Theater

Stockbridge: Summer 1966, A memoir of the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s inaugural season — Part I (of 3): Beginnings and Arthur Penn’s Production of The Skin of Our Teeth, with Anne Bancroft

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Stockbridge: Summer 1966

A memoir of the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s inaugural season — Episode I

The Berkshire Playhouse in the 1930s, before it became the Berkshire Theater Festival.
The Berkshire Playhouse in the 1930s, before it became the Berkshire Theater Festival.

Meetings with Remarkable Men (and Women)

In 1965 I had been in New York City for two years, having come down the Thruway from Honeoye Falls, NY, with a four-year stopover at Syracuse University, to begin my career in the theater. My father had been an actor and I had grown up working by his side in the community theater he started after leaving the profession. I’d been a college star at Syracuse, convinced that I was Broadway bound, but no one in New York had the slightest interest in me or what I thought to be my genius. Fortunately, in that drama department, if you weren’t in a play you had to work on the play, and I had done tech work and learned to stage-manage when I wasn’t acting. I got my Equity card while stage-managing in summer stock. At the Famous Artists Country Playhouse in Fayetteville, NY, I was, I think, the youngest stage-manager on the east coast’s “star-package” circuit. During three summers there I oversaw 24 productions that played our theater, each featuring stars of stage, film and TV. 

Three days after arriving in New York with a hundred dollars in my pocket I got the job of stage-managing Norman Rosten’s play Mr. Johnson at Equity Library Theater. Sponsored by Actors Equity, and starring young James Earl Jones, Mr. Johnson was a showcase, and it paid nothing. While that show was running, and just before my hundred bucks ran out, I was asked to stage-manage a new play by Lewis John Carlino at the Writers’ Stage on East 4th Street. Telemachus Clay was an Off Broadway hit, and kept me employed for six months. I continued to work with Carlino and director Cyril Simon, next stage-managing Cheryl Crawford’s production of Double Talk, two one-acts by Carlino, at the Theatre de Lys. My father had often spoken of “not being able to get past Cheryl Crawford” back in the thirties when he was acting and she was Casting Director for the Theatre Guild, and now I was working for her. 

Eventually I began to get acting jobs, and for awhile I alternated between the two professions. When there was no work as either an actor or stage manager, I sold books at one of the two Doubleday book stores on Fifth Avenue. Doubleday was a good place for actors to work. Salaries were small, but If you got work in the theater, TV or films, your job would be waiting for you when the show closed or the film wrapped.  

In the fall of 1965, I ran into Nessa Hyams, a college friend, on the street. This is how these things happen. Nessa and I chatted about what we were doing and when she heard I was stage-managing she told me to contact her father, who was in the process of setting up a new theater in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I called Barry Hyams, who at the time was Director of Public Relations for the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center, then in its second season. Herbert Blau and Jules Irving had just taken over from Robert Whitehead and Elia Kazan, or were about to. I met with Hyams, who told me about plans for the Berkshire Theatre Festival. A very ambitious summer season had been scheduled. The plays were Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth; Robinson Jeffers’ The Cretan Woman, his adaptation of the Phaedra myth; Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, and Murray Schisgal’s Fragments, a trio of one-acts. Each play was to be rehearsed for four weeks, then performed for two weeks. A company was to be engaged. Hyams arranged for me to meet Arthur Penn and George Tabori, two of the directors who would be participating in the new venture,

Arthur Penn’s office was on Broadway below 72nd Street and I went uptown to meet him. While waiting in his outer office, I remembered the essay I’d written on the title sequence of Penn’s The Miracle Worker for Bob Scarpato’s Cinema Appreciation class: the blind and deaf child Helen Keller tentatively lifting a glass Christmas ornament, dropping it, the ornament falling in slow motion, breaking into hundreds of pieces on the hardwood floor. Silent. Poetic. Violent. Penn’s secretary woke me from my reverie. “Mr. Maloney, Mr. Penn will see you now.” I opened the door to his office and went in. Arthur Penn came from behind his desk, smiling, shook my hand, gestured toward a small sofa. I sat as he turned a chair around and and sat down opposite me. He looked closely at me as he talked and listened, leaning in, elbows on knees, his gaze penetrating. We talked about my skimpy resume, my college acting career and my experiences in the city to date. We had both recently worked with Franchot Tone, the aging movie star and former Group Theatre member. Penn had directed him in the film Mickey One, I had stage-managed Cheryl Crawford’s production of Dirty Old Man, which was Tone’s last stage role, and we talked about Franchot and Cheryl. I was about to get married, and I told Penn about my actress wife-to-be, that the producers of the musical I was currently assistant stage-managing and appearing in, had given me one night off to honeymoon after the wedding. Penn laughed and then laid out his plans for his production of The Skin of Our Teeth. 

At this time Arthur Penn was the director of five Broadway successes, including his first, William Gibson’s Two For the Seesaw. A few of them had run on Broadway simultaneously: The Miracle Worker, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, All the Way Home, and Toys in the Attic. 

He had directed four films, The Left-Handed Gun, The Miracle Worker, Mickey One, and the as-yet-unreleased The Chase. All these after years as a successful director of small-screen drama during television’s “Golden Age.” He had proven himself adept in all three mediums, working with discipline within the constraints of each. But, in spite of his success, he told me, he was dissatisfied. He was disgusted with the way Hollywood operated, said it would be a long time before he went back to California (Sam Spiegel had taken The Chase away from him, re-edited the movie). The economics of Broadway meant that the rehearsal period was necessarily limited, and he wished for a situation where he and his actors would have more time to explore character, situation, circumstance, leading to a more truthful, more meaningful performance.

George Tabori directs at winter workshop in Stockbridge with Peter Maloney at right.
George Tabori directs at winter workshop in Stockbridge with Peter Maloney at right.

He saw his chance in a proposal that the Hungarian writer/director George Tabori and his wife Viveca Lindfors made to the board of directors of the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, where Penn and his friend and colleague William Gibson happened to live. The Playhouse had operated for decades as a typical summer stock theater, often featuring stars in leading roles, but what was known as “The Straw Hat Circuit” was fading in popularity and the theater’s board of directors, hearing Tabori and Lindfors’ proposal, decided to try a different approach to summer theater.

Arthur had an idea of how he wanted to work on The Skin of Our Teeth in rehearsal, using improvisational methods based on his work with actors at the Actors Studio. He looked at me for a long moment, considering, then said that, if I agreed, and if I were free to do so, I would stage manage the production, and also play the Stage Manager, “Mr. Fitzpatrick.” He said that there was room my wife-to-be in the company, playing small parts to be assigned later. I was free to do so, and I agreed.

I next met with Tabori, Lindfors and Assistant Artistic Director Alvin Epstein, and they said yes, it would be good if I stage-managed George’s production of The Merchant of Venice and played the small role of Antonio’s friend, Solanio. Another stage manager, Tom Ianicelli, (another Syracuse University graduate), was hired, with the plan that I would stage-manage the Wilder and Shakespeare plays, and Schisgal’s Fragments, while Tom worked on Jeffers’ The Cretan Woman, to be directed by Martin Fried, and Gene Frankel’s production of Waiting for Godot. The Tabori production actually began in the winter of 1965-66, with workshops conducted weekly in a Soho loft until a company was finally decided upon and assembled under contract in Stockbridge. I managed these workshop sessions at 147 Spring Street, keeping detailed notes and lists of the artists attending

Here is a partial list of the acting company during that first season of the Berkshire Theatre Festival: Anne Bancroft, Viveca Lindfors, James Patterson, Estelle Parsons, Alvin Epstein, Frank Langella, Kathleen Eric, Lou Gosset Jr., Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Will Lee, Jess Osuna, Andreas Voutsinas, Delos Smith, Jr., Helen Baron, Jack Waltzer, David Tress, Graham Jarvis, Kris Tabori, Poppy Lagos, Deborah White, Ellen Schindler and myself.

The Tabori/Lindfors/Epstein sessions included vocal work with Melinda Lasson, repeated readings of scenes from The Merchant of Venice, and lots of talk, discussions about the play and how to approach it. For awhile the idea of setting the play within our contemporary world of Wall Street and high finance was entertained. I would regularly go to the Tabori/Lindfors house to work with George. An East Side brownstone, way uptown, it had the feeling of a messy, comfortable farm house in the country. Viveca, the Swedish and American film star, was to play Portia. After welcoming me amid the barking of their dogs, the beautiful Miss Lindfors would then disappear, and I would take my place, pen and legal pad in hand, opposite Tabori,. He would sit with eyes closed for hours as he talked through the play, scene by scene, dictating his thoughts and ideas to me. His concepts were complex, touching on theme, character, scenic design, props, masks, music, literature and politics. George was a Hungarian Jew with the slow speech of a somnambulist, the sleepy demeanor of a hunting hound at rest. There were times, while waiting to take notes on my yellow pad, when I wondered if he were still awake. But then his right hand would slowly rise from the arm of his chair, and, finger pointing toward the ceiling, he would say something terrifically pertinent to the subject at hand. Under George’s direction, the possibilities we discussed would be explored by the actors who came to the downtown loft. 

In the end, investigations of high-finance and anti-semitism in Venice, interesting as they were, were superseded by the director’s interest in Shylock. Tabori’s father had perished in a concentration camp and much of his life’s work would reflect his obsession with the Nazis and with Shylock. Our work ultimately resulted in a complex production which might have been called (pace Peter Brook) The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, as Performed by the inmates of a Concentration Camp for the Nazi High Command. 

Unfortunately, my production books for the three productions I stage-managed that summer no longer exist. There were no Xerox machines then, except perhaps in the offices of the biggest corporations. Personal computers had not yet become available, and the production script was always retained by a show’s producers. I’ve checked in the archives of the BTF and come up with nothing. Someone said something about a fire, or maybe it was a flood, destroying things. As I write the story of the summer’s productions that I was involved in, I am relying on my personal archives and my memory of the way things were. 

*

Stockbridge 

Stockbridge, Massachusetts is a picture-postcard New England town, especially interesting in its sociological make-up. The location of the Boston gentry’s summer “cottages” during the 19th century, the population of the village is a heady mix of descendants of those wealthy families and the people who worked for them; artists and writers who have moved to the Berkshires, people like Penn and Gibson, theologian Reinhold Neibhur, psychologist Erik Erikson, photographer Clemens Kalischer, and psychoanalyst Margaret Brenman-Gibson, the playwright’s wife, who worked at the Austen Riggs Center. Riggs is a famed and expensive psychiatric treatment center on Stockbridge’s Main Street. The institution’s arts and crafts center, the Lavender Door, where Riggs’ residents engage in creative activity, is just down the street, across from the town library. The director Jayne Mooney Brookes staged productions in the tiny theater-in-the-round above the Lavender Door’s pottery studio. Norman Rockwell lived and worked in Stockbridge and many of the town’s residents have been immortalized as characters in his paintings. A small museum on Main Street devoted to Rockwell drew crowds of visitors.

Tanglewood sits on the border of Lenox and Stockbridge, and during the summer season classical musicians flock to the area. Jazz artists played at the Music Barn and the Music Inn in Lenox. At the same time, actors, writers, directors and designers arrive, taking up residence in rented rooms. In the mid-sixties the bucolic country village, where “Alice’s” was one of the few places to eat in town, also attracted its share of young people pursuing alternative life styles, “hippies” who would soon be made famous in Arlo Guthrie’s song Alice’s Restaurant and Arthur Penn’s movie based on the song. 

As winter gave way to spring, George, Viveca, their two German shepherds and Ellen and I would occasionally pile into their station wagon and drive to Stockbridge for workshops in the theater. It was a goal of Tabori and Lindfors to involve the community in their work. Arthur also wanted to use local people in The Skin of Our Teeth and George needed extra people to create the world of the internment camp essential to his plan for Merchant. The people of Stockbridge (including residents of Austen Riggs Sanitarium), were invited to take part in the workshops, and members of the community ended up performing in both plays. 

The Berkshire Playhouse, a handsome building designed by Stanford White, had been built in 1890. It was known as the Stockbridge Casino, a men’s club, until 1928, when it was moved a mile down Main Street and began its life as a theater. It was a proscenium house until 1966, when the designer David Hays reimagined the space in preparation for the BTF’s inaugural season. Hays removed the proscenium and converted the stage to a moderate thrust. At the same time as the theater was being renovated, a transformation of the stables attached to the big red barn adjacent to the playhouse was taking place. Scenery would be built in the barn, as it had been for decades, and rehearsals would take place above the shop, but in the former stables the horse stalls were being scrubbed down and white-washed, turned into a restaurant which, it was hoped, would add to the BTF’s income. 

A memorable workshop weekend that spring of ’66 included lengthy improvisations on the theme of civil disobedience. Dissent and provocation were in the air. Only a year and a half had passed since “Freedom Summer,” when the young men Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were murdered while registering black voters in Mississippi. College Students were beginning to demonstrate against the War in Vietnam. George Tabori organized us, professionals from the city and amateurs from Stockbridge, into groups to explore the dynamics of non-violent resistance. John O’Neal was with us. A founder of the Free Southern Theater and a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he taught us techniques of non-violent protest. Ellen and I were among the protesters. I had no experience of protest of any kind. Oh, in college we had picketed the home of the Dean of Women, who had sent warning letters to the parents of girls who were dating boys outside their race or religion. Ellen’s parents, Jews in Sioux City, Iowa, had received one of these letters. It was about me. Ellen had been really pissed off. She was angry a lot of the time, about a lot of things, seemed to have been protesting something or other since birth. In Syracuse, when the architects of Urban Renewal started bulldozing the houses of poor people in the 9th ward, she lay down on a pile of cinder blocks to try to stop them. She was arrested, along with other members of the Congress of Racial Equality. She had radical friends. I was in awe of her, really. As we circled the stage in Stockbridge, singing “We shall overcome,” Estelle Parsons took the part of a local woman, angry at the “outside agitators” who had come to stir up trouble. George and Viveca’s German shepherds were enlisted as police dogs to menace us marchers. I remember Estelle as being particularly vicious. Ron Auerbacher, a young local in Estelle’s mob, lit a match and threw it into our circle, hitting Ellen. I went for the young man’s throat and, punching, dragged him down. Definitely not non-violent. I had a lot to learn. 

*

During the time of pre-production, I continued to work nights at the Doubleday Bookstore on Fifth Avenue at 56th Street. I had been promoted to Assistant Manager and was in charge of the Art Book department. Ellen was in charge of the Art Book department at the other Doubleday store just three blocks down the avenue at 53rd Street. We would ride our bicycles up from our apartment in the East Village and then home again at the end of our shift. After midnight we could bicycle from 5th and 56th to Second Avenue and 13th Street in 14 minutes. The two bookstores store attracted a high-end crowd. (I was Martha Graham’s favorite clerk). 

SCENE: Doubleday Bookstore, the Fifth Avenue and Fifty-third Street branch, Art Book Dept. A night in December, 1965. 8 P.M. 

ELLEN SCHINDLER stands amid tables loaded with art books of various sizes. She straightens a stack of books, then stares out the big windows looking onto Fifth Avenue. She straightens another stack of books, stares front. She smiles, her eyes widen as…we hear the sound of a revolving door and MEL BROOKS enters. He goes to a table, picks up a big book about Van Gogh, leafs through it. After a few moments, MEL looks up at ELLEN.

MEL BROOKS

You know, everybody knows Van Gogh was a great painter, but very few people know he was also a terrific dancer.

ELLEN laughs. She can’t believe she is talking to the 2,000 year-old man.

No, no, no. Now and then, when he was in the mood, he’d close the door to his studio and pirouette like mad.

ELLEN laughs again. MEL looks at her name tag.

What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing with the name Maloney?

ELLEN

Maloney is my husband’s name.

MEL BROOKS

And what do you do when you’re not selling books? I’ll bet you’re an actress.

ELLEN

Yes.

MEL BROOKS

And what does your husband do? Don’t tell me he’s an actor!

ELLEN

Yes, he is.

MEL BROOKS

And what does he do for a living?

ELLEN

He’s in charge of the art books at the 56th Street store.

MEL BROOKS

What?!

CUT TO:

The 56th Street store. It looks exactly like the 53rd Street store. A few minutes later. 

PETER is staring front when we hear the sound of the revolving door and MEL BROOKS enters. He makes a bee-line for Peter, his hand extended. 

MEL BROOKS

Maloney! Brooks! I bring regards from your wife.

They shake hands vigorously. 

PETER

Thanks very much.

MEL BROOKS

She’s a beautiful woman, a beautiful woman. Let me ask you this: Can she cook?

PETER

Yes, she’s a very good cook.

MEL BROOKS

Good, so you get great Jewish food, she gets a great Irish name. Sounds like a fair exchange to me. I’ll see ya.

MEL BROOKS turns and exits through the revolving door out onto Fifth Avenue.

*

Arthur Penn’s production of The Skin of Our Teeth

Casting: Anne Bancroft played Sabina. For Arthur, she had played Gittel Mosca in Bill Gibson’s Two For the Seesaw, and Annie Sullivan in both the stage and film versions of Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. She may have been as tired as Arthur was of Hollywood and its ways, and she was, at this moment, out of work. Alvin Epstein played Mr. Antrobus, Estelle Parsons played Mrs. Antrobus. Frank Langella played Henry, and Kathleen Eric, his girlfriend at the time, played Gladys. A local actress, Carmelita Scott, played the Fortune Teller. Ellen Schindler played a refugee, a conventioneer and Miss E. Muse. Some of the other roles were played by local people, many of whom had never acted before. 

William Gibson and Gene Frankel observe Anne Bancroft and Frank Langella rehearsing his "A Cry of Players" for the 1968 season.
William Gibson and Gene Frankel observe Anne Bancroft and Frank Langella rehearsing his “A Cry of Players” for the 1968 season.

Our set designer was Wolfgang Roth. (He also designed the lighting. Ken Billington was “Chief Electrician”). Roth’s set consisted of large pieces of white canvas hung by wires from the grid. The panels could be adjusted in different configurations for the different scenes. The images proclaiming News of the World, etc. were projected onto the canvas. The walls of the Antrobus house could collapse quickly in the first act, the white sheets simply falling to the stage floor, the mounded canvas then looking like snowbanks as the glacier descends on Excelsior, NJ. Fred Voelpel designed the costumes, and Stanley Silverman was our music director.

Casting was complicated, as the actors had to be right for roles in more than one show. They not only had to fit the parts but had to be available from mid-spring to late summer. One of the actors was part of the new Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre and came to us as soon as his summer hiatus began. I called Anne Bancroft to tell her that we would have a car at the door of her New York City residence at such and such a time on such and such a date, that she would be taken directly to the theater. She told me in no uncertain terms that she would not ride for hours in a car alone, that she expected me to accompany her all the way. I was setting up the theater and the rehearsal room in Stockbridge, but on the day in question I took a bus into the city and went with the limo driver to pick up our star. 

The drama department at Syracuse University wanted nothing to do with the “Method.” The only mention of the Actors Studio I can remember was in a sketch about improvisation in a satiric revue at the end of my freshman year. Neither Stanislavsky’s “System,” nor Strasberg’s take on the same were taught or even discussed. While a student, I never understood why this was so. Perhaps the school thought that young actors weren’t yet ready for the work of Building a Character, or Creating a Role. A telling moment regarding this absence from the curriculum of the work of two of the 20th century’s most influential teachers occurred during my third year at Syracuse. The Chairman of the drama department, our beloved Professor Sawyer Falk, had died during the summer of 1961. The new Department Head, formerly the Assistant Department Head, took over all of “The Professor’s” classes that fall. We assembled one morning for an acting class and the former assistant took his place at the podium, a deadly serious expression on his face. He took from under his arm a copy of SHOW, a magazine of the arts which had only recently appeared on the newsstands. Each issue of this glossy journal featured two interviews with theater artists. Our teacher opened the magazine and began to read an interview with Anne Bancroft. It was a lengthy piece, and in it Miss Bancroft discussed her work on stage and in film, expressing her undying gratitude to the two people who had most enabled her success as an actress: her psychiatrist and Lee Strasberg. Finishing his recitation, our teacher paused, snorted in derision and, in a gesture worthy of Francois Delsarte or a coarse actor in the cheapest melodrama, ripped the pages containing the Bancroft interview from the magazine, crumpled the torn pages violently between his hands and finally dashed, yes, dashed them onto the floor. Dramatic pause. Turning back to the magazine he then read to us in its entirety an interview with Helen Hayes, that good actress, who, in the course of her interview, did not mention her psychiatrist or the head of the Actors Studio. Finishing up, our teacher solemnly closed the magazine, leaned forward on the podium, paused for emphasis and said “Now there, young ladies and gentlemen, is an actress.” As he strode dramatically down the center aisle to the back of the room and out the door, he didn’t realize that we were sitting there grinning, rolling our eyes, shaking our young heads, having just witnessed a stunning display of ignorance by a supercilious pedant.   

Five years later, I was pleased to be sitting in a limousine with Anne Bancroft/Gittel Mosca/Annie Sullivan. During our ride to the Berkshires Bancroft grilled me about my life, about the theater in which we were soon to work together. She only knew three people connected to the BTF, Arthur Penn, Bill Gibson, and now me. She wanted to know all about me, was particularly interested in my relationship with my new bride. She had only recently married Mel Brooks and wanted to know how the Catholic/Jewish connection worked for Ellen and me. I came away from our long ride thinking that the summer season ahead might turn out to be a very good experience.

Anne Bancroft was staying in Lenox, at Wheatleigh, an Italianate mansion with terraced gardens descending to a swimming pool overlooking the Berkshire hills. In the cellar of the big house was a dark bar called Le Cave, where small musical groups played, sometimes featuring songs performed by Stephanie Barber, who owned the place and who had been cast in The Skin of Our Teeth as the dinosaur. Ellen and I were housed in Stockbridge, in a bedroom converted from a garage attached to a small house owned by a Mrs. Drake, who operated a beauty parlor in her living room. There was a small sink in the bedroom/garage that burped for hours after we brushed our teeth at night: burp…burp……burp, ever more slowly, until dawn. We moved out of Mrs. Drake’s garage as soon as we could, but she and her salon would serve us well as research for a production we would mount ten years later, our adaptation of Eudora Welty’s story Petrified Man. 

In late spring it’s still chilly in the Berkshires. Neither the theater nor the rehearsal room above the scene shop were heated. Any warmth in the workplace was provided by large, torpedo-like kerosene heaters. I would get to work early and fire two of these heaters up, warming the rehearsal room until rehearsal began, when I would turn them off. If we were working onstage, and as the first show of the season we occasionally had that luxury, I would drag the torpedoes down the gravel driveway to the theater and fire them up again. This process was repeated daily during our four week rehearsal period. I had no assistant, had to do most of the work myself. This didn’t bother me at all. At this point in my life I had not yet learned to trust other people to do what had to be done. Although I handled much of the work of stage-managing well, I was no good at delegating responsibility. This situation changed (it had to) by the time of the Festival’s second season. 

The first rehearsal of "The Skin of Our Teeth." Left to Right: Michael Brookes, Alvin Epstein, Peter Maloney, Anne Bancroft, Arthur Penn.
The first rehearsal of “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Left to Right: Michael Brookes, Alvin Epstein, Peter Maloney, Anne Bancroft, Arthur Penn.

Following Arthur’s plan, this is how we worked on The Skin of Our Teeth. For the first three days we read the play aloud, over and over again. All of us asked questions which occurred to us as we read, and Arthur made sure that in each scene the inner and outer actions of each actor were perceived and understood. I made note of these actions in my prompt book. This was a kind of work familiar to any group of actors. What came next was not familiar, really, to anyone.

At the end of our third day together, Arthur had me collect the actors’ scripts and we were told that for the next two weeks we would not be allowed to use any of Thornton Wilder’s words, that we would improvise every scene. And this is what we did, scene by scene, act by act, finally improvising run-throughs of the entire play. 

It was Arthur’s idea to have me, as the Stage Manager, visible in a chair stage left during the play, following my prompt script. As we rehearsed scenes the actors would now and then forget actions or go off on tangents in their improvising. When this happened, Arthur would signal to me and I, following my notes in the margin of each page, would shout out the action that had been skipped, getting the actors back on track. Now and then he would stop the action in order to make something clear to the actors, then begin the improvisation again at the beginning of the scene. He sat in his chair at the edge of the playing space, watching, always watching. He leaned forward, focusing intently on what was happening on stage. His observant attitude—elbows on knees, upper body occasionally moving back and forth, forward and back, involved—was the same attitude he had assumed during our first meeting in his office, the same intense concentration he exhibited when I watched him moderating sessions at the Actors Studio years later. 

Arthur didn’t “stage” the play. He encouraged the actors to follow their instincts. Enter with purpose. What do you want? What’s in your way? What do you do to get what you want? These are the questions asked by a good teacher of acting, of course but they had a different, more urgent meaning when, for a time, we had no writer’s text to take refuge in, or to hide behind. So we improvised, and there was Arthur, always watching. At the end of a scene, or, later, at the end of an act, he would get up from his chair, gather the actors around him, and talk about what he had seen and heard, speak about this moment which he liked very much, or that one which he didn’t care for, compared to what he had seen the day before, say, or a few days previous. In rehearsal, he didn’t want moments to be repeated, he expected something different every day, but not something planned, no thinking on the night before what you wanted to try the next day. Of course the final decisions were Arthur’s, and at the end he chose to put on stage what he judged to be the best from what the actors had to offer.

From those local people who had shown interest in appearing as “atmosphere” in the show, as refugees and conventioneers, around twenty were selected. Arthur put me in charge of these non-professionals, and I worked with them at night after regular rehearsal. They, too, improvised, trying to find believable behavior within the circumstances I laid out for them. 

I had not yet begun my directing career. In college I had attempted to put together a production of Ionesco’s The Chairs, but that proved to be a bad choice, much too complex and deep a play for a novice to take on, and it was cancelled before it opened. I’d helped out a couple of fellow-students who were working on a scene from another Ionesco play, and that brief experience led me to think I might make a good director someday, but it would be four years before I staged my first production. Work with the Stockbridge locals went well, and we explored some interesting dynamics of crowd behavior which fit into the play. Arthur staged the crowd scenes once we got into tech, placing people where he wanted them.  

After the first week of rehearsal we began a routine of moving into the theater for the second half of our day. As I had to move the space heaters from the barn to the stage I usually missed lunch. Not all of the actors warmed to Arthur’s approach. Anne Bancroft and Estelle Parsons went with it, they were members of the Actors Studio and spoke the same theatrical language as Arthur. Andreas Voutsinas and Delos Smith Jr. were also Studio members and embraced the improvisatory method. Alvin Epstein, playing Mr. Antrobus, had a harder time of it, being classically trained, having studied in Paris with Marcel Marceau and Etienne Decroux. Nonetheless this wonderful actor put his trust in Arthur and participated fully, as did others who had no connection to the Actors Studio or, in some cases, no professional training at all.

The results of this period of improvisation of scenes, acts and eventually the entire play were evident soon after I handed the scripts back to the actors. We started to speak Wilder’s lines and found that the memorization of those lines happened very quickly, and that underlying the lines and action of the play there was now a palpable reality, the result of our two weeks work without scripts in hand.

In Wilder’s play Sabina is played by a “Miss Somerset,” and the Stage Manager of the play is named “Mr. Fitzpatrick.” Early in rehearsal, it was decided to forget about the names Somerset and Fitzpatrick, to acknowledge that the actress playing Sabina was, in fact, Anne Bancroft, that the Stage Manager sitting right there onstage was, in fact, Peter Maloney. In a wonderful scene in the middle of the second act the actress (who has been breaking the fourth wall now and then starting at the beginning of the play) stops the action, announcing to the audience that, for personal reasons, she refuses to play the next scene. At this point the Stage Manager enters “in fury,” demanding that the actress fulfill her professional obligation to play the scene. He threatens to report her to Actors’ Equity, she threatens to” drag the case right up to the Supreme Court,” as the other actors stand around listening.

Peter Maloney and Alvin Epstein in Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth".
Peter Maloney and Alvin Epstein in Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth”.

In our production it was “Miss Bancroft” who refused to play the scene, it was “Peter” who rose from his chair to insist that she play it. A moment discovered in our improvisations capped the scene. “Mr. Maloney” tells “Annie”: “Go to your dressing room. I’ll read your lines.” As Annie says “Now everybody’s nerves are on edge,” I cross with my script to where Alvin as Mr. Antrobus is sitting. I sit on his lap and start to speak Sabina’s lines “Now you will just stretch out. No, I shan’t say a word, not a word. I shall just sit here, privileged. That’s what I am.” Mr. Antrobus takes my hand, saying “Miss Fairweather…you’ll…spoil me.” Looking at each other, Alvin and I both start to break up. I put my hand over my face as Alvin says “Skip the scene.” I get up off his lap and go back to my chair.

On June 25, 1966 a lawyer wrote to the BTF offices stating that she had attended one of our performances accompanied by her mother, and that, “on said evening, Miss Bancroft did not perform in accordance with the script of said play and in fact, one particular scene she refused to perform at all.” Claiming that we did not fulfill the representations made at the time she purchased the ticket, she demanded a refund. We sent her a copy of the play, and felt that we had done our work well.

I enjoyed playing the scene at the beginning of Act III after the actors have gotten food-poisoning and amateurs have to be put into the show. One of the reasons was that, with the exception of Delos Smith, Jr., who played Mr. Tremayne, the amateurs were really amateurs. A memorable moment during rehearsal: As Ron Auerbacher, playing Fred Bailey, started up the steps carrying the numeral 9, I saw that he was chewing gum. I stopped him and put out my hand. He took the gum from his mouth and put it into my hand, continued on his way. This was a funny moment and Arthur liked it. It got a good response in performance. Following through on this reality of the gum in my hand, I proceeded to make a bit out of it, getting it stuck on one finger, then another as I attempted to get unstuck. Having spent the last six years pandering to audiences, doing anything necessary to get more and bigger laughs, I thought that this was the way to go. At our note session afterward Arthur said “Peter, you’re getting a good honest laugh when you take the gum from Fred, why do you feel you need more than that?” He was right, of course, and that was the end of that. 

We were performing The Skin of Our Teeth twenty-five years after its first production, and yet the play was still too avant-garde, too radical, I think, for many in the audience. I remember thinking at the time that the third act didn’t work anymore, that we were too far away in time from the World War that had stimulated Wilder to write it. Vietnam was happening, but our awareness of what that war was about had yet to register. Reading the play now, fifty years after we put it on, I am very moved by what happens in that act. Because of recent world events, the refugee scene in Act I now also has a power that I didn’t expect. Thornton Wilder wasn’t around for that first summer of the BTF, and he didn’t see our production of The Skin of Our Teeth. He was in Stockbridge the next summer though, usually with a beautiful young woman on his arm, and I now and then had drinks with him at the Red Lion Inn and we talked about our experiences working on his great play.

*

Scene: A swimming pool outside an Italianate villa in Lenox, Massachusetts. Summer, 1966.

Ellen and Peter are in the pool. With them are Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks. Ellen’s and Peter’s headshots are tacked up, along with Anne’s, in the lobby of the Berkshire Playhouse. Mel has come up to visit his wife of two years and is at the moment floating in an inner tube and smoking a very large cigar. Annie and Ellen are at the pool’s edge discussing intermarriage. Peter dog-paddles past Mel, who waves his cigar at Peter, as if in benediction.

MEL BROOKS

Ahhhh, Maloney. I remember you when you were just a lowly book clerk. 

(To be continued)

Anne Bancroft, Ellen Schindler, and Peter Maloney.
Anne Bancroft, Ellen Schindler, and Peter Maloney.

Click here to read Part II: The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, as performed by the inmates of a concentration camp for the Nazi high command, as directed by George Tabori.

Click here to read Part III: Martin Fried’s production of Murray Schisgal’s Fragments, Conclusion.

Peter Maloney

PETER MALONEY is a writer, actor and director who has worked on the stage and in television and films for sixty years. His memoir Who Does Little but Listen, about performing for a year with Ben Gazzara in Eugene O'Neill's two-character play Hughie, was published in the Eugene O'Neill Review. His plays Leash and Witness (parts of his Abu Ghraib Triptych) appeared in the series Best American Short Plays, and Leash was published by Joyce Carol Oates in the Ontario Review. In the Devil's Bathtub was published in Kenyon Review, his adaptation of Machiavelli's Mandragola is published by Broadway Play Publishing, Lost and Found, Pastoral and Last Chance Texaco are in the catalog of  Samuel French, Inc. Mr. Maloney has appeared in over 60 films and countless television shows. A member of the Actors Studio, Ensemble Studio Theater, the Atlantic Theater Company, and The Irish Repertory Theater, he was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for his performance in John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar.

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