“We aren’t playing it for comedy, but you don’t actually play comedy for comedy anyway.”
Michael Kahn (who is, as most readers will know, Artistic Director of Shakespeare Theatre Company) is readying a production of a pair of one-act plays by Harold Pinter.
The bill includes The Collection, a “play I’ve always wanted to do,” Kahn told me.
It was interesting to learn that The Collection wasn’t part of the Pinter evening as originally planned. Kahn’s account of how it ended up included provides an intriguing glimpse into how season planning can be affected by considerations such as actor availability.
“Well, to be honest, I saw The Collection — I was trying to remember myself. I saw it someplace, and I cannot remember where I would have seen it, and it just struck me as fascinating, so I’ve always wanted to do it.
“You know, the early Pinters are wonderful. The great ones, like The Homecoming, are amazing. I love Betrayal. When I first saw it, I thought it was wonderful. (I wasn’t particularly excited about the last star production on Broadway, because I thought they were a little afraid of Pinter.)
“But, somehow, The Collection struck me in some way. It’s always been something that I’ve been fascinated with, and eventually thought I would do.
“And then, we were thinking about this year. I wanted to work with Holly [Twyford] again after Cloud 9 [Studio Theatre, 2016] and Old Times [STC, 2011], so I offered her The Lover and A Kind of Alaska, which I thought she would be amazing in.”
The Lover currently shares the bill with The Collection. A Kind of Alaska is another Pinter one-act that ended up not chosen by Kahn.
“Then she decided she would do her first musical and chose to do [A Little] Night Music instead.” Twyford’s turn as Desiree Armfelt in that Sondheim musical runs until October 15th at Signature Theatre.
“So, when I realized that I was going to do The Lover, I thought, ‘My Gosh, I really could do the play I’ve always wanted to do, The Collection.’ And then I could have the same couple in The Lover and The Collection. I then found out that a similar double bill had been done in London a few years ago.” (That production, at The Comedy Theatre in 2008, featured the estimable Pinter hand Timothy West.)
“But that’s really how I came about to do these two plays, originally thinking I was going to do one of them with another one, originally for Holly.”
I had begun our chat by asking Kahn how he was doing. “I’m fine. I’m working on the play, so other than that, I’m fine. I’m starting dress [rehearsals] today. It’s a twelve hour day, so, hopefully, it will all go well; I have no idea. But we got on the stage last night, managed to get through both plays, so I think it’s alright. But I’ll never know until a week from now.”
Michael Kahn, at this point in the rehearsal process, has this unique way of entertaining the possibility of failure while simultaneously exuding supreme confidence.
“So I’m understandably tired.” (He chuckled in conclusion.)
I asked if Old Times had been his only previous foray into the work of Harold Pinter. “Yes; I’m trying to think. I think it was my only Pinter. I had done Old Times at the Goodman [Theatre in Chicago] years and years ago, pretty much after it first appeared in New York, and then when I did it here.
“I really don’t think I’ve done any other Pinter, actually. No, I haven’t. I somehow never was anyplace to do any, so, no I haven’t. This is my second Pinter.”
Since it’s a double bill, I corrected his count. “Second and third, yes,” he chuckled.
Since Kahn’s illustrious career has brought him into contact with many important writers for the stage, I asked whether he’d ever met the great man himself.
“No, I never met him, and I never saw him act. He was such a big thing in my life because, when I first began, Edward Albee and Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder had that theater at the Cherry Lane.” Located in the West Village, Cherry Lane Theatre is New York’s oldest continuously running off-Broadway theater.
“I did a few plays for them. It’s also where Alan Schneider did Beckett and Pinter for the first time.” Schneider, who frequently directed at Arena Stage in the sixties and seventies, was famous for directing New York premieres of many ground-breaking mid-century plays. (In fact, he received an Obie award for his production of The Collection.)
“I think the first time I saw Pinter was at the Cherry Lane when Alan Schneider directed The Birthday Party, and that was — must have been in the sixties, I guess. And then, after that, whenever a Pinter play came to New York, I saw it. But, no, I never met him.
“But I didn’t know people in theatre in those days, particularly. And when I was in England, just to visit, I didn’t really know people who knew Pinter, so, no. I would have liked to, but — never happened. But I’ve seen most of his work and certainly I saw all the films that he adapted.
“He was one of the people who changed the theatre, certainly, and made me think so differently about words and everything.”
Pinter one acts: The Lover and The Collection
closes October 22, 2017
Details and tickets
This is the second evening of one-acts that Kahn has directed at STC over the last couple of years. Has he recently become especially attracted to the form?
“I don’t think so. When I did The Real Inspector Hound and The Critic, I hadn’t done a Stoppard play, and I thought I’d like to do something that I enjoyed: having some fun with critics, ‘cause, you know, you always have a complicated relationship with critics, so I thought that would be nice.
“And then when I read [Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s one-act] The Critic, I realized you couldn’t really do it as it was. Jeff Hatcher said he would like to adapt it, and I thought that would make a wonderful double bill. I had thought maybe I would do one of the other short Stoppards, but then the idea of doing an evening about criticism really interested me.
“I don’t usually pick double bills. I think the Stoppard and the Sheridan were the first time I’d ever done that. When I was very young, I did three Thornton Wilder one-acts as one of my first shows in New York, at Cherry Lane.
“Sometimes it’s fun to start one play in the afternoon and then think of another play in the evening. There’s something nice about it.”
In the last century, we became introduced to many playwrights initially through their one-act plays: Pinter, Orton, Shepard, Mamet; but the form seems to have lost favor.
“Now, everybody wants a play that’s ninety minutes long. They’re all turning into one-acts. People really seem to like a ninety-minute evening. Of course, theaters don’t like it, ‘cause it means they can’t sell concessions in the middle of it.
“You know, growing up, everything I read was one-acts. It was Chekhov; it was Sam Shepard; it was really everybody. Then I got to enjoy really complicated plays that took a lot of time.
“One-acts are like — you have to be a really great short story writer to get an awful lot with one idea working in a one act. With a play, you can have a whole variety of ideas that go on for two acts or so. One-acts have to be very compressed into what he wants to say and what he’s going to do.
“Now, these two plays are very unlike most one-acts because they take place in multiple settings: one in a house, but in many rooms of the house; and in the other, in three settings. And that’s because they were originally written for television. The ability to go from one locale to another was very easy in television, and is really what informs the structures of these plays.
“But they are about one central idea, both of them. And, as it always is with Pinter, it’s really about relationships, and negotiations in relationships, and the power — the power struggle, or the power shifts — in relationships, which is what I think is his theme: the continual negotiation; who’s on top, in the most subtle ways.
“In both these plays, he’s figured out how to do that in a very special way so that there is a sort of surprise.
“I like that they are different than a normal one-act, in which it’s usually in one place, and one set, and somebody comes in and somebody leaves, and the world is changed.
“And a lot of the trick of the staging has been how to do that in the theatre. And I hope I’ll know by this evening, with the lights, whether I can do it or not, and see how you can simultaneously have one thing on one side of the stage while something else is going on at the other side. How do you balance that? It’s technically fun and interesting.
“And then, of course, it’s fun also to see two actors who have to play two different couples in both plays. And that, I think, should also be fun for the audience: seeing a kind of acting exercise.”
Knowing the dark humor that Pinter weaves into the mysteriousness of his work, I asked if Kahn is finding the plays funny. “I think they are. I don’t know about you, but after the first four or five readings, plays aren’t funny anymore. You just try to make them true and then you hope they’re funny. I think that they’re funny.
“On one level, they’re partly funny because the audience is in on the joke: you know what’s going on. But I won’t know until we have an audience. We won’t have an audience until the first preview. So it will be a surprise,” he chuckled.
“We aren’t playing it for comedy, but you don’t actually play comedy for comedy anyway. And I think The Lover, of the two plays — if one is the more comic play, it’s The Lover. The Collection — to watch people manipulate each other, I think that’s the fun in the play.
“But they also have their mystery, and part of that is, what do you talk about when the play’s over? What do you think actually really happened?
“What’s interesting to me, in addition to everything else, is that they’re both set in the sixties, but these are the sixties before the sexual revolution really took hold, so these are people who have codes of living and a kind of repression outside, but who have all kinds of things going on inside.
“It’s not mod England, not The Beatles. It’s not the England of The Knack. I felt the sixties made sense, that the sexual revolution, the real freedom, hadn’t yet arrived. It was still buttoned up.
“And then, in The Collection — which was rare for the time — there is a gay couple (never mentioned that it’s gay): an older man and a younger man who are living together, but, obviously, it’s a life which they do not share publicly, and that’s sort of interesting for that period. I’m not sure there were a lot of plays at the time in which that was a part of a piece of theatre.”
I made an observation about how famously heterosexual British playwrights like Pinter and Stoppard seem to layer their work with a lot of gay subtext; sometimes text that’s not so “sub,” as in the case of The Servant, the Joseph Losey film of the Pinter screenplay from a Robin Maugham novel.
Kahn chose not to bite, but, instead, to bring us back to Pinterian themes. “The Servant was just a wonderful thing about who’s on top, who’s in charge, who’s got the power and how it shifts.
“And the other thing is, what is the truth? For Pinter, what is the truth? Is it a very relative thing? This is his perspective. I think they’re puzzles, and I think the fun for the audience as they’re watching the puzzle unfold is, they’re trying to piece it together.”
The cast includes STC newcomers. “They’re all new. It’s really the first time in a long time I’ve gone into rehearsal with four people I didn’t know at all.
“I had auditions and was very happy that I found one set of actors really quite a while ago. I was very glad that they made it possible that they could do this even though I saw them way before the summer. I was very pleased that they were still available to do it,” he said, referring to Patrick Ball and Jack Koenig.
“The other couple, the people who play it twice — I actually didn’t audition them particularly. I had heard of Lisa Dwan last year. She became quite well-known for having done evenings of Beckett that were a huge success (she’s Irish) first in Ireland and then in the West End and quite a few places around the world. I never saw her, but I knew of her and then hired her.
“Patrick Kennedy is a British actor. I’d seen him in films, but I didn’t really know him.
“And it’s just been a real pleasure.”
Our conversation then turned to his retirement from Shakespeare Theatre Company. Continue it here.