Patti LuPone: All Burners On

Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline in The Robber Bridegroom. 

Unedited notes from Conversations with Tenn
New Orleans

Because I love and trust Marian [Seldes], I can go to her and seek advice and illumination and stimulation. While it is true that Marian is often too kind to offer her full and unfettered opinions, she is also incapable of dishonesty, so it is wise to metaphorically place her against a wall or some other hard object and ask her direct questions: Her wonderful eyes and eyebrows and lips--tightened or widening into a smile--will give you the information you need, the yeses and the nos.

Marian never thrust her students at Juilliard upon me. She clearly loved her work, loved her students, and her teaching amplified and enforced her talents and her personal gifts. Watching Marian forced me to alter my opinions of teaching. While Marian did not boast of her students without solicitation, if you were to mention a production, she would immediately let you know if her students were involved. I would always ask if they were talented; she would always reply that she loved them. I would always ask if I should go to see them; she would always say that she loved all theatre and all of those who wished to improve it.

I adore Marian, but she can be maddening.

So on one of these occasions, when I mentioned that I had been given tickets to a performance of the production arm of Juilliard [Tenn was referring to The Acting Company], Marian let out one of her delightful ejaculations of joy and told me that they were ALL her students.

Who should I watch? I asked.

I think they are all wonderful, she replied. I love them so.

Against a metaphorical wall I pushed my beloved Marian, and within seconds I had garnered a confession.

Patti LuPone, she whispered. She is extraordinary.

Marian knows that I am on a limited train schedule, that my time knot is tightening: My eyes and my mind and my spirit are severely rationed.

Do not take your eyes off of her,  she told me. She is everything you told me you wanted.

Marian is referring to a conversation I had with her on a street in the Bicentennial year when I was very depressed about the smallness of the world, of the theatre, of humanity.

She is everything you told me you wanted,  Marian repeated.

So I went. I saw a production of The Robber Bridegroom, and Patti LuPone was--and is, I would imagine--everything I wanted.

Shattered from some particularly volatile and beautiful Italian marble, she was bold and barely controlled, but in the best way. All burners on. Genius, I have always believed, is terribly impatient, because it understands that its outlets are ephemeral. When an artist is working with a full commitment toward expression, nothing should be allowed to stand in its way. When you have a Laurette Taylor or a [Anna] Magnani or a [Marlon] Brando, you, the director, the designer, and--I'm sorry to say--the supporting players must circle around the primary talent, the primary instrument, and allow its work to be seen in the brightest possible light, the largest space available.

Attention, I believe another wrote, must be paid.

LuPone deserves the large, bright circle.

LuPone's is an impatient talent, occasionally touched, I must insist, by genius. There was genius in The Robber Bridegroom and there was genius in Evita, and in both instances the genius emanated from an actress who happened to be capable of singing. I know the difference. I've been around.

Hers is a ferocious talent, and I want to get my hands on it. I want to warm my hands and my heart around it. I want her to stand on a stage and demand my words and I will write powerfully again. She could play Serafina [in The Rose Tattoo], but I want to travel abroad with her to new places; avenues where I am a stranger.

I don't think she knows fear or the concept of limitation.

She needs a good director.

She needs a good writer.

I think I can be a good writer again, and I think I might be able to find a good director to harness her gifts.

Abundance is what she brings to a stage. The staggering beauty is talent: a harvest. It needs to be husbanded, conserved, directed, pushed into the proper place and upon a hungry audience.

Why are we so small? Why is the ordinary so beloved now? There is nothing ordinary about communication. Communication is the rarest of gifts, and we now allow it to be given to such small talents--if I can even define them as talents.

All of the arts are elevated, special, advanced. I was raised to believe that it was my goal to rise up to the level I could manage and appreciate whatever art I found there. Opera might escape me, but I could linger with joy with other musical forms. I might not find my heart filling up to Strindberg or Brecht, but I could always find myself in Chekhov. There are, I think, planes of artistic experience, but none of them should be ordinary or remedial. The arts we love are ultimately the arts we've earned, by our understanding and our commitment and our ability to honor it when it is available.

I think it's becoming increasingly remedial, because we want full seating but we're afraid of full hearts and minds.

We trust the wrong things.

We ask the believer to trust implicitly the idiocy of religion: Burning bushes and other miracles. Virgin births and rains of toads and fire. It is our job to suspend disbelief and ascend--or descend--to the particular level of whatever frightened faith we append our souls.

But the arts? Do not bother to try, they now tell us. We bring the experience to you. We are now tailoring our theatre to the people who eat and fart and laugh at television. We now are asked to write for those who read condensed novels and excerpts in the Sunday papers and call themselves au courant. To challenge now is to offend.

I want bigness and uncertainty and danger--which is to say, I want a theatre that reflects what is happening in the hearts and souls of its audience.

I can believe in such a theatre when I see Stockard Channing or Meryl Streep or Mary Beth Hurt or Martha Henry.

Or Patti LuPone.

Who was loved and taught by Marian Seldes.

Who was praised when I pressed Marian against a wall.


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