Theater

Stockbridge: Summer 1966, A memoir of the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s inaugural season — Part III, Conclusion

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Murray Schisgal
Murray Schisgal

Martin Fried’s production of Murray Schisgal’s Fragments

Gene Frankel’s production of Waiting for Godot followed The Merchant of Venice. The day after Merchant opened rehearsals began for the final production of the summer, Murray Schisgal’s Fragments. Fragments consisted of three one-act plays: The Old Jew, with a solo turn by Dustin Hoffman; Reverberations, with Hoffman, Estelle Parsons and Graham Jarvis; and Fragments, with Hoffman, Parsons, Jarvis and Gene Hackman. I don’t remember too much about this production. Hackman was finishing a movie and it fell to me to play his part in rehearsals. It was a relief to be working on a comedy again after weeks of confronting the horrors of Tabori’s concentration camp. Hoffman was brilliant in the first of the three pieces, playing an old Jewish man who is revealed at the end to be a young actor at work. As the days went by I became increasingly nervous, fearful that, like Godot, Hackman would never show, that I would end up having to play Baxter in the third play, a role for which I was eminently unsuited. It was good to be working again with Graham Jarvis. We had met during the run of The Best Man at the Fayetteville Country Playhouse a few years earlier. I remember Dustin arguing regularly with director Martin Fried over points of interpretation. I was relieved when Hackman finally arrived, freeing me to simply stage-manage the show. 

Fragments marked my first collaboration with Murray Schisgal, beginning a personal and professional relationship that would endure for the next fifty years. Murray had brightened the off-broadway scene with his award-winning short plays The Typists and The Tiger, starring the young actors Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. As we rehearsed in the Berkshires, his Broadway hit, Luv, was beginning the second year of its run. While Marty and the actors worked, Murray paced back and forth in the rehearsal room, looking worried, just as he would pace and worry decades later, when I directed some of his later plays. His main concern was that the work be “honest”. Half a century later he would repeat the words I first heard in that Stockbridge rehearsal room: “I don’t care if we don’t get one laugh, as long as the work is honest.” Of course this absurdist playwright did care about laughs, but he didn’t want them at the expense of truth. Fragments was the light finish to a very heavy season of summer theater. The show was well-received by audiences and critics. The New York Times praised both play and players, acknowledging the “striking character vignette” that was The Old Jew, the “rich and varied comedy” of Reverberations, and the allegorical nature of Fragments, calling it “enjoyable and revealing.” 

Busy as we both were on alternate productions, I wasn’t able to compare notes with my fellow stage-manager Tom Ianicelli, beyond our regular attempts to coordinate rehearsal schedules. I was preoccupied with my own problems at work, and spent hardly any time with my wife, who I’d married only nine months earlier. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, having found myself, on more than one occasion, in way over my head. To borrow a phrase from my artist-daughter, the season had often been a case of “conquering fear: working in public.” Certainly there were times when I felt as if we were all balanced on a fraying tightrope, high above spectators who wondered where their safe, familiar summer stock of old had disappeared to. Not that we didn’t have good times. My cousin Jack experienced one of the greatest nights of theater in his life when he came to see The Skin of Our Teeth, but that might have been because he found himself sitting in the audience next to Norman Rockwell. There were laugh-filled lunches in the renovated stables, drinks after work at the Red Lion or downstairs in the Lion’s Den. I was with Estelle Parsons one night when she got carded at a bar just over the state line. She laughed and laughed and hid her driver’s license from me as the waiter checked her out. 

Mel Brooks was around a lot during The Skin of Our Teeth. Now and then I’d catch him staring at me. He kept asking me how old I was. After giving Annie her half-hour call one matinee day, I asked her what was up with that, and, looking at me in the mirror as she kept applying her eyeliner, she said “Close the door.” I closed the door. She said “Mel is casting a film. It’s his first, and he’s nervous.” I started to say something, but she continued. “Do not tell Mel I told you this, but he says you look older than you really are, until you get up close. The camera gets up close. So don’t count on anything.” I opened the door and left the room as she moved on to her other eye. I wasn’t counting on anything. I had heard this before, from agents and casting directors. I’d get called in to audition for something on the basis of my photograph, then get rejected for being too young. This situation resolved itself twenty-five years later, when my age and my appearance finally came together. 

*

Arthur came up to me at the party celebrating the end of the season, asked me “What are you doing next?” I told him that Yale had asked me to stage-manage Viet Rock, a new play by Megan Terry. He said “Well, don’t sign a contract before you talk to me, okay?” I told him I wouldn’t. Ellen and I went back to New York to find a message left with my answering service saying that Yale was anxious for me to sign on for the fall production. Our phone hadn’t been turned back on after our summer sublet, so I went out to a pay phone at the corner of Second Avenue and 13th Street. I called Arthur’s office and his secretary answered. I told her that I needed to talk to Arthur, that he wanted to talk to me before I signed any contract. She said “Arthur’s in California, but hang on, I’ll try to get him on the line.” I held the phone to my ear for a few minutes, then a voice I didn’t recognize came on the line. “Peter?” asked the voice. “Yes,” I answered. “This is Warren Beatty.” “Oh,” I said. “Hello.” “Listen, I’m sitting here with Arthur, and he’s been telling me about the work you did with him this summer. We’re about to begin shooting a movie, it’s a gangster picture, and we were wondering if you’d be free to come to Texas for a few months. Estelle and Gene are going to be in it, and Arthur and I would like you to be Casting Director and Dialogue Coach on location.” I said that, yes, I was free and yes I’d like to come to Texas and that was that. I called my friend who had brokered the deal with Yale and told him I couldn’t do Megan Terry’s play. Ellen and I went to Texas where I spent three months driving around the small towns of Denton County, casting all the non-actors who played secondary roles in Bonnie and Clyde, and coaching them on set. I was twenty-four years old. 

Goodbye to Stockbridge

So ended the Berkshire Theater Festival’s first season. Arthur took Gene and Estelle and me to Texas. Mike Nichols took Dustin and Annie to L.A. and The Graduate. Other members of the company went on to other jobs or unemployment. The Shed at Tanglewood went silent. Local shopkeepers counted their money while breathing a sigh of relief that the summer people had gone back home. Stockbridge returned to quiet normalcy.

The theater’s board blamed George and Viveca for budget overruns and the company’s considerable overtime pay, and they were not invited back. I was invited back, to stage-manage the BTF’s second season for producers Peter Cookson and Beatrice Straight. That summer had its moments, including Beatrice Straight’s Blanche DuBois, Frank Langella’s elegant Dracula; Don Peterson’s riveting Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, with amazing work by Al Pacino, William Devane, Lane Smith, Lazaro Perez, Hector Elizondo, Cleavon Little, and Barbara Ann Teer, and Lewis John Carlino’s The Exercise, with Anne Jackson and Lou Antonio. But, in the opinion of this worker, nothing to follow ever measured up to that season of ‘66, not in vision, ambition, daring or theatrical excitement. 

As for me, I took away everything I’d learned from this crowd of wildly talented artists: practical knowledge gained through rough experience; inspiration born of work with brilliant men and women; knowledge and inspiration that would sustain me as an actor, writer and director for decades to come. Most valuable, especially to a young theater artist, I had been a member of a professional company, with all that that entails. 

My father’s group of amateurs had given me a glimpse of theater as community, but in that group my father, with so much more experience than the others, had to be too much the boss, just as he was the boss at home. Learn your lines, hit your marks. 

At the University, our theater was considerably bigger than the “little” theater of my home town, and It provided welcoming stages for determined show-offs, of which I was one. Professor Falk had done all he could to prepare us for the professional theater, in which he deeply believed, but, despite the talents of a few of our teachers, the school seemed bound, (inevitably, perhaps, we were students, after all) by a number of small minds and defensive academic attitudes.  

But something had happened in Stockbridge, that summer of ‘66, something greater, more meaningful than anything I’d yet experienced. On the bus back to New York, Ellen was tending to our cat and a carrying case full of kittens. I stared out the window, watched the Berkshire Hills become Connecticut and found myself questioning everything I thought I knew: how the theater operated, who I was, what I thought I wanted to be. The Berkshire Theatre Festival had been a serious job of work, a messy laboratory of human desire and sometimes clumsy action, of problems faced and solved, feelings plumbed and dealt with, failure risked and overcome. In the cold rehearsal rooms above the shop and on the stage of the old Casino something had happened that was fragile and, at the same time, immensely powerful. Mysterious. Dangerous. And I had been part of it. 

End note (Apologia)

A memoirist is like one of those blind men in the fable, famously describing an elephant, or like one of the witnesses to murder in Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon. Each person experiencing an event sees things from their own perspective, drags his or her own baggage to the place of recounting. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, in his study of Kurosawa, says “Memory of a single person cannot be trusted completely because of a human propensity for using memory as a means of self-justification.” Of course. 

Now and then there have been attempts to summarize the theater season I describe above. Viveca Lindfors, Co-Artistic Director and actress that summer, spoke of her experiences in a long interview before she died, and while she admitted that there were things she couldn’t remember, some of what she said she did remember never, in fact, happened. In Stars of a Summer Night, his star-struck history of the BTF, Richard Dunlap, Producer at the theater decades later, wrote a dismissive and patronizing account of the summer of ’66, a season he never experienced. Even Co-Artistic Director George Tabori misremembered his production of The Merchant of Venice on the BTF stage. Anat Feinberg’s book, Embodied Memory: The Theatre of George Tabori, contains inaccuracies regarding Tabori’s work in America, inaccuracies which are partly the result of conversations with her subject. 

Peter Maloney, Ellen Schindler, and Anne Bancroft.

As for me, I was there. I kept my eyes open (I was wide-eyed as only a young theater person can be),listened, took notes, and, like everybody else, carried my own baggage. I still do, stowing it overhead, seldom checking it at the gate, for fear it will get lost. I have the soul of an archivist, the heart of a librarian and the instincts of a packrat. Now and then I unpack and, as best I can, try to remember what happened.

Click here to read Part I: Beginnings and Arthur Penn’s Production of The Skin of Our Teeth, with Anne Bancroft.

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.

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