Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Portland theater: Panel discussion time for "Long Day's Journey Into Night"

William Hurt and Robyn Nevin/"Long Day's Journey Into Night"
By Barry Johnson

After I've seen a play that's gone especially well, as "Long Day's Journey Into Night" has done, I'm especially interested in "What happened?".  I've seen too many productions in which a bunch of good actors, a good director and a good script get together and nothing much good happens onstage.

So, when the peripatetic Tim DuRoche sat down last night to lightly emcee a conversation between the director of the show, Andrew Upton, and Allen Nause, his co-producer and artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, I took full advantage -- and I wasn't disappointed.

The panel was seated on the stage of ART's Morrison theater, with a drum kit and keyboards as a backdrop. (I was hoping that drummer DuRoche might flourish a brace of drum sticks and attack those drums in a moment of wild abandon, but he didn't).  Upton is unprepossessing -- soft, a little nebbish-y looking, with thinning hair and an expressive face and voice. He's smart, you can tell, and I have the feeling he couldn't be more determined or dedicated to a play -- text, actors, process -- once he takes it on, an intensity moderated by compassion. But I am merely speculating here.  He and Nause are a congenial fit, actually, because I'd use some of the same words to describe Allen -- smart, determined, compassionate, expressive, unprepossessing.

First, maybe you want to know how the show came together in the first place?

Well, it started on the set of this summer's "Robin Hood," during which Cate Blanchett (Upton's wife, they have three sons) and William Hurt struck up a friendship. They even went to the theater together, the three of them, and after a dismal production of "A Winter's Tale" (see? good actors/director/script, less than brilliant results), Hurt asked Blanchett why she'd avoided the "LA thing" for "something a good deal harder, as we all know," Upton said. Which also describes Hurt and his continuing passion for theater, I suppose.

Upton and Blanchett had already chosen "Long Day's Journey Into Night" for their next season at the Sydney Theatre Company, and after the ride back from "A Winter's Tale," they started pondering Hurt in the role of Tyrone, the family patriarch. ("Theater, good or bad, brings you together," Upton quipped -- which he does on occasion, quip, I mean.)

When Upton later asked Hurt if he'd consider the role, Hurt immediately said yes, because he'd been thinking about the play ever since acting in it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the 1970s -- with Allen Nause -- which Upton didn't know at the time. And when Upton later asked him if he could recommend a possible theatrical partner in America, Hurt suggested Artists Rep, with whom he's had two previous successful encounters.

We were in!

Robyn Nevin, whose performance as Mary Tyrone is a very great artistic achievement, is one of the great Australian actors of her time and a former artistic director of the Sydney company, so she was a natural fit for the show. Upton chose Portlander Todd Van Voris as Jamie Tyrone during a long audition process in Portland, during which he grew increasingly more impressed both by his skills and generosity as an actor. Both Luke Mullins (who plays Edmund Tyrone, the younger sickly brother and O'Neill stand-in) and Emily Russell were Sydney Theatre Company stalwarts.

Why this particular play?  Nause and Upton had similar reasons -- a life-long interest in the play. It was the first play Nause wanted to do as artistic director at ART (he staged it in 1990) because he wanted to test himself and his new company with the most challenging of American plays. Upton said the Blanchett suggested that he direct this production, mostly because she'd heard him talking about it so much over the years. (You can almost imagine the dialog between them, right?) And then he thought: "There's no way anyone else will let me direct it." As Nause instantly chipped in, there has to be SOME advantage to being artistic director of a company.

When it came to talking about the actual production, Upton had pride of place on the panel, because he'd been in the rehearsal room in Sydney, Australia, as Hurt, Nevin, Van Voris, Mullins and Russell wrestled with O'Neill's great play about a day in the life of an American family, circa 1912.

What he focused on most were cultural differences -- between American attitudes about the family, society and money and European or Australian attitudes, and also between the Americans (Hurt and Van Voris) and the Australians in the cast, which led to some generalizations about acting styles.

For Upton, the Tyrone family symbolizes the American focus on the nuclear family, as opposed to the extended families of Europe. I'd say this "American" focus might be limited to Americans of a certain class (middle or upper middle, maybe), but I take his point. The pressures on the relationships in a small nuclear family are going to be greater, maybe far greater, than those in larger kinship groups. And one of the things driving the vise is/was America's absence of a social safety net. Tyrone is justifiably worried about money because "you can fall off the wall here," Upton said.  "America is a challenging place and it fully informs Tyrone's thing with money. It seems to be the big American wrestle."

Upton tried to avoid condemning the country completely, suggesting that there are advantages, too, in the necessity that Americans feel to form themselves against a "tough world," sometimes in "opposition to your past."  My baseball translation: In America we play hardball, and ballplayers don't cry about the breaks of the game; they sharpen their spikes.

So, did this Hobbesian world (nasty, brutish, short) carry over to the rehearsal room? Of course, not! "William and Todd brought a lot of rigor to the rehearsals," Upton said, and then spent a lot of time explaining what he meant by that, carefully saying that Australian actors aren't slackers and American actors aren't, um, difficult.

In Australia, Upton said, "Long Day's Journey" gets more laughs because audiences think of it as "family Christmas with the Irish drunks." Hurt and Van Voris "Americanized" the play more, and though, yes, it has some funny lines (which American productions frequently don't emphasize), they helped the cast find its gravity. But more than that, their approach to acting was different, Upton said.

He first tried to explain the difference with the old and probably apocryphal story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman working on "Marathon Man" together. When Hoffman complained about how hard it was to prepare for his role, Olivier supposedly said, "Try acting." Which simply means, Upton explained, that Americans tend to be very visceral actors and English actors tend to be more in their heads. Oddly, this means that English actors seem to stress about the process a lot less. Australian actors triangulate the Brits and the Americans, maybe, but Upton described them as more pragmatic: Go ahead and get something going and then worry about it, while Americans tend to micro-manage the material.

This description doesn't sound very good for the Americans -- apparently we're visceral obsessives -- but in practice this attention to detail and dedication works.  Upton said that he'd had a drink with Nevin recently during which she said the experience had been her most amazing as an actor thanks to the generous process of the Americans.  Some day soon, we will dissect what it means to be "generous" as an actor,  because I think something important lurks within that term and not just for the theater.

So what did the Australians bring to the process? The humor, yes, but something more critical. Nause said flat out that this was the most powerful production of "Long Day's Journey" that he'd ever seen, "resonating in a way that it hadn't for me before."  Part of that is how Upton had stripped it to its essentials -- a stage almost clean and bare and a very spare reading of the play to go with it. The Tyrones encountering one another in scene after scene, with no mediation, no hiding places, no comfort zones. As Nause said, Upton got "rid of the stuff we assumed we needed," but actually didn't it's now apparent. The outsider, the Australian, saw what was most crucial in the play and pursued it, much as his company did with its celebrated "A Streetcar Named Desire," which starred Blanchett.

The discussion, fed by DuRoche, also considered some of Nause's extensive experiences with even more multi-cultural theater experiences -- directing an all-Vietnamese cast "The Glass Menagerie" in Vietnamese, for example, which is a story all of its own. We'll just supply the takeaway line: In their rehearsal process, the stopping points for the actors, the moments of misunderstanding and confusion, were almost always due to cultural differences that had to be explained and worked out -- and sometimes simply accepted.

DuRoche asked the key question of the night: Will  Artists Repertory Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company repeat this collaboration? "We'd be mad not to to," Upton said.  And then he said something very interesting: Despite all of our talk about globalization and new communication technology, "I feel the world is becoming strangely more insular." Meaning that we need collaborations such as this one, ways of reaching out to each other directly, working with each other. "The only way to be really together," he said, "is to be different."  A little paradox to consider as we left the theater after the panel ended.

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