The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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Joan Tewkesbury and I met this summer in Los Angeles: Immediately I was struck by the kinky combination of elements that work in rapid fire in this woman’s brain. The keen analytical dissection of thoroughly banal, absurd situations; already a contradiction in terms.
Even stranger, a woman, whose name carries considerable weight in the male dominated entertainment industry, who crosses boundaries between places like 20th Century Fox and the New Museum. She is a maverick. She is concerned with the expression of pure ideas, and remains undaunted and unbroken by the tyrannical barbarism of her work. “We love the story, but we want to change the cast, the location, the story line, and the ending …”
She is not a feminist because she would never settle for such a cliche. Yet her work deals exclusively with cliche; a pastiche of common, everyday, real situations which become unreal when layered. A woman who deals with extremes and creates from middle ground.
She began working in the ’40s at the age of ten, one of many in the ranks of child actor/dancer hopefuls. From ten to now, she has not stopped. Her credits include: writer: Thieves Like Us and Nashville, directed by Robert Altman, Ladies’ Nite, currently in production by 20th Century Fox; writer/director: Cowboy Jack Street, off-off Broadway play, The Tenth Month, CBS TV, The Acorn People, NBC TV; director: Hampstead Center, Anna Freud, documentary, Old Boyfriends, Avco Embassy release producer/Pop Up Productions, performed in the New Museum.
Not to mention that she was one of only three animals in the chorus of Peter Pan on Broadway (and Mary Martin’s flying understudy), directed by Jerome Robbins in 1954. This interview took place in New York.
David Seidner You are more or less known in screen writing as someone who layers events and makes many things converge at once. Yet your theatrical work seems more simply stated.
Joan Tewkesbury Well, I did a play, Cowboy Jack Street. It was layered and there were 23 people in it, and there were things happening simultaneously, strung together like a ballet. The thing that seems to run through everything, whether it’s theater or film, is the early training of dance. The whole approach, the more I work, the more I realize how heavily steeped in it I am. Often putting together a dance has no rhyme or reason, except to use the movement that impacts the strongest emotion. So when I approach something I have written, either for film or theater, I use the same devices as a choreographer would.
DS Do you attribute that to all dance, or did your work with Jerome Robbins have any particular influence on you?
JT He influenced me by his specificity. Your eyeballs were choreographed. His attention to absurdity, certainly absurdity with the body, and also the minute detail in his counting. That you could create absurd situations by timing, comedy timing, you know. Sondra Lee was playing Tiger Lily , and a man named Billy Sumner was in the chorus playing an Indian. And between Billy and Sondra, I probably learned more about comedic timing just by watching. Every single thing they did was pristine. They had that edge. My training had been in California and it was very formal, very balletic, not many laughs.
DS Training with who?
JT Eugene Loring. So Broadway was a whole other dimension. And I worked with a stripper, Marie Bryant I think her name was. Eugene Loring brought her to the American School when I was about 13, and she taught jazz. But what she taught us was the art of striptease, basically. And she didn’t know it but she probably taught every girl in that class how to fuck. This heavenly black lady. And what I began to realize was that there was a dance form that wasn’t just fifth position and line. I began to discover this other world … a kind of magic that can go on. That magic is what I’ve remained interested in and strive for in my theatrical work … If I am going to mount something or write something, I am interested in the dynamic of transporting an audience. What can you do to make it appear and disappear on stage. I remember being in a class that Nina Foch taught. I was at the University of Southern California teaching a movement class, and I was sitting in on her acting classes. In 1966 I think … or ’65. And as an exercise she got two actresses up on stage to do a private moment. She told them to respond to a death in the family. Well, the girl on the right side of the stage was an occidental. And she was swell … man, she could cry at the drop of a hat and she went right into it … filled up … tears … and we all said, WOW! Isn’t that terrific, Louise can cry. The girl on the left side of the stage was oriental. She assumed a position on her knees, put her hands at her sides, became very still, and looked out over our heads. After about 30 seconds of this event with Louise crying, we all turned and started to watch Michiko. And in another 30 seconds we were all weeping. That is what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in the actor, who rakes in the moment himself on stage to the point where there is no event left for the audience.
DS In Queen Christina, when Garbo arrives at the ship to meet her lover and sail away into a happy ending, after having abdicated her throne, she finds him dead. Lost everything. The moment was so difficult that her direction was to stand at the bow of the ship and feel nothing, so that the audience would attribute everything to her.
JT Precisely. What I am asking the actor to do is remain neutral. Especially in theater, the audience must be allowed to absorb the character with the event that’s going on between them and the actor. And that event will change every night for whoever is watching it. It has to do very much with the structure of Nashville.
DS Not exactly the Stanislavsky school.
JT I guess not, but that training is a good way to come to this area of neutrality. The thing I loved about the character of Ruby Kay is that she is a victim, she is a heroine, she is a pain in the ass, she is a complete fool, but above all, she has the ability to maintain her dignity and continue with her life. She is in flux and by God, she’s doing a rather splendid job with a couple of tools. I suppose, thematically, that is what I am interested in conveying at this time.
DS The issue of neutrality. Don’t you think an enormous problem with the American entertainment industry today is that nothing is left to the imagination and the people involved feel compelled to answer all the questions?
JT Oh all the questions! And not only to answer them … but show and tell them.
DS How do you as an idealist function within that system?
JT I’m not doing real well, obviously. I just spent two weeks of my life on a project with people who want every step nailed down, sealed down, how can we get the tear to come here …
DS Laugh tracks.
JT Yes … maybe not laugh tracks, but certain issues that are so closed that you don’t give an actor an opening in the structure to work in. You give him this signed, sealed, delivered container. And they must open the container a certain way, get into the container a certain way, and get out of the container a certain way. It’s not the way to work.
DS Painted footsteps in dance class.
JT Precisely. Or pictures that you paint by number. And I find that more and more I like people to say what I’ve written but I’m also interested in their content in terms of what they bring to the character in collaboration. When I worked on Cowboy Jack Street, I presented a construct, gave it to the actors, the actors went home, and brought back reams of material which I then reedited. Then we pushed it back, and as they performed, it changed. And I was done except for some casting changes, then it would shift. For a lot of people that’s a really painful way to work. When I want something really exact, I say to the actor, “is there anything in here that’s really uncomfortable for you, because this is how I’d like it to be.” And if there are two lines or a word, you make that adjustment constructively so that everyone can arrive at the particular event.
DS You’re speaking theatrically and filmically?
DS How do you contrast that with someone like Hitchcock; when he arrived on a set, all the work had been done beforehand, even storyboarded, and not one word was changed.
JT Right, but he had a sense of joy about him that kept everything going. That’s the way he worked, and his end was the same as a looser way of working.
DS So we’re dealing with success based on extremes.
JT But I think you’re talking about what one’s work habits are, or one’s particular frame of reference. I was so steeped in the Jerome Robbins, Eugene Loring school of ballet … you only moved this muscle when told to. I always felt that I could never get up off the floor, I could never do the turns, I could never do enough pirouettes, I could never sail…as a dancer because I was always being reeled back in on this fish line. Perhaps I’m still rebelling against whatever that rigidity was in the beginning. It drives me crazy to be that rigid. And yet there are actors who want to be given, and want you to be that rigid with them; they want to be told. Some actors don’t want to work that way because they think you don’t know what you’re doing. But I always know pretty much what I’m doing.
DS Did you feel that way about directing before you started working with Altman?
JT Yes, absolutely, from my early theater work. And when I watched Altman work I stood there on the set and said, “YES … RIGHT.” Mike Murphy took me to see MASH, and I said, “That man … I could work with him…”
DS And that’s how you became script girl on McCabe & Mrs. Miller?
JT That’s right. I asked for a job. It must have been in 1968…or ’69.
DS And you had danced up until that time?
JT I danced professionally until about 1960, and then I taught, directed theater, and choreographed until I started working with Altman.
DS So you did not become one of those professional women who renounces her career to raise children.
JT Oh yes, I did that too. I renounced career for about nine years. I did not come into the New York arena. I did whatever I could do within the construct of raising my children, because that’s what I did the first years of their lives.
DS So up until you wrote Thieves Like Us for Altman, what had your writing experience been?
JT None! Except the adaptation of other people’s material.
DS Well that’s writing. Thieves Like Us was adaptation also.
JT Right. Nashville was the first original screenplay.
DS In what capacity did you adapt work before your work with Altman?
JT For theater. I was directing and choreographing for a repertory company that was based out of USC and we worked for three years in London and at the Edinburgh Festival. A lot of the material was adapted, some by well-known playwrights of course, and there was some original material, too. I also did work in the Actor’s Studio directing workshops and at a place called Theater East, both on the West coast, always using material from people in the writer’s workshop. And of course there was work in small theaters and those kinds of places where anybody would let me direct traffic, you know. One of the first things I put together was something called The Ten Company Festival. It was done just after they built the Pasadena Art Museum. I had come back from Edinburgh and decided it would be interesting to mount something in that ridiculous building. Someone gave me permission to do it, so I invited three dance companies, and a couple of theater companies to perform. What we did on three consecutive nights was to walk an audience through the Museum and have them discover these events that were going on. Elevator doors would open and topless girls in Shirley Temple wigs would dance for five minutes. And then in another part of the building would be a short play where a woman’s head looked like it was floating on top of a Duane Valentine sculpture. Or you’d walk into the parking lot and think someone was robbing you …
JT Yes. And there was a commercial house in Los Angeles that donated film and a young cinematographer came and photographed the whole thing. The fellow who edited the film, however, disappeared with the film, about 12 years ago. And I have never heard of him, or the film since. But I got a job with Altman shortly after that, so, there you are.
DS How wrong I was in thinking your theatrical experience came after the films.
JT The theatrical experience came long before film, and I really love the theater because I can sit as close as you and I are right now and work with actors and just be encased by all that intensity that goes on in a live exchange. Once the play opens I am not terribly interested in going back because it now belongs to the audience and the actors.
DS Do you feel you can get ideas across easier in theater, because of its directness, than you can it film?
JT It depends. If I write and direct it, yes. You can do more uncompromised work in the theater because there are fewer sensibilities to override, or be kind to, or manipulate, or whatever it is that you have to do to get something on screen. And I love the theater because it is about language. Film’s not really about language, it’s about imagery. So the thing that is really wonderful is to be able to have the arena for language, and the intimacy of that, and then have the other arena where you can work with scale and vision. One hopes.
DS Playwrights that you admire, excepting Shakespeare of course.
JT Brendan Behan: Borstal Boy, The Hostage. I mean if I could write a play like The Hostage, I would die happy. I adored it. To me, the sense of wonder, the immediacy of a new event taking place right now, it will never happen again; that’s what I love about the theater. I also love, which is almost the opposite in that it is very ordered, the Japanese Noh Theater. That’s magic. If I’m going to pay 30 or 50 bucks to see something, boy you better magic me or move me or …
DS But that so rarely happens, especially someplace like Broadway. I can’t even begin to imagine a Broadway audience sitting through a Noh event. How do you feel about Beckett, whose work reminds me very much of Noh.
JT I love Beckett, the absurdity reminds me of Noh.
DS Not only absurdity, but more formal issues like the austerity of the sets, the characters in pairs.
JT Mathematical equations. And Raymond Quenaud; I want very much to do this adaptation of a story of his, again because it has all the elements going on simultaneously on a stage. Or at least I can put them in that arrangement.
DS Did you ever read Lord Dunsany, The Golden Gate?
DS It’s about two criminals who die and arrive at the gates of heaven and they’re locked. The whole play is about their dialogue as they try to crack the gates of heaven open. Very much like Lucky and Pozzo. It was written in the ’20s. Anyway, at the end of the play, they get the gates open, and of course, there is nothing beyond.
JT (laughter) That’s heaven. That’s what I just renamed Ladies’ Nite, Heaven, because the producers didn’t like the original title. Heaven is the name of the club where the male strippers dance, Heaven is also what everyone thinks they are in when they’re in love. It’s also a place where you would like to go, and when you sum all these definitions of heaven up, you have nothing.
DS Heaven up. How do you feel about the formality of people like Ibsen, Chekhov … ?
JT They must be read. And they must be performed if you’re going to do certain things in theater. Chekhov is superb, but Chekhov is about those seemingly incidental things: comings and goings of people, the family construct, how the issues of state play against the issues of family…they are intimate plays! My problem with theater in general is that I don’t see enough of it. Because when I do go and see it, more often than not, I walk out disgusted. And it’s long in there if it’s boring!
I read a lot of material written by new playwrights.
DS How so?
JT Friends, or a friend of a friend. I do not solicit material, I don’t want it as a rule. But there are certain people I have encouraged to write who have had something very unique in their frame of reference to write about.
DS Do you feel that theater is quickly becoming obsolete?
JT No more obsolete than film.
DS But film is much more accessible than theater.
JT Yes, in terms of putting down your dollars and going in.
DS And film is much more adaptable to television. It seems that the more the attention span diminishes, so does the impact of the theater.
JT: This is true. But film too as we know it, certainly as I knew it growing up, is not the same. But in terms of theater, I do a great deal of traveling, and as you go across the United States, you see what people are doing outside of New York; there’s some very interesting work going on, in weird—and I don’t mean regional and state supported theaters, but you know, 12 or 16 people who get themselves together and one’s a playwright and one’s a director and they get up these things wherever they can and it’s fabulous! The problem is that they earn ten dollars and 28 cents.
DS So you think basically as long as there are people there will be theater?
JT Yes, absolutely.
DS You have no qualms about working in an area that addresses fewer and fewer people?
JT No. Because I will go anywhere to address them.
DS Do you think you would feel the same about theater today if you didn’t have the luxury of being able to address millions of people through your screen work?
DS What I’m asking is: do you feel that to be a contemporary artist that work should be distributed on a large scale?
JT No. No …
DS I’m not speaking in terms of egomania or vanity but just working with media as we know it. T. S. Eliot said that all artists work for other artists. Do you buy the idea in 1983 of working for a handful of people?
JT Yes and no. It depends of course on the handful. I’m happy I have both mediums to work in. It’s important, I think, to have access to television and movie viewers too. If you maintain your integrity in this business, you don’t always have the luxury of addressing millions. Last year was a horrendous year. There were no opportunities at all. I would rather address fifty people than none. The whole point of building the pieces at the museum came out of total and utter frustration of not being able to do anything. So I just paid for it and did it! I will not sit still and wait for the perfect job. You can’t wait for the perfect job or you won’t work. Unfortunately, I have now been in the world of commerce with what I do since the age of ten and there is a part of me that goes in one direction in terms of the work I want to do, but there’s always this other part of me over here that says: are you going to make a living?
DS You had a stage mother?
JT To some degree. She was a stage mother just so far and then she would get shy and expect me to take the next 12 steps. It’s too bad it didn’t work in reverse. She chickened out. She couldn’t say, “Sing out Louise.” So I was left out there with my ass hanging in short little skirts and my hair in curls and my scabby knees from falling down on roller skates. She insisted I wear those awful short dresses and I was embarrassed! Because that was not at all how I saw myself!
DS What kind of things did you start doing at ten?
JT I was in a movie called The Unfinished Dance with Margaret O’Brien, Cyd Charisse, and Danny Thomas. I’ll never forget the audition, thousands of these little girls, all with their pink toe shoes, and David Lichine screaming.
DS (laughter) He taught me ballet. He used to put me up against a wall and he had a stick he used to hit you with on the shoulder to literally force you into the splits because he believed that at five years old your bones were much more malleable than they would be later in life.
JT Yes. Charming man. David Lichine and all these little girls…lotta laughs on that set. I remember the director coming by, it was Henry Koster. I was standing next to Aaron Martin, who later danced for Jerome Robbins too. She played the bride in Les Noces. At any rate, Aaron, myself, and Sondra Kerr, standing next to Margaret O’Brien, being looked at by the director for size, and he looked at me and said: “You really don’t want to be here at all, do you?” And I said, “I really don’t. But don’t tell my mother.” He laughed and I got the job. Even at that time I was much more interested in what was going on around me than performing. Performing is wonderful, and I was good at it, you know, I’ve acted and … I was not a great dancer at all. I hated it, I think, because I knew I would never be good enough.
DS Do you remember something specific that made you want to change the side of the camera you were on?
JT They were having much more fun! They were not standing around being bored, they did not have to get up on their toes and go across the floor, and only move so far or else you’d be out of the light or off the mark. They were operating the camera, they could move around, smoke a cigarette if they wanted to … we couldn’t do anything! I never liked being a paper doll. Dancers are treated savagely! They are the lowest thought of … it’s better now, but I mean in terms of their pay, the way they’re moved from place to place … David, they’re treated like pieces of sausage!
DS Well the idea of a performer being a celebrity or highly paid is relatively new in the scheme of history. I remember my mother telling me about a cousin of hers who worked for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in the ’20s or ’30s, and they were embarrassed when he came to visit!
JT Exactly. You were thought of as a hooker. In the ’40s, people would ask my mother why she was training me to be a dancer because it was one step removed from being a prostitute. Because you were never going to succeed, or you were never going to have enough money. One thing dancing did do was save my emotional life because it gave me something to do everyday after school. I was an only child, things were rather complicated at home, and I had this great emotional release. And I had one wonderful teacher, Mary Clare Sale who did teach me to soar. There would be a great sense of knowing what it is like to take flight. She was superb.
DS So you basically haven’t stopped moving since then.
JT No. Nor do I ever intend to. The hardest thing for me to do though, is to write. Because you have to sit still and you can’t talk to anyone. And I hate to sit still and I hate not talking to people. That’s why I write very quickly.
DS Where does the discipline come from?
JT Dancing. I simply collect all the material I need and saturate myself with it, then hibernate for a two week period and write basically from nine at night until two in the morning.
DS Rasselas by Samuel Johnson was written in one week to pay his mother’s funeral expenses.
JT That’s about the right amount of time. I could could never do what Joan Didion does or what…
DS Do you know that Christopher Isherwood writes three drafts straight through of all his books?
JT Well I do too. But I do it, put it aside, and come back to it with the same sort of block of time, and go after it again. On the Ladies’ Nite script, the transformation was so extreme, that I could sell the first draft and no one would ever know. The producers wanted the changes, not me. That was quite an experience. It drove me crazy, but I’m glad I had it.
DS Don’t you wonder why they hired you in the first place?
JT Yes! I said that…Why did you hire me in the first place and why do you want me to do the rewrite now? But everyone seemed to want me to, so I said alright I’ll try this. Because they could have had four or five writers come in you know. I don’t feel like I’m a writer. I feel like I’m an everything.
DS So you don’t have this great romantic attraction to writing?
JT Not at all, no. Let’s say that what I feel about writing is that it is the way to get the work done.
DS But do you buy the idea today of the undiscovered genius? I don’t think in this day and age of desperate media, visual glut that there is the undiscovered genius. I don’t think it’s part and parcel of being a genius in our society.
JT Everyone is undiscovered at some point in their career. They may not die undiscovered anymore. And there are also too many people who are considered geniuses in the media who are far from being geniuses. Everyone wants to be a star! And the danger in working with new people is that you increase someone’s hopes, that all of a sudden someone thinks they’re going to be a star in the next 20 minutes. You have to be careful. You have to have a sense of responsibility with certain artists. Because certain artists must continue doing what they do because their ability to do that in a pure, uncollaborative, straightedged way is what will eventually make inroads to those of us who have to work in the collaborative arts.
DS Hopefully. And that it will improve the climate for all of us.
JT I’m not saying it’s all well and good. I’m not saying selling a million is it.
DS I think selling a million is it. If it’s what one’s million is.
JT Right, maintaining integrity. But what happens to me is that people call up and say: “Oh wonderful, loved your last piece. How’d you like to write a movie about a dog…how would you like to direct a movie about a vacuum cleaner?” Not, what ideas do you have that we can possibly facilitate?
DS So you say no.
JT For the most part. Unless they are doing something I feel I’m like-minded about. I turn things down all the time. It’s like maintaining your virginity or something…I am constantly saying no!
DS It’s called dignity.
JT I can’t take those jobs!…Are you ready for dinner?
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.