Preview, ATC's Online Newsletter
No. 2 – Winter 2011
An Interview with Jeffrey Hatcher and David Ira Goldstein
Literary Manager Jenny Bazzell sat down with ATC Artistic Director and TEN CHIMNEYS’ director David Goldstein and TEN CHIMNEYS’ playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. This exciting new play will receive its world premiere at ATC this spring after a special week-long residency at the real Ten Chimneys in Wisconsin. David and Jeffrey offered insight into everything from the ideas that inspired the play to the casting process and the planned rehearsal period.
Jenny Bazzell: Could either of you talk about how the idea for Ten Chimneys came about?
JH: David and I had gone to Ten Chimneys in hope of finding some sort of inspiration. We knew about the Lunts and the place and we knew that there must be some sort of story or theatrical setting that we could turn into a play. I know that we had at least two toes in the water on different ideas - one was a murder mystery and the other was a musical, but we didn’t get more than a few steps in the ocean on those. I think that for me, it came together when I did a little rudimentary research and found that the Lunts had performed Chekhov’s The Seagull in 1938 with Uta Hagen. I thought somehow we could put together a play about rehearsal at this gorgeous estate the Lunts descended on every summer which would also be connected to The Seagull, which is also about actors and artists who are descending on an estate every summer. So that was the key jumping off point.
DG: The thing that is so striking about Ten Chimneys as a place is that as Americans we don’t have many theatrical landmarks. Europeans do: for instance Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford and the Comedie Francaise in Paris. Ten Chimneys as a national historic landmark is one of the only true American places to celebrate the art of the theatre. And it’s extraordinary in that it went from Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt’s hands to being purchased lock, stock and barrel and preserved as a landmark. So that when you go there, there’s almost the sense that they’re still living there. Everything is as it was back then. There are still clothes and towels in the closets, pots and pans in the kitchen and sweaters in the bedrooms. You can look at their library and see all the different types of books they were reading which ranged from the trashy to the sublime. So you feel the living presence of these extraordinary performers who, in the 1920s and 1930s, were considered the great American actors of their time in the same way that we consider Streep, Pacino or DeNiro today. But since the Lunts didn’t do film you almost have to go to Ten Chimneys to get a feel of their presence.
JB: So they were exclusively theatre performers?
DG: They made one movie, The Guardsman, to pay for the swimming pool at Ten Chimneys. Jeff, you were telling me the story of Lynn Fontanne finishing the movie and going straight to the railway station to get out of Hollywood still in her costume and makeup from the film.
JH: Though I think The Guardsman is actually pretty good.
DG: Yes, it is. Well worth a look.
JH: The famous story is when they were offered a huge contract from Universal, a million dollars a year or something. And Lynn cabled back, “We can be bought, but we cannot be bored.” The story is often used to illustrate the idea that the Lunts thought there is something boring about Hollywood or motion pictures. I don’t think they thought that, I think they thought it was boring to have to sit around and wait for your shot or for your scene to be filmed. They really loved being onstage; and they really lived for it. The idea that a story could all be cut up into little pieces and sewn together by long periods of inactivity, I think that drove her, in particular, batty. I don’t think it was one of those occasions where their acting was too big for the screen or that they disdained film actors since they had plenty of friends who did films. It just wasn’t the kind of work that turned them on. The theatre was what turned them on in every way, from professional and technical considerations to the familial and the romantic.
JB: When you were writing and assigning dialogue to these characters who are real people, do you feel a sense of obligation to get them right?
JH: Well, you have some obligation, of course. You don’t want to make them say something that would be inconceivable unless you’re doing some crazy cartoon comedy. But there’s lot of things that people keep private, so you can have them say things even though there’s nothing on the record that would certify that they ever said it. You want to get speech patterns right, you want to get assumed behavior right. Having said that, naturally I fictionalized a great deal. You can’t make up all the dialogue from the things you think they’ve said. The best you can do is to get the flavor of their particular time and their particular character. I suppose it’s the same thing you would ask an actor. An actor who simply does an impersonation ends up promptly amplifying certain aspects and straight-jacketing himself into others. So you want to give a taste of flavor, but you don’t want to be slavishly devoted to the documentary.
JB: So you want to get their essence while putting them into this scenario that is somewhat based in history but is ultimately your creation?
JH: That’s it, yes.
DG: The character in the play that the audience will probably have the most familiarity with--what they were like as an actor--would be Sydney Greenstreet, because we do still have a very vivid memory of him from The Maltese Falcon and other movies. But actually, Sydney Greenstreet was a member of the Lunts’ company for years and it wasn’t until later that he really became famous in the movies.
JB: How does the location of the play influence the events and characters?
DG: Two of the great themes of the play are making a family and making a home. Jeffrey has chosen to title the play Ten Chimneys not Alfred and Lynn or The Lunts. One of the real motors of the play is the question, what does it mean to have a home? Where do you make your home, particularly if you’re an itinerant person? So the whole idea of making a home and making a place for yourself where you feel truly comfortable is one of the driving forces of the play. As is the creation of a family. When you talk about the theatre and making plays, often you’re talking about making a family, at least temporarily. We bring all these disparate people together for ten or twelve weeks and we’re living and breathing with each other for that time. It’s kind of interesting in the case of this world premiere production of Ten Chimneys - we didn’t set out this way, but there are seven actors in the play and they are from seven different cities. So, perhaps just this journey of putting the play together will echo that sort of search for home and family.
JH: One thing about the setting informing the play: lots of theatre people had big houses and big estates. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh had Notley Abbey and Coward had a place outside London. And Hammerstein and Moss Hart all had places but they were all within the sphere of the theatrical capitols, New York or London. But the Lunts went back to Wisconsin every summer as opposed to someplace closer to 46th street. That tells you something. The fact that Genesee Depot is a small town and, in those days it was in the middle of nowhere, that gives a certain flavor too. It’s a more rustic, rural environment. Ten Chimneys is actually made up of many different buildings: the main house, the cottage, the studio. And a couple of these buildings are inhabited by, among others, Alfred’s mother. It tells you that there is both a hothouse closeness to the relationships when they’re there, but that they’re also separate - they have their own rooms. I’ve gone there twice now and one of the things that always strikes me is how all the rooms function like stage sets. They almost beg to have one of the walls come down so you could view them like a diorama. Some things are so fake. And the Lunts reveled in the fact that they were fake. They make almost a fetish of it. It shows you how much they had imported this perception of false beauty, which is beautiful in its own right, onto this very bucolic and rustic setting. I don’t know if all of this ends up in the play, but these things certainly sparked the play.
JB: The cast that has been assembled for this production is phenomenal. What was the primary casting consideration for this play?
DG: We wanted to get actors who had a wonderful innate sense of style, elegance and theatricality about them. When you go to Ten Chimneys, you’re reminded that these were people who were to some extent performing whether they were onstage or not. I think one of the really beautiful things about Jeffrey’s play is that you get this sense of real characters in a real situation who love to perform and are always just that one step removed from reality.
JH: One thing that comes to mind when you’re casting a show like this is you don’t try to find people who look or sound just like the originals, but there’s a very mid-century almost mid-Atlantic style to these people. Not everybody today is able to approximate that style. It used to be there were tons of actors who were steeped in the style of the Lunts and those who came before them like the Barrymores. But today, finding people who have the gift of that mid-century sweep, gesture and vocal expression is not as easy. Not everybody has it and that includes a lot of terrific actors.
DG: There are also just people we wanted to work with in the same way the Lunts wanted to have people in their company: people with whom they would enjoy traveling the country. There were just certain actors that Jeffrey and I had worked with before and thought it would be a good time to have them with us for twelve weeks.
JB: I know there are several familiar faces that are returning to ATC.
DG: Yes, and several people who have performed in Jeffrey’s plays but have not peformed at ATC. One is Steve Hendrickson, an extraordinary actor from Minneapolis who is playing Alfred Lunt. I’ve been wanting to get him here for quite some time. He’s done several of Jeffrey’s plays. Linda Stephens, a remarkable actress who’s playing Hattie, appeared in Jeffrey’s play Murderers. Anna Bullard, who plays Uta, was here in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was Jeffrey’s play. Suzanne Bouchard, playing Lynn, and Michael Winters, who is playing Sydney, are very familiar to ATC audiences for their wonderful work here in the past. We wanted to have people we’d have a nice time with, right Jeffrey?
JH: [Laughing] That’s true. I don’t think we wrote in specific for anybody, but it’s nice when you’re writing and you know that the choices will then include people who can not only do the role, but bring something to the way the role is created. Because it’s a new play, it’s not finished yet. Not really. And I’m sure that whatever dynamic we start out with in rehearsal, some things will change because of the actor dynamic. If they were different actors, that dynamic would shift slightly as well. An interesting experiment that you can’t actually do would be to take two sets of actors and see what would happen after four weeks of rehearsal with one of them and four weeks with the other simply in terms of the script changes.
JB: That would be fascinating because actors have so much of an influence on that first production and then how the script adjusts throughout the process.
DG: It’s interesting because, for instance, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which Jeffrey premiered here and has now had dozens of productions all around the country, I get calls all the time from directors asking, “How do you do this?” and “How did you do that?” I’m happy to tell them what we did here but always with encourage them to find their own path into the play and their own way of doing it. I know Jeffrey as a playwright is one of those playwrights who appreciates seeing different approaches to his work.
JH: Although having said that, there are often times when with some technical question, not an actor thing, but a design thing, that if you do it one way, it will always work. That’s not to say other ways won’t work. But this is the base line; you do this one, you’re safe. People say if you do Arsenic and Old Lace and you don’t use the original Broadway ground plan, you’re going to have problems. There’s just something about the play and the ground plan that work perfectly. And if you decide to get interesting and different you’re going to make it either harder on yourself or make sure some things don’t work at all.
JB: Could we talk a little bit about the special residency taking place at Ten Chimneys for which ATC received the Edgerton Foundation New American Plays award. Could you each talk a little bit about your vision for that event and what the goal is to have happening there?
DG: Well, the Edgerton is a wonderful charitable Foundation that provides grants for extra rehearsal time for new plays at the home theatre. And they gave us one of these grants to do some extra rehearsal time on Ten Chimneys. And we decided that we’d like to have the first week of rehearsals at Ten Chimneys, the actual location in which the play takes place. So we approached Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin-- which is now a beautifully restored national landmark with myriad outreach programs-- and Sean Malone, the dynamic president of the Ten Chimneys Foundation. They have been nothing but supportive of this whole process even though the play does not glorify the Lunts in every aspect. So ATC is paying for the travel, Edgerton is paying for the extra rehearsal time and Ten Chimneys is providing us with all of their facilities in December for a week. We’ll go there and we’ll move the furniture aside and rehearse the play in the actual home. We’ll steep ourselves in the lore of Alfred and Lynn and their friends. It’s certain to provide not just a certain verity to how we approach the play, but to help provide us with a certain joyously artistic spirit that seems so present whenever you visit Ten Chimneys. If you are ever anywhere near the Milwaukee or Chicago areas, go tour Ten Chimneys. It is so beautiful and inspiring. I’ve had the opportunity to visit there three times and there’s something very special about the place. And to be able to seclude ourselves there and investigate this new play in the same way that the Lunts themselves would go there in the summer and investigate whatever new play they were working on, well, I’m looking forward to it greatly.
JB: The parallels are pretty amazing. Jeff, do you have anything to add to that?
JH: Just that it wouldn’t have been bad if it were in the summer. [Laughs] I think it’s going to be great. It’s going to be swell. And a little like the dynamic of the actor issue, there are going to be things that pop up just because we’re there that end up in the script because we get to spend time in those rooms. So, like David, I’m looking forward to all that.
JB: In the play Ten Chimneys, the play that the Lunts are rehearsing is Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. As we’re winding down, is there any information about The Seagullthat you need to be aware of to enjoy Ten Chimneys? Or if you’ve never heard of The Seagullbefore in your life, can you sit down and enjoy the play with no problem?
JH: I think you can. As a safeguard, we have these little vignettes or scene toppers where the characters appear in the costumes they would have worn in the 1938 production of The Seagull. During the course of the play you learn the plot of The Seagull and the characters. So it’s great if you already know The Seagull but I would never want to write a play where you had required reading prior to coming to the theatre [Laughing].
DG: I think in the same way that you may find levels and resonances in Amadeus if you know Mozart’s music, I think the same is true of this play. If you know that the first line of The Seagull is “Why do you always wear black?” and then the first line ofTen Chimneys is “Why do you always wear black?” that’s a nice resonance. But I think the play operates just fine on its own. But if you know The Seagull, yes, there’s a lot of resonance and synchronicities that you’ll perhaps pick up and hopefully will find intriguing.
JB: I’m just curious thematically between the two stories, how linked are they?
JH: I think one thing has to do with the connection and clash between theatre family and real family and how they do and don’t complement each other. Others are love, jealously, envy. And the struggle for certain characters in both plays to create art and still function as a decent human being. And not everyone in both plays is able to achieve that. I guess that’s probably what I would want most people to take with them because that’s the most human aspect.
JB: In closing, is there anything else that would be good for our audience to know or that might interest them?
JH: I think it’s always fun for audiences to have fun with actors. It has to do with the question you just asked of knowing The Seagull. I think audiences get a kick out of seeing the “inside dope” when it comes to seeing actors and theatre and how things are put together. It’s because they both admire and probably on some weird level have a certain disdain for actors because they get to do fun things and still get paid for it. I think audiences get a big kick out of seeing what happens when the curtain is down.
DG: Jeffrey, you wrote a beautiful play and movie several years ago about theatre several centuries ago in Compleat Female Stage Beauty [which is about Edward Kynaston, a 17th century actor who was among the last men to perform female roles before women were allowed on stage]. Are there any resonances or not between this play and that play?
JH: There are, actually. The one thing that comes to mind at least most obviously is that in both Compleat Female Stage Beauty and Ten Chimneys you see people struggling to ply their craft as the shape of that craft is changing. The Lunts would normally be thought of, though I don’t think it’s fair, as exemplars of the old schools: matinee crowds and star vehicles and rich tones and full bowels. Whereas Uta Hagen, if only because of her fame as an acting teacher, would be thought of for something more akin to the Actors Theatre, the Method, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler (though I know that they would each individually argue vociferously with each other). So on one level, one might see a clash of styles or a handover from one style to the other. But I think what we suggest in the play, and which is borne out by facts, is that the Lunts were really working to get a much more realistic impression of behavior and character than the theatre in which they were brought up. Someone like Uta Hagen might find a different way to that same realism, but the goal is one that she would have shared completely with the Lunts. But I do think there is something interesting and entertaining to audiences about watching actors rehearse a scene and trying to find their way to whatever the truth is - some by highly technical means, some by more psychological or even mystical means. That’s the biggest connection between Ten Chimneys and Compleat Female Stage Beauty.
JB: Thank you both so much!