Broadway cornered – interview with theater director Scott Elliott

Broadway cornered – interview with theater director Scott Elliott – Interview

Arthur Miller

Is American theater selling out? In the following frank conversation, one of our greatest dramatists, Arthur Miller (The Crucible, Death of a Salesman), asks one of our brightest new directors, Scott Elliott (Ecstasy, Three Sisters), to pinpoint the problems

The current turk of New York theater Is thirty-four-year-old director Scott Elliott. At his Off-Broadway base, the New Group, he has scoured the depths of English realism with his productions of Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy (1995) and Stephen Bill’s Curtains (1996). This year, he revived Noel Coward’s Present Laughter and, with a star-studded cast, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, on Broadway. Diversity, apparently, is Elliott’s metier.

Elliott has tackled American drama, too, including Arthur Miller’s latest play, The Ride Down Mount Morgan (Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1996). We asked the venerable playwright to interview his young colleague on the state of the art of American theater – but we didn’t hold our breath for a glowing appraisal.

ARTHUR MILLER: Would you say that movies deal with more important subjects than most plays do these days?

SCOTT ELLIOTT: Yes. A lot of younger artists are moving into film because it speaks to them more than theater. At the New Group I’ve been trying to create theater that will appeal to younger crowds, and to keep our ticket prices to around $15. Then, with the couple of classics I just did on Broadway, I’ve tried to approach them in ways that would make them accessible and alive. The problem is that the critical environment is not as receptive to that as audiences are.

AM: So you think audiences tend to be ahead of the critics?

SE: I think so. Audiences seem to respond less academically and more from the heart than critics do. Because everyone’s in therapy these days [laughs], audiences are very in touch with their feelings.

AM: Does that Include Broadway audiences?

SE: People who are spending $70 a ticket for a Broadway play want to be wowed like they would be at Disneyland. That’s why Disney is having such an emergence on Broadway right now with Beauty and the Beast. They’re doing The Lion King next, and they’ll have a hit with it because people are going to bring their kids to see it. Sadly, parents are not going to take the family to see Three Sisters or Present Laughter – or The Ride Down Mount Morgan, for that matter.

I was an actor in Les Miserables in the ’80s myself [laughs], and it put me through school. But now there’s no room left for a stark piece of drama or a little musical. Everything is about spectacle; producers think that’s the only thing worth doing. And it’s not.

AM: The problem is there is no countervailing set of values.

SE: No. And one newspaper, The New York Times, rules the theater word. I’ve actually heard stories about producers wanting to change things that the Times critics didn’t like.

AM: Knowing I’d be talking to you made me think of certain performances that were so magnificent I look back at them as measuring rods.

SE: Which ones were they?

AM: One was Sara Allgood in Juno and the Paycock, which the Abbey Theatre brought to New York around 1932. That performance is still with me. Another was Laurence Olivier In Oedipus Rex [1946]. Then Laurette Taylor in the first production of The Glass Menagerie [1945].

SE: What about in one of your own plays?

AM: Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman [1949] Is one of them. Did you have similar experiences as a theatergoer?

SE: I remember seeing Anthony Hopkins in Equus [1974] when I was a kid. He was unbelievable. And I feel very lucky to have been working with Frank Langella in Present Laughter, because he’s one of the few remaining Broadway stars.

AM: The Actors Studio and other schools have made it appear as though there Is a basic acting technique that one can learn. In American theater, you’re not looking for pyrotechnics as you would, say, with Olivier doing some classic work. You’re looking for actors with the technique to release their own personalities in an easy and fluent way. As a director, do you agree with that?

SE: I go for a relaxed kind of thing. There’s an actor in Three Sisters – Billy Crudup – whose sense of freedom and in-the-momentness is quite astonishing. And there are some actors who are coming out of the New York University drama program right now that have a contemporaneousness I really like. I’m having a harder time relating to actors from more classical schools.

AM: How do you see the director’s function nowadays? Because I think it’s different in different eras.

SE: Some directors pick their concepts before they pick their plays. I can only speak for myself. I put my own stamp on Present Laughter, but I had never seen it performed before and I based all my ideas on what I read in it. I tried to bring the subtext to the surface a little bit because I think audiences want to know the truth behind what’s happening to the people in the play. And I really do believe that’s because we understand more about what makes people tick than we did fifty years ago.

AM: Maybe that’s the function of theater – to give people a vision of some of the complexities of human behavior.

SE: That’s what I believe, and I have to stick to my belief, whether the critical environment is receptive to it or not.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Brant Publications, Inc.

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