Our Generations

March 14th, 2011 § 0 comments

I called playwright A.R. Gurney a few months ago to congratulate him on his newest play. This is a call I make with great frequency, because Gurney (known to all since his childhood as “Pete”), is startlingly prolific these days, and unless I’ve seen him at his newest show, I always like to touch base with him and acknowledge my continuing admiration for him and his work. It’s worth noting that in the few months since this particular call, yet another of his plays has already opened in New York.

I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years because Pete was the first major artist I got to meet and work with after I graduated college, when I was a press assistant at the Westport Country Playhouse, where his plays were staples each and every summer for years. Professionally, our association encompasses only four shows, two at Westport and two more at Hartford Stage (one a premiere), but we have seen each other with stunning regularity, at his own plays (I recall introducing him to my mother at a benefit of Love Letters starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn); at the plays of others (coming up the aisle at The Lion King, he lauded it as great fun); and at various events both in Connecticut and in New York. He is, as ever, one of the most gracious and kind men you could ever want to meet, the warm-hearted WASP uncle I never had.

“You keep writing them, Pete,” I said, “And I’ll keep going to them.”

“I don’t know, Howard,” he replied, “Maybe it’s time to give it a rest. I’m going to be 80, you know.”

Horrified at the thought of his output slackening or drawing to a close, I opted for humor. “You know, Pete, somewhere up in Heaven, Horton Foote is frowning on you right now.”

“Ah, yes, Horton. He did keep going , didn’t he?”

“And so should you,” I replied.

“Well, the truth of it is, I keep getting asked to write things, so I guess I should. And I really love working with the kids down at The Flea.” The Flea Theatre has done some half-dozen of Gurney’s less typical works, including his most overtly political plays, including Mrs. Farnworth; Gurney has written pieces specifically for The Flea’s young company, “The Bats.”

“What I really love,” he continued, “is that when I’m working with them, age isn’t an issue. We’re just all in it together. I think theatre may be the only place where that happens.”

That was an “a-ha” moment for me. I don’t know that Pete realized it, especially since we weren’t face to face, but his casual statement struck me as completely and utterly true.

In a society where, if we are to believe the media, everything is focused on what’s new, what’s hip, what will reach the 18 to 25, or perhaps the 25 to 35 age bracket, the act of theatre, the community of theatre, is all embracing and, unlike in so many other places, we are hungry to hear from our veterans, even as we embrace the new. In fact, the elders are among the first to encourage to next generations, and you need only look to how Gurney, or Edward Albee, interact with younger and even aspiring artists to see that the age divide evaporates when theatre is the topic at hand. Look as well to the cascading celebrations of Stephen Sondheim, which despite their near ubiquity, were “hot tickets” in every iteration. Look still again at how many mature playwrights teach, or act as mentors through theatre companies.

Perhaps this is an outgrowth of the fleeting nature of theatre itself. Yes, a script remains and survives its author, but productions do not; unlike movies or books, great works of fully realized theatre live on only in memories, and it is our elders who provide us with some connection to what came before, just as succeeding generations replenish the form to the delight of those who preceded them.

This is not unique to authors; I believe it permeates our field, in every discipline that makes up theatre. Whether at a post-performance discussion, special symposium, public lecture or through a recorded interview, we all want to hear about “what it was like when” if the speaker is Rosemary Harris, or Manny Azenberg, or Mike Nichols. They are the closest we have to time travel, since in their presence we learn of experiences and artists from 40 and 50 years ago, who themselves may have been old enough to remember back to what they learned from their elders even years before that.

I’ve been privileged to travel through time with such marvelous talents as Helen Stenborg and Frances Sternhagen, who one night over dinner began reminiscing about working with the apparently stentorian Helen Hayes at the Ivoryton Playhouse when Frannie and Helen were just starting their careers; with Austin Pendleton, who just told me stories about playing Motel to Zero Mostel’s Tevye in the original Fiddler on the Roof – and I was one of the tens of thousands who would later play Austin’s role, in my case in community theatre. I distinctly recall my frustration when, on interviewing the engaging raconteur John Cullum, I realized that with only 25 minutes left to talk, we had only reached 1965, and that so much of his great work would be given short shrift, meaning my temporal journey would be foreshortened.

We often hear talk about “the theatre community” and I’m delighted to report (perhaps as I become more aware of my own age) that it is a community that reveres its elders, and indeed does not put them out to pasture, but looks for every opportunity not only to celebrate them but to put them to work. In what other field would 80-year-old James Earl Jones be able to be signed for his next Broadway role even before his current engagement is through; where else would a collective mourning take place for the all-too-early losses of Natasha Richardson, Lynn Redgrave and Corin Redgrave not only because we are deprived of their work as artists and the sadness for their loved ones, but because we imagine the ties to the storied Redgrave lineage snapping before our eyes, in much too rapid succession.

In theatre, writers can write – and be produced; actors can perform; directors can stage; and designers can imagine for as long as they wish and their work will reach and enrich audiences. Artists are less disposable than they seem to be in the film industry, or popular music. For those of us in the audience, the moment of enrichment may be fleeting; for those who collaborate with our senior artists, their encounters both in the act of making theatre or simply visiting together on breaks must be profound, ultimately finding its way back to us in the seats as well.

So even as I seek out new experiences with artists like Julianne Nicholson, Rajiv Joseph, Anne Kauffman and Donyale Werle, I will be there applauding for Angela Lansbury if we’re fortunate enough to have her on stage yet again; I will seek out shows designed by the masterful Eugene Lee, who designed the play that changed my life in 1979; I will hope to see yet another show directed by my idol Hal Prince.

And I’ll look forward to many more calls and talks with Pete Gurney, be it to congratulate him, or to egg him on.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.


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