Betty Buckley: Wild and Dangerous Talent

To begin to understand the gorgeous fever that is consciousness, we must try to understand the senses and what they can tell us about the ravishing world we have the privilege to inhabit.--Diane Ackerman

  Talent—unlike skill—is wild, unpredictable, often dangerous. When theatrical talent is tethered to a good part or a perfect song and is then shepherded by a talented director, we feel a sort of release, an epiphany. We latch on to talented actors and singers to hear a story, to feel threatened, to be amazed, much as we ride roller coasters or risk death to shake up the mundane reality of our lives.  The theatre and its artists exist to shake us up, and this happens so rarely now that an announcement seems in order when an artist seems to have found an ideal outlet for her talent.

     Betty Buckley has always been Shavian in the application and the exhaustion of her gifts.  (Buckley epitomizes the axiom, from Shaw, "I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live." ) 
  There have been occasions when, at the conclusion of a play or a musical or a concert, you wonder if it has all been used up, if she can muster the strength to do it again. Always she does, and the more she gives, the more she gains, as do we. Buckley wastes no time, no notes, no gestures, but she seems to deplete her own reserves in the service of her work hourly, nightly. It is exhilarating and thrilling. She is a perfect example of the dangerous use of a talent, and one of her admirers, and one of my partners on many a night of Buckley watching, was Marian Seldes, who said “She has technique; she has skill, but that only gets you the part or to the edge of something. Her genius takes her over that edge, takes us with her. It’s thrilling.” [Marian also employed the use of a quote by Borges to explain the effect of Buckley’s talent. The quote is: "Poetry springs from something deeper; it's beyond intelligence."  Seldes believed that Buckley's talent was beyond theatre or mere performing: It was in a realm of its own.]

     During my tenure as a front-desk clerk at the Hotel Carlyle, I had the good fortune to hear Buckley’s program twice a night (at eight forty-five and ten forty-five), and to hear her pour everything she seemed to have into each song, each story. She told us of being young, in Texas, and singing into the wide, wild expanse that was her upbringing and hearing the voice come back to her. She has always approached wild and impossible tasks and audiences and conquered both.

Betty Buckley and Rachel York in Michael Wilson's production of Grey Gardens at the Bay Street Theater.

    It is not enough to love a talent—one must support it, honor it, watch its every attempt. The talent grows along with its challenges and its audiences. Betty Buckley is now taking on the role of Big Edie in Grey Gardens, a role that will allow her to invest, in the seemingly frail body and reality of an aging recluse, all of the anger of dreams diverted and dashed, and I think it is going to be thrilling and gloriously frightening. The run of Grey Gardens begins August 4th at the Bay Street Theater and concludes on August 30th.

   I frequently argue with people who bemoan the state of the arts, particularly the theatre, and I am startled and angered when I learn that they rarely attend performances, out of some sense of fatigue. We have great talents among us, and to be exposed to them, in whatever challenge they find themselves, is to know, once again, what the theatre can be.

   Accept—again or for the first time—the challenges of Betty Buckley.

   This happens whenever Betty Buckley steps onto a stage, in any capacity, and we have another opportunity to be amazed and alarmed with her. Exploit it.

Grey Gardens is being presented at the Bay Street Theater. In addition to Betty Buckley, the cast includes Rachel York and Howard McGillin, and the production is directed by Michael Wilson. For more information, and to purchase tickets, go the website of the theater.


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