Currently playing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA is The Glass Menagerie. The Tennessee Williams classic stars theater legend Cherry Jones as Amanda, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller. I spoke with Celia and Brian about the play, working with their co-stars, how TV and stage shows are different and how Boston is treating their edition of Tennessee Williams.
The Glass Menagerie is one the most well known and most often produced stage shows and I asked the pair what it was about these characters that intrigued them to do the play. Celia Keenan-Bolger, “In all honesty, I’ve enjoyed this play and had never seen it, but had read in high school, read it again in college, the thing that really drew me to this project was (director) John Tiffany and Cherry Jones more than the character. When I saw that Cherry was attached and John was directing it, reading the play again to audition for it, I felt oh my gosh this could be such an exciting project to be a part of. Then of course once we started rehearsing it, I fell in love with the play and these characters all over again, but initially that wasn’t what drew me.” Brian J. Smith, “I got a sense pretty immediately that there was something pretty special brewing with this. Cherry Jones was interested and John was wanting to direct it. He had directed a show called Black Watch which was just of one of those cultural events that you hear about, someone directing a piece of theater that blew people away.” Celia, “It was like one of the greatest things I‘ve ever seen in my life. I said to my husband I would go anywhere to work with that guy.” Brian, “And Steve Hoggett who did the movement in this show as well.“ Celia, “The two of them grew up together so this whole sort of family that we’ve built, I feel like stems from their collaboration of being boys together. I’ve never been a part of something so deeply collaborative because the two of them have known each other forever. They have this amazing balance of having very specific ideas about the play, but also giving complete freedom to the artists around them which I think is a very hard line to tow.”
With characters that are so well known, I asked the pair if they get nervous that fans might not like their interpretations of the characters. Celia, “I definitely felt that. Going into the first day of rehearsal, I felt like this play is so beloved by so many people, but by the end of the first week of rehearsal, I felt free of all of that because we can all say we made the version of The Glass Menagerie that we wanted, that we set out to make. Whether people responded to it or not, we all felt like we contributed and had our integrity which I feel is something that doesn’t always happen.” Brian, “We also had John sort of holding us by the hand and saying ‘You guys, trust me, just trust me, let’s go with it.’ It’s usually ‘Please don’t screw this up.’ In John’s case it was ‘Trust me. We’re gonna do the play based on Tennessee Williams’ instructions.’ He wrote an article on what he called plastic theater and his bemoaning of the naturalistic theater and all its conventions. Just putting real ice cubes on stage which he thought, even in the 1940’s, was killing American theater. I can’t think of a director who’s more suited to take on a version of The Glass Menagerie like this than John Tiffany. He just has such a theatrical mind, but also there’s an emotionality and connectedness in the sense of not knowing and risk taking. Being at rehearsal with him is like watching someone shooting three pointers and not caring if he missed and keeping the ones that stayed in the basket.”
Celia’s Laura goes through a rollercoaster of tough emotions and then next minute must deadpan a line that makes the audience laugh, but she can’t react to it throughout the play. I asked her how she finds that inside her every night. “I think it’s all the play. I’m not being modest, we’ve talked about this, our scene (referring to the scene she does directly with Brian’s Gentleman Caller), I feel like it’s a little bit different every night. We don’t have to do the same exact thing every night because the writing and the structure is strong you barely have to do anything. I’ve never ever been in a play where I felt so taken care of.” Brian, “The air is so thick with it already, the play is in the air around you and supporting you like water. It’s more like swimming than acting (laughing). It takes care of you. The play, the atmosphere of it, the mood, the stage, it’s intimate.”
I asked Celia what it was like as a younger actress to work with a legend like Cherry Jones who most people believe to be the finest stage actress of this generation. “I’ve said this before, but seeing her in The Heiress completely changed my life. If you would have told me then that I would ever get to be on stage with her, I would have never believed it. What’s so amazing about Cherry is that she has a real process, real technique. It’s not like she’s just this gifted genius, which she is, but it’s not just that. She didn’t come in the first day with the performance that you’re seeing, she digs and digs and keeps asking questions. And she’s an incredibly generous human being and a very great leader of a company. We were talking about this last night, when there are only four of you and one of them is the greatest actress of her generation, you can get into trouble because sometimes those people require a lot of energy or need it to be more about them, but she could not be any more of an ensemble member.” Brian, “She’s one of those people where her qualities as a person, her generosity, that giving spirit, is so tied into her talent as an actress. Things that make her extraordinary as a human being, it’s the same things that show up on stage every night. She doesn’t stop becoming the best part of herself the minute she makes an entrance on stage. I saw her do Doubt, I’ve told this story before, I was a first year student at this drama school, it was a Christmas Eve performance and she did not take a vacation day. She performed on Christmas Eve. She had already won the Tony, I saw it and her performance in that changed my life. It’s the reason I kept going through drama school and all its drudgery and depression and angst (laughing) because I wanted to one day get close to something like that. I told her, I stayed by the back door afterwards waiting for her, One of these days I’m gonna work with you, I just know it.”
For those that know actors, actors can be as bad as athletes when it comes to superstitions or pre-performance rituals. I asked them if they have any superstitions, if they eat the same dinner every day, listen to a certain song or what not. Brian, “Oh I have my Glass Menagerie Spotify play list. I was listening to it on my way over here. The minute I leave my apartment to when I’m in the dressing room, it’s all I play. It’s all like 1930’s music, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, stuff of that era. That’s something that’s important to me. They don’t really tease me about it, but I watch a little TV downstairs during act one. To me, part of getting ready for our scene is watching the first part of the play. I can’t imagine being able to walk on and do act two, unless I spent, even though I’m off stage (for act one), spent act one with them. That’s sort of my pre-show routine.” Celia, “I don’t really have many of those things. I think it’s also a testament to this group of people. I think sometimes plays like this can really make you depressed because to put yourself through what these people live every night can take a toll because your brain doesn’t always know you’re just play acting. I think we built something that when the play is done, we can sort of shed it and go on to the evening which is such a nice way to be an artist and not feel like you have to go home and feel awful. That’s happened in my life. I feel like that’s sort of the opposite of a superstition, we get to do it and go on with our lives. I hope we are able to maintain that.”
I asked them what the audition process was like for this. Brian, “It’s funny, the same day I auditioned for this, in the morning I had auditioned for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which is on Broadway now. I came in for John and Jim Carnahan the casting director and I could not have had a more opposite audition experience. I just ran out of it feeling like whatever happened in that room, I’m fine with, but I just met this amazing man in John Tiffany. Then we (him and Celia) ended up reading together.” Celia, “We auditioned together. Brian already had the part, but I had a callback. I had only prepared, they had given me ten pages, but only four pages of the Gentleman Caller’s scene, I came in and they were like ‘So you’re gonna do the whole scene.’ There was something about that, I would normally feel like that was so frustrating, but for some reason I was like, ‘Well he knows I hadn’t prepared it’ and so I didn’t have to hold myself to one way of doing it or not being able to do it the way I wanted to.” Brian, “I remember John being like ‘I don’t know how it’s going to end up, I don’t expect you to be great or fantastic. Just read it, just read it off the page, move around.” Celia, “He was like, here’s a table, here’s two chairs and you guys just go ahead.”
Brian J. Smith is probably more known in the science fiction world because of his run on the cancelled too soon TV show Stargate Universe. I asked him if his fans would be surprised to see him in something like this. “I think so because nobody who does sci-fi or even TV in general gets to do something like this. I loved the whole experience working on Stargate Universe. It really was the greatest two years I had had up to that point of my life. It was an adventure, it was wonderful, but when you’re working on material like this, a masterpiece of writing, you feel more like an artist. I do this play and I can walk out holding my head held high and say that I’m an actor. The challenges, the expectations, the things that are held against you on a TV shoot are completely different. You have an hour to do a scene. And you are doing it in the rain or outside or you’re running out of time because you’re losing light, so much of it is out of your control. You put it in the can and you hope they edit it right and hope they picked the best take which they frequently don’t (laughing) for technical reasons because the sound was off or it doesn’t match the cut. There’s just so much that’s out of your control whereas here, we edit and pace and are in control of our destiny as actors every night. You get that laughter, the audience feeding you, they make you better. The presence of people in the room makes you better as opposed to ten producers behind a monitor biting their nails hoping you don’t lose them a whole bunch of money.” Celia, “I remember hearing once that television is a writer’s medium. Movies are a director’s medium and theater is an actor’s medium. I think I agree with that, I feel as an actor that you really are so lucky to use so much of yourself over and over and over again.” Brian, “You also know that you’re getting better. I know that this experience has made me a better actor and ultimately you hope you have a couple of those every few years. To say that I worked on something that not only did I have a great time doing and worked with this amazing group of people, but I walked out of this a little more deep as an actor or a little more confident.”
The American Repertory Theater is a small, intimate theater in Cambridge and is maybe a quarter the size of the average on Broadway, New York theater. Boston isn’t necessarily known as a theater city, but I asked them how the audience/reception of the show has been. Celia, “Amazing. I have felt from the very first time we ever did this play in front of an audience, an enormous amount of good will extended to us. People are here, not with their arms folded, but here wanting for the play to be good. I think that is such a gift. The audience has been very different in how they respond, but always have been very generous to us.” Brian, “And also I think a lot of that comes from the first few moments of the play. They are set up so well that the audience is so prepped to go on an emotional storytelling journey. I won’t give anything away, but the way that Laura enters, just right away says you can expect the unexpected and that we aren’t going to let you down.” Celia, “I have found these audiences to be so amazing. The audience here feels young, but the demographic is all over the map, but they are so excited to be here. The Boston audience has been such a gift in their understanding of the play and their willingness to go on this different journey and this different interpretation of this classic play. I’m so happy to get to do it here.” Brian, “I think American Repertory Theater has a large part in that. This theater is really turning Boston into a theater town just by doing high quality, risky theatrical work. There’s no expectations here. You do a show in New York, as an audience member you feel like you’re part of the critical process. I’m here to also evaluate this play. We went through that with the Boston audience, but in a way there were no expectations of it having to be a success. It’s an experiment and to get this response from the Boston audience has been really amazing without having the pressure of this having to make a lot of money and this having to be a critical hit. In New York it’s so expensive, here we get to do this play for two months and often times if you aren’t pulling in box office, you don’t always get that.”
The fourth cast member of the show is Zachary Quinto known best for the TV show Heroes and as Spock in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. I asked them what it’s like working with him. Brian, “He’s an artist. To watch him in rehearsal is incredible because he doesn’t take any moment for granted. If something’s not working, he questions and questions it, sculpts it until it’s just right. He doesn’t settle. I have an insane amount of respect for Zach Quinto especially with what he’s done with one of the most iconic roles in American theater. He’s really something else.” Celia, “I feel like whenever you hear about movie stars being cast in theater, I’m always, unfairly, skeptical because I feel like they are more of a box office draw. I knew Zach and I knew that he trained at Carnegie Mellon, but the first day we sat down and read the play I felt like they found somebody not only who has the chops, but was also born to play this role. I think he has some sort of deep understanding of this in addition to his unbelievably technical mastery of language.” Brian, “His voice. He probably has one of the most beautiful stage voices I’ve ever heard which is kinda rare in someone who’s made a lot of TV and film. The first time we got in the theater and you hear that voice, it’s like honey. It makes me actually insanely jealous.” Celia, “He’s also a wonderful social director. We almost every night end up at his apartment, sit around the kitchen table and talk and have a bourbon.” Brian (laughing), “Sometimes he plays the banjo.”
The Glass Menagerie plays at the American Repertory Theater through March 17th and I highly recommend it. All four actors have an amazing chemistry together that brings life to Tennessee Williams. If you live in New England and love theater, it is a must see. Special thanks to Brian J. Smith and Celia Keenan-Bolger for taking time out of their hectic schedules to sit down with me.
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