A founding member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Terry Kinney has most recently appeared in their production of The Grapes of Wrath. Kinney may be best known in New York for his role in Orphans and for his direction of And a Nightingale Sang . . . starring Joan Allen at Lincoln Center. He has a reoccurring role on thirtysomething and has just directed Brilliant Traces, a play by Cindy Lou Johnson starring Joan Cusack and Kevin Anderson.
With its mixture of poetry and surrealism, Brilliant Traces meets Steppenwolf’s demands for theater as defined by Kinney “Plays that stretch realism. Realistic characters . . . done in a very grandiose way.” On her wedding day in Arizona, Rosannah Deluce begins walking backwards down the aisle out of the church and finds she can’t stop until both she and her car break down in a blizzard in “the state of Alaska, in the middle of nowhere,” near a cabin occupied by Henry Harry where, among other things, she discovers that, “Kissing is a hugely not small thing to do.”
Craig Gholson In Sam Shepard’s True West, which was Steppenwolf’s first production in New York, and like Brilliant Traces opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre, one of the first lines is, “So, Mom took off for Alaska, huh?” Were you conscious of this irony?
Terry Kinney I’d forgotten about that line, actually.
CG It seems as if characters in Steppenwolf productions are propelled to northern territories.
TK That’s a good point. I was attracted to the play not because of the idea of Alaska, but because of the idea of isolation. And the idea of having isolation crashed; of running very hard from contact to the point where you become consumed with the notion of contact.
CG Could you trace your history with the play? Have you been with it a long time?
TK Since last summer. Tanya (Berezin, Circle Rep’s artistic director) had been sending me a lot of scripts. I very openly hate to direct. I just hate it with all of my being. So, for four years, I’ve been not doing it. But she sent me this play and as a courtesy . . .
CG The Speed the Plow courtesy read?
TK (laughter) I was barreling through it, but I kept hitting these long speeches, and I found they were seeping their way into my consciousness. I threw the script down, said it was crap, said it had no structure, and I wasn’t about to try to work with another playwright. That night, I kept wandering past it. Back and forth. I was staring at it. I picked it up and read it again, and it had a stronger affect on me, and I realized that I felt ready. When I met Cindy, she was a very passionate, obsessive woman. I realized that this wasn’t going to be a safe experience. We didn’t have a net.
CG Did you, in fact, end up working on the text a lot?
TK Primarily. We’ve gone through 12 different endings: rehearsing them and putting them in that night. The one we have now we’ve had for three days and we’re feeling like we’re going to stick with it.
CG I must have seen a different one.
TK You saw one where she was flying through the air at the end.
CG What is it now?
TK She backs against the door and the idea of crashing becomes more of a psychological manifestation. He takes her in. He takes her to the floor and she screams the same lines at the end of the play that she used to, but she’s already sitting down so you realize that she’s . . .
TK Well, not yet. It’s the idea that if she lands, she’s going to land in front of her father. And if he lands, he’s going to land in front of what he’s done to his daughter. The idea of one person losing a father and one person losing a daughter was, I thought, the meat of the play. I didn’t need this incredibly dynamic crash ending. The idea of it remains, but it’s psychological.
CG What is it about directing that you hate?
TK The whole notion of it. I don’t like any control when I’m experiencing a play or a movie. I like to be told what to do and then to fight against that. I am more of a provocateur.
CG This is you speaking as an actor?
TK Yes. My preference is to be the rebellious provocateur and question the directing. But when I’m put into the driver’s seat, I find myself totally influenced by whatever opinion happens to come my way. The actor says, “I can’t do that,”—I don’t want them to anymore, no matter how sure I am of the contrary. And I find myself asking the janitor on opening night, “How did it go?” And if he said, “I didn’t like that moment,” I’ll probably take it out. As a producer, I wouldn’t feel very safe with a director that did that.
CG If your pattern is that of “the rebellious provocateur,” it must be hard to rebel against the authority figure when you are the authority figure.
TK That’s true. I totally understand an actor’s process. I give a lot more quarter than most directors do to the actors’ way of getting at things. But I’m weak in a lot of the areas that are just essential in directing—I’m a weak blocker and I conceptualize as I go. I don’t come in with a ground plan. In Brilliant Traces, with that stark setting and a stage deeper than it is wide and two characters who never leave the stage so that there are no exits and entrances, I’ve been forced to blueprint a blocking pattern for the first time in my life. And I hated doing it, but it actually turned out okay.
CG I think it’s very difficult to keep two characters interesting in a space that scale. I went to a two-character opera at the Met the other night and it was like watching a ping pong match; serve and volley, back and forth, they just basically went at it.
TK Everybody says the proscenium is about straight lines. That’s how you block a proscenium. But in a very deep setting like this, it was very uninteresting to look at straight lines. And I was always getting profiles. So I had to discern the vital information and then lace someone a little upstage and let the vital information come from there; switching them back and forth in depth.
CG One of the sources of tension in Brilliant Traces is that Rosannah sees herself as “living in the clutches of a very narrow perspective.” Henry, however, argues for a connection, a wholeness. He says, “Just you?—there is no just you.” Can you, as the director, argue both sides of the case equally persuasively?
TK You have to: the actions of this play are all about whatever hopeful expectations each of them might have. Their given circumstances are so very powerful that they have to believe in them as a safe harbor. When he accuses her of pulling him away from the deck, he says, “I’m in with the sharks now and I’m just barely holding on to that shard of the deck.” The difficulty in directing was that I had to convince Kevin that what he was being washed into was the life he was trying to surround himself with, and that salvation was the thing he was fighting the hardest. So when he says, “There is no just you,” it’s a revelation—she can’t go out there without him dying too. And when she says she’s in the clutches of a very narrow perspective, I really think she’s aware that it’s her mind that has been cut loose; that she’s disconnected from the earth because of someone denying her existence, someone she’d depended on, that had touched her soul. The interesting thing is that both these characters are in their twenties, but they have dealt with the concept of mortality in a very serious way. They feel old. They feel spent. Their will to live is just barely greater than their wish to die. So do they save each other? I don’t think so. But they see each other.
CG One of the things that struck me is that the play is like an inverted Call of the Wild. It wasn’t as if these characters went to the wild with any passion or interest in life. It was more like a centrifuge where they were inexorably propelled outward by circumstances and ended up in Alaska, by default rather than active choice. Her car conked out.
TK Or she would have kept going. What she was hoping for was to become nothing, dust, air, she says.
CG There are a number of mock-cinematic techniques in this production—a substantial soundtrack, and the equivalent of dissolves, bleeds and accelerated time. These techniques are hallmarks of Steppenwolf productions. Do you think they offend the theater purist?
TK I don’t care. We’ve always been more influenced by cinematic techniques than stage techniques because stage techniques have been around long enough to become really boring and cliché. Our earliest influences were the films of Cassavetes, not any plays we’d seen. We always tend to score our pieces and we always tend to manipulate the audience to look where we want them to look and the way to do that is to get very tight on certain situations.
CG And you’re shameless about it and you don’t care.
TK If they don’t like it, they can leave.
CG As much as Brilliant Traces seems like a Steppenwolf production, And a Nightingale Sang . . . didn’t seem to be. It was much softer. For this production, did you tap into a company aesthetic?
TK No. The idea of Steppenwolf doing muscular theater is something that has been, for better or for worse, imported here with certain productions: True West, Orphans, and Balm in Gilead, but there’s a whole other world that we’ve explored. My productions of Of Mice and Men, and And a Nightingale Sang . . . were both extremely elegiac. I tried to make them flow and to make them very gentle. We try to do the scripts the way they’re written. That’s what those two pieces were about. I think it’s been unfortunate that we’ve brought so many rock and roll plays to New York because we’ve done a lot of different kinds of plays.
CG Do you have models as a director?
TK I have lots of people I admire, but no. I had a mentor, Cal Pritner, at the university I went to. He influenced me because I was very young and because he made a lot of sense, but I didn’t see a lot of plays. I walked out of plays when I was a kid. I was very cocky back then. All of us were. That’s why we started our own theater.
CG What was it that made you walk out?
TK They were never very real. I just wanted to see people really talking to each other. If somebody had to get punched, I wanted to see them take the punch. I wanted them to do something more dynamic with the lights and the sound. The tech is the playground of the play. A purist may say that it distracts from the action by accentuating the focus of the vision. I don’t believe that at all. I think your verisimilitude should come in the work with your actors. And that when appropriate, theatricality is a very thrilling thing. It makes people remember moments.
CG The position of Artistic Director at Steppenwolf is a rotated one.
TK It seems to be.
CG What did you choose to focus on during your tenure in that position?
TK Getting out of that job. I was there for a couple of months with Gary Sinise at a time when neither of us could handle it singly. We were basically putting together the next three slots in finding directors and once we got that done, I said, “Can you handle it alone now?” And he did.
CG You don’t have to go back to it?
TK No. It’s not a rotating position in the respect that, “It’s your turn now.” It’s not that proletariat.
CG Steppenwolf is comprised of very many talented actors and directors: Gary Sinese, John Malkovich, Joan Allen. Why were writers not included? Was that a conscious choice?
TK No. It wasn’t conscious at all. We had a resident playwright for a couple of years. At the time, we certainly weren’t being offered anybody’s new scripts. We were in a basement in Highland Park, Illinois. There was a guy from a university who wrote very beautiful poetry and we took a series of his poems and did them as an evening of theater and we had a good time with them. Nobody else, or at least the three people in the audience, liked it very much. But we sort of commissioned him, for about $150, to write another play. He wrote two or three more plays but they never got done, and he drifted back into fiction. So we haven’t had a resident playwright since then. Lynn Seifert has been commissioned to write a play for us. That’s where Little Egypt came from last year.
CG What would you say sets you apart from other company members?
TK It seems to me that other company members would answer that better than me.
CG What interests do you have that you think maybe they don’t.
TK I’m stumped. I’m sorry, but we’ll come back to that one. I wouldn’t know.
CG Steppenwolf, its name notwithstanding, seems to me to be specifically American in its techniques and concerns. What the company seems essentially interested in are aspects of Americana. Would you agree?
TK Absolutely. In the ’30s they had Odets and a lot of people writing for a common cause. There’s no common cause in America today unless it’s AIDS and that’s not a very unifying factor in our society. So plays tend to be hysterical. We keep looking for plays about the America that we see. The topic today should be about the people living on the streets, the disconnected people. They’re the biggest percentage of Americans right now—the disenfranchised.
CG Everybody is disconnected in a certain way, but those people have disconnected in a more literal way.
TK They’re the mirrors.
CG Yes, for all of us.
TK So we look for very specifically American plays and we tend to be more attracted to plays that stretch realism. Realistic characters that have the potential to be done in a very grandiose way. That wasn’t the case with Grapes of Wrath. That is the case of a novel that is more salient now than it was when it was written.
CG Will that production be mounted again?
TK We are doing it again. We’re doing it in LaJolla in April and then we’re taking it to London to the National Theater for a festival this summer. I’ve never been to Europe. That’s what makes me different from the other company members!—I’ve never left the country except to go to the Caribbean.
CG Are the anxieties of a director the same as the anxieties of an actor?
TK They’re totally different. My anxieties as an actor are always very personal. They’re always about digging deeper and doing better myself. As a director, I babysit everybody else’s anxieties and there’s no need for that. A good director doesn’t do that, but I tend to imagine them not going home and doing any work for themselves. I think the responsibility of directing is just one that eats you alive. For this play, I’ve gone home and given everybody individual notes and it’s taken me four hours every night to do that. Now I should have imagined that they were going home and working on it themselves, but . . .
CG It sounds as if you have assumed the part of their process which you, as an actor, know very well but which you might not if you were “only” a director.
TK I’ve certainly taken in their frustrations. When they didn’t know how to find something, I’ve taken it in as an actor too often and haven’t trusted process enough.
CG Are the satisfactions of acting and directing the same?
TK No, there’s a post-partum side of directing that is very painful. My main criterion for directing is that my direction be seamless. Besides the technical aspects of the play, I want their performances to look like they’ve arrived there on their own. That very seamlessness can make me feel worthless once the experience is up. I always feel like an invader in the theater. I walk in to take notes and I feel like I shouldn’t be there.
CG You don’t alternate between acting and directing. You go through long periods as an actor and then you go with something that compels you to direct.
TK Yes. I may not wait as long to direct again, but I think I’ll direct in a more controlled situation, probably at my own theater next time. This was a giant risk for me because I was taking an unknown quantity in a theater that was not my own and casting two people I’d never met at the time. And I think I must have done that on purpose.
CG But you had worked at Circle Rep before in Balm in Gilead.
TK As an actor, yes. I think I’m very helpful in the process when I’m an actor because I can talk about the writing very easily. I don’t feel there’s anything at stake and so I’m very vociferous about the writing. I don’t think I’m a provocateur in the sense that I disrupt the director’s vision. But I’m always challenging them to make themselves more clear. I’m very comfortable because I keep changing hats when I’m an actor. I’m very confident as an actor even if I’m terrible in the play. I’m a confident actor. I just hate myself when I direct sometimes because I hear myself backing off of good ideas so often.
CG To protect the actor?
TK To coddle the actor, to appease the actor. Ultimately, I don’t back off of a vision if it turns out to be the right one, but I find myself going through too many tunnels. If I just held onto it and said, “I don’t know if it’ll work, try it again,” it could be a shorter process and a more pleasant one.
CG Do you notice a difference in your acting when you’re in a Steppenwolf production as opposed to a non-Steppenwolf production?
TK It’s hard to say. I’ve had a few good experiences outside of Steppenwolf, but my best experiences have been in Steppenwolf.
CG Is there more risk-taking?
TK It’s that first two weeks of rehearsal when you’re wondering whether or not you can physicalize or whether you can throw your script down and make an idiot of yourself if you need to. We leap right in at Steppenwolf. We make fun of each other there. We know each other’s tricks. There’s always a challenge. People dare each other to go further. We find that the longer we work together, the more we’re trying to crack open a new form in acting. I don’t know that it’s not been done in the sixties or the fifties before us. I have no way of knowing if there’s any such thing as a new form, but we’re trying to expand the size of theater experiences.
CG How do you get younger actors involved?
TK We don’t have a lot of younger actors right now and it’s a problem. We’re trying to find young women to work in our plays, but you can’t just draft people into this company. They have to work a few times there and the big criteria is sensibility, whether they run akin to ours. We work in a very strange vacuum there. A lot of people get intimidated by it until they realize we’re just a bunch of cornheads from the Midwest. Then, there’s no mystique left.
CG Do you have any rituals that you do before performances?
TK Not really, except I warm up real extensively. I’m just not any younger than I used to be and I need to work my voice before I go on. I also tend to go through the first part of the play. I say it out loud as if I’ve rehearsed it that day. I’m not getting any better about being nervous. I’m always nervous because I have a strong urge to please people. So I need to warm up. There are other actors in our theater, John Malkovich for instance, who find that unnecessary. We were opening The Glass Menagerie way back in ’77 and they said, “Places.” Then, "Where’s John? Where’s John?" This is opening night and all the critics were out there. This was do or die; our theater would have closed if it wouldn’t have gone well. Nobody could find him and they looked under the make-up table and he was asleep. They shook him and he woke up, lit an unfiltered cigarette and said, “Let’s do it.” I don’t have that kind of confidence.
CG Malkovich has said the inverse of you, in that he really prefers directing much more than acting.
TK John’s directing is most effective with us. He’s a good director no matter what, but he has this abbreviated language. The notes he used to give me during Balm in Gilead would just say, “Terry, better. Be better.” And I kind of knew what he meant.
CG Have you had any repercussions from appearing on thirtysomething? Has there been any backlash?
TK Go ahead and be specific.
CG I just wondered what people’s response to your doing . . .
CG Well, television for one thing, and that particular show because it seems to epitomize something other than just doing television.
TK Yes, it represents a fraction of society that many people, including myself, would scorn at any other time. I do that show because of a couple of clear reasons. When they first told me what it was, I was very frightened by the notion, but I looked at the character and he didn’t seem to be much of a Yuppie. He’s got sort of a Yuppie job, but he seems more of a hippy.
CG What does he do?
TK He’s a city manager. It was an opportunity to play someone other than a psycho in front of a camera and it was an opportunity to work with a lot of actors that I’d heard a great deal about. I watched an episode and realized that they were breaking new ground in terms of having an actual ensemble of young, good, theater actors and that they had an incredible cinematographer. And some fairly good ideas, in spite of the fact that the values of the show tend to be suspect. This episode is about so and so’s BMW that breaks down and there’s a lot of discourse over it. Well, I’m more interested in the method than the message and I hope that doesn’t sound too shallow, but I thought the work was quality work. It’s been very comfortable because I go on a show-to-show basis, and they could kill me off at any time that I needed them to. And that, I fear, will be very soon.
The backlash has been exactly what you pointed it out to be. People have insulted the show, but I don’t feel personally insulted by that because it’s not my show. I just show up once in a while and it allows me to do a lot more theater.
CG Have you ever done a role or directed a play you didn’t really believe in?
TK Yes, I directed Fool for Love and I think it’s a shitty play. And I couldn’t make it any better. So ultimately, I took the blame for that because I saw Sam’s production and it was good. At least it was something where actors could flex their muscles.
CG What difficulty did you have?
TK That long aria of Mays at the end of the play was structurally impossible. They should have been engaging at that point, and instead he chose to tell a long story. Two long stories in a row—his about the drive-in and then her’s. I remember hating that in his production. I just thought it was bad writing. Someone may point out that Brilliant Traces ends with an aria of dialogue, too, but I’ve got more of a handle on how this one ties in.
CG What’s the hardest part about being an actor for you?
TK The process, the angst involved with getting under the skin of the character; talking from the character’s point of view, as opposed to your own. The process that you have to go through in order to start acting is really painful and I don’t know how to improve that. I don’t know how to sail through a project. I’ve heard people say it was just a joy and we never had a moment where we weren’t finding new things, but I always go through black, black periods in the rehearsal process. It always affects my life.
CG You find new, painful things.
TK Yes. I would say, again, it’s part of my process. I must need to do that, or I wouldn’t. It’s no fun.
CG I can only imagine.
TK Well, you write.
CG That is no fun either, believe me. Sometimes the writing is fun; the rewriting, however, is never fun.
TK It’s hard to improve on a first breath, isn’t it? When you write something in a breath and then you have to go back and crawl into it. You’ve got to do your reconstruction from the inside out. There’s something there in the first idea and you have to always keep that in mind.
CG Where do you think the myth about actors—that they’re better if they’re anti-intellectual, i.e. stupid, arises from?
TK It is a myth. I think the best actors I know are really smart people. A lot of people think of actors as things to be molded into this bigger picture, but I think, in theater, at least, it’s the actor’s event. Eventually, the play has to be handed over to actors. Actors have to be empowered, and in order to empower someone, you have to respect them intellectually. You have to know that they’re going to understand what you’re saying and improve upon that, take it in, personalize it and then tell the story every night. That takes a great deal of intellect. I don’t know if that’s true of film acting. If you can cut together someone’s interesting face in a series of moods, you can put together a story. That’s the director’s event. But the fact that actors shouldn’t be intellectual is a fallacy. I think that’s fear-based. People fear smart actors.
CG What long term goals do you have?
TK I want to work with Steppenwolf people in film. I want to do a lot of film. I hope I can find some good plays and be in them and maybe try directing again when I have some confidence.
CG Why are you an actor?
TK There was a long time I thought of it as a hobby when we first started the theater, but it expresses what I need to express better than anything else I can do. I can’t write. I don’t think I’m a very good director. If I could play music, that’s what I would be doing. In acting, I found that I could make people respond. I could sometimes make them laugh and I could sometimes move them by interpreting literature.
Craig Gholson is a playwright and Associate Editor of BOMB. He most recently contributed a piece to an evening devoted to the homeless performed by Naked Angels.