Elia Kazan: The Theatre Responds

Vivien Leigh, Tennessee Williams, and Elia Kazan on the set of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Interview with Elia Kazan
Conducted by James Grissom

We are all fantastically brave--and stupid--to pursue a career in the arts, particularly the theatre, which doesn't really exist any longer. There were never enough jobs, opportunities, risks available, but now it is tragically comical, and when I speak to classes and I look at all these committed young faces, I feel like we're all on the Titanic, or a fire is racing up the stairs to consume us. I want to tell them to find some other way to live or some other way to destroy their lives.

Where will they work? There are, what, four faucets now pouring forth theatre in New York City? So I guess you stand beneath one of these faucets, praying for a chance, and then really praying for a sinecure. And where is the audience? Is anyone growing up today feeling a need for plays? I overheard some people--in their twenties or thirties--on the street the other day. By all appearances they were affluent, educated, and they were talking about how they were seeing a play--their first in many, many months--because it was a birthday for one of them, and their mother had prevailed upon them to see something she liked. God help us if the play isn't good--they may not return to the theatre for another two or three years.

The theatre responds--as do people--to how it is treated, and the theatre is now the old whore upstairs who is only called down when the patron can't score with the younger, prettier ones. It's where television and film stars resort when they need some valuable credibility, when they want to prove something about their talent.

Back in the Group and at the Actors' Studio, we used to believe that purity was tested by one's ability to withstand the money and the power brought by films and television. The longer you stayed in the theatre--even intermittently--the purer you were; the truer your talents. But we had a theatre then--you could, if you were good, work every season, and you could supplement your income with television that was produced just up the street or downtown. That is gone. 

So who's staying? And what are they doing? And can we blame anyone for running off to the well-paying circuses in Los Angeles?

What is keeping anyone here? I ask this because I want to know, and because I want there to be a theatre again.

© 2014 James Grissom


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