Nightshift presented a season of Joe Orton's Ruffian On the Stair, Heathecote Williams Local Stigmatic and three James Purdy plays during the summer and winter of '82. The season was noted for its tightly pitched physical performance style. Principal members Lindzee Smith, Steve Wilkinson and Annie Turner were present at this interview. Other actors associated with the group include Simon Williams and John Uecker. Set Designs by Tim Burns.
Alan Frame Is it difficult to present a group of men's plays in N.Y. without constantly having to declare your sexual preferences?
Lindzee Smith No, it hardly came up, although in the end we did avoid the more sexually oriented plays that James had written. There are plays we could go on to, like Now, in particular, and Clearing in the Forest, and also A Day After the Fair (which we might do) which is much more explicitly about sex and love affairs between men, whereas the ones that we did weren't. I just can't respond to people who say they're about latent homosexuals because I don't think they are. It's just that James hasn't chosen to make sex an issue in the plays we did. In the Purdy season we were dealing more constantly with homosexual elements in the theatre audience. Predictable responses from gay people who are, what John Uecker calls, "gays with an image." It's a man with an image of how far the gay revolution has gone, and there's no room for anyone who's in the derriere guard.
AF Do you think that, having done this group of men's plays, you're ready for a less sexually divided approach?
AF You may be doing an evening of women's plays?
LS The women's plays we've looked at are much less about narrative and character which is what we are interested in...
AF Doing an evening of women's plays is still in the framework of sexually divided theatre.
Steve Wilkinson Not really, no. We didn't start off purposely going for men's themes. That happened because of the lack of women in the group when we first started.
LS We now have a number of women who have approached us, both playwrights and actresses so hopefully things will open out a little—as Steve said, we don't want to stick to sexual isolation. It's just that Steve and I were available, and the Orton script, the first play in the series we did, had only one woman in it. What I've been thinking about for a long time is Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities, which has three remarkable women's roles in it, plus four or five great men's roles. I've done it twice before but it's something I keep coming back to because I've never been totally satisfied with it. One of the problems, of course, is that we've got to remain small.
AF You had announced that you were going to do Phil Motherwell's Held In Camera based on Genet's Deathwatch. What happened to that?
LS With Orton and the subsequent Heathcote Williams play, we had three or four people involved. With Held In Camera, it was six people and the chemistry was just not right. We have a modus operandi which is comfortable and enables us to manage the group, get the plays on...I direct the plays but I also act in them. Steve and I and Annie and the other actors can work it out together and I can use my directing skills as a fulcrum within the play and everyone else can collaborate off of that. The more people involved, the more difficult that is. You have to channel your ideas through more people who may have different understandings, different styles of acting, whereas if it's best small, like all the productions so far, it's much easier to channel and not to compromise.
AF Lindzee, isn't it confusing to play the roles in the Purdy plays of someone who is controlling and has the power while at the same time having that role as director of the play(s)?
LS We always found it helpful to build that in. Although I didn't see my characters in the plays as simplistically as that. You could say that I had the traditional power roles, that I was in charge of the purse strings, or that I had control of the situation, but in a lot of ways that controlling figure was the weaker character in philosophical terms. You could definitely say that in The Berry-Picker, the young retainer was the strength of the play. He helped my character—a cripple who was actually falling apart—put his life back together a little bit.
AF How did you like working with John Uecker, who was the only actor trained in the method and also the only American actor in the Purdy plays.
LS It was a difficult situation and in the end, we decided not really to confront it and let it ride because there wasn't really time. Actually, someone else had been in that part, right? John took the role over two weeks before we were due to open.
AF I was thinking, John brought the Purdy plays to your attention.
LS Yes, John originally brought the plays to me, and then there was a complicated situation as to whether he would act in them or not and in the end he did. I think it worked out okay. But there wasn't time to modify his performance to blend in with ours.
SW I think, in a way, he affected our performance. Simon and I come from a traditional English acting style, and he taught us quite a bit, particularly in terms of Purdy's naturalism.
LS I'd been involved with a school of acting which we called "para-method" at one stage. We thought it would be useful to have a traditional method actor in the American style in the group.
AF What is para-method?
LS It's taking the method style to its ultimate external form but not really concentrating on the inner...There's a line in the Times criticism about the English actors going "from the outside in" and the American actors going "from the inside out." That's probably a simplification. But that was the question in the resolution of the idea in the end, whether you'd take the role from the inside and go outwards (motivation to technique), which John constantly did, and constantly talked about; or whether you affect an external thing, like getting a walk or a voice or an accent (technique to motivation), which is the way Steve worked in the past; whereas para-method I think, is using your own life to inform the role. That's what we do in choosing our plays, to choose plays which in many ways, are metaphors to our own lives.
AF How did you like having the playwright so close, as in the case of James Purdy?
Annie Turner I noticed the difference in that Lindzee and Steven are usually more improvisational in their work. I think James's presence during the performances had some effect. We stuck to the script more.
SW With Orton or Williams we were much less reverential.
LS We all became quite close to him during the season.
SW We were able to consult.
LS He did the music for us—chose it. I think he probably went as far our way as we did his way. He really did accept the way we did the plays and the ideas we introduced in terms of staging and performance. There was worry about these plays being set in America and our not being American or using American accents but he was very supportive, in that he thought our accents opened the plays out and lent some distance.
AF Do you prefer the claustrophobic edge of a small space or is the Laight Again Club just an expedient choice?
SW Closed spaces do bring immediacy and that's something we're very much concerned with.
AF The seating areas were animated in The Local Stigmatic by a hanamichi which zig-zagged through the room. The actors moved across it in and out of the audience.
LS I think you can work with immediacy in large spaces, too, but I think proximity to the audience is good and it's the sort of thing I've worked with for a long time, having this immediacy where the audience smells the sweat, gets the spit, like sports—boxing. We do maintain an invisible screen between ourselves and the audience—even if we're two inches away from them.
SW Particularly with the Orton and Williams plays we concentrated more on performance than technical support. Lindzee calls it punishing the image, going for the images in the text through the acting rather than a more traditional technical backup. It's quite the cerebral approach. We're very interested in language.
LS Language as a visceral sort of thing, not being purely informative, but also affecting the audience's perception of the play by the speed of delivery or the volume or the intensity of the pitch.
AF I think that worked with the Purdy plays because the language is so strong and primal.
LS You can rely on it totally because there aren't those long monologues that there are in Orton and Williams. You have to concentrate on the other actor very carefully all the time because it's feed, feed, feed, feed, feed. There's nothing longer than the retainer's speech in The Berry-Picker—his fairy tale.
AF In terms of provocative theatre being presented in NY, do you feel Nightshift is in a lonely position?
SW There is no more experimental theatre in the old sense anymore. We're in a new stage now.
LS And I think that's got a lot to do with language. So much of the stuff in the late '70s, like Wilson and Foreman, The Wooster Group and soon was about image—image which was driven by the body more than the word being driven by the body. The word became less important, much like the movement in painting. Painting after minimalism sort of slowed down. There wasn't an identifiable movement until Schnabel and people like that appeared on the scene. I think things in the Theatre are bubbling a bit under the surface—there is a period of quiescence.