Elia Kazan On Theatre: Part One

In Conversation
New York

James Grissom: I keep asking you about the role of the director. I think it's because every person to whom I speak has a different definition of a good director, and every person describes their ideal director differently.

Elia Kazan:  It's good that you're asking, because I would want to know--I do want to know--what these different actors need or want or despise in a director. It's how you learn things about them. However, it doesn't--and it shouldn't--change the type of director you happen to be. I always wanted to know the sort of director an actor wanted, but once I learned what that was, it didn't change how I worked. Well, maybe in the early years it did: I didn't know much, and you learn from your mistakes, and it's good to have an actor or a playwright come up to you and tell you that you screwed up, or that you might have achieved a better outcome with a different approach. Nonetheless, who and what you are as a director remains the same: You just find a way to make this person and this director you are work for the play.

JG: I read reviews that praise the direction of the play, and I can't always tell what signs they're pointing to as evidence of the excellence.

EK: Most of the reviews that praise the direction above all else, or even a bit too much, are usually written by an idiot, and what they are praising is what, in fact, makes for a bad director. What they are praising is the evidence of the director's fingerprints, and there should never be fingerprints. They almost always praise overly clever or cute directors, who adds fillips and do idiotic things with the sets or with the lighting. It's never a good idea to have, for instance, the sets close in on the actors or reduce or fray to indicate pressure or disintegration. The text is probably indicating that already, and your actors certainly should be. If the director feels that the actors are failing in doing this, and then resorts to playing with flats and scrims and such, then he is admitting that the actors are failures and he should fire them. The buck stops with the director, but so many directors feel now that their commitments are to actors and agents or subscribers and not to the play. And, of course, no one really stands for anything in the theatre anymore, other than to build a career, keep moving on, survive until pilot season. The theatre no longer has any solid foundation. I hate to say that, but...there it is.

JG: So there are no fingerprints. What mark does a director leave?

EK: Brilliant performances, a moving evening in the theatre, an exemplification of the playwright's intent. That's a lot. I failed a lot; everyone does. However, my goal was always to tell the story the playwright wrote and to present it through my vision, but always in consultation with him. It is the playwright's writing--his story--that compelled me to commit to the job, and I am now compelled to honor it. My greatest compliments were always when people came from Streetcar raving about Marlon [Brando] or Jessie [Tandy] or Kim [Hunter] or Karl [Malden] or the extraordinary sets and costumes. I hired those people; I worked with those people; I fought with those people; I trusted and loved and pushed those people. When they did great work and were praised, that was proof to me that my work was good, and I had served Tennessee and I had served each person working on that play. All I want people to see after I've directed a play or a film is that everyone is working to their fullest potential in realizing the intent of the playwright. [Emphasis made by Kazan.]

Vivien Leigh in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

JG: Is it just nostalgia...

EK: ...a form of mental illness, I think...

JG: ...or is it justified when people claim that the theatre is failing? That the theatre isn't what it once was?

EK: It could be a number of things, some of them dubious, some of them disingenuous, but it doesn't mean that the statements aren't true to some extent. The theatre is not what it once was, and it will never have the power it once had, but that is not simply because fewer talented people are working in it. The primary cause of the decline of the American theatre is the persistent decline in the desire of the American people--the American audience--to foster and to maintain a relationship with the theatre. Period. I also blame the proliferation of amateur theatres, the multitude of colleges that have departments for those who never will and never should have careers in the arts. It's now a business, a market, an income incentive, an engine of deceit. But there it is. Try getting rid of it. It makes for great income for playwrights--when and if the schools and the community theatres actually pay royalties--and it allows for some delusion in the provinces. Someone sent me a letter the other day with clippings, in which she was referred to as "the Vanessa Redgrave of St. Louis." I wish her well.

JG: But there are those who say that everyone has a right to participate in the arts.

EK: Define that. Of course a local meeting house can have dance classes, art appreciation, dramatic readings, but there is a location and a particular set of standards within that purview. What appalls me is that this democratization--which I believe should apply to local institutions that want to expose their communities to the arts--has spread to both the academic communities and all the way to professional theatre. It's what I would have to call the kumbaya effect on the arts: Let's hold hands and love the arts together. Aren't we great? Shouldn't we be honored and applauded just for attempting this? Well, no, we don't applaud attempts, or I would have a few Olympic medals for trying to run like Jesse Owens or trying to mount a gymnastic horse. Trying is good, but trying is what happens behind closed doors, in a studio, in a gym, in your dreams. It is not something for which admission should be charged and patience indulged.

JG: We'll go back to several things you said...

EK: ...I can just imagine...

JG: ... but I want to ask you why you believe that a relationship can't be fostered between the American audience and its theatre.

EK: Well, for one thing it is no longer accessible. It's far too expensive, and I can never get a straight answer as to why this is. The unions are blamed; actors are blamed; theatre owners are blamed. Perhaps they are all guilty--all I know is that I am a man of reasonable means, and I don't like paying as much for tickets as I often do. It's an enormous investment, and the plays are often poor, and the actors simply aren't well-cast or directed properly. Or maybe they're not any good. I don't know. But I've just spent several hours and several hundred dollars to examine the situation. And I get tired of it. Now, if I get tired of it--an old theatre and film director with money--how soon do you think the so-called average theatre- goer is going to get tired of it?

I also don't care for the proliferation of corporate theatres, non-profit sinecures in which a handful of people work on each and every play, decide the casting, put their fingerprints all over each production. Their plays get a texture, a taste, a smell, time after time. They dip into the same, small pool of actors, and suddenly your opportunities for excellence or inspiration are dwindling. I say this despite the fact that I was present at the abortive creation of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre. I should point out, however, that we should  have one national theatre, and now we have a series of fiefdoms that are almost universally mediocre. We should have high standards, but even with high standards, there are more than five people available to work in any given category in our theatre, but every year it seems the same five directors get the work; the same five designers do the sets and the costumes; the same five or seven actors get the parts. I'll tell you why they do, and it's not because they're terribly talented: It's because they're terribly pliant; they don't cause trouble; they punch their clocks and learn their lines and smile at the patrons.

And this is one of the things that's killing our theatre.


Popular Posts