Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, Royal Court, London, 2006

Between my various holiday celebrations and finally finishing the first draft of my script for MadShag Performance Group's Gilgamesh project, I didn't have an opportunity to say anything about the passing of Harold Pinter on Christmas Eve. Pinter is almost certainly the biggest influence on me as a playwright: he has a distinct ear for the individual voices of his characters, a remarkable economy of words in dialogue (even in speeches) that allows story and plot to emerge gradually, and a confidence in the artists' and audience's abilities to decipher his work—nothing is spelled out in a Pinter play and yet all of the information is there, waiting to be interpreted by the director and actors. As a result, each production is unique: the artists' experiences and perspectives significantly influence the performance. And, while it's not a skill I've mastered, I've long admired his ability to find extraordinary tension in even the most mundane situations.

My first experience with Pinter was as an actor in 1984, when I was auditioning for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest at Stage West in Fort Worth. I'd learned the Upper British accent for a play at North Texas State University and, at least for a Texas boy, was pretty good at it—I wound up using it for six plays in a row. Jerry Russell, the artistic director, pulled me aside after my audition and asked me to read for Jim Covault, who was directing Pinter's The Homecoming* in their smaller theater-in-the-round space. I knew nothing at all about Pinter but I was a 21-year-old actor: of course I said yes. After my audition, Jim offered me the role of Teddy, the eldest brother. The production was my professional debut, for which I was paid $25 per week because Jerry said everyone gets paid something when they work with him (a tradition that Peculiar Works has tried very hard to continue).

During the first week of rehearsals, I was pretty lost: I could say the words but I wasn't always sure what I was talking about. In my first scene, I had to describe the various changes that had been made over the years to the living room; my speech ended, "The structure wasn't affected, you see. My mother was dead." Looking at it now, of course, it's glaringly obvious what the line means but I'd never had to interpret a script like this. I finally had to ask Jim what the hell mother being dead had to do with anything and he said, "She'd never have let them do it." I think Jim was a good match for Pinter: he was economic in his direction and trusted his actors' ability to interpret the play. And pretty much from that moment, I began to understand: once I knew what to look for in the script, I could do my work as an actor.

My next opportunity to work on a Pinter play was as a director at TCU (where I'd transferred to finish my undergrad degree). I'd originally wanted to do Betrayal but someone—perhaps my advisor, Dr. Collier—suggested I look at Old Times. The play deals with the vagaries of memory—one character states, ”There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place”—and I was completely sold on it after my first reading. I asked Catherine to be in it and our friends, Ed Landwehr and Megan Burnett, and we staged it in the TCU's studio theater.

The theater was in the basement of the building so it had very low ceilings; it also had an antiquated dimmer board and one wall that was covered with a mirror (it had been a dance rehearsal room at some point). We usually covered the mirrors for productions but as I was rehearsing, I began to find opportunities to integrate them into our production: an actor could turn his back completely to the audience and still have his face seen; someone standing right up against a mirror could both look at themselves and the other characters without moving an inch. It also amplified the smoke—the script had lots of cigarette business but even if it didn't, all four of us smoked—which gave the play an extremely hazy look and enhanced the disconnect between what was a memory and what was really happening (we decided that Megan's character was only a memory of the other two—that's probably a stupid interpretation, but it worked for us at the time). Using the mirror also gave the production a filmic feel: because you could see the actors before you and in the mirror, you could switch your focus back and forth much like an editor cuts shots together in a movie. Without a doubt, it was the most fun and the best work I ever did in college.

It's been years since I've been encountered another Pinter work—directly or indirectly. I did a student-directed production of The Dumb Waiter at TCU with Michael Wehrli for which I never really memorized the lines: as a result, I finally had to exit at one point to get my line from the stage manager—well before the climactic moment, which pretty much ruins the ending. Catherine and I saw the West End production of Moonlight in London on the first day of our honeymoon in 1993: we were exhausted from the wedding, jet-lagged, it was a slow-moving production—we both fell asleep. And then a few years ago, we saw him acting with John Gielgud and Rebecca Pidgeon in Catastrophe in the Beckett on Film series: I'd never seen him act before and he was quite good. But I never write a stage direction or punctuate dialogue without thinking of him.

[Long pause.]

Or a—what? A question. An answer? Who can say...


*It's not listed in their production history but I swear—I was in the play there!

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