I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Black-Eyed Susan made her New York debut in Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company and their production of Big Hotel in 1968. She has been an actress with the ensemble company ever since. Known for its bawdy, witty and farcical staging of the Classics from Camille to Bluebeard, The Ridiculous Theatrical Company has been shocking and thrilling New York audiences for 20 years. Black-Eyed Susan has created a wide range of characters for the company—Tsu-Hsi, the last empress of China, in Eunuchs of the Forbidden City; Olympe deTaverny in Camille; Ramona Malone in Hot Ice; Ophelia in Stage Blood; Zuni Feinschmecker in Caprice; Phyllis in Utopia Incorporated; Princess Eulalie-Irene in The Enchanted Pig; Eleanor in Reverse Psychology; Sylvia Woodward in Love’s Tangled Web, Barbara Bendix in Exquisite Torture; Hure von Hoyden in Galas; Roxanne Nurdiger in The Artificial Jungle and both the nurse and the title role in Medea. She has received three Villager Awards for Outstanding Performance and in 1987, she received an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence of Performance. Currently she can be seen as Turzahnelle in the company’s production of Turds in Hell and Hector Babenco’s film, Ironweed.
Kate Simon How would you compare the directors you’ve worked with? You’ve worked with Hector Babenco on Ironweed, John Jesurun’s plays, and created innumerable roles for Charles Ludlam and The Ridiculous Theatrical Company.
Black-Eyed Susan Charles Ludlam was what I would call a consummate director because he was an actor as well and he knew how to get an actor to deliver a performance. One thing all directors have in common is that if an actor gives even an iota of an idea and it isn’t fulfilled in a scene that director will pull it out of the actor. Charles was always on top of that. John Jesurun’s directing was different in that he wasn’t an actor and his scripts were of the foremost importance. Hector Babenco, being a movie director (and I don’t know whether he was an actor or not) would take what he got in rehearsal or in the audition and want you to use that. You could elaborate on it or embroider it but Babenco expected the actor to come up with his own ideas.
Charles always made an actor use his own imagination to its height. In other words, you could create even over the bounds. He liked bigger than life, as long as you were going in the direction that he wanted. John Jesurun would be a little bit more conservative about it because his scripts demanded that. The sentences or the words were highly repetitive and people often didn’t say what made a lot of sense at the moment.
KS What do you mean?
BES A lot of John’s dialogue is non-sequiturs and he would want a certain rapid rhythm set up. It created an excitement and I think that actors in his plays had to be at a certain peak of performance level.
In Charles’s theater, he wanted all of his characters to be highly motivated. Each actor had to develop … well, one could develop a certain walk, a certain look, a certain accent for a role and different ones for another role. Charles would make each person communicate with another person on stage so that you would re-enact real life. In The Artificial Jungle, my character was very bored in a marriage. A new man comes into my life. I take him on as a lover, plot my husband’s murder and get this man to do it. That’s a highly motivated person. She knows what she’s up to at every minute, even when she’s seducing the other guy. It’s not only the seduction itself or her attraction to him but the fact that she could use him had to be kept in mind.
KS Sounds like The Postman Always Rings Twice.
BES It was based on that and Double Indemnity and Thérèse Raquin which was written by Zolá.
KS How did Charles impose his own ideas onto the story—to make it different? I mean, that’s the classic, the babe getting the guy to off her husband …
BES It was based on film noir but Charles wanted it to have a different ending, more like Zola’s Thérèse Raquin where the characters betray themselves through their own guilt. They couldn’t live with themselves and so they became incredibly bizarre. This lower class woman who aspired to be middle class. All she did was cash in his life for a $100,000 insurance policy. That’s not a lot of money. So she became a whore, a hooker dressed in black leather.
KS Is there a method to your acting?
BES A method? I don’t think so because I don’t know what it is. I try to ask myself questions about each part and it seems I always have to start from scratch. It’s not like I go in knowing anything.
KS There must be … well, insecurity.
BES Yes, there is.
KS Fear motivates you, too.
BES Yes, it does.
KS What do you do if you have no kind of set regimen or ritual?
BES You look at the dialogue and ask how this particular phrase, or sentence, or work or whatever you’re saying, how does it affect the person you are acting with or how do you want it to affect him. That’s what I mean by motivating something. And generally, in the beginning of a rehearsal period, it’s all very simple but by the time the rehearsal ends or you’ve been performing it a couple of times in previews, it starts to come together and it becomes embellished and more complex.
KS So your delivery of the lines and how that affects the other person really determines how you’re going to act yourself.
BES Yes. Also how the other actor’s words affect you. When we were going to do Medea at The Ridiculous—I love the character of Medea, I’d wanted to do it for years—so I already had a pretty good idea of my own motivation, because it was pretty basic to me. When we got there to read, I realized that everyone’s reading, what they said to Medea, their responses, affected me differently. Suddenly I had to take them into consideration. I wasn’t an entity unto myself. That happens in every script.
KS As an actor do you first go for the inner life or the outer life?
BES It depends. I’m not quite sure. I know that in Secret Lives of the Sexists, I didn’t have a clue to this character that Charles had written; Zena Grossfinger, an ex-stripper who became a beauty salon operator. She had given up her daughter at birth and then decided 30 years later that she would like to meet with her and identify herself as the mother. I didn’t know … being in The Ridiculous, my character had had the baby when she was six years old. I had it in the circus where my mother worked and it was conceived in an unusual way. The father was the human worm in the circus. I didn’t know how to do it. So I started externally with a certain walk, the undulating of the hips, and I also thought of Gypsy Rose Lee a lot. But that part was approached externally until I could grasp who the character was.
KS What about Reverse Psychology? That was the first play I saw you in.
BES That was mostly internal. First of all, she was kind of a crazy girl, carefree, irresponsible. That much I could gather from the script, but her sessions with the psychiatrist—I really did have to approach internally. It was a send-up of psychiatry.
KS We’ve been talking about stage acting. How would you say film acting differs.
BES Film acting is segmented, meaning that you don’t play a character from beginning to end in a certain period of time. The focus is different. Some people say that you have to act smaller in films than you do on stage. That might be true to a certain degree, but I don’t think that’s the point. I think the most important thing is that one has to be entirely focused on even the smallest segments. When you’re off camera, you can’t sit around and chat. You really have to keep focused on the scene you’re going to do.
KS How do you do that, say when you were in Albany doing Ironweed.
BES Sit still and think.
KS You just meditate.
BES Yeah, but what’s different there is that you do the master shot which is the whole scene and then suddenly, they’re getting to reaction shots and closeups. I noticed that in each take the professional film actors gave another psychological emphasis, and each one they did was masterful. I don’t know how the editor could even make a choice.
KS So with Nicholson and Streep, for example, they would do three takes with three totally different motivations?
BES They were altered psychological differences, nuances. They weren’t major changes, though I’m sure some actors do that. That’s the art of film acting.
KS I would think that after you’ve decided how you want to feature yourself, that you wouldn’t stray from that at all.
BES Babenco kept saying, “Relax, you can do it other ways, it’s okay.”
KS That’s great.
BES Yes, but I was scared.
KS What was it like working with Nicholson on Ironweed?
BES Oh, I enjoyed working with him. He’s very relaxed, very professional.
KS It’s said that he told Babenco that he didn’t want the camera to always be on him. He wanted to show the other actor’s responses, even while he was delivering dialogue.
BES He’s an unselfish actor. The first day he walked into rehearsal—I didn’t know him and he certainly didn’t know me, I knew him only from his films—but he seemed a man who was completely at ease with himself. He knew who he was … had a strong center. But the first day of shooting, he was a different person.
KS In what respect?
BES He had become less confident. He was already going into Francis Phelan, the protagonist in Ironweed. He was not Jack Nicholson anymore. And not in command of himself. He was a little bit … his focus was diffused, his concentration, although certainly he knew what he was going to do in the scene, but he allowed himself the freedom to become the character.
KS What about Meryl Streep?
BES Well, she’s obviously a wonderful actress. I think most people agree on that, but what I was most impressed with, was that her focus was so intense. She never came on the set giving attitude or saying, “Stay away from me,” but before the scene she would sit by herself and focus.
KS For how long?
BES As long as she wanted. It could be three minutes.
KS Would Babenco wait until she let him know? Or was she just ready for him?
BES She would be ready, which is quite admirable because I wonder how many people can do that. No wonder so many directors love her. She’s easy to work with.
KS What are some of your favorite roles?
BES I liked playing the last Empress of China in Eunuchs of the Forbidden City because it was a coming of age for me. I was really young when Charles wrote that role.
KS How old?
BES I was about 27, maybe, around then. I started the role as a young, young girl, 16 on through to her death when she was in her seventies. So I was allowed to go through adolescence, early womanhood, maturity, and old age, all in one play. Also, it was a woman who was obsessed with power. We did a lot of research into her life. One of my favorite scenes in that play is at least ten minutes long and all I talk about are the benefits of jade—when to wear jade earrings. One shouldn’t wear them when one is too old, it’ll bring out the age in your face, or unhappy. One can’t wear them when one is unhappy.
KS So when does one wear jade?
BES When you’re feeling quite good.
KS And quite young.
BES Well, you don’t actually have to be young, but you have to feel young.
KS So, she was obsessed with power. Your whole carriage on stage—you really looked like somebody who could relate to being like that.
BES Don’t forget I was on really high shoes. She was Mandarin so she hadn’t had her feet bound. Also, say there were grade A, B, C concubines—she was a grade C concubine. She was not the Emperor’s favorite. However, she wanted to escape the fate of most concubines who weren’t chosen by the Emperor. Because if she didn’t, she would have had to stay on the Island of Concubines, living with a bunch of other women with only the eunuchs to wait on them, and as they had no power, no political clout, the eunuchs could mistreat them. She knew all this being a really smart girl, so she had the eunuchs teach her politics, painting, sculpture … she also knew that the emperor was an opium addict and so she made beautiful little sculptures from opium and would have them sent to him until finally, he rang the bell for her one night and never ever rang the bell for anybody else after that.
KS And this is based on history.
KS Why do you really like the role of Medea?
BES Because I can relate to the anger, the incredible anger. And also her own sanity in the total irrationality of her actions. Also, because she escapes all punishment.
KS So it’s a real field day.
BES But I had a lot of favorite roles. One of the great roles I played was for Ethyl Eichelberger. I played Hamlette. He fashioned Hamlet for me. He made me a woman in this acting company that was doing Hamlet but then the union members quit so that they had to use the dressers and the director and stage manager to play all the roles. I played Hamlet. That was a real challenge, I really had to be Hamlet.
KS What’s it like collaborating with Ethyl?
BES He’s a wonderful director. I needed help, obviously, especially for the soliloquies and he would take as much time as I needed and really direct. He also can be very tough which I appreciate.
KS Because he has such a conception of how …
BES No, no. He’s interested in how you want to do it. But I will say one thing that he and Charles have in common: Charles was and Ethyl is, they’re both very, very brilliant actors, and they are classically trained actors so they can play classical roles.
KS And they are familiar with all the classics.
BES And they are familiar with all the classics. So when you’re being directed by someone like that, it’s far different for an actor than being directed by a director who’s not an actor.
KS And not so classically aware.
BES Yes. Well, John Jesurun’s plays aren’t based on the classics. They’re very modern and they’re great. They’re brilliant. I did Red House with him and it was about a rock band that invades this little diner in the Mid-West and somehow these two workers in the diner and one customer run off with this rock band and then the play just shatters. You don’t know what’s exactly happening. He did a play called Deep Sleep which takes place partly on film and partly live, on stage. I was one of the film actors who was trying to lure the stage actors into coming up and being part of the film.
KS What happened?
BES The actors on stage would crawl up towards the film in different ways and be sucked in and that was it. They could never come to life again. I also did Black Maria with him which I think was when I really understood film acting. That was all film, they had no live actors. There were five projection screens on stage.
KS How is it that that particular role made you understand screen acting?
BES We went to El Paso for a week to shoot this film, an independent feature which was about an hour long. We had one camera. Each actor, even if you had a scene with another person, had to be shot individually because each character was to appear on stage on separate screens. We had our dialogue in our ears, pre-recorded so that instead of people talking to you, you just came out with your own line when you heard your cue, which you heard on a Walkman. It was hard, but it taught me how to focus.
KS In what respect?
BES What else could I think of? I was hell bent on getting my line out and also keeping in character. I was playing a character far from myself, an itinerant, wandering around in the desert.
KS Many actors are superstitious. Are you?
BES Well, I don’t believe in mentioning the Scottish play but since we’re not in the dressing room I can mention it. It is said that somehow, in the fourth act, the witch’s brew is revealed. There were witches at that time and they resented it tremendously and so they put a curse on the play. Shakespeare wrote that play for King James. King James saw the play once and didn’t like it so it was never performed again in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Every time someone’s done Macbeth or almost every time, something terrible has happened. At the very least they get a rotten review.
KS Other than that?
BES Whistling in the dressing room. It makes me crazy. I don’t want a whistle in the dressing room.
KS Do you go through a preparatory state before a show?
BES Oh yes, when I’m putting on my makeup I go through a big one.
KS It’s the makeup?
BES Yes, the application of makeup, it’s meditative. I can talk and things, but generally at one point, I will have to just hold up my hand and stop a conversation because I know I have to go into myself. Every night I try to have new goals when I go out on the stage, to keep it fresh. Don’t forget you’re doing the same script night after night after night and you want some development.
KS Last night, in Turds in Hell, there were 20 fundamentalists in the audience from Ohio who walked out en masse.
BES I talked to the box office man and asked him what those people’s comments were and he said that they said it was sacrilegious. We started laughing because the name of the play is Turds in Hell for god’s sake. Did they not expect it? How could they be surprised?
KS Working with Charles Ludlam must have been a great influence on you. How has this influence endured?
BES I mean it’s still enduring and it will probably endure till the end of my days. I think he taught me almost everything I know, but we used to have a joke about that, he used to say to me, “I taught you everything you know, however, I didn’t teach you everything I know” and I used to say, “That’s only because you’re a gentleman, Charles.” I didn’t want to know everything he knew. But he worked collaboratively. If I had an idea that was viable to him, he would accept it and be willing to go with me. He also had a great gift. I know that when he wrote a role, he knew how it should be read or should be said as he was writing it. I think Charles wrote organically. It really came from his viscera. He was a visceral man and, of course, highly brilliant as well, but he had great feeling. You could see it in his movements, he moved perfectly. No gesture was wrong.
KS In life as well as on stage?
KS Total control and consideration, intent.
BES Yes, incredible. And I think even though he knew how it should be read, he had the great gift of transcribing that to reality. A lot is lost in reality and also a lot is gained. When I first started working with him, we were doing Big Hotel and I was playing a ballerina called Bershitskya and I had all these lofty ideas. She was the great artist and very intent on her career but she comes to ruin. I had all these ideas of how she should be which were all lofty and ethereal. But when I started doing it, I just thought I was terrible and I probably was. Charles said, “You have to be willing to accept the transference from a mental to a physical plane.”
KS That’s a whole lot.
BES Yeah it is.
KS Susan, you’re saying that he taught you everything, in terms of acting and your life … he was a great educator.
BES Yes, he was a great educator. He was also a great horticulturist, you know. He had millions of plants, his apartment looked like a jungle. His apartment was tiny and his plants were taking over, so he went into bonsai. I mean the man didn’t stop. He didn’t stop cultivating plants, he just started cultivating bonsai and he did it himself. He could make his own. What he liked to do was just watch a plant … just plant the seed and watch it grow, and keep it growing, keep it alive. He was so intent on it. It took him hours every day and I think he was that way with human beings. He was incredibly sensitive to life.
KS How did you meet Charles?
BES In college. He was doing a play called A Solid Life which was written by a Mexican woman named Elena Garro. It was a very Chekhovian one act play. I tried out on a Friday night and he said “I’ll let everyone know by Monday morning,” so I walked down the stairs thinking, “Well I probably didn’t get it,” but he was so sensitive to me being shy that he ran down the stairs after me, after everyone had left and said, “You have the part!”
He was also a man of great ideas, it was fun to know him. It was fun to be at one of his rehearsals because a lot of times he would start the rehearsals by just talking about ideas and philosophy and what he had done that day. What inspired him to think this or that. He would take one specific point of the play and start embroidering it and elaborating and embellishing and talking about it. He was mesmerizing. You could go on for three hours just sitting there listening to him and then you’d start the rehearsal. Knowing a person like that is incredible. I always thought I was so lucky, even when I worked with other people and I went back to him … I always thought the other people were fabulous too, I haven’t worked with anyone I didn’t like. I really haven’t had that misfortune and—knock on wood—I never will, but I always thought I was so lucky in knowing him.
KS Just in knowing you, the things that you say, so many times you pepper your conversation with “Charles told me this or taught me this …”
BES Well, he was a big part of my life. We were friends for 20 years.
KS What characters do you want to play in the future?
BES There are lots of characters. Classically? I would like to play Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. I’ve done St. Joan which I can still do. Ethyl [Eichelberger] wrote it as a one-woman show and I love it. It’s beautiful and also there are lots of roles that I think up. People that I think up.
KS Like who?
BES Oh, I’d love to play … you know, there’s a book about a woman who was married to a man who abused her and she had four children by him. She was madly in love with him but one night … he abused her so badly that one night she just had had it up to her ears so she took out a gun and shot him, which seems gruesome. Why would you want to play that person except that it’s not such a depressing experience because she truly loved him. It wasn’t like The Burning Bed, that TV movie. It wasn’t like that.
KS It was just a happenstance, one of those things.
BES Yes, she was madly in love with him.
KS I don’t know how to phrase this exactly, but the respect that you get within the theater world is so justified. And is a given. How does this respect differ from how you have to justify yourself to people who are outside the theater milieu, so to speak?
BES Well, if we’re speaking about my relatives or people I know outside of the theater … one cousin has seen me, and my sister has seen me in a couple of things, but most of them have not seen anything and they couldn’t be less interested. And it’s okay by me. I really don’t care. I don’t really talk about myself with them. I talk about other things. Mostly about what my cousin is doing. And she’s a very aware enlightened sort of person and leads a very interesting life in Connecticut.
KS But you’re interested in her life, and so it’s significant that she’s not really keen to know …
BES She’s never asked any questions about my life.
KS She knows you’re an actress and respects that?
BES Yeah, she says that’s fine. That’s about as far as she goes.
KS She never voices a wish to see you in any of your productions?
BES No. And we were brought up very, very closely. We were brought up like sisters because we were the same age. My sister and her husband have seen a few productions, not many, but they’re not terribly interested in me, or so I gather, but they’re also very busy. They’re bringing up three children and building a “future” and I’m more interested in seeing what they do. I find it fascinating that they don’t care about other lives so much. But I’m interested in their lives. Their lives are fun. It’s fun to hear about.
KS It’s always interesting to me, that people in my estimation who seem to lead these kind of “exciting” lives are … if you ask them if they had a wish of what they would like to do, they say things like garden or … these mundane lifestyles are sort of appealing to … maybe we’re overstimulated in New York.
BES Actually, I would like to garden. I’d like to have a home where I had a garden and spend time there. That’s very peaceful doing that.
Kate Simon is a photographer living and working in New York. She is a contributing editor for BOMB.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee