30 December 2009

Dramaturgy: The Conscience of the Theater

At a 1983 conference on dramaturgy sponsored by TCG, Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, told the assembled dramaturgs, “you help mold the esthetic of your institution, . . . you provide its intellectual identity, . . . you are its artistic conscience.” That may have been wishful thinking, given the actual condition of the dramaturgical profession in the United States today. Still a relatively new idea, American dramaturgy even now has yet to be defined in either theory or practice. At present, whatever definitions exist are ad hoc, each job-holder often writing the job description as he or she goes along. Part of the reason for the lack of consensus on what a dramaturg is stems from a similar disagreement on what one should be. If the present and future of American dramaturgy’s con­fused, however, its past’s in no doubt; in fact, that’s where the problem comes from. The concept of dramaturgy’s borrowed wholesale from the 18th-century German theater, and trying to fit it to a modern Anglo-Saxon theater’s like trying to fit Latin grammar to our Anglo-Saxon language: things keep flopping out around the edges.

That is, nonetheless, what we’re trying to do. Historic­ally, dramaturgy was invented when playwright and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) was appointed resident critic at the Hamburg National Theater in January 1767. While there, he wrote a series of essays on theater, published in 1769 as Hamburgische Dramaturgie or Hamburg Dramaturgy, which popularized both the word and the practice of dramaturgy. Over the ensuing 200 years, dramaturgy in Germany became an established and important theatrical function. Later German dramaturgs included writers and directors such as Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853), who helped bring German literature out of Sturm und Drang into Romanticism; Otto Brahm (1856-1912), founder of Berlin’s Freie Bühne, and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who served as dramaturg for Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) before developing his own plays and productions.

(Though ‘dramaturgy’ is often used to mean ‘the craft of playwriting,’ I’ll be using it here exclusively to refer to the dramaturg’s profession. The variant spellings ‘dramaturge’ and ‘dramaturg’ are used interchangeably by many writers. The former spelling, which is French and is really a synonym for ‘dramatist,’ is less common; I’ll use the latter, German spelling, which, first, is closer in meaning to the function discussed here and, second, is the name used by the professional association, Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas. The term ‘literary manager’ and its like, though sometimes defined slightly differently from ‘dramaturg,’ will generally be used as a synonym for it here. The staffs of few theaters include both a literary manager and a dramaturg--the Guthrie’s one that has--and the work they perform frequently overlaps. Any distinction, I find, is more intellectual than real.)

In England, where the title ‘literary manager’ gained cur­rency, the job developed from a concept put down in 1904 by Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) and William Archer (1856-1924) in their Scheme and Estimates for a National Theatre. No one served in such a position, however, until Laurence Olivier (1907-89) hired Observer reviewer Kenneth Tynan (1927-80) as literary manager of the new National Theatre in 1963. Before that, the first known American literary manager was hired in New York. In an attempt to follow the lead of Granville-Barker and Archer, the New Theatre was constructed in 1909. In antici­pation, director Winthrop Ames (1870-1937) recruited New York Sun drama reviewer John Corbin (1870-1959) as literary manager in 1908. Corbin resigned in frustration in 1910, and the position was abol­ished. No other such position was established with any prominence for over half a century.

In 1969, two centuries after Lessing published his treatise on the subject, the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center began using professional reviewers as dramaturgs for the workshop productions of new plays during its annual playwrights’ conference, marking the start of modern American dramaturgy. In 1970, exactly 60 years after Corbin’s two-year stint at the New Theatre, Michael Feingold (b. 1945) was hired by the Yale Repertory Theatre as the second full-time dramaturg employed by a professional American theater. In 1978, the Yale School of Drama initiated the first academic program for training student dramaturgs. Since that time, a large number of resident theaters have hired dramaturgs or literary managers; some even have small staffs and internships in the field.

The impetus for such a wave of hirings was the development of the regional theater movement in the 1960s and ’70s. The movement itself began shortly after World War II to bring professional theater that wasn’t dependent on the touring hits of Broadway or the amateur productions of the local community or college theater to communities beyond the reach of New York. A resurgence of the art theater movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s usually dated from the estab­lishment in 1947 of Margo Jones’s Theatre ‘47 in Dallas. These theaters proliferated in the next 20 years, but few offered new plays or unconventional productions of classics. Drawing their fare primarily from the popular contemporary repertoire, with a few classics in standardized presentations, there was little need for such a creature as a dramaturg.

Most of these theaters were also dominated by directors who molded productions according to their own lights. Frequently, those “lights” were unfocused and productions were mounted with “no directorial concept, no reason for being, and no connection with the audience . . . ,” according to Peter Hay, first dramaturg at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference. Feingold, paraphrasing an unidentified artistic director, writes that “too much of the American theater has consisted of a clever director fucking around with a script, and nothing more.” In such an autocratic theater, there was no place for a dramaturg, nor would the idea have been tolerated. (Eric Bentley, ever the iconoclast, once called dramaturgs “Ph.D. gofers” and said he’d fire them one day before he removed directors.)

In the ’60s, however, an interest arose in a process-oriented theater in which all the participants had equal, or at least considerable, influence. Such developmental work peaked in the mid-1960s, most notably with the work of groups like the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, and the Performance Group (succeeded by the long-running Wooster Group). The motivation for these companies was to form ensembles to create original theater works without pre-existing texts written by a playwright and developed by an authoritarian director. This experimental process eventually led to an interest in developing what Rosemarie K. Bank, a theater historian and critic, calls “an author-originated text, shaped and polished by a group in rehearsal . . . .”

In the regional repertory theaters, this spawned an interest in new works. In 1965, Shakespeare was the most frequently produced writer in the regional theater while most new plays were presented on Broadway as commercial enterprises. With the production in 1967 of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope by the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the tide turned and the resident theaters became the dominant producers of new works. Now there was a need for someone who could work with new plays and playwrights and who could keep abreast of the material being created across the country and read all the new scripts that were being sent to these theaters. No longer an intellectual luxury, dramaturgy became a real necessity in the nation’s resident companies.

Referring to this development, Hay insists, “Dramaturgy is much more a function of the public than the private theatre.” In Hay’s terms, the private theater’s the commercial theater of Broadway and its clones: road companies, summer stock, and community theaters that cater to a box office-oriented audience. The public theater Hay means is the theater that’s not only supported by public money--local, state, and federal--but is dedicated to serving its public as a distinct community. Hand-in-hand with the increased interest in pre­senting new plays comes an interest in producing a season of plays, whether new or old, that mean something to the community from which the theater’s audience is drawn. As Hay, and many other dramaturgs, states it, questions such as “Why are we doing this play? Why this season? Why here?” need to be asked. It’s the dramaturg, perched like Jiminy Cricket on the artistic director’s shoulder, who should constantly ask the questions.

Furthermore, beyond questioning the raison d’être of an individual production, the theaters have to question their very existence. Again, Hay formulates the questions: “Why has theatre worked elsewhere or in the past? Why do our audiences come? Why does ninety to ninety-five percent of the local population stay away?” Slowly, it became apparent to artistic directors that more had to be considered than how a show’s mounted. The “why” had to be addressed, too.

Asking “why” doesn’t only mean justifying the theater’s season to the public. Drawing on the European model, a theater has an obligation to educate its audience. That means both offering a range of artistic experience to the spectators that come and attracting the ones that stay away. A dramaturg who allows her or his theater to pander to its audience fails in this responsibility. The principle function of the dramaturg then is: To suit the theater to the audience, the audience to the theater.

Before dramaturgs can pose the necessary questions, the theaters must develop artistic philosophies suited to their venues. Many theaters haven’t come to grips with this consid­eration. Not all non-profit theater is public theater in Hay’s terms. Many resident theater companies still rely on box-office appeal as the criterion for selecting plays for a season. Selling plays to a subscription audience, the administrations of these theaters put together seasons the same way a Broadway producer selects a property. Artistic interest or appropriate­ness for the community play little part in the decision. “This,” notes Hay, “goes a long way to explain why so few theatres have worked out a philosophy, or public policy, which might guide its selection of plays as well as their interpretation.”

Without such a policy, the dramaturg’s often relegated to more mundane functions, which is the situation of many working dramaturgs and literary managers. According to a survey taken in the 1981-82 season, the jobs performed by dramaturgs across the country involve play selection, casting decisions, research, directing showcases, attending out-of-town auditions, writing or translating plays, producing new play series, supervising work­shops and playreadings, editing support materials, and a number of quasi- or non-dramaturgical responsibilities such as public relations, teaching, fundraising or, even, acting. The idea of working closely with the artistic director to define and imple­ment an artistic policy for the theater wasn’t even broached, and none of the respondents indicated that this was part of their jobs. Little seems to have changed in the ensuing decades and this contributes to be the state of dramaturgical affairs that Hay calls, with more than a touch of despair, “Hamburger Dramaturgy, the fast-food, mish-mash metaphor for the American quick-fix.”

The explosion of theaters with dramaturgical staff positions is an encouragement, however. In 1979, when TCG held its first conference of literary managers and dramaturgs, only 14 people attended. At the third conference, at which Brustein made his remarks in 1983, there were over 100 participants, a 700% increase. In April 1985, a national pro­fessional association, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America (www.lmda.org), was established with a projected membership between 150 and 200. (LMDA is now Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas to reflect members from Canadian theaters. Its membership’s now over 500, though it should be noted that all LMDA members and conference attendees aren’t necessarily dramaturgs or literary managers.)

As the profession entered its adolescence in this country, a number of former dramaturgs became artistic directors of their own theaters. This trend included Robert Brustein of the American Repertory Theatre and Jean Passanante of the New York Theatre Workshop. At Playwrights Horizons, literary manager André Bishop became artistic director in 1977 before moving on to the Lincoln Center Theater Company in 1992; he was succeeded at Playwrights Horizons by the subsequent literary manager, Tim Sanford. Russell Vandenbroucke, long the literary manager of Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum, was named producing director of Northlight Theater in Skokie, Illinois, and Michael Zelanak and Rick Davis, two recent graduates of the YSD’s program in dramaturgy and criti­cism, founded Pittsburgh’s American Ibsen Theater on the belief that the dramaturg’s role is essential.

The dramaturg’s responsibilities are many, depending on the talents of the person holding the post, the needs of the theater, and the inventiveness of the artistic director. Dramaturgs can be educators, adapters, translators, historians, researchers, editors, house critics, playwright’s advocates, conduits for new scripts, play doctors, and outside observers at rehearsals ready to set the artists back on track if they get diverted. They can serve as resources for production directors and designers, even the actors, and in a different context, for the company’s artistic director. They can assist publicity directors and press reps as well. Dramaturgs help keep everyone on the same page. One dramaturg, Mark S. P. Turvin, who’s also a playwright and teacher, calls the dramaturg “the mischievous court jester” to the theater’s artistic director.

Furthermore, dramaturgs and literary managers are natural networkers, more than directors, artistic directors, and business managers are. They’re in constant and regular contact with other dramaturgs around the country and even abroad, keeping tabs on new plays (which literary managers share almost compulsively--LMDA maintains an on-line database of new titles recommended by dramaturgs to their counterparts at other companies) and writers; they travel to festivals and visit one another’s theaters as often as budgets allow. LMDA not only has an annual convention in a major North American theater center, but in cities or regions where there are several producing theaters with literary staffs, there are mini-meetings or luncheons at which dramaturgs compare notes and share discoveries. An article in the Summer 2009 LMDA Review is titled “Dramaturgs Like to Talk”; almost no other theater artists or professionals do. American theater’s not only regionalized but each region, even each company, seems walled off from its sisters--with the exception of the literary staffs. (I edited the newsletter of the American Directors Institute, an association formed so that directors and artistic directors could network in this way, but it was short-lived. Directors, it seems, just don’t like to share.) With theater in the straits it’s in now, a networker and out-reacher on staff might just be a boon.

With the increased interest in new playwriting, M. Louise McKay, a current LMDA VP, asserts, “Over the past three decades, the role of the dramaturg and literary manager has expanded in the United States and Canada . . . .” With this enlarged presence of the dramaturg on the American theater scene, what’s the future of the profession? The question cannot be answered without also predicting the future of American public theater. Certainly, more and more theaters around the country will be administered by dramaturgs either as artistic directors themselves or as part of ruling triumvirates made up of a dramaturg, an artistic director, and a managing director. As theaters become increasingly aware of their responsibility to their communities, both as respondent and as educator, the impor­tance of dramaturgs as their artistic consciences will grow. Bonnie Marranca, former literary manager at the American Place Theatre and now editor of the Performing Arts Journal, had a dream for the future of the American theater that includes “plays coming better prepared to meet their audiences, and a more enlightened repertoire.” This can only happen, Marranca asserted, “when the Literary Advisor is allowed to take his rightful place in the structure of the American theater . . . .” The complete integration of the dramaturg into the “collaborative process of the theatre” means for Arthur Ballet, former dramaturg of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, that there will no longer be a “search” for a play for the season, but that the play will “‘pop out of repertoire’ in response to . . . [the dramaturg’s] awareness of the factors around us and in our theater . . . .” This awareness, according to Ballet, should “make a specific play necessary and compelling for us to present, in this theater, in this town, now.”

Possibly the most curious view of the future of dramaturgy was shared by Ballet and Martin Esslin, who was functioning as dramaturg of San Francisco’s Magic Theater when the two men attended the second TCG conference on dramaturgy and literary management in 1981. They saw an “urgent need for a collaborative relationship between theatre and television and for the dramaturg’s role in offering ideas about products that could be marketed by their theatre to TV.” This, of course, would be a special application of the idea of knowing the theater’s community and developing the theater’s audience within that community--which means reaching the vast local television audience, 90 to 95% of which, if Peter Hay’s estimate is to be credited, doesn’t attend the theater. Ballet and Esslin’s rationale was:

We have a choice either to be a warehouse developing projects that are picked off, bound and packaged by someone else or to view television as an extension of our own theater and audience. . . . Our own company . . . should produce a script and then sell it to television. It should be our product and we should control its quality and its uniquely theatrical nature. By putting our work on film and television, and by offering it to the schools as teaching devices, we get a wider distribution for our product and, ultimately, extend the theater’s audience.

The conventional wisdom has so long identified television as the natural and mortal enemy of theater, the prospect of an entente cordiale is both frightening and intriguing. By including the schools, which most resident theaters approach only timidly, Ballet and Esslin were proposing a powerful double entente.

Since the foundation of LMDA, discussions of what the professions of dramaturg and literary manager are and where they might head have been regular. Some unusual advances have been made for the professions. In one uncommon arena, with more and more opera companies using supertitles to overcome the language barrier of most operas, the task of writing and coordinating these translations has fallen on the dramaturg who specializes in opera. The field’s small at present; according to Roger Pines, dramaturg of the Dallas Opera, “only a few companies have a dramaturg on staff.” Nonetheless, according to an article by director and dramaturg Andrew Eggert in the spring 2008 issue of Opera America, opera companies are turning to freelance dramaturgs when they develop new works.

Selling your skills on the open market isn’t a new idea; neither is turning those skills into a business. Artists, however, seldom do this, least of all theater artists, actors’ production companies in the film world notwithstanding. Nevertheless, in the late 1980’s Steven J. Krementz, former literary assistant at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, formed HiText Ltd., a firm of “Theatre Arts Research Consultants.” As freelance dramaturgs, HiText did background research for non-profit theaters for a fee, digging into historical or cultural resources, past productions, and costume and set references, providing a service many theaters may not be able to afford and for which many directors may not have the time or resources. (I’m not certain this company still exists, but the concept’s still viable.)

From traditional literary management to opera supertitles to dramaturgical research firms, most dramaturgy has been text-based. John Bell, who was dramaturg of the Bread and Puppet Theater before he moved on, wrote of the “dramaturgy of image” or the “dramaturgy of performing objects.” Dramaturgs working in the “Theater of Objects,” as Bell called it, may still work with texts, but they’re texts of images, not words, focusing on what Richard Schechner calls the performance text. The late Robert Massa, in his discussion of dramaturgy in the modern theater for the Village Voice, also called for dramaturgy for the “theater of images.” Developing a competence in this field could lead to dramaturgs, such as Jonathan Marks of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and Anne Cattaneo of New York’s Lincoln Center Theater Company, who both worked with Robert Wilson, working with such movement theater people as Martha Clarke, Bill Irwin, and even dance companies. While many dramaturgs are also playwrights or critics--word people--a new dramaturgical arena’s available for those with backgrounds and sensitivity in dance, mime, choreography, and directing, the non-literary aspects of theater. “The work is similar--we’re both telling stories,” says Brian Quirt, a past president of LMDA, “but the tools that we use can be somewhat different . . .”:

Dramaturgs are different [from the other collaborators] in that their responsibility isn’t to a single aspect of the creation. Whether dealing with text on the page, a musical played at the piano or in action on the stage in front of you, the dramaturg is there to respond to the ideas that are being expressed and to help find the next step in the process.

The dramaturg, composer Jake Heggie adds, provides a different perspective on the material when he’s gotten too immersed in it to see it clearly anymore. The dramaturg, says James Leverett, professor of theater at Yale and Columbia and a dramaturg who’s worked with Philip Glass, can act as the “first audience” for a work coming into existence. Quirt, who himself has worked in both opera and dance as well as theater, points out, “The dramaturg can ask the questions that no one else has asked because they are immersed in the process in a very particular way.”

Schechner, a faculty member in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University, has for 40 years made theater that’s increasingly liberated from the bounds of the text. In an essay he called “Performaturgy,” he calls for a form of dramaturgy that “is concerned with performance possibilities more than literary history.” He explains:

It seeks specific actions that express in the most concrete way possible the intent of various scenes.

It gives directors actions that they can “quote” or use in any way they want.

The performaturg’s research focuses on production rather than interpretation. It seeks to find out how things were staged. And it seeks in non-theatrical materials specific scenographic details that might contribute to a current staging.

Since the performaturg seeks “theatrical actions,” the research Schechner needs goes beyond the “specific history of the dramatic text” and digs into “the scenic matrix out of which that text was precipitated.” Since the performaturg is looking “for scenes not scenery,” Schechner admonishes that the work must include “a social and political matrix” so that the performaturg can suggest “scenes and actions, the whole kinesthetic and aural tone of a possible production.”

These specific individuals have been working in or suggesting areas into which dramaturgy can expand by changing the way dramaturgs work. There are still underexplored venues in which traditional dramaturgy can function, such as commercial theater, particularly Broadway, and film and television. In the first case, as a few producers have discovered, staff dramaturgs or literary advisors can function in much the same way they do for non-profit theaters. (In some histories of the profession, dramaturgs are considered to have descended from the old commercial theater function of play doctor.) The advent of Jack Viertel, a former literary manager, as Creative Director at Jujamcyn Theatres, promises further expansion of the dramaturg’s expertise into this part of the American theater. (I’m not sure what Viertel’s current position is since former Jujamcyn president Rocco Landesman left in August to become NEA chairman.) As for the film industry, the same skills used for theater producers or artistic directors can be placed at the service of movie producers in search of new materials. As for television, the PBS series American Playhouse (1982-93) was a series that broadcast stage productions of America’s regional theaters, one of whose producers, Lynn Holst, was a dramaturg (New York Shakespeare Festival).

Regarding the electronic media, Peregrine Whittlesey, a former dramaturg (Goodman Theatre) who became a literary agent, states, “Theatrical talent is respected in both the television and motion picture industries, and there is a good chance in both for solid remunerative work . . .” as former literary managers Holst at PBS and Thomas McCormick, who transferred over to HBO, have demonstrated. In the same discussion in which he urged image dramaturgy, Village Voice editor and writer Massa talked of dramaturgy for television. In fact, in August 1986, at LMDA’s first annual conference, an entire panel was devoted to “Television Story Editing as Dramaturgy.”

To my knowledge, all of these last venues have been explored only a little. Certainly, with arts organizations of all kinds in financial trouble because of the economy, new jobs in the field are hard to find. Still, with the other extensions of the dramaturg or literary manager’s opportunities, they present interesting possibilities. Traditional dramaturgy’s a relatively finite field--there are only so many theaters in the country (and each season there are fewer and fewer). The explorations by members of the professions are beginning to stretch the outside of the envelope a little and provide inspiration for others to find new ways to apply their talents. Because part of the dramaturg’s skill set is to connect the theater and its artists with their spectators and community, the value of the dramaturg in increasing the company’s potential audience may prove financially beneficial.

[An early version of this essay was published in TheatreInsight (1.2 [Spring 1989]: 34-37).]

25 December 2009

“Is There a Santa Claus?”

[Francis Pharcellus Church, New York Sun 21 Sept. 1897: 6. Arguably the most famous editorial ever written--and certainly the most-often reprinted (including in the Sun in 1943 and the Saturday Evening Post in 1988 and 1997)--this column was a response to a letter written by eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon (later Douglas) and gives the answer, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!” a line often repeated, parodied, and paraphrased for many purposes during the holiday season. O’Hanlon’s brief letter is included in the response. It is interesting to note that Church, an editorial writer who didn’t even get a by-line for this essay, didn’t want to write the answer when his editor handed him O’Hanlon’s letter. It became an instant sensation.

[Most of us have heard the famous line and we may even know the story, but I wonder how many of us have actually read Francis Church's whole essay. It seems to me worth the time to reprint the wonderful editorial once more.]

We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

"Dear Editor: I am 8 years old.

"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.

"Papa says, 'If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.'

"Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
"Virginia O’Hanlon
"115 West Ninety-fifth Street.”

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

[The story of Virginia, her letter, and Church’s response in The Sun is told many times every year at Christmastime. I’m not Christian, but my birthday is Christmas Day and I have always loved this editorial and the idea it promulgates. I made a copy of the original column some years ago with the idea of making a holiday card of it, but I’ve never come up with a suitable idea. It seems right, on this day, to spread the sentiment, now 112 years old—but timeless and enduring.

[Laura Virginia O'Hanlon was born on 20 July 1889 in Manhattan. She married Edward Douglas, whom she divorced after a short marriage. She graduated from Hunter College in 1910 and got an MA from Columbia in 1912 and then a Ph.D. from Fordham. She taught in the New York City school system from 1912 until she retired, as a principal, in 1959. Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died in Valatie, New York, on 13 May 1971. Her original letter, thought to have been destroyed in a house fire, was discovered intact; it was authenticated by PBS’s Antiques Roadshow in 1998 and evaluated at $50,000.

[Francis Pharcellus Church, the son of a Baptist minister, was born in Rochester on 22 February 1839. He was a New York Times correspondent during the Civil War and wrote for the New York Sun, where his brother, William Conant Church, was an editor, for 20 years. Church married late in life and had no children; he died in New York City on 11 April 1906.]

20 December 2009

Non-Traditional Casting

“Non-traditional casting” is the Actors’ Equity name for its policy of encouraging producers and directors to consider women, minorities, and the handicapped for roles that don’t specifically require them, but also don’t specifically exclude them. Equity contends, for instance, that all doctors aren’t white males. No one ought to be able to argue sensibly with this Affirmative Action--though there are some people who do. (I mentioned a couple of them who’ve written about their opposition; see “The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward, Part 3,” ROT, 11 November.)

The idea is to give underrepresented actors chances they might not otherwise get. In other words, if casting an African-American man as a lawyer only says, “Here’s a lawyer, who also happens to be black,” then it’s an appropriate case for non-traditional casting. Sometimes, the casting even adds a dimension to the production, however unintended by the director. A case in point: Franchelle Stewart Dorn, who played Cleopatra in Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger’s Antony and Cleopatra some years back, is African-American. (STF was a predecessor to today’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, one of Washington’s most prominent theater troupes.) So were most of the Egyptian court. The Romans, including Antony, were white. That ancient Egyptians, unlike their Arab successors, may have been dark-skinned is of little consequence, since Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy, descended from an imported Greek (that is, white) dynasty. Nonetheless, dividing the two camps is effective theater since the Egyptians and the Romans had disparate cultures and looked on each other as foreigners who didn’t understand each other’s worlds. Making Cleopatra’s world “black” and Antony’s “white”--without modern racial overtones--separated them in an interesting way. Now, I confess, I have no idea what the director, Michael Kahn, had in mind except to assemble the best cast he could, but regardless of his intentions, the casting made a useful dramatic point. (That Dorn is an extremely talented actress and was the most powerful presence on the Folger stage only justifies the choice--and the policy.)

A few years later, Kahn hired Harold Scott to direct Othello for the Shakespeare Theatre. Scott cast Avery Brooks as the Moor and André Braugher as Iago. Both actors are African-American, a decision that disturbed one of the opponents to whom I referred just now. Now, I had some reservations about the production, but they concerned the performances, particularly of Brooks (who, in the interest of full disclosure, was once a teacher of mine). I understand director Harold Scott’s point in casting André Braugher as Iago--it made the play about jealousy and betrayal rather than racial hatred; I interpret Shakespeare’s play that way anyway, so Scott’s decision reinforced the original point for me, and diminished an imposed interpretation that’s accrued in more modern times.

Theater people make a distinction between at least two forms of non-traditional casting. Simple non-traditional casting usually means casting actors of color, women, and disabled actors as characters they don’t traditionally play as long as the role and the script don’t require specific racial or gender characteristics or physical abilities. That means casting a Hispanic man as an elementary teacher, a woman as a judge, or a paraplegic as a social worker. That’s what gave us Frances Sternhagen as the doctor in Outland and Sidney Poitier as the drifter in Lilies of tItaliche Field. Both characters were originally conceived as white men. It’s also what enabled Mary Tyler Moore to replace Tom Conti as the patient in Whose Life Is It Anyway? on Broadway. Perhaps the most prominent example of this type of non-trad casting is Robert David Hall, who plays the medical examiner on TV’s CSI. Hall’s a double-amputee as the result of an automobile accident, but his character makes little reference to this fact because it’s irrelevant. (Hall, though, often speaks and writes about his work in this respect because he advocates very strongly for casting actors with disabilities in roles like his.) Only a few people have difficulties with this; indeed, most spectators may not even know it’s occurred.

The other type of non-trad casting is often called “color-blind casting.” That means that roles are cast without consideration for the race, and often gender or physical abilities, of the actor regardless of the script. That accounts for Gail Grate as an African-American Eliza in Arena Stage’s Pygmalion and Earle Hyman as Solness in Tony Randall’s Master Builder here some years ago. More recently, the final cast of August: Osage County included Phylicia Rashad as Violet Weston with a white sister and a houseful of white children. This, obviously, takes a little more getting used to, and sometimes it works better than other times for any given spectator. The examples I noted earlier are of this variety--and nowadays, no one really cares as long as the acting’s good.

While of course color-blind casting involves actors of all races and ethnicity, it seldom includes gender-blind casting (unless a director wants to make some kind of statement). Examples of gender-flipping usually mean the actor’s playing the original gender of the role rather than her or his own gender. Thus when Linda Hunt’s cast as the Indonesian dwarf in The Year of Living Dangerously, Pat Carroll as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, or Mary Martin as Peter Pan, they play males. The same is true in reverse when Quentin Crisp played Lady Bracknell or Harvey Fierstein appears as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. When Sternhagen was cast in Outland, however, that was non-traditional casting--but not gender-blind casting. The doctor was written as a man, but when Sternhagen took the role, the character became female.

Among the common objections to non-traditional racial casting is that it defies logic or history (or both). How can an entirely white family have an African-American mother (August: Osage County with Phylicia Rashad)? How can there be black residents in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, at the turn of the 20th century (Arena Stage’s 1990 Our Town with a racially mixed cast)? How can there be black people in Shakespeare’s Sicilia (Alfre Woodard in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1988 production of The Winter’s Tale)? These protesters have so much trouble accepting mixed casts because they read the plays as literal reality. Well, Our Town isn’t literally real: there are no buildings (that is, realistic scenery), dead people have conversations, we move about in time illogically, and there is a very strange character identified as the Stage Manager who manipulates both us and the citizens of Grover’s Corners. Grover’s Corners doesn’t exist in literal reality; it’s not in any atlas, except the one in our imaginations. And in our imaginations, anything is possible.

The same’s true of Shakespeare’s fantasy Sicilia. Who among us really knows what ancient Sicilians or Bohemians looked like? In any case, it’s just not important what they looked like, or what the actors playing them today look like. By extension, too, it applies to more realistic play’s like Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County: Pawhuska, Oklahoma, may be an actual town (the seat of Osage County) and the characters may be based on people Letts knew, but the world of Letts’s play is one of imagination. This is art, not reality, and artistic truth is supposed to go beyond mere surface appearances to the underlying truths of the human soul. Only the most rabid racist believes that the soul has a particular race or culture. Or gender, for that matter.

One of the objectors I mentioned (I’m not going to rename these guys) complained that “Blacks do not belong in parts for white actresses unless they can pass for white.” I’m not even sure how to define “parts for white actresses”: Who makes the rules? The role of the drifter in Lilies of the Field was originally intended to be a white man; what a loss if Poitier hadn’t gotten the role and turned it into a “part for a black man.” The doctor in Outland was written for a man, but when Sternhagen was cast, it became a “part for a woman.” And Shakespeare wrote Othello for a white actor, since there were no black actors in Elizabethan theater; does that make it a “part for a white man”? What about Shylock? There were no Jewish actors in Shakespeare’s company as far as we know. Does that mean no Jew should ever play the role today? For that matter, all the female parts in both Greek and Elizabethan plays were intended for male actors. Should an accident of cultural history prevent women from playing them today? Well, the same kind of accident prevented black actors from appearing in these plays; why should we be bound by it today? (If we stuck to these old restrictions, we’d have missed out on James Earl Jones, one of this era’s greatest actors, playing King Lear!)

Another critic asserted that he’s “sure of what [he is] seeing” in real life, but perhaps we aren’t supposed to be so certain in the theater. Perhaps the meaning of what we see is intentionally ambiguous, meant to make us think--or rethink--received beliefs and unquestioned assumptions. That’s what art is often supposed to do; that’s what Bertolt Brecht wanted his so-called Alienation Effect to accomplish. “Alienation,” it must be noted, is a misleading translation of the German Verfremdung, which really means “de-familiarizing.” Brecht wanted his audiences to look with new eyes at old ideas, so he made them seem strange and unfamiliar. But Brecht didn’t invent this tactic, he only named it, and theater artists have been doing it since civilization began. So, when we go into the theater, we should tell ourselves that we’ll leave our assumptions outside for a few hours. Accept that the world onstage may not be the same as the world we left behind but, just as in the unfamiliar worlds of Gulliver’s Travels, Brave New World, Animal Farm, and 1984, we can learn a great deal about ours by entering theirs for a time.

In any case, non-traditional casting is here to stay in one form or another, so what its critics do or do not like now may change as they become more used to seeing it. After all, when women and African-Americans first began appearing on TV as newscasters, some people found them disconcerting. (I remember some complainants even maintained that women’s voices weren’t suited to the job of TV news reporting. Can you imagine anyone saying that today?) Now they’re commonplace, as are Asian-American, Hispanic, and disabled reporters, and no one thinks about it. The opera world has long accepted interracial casting even though there were no black, Hispanic, or Asian opera singers when that form was developed in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries; operagoers got used to them and value their talent as part of our cultural treasury.

Throughout theater history, audiences have accepted all kinds of things outside of ordinary logic. Some are so commonplace, we don’t even think of them: Chekhov’s characters ought all to be speaking Russian, Ibsen’s Norwegian, and Schiller’s German, but we have no problem when we hear them plainly in English. Others seem very strange to us today: the Greeks and the Elizabethans accepted men and boys as female characters; in the 17th and 18th centuries, spectators sat on stage with the actors. Some changes have occurred within our own memories: for centuries, western audiences accepted a white man in black-face as Othello and no one squawked until recent decades. We can learn to accept racially alogical casting in the theater, too; sooner or later, interracial and inter-gender casting will seem ordinary as the non-trad casts overcome reservations with talent and skill. The second time those doubters see an interracial production, they’ll be less confused, and the next time less still, until the race of the actors ceases to be an important factor. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Resident companies like the Public Theater, Arena, and STC have a responsibility to expand their audience’s cultural horizons, not pander to them.

15 December 2009

Johann Rall: A Historical Portrait, Part 2

[This is Part 2 of my account my work on the role of Colonel Johann Rall in William Mastrosimone’s Devil Take the Hindmost.]


The Director’s Concept: Though I have no factual basis for this feeling, having been directed once previously by Jack Bettenbender, I’ve always felt that he knew what his productions would look like in the end as if he had a “running motion picture” of it in his head. In this case, with a multi-level “production-in-the-surround,” Bettenbender was very likely the only one who did know what the outcome would look like. Fortunately, my work with him the preceding spring taught me that he knew what he was doing, and I trusted him completely with Devil.

Certainly, spectacle was a central element in Jack’s concept for the production. Though the story dealt with the romance of two people surrounded by war, it was bigger than life. Around and above the audience in the variable-space theater would march three armies and the Battle of Trenton would be staged with the spectators in its midst. To compete with the sheer enormity of the set and the scope of the play, each character had to be larger than life as well.

But care had to be taken. In spite of the obvious fact that the play was inspired by the Bicentennial and that it treated the history surrounding the Battle of Trenton with a certain accuracy, the play was not about American history--or even so much the American spirit. It was a story of a young woman who falls in love in the middle of a war. The central figures were not historical and, in the long run, not even earth-shaking figures. In other words, all of the history--all of the battles, the soldiers, the great historical figures--all of that was background against which the real drama of Devil was to be played. The basic style of the production, according to Jack, was romantic melodrama.

With respect to Colonel Rall, this was significant in that my existence was, in a way, secondary to that of Virginia and Robin, the young lovers. Though the play dramatized the peak, fall and, finally, ruin of my career and life, the play was in no way concerned with “the tragedy of Colonel Rall.”

Having said that, I must add that, again because of the peculiar structure of the play, this factor was of little consequence to my own work. First of all, my scenes were almost independent of the action of the rest of the play, so I could play my scenes, in a sense, as if they were a separate play. This didn’t mean, of course, that I wasn’t cognizant of the progress and needs of the entire production, but as I came into direct contact with so few of the other principles, I had a certain independency in my work. Second, as all actors know, every play is about their characters: in life, we are all the leading characters in our own biographies! I had to approach my role as if Devil was “a play about this Hessian colonel who . . . .”

Early Rehearsals: Because of the nature of the production, the set (or at least the acting areas) was to be very important. Until the theater was taped out for the set dimensions, the earliest rehearsals were limited to reading around a table. Being generally an actor who needs to move, and because I had a physical picture of Rall in my mind as early as the first reading, I found these “chair-borne” rehearsals particularly frustrating. We’d been shown a model of the set and I was anxious to get on the real thing and try it out. (As the set was being built, I would often drop in during the day and climb on newly-assembled areas and play my scenes to try out the space and get a feel for the environment. (This put me in mind of an anecdote one of my earlier teachers had told about Jack Klugman when he was preparing to take over the role of Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple: the actor used to come to the theater during the day and “live” in the set to get comfortable with it and the world of Oscar and Felix.) When we finally got on our feet (really only a few days later, but it seemed like a week) and began staging the show, Jack began his habitually precise blocking. (I could sense the “film” running in his mind.)

Because of the grand scale of the production and the needs of the multi-level set, the blocking of Devil seemed to take forever. Perhaps from his own frustrations, Jack began demanding what appeared to me to be finished performances even before we learned the lines. (In what, for me, was unprecedented speed, Jack called for lines on the second rehearsal for any given scene.) Momentarily feeling that my artistic toes were being stepped on, I had a fleeting reaction of anger and frustration at being denied the time to develop my work organically. Fortunately, from my previous experience with Jack, I recalled that he’d done the same thing before, and I realized that this was again a function of his “running movie.” I believe he merely wanted to give hints as to where he expected us to be in the end. I also recalled that, despite his apparently precise demands and expectations, he was generally open to experimentation and adjustments--as long as they were valid and valuable, demonstrated work and forethought, and were not the result of laziness or a prima-donna mentality. As a result, I relaxed into the work with a feeling of confidence and cheerful anticipation. I began having fun with the part and I generally enjoyed rehearsals.

(Jack was habitually a strict and meticulous director, giving specific movements and even suggesting line readings; working with him took some getting-used-to. I can clearly remember finding one of my fellow cast members during an earlier production Jack was directing, sitting in the lobby of the theater early one day, sobbing. I asked her what the matter was and she told me she was being frustrated by Jack’s authoritarian direction. This was not a novice actress, by the way, but an experienced and mature adult artist and she was feeling severely artistically constrained and personally disrespected. I offered her advice based on what I gleaned from Jack’s work with actors, principally what I stated above. My friend quieted and took some comfort from what I told her about working with Jack; I don’t know if she ever became happy working with him--but she did go on to a successful career as an actress.)

It was during these early rehearsals that I began to develop the basic outer aspects of the character. While the inner life of the character was still undergoing development throughout rehearsals, I found the physical and vocal facets of the man forming very quickly. Most of what I found in these early days stayed with me with only slight adjustments until the show closed. From Bill’s dialogue, I realized that I was a man of precise speech and vocabulary, not given to uncontrolled outbursts (even my seeming furies were the result of well-rehearsed rages). To suggest Germanic and military speech patterns without using an accent (Jack didn’t want the Hessians to use an accent), I had to use a clipped and over-articulated pronunciation that rang both foreign and arrogant. I began using an adjustment on the “Standard English” pronunciation often used for non-English playwrights (the Greeks, Ibsen, Chekhov). It added just the strangeness I felt was needed and lent itself to the clipped speech pattern I’d been using and to Bill’s words.

Vocally, too, changes occurred as the character developed. In the early stages I had relied heavily on volume. I soon realized (often with Jack’s help) that this was not always effective and overshadowed the big yelling scene: the battle in the middle of the second act. I began experimenting with other vocal qualities and gradually found myself at the opposite end of the register: lowering the volume. Keeping up the energy of whatever inner sources I was using, but lowering the volume made the character more threatening and more intense. Where the bluster had been all show and gave the feeling of a caricature, the growl made Rall more frightening, as if I might explode at any moment. (The actor who played Washington, a professional from New York, once told me that when I entered, he knew that I was “the meanest son of a bitch in the valley.”)

Physically, I began to evolve the posture, bearing, and mannerisms of my Colonel Rall. As a man who grew up in the military (my father had been an officer, too), I decided I must maintain a military mien at all times: my posture became ramrod-straight (unusual for me) and my walk became almost a goosestep with square-corner turns. Mannerisms suggested themselves to me and I began trying them. Though subtleties of bearing were added later, most of what I found in these early days remained intact throughout the production.

Small physical adjustments development as the character grew. At the suggestion of Carol, my acting teacher, I began sitting cross-legged as a rule. This gave me a chance to physicalize my state of mind when seated by crossing or uncrossing my legs: the cross-legged position became my formal pose from which adjustments were made. I also added a tic or twitch in my hand when agitated. I found this was most appropriate when gripping the hilt of my saber. It was also at this point that I added the near goosestep as a period adjustment. (That actor playing Washington, whom I got to know a little because I chauffeured him and some other New York City company members and because he lived near me in the city, asked me one day after the production ended how tall I am. “You’re about six, six-one aren’t you,” he offered. “Not even close,” I smiled at him. “I’m five-eight on my best day!” Without ever intending to, I apparently gave the impression of being a much bigger man than I am. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly how I did that, except that it was an unintended result of the physical character I built.)

Because of the constant changing of the script in the working process, these early rehearsals were very important because it became necessary to get a fast hold on the character early in order to accommodate changes in the play quickly and securely. Experimentation had to be kept to a minimum for rehearsal time was at a premium. Fortunately, unlike that previous role I’ve mentioned, Colonel Rall fell into proper place almost instantaneously. One might say, we understood one another.

Performance: By the time Devil opened, I had finished all my research and the character was in its final form. We hadn’t really had an audience outside of a few interested outsiders, so no one knew how one would react. We knew the show was long and that the set-in-the-surround could be troublesome to viewers, but we had confidence in the production and we hoped that the energy of the show would keep the audience attentive. The show was indeed immense--in length, spectacle, and scope--but it flowed around the set in a compelling fashion, and we hoped it would pull the audience with it.

Small cuts and inserts were made throughout the script nearly every night before performance in an effort to tighten the running time of the show. As disconcerting as these last-minute changes were, they didn’t appreciably alter the nature of my work.

Though everyone made small mistakes at one time or another, the audiences were generally extremely receptive and responsive. Though I believe we all expected the overall reaction to varying degrees, my own biggest surprise was the reception of Colonel Rall. I was astounded to find that I had become an empathetic figure. Without realizing it myself, I had built into my portrayal a warmth and humanity that made this arrogant, self-centered, contemptuous man a character with whom people identified--and even sympathized. Though I hadn’t intentionally worked for this result, I was gratified, if somewhat flabbergasted. It was, of course, correct that Rall should be so received by the audience. It wasn’t Bill’s intent that he be hated or even disliked; he was simply the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Technical difficulties notwithstanding, the eight original performances of Devil went extremely well. As reviews began appearing, it was obvious that the play and the production were successes. In most cases the reviews were very generous to me and I was pleased that my work had been successful.


In mid-December, word arrived that Devil had been selected for the Northeast Regional Competition of the American College Theatre Festival in mid-February. Jack, Bill, and the production staff began to make plans to revive Devil and make the necessary changes for the move to the ACTF. Between closing night on 21 November and this early talk of reviving the show, I hadn’t really thought much about Colonel Rall.

Rehearsal: The re-rehearsal period began in earnest in late January. The script had been substantially changed to tighten it and to cut the cast to the 25-actor limit stipulated by the competition rules. The show was to be restaged for a proscenium production from the environmental concept Jack had created.

At the first reading of the new script, it became obvious that the part of Colonel Rall was not much altered. In fact, my scenes remained essentially intact with line adjustments necessitated by the loss of two of my soldiers. The only problems having to do with the move were the restaging for a proscenium theater of the battle scene and the surrender scene.

What was of greater consequence was the need to bring my Colonel Rall back to life. Never having revived a show before, I wasn’t accustomed to reworking a part after having put it aside.

The first thing that I discovered was that I still remembered all the lines and the original blocking. But I also fell back into old line readings automatically. I thought that I should be working from the inside out to recreate my character anew, but I didn’t know how to do that. I began relying more and more on what I’d done successfully in the original production. I was desperately trying not to copy my previous portrayal, but to let it happen again; however, I knew that I’d lost a vital part of the character: his warmth and humanity. Now my Colonel Rall was flat and one-dimensional, relying entirely on sneers and jutting jaws to indicate character. I’d lost the real humor of the man and captured only the external appearance of it. I was at a loss as to what to do.

Only rarely, in the “contract” scene with Sherry and the debriefing scene with Honeyman, did I catch a glimmer of something new to work on. In both of those cases, I felt much “realler,” as if I were actually hearing those words for the first time. In all other cases, I was unable to take advantage of the fact that I already knew the part and concentrate on making new discoveries about Rall and the characters with whom I came into contact. I’d inadvertently closed myself off.

Time was certainly an element in this: the two-week rehearsal period turned out to be only eight rehearsals. But I should have been able to work on my part on my own and I didn’t. Overconfidence, too, may have played a part, albeit an unconscious one. Because of my success and satisfaction with the original production, I may have felt I knew Rall so well I didn’t need to do any more work. If this was the case, I certainly wasn’t aware of it.

Whatever was at fault, without intending to do so (indeed, I was desperately trying not to) I was just going through the motions of reviving Devil.

Performance: After a pressure-filled four-hour set-up and a brief, tense run-through, we performed Devil in a small proscenium house. Again, due to the somewhat isolated nature of my part, I didn’t know how the production was faring in general. The audience was small and we were all tired and tense, but I felt as though at worst we were a little slow. For myself, the only thing of which I was acutely aware was my own lack of completeness resulting from my inadequate reworking. I was personally neither more nor less unhappy with my work that afternoon than I had been up to then in rehearsal.

It was only after the performance that I began hearing reports and evaluations that we had done badly. The communal feeling was one of exhausted embarrassment. Not knowing any differently, I could only agree with the consensus. Apparently none of us had held up under the pressure of a hostile atmosphere and a technically disastrous production.


Conclusions: From the response I got from audiences, friends, and critics, and from my own feeling of satisfaction with the final product, I look on the original production of Devil and my creation of Colonel Rall as successes. Though a number of things didn’t work as well as they might have (for one, I never was entirely happy with the reaction to the “contract” scene; for another, the battle scene peaked during a dress rehearsal and I never found that quality again), my overall judgment of the work was satisfaction and pride. It’ll be work I’ll always recall with delight.

As for the revival: though it was deemed a failure, my personal failure was not one of performance, but of preparation. I didn’t join the general condemnation of the ACTF performance--though it may, indeed, have been bad. I maintain that my performance that day was as good as my preparation could have allowed. The fault of my personal failure was in my reworking the part. I was, perhaps, overconfident that I knew Colonel Rall so well I could put him back on like the costume.

Lessons Learned: I learned two major lessons as a result of my participation in Devil, both having to do with my approach to a role. The first is that there’s no real separation of “technique” and “intuition” in preparing a role. Previously, I’d believed that while intuition was of great importance to an actor, it was technique--the external decisions and adjustments made to particularize the role--that made the preparation valid and ultimately led to a successful performance. Because so much of my Colonel Rall was based on instinctive and intuitive choices which occurred to me in the earliest stages of the work and remained substantially unchanged through performance, I came to realize that what I was in fact doing was unconsciously making those decisions and adjustments I had previously assumed must be conscious and external. Only when my intuition failed or misled me did I have to make premeditated choices in terms of actions, substitutions, endowments, inner objects, and so on. At no time during the preparation of Devil did I feel I was cheating by not carefully working out my choices beforehand as I’d often felt in earlier work. On examining my work, I realized that not only are “technique” and “intuition” inseparable, but eventually they become indistinguishable as well.

Furthermore, in a more personal vein, I discovered, through discussions of my work with Carol Rosenfeld, that I’d reached that point in my artistic development where I no longer needed to make conscious decisions regarding this “technique.” My personal working method now included technique as an integral aspect. I’d become more relaxed and comfortable with my work, making choices, whether physical or emotional, organically and naturally. What used to be affectation was now habitual behavior. There’s no doubt that this new-found ease had come directly from a conscientious study of acting technique and several years of conscious practice in performance; but it was now part of me and operated automatically as I prepared a role. I’d noticed small instances of this, specific moments in other performances, but it was the performance of Colonel Rall that was the turning point for me in this regard. Not only was it the first role I prepared this way, but my own monitoring and reviewing of that preparation (to document it for the thesis) caused me to recognize this new accomplishment in myself.

10 December 2009

Johann Rall: A Historical Portrait, Part 1

[This account, derived from my masters thesis, is a record of an actor’s homework and the work on a new play. (This is Part 1; Part 2 will be posted in several days.) Because this was my thesis role, I documented my experience thoroughly, from my response to reading the script for the first time, through my research on the role, through the attempt to revive the production after its original run. The role is Colonel Johann Rall in William Mastrosimone’s Devil Take the Hindmost, an epic romance set in the midst of the Battle of Trenton, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. Rall is a historical character, the commander of the Hessian mercenaries who defended Trenton for the British against the American assault across the Delaware River on the day after Christmas, 1776.]

As soon as I was cast in Bill Mastrosimone’s Devil Take the Hindmost, I began keeping a journal and carefully recording research, notes, questions, and thoughts regarding all aspects of the role. This account is based on that journal as well as on my memory of the creative process and on whatever objective evaluations I made after the show closed.


Though Bill had been working on the play for over two years, very few had seen even an early version of the script. There’d been very little word of mouth except that it was a “big” play. As a result, my first contact with Devil was at the cold-reading auditions. Even then, no scripts were available to read beforehand, and even after casting was announced, we weren’t issued personal scripts. I had at this point no idea who or what Colonel Johann Rall was, either as a character or as a role. From Director Jack Bettenbender’s thumb-nail description of the plot, I knew we were dealing with the Battle of Trenton and that I was to play Colonel Rall, the commander of the Hessian garrison at Trenton. That was all I knew.

The first reading was more impressive for its length than its content. (There were only five scripts in existence to be shared among 34 actors.) I began to envision a production reminiscent of the Soviet film of War and Peace--eight hours long performed over two days! The plot of Devil is essentially as follows:

In the events surrounding the Battle of Trenton (26 December 1776), a small inn, the Eagle Tavern, becomes a focal point for the advancing and retreating forces of three armies: the Continentals, the British, and the mercenary Hessians. Though Innkeeper Jonathan Brock and his wife are opportunistic neutrals, their 17-year-old daughter, Virginia, has decidedly rebellious tendencies. Into their midst first comes a detachment of retreating rebels on their way across the Delaware. They bring with them a wounded comrade, Robin Sparks, whom they leave in Brock’s unwilling care upon their hasty flight from the pursuing British cavalry. Also remaining behind is Sherry Friend, a camp-follower fed up with dirt, cold, and ragged clothes.

The tavern changes hands as the British occupy Trenton and the commanding officer of the detachment, Captain Charles Worthington, puts Robin under house arrest. Falling in love with Virginia, Worthington asks her parents for permission to court her. They’re delighted with the prospect, but his orders send him away before Virginia can answer. The tavern and the prisoner are then turned over to the Hessian garrison.

The Hessians, uncouth and uncontrolled, become the masters of the tavern. While their commander, Colonel Rall, occupies himself with Sherry, the soldiers amuse themselves by terrorizing the Brocks. In the confusion, Virginia, who’s fallen in love with Robin, helps him escape. As a result of this and her feisty contempt for the Hessians, the soldiers lock up her parents and rape Virginia.

Before Rall, preoccupied with Sherry and drink, discovers these events, the Americans mount a surprise attack across the Delaware. Rall’s mortally wounded trying to rally his surprised and routed troops and the Americans take Trenton in their first important victory of the Revolution.

Briefly in control of the city again, the Continentals return to the tavern, but discover they’re no more welcome there than their Hessian enemies. The Brocks’ misfortune and Robin’s escape are revealed, but the Continentals again retreat across the river. Robin returns in search of Virginia, and is surprised by the British under Captain Worthington. The British, in turn, are surprised by the Americans and taken prisoner. Robin learns of the proposed match between the British officer and Virginia and leaves with his comrades. During the preparations for the Battle of Princeton (3 January 1777), during which a handful of Americans acts as a diversion in Trenton while Washington and his army march to Princeton in secrecy by the hither-to unknown “Quaker Road,” Virginia turns up in the rebel camp and joins Robin, not as a camp follower, but in the line as an equal.

Things became somewhat clearer when we got our own scripts, but it was still obvious that we were dealing with a romantic epic. My initial impression was that it was going to be fun: we were going to surround the audience with action and pageantry on a grand scale! My subsequent impression was that I had a lot of work to do.

I began working with the script immediately. I read and reread the play and found all references to Colonel Rall. I paid close attention to what other characters said about me and what I said about myself. With this “hearsay” information, I began making some elementary decisions: Who said it? Was it true? Why was it said? If there was a historical reference, I made specific note of it and checked it out during my research (which I had already begun).

Almost immediately, Bill began making changes in the script. Nearly every other night, he arrived with new scenes, rewritten scenes, line changes, cuts. The process of building the “play” from the manuscript had begun. As it turned out, the changes, though they began coming less frequently, didn’t halt until the second weekend of performance. This, of course, necessitated constant working and reworking of scenes as each small change created repercussions throughout the scene. In most cases, the changes made the scenes play better; in a few cases, this wasn’t so. The most troublesome scenes were often completely rewritten several times. The biggest problem with the script turned out to be simply its length. Eventually, whole scenes were cut to reduce the running time to a manageable three hours.

Strangely enough, my existence in the play was little affected by most of the rest of the play’s events. Certainly, historical accuracy protected Rall, but the structure of the play was such that, though the plot was extremely episodic, the Hessian presence on stage took place in seven almost contiguous scenes from the end of Act I to the middle of Act II. Because of this scriptural isolation, only direct changes in Hessian scenes affected my work, since I came into contact with only a small portion of the cast. (I had no dialogue with either the hero or the heroine of the play and was on stage only once with the latter.)

In spite of the constant changes in the script, I soon became comfortable with the play, the space, the cast, the director, and the playwright (who attended nearly all the rehearsals). This last was very important as it turned out, as Bill frequently discussed projected changes with the actors concerned and often solicited their opinions. He was also available for discussion of problems arising from the script. I frequently asked him why I said certain things: did I mean what I said literally, or was I really saying something else. Sometimes Bill provided valuable information regarding artistic license versus historical fact (for example: historically, Rall was shot in the chest or side, not in the back as in Devil. Bill made the change because of the ancient Greek tradition of not burying soldiers who died of wounds in the back. It was the ignominy of a soldier receiving wounds while having his back to the enemy which helped create the frenzy that ended the battle on stage.) Occasionally, Bill accepted requests to change or delete troublesome lines (a reference to Rall’s age was deleted so as not to require heavy make-up.)


First Impressions: As soon as I began reading the script, I started forming impressions of Colonel Rall. Certain specifics were indicated in the script: I was 51, a professional soldier, having fought in campaigns all over Europe. I was contemptuous of the fighting ability of the American rebels and had little respect for my British superiors. It was obvious that I had a life-and-death control over my soldiers, and that I bullied and mocked them at every opportunity. I was very jealous of my military reputation, and apparently more concerned with glory than victory. From my immediate attraction to the camp-follower Sherry, it was apparent that Bill envisioned me as a womanizer as well as a heavy drinker.

Historically, I learned that I had fought valiantly at Ft. Washington and had personally demanded its surrender. I also learned that I expected to continue my pursuit of the rebel army to Philadelphia and capture the capital; I had no intention of making a defense of Trenton.

From these snippets of information, I formed an early concept of Rall that remained the basis for my final work. I began to fall into a definite speech pattern and certain physicalizations began to suggest themselves to me. As rehearsals progressed, I began to know and understand this man fairly well. My earliest impressions, while rudimentary, turned out to be correct and appropriate.

As far as the role’s function, I served as the catalyst for the events of the play. It was the presence of the Hessians in the tavern that precipitated Virginia’s actions regarding Robin, and the rape of Virginia resulted in part from my own attitude toward the Brocks which allowed my men to behave as they did and caused Virginia to react as she did. Thematically, I was the contrast for all other forms of involvement in the war. I was neither neutral nor partisan: I fought for whoever paid. Against me were measured both those who fought for a cause (Robin, Worthington) and those who refused to fight or take sides (the Brocks). I was also the “secondary love interest”: my dalliance with Sherry was contrasted with the romance between Virginia and Robin. Historically, I was the inadvertent tool by which the American rebels gained their badly-needed first victory at the doorstep of the Continental Congress. In short, the role was a pivotal one, the fulcrum on which the rest of the play balanced.

Research: As soon as I got the script and had read it thoroughly, I began my research. This generally fell into three areas: the history of the events surrounding the Battles of Fts. Washington and Lee, Trenton, and Princeton (Winter 1776-77); the personal background of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall; and the social, cultural, and historical background of Rall’s native Germany.

There’s no lack of information concerning the battles and Rall’s participation is fairly well documented. Military histories covering the Battles of Trenton and Princeton are abundant and generally confirm what was in Bill’s script. There were a few minor discrepancies (Rall was wounded in the chest or side, not the back; though he was drunk the night of the battle, there was no evidence he was with a woman; his age varied from 50 to 55 depending on the source). Most of these were explained by legitimate dramatic license and none were of major consequence to my work on the character. As for the rest, my research corroborated Bill’s facts: Rall was quite drunk the night of the battle; he had, indeed, refused to make defensive preparations, being contemptuous of his American adversary; he did, in fact, meet twice with the spy John Honeyman who misled him with false information about the colonial forces; and he was, indeed, mortally wounded in a vain attempt to rally his routed forces. Even his sobriquet, “The Hessian Lion,” was correct, having acquired it because of his bravery in Europe.

Research into Rall’s personal background was more difficult. Because of his participation in the Battles of Ft. Washington and Trenton, his military background is documented. I was able to gather basic information regarding his military career (his promotions and some of his campaigns), but I wasn’t able to gather information regarding the man under the uniform beyond the fact that he was born in Hesse-Kassel between 1721 and 1726, the son of the aide-de-camp of the Löwenstein Regiment. I also found that Rall was a tall, athletic man, but I was unable to find a portrait of him. As to his family life (or, indeed, if he even had a family), I found no reference. His educational, social, and financial status was entirely a matter of conjecture.

Unable to gather definite information regarding Rall the man, I had to interpolate to formulate background and behavior. For this, I leaned heavily on period research into the cultural and social history of Germany in the 18th century. Concentrating on the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel and its immediate neighbors in what is now Germany, I was able to gain an understanding of the forces that created Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, a professional mercenary soldier. The most valuable research information came from this area.

From a combination of the fragmentary background of Colonel Rall and the prevailing pattern of his day and class, I was able to piece together a personal history of the man. Since all the research was in an effort to determine appropriate behavior, much of what I found became invaluable to my preparation. Among the significant facts I learned were:

Colonel Rall was “born to the regiment.” This meant that I grew up under the tradition that officers were accorded immediate and absolute obedience. I maintained a natural life-and-death authority over my men. Furthermore, it meant that I had to establish this feeling of authority over my soldiers for myself, the actor. Strangely enough, this was in part managed through the military drill Jack Bettenbender wanted for the Hessian soldiers. Because I taught and drilled the actors (I was only 2½ years out of active military service at the time of this work), it was as if I were training and drilling my soldiers: I was, in fact, their commander.

Soldiers were a separate class of German society. Once having entered the military, a soldier (officer or enlisted) left his civilian life and family behind. To me this meant I was answerable to no one but my military superiors. No civilian authority, whether Tory or Whig, had control over my actions. I therefore owed no consideration to the innkeeper Brock or his neighbors regardless of their affiliations.

The Germans of the period didn’t know the comforts of their French and English counterparts. Fireplaces, lighting, napkins, forks, baths, laundries, medicines, and beds were rare even among the wealthy. I took this to mean that I was not accustomed to these luxuries. The Eagle Tavern, as rude as it might have appeared to more sophisticated travelers, was luxurious to me. This made the tavern a particularly image-laden environment for me to work in. It gave me a feeling of luxury and expansiveness which allowed me to behave with a certain grandeur and elegance.

Rall was an impetuous battlefield commander, not adept at defense, but given to spectacular gallantry when on the offensive. On this fact I predicated my entire attitude toward the garrison assignment, the imminent attack on Philadelphia, and my previous actions at Ft. Washington. My career was advanced on my conspicuous valor on the battlefield, not on staying put in a defensive posture, and I was anxious not to lose another opportunity to distinguish myself. Meanwhile, I had to make use of my past exploits, hence the list I recount of past battles. It was even a private “bit” between Sherry and me: a red dress I present her was a gift from my spoils from Ft. Washington. We made a great deal of it and the fact that she should wear it to Philadelphia when I took the capital.

Rall had complete contempt for the Americans of both sides. Not being able to speak English (historically, Rall could not read the dispatches sent from his British commanders), he could not distinguish between loyalists and rebels. Not only did this give me freedom to declare that the rebels were not worth my efforts, but I could ignore and even enjoy my soldiers’ amusement at the expense of Brock and his family.

Thievery and looting was accepted among European soldiers (officers as well) during wartime. Pay was low and the “creature comforts” were not provided by the army as they are today. The difference was made up by what could be stolen along the march or around the camp. Directly from this fact came the justification for the line: “What we take is our wages for traversing an ocean to liberate the colonies from the rebels.” It also made clear that I had no intention of paying Brock for his accomodations or Honeyman for his cattle, even though they professed to be Tory sympathizers.

Rall was proud of his soldiers’ appearance and held daily parades, rain or shine. It did not take much of a stretch to see the “spit-and-polish” mentality of the man. This fact justified the inspection sequence in the play and gave me behavioral hints regarding my own appearance and dress. I knew I was the kind of officer who never appeared without a sparklingly clean, complete uniform of the highest quality and style. It would also affect my posture and poses on stage, and I became very conscious (not self-conscious) of how I looked when I sat, stood, or moved.

Though I never gave up looking for biographical information concerning Rall, I soon realized that I would have to rely almost entirely on general information concerning his period and native land for behavior and life style. By selecting appropriate facts, I was able to construct a reasonably accurate and detailed personal history of a man who might have been Rall. This was the basis of my character research.

Imagination: While I was doing background research for a factual basis to my character work, I was simultaneously doing my own acting homework on the role. Though this started as soon as I got my script, it was altered and refined as rehearsals progressed. Unlike historical fact, imaginative homework of an actor is often fleeting, transitory, and ephemeral until put into practice, so it took me nearly the entire rehearsal period to find the tools I needed.

As rehearsals progressed, when necessary I set about finding or identifying substitutes for characters with whom I came into contact, particularly Sherry; my soldiers Homburg, Schwabe, and Vaupel; Brock; and Honeyman. Of these, the most difficult to find was Sherry. Fortunately, I knew the actress and had worked with her previously in similar relationships. Eventually, I used a basic substitution of an old college “flame” and added a number of endowments to adjust the relationship.

As for the men under my command, I merely had to reach into my own military background to find similar relationships. Even General Howe had his counterpart in my army days. Brock and Honeyman, however, were special cases, but not impossible. Having been stationed in Berlin, I had functioned as an officer of an occupying force and many of the Germans still regarded us with deference in the manner of Brock. A little judicious enhancing of several of these older Berliners made up my substitution for Brock. And Honeyman was, after all, a Tory agent (according to the British) and a source of intelligence about the enemy. This was not far removed from my own work in Berlin: as an intelligence officer, I came into frequent contact with such sources--people who travelled back and forth into East Germany.

As for my own role, I drew heavily on my army background. In many ways, my Colonel Rall was me in an army uniform. It was, with minor adjustments for specific character differences, a role I had played in life for more than four years. (When I decided to leave the army and go to acting school, several colleagues remarked at the apparent disparity between my current situation and my future one. “No,” I recall saying to them, “it’s not so different. I’ve been playing the part of an army officer for the past five years.”) To this I added my knowledge of Germany, where I’d lived previously as a teenager also, and the behavior patterns of the German people and my own experiences as a foreigner in a country unfamiliar to me, cut off by an ocean and 3,000 miles of distance from my home and family. (Berlin, because of the Wall, intensified this feeling of isolation and separation. See my earlier post on “The Berlin Wall,” 29 November.) Though I have never been in actual combat or even served in a combat area, I had gone through some very vivid field training exercises (every one in the dead of winter) that served as referent for the war’s ever-presence. (Service in Cold War Berlin, because of the city’s location and the political circumstances, generated a mindset of constant edginess and wariness since the military stance was always that we were on the brink of hostilities.)

As for my main character action, the guiding principle of my life, I chose “To gain glory.” Since my situation, as I phrased it, was that I was “shackled to a stalled locomotive,” my metaphor for my stalled career, my character action became “To ‘jump-start’ the locomotive.” Having decided on my situation and character action, I then related the latter to each of the characters with whom I came into contact. In each case, I found that I was able to relate to them in terms suggested by my overall action. For instance, with respect to Sherry, my action became “To impress her with my past glories”; with respect to my men, it became “To make them surrogates for my dreams of glory” by drills, parades, and inspections. To have a complete picture, I included Washington, with whom I played in only one scene, but to whom I referred several times, and General Howe, who wasn’t a character on stage, but who was always present in my mind. This choice of action went along with several other character details I determined while doing my homework.

Miscellany: Because of the intracacies of the character’s physical life, I realized immediately that I would need a rehearsal costume with which to work. From my own wardrobe and with the assistance of the costume designer, I put together a semblance of an 18th-century suit of clothes. (The uniform was not too different from a suit.) I also had at home a saber which I began to wear immediatley so as to accustom myself to its problems. As a result of this effort, I found additional behavior, some dictated by the clothes (I had to do something with the hat and gloves) and some suggested by it. In the final analysis, this work made the transfer to the actual costume an easy transition.

Certain problems also suggested themselves with regard to the make-up of my Colonel Rall. Physically, he and I were very dissimilar: he was tall and athletic, I’m neither; he was in his early 50’s, I looked about 25 (I was actually almost 30). I couldn’t find a portrait of the man, but, fortunately, no one else was likely to know what Colonel Rall looked like either, so I was safe to imagine. Additionally, the nature of the production was such that heavy make-up would “read” badly, so I was limited in what I could do to suggest age and condition of health. I made certain decisions regarding the character and, with the help of the costume designer again, designed the make-up for my Colonel Rall. Basically, taking the fact that he was an athletic, vigorous career soldier, I decided that he didn’t “look” 50, but more an undefined “middle-age”--robust, even ruddy (as southern Germans tend to be). Of course, the white powdered wig would suggest age, so my design could take into account the need for little make-up. (In a make-up course I’d taken some time before, I’d learned an age make-up technique that focused on the eyes and deepening existing creases and hollows with shading. It’s excellent for working close to an audience.) The result was a subtle aging of my own features, avoiding the use of heavy lines.

Development: As I’ve stated, my original intuitive decisions about Colonel Rall remained the basis for my work on the role throughout the production. Needless to say, however, subtle changes took place over the seven weeks of rehearsal and performance. Working with the director’s wife and assistant, who served as acting coach, and Carol Rosenfeld-Massee, my acting teacher who was also a member of the Devil cast, I added many “wrinkles” to Colonel Rall’s character. Though I remained stiff and formal in most situations, I found a very particular sense of humor. The man wasn’t without charm and appeal, for all his bluster and blow, and in the scenes with Sherry, I began to soften and “humanize.” (Another acting teacher used to paraphrase Laurence Olivier: “Humor makes more human.”) I took great pleasure in my “jokes” on the men and in seeing my soldiers take command in the tavern. In military matters, I remained utterly humorless--especially when things didn’t go my way (General Howe’s orders to defend Trenton, for instance), but I found a humor, very peculiar to Rall, in most other situations (Homburg’s jumping in the Delaware; his breaking up the furniture; Honeyman’s appearance after his re-entrance to the tavern; Schwabe’s superstition about the effigy of Washington that didn’t burn).

One aspect that particularly changed was my attitude toward Sherry at our meeting in the so-called “contract scene” near the end of the first act. The work on that scene did a great deal to further “humanize” the character. Instead of cock-sure and controlled, as I began playing the scene, I became insecure and unsure. Sherry was no longer someone to be taken for granted, and our scenes together grew more playful. (This was made easier, of course, since I’d known this actress for over a year by this time.)

As all these elements accumulated and added to the aspects of the character retained from my first impressions, I began to feel that I was truly heightening my identification with the man who had allowed the untrained Continental Army to gain its first important victory. I soon felt I was creating a real man, and I understood him. In contrast to my experience the previous spring with another character, from whom I’d felt separated, I’d gotten inside Rall.

[Part 2 of the account of my work process on the role of Colonel Rall continues with “The Production” and includes our attempt to revive the show several months after it closed. Return in a few days to read how the effort turned out.]