Directing: Ronald Tavel
“THE LIFE OF JUANITA CASTRO”
The Changing Scene, Denver, September 1968
Ron Tavel was the founder, with the director John Vaccaro, of the Play-house of the Ridiculous. The so-called absurdist playwrights were in vogue, and ridiculous was beyond absurd, radically cut loose from the conventions of realism—thumbing its nose at them in effect. Ronnie had written film scripts for Andy Warhol, but Andy was not likely to give him much satisfaction: Andy took whatever he could use with no regard for the intention of the source. Ron had also written a novel about Morocco, “Street of Stairs,” which was published by Olympia Press, still wordy even in severely truncated form. John Vaccaro had been a stagehand for two Ionesco plays, participated in happenings, worked with Jack Smith, and acted in Diane di Prima’s revival of Frank O’Hara’s “Loves Labor.” In 1965 I saw John’s production of Ronnie’s plays “Shower” and “The Life of Juanita Castro,” both, I think, written as film scripts for Warhol, and the following year they opened the Play-house in a storefront on 17th Street, where I saw several more of their bizarre collaborations. Charles Ludlam acted in one of Ronnie’s plays, wrote a couple of his own, broke with Vaccaro, and appropriated the name: his Ridiculous Theatrical Company became better known than the Play-house of the Ridiculous, with its own theatre on Sheridan Square. John went on to do many more Play-house of the Ridiculous productions, mostly at La Mama.
“The Life of Juanita Castro” is based on an interview with Fidel Castro’s sister that had run in Life magazine. I liked Ronnie’s work for its wit, wacky irreverence, and formal innovation. I cast it with genders reversed: Johnny Dodd as Juanita, and three young women in boots and beards as Fidel, Raoul, and Che Guevara, complete with cigars, myself as the director. Johnny had no taste for cross-dressing but he was a good sport about it.
Theatre Genesis, New York, November 1972
Directing “Bigfoot” was about the hardest thing I have ever done. The play is big in every way, with a large cast, long, complex, dense, way beyond Ron Tavel’s earlier, more schematic short plays. It is a great play, but it was certainly too big for Theatre Genesis, and we thrashed around trying to find someplace else to do it; no one else would produce it or give us a place to do it so we went ahead. I believed in Tavel’s talent and still do, but his plays can be forbiddingly turgid and demanding. The first problem was the set. The play calls for a forest of redwoods at stage right, a throne in the center, a monastery schoolroom and garden outside at stage left, and Jacob’s Ladder reaching up to heaven. The room was plainly not wide enough, and I was stymied until Charles Terrel, the set designer, had the inspiration to turn stage and audience on the diagonal, giving us greater width downstage and greater depth in the center. We had grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, but the theatre was not well enough funded to take on such a project; still, Charles made a gorgeous set. I put out a call for tall actors and cast the tallest of them as the bigfoot couple; they had a splendid presence in their fur costumes. The play is all about brothers, and two fine young actors played pubescent students as well as bigfoot kids. Ron’s brother Harvey was in it too. I made a mistake, I think, in firing Lee Kissman, whom I had cast in the lead, and replacing him with Walter Hadler; but Walter rose to the demands of the part and the rest of the cast was wonderful.
“Bigfoot” by Ronald Tavel was presented by Theatre Genesis at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bouwerie, November 2-26, 1972, with the following cast:
Direction and lighting by Michael Smith. Set by Charles Terrel. Costumes by Carl More. Music by Jef Labes. Stage manager: Eve Brandstein. Electrics: Burton Greenhouse.
7 Sept. Home from the country to my new apartment at 236 East 5th Street.
8 Sept. Phones installed. Albert Poland comes over to get a picture of me for his “Off-Off-Broadway Book” cover. To St. Mark’s to see Steve Facey, who reports that Theatre Genesis has $25,000 for the season. We plan four productions. That means $6,000 for “Bigfoot.” Need more. Evening phone rap with Ronnie about casting: 19 possibilities for Jack, none for Idiot or the twins. Beeson Carroll is already cast as Esau, Harvey on tap to play himself. See “Clockwork Orange.”
9 Sept. Jewish holiday. I run into Ellen Stewart on the street. My new apartment looks out on La Mama over the roof of the Truck and Warehouse Theatre. Call Lee Kissman, who comes over and gets a script. He is my best idea for Jack, although I am concerned about getting him enthusiastically committed to the part. It will take a full-blown all-stops-out performance in that role to carry the play. Saw, to review: “Bitch” by Andy Milligan, at Bastiano’s, just up the street on the Bowery. Afterwards start scraping, painting, patching the kitchen.
10 Sept. Peter Schneider comes over and resigns as stage manager because he isn’t enough turned on by the play. I can expect such reactions. The play is very difficult and thorny. But I am sorry: he would have been good, and I need a good stage manager. Nancy McCormick, a find of Ronnie’s, comes over and reads for Evelyn. I like her and tell her the part is hers. Tentatively plan to start rehearsals in two weeks, on the 25th, open on 26 October. To Brooklyn for dinner with Lucy Silvay and Emanuel Peluso and their child Padmini and sick cat Agate and tiny kitten. Manny is editing a book of my reviews through the years. I have to leave early to review “Blu Doctor” at Theater for the New City, where I run into my past. Home quick after.
11 Sept. Monday morning. I write my first column of the season, very lightweight, and deliver it to The Voice. I place an ad for “boys 14-16 and actor to play Mongoloid Idiot.” Meet Lee Kissman for lunch. He gets the play much as I do and is scared of it, as well he might be. We agree to think about it for a few days. At this point he is my best idea for the part. Uptown for an appointment with Ed Wilson at Hunter College, where I begin teaching a graduate playwriting seminar tomorrow night. Professor Smith. I have been calling Jerry and Joyce Marcel for days to ask them to design set and costumes but there is never any answer. I am anxious to get that underway—it is an enormous job. I am leaning toward asking Gwen Fabricant to do the costumes instead of Joyce, if she wants to; but I can’t think of anyone but Jerry for the set. I have called Scott Burton repeatedly to ask him to stage manage but he too is missing. I asked John Albano to do it but he said he isn’t together enough for the job. I also thought of Kevin Breslin.
12 Sept. I want Richard Laws for the Bigfoot but he’s not back from Europe. Carolyn Lord with him as Female. Walter Hadler wants to be the Abbot and I guess I will go with that although I have doubts. Bob Glaudini is probably unavailable. Leroy Logan for Lubin if he can come down from Bennington. Boys will start calling tomorrow when the ad comes out. The Theatre Genesis board met this afternoon—Walter Hadler, Murray Mednick, and me. The theatre is very poor this season—after debts and fixed costs, it turns out we have $17,200 to do four shows, and I figure I need $7,200 for “Bigfoot.” I am going ahead with that as budget, and we will try to raise money for the last play, which at this point is short. Board meetings are always nerve-wracking, but we came through. Rushed to my first class at Hunter, which is a bit farcical—a too motley eight students. One female, Eve, whom I asked to stage manage “Bigfoot.” She said yes.
13 Sept.“Remember Theatre?”—thought for a title for the book of my theatre writing that Manny Peluso is editing. He was here tonight and turned me on to his vision of it, or at least turned me on. Maybe this “Bigfoot” journal is for the book. I cast Lee Kissman as Jack. It is a bigger, more technically demanding role than I have ever seen him do, and I have tried to let him know out front that he will have to transcend himself, that an extraordinary performance is required. He knows it and I am excited to be plunging with him. He will come read tomorrow afternoon. Before that I will met half a dozen possible Idiots who responded to my Voice ad. All sound too big. Ronnie is coming to the interviews. No teens have called. Eve, the stage manager, will come get a script. I spent the afternoon looking at pianos, but I seem to want a new Steinway and I don’t seem to have quite enough money right now. I also want to get the apartment painted. It is wonderful having my own place!
14 Sept. Jerry Marcel never answers his phone. I asked Charles Terrel to do the set. Called Gwen about costumes but no answer. Read several people for the Idiot, but nobody matches Ronnie’s image—small, pear-shaped, impassive, the idiot God. One man seemed possible to me but he is regular size. Asked Richard Laws to play the Bigfoot and gave him a script. Lee came for a first little reading rehearsal, and Ronnie gave him a few flashes of the kind of intensity and seriousness beyond solemnity that the play has in it and needs in performance. Ronnie drank a quart of beer. We all turned on and talked about families (Lee and me) and went out for an Indian dinner. I went to La Mama with Lee to see a couple of boys in a show there—possible Alpha and Omega. Saw John Vaccaro, Bob Plunkett, Jim Richardson, Mary Nichols, Ellen Stewart, Bill Elliott, Jackie Curtis.
15 Sept. Rehearsal with Lee and Nancy. She is right on—I think the part was written for her. It is going to be very hard work for Lee to play Jack. The character has a very different sense of himself, and the style is very different from anything Lee has played. I have to find ways to help him. Read a boy for one of the twins—Alpha, I think. I am having trouble getting the boys straight. Alpha is Esau, Omega is Jacob. Alpha/Esau is the dumb but sympathetic one, always victimized, finally killed. This is a great play. Work hard. I asked Gwen to do costumes but she hasn’t the time. Asked Ralph Lee to make the bigfoot costumes but he is too busy, says call back in a week if I haven’t got someone else. Dinner with David Gurin at Max’s, a game of chess, then went to a preview ofJean-Claude van Itallie’s sex movie, “American Cream,” one scene of it shot at my house in Charlemont.
16 Sept. I went to a Catharine Sergeva teenage acting class at Berghof Studio and got some useful reminders of acting technique and insights into the actor Lee has to play. I have completely lost track of acting technique and I need more awareness of it to work with actors. Do they want me to work with them technically? Why not? To review: street plays by Bob Nichols done by Crystal Field and George Bartenieff and the Theatre for the New City. Had a beer afterward with Arthur Sainer and two leaders of Theatre Laboratoire Vicinal. Cast Albert Poland as Lubin. Discussed costumers. Richard Laws came over and said he won’t be able to decide for a week if he can play the Bigfoot. I said I’d wait. If he does he will make the bigfoot costumes. I inadvertently asked Joyce Marcel to do the costumes, then realized I had rushed myself and felt very uneasy. Terrific dinner with John Albano at Kamehachi Sushi. He talked about how hard it was to do the final speech in “Country Music.” I realized that I could have helped him develop a performance by working on it technically with him. Instead I let him struggle through it on sheer personality. Bought books of plays by Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams on the way home. Read Sam’s “Cowboy Mouth.” The night I went to see it at the American Place, Sam, who was playing one of the parts, didn’t show up. He later told me he was walking in a field in New Hampshire. Patti Smith, who wrote it with him and was acting it with him, had to announce there would be no performance. I went to visit them at the Chelsea Hotel one night when they were in the middle of what the play’s about. Later Sam called me up and talked to me about his feelings, the same ones that make the play go. But I was too deep in my own emotional black hole to be able to manage any decent human response. I am sick of playing the clavichord. I want to play an instrument that people can hear.
17 Sept. To the actors: We are working on a great play. What this means is that the text won’t let us down. It also gives us an exhilarating freedom. I know from playing music that a great piece of music can be played many ways and will still sing. Also I know there is a pulse in every one, a heartbeat, a body rhythm that you can find and settle into and the music will carry you, it no longer takes any effort, you never want to stop. Now, my work as director has two parts. One of them is producing the play, getting all the processes in motion and heads and hands together to make the whole production happen. The other is to help you to individual performances that all come together into one work of art. It is very confusing and I can’t keep tuned in to everybody all the time. I want communication open. Paranoia is a waste of energy. I can’t read your minds, so tell me when you need help and what you want to work on. We have to find a way not to be inhibited with each other and be free to try things and explore and not be afraid to make fools of ourselves.
I suddenly think it would be much better to have some one person design the whole thing. Possible to imagine a style other than realism. Magical, not cartoony. Beautiful. Not mockery. Remy [Charlip] is due back from Paris tomorrow—maybe he will do it. Bob Wilson? There must be somebody who will work through it with me.
18 Sept. Spoke to Joyce, told her to think nothing of it till Wednesday. Spoke to Remy, will see him tomorrow. Ken Rubinstein asked me to direct his play “Sacred Guard” at La Mama. I read it. He’s beautiful. But the play projects an image of despair. I don’t want to do that. I don’t believe it. Yom Kippur. Day off from “Bigfoot.” No—I called St. Clement’s to ask if we can do it there. It is certainly big enough. Kevin O’Connor, who runs the theatre at St. Clement’s, is in Edinburgh, but it sounds possible. Murray and Walter will have to agree: Genesis board meeting tomorrow.
19 Sept. Proposed to Murray and Walter that we do “Bigfoot” at St. Clement’s for the larger space but they are strongly opposed. Several boys read for the twins. Two of them I forgot completely—must not have liked them. Liked a Jewish boy and a black boy but I am uneasy about bringing anyone black into the play—don’t know what it would mean. Good rehearsal with Lee, Walter, and Albert. Good class at Hunter, broke through into honesty. Saw Remy but he is completely involved in showing his work to old friends and can’t think about anything else yet. His book “Harlequin” is exquisite.
20 Sept. I feel more and more strongly that “Bigfoot” can’t be done adequately in the space at Genesis. I guess I am using this period of casting and beginning rehearsals to work my way into the play and discover realistically what it needs, how it must be done. I feel I am selling the play, Ronnie, and myself too cheap by doing it in a situation that so limits its potential success. Also I think the power of the play may be impossible to release in that space—1) because the Jacob’s Ladder scenes that cap both acts will fall flat; 2) because the action requires the audience to be some little distance away from it for it to be believable. Otherwise it will probably look silly (which is not what the “ridiculous” is—it is an attitude that encompasses many styles and needs to do them all fully). It is a major play and ought to have that impact and we ought to have the success of it. It’s hard for me to think about success or about going into the world to get what I need. The time of change is here. Everything in my life points to it. I have to learn not how to do it but simply to do it—the how will reveal itself in the doing, it always has and does, in fact that’s the only way. Thoughts:
Lynne Meadow has Stage 73—maybe get Henry Pillsbury to finance it
Papp (talk to him)
St. Clement’s has been rejected by Genesis so if I have to take “Bigfoot” out of Genesis I will. I want to keep it a Genesis production to keep control of it. But even at the scrape-by budget of $7,200 it is taking a disproportionate share of Genesis’s money for the season.
Talk with Tom O’Horgan.
I am going out on a limb starting rehearsals in this state of mind but it’s the only way I know to explore the play and also I need to have some momentum and energy behind me. I intend to take the whole cast with me wherever. This is where the trouble will strike. I can suspend rehearsals if I need more time.
This is why I am unresolved about designers and design, because the physical production and style is exactly where the space question becomes tangible.
At this point I feel completely free with it, excited, aflutter—
No weekend in the country.
21 Sept. First read-through with the whole cast. The boy who read Alpha—Rafael Ladderman—is wonderful but seems to doubt if his parents will let him do it. I think he doesn’t know about masturbation. I guess I am embarrassed about it and afraid of embarrassing the bys. Missing the other twin. Maybe I should go through parents to get 14-year-olds. Missing the Idiot. Otherwise everybody excellent, although Albert was reading Lubin all wrong, very fake and actorish, and Lee has long hard work ahead. We know that. The first act was wonderful. The second we read out of sequence and it didn’t make much structural sense, naturally.
I am really seriously doubting my ability to get this production on. I’m not getting any help. No one else feels responsible for it and is putting energy into it except the actors—I mean the production. I will have an acted play but no production. I very strongly feel the need of a producer. Tried to see Joe Papp today. I will try again tomorrow—also the others. Action! But I lay awake most of last night with horrible fears and fantasies.
Saw to review: Theatre Laboratoire Vicinal, “Tramp.”
22 Sept. Lunch with Remy.
23 Sept. Met with Lynne Meadow and Henry Pillsbury. Lynne has Stage 73 but I think the stage ceiling is not high enough. I’d like to work there. Idea to do Irene Fornes’s “Tango Palace” in the cabaret. I asked Lynne to read “Bigfoot” and talk with me about it. Henry entertains the idea of putting some money into shows. At this point the best bet seems to me to be to do the show at St. Clement’s hopefully with money from Henry, maybe some Genesis money, and whatever St. Clement’s has to provide. Kevin O’Connor won’t be back from Edinburgh for another week. He starred in Ron’s last play, “Boy on a Straight-Back Chair,” in that same theatre. Not a happy experience, I gather. Henry and I mostly talked about the possibility of starting a theatre, which he is eager to finance and participate in as actor and director. I let him know I would like to do it with him. Am I getting into another secondary role? I hope so. I like doing the work and making the artistic decisions but I don’t like being the front man. I want people to work with me. I want to share power but not prerogatives. I need a helper, just to stand by me and make phone calls and make me feel less alone. Maybe I should hire somebody. It would have to come out of my pocket, but why not? The people in the show are getting $50 a week (so am I). Maybe $25 a week. I am making $300 a week between the Voice and Hunter and Genesis. Wow! But need not to spend it all. Maybe Kevin Breslin. Maybe Barbara Kopit, who asked if I have anything for her to do.
Flash tonight to ask Bob Wilson to design the play. I have been thinking all along that his is the right eye for the play but haven’t been able to think of anyone who has it. He could do it! I’ll call him tomorrow. Also he has a flock of minions. I have been assuming he is obsessed with his own work but who knows? and he could make this his own. It would be a collaboration. Groovy!—that’s what it should be, that’s what I want.
Saw to review: “Shango de Ima” at Genesis.
24 Sept. I went to see the Astor Place Playhouse, which now has a much higher ceiling over the stage, a balcony, and 290 seats. It does not suit the play—too narrow. Bruce Mailman raised the possibility of the Truck and Warehouse Theatre, which would be great. Bob Wilson is apparently in Europe. Remy suggested Patrick Sullivan as designer. Richard Laws called from Iowa to say he has to go right back to Holland and can’t play the Bigfoot. All day I tried to reach Kevin but failed. I think he’s about to go on a western tour with “Tom Paine.” Barbara Kopit is probably a more useful idea. Saw to review: “We Bombed in New Haven.”
25 Sept. Beeson has been offered a choice part in a show at the American Place and will probably leave “Bigfoot” to take it. Excellent rehearsal with him and Lee and Nancy, but it seems pointless. The whole production is in doubt. If Beeson actually leaves I don’t know how to recast: he is a key member. I think I will stop “Bigfoot” and go immediately into “Vinyl Visits an FM Station” instead, which will be very good at Genesis and a manageable four-week production. Eve (stage manager) is very good. Then see where and how to get a good production of “Bigfoot” to happen. I went to see Patrick Sullivan about designing it and left him a script. Kevin Breslin got word I was looking for him and came over. We talked about my possible needs of assistance and it seems to be something like production coordinator, which is just what he does; but it seems I need to decide what production is happening before there is actually any production work to do. It felt good to have Eve there helping today—she’s enough for the moment. Kevin rapped about his big-time touring experiences and made me feel rather weak cheese. A great play—what’s that? But— I don’t really need him because nothing is happening.
26 Sept. Nearly lost it today. Beeson’s probable leaving blew apart what momentum we had—shock delayed a day by my passivity. Nancy brought it into the open and I realized there just isn’t enough to go on. Rehearsal fell apart. Before that, though, I had suddenly seen that the Genesis space is feasible by turning the play 90 degrees and using the depth of the space instead of the width. Before that I had taken the script to Papp, who makes me quite nervous. At this point, ironically, I don’t want him to like the play. Came here with Ronnie after the debacle and eventually recomposed myself and composed casting notices for Backstage and Show Business to replace Beeson and get Bigfoot, Idiot, and boys. Rehearsals suspended till next Monday—one week lost. O.K. After these changes I am happy about doing it at Genesis. I hope Lee comes through—I don’t know very clearly how to work with him, though today was very constructive. Ronnie says he has no understanding of the style. Nor has Beeson, for that matter. Also find myself wanting Jerry and Joyce to do sets and costumes. Just go ahead and get it together. Talk with Henry tomorrow about long-range plans.
27 Sept. Day off from the play, almost. It looks like Michael Harwood will do the set. Charles Terrel is going to California and can’t. Michael is one of the people painting my apartment. I have never seen any of his work—but he has a quick and confusion-free understanding of what’s needed, and he and his friend Jean-Claude Vasseux will be able to build it. In the past couple of days I have finally been able to visualize the production in the space. Kevin and I had a phone chat about the production problems, which are few but difficult: 1) the blood; 2) the Bigfoot’s cry (Kevin says the one from the movie “Abominable Snowman” is what Ronnie describes); 3) the vitrail (Fr. stained glass window, described as “ornate, stunning”) that gets shattered at every performances; 4) the fire (which I think can be imagined, with delicate lighting).
29 Sept. I am into a radical rethinking of the style of the play—in search of the ridiculous, I guess, at last. And very much wondering whether Lee is going to be able to give the kind of performance Jack must be—which is very flamboyant, over the brink of dementedness, terribly embarrassing, beyond outrageousness. Jean-Claude Vasseux would like to play it. I don’t know, don’t know what he can do, am afraid he’d turn it gay. John Vaccaro turned Ronnie’s plays wildly camp, which I don’t think worked, but the feyness and carrying-on were a mode of stylization, which is needed. I feel helpless attacking this problem (of style) directly, have to get at it through the cumulation of decisions and choices. So far I think I have made several wrong ones. Possibly beginning with Lee. Also curious about Jim Hall, whom I talked to today. (Koutoukas called to suggest him.) Open readings in progress. Found one of the twins—a very professional 14-year-old named Billy Natbony—and a possible Esau, Amlin Gray, who was in the Theatre for the New City street plays I saw two weeks ago and admirable. Good talk with Jean-Claude and Michael. I have to try to think about the style, not just fall into a half-assed “realistic” boringness. I am into an intense realism but of a stylized kind—purified or something—trying to bring together my own style with Ronnie’s play and the Genesis style. Eeek! Abbot Costello!
One thing that is making this a problem and hard to approach is my own sexual ambiguity. I need to come out into heterosexuality in order to come out into freedom and honest joy in my work. Maybe I am projecting this onto Lee—although I don’t know him very well, I have always felt we are curiously alike. We are inclined to talk about other things rather than work on the play. Tomorrow morning I have a rehearsal with him—and must confront the question of whether he is going to do the role.
30 Sept. Big switcharound. Ronnie woke up at 5:30 hearing Walter as Jack. Lee and I confronted the issue, Ronnie joined us, then Eve. First Lee persuaded me that he could do it, he would come through; then, as if deliberately (though indirectly), he persuaded me that he couldn’t or wouldn’t. The issues was that Jack has to take over the stage, the actor playing Jack has to take over the play (like Hamlet—the example we all used); but Lee, who is modest and retiring by nature, started arguing that Jack is not alone in—
I think we all knew it was all over as Lee left, though it was undeclared. No one could think of anything to say. “Thanks for the cigarette,” said Lee to Ronnie. We had Walter in and he stated his conditions—$100 a week, twice everyone else’s salary (he has to support a wife and child as well as himself and was just about to resume driving a cab—but he couldn’t do that and play Jack), and a membership at the Y so he can get in shape; then read the opening scene with Eve, not doing anything yet clearly in command, knowing the nature of the words, and understanding the stakes and scale of the role. A real actor, says Ron, who is very enthusiastic. It’s true—whatever it is, Walter has it. Presence, I don’t know what, and also an actor’s knowledge of how far he is implicated in what he does. A beautiful young man from California came in to read—someone Lee met at a party last night—and I cast him as Esau: Michael Byron Taylor. Jim Hall came in to read as Jack and we cast him as the Abbot—I have seen him be superb, another presence, and wanted to work with him. Ron and I both think Albert is all wrong for Lubin. It is the least of the roles, but somebody could have a wonderful time with it, and Albert doesn’t know where to start. Maybe Jean-Claude Vasseux. I want actors who will seize the roles. The other day Kevin brought me some photos and resumes of actors who auditioned for “Crazy Now” and I called one of them, Scott Gordon, to play the Idiot on the basis only of his small size and hunch. Lacking one boy and the bigfeet. In other words the whole cast is changed except Nancy, who still seems to me perfect for Evelyn, though we haven’t begun to work on her performance. I feel a new energy, a sense at last that it’s going to be fun. Till now it has all been work and going through the motions except for a few conferences with Ronnie. Lee and Nancy were fun in the first scene of Act 2. Casting Amlin Gray as the Bigfoot—he was a good possibility for Esau and can understudy. I’m not sure whether to tell Carolyn Lord I definitely want her for the Female. We have been talking about the possibility of having Lubin double as the Female—Kevin’s suggestion—to save one salary. But I think it’s el cheapo and not worth it: I want Carol. At the very end of the play it would mean cheating.
I now have a vision of the ladder, or at least what’s behind it: a scrim curtain covered with gold sequins, so the lights can start behind it, then come up on the front of it and still be behind the actors (end of Act 1) until light explodes on Esau’s face. End of Act 2 add Xmas lights on the backs of the rungs, lighting one step at a time as the Idiot goes up, colors in the order of the rainbow. With it in the first act we need to get the dawn and sunrise: will color do that or is the thought too splashy? I think there’s a time for splash and this is it. In the first act it has to make an “unearthly atmosphere.” O.K.
Saw to review: John Herbert McDowell’s evening at Theater for the New City, a big Diane di Prima play and choice delicacies from the sixties. Last night: Vicinal’s “Lunapark.” The night before: Bob Patrick’s “The Golden Circle.”
1 Oct. Day sort of off. I went to the church to see a boy, Neil Semer, and will probably take him, though he may look unmistakably older than Billy—he’s 16, Billy’s 14. But he read very well, picked up on the humor of the script immediately, and had a wonderful open enthusiasm of interest. I liked him. Also he is old enough to know what the masturbation scene is about, and I don’t know if Billy is, and I have to be able to talk straight about it to at least one of them. It makes sense for Alpha to be bigger, hairier, and more mature, though he shouldn’t seem actually older. At this point Neil has a beard, which will go. Told Lee he’s out. He said, “I think you’re crazy.” Told Albert he’s out. No rancor.
2 Oct. Michael Taylor just called to say he can’t play Esau as his reason for being in New York is to make money and he has to be free for modeling and commercials and doesn’t want to hang everybody up by missing rehearsals, etc. I’m disappointed, but no telling if he could act the role anyway. Another first rehearsal today with Walter, Nancy, Jim, Jean-Claude—all marvelous. Billy brought a friend, Ben Kushner, and I cast him as Alpha. Missing a costumer. Maybe Charles Terrel won’t go to California. I hope Amlin Gray will play Esau; then I don’t know who for the Bigfoot—maybe Charles Stanley.
3 Oct. Excellent cast, good work feeling. Worked on the opening and the latter part of the classroom scene (Walter, Jim, J.-C. groovy together). Charles Terrel came by and will do the costumes. Then at 4 I had a full-cast readthrough of the whole play. Scott Gordon will play the Idiot. Amlin Gray as Esau. All good. No troubles in reading the play—in fact it seemed to me almost too simple, though complicated. Got boring and dumb toward the end of the first act (tea time). Missing only the bigfeet, but Charles T. had suggestions. It seems clear to me now that they must be huge.
4 Oct. Good work on first scene of Act I. I don’t yet know how to turn Amlin on to the Ridiculous—which I hope we can get at by being excessively real. But his is the hardest role to do it with—the straightest. Classroom scene fine. Talk with Michael about the set: we’re neither now thinking real trees a good idea.
Saw to review: Harry Koutoukas’s “In Search of the Cobra Jewels.”
In a way the style problem is to keep it from becoming too real. Certainly from seeming to be trying to, etc. In the play I saw tonight (Ron and Harvey Tavel were in it) H. M. Koutoukas actually sliced himself with a razor as the first-act finale. I thought it destroyed the play. We should feel pity and terror for the character, not for the actor. Should, should. Anyway. Maybe should use fake blood that doesn’t even look real. (Vege-burgers?) And the shots be with fake gun and recorded sound. What?
5 Oct. My 37th birthday.
6 Oct. Good rehearsals, good cast. Hard work for Walter, as we knew it would be, but the production is shaping up solidly around him. Just wrote a note to Joe Papp telling him it will open at Genesis 2 Nov. Now seems like madness to have taken it to him, to have gone on that whole ambition trip with it, etc.—seems altogether to belong where it is. And so do I.
To review: “The Bed Was Full.” Talked to Rochelle Owens and to Rosalyn Drexler. Women! Suggested to Rosalyn that maybe I could direct one of her plays. She said, “Would you?” In fact it is an enormous commitment of time and energy to undertake a production. I have to get my life in such shape that I can do it all the time as a matter of course. What is missing at this point is a (mutually) supportive personal relationship. I can do it. The unreasonable energy demand is starting from scratch every time. Momentum is possible! Rosalyn mentioned “The Line of Least Existence.” I’ll reread it. Or an Owens (“He Wants Shih”?). Or a Fornes (“Tango Palace”).
8 Oct. Terrifying mid-night thoughts after staying up till three writing a column. Thinking of the set to be built—the throne, the rolling screen, the forest, the ladder and its enclosure, the monastery, the light board. The platform the real lighting board is on is near collapse. Terror. Michael and I talked about the forest. He wants to do it with planks of wood on end. He says anything we do is conceptual. I keep thinking it should be real-looking, but I don’t know how to make it. That’s why I have him. But he wants to try the boards. I wish he would do a model or at least some detailed drawings so I could feel confident it will all get done. Latest idea for the shatterable vitrail is hinged plexiglas.
9 Oct. Told Michael I want the trees realistic and laid on him my anxieties about the many pieces of the set. He was reassuring about everything except the vitrail. I called a production meeting Wednesday morning. Rejected potential Bigfoot as too small (6’ 4 ¾”). First rehearsal with Harvey; we worked clear through the second act. Excellent approach to the end, analysis and breakdown. All on hand but the uncast bigfeet and the Idiot, who is in Texas till next week. Afterwards Walter stayed to talk about Jack with Ronnie and me. I am endlessly amazed at the richness and complexity of the text and Ronnie’s penetration and awareness of it. I will find it hard to work on another author’s play after this—everybody else seems simple-minded by comparison. He says he spent eight months writing it, “putting my sanity on the line every day.” I’ve got into the habit of knocking a play off as fast as I can write: “Country Music” took less than six weeks, which included a transcontinental trip, traumatic living arrangements, and production hassle. I might be better off spending a good part of this winter writing a play—now that I have a place to work and a momentarily sufficient income—rather than putting my time and energy into producing and directing plays I don’t really respect just to have something to do to keep anxiety at bay. This is the opposite of what I have been thinking for the past few months. It’s a frightening prospect. It would put me up against myself in a way I have been managing to avoid, stalling till a lover comes along. Fact is, I have to choose to reach out, and don’t they say you have to go in to get out? I sound silly. But if the days I am giving to “Bigfoot” were put into a play of my own, it would contain considerable energy. I don’t mean I’m begrudging “Bigfoot” anything. Ronnie said some time ago that working with him would put me in touch with my own seriousness, which he knows I habitually evade.
If I pull off “Bigfoot” that should consolidate my directing “career,” coming right after “Country Music,” which because of the Obie seems to have happened at the end of last season, though it was actually almost a year ago. Then I won’t have to direct anything for a while, and shouldn’t unless it really turns me on. Does “it” turn me on, or do I turn on to it (or turn it on)? Zzzzz
11 Oct. Production meeting this morning rather anxiety-ridden. I am worried about the set. I wish I knew how to get it going without using the energy of up-tightness. Maybe it’s all cool, but I felt no energy flow so I am pushing. Start building this weekend. I will start lighting. Fine rehearsal. Walter is terrific to work with. I am not doing much—getting them to follow stage directions, listening and making sure they know what they’re saying, translating Ronnie’s thoughts to the actors. Mainly it is just telling them where to start. Sure takes a lot of energy: I have to pay attention to everything all the time.
Saw to review: “Dude.”
12 Oct. Morning. Michael Harwood the set designer just quit.
Later (2 a.m.). Charles Terrel will do the set and Carl More, formerly his assistant, the costumes—or they will do the whole thing together. Charles has a cold and I sent him to Dr. Heilbroner. I don’t know Carl. There were two people at Phebe’s I thought were he. Good rehearsal of the first act forest scene. Missing Bigfoot: I have not found anybody big enough. Scott Gordon, due for his first rehearsal as the Idiot today, didn’t show. Otherwise—
14 Oct. Scott came yesterday—he’s very good. Still no Bigfoot, and no prospect. Other big worry is to get the set and costumes going. I took down all the lights today and Burton coiled up the cable—ready to rehang the light pipes and begin the light set-up, which can be done piece by piece as the set gets made. Walter called late last night to say he had made some discoveries about Jack in his solitary night work. Apart from the sense and reality there is the need to find a playing style for each scene, a way of projecting it. “What movie is this scene from?” is the way I put it to Ronnie, though it is not that simple. Make the flat reality, then turn it: I am just beginning to get the sense of it. Walter says we should be more ruthless. He’s terrific. Clio Young is fine as the Female. Billy is good but Ben was moody on Friday—I hope he is not getting temperamental or feeling put-upon. Nancy did her monologue in the midst of chaos and I was really moved by it, the whole scene silenced. She initially comes on rather kittenish, the Jackie Kennedy voice, but increasingly moves into an amazing realness and strength. Amlin is fine as Esau but has not yet got the feel of the style, of what differentiates it from realism. We set out to find that first thing next rehearsal.
15 Oct. Day off. I had a lovely afternoon playing flute and harpsichord sonatas by Friedrich der Grosse with Ken Wollitz. Went to La Mama to see “Our Very Own Hole in the Ground.” Took till 3 a.m. writing review of that and “Dude.” Ho hum. Called Barbara Kopit to ask her to come assist me from now till opening but she is in Europe doing a La Mama gig. Maybe back soon.
16 Oct. This play is terribly difficult. I am not smart enough, I can’t think clearly enough. I can’t “understand” or explain it, all I can do is work on it piece by piece, get it on, get it together. Ron does the explaining—he is endlessly good at it, but I don’t know if it does much good. It’s so complicated! My mind boggles and goes blank. I am outside the content; all I see is a structure of theatrical effects. I see and respect its passion and seriousness but I can’t get into them. Sometimes I don’t know what Ron is talking about: I don’t know why Jack wants to kill Esau. So far as I know, the brother hang-up is just a pretext for art.
I am reassured now that Charles Terrel and Carl More have joined up to do set and costumes. Still no actor to play Bigfoot. I am tonight thinking of going right into rehearsal with “Tango Palace” the instant “Bigfoot” opens. Inevitably I will be stuck with going to a month of performances. Ugh.
17 Oct. Best of rehearsals today, mostly with Walter, Jean-Claude, and Jim. Yesterday was blocked, strugglesome, deadly, frustrating, confused; today was fun and constructive. I am beginning to do some directing now and then, actually make something of scenes. Ronnie was sick today and stayed home; I think I will tell him to stay away a while. We actually need about two weeks more rehearsal than we can have. Instead we have to push all the time, can’t afford to take the time to dig into the joy of the work. I will do some work with Walter alone on monologues over the weekend. Time soon to start having longer rehearsals. Still need Bigfoot—ad going into Show Business tomorrow, out Thursday. Fine stage manager, Eve, takes care of that, blood research and experiments, props gathering.
18 Oct. Found the clue to the Abbot’s character today in his snobbishness, class pride—he thinks of himself as the Pope. First act work, more tomorrow. Everybody is very good. Still no real approach to Idiot, and Esau attitude not right. Carl More (costumer) came in for a while. Good free work—but so much of it! Talked with Johnny Dodd this evening who gave me names of electricians—I have decided with his advice that the lighting boards must be moved to the other end of the room, to free the far corner for forest and so the electrician (Burton Greenhouse) will be able to see the stage. What does this mean (aesthetically) if the real light board (and light man) is visible as well as the fictitious, fake one and Evelyn, fake lighting girl? But hidden he equally bothers me, and it will be more possible to do good cues if he can see. Johnny also made me realize I should get the lights hung and working this weekend, use them in rehearsal all next week. Can I direct from the light board? I’d like that.
19 Oct. Lined up a crew to help me with lighting set-up this weekend—Steve Whitson, Charlie Embry, Kevin Breslin (?), Barbara Kopit. Don’t know how many of them can be paid. Maybe $50 total. Also Burton. First move light pipes. Burton got parts to fix the dimmer boards, both out of commission at present. Paul Holland hopefully will take care of moving the boards. Saw Charles Terrel at La Mama where I went to see the “People Show,” which was marvelous. Charles will order lumber tomorrow, start building over the weekend. Consulted with Douglas Kahn about makeup. He has good ideas how to build bigfoot masks and also old age makeup for Jim Hall (Abbot). Good rehearsal of first act. The classroom scene is fine. Jim’s new character work is fine, and Jean-Claude came in with a new approach to Lubin that is very good—much more real, less caricature, more convinced. Difficulty with how to play the forest scene. The Idiot is too undefined—Scott is trying to make him real, but should make him grotesque, weird, our real vision of mongoloids and such that we normally cover with liberal sentiment and embarrassment. Nancy having trouble for some reason with sexiness and comedy. Amlin having trouble too with too realistic acting.
20 Oct. Tore apart the first-act forest scene—spent the whole day on it—and began to put it back together more entertainingly. Walter bugged at having sat around most of the day reading a magazine.
Saw to review: “Mother Earth” (half).
21 Oct. Woke in the night thinking about the set not having been begun. I worked this afternoon—and will continue tomorrow—with Charlie Embry’s help rehanging the light pipes and hanging the lights. Burton finished fixing the dimmer boards. He points out that we have passed the point of taking down and begun the process of making. When Charlie and I tore down the old light booth I suddenly realized we had no theatre, only a room. No set, no costumes, and no Bigfoot. I am feeling bugged at Charles Terrel, who told me he would order lumber on Friday and then didn’t. Even apart from that (except for the Bigfoot) I don’t see how we can open on time—too much rehearsing still to be done. Not for any reason but the difficulty and complexity of the play. Walter talked to me today, told me he had been in a rage by the end of yesterday’s rehearsal. Says, among other things, that I’m doing ego numbers on him. But it’s not true! Fact is, he was fucking off. I wish I could get him to be more objective about the role so he would stop being upset by it and using that as an excuse for not directing his energy clearly toward performance. Not that he isn’t working hard and well. But he mystificates and mythologizes and magnifies difficulties in a way that prevents me from working directly toward solutions with him, as I do with the others. My mistake is withholding reassurances and so feeding insecurity. Eve reassures me, is a conscientious presence, but I wish she would take hold of the unassigned problems instead of leaving them to me and the last minute. We can rehearse for another week by a) calling the first weekend “previews,” if in fact we’ll be ready even for that; b) working a week without pay; c) shorting a week on performances, i.e., playing only three weeks; d) getting another $675 or so for an extra week’s payroll.
Saw to review: “Blue Horse,” “Gossamer Wings.”
22 Oct. Another day of hard lighting work with the paid aid (only) of Charlie. We tore down the lighting booth and moved the dimmer boards to the other end of the room. It seemed to me a drastic and not exactly necessary act of destruction. I panicked in the middle, then again after the platform came crashing to the floor. I will have a scar to show for it, back of my right hand. Cabled, labeled, and rough-focused about half the lights. I am doing fine as lighting designer. The set and costume designers are still missing. Don’t know how I’m doing as director. I’d better cast a Bigfoot, one of the 6’5” people who came to audition, lacking anyone larger. Then we’re in good shape. I worked till 9 p.m., ate a Chinese dinner on the way home, then had a column to write, and feel rather tired. Took me till 3 a.m. again—five hours. That’s O.K. I’m O.K.
24 Oct. Cast Paul Pierog as Bigfoot today—first rehearsal this afternoon, whole cast, first scene of Act II, very strenuous. Tonight Charles Terrel came over with a fine rendering of the set and lots of sketches and we worked out the design, I think. It looks very good. Carl More coming in the morning. It seems to be coming together. I have actually got a rehearsal schedule hour by hour, aiming for first runthrough day after tomorrow—one week before opening. From now on the production gets all my time and energy. Plenty to do.
Later. Brain burning—I can’t sleep. My back aches, I guess from the somersaults and carrying Scott about.
Tonight something Charles said made me realize, for the first time, that the bigfeet are real.
26 Oct. Just home from 15 hours in the theatre. First runthrough of the second act today seemed very good. Costume and set work begun. Charles and I tried to work out the ladder, got stuck—not enough room. I was doing a little lighting work while he built the monastery. Then very late he proposed a radical change—to turn the whole thing about 30 degrees, placing audience and play diagonally in the space instead of head-on. Mind-blowing thought. I think it’s a good idea—puts a whole space energy into the play that has been missing doing it square in the room, makes the space mysterious. I will sleep on it. Listing to WBAI about Vietnam war and peace possibilities.
27 Oct. Morning. I am undecided about the redesign proposal, and an immediate decision is called for.
Decided to move it, and did so before the rehearsal. Seems much improved, opened up—makes more space, less regular. Not much audience fits in. First runthrough. Some of it is very good, some awful. Walter is erratic, sometimes superb, strong, straight, other times apparently goofing off, blah-blahing through. Many problem spots. Spot rehearsals only tomorrow, only Walter, Nancy, Harvey. I wish the performances would all get much more in control, more focused, more intended. But the new space threw them off today. Proceeding toward opening Thursday next, 2 Nov., per plan.
28 Oct. I feel as though I may have been drugged by Harry Koutoukas at the closing night party of “In Search of the Cobra Jewels,” which I have just come from, and I don’t entirely mind if I was. This is the most interesting phase of the “Bigfoot” production, in which the physical production is beginning to come into being and the actors are beginning to get into the actual content of the play. Walter is very troubled, and I had a long good talk with him tonight in which we at least opened lines of communication. I keep thinking he needs to be more objective about the character, identify with it less, present it more directly. But maybe the heavy trip is built into the role. Harvey thinks so. I talked to Harvey tonight at the party, and he told me the play is really how it is with him and Ronald. I think I have been trying to hide that reality from Walter (and myself?), but maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe he needs to know what he is being put through in order to realize where the heavy vibes are coming from. I think he needs to get it more under control by a conscious, willful ordering of his mind and deliberately making a distance between it and himself, between his inside-the-play karma and his everyday outside existence and identity and time. I myself make as much time off from it as I need to keep sane. But at this point it’s cool to get a little crazy, have some fun—no, that doesn’t sound like what I mean. I think I have been drugged. I think Walter is semi-secretly taking that other route into madness, perhaps to tap the energy of terror, and although I don’t think it’s necessary, maybe it is. I see him choosing it, though he gnaws constantly at meaning. He says he has come at it through every available drug. I myself am drug free except for grass, mainly as after-hours unwinder. Bob Patrick and Carl More helped Charles build the set today, and they got the staircase, monastery wall, and one tree up. I have got lots of lights up, many adjustments to be made, many more to be invented and installed once the set is there. I don’t personally feel at all involved in the play’s content. I can pretty much follows its meaning, but its brother passion doesn’t suck me in. What I love is art. The “Cobra Jewels” party was another climax of decadence—many fabulous drags, on the set, stage lights, food, wine, and dope, theatrical people, love and joy in the air. Harry was tremendously loving and made me feel wonderful. At the climax the set was wildly ripped down by a crowd of amazing-looking people screaming, “The fall of Troy!”
29 Oct. Critical moments. We did not get through the play today. The first act was terrible so I went back and worked on it, especially the classroom scene, in which Walter has to lay out the subject mater. I realized they have been doing it much too fast. Glorious hard-working rehearsal. I hope they can hang onto what we achieved! Nancy was way off in the first forest scene, and I didn’t know what to tell her except don’t flounce around, be tough, be beautiful, be sick not petulant. She and Amlin went out and worked on it in the churchyard for hours on their own. Fine work with Nancy, Walter, and Paul Pierog (Bigfoot) on the end of Act I. Scott Gordon (Idiot) is out sick. I hope he recovers by tomorrow—otherwise we’re in trouble. The set is going up fast. I have to do a lot of light work tomorrow before rehearsal, then probably stay late. Marathon ahead. I just wrote something about the La Mama Indians—will probably let it go at that and write about the “People Show” next week. I haven’t done any “Bigfoot” publicity or press stuff at all. Walter shaved off his beard. He was very good today. Still says he feels lost but we are finding out what he needs fast now. The opening was there this time, and we got the classroom scene when we went through it slowly, and the last time the monologue was brilliant. Hard to get the exposition slow and emphatic enough and then to make it fly fast and uninterrupted once it starts the plunge to the climax.
31 Oct. Costumes the worry factor. Otherwise the production is coming together. So far there are no bigfeet. The playing is very uneven and unreliable, but tonight the first act was wonderful—Walter had it, all but the end—”That is the thing… ”—which we will work on tomorrow before dress rehearsal. I was making light cues at the same time, Burton at the board, and we pretty well stayed with them. Act II was mostly a mess, though. Last night it was the other way around.
2 Nov. Opening night morning. I am home from 18 hours straight in the theatre. Went uptown first to buy a bright quartz light for the ending. Then light work. Excellent dress rehearsal. Started late because a whole section of rhododendrons—part of the forest set—fell over and flooded the stage. Great rush because Paul (Bigfoot) was late for his teaching job in Brooklyn. First time both acts have been good. First time I have felt the power of the ending. I was busy with Burton touching up light cues.
3 Nov. Opened on schedule and it was good. Of course.