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
Anyone who has visited Good Medicine & Company on East 10th Street over the last fifteen years knows something about theater that many people are just now discovering. Sometimes, before a show, there might be instant shopping expeditions to neighboring bodegas. Always there was red wine, fruit. Often you found yourself on stage, pinpointed, a part of the energy of the evening. All this at close quarters. In that small space audiences experienced a total immersion in their own darker consciousness through the vehicle of Jeff Weiss and Carlos Ricardo Martinez. Suddenly, total darkness, then a candle, a flashlight, or a bare light bulb and then—total theater. Since Jeff sometimes asks the audience to pick a card—a slip of paper with a scene description—it occurred to me to set up this interview in that way. I arrived to find him rehearsing a scene from AND THAT’S HOW THE RENT GETS PAID, PART IV with Nicky Paraiso. This episode begins the interview.
Jeff Weiss I need air.
Nicky Paraiso Do you want to sit over here?
JW Over there. Out of my light.
NP What do you do to keep in shape, Connie?
JW Whatever works my body, little one.
NP You really do use that accent off-stage, don’t you?
JW Don’t I, though.
NP What was your sport in school?
JW Wrestling. Do you think we have too much freedom?
NP How do you mean?
JW Do you think we lost our freedom, when we gained too much of it?
NP I don’t know.
JW Could one have freedom sufficient to poison one’s system, do you think?
NP Search me.
JW Move closer.
NP How’s that?
JW Great. What do you like to do?
NP I could blow you.
JW You could.
NP Or maybe you’d like to fuck me.
JW Maybe I would.
NP You’re very scary, Connie.
JW You’re very frank, very sexy.
NP I’m glad you like me.
JW Turn around, I’ll rub your neck.
NP You know right where I’m tense.
JW Yeah. Tense and tight-assed. Before this evening’s over, honor bright, I’ll loosen you up, I promise.
NP Gonna clean me out?
JW Like the barrel of a gun.
NP Don’t break my neck.
JW You do have a very small neck.
NP And you have very big hands…easy.
JW How does this feel?
NP Not so good. Let’s go inside.
JW Why? There’s no one around.
NP I have a water-bed.
JW I like a hard surface for making love.
NP I got a floor.
JW The works, huh? I don’t suppose you’ve got an exercise mat?
NP I do. For yoga.
JW I’m curious.
NP About what?
JW Conrad Gehrhardt. Do you know him?
NP I thought I did.
JW Tell me about him.
NP Tell him yourself.
JW Does he look like me?
NP The very mirrored image.
JW Does he feel like me.
NP Oh, stop it already, Connie, let’s go inside.
JW What if I drug you into the bushes and bit your neck?
NP I’d like that.
JW And your tits. And your tubes.
NP You’re scaring me, Connie. STOP ACTING!
JW Sure. Okay. Do you want to tell me about Conrad Gehrhardt or do you want me to find out for myself? Your choice. No substitutions.
NP (pause) You figure it out.
JW Good. That’s what I hoped you’d say.
Jeff passed the hat around the room and we took turns choosing questions from it.
Bill Rice How do you feel about doing other people’s material?
Jeff Weiss Oh, I love to do other people’s material. For the last five years I’ve been doing exclusively Carlos’ material. I’ve done a play by Julie Bovasso, Jean Levy, Jim Steinman. Lots of different people in years back. I would like to do other people’s plays again but no one asks me so the question is academic—moot and academic. Take your choice, could be both.
BR I’ve seen you in Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights.
JW Right, by Gertrude Stein, Al Carmines did the music and Larry Kornfeld directed it. I’ve worked with a lot of different people over the years. I did plays early on with Harry Koutoukas but I suppose, working in my own plays—people remember me best.
BR Pick another one out of the hat.
JW Oh, can I read this? OK. Feelings about art and love, art, love, love of art, art of love. (laughter) Hmm. Art and life, love of art. Well, I don’t believe in art, so feelings about love? I don’t know.
BR You don’t believe in art?
JW Well, I think there’s too much art, too little craft and it annoys me to see the death of the practical. I think rationality…
BR You mean artifice.
JW Yes, I like artifice. Art is something that frightens me, vaguely academic and curiously rigid in its complexities. Seems, by its very diversity… I’m suspicious of artists. I’m glad I’m not one. However, love is great, if you can find it and hold onto it for any length of time. I don’t have anything to say about art, I don’t know much about it. I admire painting, painters. I think I admire painters more than anyone else. People who can render life so fundamentally and so quickly with their own hand.
Nicky Paraiso Do you think there is a connection between what one does and how one lives one’s personal life?
JW In my case—I think that people assume that what they see on the stage is my life. Isn’t really—there are always some things—the plays are meditations on reality and the difference between theater and life and where the two cross over and where one cancels out the other and the delicate balance between living your life and acting it which is the plight of the actor or anyone in theater, or anyone… And that’s, I suppose, what the plays are about and if that has anything to do with art, I don’t know. Art seems to be so common—I mean the use of it. I don’t know anybody who isn’t an artist. My own mother tells me she’s an artist. This is alarming to me. I want her to be my mother, I don’t want her to be an artist. That’s all I have to say about that. Why don’t you pick one and read it?
Q How do you feel about the early people you worked with?
JW I was never an intimate of anybody in those early days. When I first came to New York I wasn’t involved with theater at all—or show business of any kind, or performance. I had a very serious speech impediment, a thick Pennsylvania Dutch accent and a very grim and disordered mind at the time I met Carlos Ricardo Martinez. Carlos encouraged me to write things down and try to write. I had very little education. I never graduated from high school. A succession of bad affairs at prep school. I never advanced beyond ninth grade. Carlos made me write and—after getting me to write and say how I felt about things—the acting developed. I had done one play before because somebody who came into a restaurant asked me to be in a play of his at La MaMa. He was a customer in the…you know, Hamburger Heaven it was—you know where St. Patrick’s Cathedral is.
NP Oh, yeah. (laughter)
JW As for the people down there at La MaMa, Paul Foster I knew, Leonard Melfi, pretty well, he was sweet. Who else? Bob Patrick was very sweet in those days. He got less sweet as he got older, but then we all do, so that’s no reflection on Robert at all. Attrition makes you less sweet, You get a bit of an edge to you. I had a couple of good times with Robert and I knew Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard a little bit but I wouldn’t say I hung out with them. Marshall Mason…we all knew each other because we were all working at the same place at the same time, the Cafe Cino. But even then I was always going from one thing to another, was always sporadic, whenever I could get it together. And a lot of these people—it’s funny how the theater has changed. The big way it’s changed between the sixties—that was no great time, it was pretty grim. The 8 BC, to me is infinitely more companionable and the people’s reactions saner than the Cino. I like the Limbo Lounge better than La MaMa. There’s nothing so horrible about today, in a way it’s better. A lot of clubs today—I say hats off to them—the people that are opening them are putting a lot of themselves into it, they’re doing an awful lot of work, they’re doing it themselves, and whatever good can come out of it for them, I think everyone should support them. They have less pretensions of what things ought to be. As for anyone else in those times—the big difference to me is that people in the theater today who get work and are paid to work—fall into several deadening categories. They are either from Yale, NYU, Strasberg, Berghof, Adler, or from Julliard. There is nobody else. And when there are people who can rise above the level of poverty, they’re flukes. Most of them are either academically trained or fall into one of the Russian schools. I’m not like them. I was trained by Carlos Ricardo Martinez. That doesn’t make me tremendously saleable from a commercial point of view. At one time I wanted to have a commercial career. I made gallant stabs in that direction, fruitless because, finally, it came back to, “Where did you study? Why do you act like this? What do you want?” Stupid questions. “What are you on? Drugs?” I couldn’t be on anything and write and perform and direct and look as good as I do at my age. Can’t be done. I’m not nuts. I’m not a druggie. Period. Although a lot of people who are acting and presumably doing very well are stoned out of their minds. On stage, offstage, every minute of the time. It’s a swamp out there, believe me.
BR You said Carlos was a painter. How did he get involved with theater? You said you got involved through him.
JW He saw what I was writing and said “Jeff, this is a play. It’s not exactly what I asked you to do, it is a play. And plays,” he said, “I can’t read plays, they bore me and sound awful” They do. Even the very best plays. Oooooh God, who wrote this? When you dothem, something happens—a great miracle. He said, “Let’s do this as a play. I’ll direct you and make the set and you’ll do this play and that was And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, Part I. And now, twenty-some years later, Part IV. Why don’t you pick a question.
Dorothy Cantwell I don’t believe it. There are two blanks.
JW Will you marry me? No substitutions. O.K., try once more.
DC What was the name of the play you were in on Broadway?
JW Spofford. Spofford was the only play written by Herman Shumlin who directed Watch on the Rhine and The Little Foxes with Tallulah Bankhead years and years ago. And directed the movie of Watch on the Rhine. I think that was the only movie he ever directed. He was a very famous theater director in the late ’30s and ’40s. And when he was old he wrote a play based on a part of a novel by Peter Devries called Reuben, Reuben, a section of which was about a farmer named Spofford, in Connecticut—I was cast as a young boy in the town who goes away and comes back from Oxford after a year and is a prig with a phony accent and running shorts… “Tennis, anyone?” I was the male ingenue with Penelope Windust, who’s Bretaigne Windust’s daughter. I will say this, that of the cast, I am happy to say, I am one of the few who survived. Barbara Briton is dead, Melvyn Douglas is dead, Bert Chelton is dead. Walter Rooney is dead. Christopher…the man who has the classic stage company, Christopher Martin’s father is dead. I think the entire cast is dead. Jerome Dempsey is alive, I’m told. Penelope Windust may be dead. I’m still around. However, not for long, so get me while I’m hot. That’s it. A strange experience. One of the few times I earned a living from theater. It played for over a year in Baltimore, Washington and New York at the ANTA Theater in 1968 or ’69.
BR You’d been around for some time before that.
JW Oh, yeah. I got that part from Jane Oliver of the Ashley Famous Agency, who is no longer with us. She died while she was putting together Rocky. And, in fact, the Sylvester Stallone epic is dedicated to his late agent, Jane Oliver. Too sweet, she was a lovely Jewish woman who died prematurely of cancer and she was very lovely and very sweet, uncharacteristic of an agent. I had a great time there—I was doing a number of different things. I did a couple of television pilots.
BR The rounds?
JW Yes, the rounds. I went to Hollywood. During this time they were making Planet of the Apes, Part I and I did a comedy, Tarzan, a half hour with Arnold Stang and I did a screen test with Tuesday Weld for She Let Him Continue which became Pretty Poison. Gee, I did a lot of that stuff. I even wrote some dialogue for Planet of the Apes. I couldn’t get out of LA and no one would give me a job as an actor so when they heard that I wrote plays, they said, “Hey, would you like to come in and see where we’re having a problem? You’re from New York.” They kept saying, “You’re from New York” as though it were excaliber or Shangri-la, that mythical city, Camelot. New York, that was the big thing. “Oh yes, you’re the actor from New York.” As though it were some remote place they’d heard of in sagas and Icelandic lyrics. Pick another.
Q Genesis of Rent?
JW And this is A. I don’t know who A is.
BR How the Rent Got Paid and A’s anonymous.
JW I think it’s interesting that no one wants to be associated with this interview. No one wants to give his name. No one wants anyone to know they asked me a question. I’m a man without a country. People want to know things but they don’t want me to know who they are. And That’s How the Rent Got Paid came out of a workshop, not a workshop but working with Ricardo. He found a form and a way of training me to play all the parts myself without elaborate changes of hats and veils.
NP Were you the first?
JW I’m sure it’s been done before. Maybe a thousand times. A form that’s been elaborated on since the D’el Arte times…
BR Ruth Draper, with significant differences.
JW It took a long time because I had to conquer a lot of technical impediments. That’s why I always laugh when people talk about art in relation to what Carlos and I do. We both have the attitude that, boy, this is so hard to do. Only a craft can be this hard. Building a table that stays up, making a good frame. Doing something practical. I was conquering a speech impediment and getting rid of an accent that made me incoherent. I was finding a way to express myself in writing. One of my big problems was that I could not write. I was a bad speller, no grammar, punctuation—the mechanics of writing. Even if you have thoughts, if you don’t know the mechanics it’s not going to come out right. Especially if you’re doing dialogue. Dialogue like this is strange to write. I mean I like that I’m writing under the pressure of imminent production. About every five or six years I’ve done another And That’s How the Rent Got Paid. It didn’t occur to me until Ricardo told me it was about time for another edition. Carlos said one thing, though, “Use as many people as you can. That is what your last five years of training was all about. Being with other people with audiences as small as one or two.”
BR This is quite a departure for you.
JW Yes, the most people I’ve ever worked with.
BR Except Dark Twist.
JW Yeah, but what I’m saying is And That’s How the Rent Got Paid, Part IV. For this particular show, a big departure. Probably the last. This show has outlived its usefulness. Four parts is enough and this one’s real long. Lots happens and there are wonderful people in it. I’ll hopefully go on into something else, write another little play. This last part is about the whole four parts put together, about someone growing up, growing older, not necessarily growing wiser. A passage through time. That element of life moving on and things changing, the obsessions that never alter, the concerns that are perennial.
BR Did the script of Dark Twist change from beginning to end?
JW There was so much material in Dark Twist — as there is in this play — that it was more a question of deleting, of taking out. And we took out a great deal, some of which we are doing in this play.
NP And then there was the problem of everyone wanting their own scenes that they were begging you to write.
JW Then I would go and write scenes. Everyone would have a solo. All these insane actors would say, “Write me a scene, write me a solo,” and I would go home and do what they asked, like a nut. I was dropping scenes but coming in with two new ones and three solos the next day. Truly a unique event. Ricardo would literally put on the lights, go out, buy a beer, meet some friends on the corner, smoke a joint, come back and sit on the stairs, read a magazine, and would get back to the light booth at the moment when the scene ended and take the lights out. The scene had lasted forty minutes. Carlos could go home, have dinner, get married, have kids. Was that batty?
NP I remember there was no place to go to eat when the play ended. It was 4:30 in the morning…
JW People would come out of the theater looking like death. The dressing rooms looked like infirmaries. There were Ace bandages everywhere and hot teas and honeys and lozenges and people with towels over their heads over vaporizers. It wasn’t like those long plays by Robert Wilson, full of enormous longueurs, with people walking slowly across the stage for twenty minutes. We were running, jumping, making love, committing suicide, jumping out windows, falling off platforms, singing, dancing—it was nonstop.
NP And everyone got to have his own suicide monologue.
JW Yes, I asked everyone if they knew they were going to die, what was the last thing they would say to the world. Everyone gets up at the end of the show and says, “Blah. Blah.” It would change every night. One night, a kid in Willy Switke’s building committed suicide. Willy broke down during his Death Solo, talked about this sad little boy.
NP Every actor got a chance to do his big death scene.
JW Everyone died. Why not? The story of our lives.
NP You went to heaven!
JW Yeah. I went to heaven with the Black Angel. Terrell Robinson was the Black Angel.
Q Bjorn, the Finnish athlete?
JW Next question.
NP Your first date?
JW My first date was a girl named Mary who had no cartilage in her nose. I dated her in junior high. On an impulse, motivated by nothing more than a desire so be accepted by anyone of either sex, I gave her a ring which I charged to my father’s account at Levi’s Department Store. I bought her a ring and I took her to see a movie called Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison about a nun and a hard-bitten Navy lieutenant, Robert Mitchum, and Deborah Kerr and it was a very hot situation. They were stranded on an island during World War II. We walked to the movie and the wind was very strong. Wasn’t raining, was wet. I remember putting my hand up to my face and it felt tacky and I leaned over to Mary and her nose was literally blowing in the breeze like the bill of a whippoorwill, brrrr, in this high wind all this snot was blowing in the wind and onto the side of my face and I was mortified. We got to the theater, I took her in and sat her down and said, “Do you want something from the candy counter?” She said, “Yeah, I’ll take popcorn.” I went out the front door and I left Mary sitting in the movie house. I know it’s not very flattering to me to have done that. I was so mortified. I’d never seen anything like that. She tried to explain to me later. She said, “Look, I have this problem. I was in an accident. I have no cartilage in my nose and my nose flops.” I had visions of being married to this woman and going to an amusement park and getting stuck upon the ferris wheel in a high wind and having to endure this in all manner of recreational facilities.
BR Do you really disapprove of movies?
JW No, I don’t. I spent my formative years in movie houses in Pennsylvania. I’ve seen every movie ever made during a certain period. I was used-up at the movies. I prefer real people. Movies can be very good and I can be caught up in them. I leave feeling vaguely manipulated and that annoys me. I don’t disapprove of them. I find at my present age of self-reflection, I don’t really feel comfortable in movie theaters. I think that I’m wasting my time. I feel that I should be seeing real people and real situations and the real world that I’ve avoided for so many years, sitting in movie theaters. I don’t feel anything particularly elevating or rare about someone like Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael. I find them horrifying. I call them the Bugs of Perpetual Night. These people have been in the dark for years, watching those images, that light in the dark. People really think Pauline’s some kind of saint because she goes on for five hundred pages about Citizen Kane. It’s horrifying that this woman would spend her time like this. I see her as grotesque. Other people think movie critics are the philosophers of our time. That’s what makes a horse race, right? Not everybody likes vanilla.
How did I meet Carlos? I met Carlos through Juliet Shumlin and Charles Seaver, Tom Seaver’s brother, and through them I met Carlos. I’ve known him twenty-three years. He is a wonderful man. Taught me everything.
Q What about Harry Koutoukas?
JW Great guy. Harry has always been sweet to me and lethal to other people—I do not have anything bad to say about Harry Koutoukas. I adore him.
Q When did you come to New York City?
JW I was eighteen or nineteen when I came to New York City.
Q How did the music you listened to when you were young influence how you thought about theater?
NP Do you remember that time you played that Sidney Bechet record for us and how that sound…?
BR Was that an old Blue Note 78?
JW Yes, I had, like my father before me, a passion for she sound of the soprano saxophone. Thrills me with its pitch and tone—The greatest of all musicians on the soprano saxophone was Sidney Bechet. Much later, Ricardo said to me, “What is missing in this production is a tone, a sense of certain pitch or energy, intensity or the lack thereof. Concentration. We have to find a certain pitch, a sound to cut through the seriousness of what you’re doing and make it something else. Transform the material by pitch and tone.” And he said, “Is there anything you know from your past that thrills you in terms of certain songs or something like that?” And I said, “The thing that thrills me the most is to hear Sidney Becher play the sax or Joe Venuti play the jazz violin.” He said, “Well, that’s the tone we’re going to have to find.” And it was by working on that idea that And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid developed. Carlos showed me how to do that. He found that pitch for me. Singers? Early Bing Crosby, Connie Boswell, Cliff Edwards,“Ukelele Ike” Edwards who did the voice of Jiminy Crickett in Pinocchio. He was a great jazz singer. Made a lot of records with the ukelele that are terribly moving, thrilling singing. Jack Teagarden has a thrilling way of singing. Those are the people I admire, vocalists. More than Frank Sinatra. He’s a little too slow for me.
BR What about female vocalists?
JW I like the up-tempo singers better than the dragged out drug freaks like Billy Holiday. I don’t go for that kind of singing, self-indulgence. I like the song to move along. Nellie Lutcher? I love her. She was great. Rose Murphy, she was another one, the Chi-Chi Girl. She used to lift up the piano with her bit fat legs. Those kind of singers I like. I didn’t like the draggy ballad singers too much, even if they have pretty voices. All those ’40s singers were great—Vic Damone has a beautiful voice. Julius LaRosa. Not my style of singing but I admire their voices—Those are the things that influence me, that kind of music. I choose songs that Dorothy knows. We sing a lot together. We’ll be doing a lot of songs in this show. I’ve written words and music to some songs. That’s very thrilling.
BR Does Carlos write music?
JW Carlos wrote the music for Teddy the Social Worker, The Rise and Fall of Louie Bimbo, Art the Rat, and he’s writing music right now. Carlos is she best writer in the business. I wrote the songs in this show, Send A Banana to Your Boy In Havana Marxist Nights, and (singing with Dorothy Cantwell) Being With You Is Like Death.
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