How would you describe Gesundheit Institute?
Gesundheit Institute is about free medicine and medicine as a joyful celebration. I decided I’d make a hospital for social change, that didn’t charge money, to refuse malpractice insurance.
As a doctor I would go and visit the homes of my patients. We had a large big house where patients could come, but no one gave us donations, so after twelve years I owed a great deal of money. I realized what sells in the United States is fame so I realized I had to become famous. We had refused publicity, as soon as I became a public figure.
For the past thirty-two years I have traveled to eighty-one countries making speeches. I’ve done over a hundred and fifty clown trips, I’ve done them during wars, countless disasters. Over twenty-three years, I have visited over six hundred orphanages, going to Russia, to Nepal. I want us to live in a world of compassion and generosity.
I’ve done eleven speeches in a day and because of my speaking fees I’ve been able to create Gesundheit! Institute, a free, full-scale hospital and health care community on over three hundred acres in West Virginia. I’m creating a library of over fifteen thousand films and forty thousand books, every single one I’ve individually chosen.
I read Dickens; he understood people. I loved reading about the nineteenth century, the world of Dostoevsky. I have never used a computer. I write over four hundred letters a month to friends in a hundred and thirty countries. I want those who come to read.
What remains to you some of our biggest challenges as a human race?
I don’t see a single school teaching one of our most important things in life which is loving one another. Loving is the most important thing in life. The smartest thing is to teach love as an intelligence from first grade through the twelfth grade. We would be a different people I would triple teacher’s salary, and make no tests.
I want us to live in a world of compassion and generosity. I’ve done over a hundred and fifty clown trips, during wars, countless disasters. Over twenty-three years, I have visited over six hundred orphanages, going to Russia, to Nepal. Today 30,000 children will die of starvation. But I don’t want us to focus on the pain of this, I want us to ask: How can it change?”
I’ve done so many interviews and no more than three percent love themselves. Let’s go and help the people next door. The only hope for human survival is through a loving change, with values of generosity.
What makes audiences keep coming back to the theatre?
Great playwrights. If they’re really great, you have to listen to them, to what they say. If those who come have the ears to hear what’s being shared.
While some people come to be entertained and they have a good time, other people come with a focus, an attentiveness. If they really receive what theatre artists are offering, not only the playwright, but all the people that have contributed to what’s before them, a transference of message of the play will occur.
How do you stay open each day?
When I start the day I make sure the first words I say are: “I thank you.” I’m thankful before I get out of bed. I just look at the incredible beauty of création around me.
Right now I’m up in the Hudson, it’s flowering with such splendor – magnolias the parsippanies, hibiscus, and tulips. They’re so gorgeous up here…the light on the river. For me, it’s staying connected to nature. It keeps me aware of the great blessing of living life.
I believe we’re all made out of the same stuff. It’s the “God stuff” some people are aware of and some aren’t. When people are in a difficult situation, that’s when they’re usually more aware of it.
Is there a way to develop one’s appreciation or taste for art?
I think Harold Clurman had it in a nutshell when he wrote in a commentary about the theater: If it touched people, it was a good play.
It’s very relative, isn’t it? They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some may see it in a Rothko or a Picasso which are entirely different from a Botticelli or a Michelangelo due to style, color and tone and content. A person can be affected by the skill level or the emotion it conjures up and it gives tremendous meaning to the viewer.
When I see a strong painting by John Singer Sargent, I react in a great way to the various colors, the values, and the color temperature in the painting, how he achieved what he did.
In terms of a particular painting of mine: there was a painting I was commissioned to do. Although it never got any recognition, and it’s just a young girl about twenty years of age with long blonde hair. She didn’t really get dressed up. But in my mind it’s one of the best paintings I ever did. No one would know that. It’s because it just flowed, every brushstroke was purposeful and the paint went on the way I intended, and the end result was a real fresh final affect; it was all very direct brushstrokes.
The way I had painted – alla prima – “all at once.” You make the brushstroke and leave it there. You know why it’s there and you know the reason you made it.
I can think of paintings with tremendous brush work: works by Goya, Velázquez, John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase. I’m amazed by all of these artists who invested a lifetime in their art form. If anyone is able to invest a lifetime of pursuing an art form in a serious nature, not just for fame, can create something great, whether it’s a dance or a piece of music or a piece of art or a performance or a play for the theater – it’s about the process – that’s what makes it great.
Creation takes a lot of willpower and can drive you crazy. You can get knocked down time and time again so it requires a great deal of stamina. You have to be willing to really work hard to build a foundation or a career, and then when you do have a career, what it takes to keep it going.
What makes art important in your life and in the life we live on this planet?
In my case, it’s always been a good friend, a child, a companion and a partner. I think an artist is born with a need, a quest for beauty – be it a poet, a writer, an actor, a musician, a painter, all the artistic disciplines – in pursuing an art form, it helps us ride above the normal circumstances of the day.
We have a constant quest for beauty and understanding achievement – and a God-given opportunity – if we can take advantage of it throughout our lives. It gives us a sense of worth; and it does take a lifetime. You don’t just acquire it getting up one day and acquire skill and produce a great work of art. Creation takes a lot of willpower.
To an artist it is life. It’s how we live. Our art forms become our life. It’s you said you hadn’t been acting for a while, I’ve been busy with other things I haven’t painted in a short while, it feels unnatural. But like I said, we get to a point where we have a lot of work behind us, and we’re at a level which allows one to either to teach, or share what we’ve been given – or venture into a new level of performance and expression.
In your Talks, “Heroes of History: Legacy of My Chinese Family,” you tell about the three generations of your mother's family and their extraordinary contributions to Chinese history. When did you first learn about your illustrious family history, and how do you feel it’s contributed to your creativity as an artist?
The Chinese are taught to be humble so no one at home ever mentioned ‘the Tan family.’ My first awareness of my maternal family’s status was when I was six when we moved to Taipei, Taiwan.
My uncle, Chen Cheng who was married to my mother’s sister, was Vice President to President Chiang Kai-shek. During one official parade, our family was invited to be on the reviewing stand with the President and Vice President at the immense Presidential Building complex. I was lifted up by my father to see the tens of thousands of people gathered below. Sitting on Madame Chang Kai-shek’s lap and picking a dessert was another favorite childhood memory.
My great grandfather, Tan Zhong-Lin was Governor General of seven provinces under three emperors and one empress in the Ching dynasty. My grandfather, Tan Yen-Kai, supported Sun Yat-Sen who overthrew the Emperors’ regime.
After Sun’s early death, my grandfather became the first Premier of the first Republic of China. He was a great man who was ahead of his time. At a time when few women in China were educated at all, he sent his daughter (my mother, Tann Yuin) to Cambridge University in the UK for college.
A number of the members of the Tan family were also noted calligraphers. I’ve felt a responsibility to follow in my forbearers footsteps and to use my talents as fully as possible.
How do you keep yourself growing as an artist, keeping yourself connected to your heart and spirit?
I’m lucky to live in New York City so I can go to as many concerts, operas, shows, plays, museums, lectures, and interesting events as I can. I’m never not working on a project - and I usually have 2 or 3 in the works at once.
I think it’s also crucial that I’m not afraid of failing. I’m always willing to attempt something new. So what if I am not good at it! That’s okay. At least I tried it. What’s not okay is to regret never having given it a try.
What makes the arts so vital for our lives?
People need to eat, to buy clothing, have a bed and a roof over their heads. Every organism needs shelter, food and water. So we can’t avoid the necessities of life, which requires buying and selling. But we’re more than an organism. We’re human.
So how do we define what makes our humanity? Through the expression of our arts, our games and play. We have our scientific curiosities, we love to play, we have our games of competition, we’ve learned how to survive. The artist expresses the wonder of being a human being.
I think we live in a culture where greed has become fashionable. The different mediums and certain celebrities express this greed, and yet… There is something “dark” about this. The accumulation of more goods, leading up to the paying of water and air rights. I believe it’s become something terribly destructive to what we call “humanity.” It’s affected our nature, our lives, and it’s almost uncontrollable.
I try and spend all my time with people who give me joy. I try and read things with nobility. I invent theatre games and see if I can make them happen. Yes, I have to pay bills but I try and put my energy into the art. Every artist should.
Since an early age there was nothing as exciting as getting up in the morning, having no idea what the day would bring, but what was thrilling, was to come in and then to be involved in art all day!
Every single day we write a new chapter in our lives. Every day we make plans, we get up, we create every single moment, and every moment brings exciting, thrilling moments. They all make us who we are.
What I find incredible is what an adventure life is. Even if we’re tired and we rest – what dreams will visit me tonight? Will the night bring me the most amazing visions? Who knows? Every single moment for me is thrilling, but I don’t think about it. I just do it!
You started out dancing at an early age. How important is it do you think for children to be given the opportunity to express themselves through dance?
I think it’s extremely important. I think it focuses them in expressing themselves creatively, by putting certain demands, a discipline in regards to shape and structure, and it’s also very liberating, very freeing, and how you use that freedom creatively in dance. I was trained in ballet, which was extremely disciplined. I think it helped me not only for my work but for everything in my life. It’s given me a certain self-assurance in everything.
Where do you find your inspiration in life to renew yourself?
Inspiration comes at my age from my life experiences, the teachers I’ve had, the people I work with – all of those inspire me. I have absorbed so much; I still do.
When I did The Visit with John Doyle, I came to the studio when he would be directing the scenes. He asked me: “What I was doing?” I told him: “It’s an opportunity to learn.” To work with such a brilliant director, it was the best school, and it never stops inspiring me.
I do have to say it’s a busy hectic life, with so many people talking at the same time, the pressure and the stress. When I finish something I run to the country. I seek a total communication with nature. I’m an avid gardener; I enjoy it the most.
In both the theater when I am creating, and in gardening there is a result that comes, but it is different when I come to my garden.
Yes, both are inspiring, but when I plant in my garden, there comes that moment when nature takes over and... its ten times better than I could have done. I’m always happiest when the first flower come – there’s such a world of beauty – the colors, the complexities, and the smell too. I love it!
I think of what e e cummings, the poet, wrote: “…faces called flowers float out of the ground.” I love it, I love that line by him so!
We all hope what we do will come from the heart, for love and all those things. The artist tries to make other people see what he sees. Although if he tries to impose it upon his audience, it’s a mistake.
He should put it out there, and it’s up to the audience to take it. That’s a danger always facing the artist.
And what can help the artist in dealing with that?
Yourself. By being a considerate person, keeping society in mind, with an understanding of the wealth of the artistic material that society doesn’t have and would like to have. It takes a generous, giving person.
Should one keep studying?
There’s two ways to look at it. Yes, you can. But to just keep on studying is also kind of limiting. Sooner or later, you’ve got to take it on an inward journey.
Do you keep learning something new every day?
We, as thinking people, never stop learning. I will be 92 my next birthday. I couldn’t possibly stop learning new things every day.
What interests you the most each day?
Form and function – it’s our relationship to practically every living being. I don’t know what a cat feels. When it leaps, when it plays with a ball of yarn. It’s serving a need for the cat. It’s gets to be quite fascinating, the intricate activity.
Do you think this country is growing up?
The kinds of things we emulate, our icon figures, what we’re producing, not just from the artist, but as a people, makes me think not. We’re not advancing as we could be. Technology is the only aspect of modern life that has lived up to a necessity and it seems it never stops. It’s terrifying in many ways. Perhaps the computers will outgrow us, and we’ll withdraw completely. But then you’re not in the stream of life.
So we should remain optimistic as we enter this new millennium?
Even if one’s spirit is down, or you become disappointed, there is inherent in the expression of people, an unquenchable fire, a realization. The happiest artist is he who could always do better.
Was there any kind of a similarity working on the screenplays of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men?”
Well, I liked doing Mockingbird very much, I’m very devoted to Harper Lee. When I worked on it, it was a world I knew. It was about a very special society with very rigid taboos. Of Mice and Men was more free-ranging, although it did have a black man who was discriminated against.
I’ve learned through the years if I’m going to adapt, whether it’s Faulkner or whomever, to pay attention to the structure and the intent of the author. I began as an actor, and I learned to have enormous respect for the written word, to learn what the author was going for. I have enormous respect for the theatre.
I studied acting with Vera Soloviova and Andrius Jilinsky, two former members of the First Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre, and with Tamara Daykarhonova. The theatre’s not a place of self-aggrandizement. It’s a place to encourage group activity.
What is it that sustains the life of a theatre in a culture?
The need to grasp the goings-on beneath the surface of life. There have been many inroads by technology into the theatre, but doesn’t the real power of theatre remain great story-telling? Not exactly that alone. It’s the revelation of the mysterious complexity in the human soul, which is fathomless. It also has the means to take the kinks out of the human psyche.
What makes Tennessee Williams’ plays so vital for us to do?
He wrote for the actor. To play these roles gives you the opportunity to show your wares. His plays are poetic, they touch you, they’re emotional. And to act in his stuff, you don’t really need to work so hard if you’re in command of your craft.
I’ve always believed in surrounding yourself with as many good actors as possible, and to work on the best material I could find. Working with good actors and good material can only draw the best out of you.
You then went on to do Michael Gazzo’s “A Hatful of Rain” on Broadway, and then you worked with Elia Kazan on “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
I was a brave kid. I had made a deal to be let out of my contract after six months because I had promised my friend, Michael, that I‘d be in his play. Kazan could have very well have said no and not waited.
These were powerfully emotional roles, and do them night after night, how did you keep it fresh?
When you’re young the sky’s the limit, especially if you’re shy. I was a shy kid. Through acting I could show things I had always kept secret.
How did you begin to create Erie Smith in “Hughie”?
I went searching for the man. I finally clued into the loneliness of the guy. I found his bravery, the “prince within him,” his need to spin one yarn after another in order to keep his pipedreams alive. That touched me deeply. I went to work on him. I had had my years of drinking and carousing with a lot of losers, so I took something from that. A walk here, something else from there. That helped me find the man.
I’m also proud of my work in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” There were very few people who thought I could play an intellectual. Only Albee did. He had seen me in “Strange Interlude” and called me. There again I worked on his walk. I made it more restrictive. Myself, I walk with a certain amount of pride; you know I’m coming. But George doesn’t want to be seen.
I had no problem with Albee’s language, the dialogue, the relationships. I tried to visualize the character. I saw him walking into the room and saying hello to me. I won’t talk about the interior, that’s private.
Plato talked about the masks human beings, as well as actors, wear. He wrote: “The mask which an actor wears is apt to become his face.” We see how your characters wear certain masks at times to get what they need, from Tootsie to Sly Fox.
I worked with Plato – both of them. The guy back then, and the one my grandchildren and I make funny shapes out of the stuff. I think we slip ‘masks’ on with ease.
Kenneth Tynan had a wonderful description about acting. He said something like: all great acting roles require the actors to pretend to be someone they are not.
With Tootsie, and with every role an actor does, it’s a ‘double pretense.’ The actor is pretending to be someone other than himself just as the character he portrays is likewise pretending to be someone else. The same sort of thing happens with the writer, who, as he writes, is pretending to be the actor, who is pretending to be the character (who is, etc., etc).
Writing is a mask.; we pretend with every line we assign an actor to emote. It’s ‘puppetry’ in a way. Only the actor is not the writer's dummy. The actor is his partner – his partner in pretense.
In an early draft of Tootsie, I wrote a speech that didn't make it to the final screenplay, in which a youngster, waiting at a stage door asks the anonymous-looking Michael Dorsey, “Are you anybody?” Michael, unrecognizable (not wearing the drag which brought him a measure of fame), gives the following answer: “Am I anybody? Me? Are you kidding? l've been a Prince of Denmark! I’ve been Cyrano! I've been Willie Loman! I've been Romeo. Hell, l've been Juliet, too! Am I anybody! I'm everybody! I'm an actor, man!”
As writers, we ‘hear’ our characters and then we write the dialogue. Then once it’s down, it has to be read aloud again, this time by actors, and then it’s got to be transmitted to an audience, and hopefully they’ll receive what we originally heard.
Yes, there is that interesting ‘phenomenon’ – reading and hearing at the same time. I often regret there isn’t a writing system for the written word that matches what the composer has, at his or her disposal, to accent a note, to indicate with italics what it is we exactly want.
When I write, I am hearing it a specific way, and then when I’m reading what I wrote, I’m also hearing it a specific way. It can be very frustrating if you end up working with people who don’t have the same idea of what you meant.
Now, I have had actors, to name just a few, like Alan Alda and George C. Scott, with whom I shared the same ‘ear.’ They were astonishing. They didn’t need a single stage direction. They got it!
A lot of the comedy on “Frazier,” one could say, goes all the way back to commedia dell’Arte, the subtle work of Buster Keaton and slapstick routines of the Marx Brothers. What did you learn the most about the art of comedy?
The chief thing is you have to earn the laugh. That it’s rooted in something indefinable but real to the audience. They’re connecting to it through some emotional underpinning and once that happens, you can go anywhere.
When you watch Charles Chaplin, you feel such great pathos. His creations always earned it. It wasn’t just something that was added on to it. It was part of the art. That’s where Frazier always ended up, with his deep-needed love. And it was never not funny, it just got better and better to keep him frustrated and searching for love.
Where do you find your greatest inspirations in life from?
In all kind of places. My greatest inspiration is from being with the children in my life. Life itself intensifies when it’s connected with a respect for life, and I see such joy in the eyes of my children. It’s the same child-like quality you have to bring to the work you do.
When did you think about being a director?
I’ll tell you something Harold Clurman said about me years ago: “Andre Gregory is like me. He’ll go anywhere in the world to see great theatre, he’ll go to Europe, he’ll go anywhere. He’s like the Mexican pilgrims who go on their bleeding knees, crawling up steps, to worship at the altar of theatre.” And it’s true, I’ll go anywhere.
As a young man I searched out Grotowski in Poland, Brecht in Berlin, and Planchon in France. Clurman also said after Alice in Wonderland had opened, and all these critics were using the word, “genius,” in their description of the work I did. Harold said: “When one uses the word “genius,” I would like to think of that word as describing Michelangelo or the genius of Beethoven. Why do you have to go and destroy a talented young man by calling him a genius!” When I terrifyingly, delicately, with great awe, thought of being a director, I actually thought the best preparation would be like being “a captain of a ship,” by knowing everything about every part of a ship.
So I studied acting with Meisner, Strasberg, Grotowski, movement with Graham. I read everything I could get my hands on related to the history of the theatre. I also stage-managed Broadway musicals (which I was terrible at). I then produced the original production of The Blacks, which ran for over 3 years, and an outgrowth of it was the creation of the Negro Ensemble Company.
When Grotowski talked about the work of the actor. He said: “An atmosphere must be created, a working system in which the actor feels that he can do absolutely anything. It is often at the moment when the actor understands this that he reveals himself.”
What do you wish to be revealed?
I’m seeking, waiting, with great enthusiasm, year after year to see what will be revealed, what will appear, with great patience I expect the unexpected.
When you direct a play in the commercial theatre, you have four to six weeks, and your task in that small period of time is to decide before you go into rehearsal what you want to say and then in rehearsal to find out the most articulate way to say it. My rehearsal process is about waiting. It’s about unmasking, self-revelation, stripping away layer upon layer away in an attempt to get closer to the essence.
And what is that essence?
That’s hard to answer. It’s artistically about simplicity, about the actor. It’s about having courage, to be as deeply revealing as the author. It’s about clarity, about taking the time to make each moment an illumination, a crystal. If you’re working with a group of actors who are spiritually seeking themselves through their work, it’s a wondrous thing. You might say we’re doing a form of research on ourselves. We come to our work every day, not unlike the way the monks go to their devotions every day.
Take, for example, a play like Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” It’s a play in which Ibsen has gone to some very deep places within himself to reveal himself. The actor has to be given the same time to be able to find those places, to access all those different things inside himself or herself, relating to the needs of the role. You never know what actors will find.
What Wally (Wallace Shawn) did in Vanya reminded me a lot of the Howard Beal character in the film, “Network.” Wally was this little man “on the fire escape, screaming “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And he had to find that rage within himself in order to play it.
What do you do when you don’t know how to continue?
You wait. We each have a thousand selves. I come up against “walls” of all kinds – psychological, spiritual, physical. In relationship in the process of psychotherapy, we often don’t know how to continue but we must. It’s a question of time. To take the time and have faith.
Did you see the documentary about breaking the sound barrier? The first jets that tried kept exploding. And what happened when they came so close? The plane would start shaking violently, and the pilots would slow down. But the pilot who had the impulse to go faster when the shaking began, he broke the barrier. It’s a natural impulse, a natural resistance to put the brakes on when you come in contact the unknown.
Einstein talked about the three “B’s.” His version of the three “R’s.” (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) He said “You have to work and work and work and suddenly you’re in bed, in the bath, or at the beach and it reveals itself.”
Someone asked Grotowski: “What is it you love so much that you have to keep going into the unknown? You keep talking about the need to go into the unknown.” He answered: “Did I ever say I loved it?”
It’s natural to be afraid. My rehearsals are noted for a lot of laughter. Every time I see the truth in an actor, I roar with laughter. My laughter is a form of support and an encouragement to dare the actors to go a little further, to be fully present, completely simple. I never judge the actor. I encourage the actor not to judge himself.
You’ve also worked a lot in film, including your mesmerizing performance in “Cabaret” with Liza Minnelli, as well as your wonderful work in television. How did you first decide how to deal with acting in front of a camera?
I learned it by trial and error. You think you know what to do and it turns into what “it” wants. And then the director comes along and he or she tells you “to go for more here,” or you can “do a lot less.” And you find yourself giving what the medium demands.
Among your many successes on Broadway included “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “George M!” – and you also originated the role of The Wizard in the popular musical, “Wicked.” It was a joy to see the audiences responded to your work in such a big way as The Wizard.
Isn’t it why we do what we do? To give them a meaningful experience, or to say something – to give joy away, especially in the times we’re living through.
What drew you to want to play Colonel Miles Quaritch in the “Avatar.”
Ah, Colonel Quaritch! The world of Pandora, the scope of Avatar – what actor would not want to go there? The fluidity of that world, the spirituality, the wondrous beauty – and this is all lost on Quaritch. He doesn't get it. And that is incredibly interesting. His tension and conflict with the planet itself is tremendously dramatic. There is a journey, in every sense, for that character to take. It's going to be very exciting and demanding.
How would describe how you transform yourself into a character you play and the affect it has on your own growth?
I love being other people, to enter into them completely. The questions: How do I enter a character? Do I need red or blue, which color? That’s how I began to work on “Beyond Glory” at The Actors Studio. I have a maxim: “No rules beyond and above examination.” It’s a guiding principle for me. I have no fear opening up the world of possibilities that exist.
I think about what Daniel Boone said once: “Just because I don’t know where I am doesn’t mean I’m lost.” The older I get, the whole phenomenon of “becoming” becomes all the more important for me. It’s the only way I know to go about it.
T.S. Eliot defined poetry, and I may be paraphrasing, as a "state of complete and utter simplicity, costing not less than everything". I like to believe that my own direction and growth as an actor, and as a human is embodied in those words.
Simplicity and honesty achieved through hard fought improvisation and imagination. Rocky roads, tangled paths, dead ends, blind alleys, to be explored, which will finally bring me to tranquil fields and shores of clarity and understanding. Or something like that.
Your film, “Ritual Clowns” is part-collage, part-animation, and part-documentary, relating the Hopi cosmology of the Hopi nation. What were your motivating reasons for creating this film?
I see young people who can mimic and speak the words addressing the forces, but until you have the years necessary to establish the relationship with what you’re saying, the words don’t bring up the meaning that they hold. There may be a rare person whose words can connect but I think it’s a matter of time and experience. You can’t mimic the significance, the import.
We had originally only allowed those who were forty-five years or older and were really dependent on age and experience to participate in the rituals. We tended to select people for these ceremonies who we felt were responsible.
But now I think we need to work to involve young people earlier, to give them responsibilities early. They will make mistakes but hope that will contribute to their maturation. So I’m working with younger people, and I believe in giving them more responsibility.
As you walk the spiritual road of your ancestors, what are you learning about the importance of ritual in your life?
I guess… that you have it walk it alone. No one can walk it for you. And at the very least, to know why I am here, and with my limited ability to support others with what’s going on in the village. To know I have to be aware of the times when things are supposed to happen more and more.
This is also a period when we’ve been getting together with international indigenous timekeepers; we’re very conscious of a cycle, which began in 2013; It is necessary to be conscious of why we are on this earth, and how we go forward. In that regard, as a group of indigenous timekeepers from various countries, we made a decision in Hotevilla in 2013 to involve young people in experiencing the planets and their movements. To give them an idea of our natural world. We feel we have to be very conscious, to make a strong effort at this time, because to make a difference is up to each one of us.
Your remarkable “A Celebration Service” took place inside St. Mark’s Church on a site where worship has taken place for over 300 years and no doubt even longer. Has spirituality always played a role in your creative process?
I’ve always felt that live music and performance can be an antidote to the speed and information bombardment that we live with day after day. Live performance can offer a time and space to slow down, let go of habitual patterns of thought for a short time and be connected to the wonder and magic that is always there if we pay attention. The original idea of art was literally worshipping and negotiating with nature, and acknowledging the ineffable.
When I am working on something, I try to start from zero with no assumptions or expectations. I have learned to tolerate the discomfort of hanging out in the unknown but by doing that and taking the time to listen, the work eventually makes itself known.
What do we have today that comes close to that? How do artists fit into people’s lives?
Good art always makes us feel more alive. It also asks questions. There is a lot of fear, distraction and confusion in our world. It seems essential to keep working, sharing insights and discoveries that are life affirming and useful.
Art affirms freedom of the imagination, curiosity and playfulness. We really need that now. I have been very fortunate to live a life doing what I love. This privilege makes me aware of the responsibility of being an artist, of not taking anything for granted.
The voice is the heart of my work and I continue to believe that it is an eloquent, universal language that can bring us closer together.
You definitely encourage your dancers to understand their history, to learn about art, philosophy, religion… How does this ultimately play a role in the way in which they dance?
The dancer dances their consciousness. You dance who you are, there is no escaping that. Your dancing is your understanding. When the understanding is vast, or expanded there is greater depth in the dancing. It is wisdom that we want to behold. The more wisdom, the more light. The more light, the more perceptions and guideance for the viewer.
So many questions we ultimately may never have answers to – yet we must go forward. What gives you your greatest joy in creating new work?
To feel yourself grow is encouraging. To watch the people you work with transform themselves into masters is a joy to witness. Everything that exists is trying to expand itself, to enlarge into non-stop existence. Everything is reaching for omnipresence. Gems, trees, mountains, shooting stars, volcanos, and human beings.
When you look back on your life you want to have a look that shows that you have come a long way, that you went far and discovered much, and are changed. Moving forward into new work, is really working on yourself. It is about self expansion, and when that happens there is a a joyous satisfaction.
You share your knowledge a great deal at workshops, universities, conferences. Why is this important to you and how does it feed you as a writer?
The only reason that I teach is to learn something. I have been fortunate to have good students. Playwriting is problem solving. And, what makes it especially interesting, there is no one right answer.
What role does theatre play in our culture today?
You do what you can. I only know that I have been changed by great plays and great performances in ways that great films – as great as they are – cannot move me. Art is how we discern the truth, and when it comes to truth, every little bit counts.
When “Nine” had a fabulous revival on Broadway with Antonio Banderas and Chita Rivera, did you make changes to the play? Were you involved in the rehearsal process and what did you learn?
I was. The few changes I made were mostly to help with transitions. Maury (Yeston) also made some changes, again, mostly to help with transitions. I loved the production, the entire company, but especially Antonio (Banderas). He was remarkable. He was so much like Raul (Julia), who played it originally, in the original production; both great human beings.
You have to have a Guido you love in some way, and that’s not something you can just “act.” Antonio enabled us to love and care for Guido. It’s a hard show to do well.
You have talked a great deal about not rushing when you write, letting each moment unfold. Do you ever find yourself ever rushing? Are there keys you’ve learned to staying in the moment of the truth of these human beings who are living in your plays?
When is the right time to commit to the writing. It’s a fundamental question, and it’s hard to know, because it’s different from play to play. But I do know – or at least, this is true for me – that if you don’t get it essentially right in the first draft, it’s very possible you might not get it at all.
But when you have done the proper preparation, when can take a very long time, or very little, then it’s fun to write scenes. You let your characters take over. I’m fascinated by the process.
Fortunately, I can sense when what’s written is indulgent and when I’m just treading water until something real happens. When you’re in trouble look to your characters for the answer, they will show you. And if they can’t, then you don’t know them well enough.
Why do you feel the theatre is so important for our culture today?
When I was going to make a speech at the George Street Playhouse recently, a woman got up first and spoke about what the theatre meant to her. She kills herself to raise money for that theatre, now why does she do that?
It’s got to be because the theatre is the only place where you’re really moved by something’s that alive in every sense of the word. That’s what makes it so thrilling. You don’t know what’s going to happen. TV, film, they can’t take the time to examine life in the same way.
How do you feel about your work being revived? Would you like to go back and change something, for example, “West Side Story?”
Well I don’t think it’s perfect the way it is, and if “West Side Story” was done again, I don’t believe it should be thought of as a revival. It should be thought of as a new production, in much the same way we think when we do “The Cherry Orchard.” The whole style could be changed.
But wouldn’t that change your vision?
Having a vision is connected to values that you acquire as a child. I’m glad they come out through one’s writing, and they’ll still come out because of the writing. When I think about it, I believe I have never written anything that didn’t have hope, because I’m innately optimistic. I just look for joy in people.
I think about Beckett, I would have liked to have asked him: “If you thought life was so terrible, why did you want to write so much?”
As a director what do you seek from actors during the rehearsal process?
I like working with very talented young people who had done their homework. That’s what I expect. I’m interested in artists bringing a lot to the process, they are not blank slates. I want to see emotional fearlessness, open to whatever I’ll give them, coupled with actors whose craft is first rate.
As a people, why do we need theater in our lives, as part of our culture?
There’s more need now than ever before for art, for beauty, for tough real questions about what it means to be alive. We really need us more than ever before; this is the moment to be reminded of our humanity.
We have an acting tradition of leading actresses in the American Theatre that stretches back to those like Charlotte Cushman and Minnie Madern Fiske, into the 20th and 21st century with actresses like Laurette Taylor, Stella Adler, Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Rose McClendon, Lynn Fontanne, Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, Uta Hagen, Maureen Stapleton, Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Phylicia Rashad, and Julie Harris, to mention a few. And there are many of your peers whose work today also furthers this tradition. What does it mean to you to be a part of it?
I don’t really put myself in that company. I really think of myself as simply an actress, and more times than not, the one who they’ll say about: “Oh, she’ll do anything.” I suppose what it means to me, is when I watch colleagues of mine, the ones that stand out, I see truth and I think “that’s it!”
I also think of Eva Le Gallienne and Vanessa Redgrave. I would absolutely adore it if our society was able to provide such a thing as a National Theatre. It would be a wonderful and beautiful thing. I do feel such a loss that we don’t have something like that. It’s extremely difficult just to make a living – you can’t really make enough money doing Off-Broadway theatre. Fortunately, I also do voice-overs. And I’m very fortunate to have strong family support, a supportive husband, and a good kid. I take solace in that.
With everything that can happen to you, I think the best thing I ever did was have a child. Because when I go home and see my child, somehow everything else pales in comparison.
I can’t really believe no matter what some people may say, that theatre is eventually going to be an antiquity. I have to believe it will continue because of the love of the experience – of all the people gathering together, and they can feel each other next to them, each other’s breathing, and that anything can happen during this moment, because there are live people in front of you. That’s what’s so incredible. You can’t get that with any other medium. It’s a very exciting feeling. And for me that’s what it is being on stage – it’s so different from night to night. Probably what I love most about acting is empathy. That if everyone could put themselves into each other’s lives, the world would be a better place.
Of course, sculpture has a long lineage stretching back thousands of years to the Greeks and the Egyptians and no doubt even further back to the dawn of man, and whether one is enthralled either by Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ and his ‘David,’ or work by Rodin, Houdon, Elisabet Ney, Jo Davidson or modern sculptors including Louise Nevelson, Alexander Calder, Louise Bourgeois and Isamu Noguchi, sculpture is a great expression coming from an artist’s vision. How was your vision shaped and what are your greatest goals in creating life in a sculpture?
In Hinduism, the embodiment of a god or a person can live in a sculpture, they call it a “Murti,” and this is also practiced in many cultures around the world. I really believe a statue can touch the viewer with its inner spirit. While sculpting, I am always thinking of the person’s spirit, probably more than their personality.
My goal is for the viewer to have an emotional experience of that person. I’m learning all the time not just by studying people but also by studying others that came before me. When I look at a bust by Jo Davidson or Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, I feel moved, especially by Carpeaux, in the way he captured movement and people’s personalities, which is all so inspiring to me.
Overall, I believe our love and passion for a piece of art creates a special bond or communication between us and what we’re viewing. When art moves us, a shift occurs that brings us to a higher plane. I think of all good art as spiritual experiences.
What I do, I do mostly for others, not for myself. My creations are a way of contributing to the world – and to hear people talk about how they’re moved by viewing a sculpture I’ve created – I feel humbled, and ecstatic; that’s the greatest gift of all.
Were you interested in theater at an early age?
I read a lot of plays in high school. I owned a stage when I was young, and I would put on plays. Later on as I got older, I’d work the plays I read out in my head. It’s funny, but I didn’t see any musicals at that time. They weren’t that exciting for me – the lyrics and music didn’t seem to reflect the book.
The only musicals that excited me were “South Pacific,” “Porgy & Bess,” and “Showboat.” There was a lot of other more goofy stuff too that didn’t excite me. Our period today is very similar. It’s like a pendulum that swings. But there is always room for everything.
You see one musical that gets a lot of attention, and then all these other musicals come along, to imitate it, and they’re not up to snuff.
What ultimately fuels a rebirth of creativity in theatre?
What fuels each generation to re-generate the theatre is isolation. The need of isolated, young, lonely people to create some fantasy in to which they can escape. And I find when I talk to or listen to older artists, like actors, conductors, opera singers, the one thing they shared in common, was the need to fantasize. They all seem to have had solitary-ness in their youth.
You directed the production of “Hollywood Arms” on Broadway with a wonderful cast including Linda Lavin, Frank Wood and Michele Pawk.
I did it because I loved the material, the story and the cast we were able to put together. It was exciting to go to work every day. The play is about a family, a very loving family. The portrait can be very funny at times, it can also be very serious and upsetting.
The idea that Carol Burnett could tell this story honestly and still love all these people affected me greatly. She just didn’t paint a pretty picture. My guess is, she knew, instinctively, that if you can still love those around you, under these kinds of circumstances, these incredibly difficult situations, and can manage to share a bond, of laughter and music, you’ll survive. That’s why the show moves the audiences who come to see it.
What inspires you?
Optimism and denial. They go hand in hand. The irreconcilable difference between the two. I don’t want to retire, nor am I ready to retire. I want to maintain the quality of my work for as long as I’m pleased with it. I like to communicate to an audience.
Numerical age is irrelevant. Yet I know people at sixty who just stop, and decide that’s it. I work on Saturdays and Sundays. For me those days are choice days rather than a day of rest or respite.
You had the extraordinary opportunity to work with several fine great directors, among them: Elia Kazan, Tyrone Guthrie, and Theodore Komisarjevsky.
They all the same attitude. Guthrie’s attitude was the theatre is like a three-ring circus, which had a large canvas on which he loved to work. He had an enormous sense of humor. Kazan was a very different fellow. He was wonderful at political drama, and he had his own set of immigrant background that spurred him on. They all very exciting to work with – their great energy; Guthrie had more fun. They had the passion to get to the truth burning in them. None of them were infallible. They admitted their own mistakes, they were self-critical.
When I worked with Komisarjevsky, he had the other view, opposite than Stanislavsky, in his way of working. They all had basically the same passion for the theatre, but just worked at it in their own different way.
You do a great deal of film and television work, but constantly return to the stage. What makes theatre so important for you, and for all of us today?
I put it in my book; I make my case. It’s always been a place to go and hear ideas but today, unfortunately, not enough people want to think. We are unable to understand or appreciate the nuances and humor in language. It’s a tough road for the theatre today.
Eventually, the actor comes back to the theatre because he discovers he needs to experience this kind of work. It’s where the imaginary forces work. And that is what the theatre offers us. Today you have everything spelled out for you in film but you have to work in the theatre as an audience and imagine what you don’t see. That is the magical force. We need it. It will never go away.
And also because the writing is so wonderful. We have the best writers and poets writing for the stage. There is always less dialogue in film.
I go back to the theatre because I love the music of the words and the poetry. And it isn’t always the theatre for me. I adore painting and music, and the beauty of nature. I absolutely adore it. But I’m not pleased with what we’re doing to it as a human species. I still have hope though. There’s an optimism boiling up inside of me. I want to do so much more.
One of your films, “Frankie and Johnny Are Married” was based on your experiences in putting on a theatrical production in Los Angeles of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.
Yes, I wrote, directed, and had the audacity to star myself in the film. The film also starred Lisa Chess, whom I was married to at the time, a fabulous actress, and Alan Rosenberg. We all played fictionalized versions of ourselves. It’s a personal look at two subjects very important to me – marriage and the theatre.
I think it’s both humorous and uplifting about the process of putting on a play, and all the pitfalls, dramas, and disasters that go on in the creative journey.
It’s really a “movie within a movie,” a cross between “My Dinner with André” and “The Larry David Show.” It took over five years to make – a year of planning and then actually doing the production of Terrence McNally’s play, “Frankie and Johnny…” Then a year to write the screenplay, a year to make the film and two years for distribution. I was very pleased how the film turned out; it was my ninth feature film. I can safely say with pride that I felt I got it right.
What would you that means?
‘Getting it right’ has a connotation of when all the elements come together and something happens – a little bit of magic which lifts the experience to another level. You can’t explain what you did. It’s the key to the creative process. When you get it right, it has a feeling like it lives on its own. It’s the confidence to do it, a little bit of madness and a desire to tackle the impossible.
How challenging was it for you directing and acting in the film?
I protected myself as a director with a cameraman I trusted and worked with on many films and by shooting it digitally I was able to look at playback and analyze the work. Acting in the film was hard, but nowhere as terrifying as getting back on stage after thirty years.
Besides the sheer terror, was the concentration of my “instrument,” having not been onstage for thirty years and acting in the play. I felt rusty. I didn’t know if I could stay in character, and I didn’t have the confidence to get rid of stage fright.
But acting with Lisa, who was my wife at the time, made it safer for me, and I got help from having a co-director, Steve Gomer. We had a safe and creative rehearsal process and I felt free to do what I needed to do. It was a wonderful growth process to act again. Everything jelled by the end of the run. I wish I could have played the play many more times. I began to start to fly a little. As I got stronger, I felt less afraid.
The play is truly a dance between two people. You have to stay very present in the acting process, during rehearsal and performance.
What kind of an experience was it directing Richard Pryor in “Some Kind of Hero.’
I had a very large life-changing moment. Richard said every line written in the script, he very rarely improvised a line but he had ability to make the whole thing seem improvised. Only because he was so present and so real. I witnessed his live stand-up act one night, and it was all rehearsed. One night before I saw him do his act, I was privy to watch him work out the smallest detail of his act. He had an extra ability which separated him in the heat of an electric moment.
How does the creative process change for you when you direct?
When I’m directing what changes is that my scope becomes larger. As an actor I’m working with my character whom I’m portraying. As a director, now I’m concerned with an entire production, so I have to hold that vision, and line that up with everything that needs to be done, while making room for all the creative energies in the collaboration, and everything I haven’t yet considered.
We’re faced with great challenges today in our personal lives, in society. What role can the work we do help in the healing process?
I think there’s always been pain in the world. You look back at history, when wasn’t there things like this happening. But we didn’t have as easy access to the information; we couldn’t learn about it so quickly. So now that we can, maybe together we can do something about it.
We should all do what we can, to help in the healing that needs to take place. But the healing can take place in a classroom, it can take place in a grocery store – anywhere that people are conscious of one another – yes, healing can take place.
What was the process like in creating your own show, “Chita & All That Jazz?”
There was a process of shaping and re-shaping it. We were all really excited about working on it. It was in the hands of Terrence McNally. I had wanted him to do it so badly.
Did you have any kinds of fears when you began your career?
Always, oh gosh yes, and they’re still there; they never seem to leave. Each time before I go out on stage is like the first time. You want to get it really right and be able to portray it the way the playwright intended, the way the lyricist, the composer, the choreographer intended – you want to get it right. They have a bigger picture.
And I still keep discovering new things during every performance. Collaboration remains a necessity to create art and life on stage.
Can you describe why it’s so necessary for collaboration to happen?
Because we’re all one piece of a big tapestry. We’re all connected, and it takes time, respect, observation and unity to do that. Working to find the find the right rhythm, and as Cy Coleman wrote: “Rhythm is a powerful beat.” With unity you can get to the goal.
You’re also an enormously caring and giving performer, onstage and off.
It came from my upbringing. My father died when I was very young. My mother was a warm figure. She was an amazing woman, raising five kids. My family’s still all alive and we still see each other at our powwows, and get together and talk. It’s vital. It’s a way of thinking I’ve always had towards my family, to the world.
After all, we’re all in this together. I’m very aware of people who are kind and are giving. I mean, how can you not give back? It’s a much better feeling. I don’t like being negative. It’s a drag. Laughing is a better cure any day.
You also spend a good deal of your playing helping others – why is it important to you?
I feel like I'm making up for lost time I guess; I think I've been selfish a lot of my life without really meaning to. In the studio you don't see an audience and with “Shenandoah,” it was big stages, and the audience is quite removed with different faces every night. You don't get to know people very well.
With FloBama in Florence, it's a very intimate setting, you can almost reach out and touch the crowd. I don't physically do that but I try to emotionally. Most of these people are here every week so we get to know them ... after four years, it's like playing to a room full of some of your best friends.
We live in challenging times today. How would you say music and the songs you’ve created and sing help us?
If the spirit is in the river here, it’s everywhere. I see it in the little bits of the music we play, how it can be transforming in ways I can’t even begin to describe. Music is always a soother, especially in emotionally-trying times, high times or low times. I've seen how music and the atmosphere at FloBama can change lives. Sometimes it can be just a smile, but other times, it can really alter a person's life.
I didn't get to see that in a recording studio or as much on stage with “Shenandoah,” but I see it almost nightly at FloBama. I’ve seen people who have gone through hell, but somehow they wind up here, and gradually they’re laughing and “fellowshipping” with others – discovering life again.
I think it’s always about a few people who care and reach out, and when everyone does the same thing, miracles can happen.
How has mankind managed to survive and prosper? It seems sometimes, in spite of ourselves.
I’m not sure. In some sense it could be in terms of our spirituality. It’s been improvised a lot over time. In the West, because the spiritual measure is not being applied to material problems, what we face lacks a spiritual dimension causing many people to long for a sense of community, for all the options available to them.
There’s a lot of material concerns, a constant pushing for material productivity. In terms of other productivity, I don’t see any particular leadership to call on. People could create more beauty other than thinking always in material terms.
The country of Bhutan came out with a yearly domestic gross of happiness. We’re always weighing the number of the attempts to jumpstart, to reinvigorate consumption no matter what the price. It’s a big continuation of a policy that’s empty.
What responsibility does the artist have to their community?
Service. It’s not about your service in the artistic community, which is still alive and limping along, constantly gored and trampled on.
It’s the idea of serving others, of being help to another, which should be our number one concern. It’s about making other people happy instead of making yourself happy.
How can we respect our planet?
As I get older, I understand how the elders do this. They watch the environment – how if you disturb the land they see what happens. I’ve learned. I see what supports the land and what can cause erosion. That’s because my family were farmers. Nature will take care of itself. But we face a lot of problems on this planet. Water is an important issue. A lot people don’t always think about it but we need to be careful how we protect our water. We can’t live without water. We really need to pay attention. We’ve caused the melting of the ice.
You learn a lot by listening. As you grow, watch the birds when it’ll get cold. The black birds will all flock together. A rain frog will come out if it’s going to rain. The squirrels, the deer, the horses – they all teach us respect. Our planet is sacred; climate change has been created by us. There’s so much cutting of trees and the forests. It affects everyone of us.
You’ve given so much by being who you are and the things you’ve done. You’re a link from those elders who have come before.
That’s really a compliment. You lead by example. We all can inspire, impact on someone’s life by how you live. When I sit down with the poor, they’re someone important to me because they’re human beings. It’s all about how you treat people. Each of us has to be careful how we conduct ourselves.
My brother goes out and helps other people. He said to me: “I did this because I like what you do, so I go and help. It makes me feel good even if I don’t get paid.”
It’s the compassion of how you feel about other people. You do it because it comes from the kindness of your heart. I think about my Mom and Dad coming from a poor family. We were poor, they didn’t have credit at the store to get groceries. I think about those things and try to be helpful.
I understand your father was a storyteller and you began writing at an early age? Do you think writing that early stimulated your imagination, and began to help you find out who you were?
My father was a journalist. He had a truly magical way with words and a love of playing with the language. I believe I inherited my love of playing with words from him. As a child I wanted to be a writer like Dad. I had dyslexia but once I over came this difficulty I began to indulge my love of writing.
Writing at an early age stimulated my mind but more than that it gave me an opening into which I could channel my active imagination and brought me a sense of relief.
Writing has certainly helped me on my voyage of self discovery.
Can you describe the effect that the poet, Alistair Campbell had on you and how that led to your writing “The Life of Te Kooti."
In my first year at University I happened to see and hear Alistair Campbell reading his poetry on Television. I loved this poet’s beautiful imagery and his poetry reawakened a forgotten dream of mine to write.
The next day I decided to write an epic poem about Te Kooti. The poem was to be about five hundred pages long and would, I believed, earn me millions of dollars. About a week or so later I emerged from my student’s room with a poem called, ‘Te Kooti.’ It was fourteen lines long.
Once I had the last word in place I felt such a huge surge of satisfaction and fulfillment I realised that writing poetry was what I wanted to do. I walked out of University shortly after that.
I put a pack on my back and armed with little more than a notebook and a pen I went for a walk several hundred miles up the spine of the North Island. My aim was to write poetry as I went and that’s what I did.
Who are you writing for?
If I write a book of poems, I have an immediate audience: the Caribbean people, and I must satisfy them. They have to be moved.
The greatest theatres in ancient Greece never had a literate audience, but those great tragedies had to please thousands who sat in the sun. I don’t think of the applause of London or New York; that kind of success doesn’t matter to me. A play I wrote with Galt McDermott, “The Joker of Seville,” was done in the Caribbean, it was satisfactorily accepted. My heart was leased by that production. That to me is enough.
What can we say to this generation to keep the flame of hope burning brightly?
Perhaps the opposite of having hope and having a lot of belief – to teach pessimism, instead of a loosely defined optimism. That man is capable of the “enormity,” capable of elaborate means of self-destruction. To not be surprised by the conduct of the human animal.
We see the destruction of Atlantis, the Towers of Troy. They were also symbols of authority, power, wealth – temptations to those who hated and wished to destroy.
How we look at man is getting narrower. The hubris of man will bring its own destruction. In a sense, the self-destruction is fated, when we act in defiance of nature. These destructors are basically idiots, and you have to teach the young not to be idiots. I believe poetry saves by its reality of the truth.
You created two of Tennessee Williams’ most famous roles in “The Rose Tattoo” and “Camino Real.” What was it like to work on these roles and be inside Tennessee’s unique world?
It was great! I was in “Mister Roberts” with Henry Fonda on Broadway and Elia Kazan who knew me and my work wanted to experiment with fantasy. So we worked together in a scene from “Camino Real” at night and then showed it to Tennessee and Tennessee liked it so much he said, “I’ll expand it” Then he said I had to play the role and I did for a year and a half, first in Chicago, then on Broadway and on tour.
It reminds me, “Camino Real” took a while to get the money together and at the same time I had auditioned and was offered the role of Maggio in a new film, “From Here to Eternity,” but then the money came through and I had to choose whether to do the play or the film. I chose Tennessee’s play and it was the greatest experience of my life!
But it reminded me because Frank Sinatra just died, and he got the role and went on to win an Academy Award for the role. Whenever I met him afterwards, he'd always say to me: 'Hello, you crazy actor.'"
You’ve etched into our memory the characters from so many memorable films, like “Baby Doll,” “The Misfits,” and “The Good, The Bad & the Ugly.” Is there something you do differently in film than on stage?
It depends upon the characters. When I did “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” I had no idea what to do. It was the third in a trilogy of westerns that Sergio Leone had done. He had seen me in “The Magnificent Seven” so that’s what must have drawn him to me. But it was a challenge.
You know, another interesting character that I’ve received more mail about was ‘Mr. Freeze’ in the TV series, “Batman & Robin,” and I only received $350. Arnold (Swarzenegger) got $22 million for the same tole in the film version, so my wife said to me, “You should have lifted weights!”
Did you see theatre when you were a child?
I came from a small town. There was no theatre to speak of. Yiddish companies would occasionally come to perform but I was too involved with my studies to see them. I only saw theatre when I got to Paris.
What was the first play you remember seeing?
What books do you feel are your most important?
I don’t think in terms of important or most important. I have published over 60 volumes. I believe everything I have done is based on my first book, “Night.”
Another one, “The Jews of Silence,” created an awareness of Soviet Jewry. I stand by everything I’ve written. There is a special communal experience created, a bond, between actor and spectator, as there is between a reader and the person who sits down to read a book.
Today though, with all the technological advances, less and less time is being spent in direct physical contact, and young people aren’t reading as much.
Can art keep us human?
Art does have the ability to humanize life, to present a meaning you didn’t think about before. In the theatre, an actor faces an audience with the responsibility of making every spectator feel as if he alone is being addressed. For me, literature is the dialogue of solitude, containing the mystery of life.
In the act of reading a book, the author is in the hands of the reader. It is the reader’s obligation to say: take me a certain way. That’s a bond.
I personally prefer the literal word to the spoken word. While a theatre play can last two hours, the experience one has with a book can resonate for years.
How would you describe the oral tradition that’s carried forth?
In acting you can learn from hearing other stories from those who have played a role before. It applies within the art form of writing plays.
When I worked with Hanay Geiogamah, I would ask him questions about the exchange of information. He had great information about acting and Native-American actors. How they comforted themselves when faced with frustrations, what they had to overcome. It’s necessary we share that kind of information.
What are your aspirations for your plays and what’s possible for young Native American artists?
When I’ve written a play, I’ve given it a skeleton, I put flesh on it and basically I’m building a house with a frame and when it’s put on, then it’s like wood stripped to the bones. The best thing I can do is to remind myself to examine what I’m doing. I’ve tried to be more careful. I talk to the director to see where their head and heart is. When I talk about the play itself, I talk in a way so everyone can understand.
When I work with Native communities I work with very raw talent; they have no inhibitions, no fear, and they want to train but the question is where do they go? I pushed for a national indigenous center. I’d love to see it in New York City. All kinds pf young people would benefit from it. I’d also like to see a school for performing arts for indigenous artists.
Another project addresses gender roles. I worked on developing a piece about the difference between being tough and being able to survive, and being mean, which is to be vicious and spiteful, and how people confuse the two. The title is “Indian Men Are Mean, Indian Woman Are Tough.” For instance, I admire how strong women are to give birth; we men, have never endured that kind of pain.
How does art sustain the human spirit?
I tell young people learn to tell stories, tell your stories the best way you know how, be honest, tell the truth when you share these stories because they’re no longer just yours; it’s how we can all nurture one another.
Do it through your heart, your soul, your humanity, because it’s how we create our humanity.
I really think art breathes, it can tell us what it means to be Native. Art shows us is how to go on, and embrace the other world.
Art can communicate within global communities everywhere, to share our life experiences, our thoughts – so we can all develop our consciousness as human beings.
Art feeds the soul, it feeds the heart and consciousness of a community, representing the humanity of a common thread, allowing every community to develop to its fullest potentiality.
How would you describe the experience you have when you’re playing?
I think there are times what I’m feeling might be described as an out-of-body experience. In fact, I’m unaware of anything physically.
Music is a path between ourselves and the infinite. It takes me out of myself, that’s part of why I love it so much. We’re so wrapped so much in our ideas, but when I can release yourself and become a part of something larger, my experience becomes being a part of the greater good.
We’ve lost a sense of this, and music is about our humanity. We need to spend more time chatting with others, sitting on the “town green,” and not glued to our iPhones and computers. It’s about getting outside of our own little selves.
Making music is a very giving experience. Sometimes, it can be quite draining. But it’s also very restorative.
Do you feel your playing has changed since you began?
I certainly hope so. I no longer worry about extraneous things. I lose myself in the music, and in the moment. It’s a contradictory thing but it seems to work.
I’m playing music at an age when I’ve noticed my muscles have also changed, so there’s a tremendous contradiction; a paradox. My ability to make music, my knowledge of how to phrase and how to create the quality of a sound has grown, but I can’t always play the way I’d like to.
Being a musician is an extremely physical activity. I can jump in the air but not as high as I used to. Nonetheless, I think I still have quite a number of years left in me.
What does playing do for you now?
I know music heals me. If I’m feeling agitated, concerned about something, I go to music; it’s the best cure. I can pick up the flute and play. I have friends in the field of healing and they tell me music does the same thing for them.