to take and it all started when I met my son 17 years ago.
QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE
Could you speak about Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day?
We made the movie in 2006 which is not as witty or naughty as the book. I wanted to see a project from beginning to end and I really loved the story. In the book, it is about a day in the life of Miss Pettigrew and the friendship she makes with a whore, a woman who is living with three men. But that doesn’t come out like that in the movie. She is simply being kept. The other character is the fashion designer. In the book these three characters form a friendship. We had a lovely director. It was his first feature. He was a lovely man but not a visionary. We connected but he didn’t feel as passionate as I did about this film. As the producer I knew it would be a challenge to sell the film with a middle-aged female. But we were fortunate to have this really wonderful actress (Amy Adams) and she looks great in lingerie. It turned out okay, but it wasn’t great.
Could you tell us about working with Lili Taylor in a play with students
We are both members of a company called the 52nd Street Project. It started 30 years ago near the PALeague across from the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Kids in the neighborhood go take boxing lessons at the PAL after school. Curt Dempster, the late artistic director of EST, sent Willie Reale, a young actor/playwright, to teach the kids playwriting. It helped give the kids an honest creative outlet. He founded this program which eventually became a non-profit organization. We have two boards in a newly developed building on the corner of 53rd and Tenth Ave. Kids have to take the playwrights course or write a play they can stage and perform in. They go away for a weekend and have a monitor help them write their plays. When they return, they cast from a group of adult professional actors with a dramaturg and a young director and they get to see their plays performed.
Do you ever get star treatment?
I am getting it right now. I don’t want to be a star or known as a star. That being said if I want to get a table at Cafe Luxembourg, Joel will have me call. I will use shamelessly whatever advantage my name gets for a restaurant reservation.
Could you talk about how we get more roles for women.
I think the most important thing is female writers. I spent years beating my head against the wall and I would say to my husband, “Joel why can’t you write better roles for women?” Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Nicole Holofcener write great films with behavior and character and have a lot of trouble getting their films made. Here is what is going to be good. When the actor who is also on the board of the 52nd St. Project has a company who is going to liaison with the money market world for the goal of making money and to get them to invest in their film and money into female-centric films whether written by women, directed by women with a good business plan—a terrific spreadsheet with what has been made, what needs to be done, how it can be done, take a chance on us. That will help. It is a business. Theater is not it. I can stand up to do a sleepwalking scene right now and that is theater or on a sidewalk, but unfortunately it won’t raise money. I am trying to raise four million dollars for a film which I think is a lot of money. but in terms of films, the last epic film cost producers 300 million dollars so 4 million is nothing. But they won’t give it to you for a nice family-oriented film.
The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma again have successfully collaborated with Betty Corwin, who produces the New York Public Library’s Oral History Interviews, to present an enlightening, joyous evening with one of Broadway’s hottest playwrights, Paula Vogel. In conversation with Linda Winer, long-standing theater critic of Newsday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright discussed her life, her work and the journey of her play Indecent from conceptualization through development, regional theater production and Off Broadway right up to its current run at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. The immutably themed Indecent has been nominated for a Tony Award in the category of Best Play. It is not only a must-see, it is a must-see two or three times over for its metaphors, themes and sheer genius.
Paula Vogel, a renowned professor of playwriting (Brown-two decades, currently Eugene O’Neill Professor of Playwriting (adjunct) at Yale School of Drama, Playwright-in-residence at Yale Rep) generously shares her time and dynamism with global communities. She conducts playwriting “boot camps,” and playwriting intensives with various organizations, theater companies and writers around the world. What is smashing is that Vogel not only is a charming, vibrant raconteur, she is an ebullient, electricity-filled advocate of the artist within all of us.
In her philosophy and approach toward theater, we are all story tellers, we are all playwright,s and we must cultivate the citizen artist within to insure that the theater arts are accessible and relevant to all cultures and populations, not just the “haves.” What she discussed about the current state of theater arts past and present was profound and prescient in response to why it took her so long to get to Broadway. Vogel reminded the audience that in the 1980s there were about 50 innovative, theme-rich plays on Broadway exemplified by The Elephant Man and M Butterfly. Such plays dealt with difficult issues that brought audiences together in a profound communal experience. Currently in 2017 there are a handful of productions that effect this. Commercialism has enveloped Broadway.
Hence, Vogel expressed a motivating joy that perhaps we should all entertain. We should roll up our sleeves to fight the good fight against philistine commercialism and consumerism and Byzantine gender and racial bias. Such dampening restrictions and discriminations parade behind the notion that film and theater are essentially liberal mediums. Vogel introduced the thought that they are the opposite. To her way of thinking there is a profligate conservatism akin to that of corporate America that hampers theater innovation and prevents provocative theater production to readily make it to Broadway.
However, she did affirm that the next generation of playwrights, whether older or younger, are seeing an explosion of work featured Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway which is where a lot of the innovation and experimentation has found a home. That aspect of the theater is thriving and in the upcoming years we can expect an elegance of defining work that will have an illuminating impact on Broadway.
A believer of reverse capitalism, that supply increases demand, Vogel’s ideas and effervescence are contagious. She “spreads the word” and brings the community of theater wherever she visits, from Austin, Texas to Sewanee, Shanghai Theatre Academy in China, from Minneapolis to the neighborhood near the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. And together she and her audience of all ages across the communities (from 15-90), of seasoned writers and playwrights and neophytes alike, experiment, grow and enjoy writing and reading plays during her intensives.
Her current playwriting boot camps (they used to take a week to do) to make live theater a communal experiment much like its original creative form as a social, cathartic experience resonate today. They make complete sense especially at a time when artistic shallowness manifested in some entertainment forms has achieved a noxious superfluidity that really needs to die a death (my thoughts).
Some of the highlights of Paula Vogel’s discussion with Linda Winer, who was a wonderful interviewer, revolved around how she conducts her “bootcamps,” culminating in bakeoffs to spur on a fountain of creativity. In response to how her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Learning How to Drive was produced Off Broadway but never made the transfer to Broadway, she repeated an incisive comment from the past, “How often do the girls get to play with the big expensive toys?”
Now that Vogel’s Indecent and colleague Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat also transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater, Vogel laughingly acknowledged that for both of them, the expensive toys are “a lot of fun.” Vogel stated that when one acclimates to the house size, whether the play is in a 60 seat theater or a 200 seat theater, the effort and the intensity of the work process is the same. Vogel joked, “The only difference is I’m not sleeping on a sofa bed.” Indeed, with Indecent, Vogel has graduated to a mattress and a bed, “more expensive toys.”
Vogel discussed the evolution of Indecent which was fascinating. In her twenties she had read The God of Vengeance, by Sholem Asch, the play upon which Indecent revolves. She was mesmerized by the transcendent love scene between the pious Jewish father’s daughter and one of the prostitutes who works for him in the brothel below their apartment. When the world renowned Yiddish play was translated into English and brought to Broadway in 1923, the cast, director and producer were arrested for obscenity, even though some of the love scenes were cut. The play received a greater following and lasted 133 performances, but there was a trial after the play closed. The Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of the director and producer in 1925.
Twenty years after Vogel read Asch’s play, she learned that Rebecca Taichman was attempting to direct the obscenity trial for her thesis. Vogel learned of her work and pronounced her a genius. Vogel was inspired when she received a call from Taichman to collaborate on a play about the events surrounding the trial of Asch’s play. During their conversation Vogel had a lightening-like vision seeing a scene from the play which she stated “always happens” (it happened with Learning How to Drive) when she knows she can write a particular play. Having read up on Yiddish Theater, she told Taichman, “I think this is a play way beyond an obscenity trial.” Taichman was thrilled at her enthusiasm. Vogel admitted that this was around nine years and 40 drafts ago.
They workshopped at Sundance Theatre Lab (2013) and after many drafts and other workshops they put it on at Yale Repertory for the first time with the music, choreography and staging. Vogel joked the “flop sweat” was prodigious. Taichman’s and Vogel’s shirts were sticking to their backs. Since then it has moved on and was performed at La Jolla Playhouse in Fall 2015 and in May 2016 was produced at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City.
There is such enthusiasm for the production since Yale (2015) that the ensemble, the musicians, the stage manager and the assistants have remained together. As Vogel says, “We’ve all moved together as one.” This never happens with a production that transfers to Broadway. If it does, it is extremely rare. Vogel laughingly joked they have become a family. When two children were born during the evolution of Indecent, Vogel commented she has become like a godmother to both.
What a memorable evening! Vogel is about fun, about community about connections, about living and creating whatever comes next. That spontaneity and flexibility is like jumping off into the darkness, knowing you will land on soft ground at sunrise. The moment you think about the jump, you stop yourself. Vogel is not about stopping. She’s there already and beckoning us to join her. Why not?