Elia Kazan on Theatre: Part Two

New York

James Grissom:  Is the theatre constantly changing? Is it possible that what Tennessee, what you, what others don't like about it is simply that it was or is no longer your theatre?

Elia Kazan: Well, of course it's true that it is no longer my theatre: I no longer work in it; I no longer contribute to it as a director. I'm an audience member on occasion. The theatre belongs to those who are working in it, and, for better or worse, the theatre as a whole is a reflection of what they put into it, what they believe, what and who they are. The question is tricky, however, because it's easy to conflate the enterprise--financial, artistic, social--we know as theatre in this and other cities with the theatre, which is a form of art, of literature, of sociology. They are entirely different things. However, within the art form, you are reflecting the times and coloring the view of the world--if you're any good. What I feel has happened is that no one is really operating with any sense of what the theatre is or should be: It's just a circular production of plays and musicals; changing slots; marketing. I see that groups keep forming--theatrical groups--and I keep going, and I keep being asked to speak and comment. I go, I look: There are some talented people; there are some bad people. They throw up a few plays each season, but I can never discern what they want to be or say or do, other than throw up a few plays each season, all with their company of friends.

JG: Are you now against theatrical groups or companies?

EA: I'm against aimlessness, confusion. One company made it known to me that their goal, their précis, so to speak, was to produce good and powerful and socially relevant plays, but no one in that room had a cogent description of what that would be. They essentially took the pornography defense, which is that they would know it when they saw it. What they eventually become is a little fiefdom of grants and awards and grudges and a group of favorites who show up over and over again, and nothing changes. This does not help the theatre, in my opinion.

Groups are launching pads, I think. It's comforting to find a group of actors and directors and writers who gather together and form a sort of family and talk about what they want to be when they grow up. They fight and they make up; they fall in and out of love; they go to the theatre and to movies and argue about what is good and what isn't. Ultimately, they produce some plays, and, as with the Group, they are based on a shared philosophy of sorts about life and literature and politics. Ultimately, however, the better ones outgrow this infantilization, this having a mommy figure and a daddy figure and a nanny and an older brother to hold your hand and take your side. You break free and take what you've learned and take new risks with new people. That is how, I think, an artist in the theatre grows. Now, a lot of actors just want to make sure they have steady work, so they'll sign up with a group and be a member and do whatever is asked of them. You become your choices.

Look, it was always hard to find work in the theatre. There were more opportunities when I started because things were so much cheaper and the audiences were larger. We also believed that we could change the world--and we wanted to. We believed that the theatre was a documentary art, and it could reveal injustices as well as it could reveal the human heart. What's the last play you saw that had you going to the streets to change things? A play that got you so angry about a particular condition that you were truly changed?

I think audiences are changed now by spectacle and gimmicks and stars. Things have to crash and slide open and fall loudly to the stage floor. This is how you know that something has happened. I think plays are crafted onto timely subjects so that they are fashionable and people can feel smart about having seen them. That is what Tennessee was referring to when he talked about  the 'Friends of Thirteen' play: Seemingly smart but facile. Easy to swallow; easy to forget. I'm all for writing and producing a play that deals with a big and topical subject, but examine it, deal with it, defend it, slander it: Don't just slather some dialogue over it.

JG: You said the other day that the definition of theatre has changed.

EA:  Oh God, yes. Now they throw a few musical stands in a black box and have people read and it's theatre. It's outrageous. I get invitations to readings constantly. Good actors sitting or standing around reading a new play, getting it on it's feet. Industry people; sweaty armpits; nervous smiles. And that play is never heard of again. I tell you, it's just a matter of time, but they're going to find a way to create a Tony award for readings, and then we'll have a whole new subset of stars to deal with.

JG: But haven't playwrights always done that? Had readings?

EA: I think it's some bullshit that's tied up in some way with grant money; tax-free status. I think if these non-profits open up their rooms or their stages to a certain number of these events, so to speak, they continue to qualify for their money. No, playwrights did not always do this. Playwrights used to--and I'm sure they still do, if they're good or famous or both--send their plays through their agents to various producers, who then raise the money for a production in which they believe.

Look, it's manufactured theatrical activity. Look how much we're doing, they say. We bus in students to see how sets are built; we take in the homeless to be healed by the arts; we mount plays by the mentally ill to show them that everyone is an artist. I'm sure there must be a few people in these theatres who think that these activities matter, or that they constitute theatre, but they are qualifications for grants and handouts and awards of merit. And plays--good plays--and actors are lost in the activity.

The dream is not enough, as Tennessee said. You have to merit a place, and the place can't be your living room or a basement or a theatre you've rented for the night to do your little plays. You have to fight your way into the arena--the place where plays are professionally produced and people come--again and again, if you're lucky--to be amazed or enraged or amused by what you do.

JG:  So you don't think an ambitious troupe should put shows together and invite people to see if they matter?

EA: They can do whatever they want. I wish them well. They can populate all the halls in all the world with music stands and read every play ever written aloud. It might entertain or fill up the empty hours of a small group of people. But listen to me: It is not theatre. It's killing time; feeding a delusion.

This will sound very optimistic and simple coming from me, especially after my diatribe, but if you are good, really good, people find out and show up, and you find an audience. I also mean a real audience, not an audience of friends or industry paper. People who don't know or love you or owe you money or a favor: People who care about the theatre and want to see how you contribute to it.


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