Interview with Mark Lamos
While at Hartford Stage, he was known, in part, for filling a cavernous performance space with large cast, innovative works which spanned Greek theater through Shakespeare through contemporary fare. Since leaving Hartford, Lamos has not been lacking for work. With residences in New York City and in the western region of Connecticut, he is pleased to lend his artistic eye toward an evolving WCP, eighty years old and moving forward.
Fred Sokol: Eleven or twelve years ago, I sat in your office in Hartford, and you told me that you'd had enough of the administrative work that goes along with an artistic directorship. What motivates your return to that arena?
Mark Lamos: A number of things came together as I began tiring of freelancingnot always being able to choose projects myself. Sometimes I forced myself to take plays that were given me and, honestly, I enjoyed most. I did get tired of traveling around and not being home. The overriding factor, perhaps, was that I missed having a dialogue with an audience. I wanted to have control of producing once again.
Annie Keefe called me when Paul Newman was very ill and asked me to direct Of Mice and Men. I always wanted to do that play. While I was in rehearsal here, Paul died. They had asked me before to consider the artistic directorship here and I replied "absolutely not." Now, the offer came and I remembered the problems with boards and fundraising. But, coming here and seeing the space changed my mind. A wonderful opportunity stared me in the face and the theater almost wanted leadership. Without giving you a line, I have to say I am so happy to be here. I can continue to do my freelance directing. I'm older now. When I was a younger man running a theater in a city, there sometimes was almost panic about finances. We are all experiencing a financial meltdown but a lot of people here support the arts.
FS: Your mention of dialogue with the audience strikes a chord with me. I recall the master classes in Shakespeare you conducted at Hartford Stage.
ML: The exigencies of freelance directing: I recall being intrigued with the audience at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, at Old Globe in San Diego and at Lincoln Center. But, I would always have an opening night, then take off, and not really get to know those people. I began to miss what I had in Hartford: a group of theatergoers and theater lovers who engaged in the arts in such a meaningful way. You put together one season and the next and the next. One speaks to another.
FS: The positive side is receiving suggestions from avid theatergoers but can that turn into a negative? What if someone insists that you do a play? And where do people come from to see plays in Westport?
ML: Well, you do have those people. In terms of audience, Fairfield County, yes and we do share an audience with New Haven theaters. Some dyed-in-the-wool people from Hartford come down. Theater people in New York will come here to watch shows but we also need to reach out, say, to Greenwich.
FS: What is your vision for this theater?
ML: It is forming. The goals are to raise artistic standards, move slightly in another direction for a theater that has been mostly entertainment oriented. Hartford Stage, with a large thrust stage, is different from this theater and its intimacy. This place is like the Walter Kerr in New York in a sense. After a time, I believe those who regularly attend here will be able to look back and recognize a certain type of Mark Lamos season. This theater is 45 minutes from Broadway, 45 minutes from Long Wharf and Yale Repand in a suburb, not a city. I hate the word demographic but we have a different audience and expectation here. These last years have allowed me to do more proscenium productions than in Hartford and I am intrigued with that. I am very much interested, these days, in up close and personal plays.
FS: We will not see big plays here?
ML: I have done some plays two and three times and they are so much work. The larger plays are difficult but also thrilling. You can come close but never really succeed and get one where you want it. I will probably, in a coming season or so, do one or two Shakespeares if we can afford them. But, I am not racing there.
FS: You must have people of means here to help out with funding, I would think.
ML: This building means a great deal to people here. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were heroic with the effort the get this place moving. They were supported with some major individual donations. The people in the greater community, to some measure, think of this as a summer theater. Some people on the board hope for a year round season and we might get there. Now, though, strong management needs to guide what goes on.
FS: You used to bring in many talented actors and designers, again and again, at Hartford Stage.
ML: They are coming in! I need to approach this season with strengths. We have some major advantages: for one, we rehearse in New York. Actors can fall out of their apartments and pretty much get to rehearsal. We come up here for tech and dress rehearsals and we find performers accommodations here. Then, they are able, during the run, to commute, sleep in their own beds ...
FS: Directing, even on this level, is not always a smooth process, is it, Mark?
ML: What makes you say or ask that, Fred? It is different every time. I have taught often during the past ten years and everyone wants to know how to direct. It is so variable that there is little to teach about it. There are varying circumstances. When I wake up, I just say to myself that the daily goal is just to have the best day possible. Whether the show is a terrible failure or great success, I want it to be the best day for: actors, designers, technicians. You do have crises: an actor cannot learn lines, illness comes on. A designer has an idea and it misfires and it is my job to pull that out of the caldron of unhappiness.
FS: What happens if a professional actor cannot or does not learn lines? Are some overly confident?
ML: Patience. I try to create the right kind of atmosphere to become confident. Hope for the best. I was recently talking to an actress for whom, way down the road, I might have a large role. She said she just could not learn lines. I said we would get her an earpiece. She was surprised. This is an elderly person and why keep her from doing this when she is wonderful because of a problem like this? Older actors are a source of such power. It is rare to go into old age rich, happy, and famous. For others, we must keep them working and have memory intrude. Not that long ago, Meryl (Streep), before she did The Seagull and Mother Courage in New York, was saying that she did not have the confidence to learn a long scene. She thought that she had lost that muscle. Richard Easton is word perfect as is Dana Ivey. Someone else exactly that age might trouble. In my book, being more confident is better than not. Spine and backbone accompany one who is confident so it is easier to be critical with that person. Those who lack confidence are coming in with fear and that is debilitating.
I was stretching in the gym the other day and a trainer was working with two people. At one point, the trainer said, "When the going gets tough, the tough relax." I thought that was the best way to go into a crisis. As a director, it's helpful to calm down and examine options. Not that I am always able to do that.
FS: I think it was De Niro, but I might be mistaken, who talked about combining relaxation, discipline and anarchy. On a totally other note, what is your rehearsal schedule?
ML: We have a tight three-and-a-half week period and I like a straight six (hours) but the actors have to vote on it. You can work as many as eight hours a day. Doing a musical means some eight-hour days. I feel everything starts to flag after six hours so keeping it compact and focused works better. We work six days each week with Monday off.
FS: Ken Burns, with many individuals contributing, creates Ken Burns Films. I do not think of you, similarly, developing Mark Lamos Productions. But, it's clear that designers have a major place for you.
ML: Each show is different. When I have veteran designers I know, this is very laissez-faire and relaxed. Our team for She Loves Me just gathered here and caught up for about half an hour. We talked about the play generally, then googled on the computercafes, coffee shops, chandeliers, perfume, the possible hair ... it all rolls around in an easy way. Then, I do a little homework. All of this occurred while talking about people's husbands and wives and partners and children. Finally, we looked at our date books and that takes forever. Next meeting I will see a rough model and react to it. Then, back to the drawing board and examination of expenses. You want as many people on the agenda as possible.
FS: Your process is collegial, I take it.
ML: Yes. When Michael Yeargan was designing the set for The Breath of Life (a fall 2009 WCP presentation), his partner was dying. I had seen the show in London, met with Michael, told him about the huge windows in the back, wonderful books. Michael said he had been to the Isle of Wight and he and I had one discussion. Then, he came next with a model and we looked at it. There it was. Michael and I have worked together so many times ...
Westport Country Playhouse 2010 season includes the following: She Loves Me, April 20th - May 8th; a comedy to be announced June 1st - June 19th; Happy Days, July 6th - July 24th; I Do! I Do!, August 10th - August 28th; The Diary of Anne Frank, new adaptation by Wendy Kesselman of Goodrich/Hackett script, September 28th - October 16th. For further information visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call (203) 227-4177.
- Fred Sokol