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Interviews (#110 of 125)

The Mystery of Screen Acting: An Interview with Author Dan Callahan

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The Mystery of Screen Acting: An Interview with Author Dan Callahan
The Mystery of Screen Acting: An Interview with Author Dan Callahan

Most film critics have a pretty good handle on what it is a director does, what a cinematographer does, what an editor does. Acting, however, remains a little bit mysterious. That’s why writers who know enough about the craft of acting to not just describe what they see in a performance but break down how the actor is doing it can be counted on only a couple of hands. The trick is to translate acting technique in a non-academic vocabulary, making it comprehensible to an audience of non-actors. You have to train your eye. You have to know what to look for, the “tells” of falsity or indicating, how to perceive a sketched-in performance as opposed to a full one.

It’s difficult to write about acting well. If it were easy, more people would do it. The rare writer who writes about acting really well, longtime theater and film critic Dan Callahan can home in on why and how a performance lands, or doesn’t. He pays attention to the actor’s technique, the actor’s tension, the prosody of the actor’s voice, all of these being “tells” as to whether or not the actor is truly engaged, or pumping up something artificial to fill in the blanks. This is tough stuff, but reading Callahan is an object lesson on how to do it.

Callahan’s first two books were biographies, the first on Barbara Stanwyck (Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman), the second on Vanessa Redgrave (Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave). In both, Callahan moves behind the confines of traditional biographies. Traditional biographies often lead us through the events in an artist’s life, giving us backstage stories, maybe a couple of anecdotes, maybe some description of how the artist’s work was received. Callahan gives us all that, but also gives us his analysis of the performances, leading us to an understanding of Stanwyck and Redgrave not just as subjects, but as artists. Why is Vanessa Redgrave so good? That’s not as simple a question as it might seem. One of the great gifts of Callahan’s writing is that he makes you want to re-watch movies you’ve already seen, hoping to pick up on all the things he’s illuminated.

Callahan’s latest book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, is made up of profile pieces and artistic analysis of the major figures from the silent era up until the moment before the collapse of the studio system. With chapters on Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, James Cagney, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, to name a few, it’s a lush and complex look at the art of acting, and how it developed alongside the development of cinema itself. Callahan looks at the rupture represented by Marlon Brando, adding some necessary shadings to the almost universally accepted simplistic reading of Brando as an “improvement.” The earlier, more heightened style is still seen as “lesser” in many circles, or “over the top,” “heightened,” “phony.” In the book, and in our talk about it, it’s clear that Callahan is determined to set the record straight.

Revisiting the Past: An Interview with Master Puppeteer Basil Twist

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Revisiting the Past: An Interview with Master Puppeteer Basil Twist

Richard Termine

Revisiting the Past: An Interview with Master Puppeteer Basil Twist

Twenty years ago, Basil Twist wowed audiences with his mesmerizing abstract fantasy Symphonie Fantastique, presented in a small basement space at the HERE Arts Center in Soho. Twist, then 28, conjured up a beguiling and phantasmagoric world inspired by the evocative music of Hector Berlioz’s 19th-century composition of the same title. Aided by lights, dyes, and bubbles, he created his magic by manipulating pieces of fabric, feathers, plastic, vinyl, and fishing lures—all suspended in a small tank filled with water.

In the two decades since, Twist has come into his own as a master puppeteer and international theater artist, continuing to make his own distinctly individual works while also collaborating with other artists both on and off Broadway, as well as in the ballet world. He also made a small foray into the world of Hollywood, contributing to Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. His dazzling creativity has been honored with Obie, Drama Desk, and Bessie awards, as well as a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” grant.

Proving you can go back to the past, Twist has returned to HERE to recreate his original 1988 career-making triumph. This time, Symphonie Fantastique is presented at the theater’s main stage, with five puppeteers working in a water tank double the size of the one featured in the original production and with the Berlioz score performed live with dramatic flair by pianist Christopher O’Riley (host of NPR’s From the Top). As an additional perk, Twist pulls back the curtain to allow audience members to visit backstage after the show to meet the puppeteers and discover how the magic is created.

Recently, I got to sit down with Twist to discuss his work, new and old, and the direction he’s going in as he approaches 50.

Interview: Playwright Jordan Harrison on The Amateurs and Log Cabin

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Interview: Playwright Jordan Harrison on The Amateurs and Log Cabin
Interview: Playwright Jordan Harrison on The Amateurs and Log Cabin

If there’s a constant in Jordan Harrison’s body of work, it’s his ability to surprise. For more than a decade, the 40-year-old Brooklyn-based playwright has conjured an amazing range of theatrical worlds: a house that shrinks around the characters in the mystery thriller Finn in the Underworld; the seemingly serene 1950s gated community to which a stressed-out contemporary couple retreat in Maple and Vine; and the near-future world of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist Marjorie Prime, where artificial intelligence has been harnessed to help overcome ageing and loss. For his latest, The Amateurs, currently at the Vineyard Theatre, Harrison ventures back to Europe in the Middle Ages. The play follows a valiant troupe of players as they tour medieval morality plays across a continent being decimated by the Black Death. We talked with Harrison recently about The Amateurs, as well as his forthcoming Log Cabin, which will premiere in New York this summer.

Interview: Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver on Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)

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Interview: Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver on Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)
Interview: Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver on Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)

Since 1980, performance troupe Split Britches has been gifting the world with its unique brand of feminist political theater. Today, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver—original co-founder Deb Margolin is no longer with the group—are still devoted to their queer-eyed vision: a mix of vaudeville comedy, music, poetry, and pop-culture appropriations that draws incessantly from their personal lives and politics. Their latest work, Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), plays through January 20 at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, ahead of a forthcoming tour to England, Ireland, and Wales. I recently sat down with Shaw and Weaver to discuss the production and why it remains so important for them to keep the spirit of the Split Britches alive.

Interview: Lear deBessonet on Directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Park

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Interview: Lear deBessonet on Directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Park

Matthew Murphy

Interview: Lear deBessonet on Directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Park

Lear deBessonet’s passion for her work is infectious. Just listen to the 37-year-old director speak and you can sense how she’s been able to harness the disparate energies of 200-strong mixed casts of professional and non-professional performers for her vibrant community theater projects. The Louisiana native has also garnered acclaim for her Obie Award-winning production of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan, starring a transcendent Taylor Mac in the gender-shifting lead role, and this past spring, her exuberant revival of Suzan-Lori Park’s thought-provoking Venus at the Signature Theatre.

I recently sat down with deBessonet at the Public Theater to chat about her journey as a director and her latest project, the Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring, among others, Phylicia Rashad, Richard Poe, De’Adre Aziza, Annaleigh Ashford, and Danny Burstein.

Interview: Martin Sherman on Gently Down the Stream, Gay History, and More

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Interview: Martin Sherman Talks Gently Down the Stream, Gay History, and More

Walter Kurtz

Interview: Martin Sherman Talks Gently Down the Stream, Gay History, and More

It’s hard to pin Martin Sherman down. His work as a playwright ranges across a wide variety of styles and subject matter, and getting him to talk about this work isn’t exactly easy. As I learned from several conversations with him over the past two decades, Sherman can be friendly without being revealing. Now a sprightly septuagenarian, he hasn’t exactly changed his tune.

Sherman’s best-known work, of course, is Bent, arguably one of the most influential gay-themed plays in theatrical history. That 1979 triumph is in large part responsible for raising awareness of the persecution of gay men in Nazi-occupied Germany, and the adoption of the pink triangle as a symbol of gay activism may be traced to Bent’s cultural impact. The American-born writer made London his home nearly four decades ago, shortly after the 1980 Broadway debut of Bent. Today, as Sherman himself ruefully acknowledges, his subsequent plays are better known in London than in New York.

Among those plays that still managed to cross the pond and find success in America: When She Danced, a comedy about Isadora Duncan; A Madhouse in Goa, an apocalyptic satire about art and commerce; and Rose, a one-woman show (starring Olympia Dukakis) that chronicles the life of a European Jewish émigré. In addition, Sherman also wrote the book for the Broadway version of The Boy from Oz, the musical which starred Hugh Jackman as the Australian composer and entertainer Peter Allen.

Sherman was recently back in the United States for the world premiere of his latest work, Gently Down the Stream, which is currently in previews at the Public Theater in Downtown Manhattan. When we sat down to chat, I set out to draw him out enough to learn something about the current play, which is publicized as a funny and moving love story about Beau (played by Harvey Fierstein), an expat pianist living in London who meets an eccentric young lawyer, Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), at the dawn of the Internet dating revolution.

Marrakech International Film Festival An Interview with Director Béla Tarr

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Marrakech International Film Festival: An Interview with Director Béla Tarr

András Szebeni

Marrakech International Film Festival: An Interview with Director Béla Tarr

Whatever the forbidding stature of his work, Béla Tarr was nothing if not gracious during a roundtable discussion at this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival. At the end, he even acknowledged that he knows “the roundtable is the most horrible thing for a film journalist.” Tarr is president of the jury at this year’s festival, which means mandatory morning viewings of each film in competition—and, if the rumors are true, much behind-closed-door deliberation. (Neither the festival’s assembled press nor its publicists have quite recovered from the shockwaves of Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark decision to grant last year’s jury prize to “cinema itself.”) Three days into this year’s festival, Tarr played it close to the vest, preferring to discuss his post-retirement career at the Sarajevo Film Academy’s film.factory—which sounds like heaven for cinephiles—and why, even if he’s no longer directing features, he’s far from finished with the “drug” of filmmaking.

If They Could See Her Now Director Leigh Silverman on Sweet Charity

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If They Could See Her Now: Director Leigh Silverman on Sweet Charity

Heather Phelps Lipton

If They Could See Her Now: Director Leigh Silverman on Sweet Charity

Over the course of the past two decades, Leigh Silverman has spent most of her time as a director working on new plays, collaborating with writers and helping shepherd their work through years of development. Her partnership with playwright Lisa Kron led to her directing Kron’s quasi-autobiographical Well, which marked Silverman’s Broadway debut 10 years ago. At age 31, she joined that extremely exclusive club of female directors working on Broadway. That group has grown larger in the intervening years, and Silverman herself went on to direct the Broadway premiere of Chinglish by David Henry Hwang, with whom she enjoys an enduring collaborative relationship.

Under Silverman’s sure-footed directorial guidance, several actors and writers have received Tony recognition, but it was for her direction of the 2014 revival of the musical Violet that she finally garnered her first Tony nomination. Now Silverman is directing Violet star Sutton Foster in the New Group’s Off-Broadway revival of the 1966 musical Sweet Charity, playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center. We talked recently to the director about her current production and her relatively new foray into the world of musicals.

Interview: Peter Brook on Battlefield and His Return to The Mahabharata

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Interview: Peter Brook on Battlefield and His Return to The Mahabharata

Colm Hogan

Interview: Peter Brook on Battlefield and His Return to The Mahabharata

It’s no exaggeration to claim that Peter Brook is one of the most influential theater directors of the latter half of the last century. The English-born theater maker, and established filmmaker in his own right, is internationally hailed, revered even by some, as a kind of guru whose work is a constant search for the essence of theater. His 1968 book The Empty Space is a seminal work of theater analysis, and his productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s and 1970s (Marat/Sade, King Lear, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are celebrated for their groundbreaking innovation.

Since then, he’s developed and staged a series of adventurous productions around the globe. In New York City, Brook’s experimental staging of The Tragedy of Carmen re-lit and revitalized Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1983, and in 1987, his elemental nine-hour production The Mahabharata, based on the ancient multi-volume Sanskrit epic from India, restored life to a long-defunct movie theater in Brooklyn.

That venue, now the BAM Harvey Theater, has been an integral part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s arts programming ever since. It’s to this same stage that the 91-year-old director brings his latest, Battlefield, a small-scale production featuring four actors and a drummer, which is also based on the classic Indian text that inspired him three decades ago. When I reached Brook by phone earlier this month, he spoke from his office at the Théâtre Bouffes du Nord, his home base in Paris since the mid-’70s.

Richard Nelson on The Gabriels and the Hunger of Politics and Family

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Richard Nelson on The Gabriels and the Hunger of Politics and Family

Joan Marcus

Richard Nelson on The Gabriels and the Hunger of Politics and Family

Earlier this year, playwright Richard Nelson launched a unique three-play cycle at the Public Theater which sets out to track, in real time, the lives of an American family during this tumultuous election year. Each play takes place on the day of its opening night: the first, Hungry, which opened in March, introduced us to the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York (the playwright’s own home for the past 34 years); the second, What Did You Expect?, opens tonight at the Public Theater, while the final play in the cycle, Women of a Certain Age, will premiere on election night, November 8.

This isn’t the first time that Nelson has undertaken a project that comprised a set of contemporaneous plays. His last venture at the Public, The Apple Family Plays, was a cycle of four intimate plays that premiered over a period of four years. The Apples, like the Gabriels, also lived in Rhinebeck, and each play was designed to open on the evening of a significant moment or event in American life and politics: That Hopey Changey Thing on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections; Sweet and Sad on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; Sorry on election night 2012; and Regular Singing on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.