When I was in law school I did some acting. I wasn’t very good but I was a big guy with a big voice and there’s always room for that in theater. Sometimes I got paid and sometimes I didn’t, but between what I did get paid and student loans and my parents’ generosity I was able to keep myself in Rice-A-Roni for three years.
I liked acting more than I liked law school. And, generally, I liked actors more than I liked lawyers. I gave some thought to becoming serious about acting; dropping out of law school and learning and practicing the craft. But when I was invited to parties with actors they’d serve crackers and cheap wine. When I was invited to parties with lawyers they’d serve enormous mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat and sometimes break out the single-malts. So when I was admitted to the bar that was the end of any thought of an acting career for me.
* * *
March 22, 2015
It is forty years later and I am now a theater critic, on my way to New Orleans for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and a convention of the American Theatre Critics Association. I am enormously proud of being ATCA Vice-President and on its Executive Committee, two positions I got because there were no other candidates. I am running for reelection this year. It will be contested, but I feel pretty good about it.
When I am feeling expansive, I am also a novelist (based on a self-published novel which has sold less than 100 copies) and a playwright (based on a self-produced play that lost three thousand dollars).
I am also a lawyer. I earn 99/100ths of my income from this profession. I am a lawyer because I went to law school for three years, passed a two-day exam which had forty essay questions in it, and had my character vetted by a committee of elderly lawyers.
There is no comparable certifying process for actors, which is in some way a similar craft. (Lawyers interpret the intention of the legislature; actors interpret the intention of the playwright; great lawyers find the hidden possibilities in the law; great actors find the hidden possibilities in the text.) Actors can get their MFAs in acting (by one account, 40,000 such degrees are earned every year) but this does not qualify them as professionals. It is simply a description of the training they received.
It is that way for theater critics too. I am a theater critic because I had this review published, and have had 570 additional reviews published in an electronic journal my wife publishes.
I set forth these everyday details of my life because they bear on one of the central struggles in DC theater today: what it means to be a professional. theaterWashington’s controversial decision to limit the Helen Hayes Awards to productions which meet minimum pay standards (for actors: $18.75 per performance day; $12.50 per rehearsal day) put a long-muffled question on the table: if you do theater for only a small stipend, are you really doing professional theater? Or are you doing community theater with cabfare?
There are two remarkable things about this development. The first is that theatreWashington’s cutoff for professionals is far below the minimum wage. The other is that so many of the Washington-area theaters we are accustomed to consider professional do not believe that they can reach theatreWashington’s mandatory pay levels.
You may be surprised to know that the same debate rages within the critical community. ATCA bills itself as a nationwide organization for professional theater critics, but that is not entirely correct. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “professional” as one who “engages in a specified occupation or activity for money or as a means of earning a living, rather than as a pastime. Contrasted with amateur.” I earn $30 per published review and $50 for a longer article, like this one; I could not possibly earn my living from the profession of theater criticism.
Yet I do review theater for money. That is more than some members of ATCA can say. Some critics – reasonably prominent ones – have been reduced to publishing criticisms on their own blogs, for no money. They are ATCA members.
The Internet age has not been kind to theater critics. The most recent winner of the George Nathan Award for excellence in theater criticism, Michael Feingold, was canned by the Village Voice and now writes for the website TheaterMania, and at least one past Nathan Award winner is now a tour guide. There are very few full-time theater critics in America now; one prominent (retired) critic estimated the number at five, although I think there may be a few more than that.
This crisis is an excellent backdrop for a convention in New Orleans. The Crescent City is a big town, the 51st-largest city in America, recovering and growing. And it has virtually no professional theater.
* * *
“Gumbo, muffaletta, shrimp po’boy.” Our cab driver is describing things we could eat, as she drives us in from the airport. “Hamburger po’boy. Crabmeat po’boy. Ham po’boy.” A po’boy is a sandwich with two crusts of French Bread. I imagine you could make a po’boy out of anything. “Beignets. Tuna po’boy. Jambalaya.”
They love to cook and eat in New Orleans, and damn, they’re good at it. We check into the French Quarter Crowne Plaza, a comfortable hotel of late middle years where we receive the special theater critics’ discount of $157 a night, and repair to the Cocktail Museum because – well, because we’ve never heard of such a thing.
Alas, they are closed, and so we decide to go next door, to Purloo, for a real cocktail. I take a hasty glance at the menu and order a Second Honeymoon – principally because the drink I really want, a Monkey Gland, sounds a little déclassé. The Second Honeymoon is not awful, but it’s not to my liking, either. When the bartender – a woman with the delightful name of Shannon McSwain – asks me how I like it, I tell her the truth.
“Is it too tart?” she asks, and then shoots me a series of other questions about the drink. She takes it out of my hand and to the bar, for surgery. The drink she hands back to me is measurably better. That’s professionalism, I think.
With evident pride, she shows us the bar itself, which is the oldest bar in New Orleans. Although it was a hundred years old the day I was born, it has held up better than I have – sturdy oak, only a little worn at the fringes, with a beautiful, high-polish top. It was under water during Katrina, and resting in a thousand pieces when the Southern Food and Beverage Museum took it over. They lovingly restored it, and when they were done, they gave it to Purloo so that it could be what it was designed to be, instead of a museum piece.
They call it the Big Easy, but there’s nothing lackadaisical in the way New Orleans approaches food. They have oysters for breakfast and have managed to make rice and beans a gourmet meal. Go to any restaurant, no matter how modest, and the staff will talk about food with reverence. And so, in trying to figure out what constitutes professional criticism, and professional theater, I first observe the professional food and drink artists of New Orleans.
Next, New Orleans is celebrated for its professional music. The theater critics have arranged for us to see a community theater production about a New Orleans family circa 1958, but we decide to beg off in order to go to Snug Harbor, for some jazz.
– We get there early, so we mess around some. Across the street there is a vacant lot full of itinerant artists. We stop at a table where a slender young man is selling prints of his line drawings for $6, or $30 for six. He’s from Rhode Island, he tells us, and was accepted at the Rhode Island School of Design. But he couldn’t afford to go, so he would sit across the street, drink whiskey and jeer at the people attending the school, imprisoned by their forms and regulations. Then he came to New Orleans to practice his art.
He’s really good. We buy eight for $38, and go on to another table, where a young woman sells flattened wine and whiskey bottles as paperweights or suncatchers for $20. “We bring elephants in to step on them at night,” she explains. It is her standard patter. We buy one, then move on to a table where a man writes poetry on demand (you give him the subject) for $20. Lorraine buys a poem while I watch a black-and-white movie featuring Jackie Gleason silently projected on a building wall.
These folks – are they professional? It is hard to believe that they are making a living from their art. But their eagerness to please, the rapture they take in their work, is the equal of Ms. McSwain’s. It is eight o’clock. We head for the bar.
At Snug Harbor, they’re featuring Delfeayo Marsalis’ Uptown Jazz Orchestra, and they are unquestionably professional. It costs twenty-five bucks to get in. Fortunately for us, they are sold out, so we are permitted to watch them on closed circuit, from the bar. I pound down sazeracs, the local drink of choice, and watch. The orchestra is exquisite – full, rounded, complex, provocative, funny at times, layering traditional New Orleans jazz with a darker, more complicated sound. They are – oh, what the heck, you’ve probably heard them on the YouTube link I just gave you. Satiated, we head out into the night.
It is full of street musicians, playing mostly brass instruments. They are not the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, but they are passionate, and good. Are they professional? I look at the plastic paint buckets next to their feet. Some have a few dollars in them. Some have nothing.
* * *
The theater critics are in transition, and have been for twenty-five years. Back in the day, ATCA was composed of staff critics from newspapers – salaried men and women who were the Final Voice on theater in their community. It was an important tenant of the American Theater Critics Association that ATCA not serve as a credentialing organization; the fact that these folks have been hired as newspaper theater critics was sufficient to establish their bona fides.
We’re in the Wild West, though, now that anybody who can put electron to electron can be a theater critic on his own blog. The first electronic theater critic to make it big at ATCA was our old friend Brad Hathaway – a legitimate critic whose late, lamented PotomacStages provided a real alternative to Washington print criticism. Brad is running for a seat on the Executive Committee this year, but since we’ll have a vacancy – one critic is term-limited – I’m not worried by it.
So we now have a code of conduct – to prevent people from selling their press tickets – and at New Orleans we consider amendments. There is controversy. Some folks want to add a provision condemning racist, sexist or homophobic criticism. (There is a Nazi movie review site, one critic observes, which rates movies on their racial purity). My brilliant colleague Jonathan Mandell argues passionately that we should have not just a code of conduct, but minimum standards as well. Brad moves that the question be put to the membership as a whole on-line (we’ve just adopted on-line voting) and the motion passes overwhelmingly.
The can kicked comfortably down the road, we turn to the next order of business: presenting the Primus Award to playwright Jennifer Haley, whose most recent work, The Nether, will receive production next season by Woolly Mammoth. ATCA gives the Primus Award, named after the late theater critic Francesca Primus, to a woman for her outstanding contribution to theater. Haley accepts graciously, in a brief speech in which she warns against writing to please an audience. (The Nether is in part about a virtual-reality site for pedophiles, with adult actors playing the part of children, so I guess she walks the walk.)
Wait, what? I want to say. Doesn’t a professional recognize and accommodate her audience? Isn’t that what Ms. McSwain did?
As if in answer, a gaggle of New Orleans Artistic Directors swoops in for a panel, moderated by our New Orleans host, Alan Smason, an owlish Crescent City booster with a radio-ready voice. Hurricane Katrina has played a great role in the development of theater here, they assure us. According to Jefferson Performing Arts Society head Dennis G. Assaf, theater in pre-Katrina NOLA was a closed society, where it was a hard thing for a new artist to be heard. Katrina blew the doors off. New theater is blooming everywhere.
Part of it is the NOLA Project. A.J. Allegra tells us that it began when he and some fellow New York University graduate students came down to perform during the summer. After Katrina, one of them was inspired to produce The Tempest on a beach outside the City. And they never left.
It has not been wine and roses for everybody, though. Southern Rep – which was once headed by Ryan Rillette (now heading Round House Theatre) – was booted out of its longstanding home last year, Artistic Director Aimee Hayes tells us before leaving for rehearsal. Its continued viability is not assured.
After she’s gone, Riverside Theatre Artistic Director Gary Rucker makes a confession. Outside of Southern Rep, no one gets paid for doing theater.
No one at all.
It’s a problem explaining this to Equity, he says. We have special circumstances in New Orleans.
What special circumstances? “People get upset if we say ‘shit’ in the theater,” Rucker explains. “They call up and complain.”
So here’s the question: is it possible to have professional theater in a town where the audience doesn’t have the ears to hear it?
* * *
We adjourn to the Tableau Restaurant for more professional-style eating. I have a filet of beef béarnaise, prepared exactly the way I asked, followed by a scrumptious vanilla custard tart – a pillow of vanilla with spiced rum caramel sauce. There are Cajun spices, but they are surprisingly sweet and mellow; the ointment I had brought for my anticipated burns will go unused tonight. About fifty feet away from us, three waiters unobtrusively hover, filling our water glasses and suggesting pleasant food alternatives to us.
As if in reparation, we are then subjected to some theater – an excruciating production of Donald Margoles’ Dinner with Friends. The uncertain acting is the least of the problems (one of the actors presents himself as Equity; he is intermittently inaudible). The set is hideous and the direction mystifying. Actors walk into each other and deliver speeches to the dishware. The opening of the second act, in which we go back to the time one of the couples first met, is literally painful. Worse, they look exactly the same as they do in the rest of the play, which was supposed to be more than seven years later.
During a particularly tedious scene, someone in the audience yells “shut up!” For a second I think that NOLA audiences are more passionate in their demand for good theater than I had credited them, but an instant later I see he is yelling at some other audience members who were texting during the play. The culprits flounce out, and thereafter spend some time screaming at each other and cursing the man who had outed them.
Later on, during another quiet moment, I hear a series of muffled booms, as though New Orleans is being invaded. I scrunch down in my seat and hope that the invaders have brought some good theater with them. Later I learn that what I heard were fireworks, set off to celebrate the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival.
Released from the theater at last, I return to the hotel pondering the irony of a celebration of one playwright disrupting the performance of another playwright’s work. When I reach the hotel lobby, lights suddenly start flashing. “The hotel lobby is being invaded by terrorists,” a mechanized voice announces. I look around and see only my fellow theater critics, most of whom are as elderly as I am, or even older. Perhaps this is another way they are celebrating the Tennessee Williams Festival, I think, and go off to bed.
* * *
Enter Hedy Weiss
The next morning starts off with nominations to the Executive Committee. We are each given a nominating speech by whichever friend agrees to do it, and then allowed a few moments to modestly trill on how swell we are. After my speech I get a round of applause which I assume to be warm and welcoming. So does everybody else.
Hedy Weiss gives our keynote address. She is the Chicago Sun-Times theater critic, and has written, by her count, about twelve thousand reviews, making me feel like a piker. She has a history of outspokenness and controversy, and, when challenged, gives as good as she gets. With us she is pleasant, even sunny.
And her speech is – I hesitate to say it, but if the shoe were on the other foot, I’m sure Weiss would have no compunctions – a complete bore. (You can listen to it here and judge for yourself.) She, unlike our previous keynote speakers Lauren Gunderson, Jason Zinoman, and Terry Teachout, has no overriding theme to her address. It is her life and hard times, her credentials, her triumphs, her challenges. And so on.
During the question period I ask her to comment on Gunderson’s assertion, made last year, that critics should announce their preferences and biases up front, so that the audience can better understand the perspective the critic brings to the show he’s reviewing. What did she think of that?
At first I think she misunderstands the question. I love all theater, she says. Musicals, comedies, dramas, experimental theater, anything.
Only later do I realize that she has given me the key to understanding professionalism.
* * *
This is the Tennessee Williams Festival, after all, so we should see some Tennessee Williams plays. We take a bus to the historic Hermann Grima House (a surprisingly large percentage of buildings in New Orleans are “historic”; they keep track of their history here) to see some of the Tennessee Williams Hotel Plays. The Hotel Plays are just what they sound like: short plays, designed to be intimately staged in a hotel suite or similar venue. They are full of mordant wit and, occasionally, powerful feeling, and each one of them is a celebration of failure.
Our host, the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, has this down to a science. We are corralled into a faded sun room to watch a down-at-the-heels New Orleans matron try to market a reading of a love letter that Lord Byron purportedly wrote to her ancestor to two Mardi Gras tourists, one of them drunk on his gluteus maximus. (Lord Byron’s Love Letter). After executing a pas de deux with another gaggle of critics and civilians, we follow an irate landlady as she chases a delinquent tenant into a lovely dark dining room. There, she explodes her renter’s pretensions of being a rubber heiress; she is, in fact, just a whore. But, gallantly, another delinquent tenant intervenes. This is the author of a 780-page manuscript, soon, he assures, to be published, and he speaks eloquently on the power of illusion to sustain us in a world where pain is quotidian. After the landlady leaves in disgust, he introduces himself to his fellow-tenant: he is, he says, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. (Lady of Larkspur Lotion).
We stay put and the next set of actors come to us. A young woman, wealthy and full of optimism, has rediscovered an obscure poet, living out his days in a New Orleans boarding house. She has read his book (it was holding up a leg on an old table she bought) and now wishes to restore the luster of his career. Forget about it, he says. His poetry has been a lie; even his name is false. Wait until I’m dead, he advises. And then he walks out. (Mister Paradise.)
We troop upstairs, to the back bedroom. One thing to keep in mind about the people who lived in the 1830s: they were smaller than us. The long stairway would probably have been fine for a typical adult of the early nineteenth century; for today’s 21st-century widebodies, myself included, they are a little narrow. Similarly, bedrooms in 1831 were simple and utilitarian; you slept in them, and when you were done you went somewhere else.
So this was perhaps not the most comfortable environment for Last of My Solid Gold Watches, in which an aging traveling shoe salesman (he sold shoes in the lobby of hotels, a practice unheard of today) reminisces about his glory days to a young man who is more interested in reading comic books. When he is not talking to the young man he talks to the hotel valet, who responds to him only in the notes of a saxophone – an odd, affecting touch.
This is good, I think to myself, meaning the entire collection of plays. Particularly good is the old shoe salesman, George Sanchez, a big man with a big voice; Christine McMurdo-Wallis, who plays the frantic New Orleans matron, and Robert Mitchell – who reminds me a little of Frank Britton – playing the pro-delusion novelist and, later, the failed poet. Can New Orleans theater be this good? Alas, I see that the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival is from Provincetown, Massachusetts, and they are here for the New Orleans festival.
* * *
Two artists struggle with quitting
However, eating, to New Orleans, is as art is to Florence, or as theology is to the Vatican. By merest chance, we stagger into Irene’s Cuisine for dinner. Irene’s is a restaurant so certain of itself that it has no website. I fall upon a raspberry-infused crispy duck, which they call Duck St. Phillip, and thereafter have a tiramisu, which is not the near occasion of sin, but sin itself. It is the best meal yet.
We repair to the Ursuline Convent, the oldest building in the city (it was finished in 1751). It is a surpassingly grand place, with glittering halls and gleaming statuary. We are assembled under a courtyard tent, sitting on chairs, the kind and nature of which are normally provided for outdoor weddings. (We are later informed that the place is indeed set up for a nuptial.)
It is a night for staged readings, equally divided between professional actors and well-known celebrities. The celebrities – film auteur John Waters, Amy Dickinson, the agony columnist, playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, Moonstruck, Joe Versus the Volcano) and a British detective writer who is unknown to me (there was no program) – do a creditable job; they are obviously used to speaking in public, and with the comfort of a script in front of them, they are fine.
The actors are better. One of them is Keir Dullea, whom I had not seen since that iconic sixties movie (“Open the pod door, Hal.”) Seventy-eight now, he is tall, bearded and thin, and his voice has ripened into a mellow bass. I could imagine him playing Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Here he contents himself with reading, along with his actor wife Mia Dillon, a selection from Night of the Iguana.
They are all like that: snippets of plays, diary entries, letters to friends (including one containing a gorgeous description of a night spent with a lover who left Williams after two weeks). Shanley reads a passage from his new play in development. But what I find gripping is a passage which Christine McMurdo-Wallis, the Broadway actor who graced our hotel plays earlier today, reads from Williams’ diary:
“23 August 1942. I have written home for bus-fare to St. Louis. It appears the die is cast and I go back again – Can’t I ever get away? – and under the worst circumstances. How can I face them, answer all their questions? My father – how to meet him again? – Will I run away again? – New York? – And cheat my poor Mother who goes without a servant to keep me going? Oh, but this business of dragging myself back before them, again unsuccessful, again dependant, it is very, very hard for me to accept. Can I? – Will I? – Je ne sais pas.
This trip here was a sorry idea. I am wretched with loneliness and ennui – It begins to have a very stale, fetid atmosphere, this continual wretchedness, self-pity, and weariness of mine. My head and my heart are heavy with it. I must learn to cast it off. To be manly. In that direction I make progress slowly.”
We are three years from The Glass Menagerie, and the twenty-four standing ovations which make him…Tennessee Williams. He is at the nexus of aspiration and failure – the same place that the theater artists who do not yet earn the Helen Hayes minimums are; and where the itinerant critics, putting electron to electron and hoping for recognition and even money for it, are. Am I professional, they ask, which is another way of saying, am I successful, or even, am I an artist.
The fact of the matter is that the stench of failure hung over Williams even after he had become universally recognized as one of the great American playwrights of the twentieth century. In Lady of Larkspur Lotion, Williams gives this speech to a failed writer – that is to say, to the writer he might have become:
“Ah, well…Suppose there is no 780-page masterpiece in existence. [He closes his eyes and touches his forehead] Supposing there is in existence no masterpiece whatsoever! What of that, Mrs. Wire? But only a few, a very few — vain scribblings — in my old trunk-bottom … Suppose I wanted to be a great artist but lacked the force and the power! Suppose my books fell short of the final chapter, even my verses languished uncompleted. Suppose the curtains of my exalted fancy rose on magnificent dramas — but the house-lights darkened before the curtain fell! Suppose all of these unfortunate things are true! And suppose that I — stumbling from bar to bar, from drink to drink, till I sprawl at last on the lice-infested mattress of this brothel — suppose that I, to make this nightmare bearable for as long as I must continue to be the helpless protagonist of it — suppose that I ornament, illuminate — glorify it! With dreams and fictions and fancies! Such as the existence of a 780-page masterpiece — impending Broadway productions — marvelous volumes of verse in the hands of publishers only waiting for signatures to release them! Suppose that I live in this world of pitiful fiction! What satisfaction can it give you, good woman, to tear it to pieces, to crush it — call it a lie? I tell you this — now listen! There are no lies but the lies that are stuffed in the mouth of the hard-knuckled hand of need, the cold iron fist of necessity, Mrs. Wire! So I am a liar, yes! But your world is built on a lie, your world is a hideous fabrication of lies! Lies! Lies! … Now I’m tired and I’ve said my say and I have no money to give you so…[g]o on, get out, get away! [He shoves her firmly out the door]”
Was Williams haunted by the thought that his success, his professionalism, was an illusion? Did he imagine that at bottom he was this nameless writer, whose very work is a fantasy, and who lives on the dream that within himself is a great writer? My thoughts turn to another New Orleans writer, one who wrote something (I know I will get argument on this) better than anything Williams ever wrote.
This writer wrote a Southern pittoresque novel, outrageously funny but founded in a deep moral sensibility. His characters were absolutely unique. Every plot development moved with the force of gravity, astonishing, yet plausible, the product of vast social forces which we instantly can recognize.
And…he could never get it published. He got some feedback from the publishing community, and rewrote it again and again and again, but it was never good enough. So one day he took to travel, and stopped outside of Biloxi, Mississippi. There he took a garden hose from the back seat, fitted it over the exhaust pipe, and…well, you can guess the rest.
Afterward, John Kennedy Toole’s bewildered mother took his manuscript from place to place, facing the same crushing response her son had gotten. Eventually, she cornered the great Southern writer Walker Percy, who was also a physician (did he ever wonder, when he first set out as a writer, whether he was a professional writer?) and perhaps had a heightened compassion in the presence of pain. Here was his reaction:
…There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.
In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own.
A Confederacy of Dunces – the original, before all the publisher-mandated editing – won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the year it finally saw the light of day. But that, of course, was too late for John Kennedy Toole.
What was the difference? Williams was thirty-one when he wrote that despairing diary entry. Thirty-one and – what was that line from the Billy Joel song? – his mother still makes his bed. He stuck it out and became a great playwright. When he was thirty-one John Kennedy Toole killed himself. What was the difference?
* * *
The next morning we elect three people to that ATCA Executive Committee. While the votes are being counted, Jonathan Mandell makes a presentation on the subject of social media, about which he is an expert. He predicts that some day all theaters will have a section for people to tweet during the production, which is another way of saying that we are all going to go to Hell.
When the vote-counters come in they announce that we have elected three new Board members, none of whom are me. It stings, of course, but what surprises me is how it unmoors me from the thought that I am a professional critic. ATCA membership alone doesn’t do the trick. There are plenty of ATCA members who are not only unpaid, but who are bad writers, and bad critics. Am I one (albeit paid a small stipend)? Being on the Board of Directors was my signifier of professionalism, and now I have none.
So who’s a professional?
All actors who are paid for their work.
Only those actors who are paid the Helen Hayes minimums
Only Equity actors
The unsteady actors in Dinner with Friends
The actors in The Hotel Plays
The Uptown Jazz Orchestra
The excellent street musicians, with their empty paint cans standing open next to them.
The French Quarter oyster shuckers and chefs
John Kennedy Toole
Everybody who writes theater criticism, regardless of whether he is paid or not and regardless of how much he is paid
That young fella who sold prints of his beautiful line drawings 8-for-$38
Ms. McSwain, who adjusted my drink until I liked it.
Ms. Haley, who warns against adjusting your plays for your anticipated audiences.
Pick as many as apply.
* * *
Helen Hayes recommended
Smason interviews Bryan Batt, a New Orleans actor who made good (he played Salvatore Romano in “Mad Men”). It is the standard talk-with-a-star palaver, but I am on the alert for his signifier – the thing that made him know he was a professional actor.
He tells us soon enough. Back when there were a couple of professional houses in New Orleans, he got a few gigs as a kid actor, and found that he was delighted by the work. He was a theater major in college, and was home doing summer stock when his mother was put in charge of a fundraiser. The fundraiser’s principal attraction: Helen Hayes would make an appearance.
The great actor met with Mrs. Batt (herself an actor in her youth) and asked whether she was related to the young actor she just saw. Well, yes, Gayle Batt said. He’s a theater major at Tulane, but his father is trying to talk him out of it. The theater’s so competitive, and there’s no money in it…
I want you to arrange a luncheon with the three of us – you, the boy’s father, and myself. Your son has great talent, and it would be a shame for the theater to lose him. So Bryan Batt’s parents met with Helen Hayes, and she laid it on the line for them. And when she was done, both his parents were enthusiastic backers of his theater career.
What Helen Hayes said didn’t get Batt through any doors. He had to do his time as a waiter and whatever like everybody else. But he had been given his signifier. He knew he was a professional.
Bryan Batt: the only Helen Hayes recommended who was actually recommended by Helen Hayes.
* * *
We go to see the homeless Southern Rep Company in their temporary digs at The Powerhouse, a large, functional box of a building. They are doing Suddenly Last Summer, an odd, dreamy play from Williams’ middle period. It was later made into a movie with Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift. I’m going to tell you what happens in this play, so if you don’t know and want to see it, skip over this part.
A shrewish old woman, obviously quite wealthy, engages a young doctor for a mission which is not immediately clear. After some talk, however, it becomes clear that he is to perform a lobotomy on her niece, who is currently in a home for insane people. For this, she will give a great deal of money, which the doctor desperately needs.
The purpose of the lobotomy, it soon becomes apparent, is because the niece will not stop telling a repellant story about the death of the old woman’s son, Sebastian, a 40-year-old poet whose output of one poem a year was sufficient to allow him to live off his mother’s income. Her guardians are bringing her to the old woman’s home to give her one last chance to recant. The niece’s mother and brother are coming, in order to encourage her to recant: Sebastian’s will leaves them some money, but his mother has threatened to tie up the bequest in litigation, which her poor relations cannot afford.
The doctor gives the niece a shot – sodium pentothal or amatol or something – and she does not recant. Instead she retells the lurid story, the climax of which is that while they were in Spain, a hoard of street boys attacked Sebastian and bit him to death, apparently in retaliation (you have to read between the lines a little) for his molesting them. At the end, the doctor concludes that she may be telling the truth.
It is immediately apparent that this is a professional company; the set compliments the text and the actors are consistently their characters, even when they are fidgeting on chairs away from the action. Tension builds at an even pace. Nobody explodes. When the actors move on stage they do it unobtrusively; when the niece gives her lengthy account they are all riveted, but all riveted in character. It is not a brilliant production but it is what one comes to expect – or should come to expect – from professional theater. The old woman is a ridiculous character and the niece tells a ridiculous story, but neither actor – Brenda Currin as the old woman and Beth Bartley as the niece – makes a bit of judgment about her character, and the story is perforce moving. Bartley has a wild look about her which makes you think that she might be emotionally disturbed, which adds an additional narrative question not fully expressed in the text.
* * *
We close the evening with a staged reading by what appears to be another troupe of unpaid actors. Tonight’s script is I Don’t Get Dressed Until After Dark on Sundays, a short play which eventually got folded into Vieux Carré. The core of the story is about a young couple – she an aspiring dancer, he an apprentice criminal – who fight with each other, mostly naked, as Sunday afternoon moves into Sunday evening. But I Don’t Get Dressed is actually a staged reading of this play; the two actors are actually dressed and script in hand; the director and the playwright are there too. The actors hate the play, and the director is not too wild about it either, but the playwright refuses to change a line. To make this even more weirdly meta, we are attending a staged reading about a staged reading, in which everyone, including the “playwright” and the “director”, will have script in hand.
It’s not too bad. Of course, the actors don’t have to memorize lines and nobody moves around very much, so they can concentrate on character, but the play is funny, the actors know how to milk the lines for laughs, and the characterizations are good. Still, I’m glad I can get out in time to catch most of the Notre Dame-Kentucky game.
* * *
The great theater critic John Lahr, late of the New Yorker, has come in from London to talk about Tennessee Williams and also about his new biography of Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. It’s a good talk, full of insights about Williams and funny stories about Maria St. John, who became his literary executor almost by accident. But I cannot tear my mind from last night’s basketball game. If only Grant hadn’t missed that shot. If only Harrison had missed one of those free throws, we could have won with a 2-pointer. Notre Dame is my alma mater, and I identify myself with the school during important sporting events even though I haven’t been back there for years.
“Wasn’t that brilliant?” my dear bride asks, and I realize I have no way to answer. She goes to beard Lahr in his lair, while I watch the next event…a panel of three playwrights talking about their craft.
Halfway through the presentation, I realize that the dialect I am listening to is too much work to understand, so I slip out in order to take a boat tour of some bayous outside of New Orleans.
And as I watch Captain Reggie throw marshmallows to the alligators – who swim from great distances to scoop them up – I realize that, except for eating, this is the best time I’ve had in New Orleans. And I realize something else.
A necessary (but, alas, not sufficient) condition for being an artistic professional is love. The professional actor needs to love her work, and love the character she plays. The amateur (despite the origin of the term) cannot because she cannot know her character. She is too busy trying to remember her lines, or reacting to her amateur scene partner, or trying to decipher the clueless directions she has received. The amateur writer does not have time to know or love his work, either, because he is too busy trying to master sentence structure and the rules of grammar.
But even a sophisticated artist must love his work, or eventually it bores him, and drives him either to mechanical technique, or to another field. That’s why Williams, unlike Toole, was not defeated by his many failures. He embraced failure. That failed writer in the New Orleans flophouse – it was all good for him, because he was writing, or imagining that he was writing. Tennessee Williams loved to write. He preferred being a success to being a failure, but he didn’t need a signifier to know he was an artist. The signifier was the act of writing itself.
And now I understood what Weiss meant. She wrote twelve thousand reviews because she loves the theater. When she rips a production, it is because she loves what theater can be, and is passionate about it when it doesn’t measure up to the standards she has set for it.
And all the aspirants – the paint-can musicians, the underpaid DC actors, the line-drawing artist, the obscure theater critic who brings diligence and intelligence to her reviews even if she not paid, if they are not yet professionals, can still dream of becoming one. They need no signifiers; their art is their signifier. As long as they are driven by the love for their art, as Tennessee Williams was, there is professionalism within them.
But not within me, as the love has gone. My feelings run from mild elation (I felt that way about the last two things I reviewed for DCTS; we generally get to pick our shows) to mild annoyance. And that’s not fair to the theaters, or to you. You both deserve better.
So I’m done. Ending a marriage is a complicated thing, but theater is a love affair, not a marriage. And with a love affair, the best and wisest thing to say, after it’s done, is thank you for everything, and best of luck. Then you close the door.
This is me, closing the door.