Saturday, April 17, 2010

Five, apparently, is better than nine.

Some years back, as I recall, a theatre in Texas tried to do Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with a bunch of drag queens.  Edward Albee stepped in and pulled the rights to his play.  They tried to do the play as "camp."  Albee would have none of it.  He issued a single statement.  "It's not the play I wrote."  Nuff said.

I feel certain if William Shakespeare were alive today he'd have a few things to say about the liberties taken with his work over the past five centuries.

I have always been a bit amused when I hear of actors dropping out of projects because of "artistic differences."  Not so much today.

I have, I'm sorry to report, seen my play Praying Small mauled over the past few years by theaters.  I wrote the piece as simplicity itself; no set, blank stage, minimal costuming, minimal props, just a lot of sound and music on the technical end of things.  The play can be done with as few as four actors or as many as fourteen.  I even have a PG version for community theaters.

Which reminds me.  I once (in fact, just last year) had a conversation with a director doing one of my plays (not Praying Small) that went like this:

Director:  You have written nine "cunts" in this play.

Clif:  Really?  Nine of them?

Director:  Yes, nine.  We counted them.

Clif:  You counted them?

Director:  Yes, we did.  That's too many.  Our audience won't accept that many cunts.

Clif:  They won't?

Director:  No.  You need to cut four cunts.

Clif:  That would leave me with five cunts.

Director:  That's right.

Clif:  And your audience will be okay with just the five cunts?

Director:  Yes.  I think we can get away with five cunts.  But nine?  I don't think so.

Clif:  I see.

Swear to God.  Verbatim.

Anyway, artistic differences.  It happens.  Sometimes it's a deal-breaker.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes it can be worked through.

There is a story about Brando that I love.  It appears when he did the movie Superman (he kept turning it down but finally he was offered so much money to play Jor-El, Superman's father, he accepted) he had it put in his contract that he could play the role any way he saw fit. In other words, he couldn't be directed.  Hey, he was Brando.  The studio (Paramount) wanted him so badly they agreed to the clause.  On the day he was to do his first scene, the studio sent a car to his house to pick him up and bring him to the lot.  Brando's maid greeted the studio car with a green, samsonite suitcase.  She put it in the backseat and told the driver to take it to the set.  No Brando.  A little later, upon receiving the suitcase, the director called Brando to ask him what in the Sam-Hell was going on.  Brando told him since no one had ever seen an alien from another planet no one knew what one looked like.  Brando thought they might look like green, samsonite suitcases.  He said, "just shoot the suitcase whenever I'm in the scene and I'll do the voice over later."  Eventually it took another million dollars to get Brando himself in the car.

Artistic differences.

Moriarty told me he once worked with a director so bad he had to shut his eyes whenever the director would give him a note.  Apparently, the director felt the need to "act out" what he wanted Michael to do.  Michael said he was so bad an actor, he had to shut his eyes to keep from being influenced by the terrible acting.

Elaine Stritch once told me she was working with a director back in the fifties that told her to "drop the last word of every sentence."  He thought that was what the character would do.  She said, "But the playwright WROTE the last word in every sentence."  The director said he didn't care what the playwright wrote.  She said, "In that case I'm going to drop the last performance I do every week."  The text stayed the same.

I fully understand the explosive forces of collaboration.  I really do.  And more often than not it's a good thing.  Two artists trying to make something the best it can be.  It can sometimes be an anguished process, but it's necessary.  I think this is why Woody Allen writes and directs his own stuff.  He can't bear to turn it over to someone who doesn't "get" it.

As I've mentioned before in this blog, gentle readers, I think most of the directors I've worked with over the years, maybe as many as seventy or eighty, are charlatans.  I can count the good ones on one hand; Jeff Wood, Ernie Zulia, Bill Gregg, Patrick O'Neil, maybe a couple of others.  It's a tough job, directing is.  Personally, I'm only a serviceable director.  I can do it, yeah.  But I feel the same way my buddy, John Bader, feels.  When I asked him recently to direct a piece of mine, he said, "No, sorry.  Yeah, I could do it.  And I'd probably be pretty good at it (he would have been).  But you know, Clif, I just don't ENJOY it."

I don't like authority figures.  In fact, I've spent my entire life disliking authority figures.  Cops, bosses, dads, directors, girlfriends (I'm smiling right now at that sentence, just so you know).  So part of it is me.  My issues, not theirs.  The production of one of my plays is a microcosm of my life.  I want to be in charge of everything - the words, the casting, the rehearsals, the design, the costumes, the lights, the blocking, the marketing, the music, the sound, the props, the opening night party and the reviews.  That's my perfect world.  Now, as any friend of Bill's might guess, that's not how life works.  Be nice if it did.  It is a personal failing of mine that I am loathe to admit.

I remember working with a director in Chicago years ago.  This guy had a shelf full of Jeff Awards (that's the Chicago "Tony").  We're in rehearsal one day for a musical I was doing there called Carousel.  After a rehearsed scene one day he stops and stares off into the distance.  A few moments pass.  Finally he says, "I just had a great idea.  But no, let's stick with what we have."  No one else seemed to think that utterance was as ludicrous as I did.

Another time, doing a play I've spoken about before that I simply despised, A Servant of Two Masters, the director said at the opening read-thru, "Now remember, the script itself is not very funny (an understatement, to be sure), so we'll be doing lots of ad-libbing throughout to spruce it up."  On opening night not a single soul, apart from myself, did any ad-libbing.  It was disastrous.

Ever seen Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet?  Note the opening credits.  "Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor."  Oh, how Willie the Shakes must have groaned in his grave at that one.  And I'd really like to meet Sam Taylor.

Artistic differences.  Sometimes you just gotta swallow your pride and take the five cunts.


See you tomorrow.