JoAnne Akalaitis by Craig Gholson

BOMB 5 Spring 1983
Issue 5 005  Spring 1983
Akalaitis 01

JoAnne Akalaitis in Mabou Mines’s Dressed Like an Egg, 1977. Photo by Dickie Landry.

Craig Gholson Have you had any formal training? Did you come out of any school?

JoAnne Akalaitis No, not really. I didn’t study theater in college.

CG What did you study?

JA I studied Philosophy and Pre-med.

CG What was the process of getting involved in theater?

JA I had thought about it for quite a long time and then finally decided just to do it. I wasn’t really that interested in getting a Phd. in Philosophy. I was more interested in being an actor.

CG Did you ever seriously get into being an actor in that kind of New York way?

JA Sure, because I went to the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco and did whatever I could to learn. We had little scene groups and stuff like that. And I studied with San Francisco Mime Troupe a little bit. And when I went to New York I did go to these various acting classes. And I quit them. I never stuck any of them out.

CG Did you ever subscribe to any of those theories, like get involved with Stella Adler or any of that?

JA Well I think that the only theory that was around at that time was the Stanislavski Method and that’s what was taught in New York and still is taught by most acting teachers. I went to an Open Theater Workshop, I think it was 1968, and that was about the time that Grotowski came to New York. And I was going to a lot of workshops, that was the era of workshops, and then I went and studied with Grotowski himself in France. Ruth Maleczech from Mabou Mines and I both went. And that was, for me, a big revelation, because it was a different kind of training, a different idea about acting.

CG I’m not sure what the tenets of that are.

JA It’s not really in the long run that different from Stanislavski. But the idea is based less on immersion in character, or becoming the character and more on a series of moments in which the actor connects through his personal history which brings…working with what’s called an image to the text. So the interpretation of the text is not as important in this theory of acting as it is in, say, the Stanislavski Theory. And that theory of acting was very conducive to the way Mabou Mines started to work which was in a more abstract, less linear, less psychological mode.

CG How long did you stay in France?

JA I think it was a month.

CG So that was 1969. When was Mabou Mines formed?

JA In 1970 Mabou Mines was formed.

CG How do you feel about those theories? Do you think they’re valuable? Or that they have purpose?

JA I don’t know. I think I have a lot of theories about acting, but I don’t think they mean anything really.

CG I guess the question is: Do you think there’s any way of formalizing those theories so that they can be taught as a technique?

JA Mabou Mines has evolved a very clear kind of acting technique which is not necessarily used in rehearsal or directly applied to an actual production, but it is a technique and it is communicable. And we do workshops.

CG So a new actor coming into your company would actually go through a training process?

JA No. No. We don’t do that. It’s much more haphazard and casual than…

CG It’s trial by fire.

JA Yeah. And you know I’m now editing the film of Dead End Kids with Jerry Greenberg, this editor, and we talk a lot about acting. And he asks me questions about…you know, does someone who has a rich interior life make a better actor than someone who doesn’t. I think there are really great actors like John Gielgud who apparently works absolutely technically. But it doesn’t matter…whatever you do that works.

CG What made you decide you could direct?

JA Oh, you know, in Mabou Mines I think that’s a very natural evolution of an actor because it’s a collaborative theater. The actors are very heavily involved in what could be called directing. So it was not a very big leap at all. It’s quite natural.

CG What was the first production you directed?

JA Cascando.

CG How do you go about cultivating a project? Southern Exposure, for example. Do you just begin by doing research or collecting images? How would you go about writing that?

JA Often I think things sit around in your mind for quite a while and you don’t know why they’re there and then the reason they’re there is because they’re going to be a theater piece. For example, I’m working on an opera now with John Gibson about the voyage of The Beagle, Darwin. I go to Nova Scotia every summer and there’s a book, this book in fact which…I read. I love this book. And every summer I look at it and think about Darwin a little bit and go back to New York and forget about Darwin. And John called me up and he said, “Do you want to do something together?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Do you want to do an opera?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, let’s do the voyage of The Beagle.” This has been there for quite a while. And now it’s very much in my life. Now I’m actually writing this opera and doing relative research about Darwin. And the same thing was true of the Antarctic thing. I had been thinking about doing a piece about heroism or adventure or nature. And I read Joseph Conrad and I was thinking about Amelia Earhart. And I wanted to do something that was historical, that had to do with history, with some sort of what I call objective. And I read this book review in the Sunday New York Times…by William Buckley of a book about Scott. And then I bought the book and it was just a very ordinary English biography. And I got completely involved in it. I just took off and decided to do this piece.

CG It was very beautiful. It’s one of those productions that I can just flash back and visualize. It all seemed to synthesize into one blinding white vision. What was the voyage that he was on, Darwin?

JA The voyage of The Beagle was a five year voyage. Darwin was taken on as a naturalist and he traveled around the world. And went back to England at the end of those five years. And it was during this trip that he became a man. He was sort of upper class, Oxford, son of a physician, from a very fancy English family. He saw all these things, these geological facts. He found these dinosaur bones and went to the Galapagos Islands. He started to think about evolution and then 20 years later…

CG Wrote The Origin of the Species. The only two plays that I can think of that you directed with a fixed text are the Beckett play and Request Concert. Is that true?

JA Yes.

CG All the rest of them you’ve basically written.

JA Well, Red and Blue was written by Michael Hurson.

CG That’s right. Do you find it more difficult to direct something you haven’t written?

JA No. It’s a relief. It’s hard to find scripts that I can relate to. I think it’s a relief. I don’t consider myself a writer in any sense. I mean I just find material and sort of throw it together. And then the actors do a tremendous amount of work on it.

Akalaitis 02

John Fistos, Michael Kuhling, Brian St. John Schofield, Ellen McElduff, and Greg Mehrten in Joseph Papp and Mabou Mines’s production of Dead End Kids. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

CG Can you ever see yourself taking a more traditional text, something like Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov. Does that appeal to you at all?

JA Well, not those three. I mean they do, but I would not…I would like to direct Jacobean plays. I would like to direct ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Genet I would like to direct. Brecht. Kroetz, also. I have a new play of his that I’m going to try and do this year.

CG What’s that?

JA It’s called Through the Leaves.

CG One that he just wrote?

JA I don’t know if he just wrote it, but he sent it to me this year. But I don’t know if it’s that new.

CG How closely do you define the look of a play? Do you art direct them?

JA Pretty closely.

CG Because they seem so much tied into your vision.

JA Some I’ve designed really. Now, only recently have I started working with designers that I like a lot. And I would like to be in a position of giving more to the designer, but so much of what I see is tied up with the visual and sometimes I see it in a way that’s very clear, that is frustrating for the designer. Because it’s more or less…

CG You telling.

JA …me saying this is what I want. I would like to let that go a bit more.

CG For Request Concert, which consists of six pages of stage designs, you must have been very meticulous in saying what you wanted.

JA The props and the furniture, we shopped for that together. And the actress went and shopped for things, too.

CG Joan McIntosh?

JA Yes. So we all were very much in on that, two designers, Joan and myself. Like what would be the right kind of TV set. We would go to these awful furniture stores and look at stuff. The concept of the picture framing was Manuel’s, that was his concept and it was a great, great idea.

CG How did you decide what class she would be? She is basically working class in the original play, isn’t she?

JA Yeah, I think though that…

CG She seemed a little more middle class.

JA I think that the psychological translation, to translate that to an American context, we changed the class. Now the working class in America, an urban working class, is not so much a single woman, a woman living alone. It’s more ethnic. It’s more Hispanic or black. The closest translation, psychologically, was a middle class woman. I thought this was in Queens, that she lived in Queens. I was trying to be very accurate. I wasn’t trying to change the play a lot. I thought I was trying to be accurate. And this could he called lower middle class really.

CG Are there any fixed transcripts of your work? Is there a text that another company could work from and perform?

JA Well, in Mabou Mines that’s just starting to happen. Other theaters have asked permission to do plays. For me the production is not the script, the production is the entire production. Even down to who has done it, who’s played the roles. But I think that’s a little stiff to think of things that way. But it’s not the same as a Sam Shepard play or a Chekhov play where the core of the play is the script. Some of my plays are sort of unintelligible. We got five letters of request to do Dead End Kids and I think I’m going to say, “Yeah. If you give us royalties.” We should be professional. And it won’t be the same and that’s fine.

CG That’s what I was getting at. There doesn’t seem to be a way that you can actually script it. I mean I don’t know what you would do.

JA Yeah, because a script really is, the script includes the locking or the visuals. But I think that’s…let other people do it. They can have their…they can use the basic core.

CG You trust them enough to have that happen?

JA Well I mean I don’t trust anyone else but myself. But if that’s the case then I just may as well lock myself in a closet.

CG You could really get some bad productions.

JA Indeed. But I also don’t care. I don’t have a vested interest in my reputation as a playwright because I’m not a playwright. You know what I mean? I feel it’s important to want to do good work or work that might stretch them. Especially political things like Dead End Kids. We would prefer to tour it because we like touring it and we find it very energizing to go outside of New York and do a political play that serves as the focus for some kind of political dialogue or even action. But if they can’t afford to bring us and they want to do it themselves, then who am I? I mean I don’t want the Pulitzer Prize.

CG Do you think of yourself as primarily a theatrical director?

JA Well, I guess so because my phone is not exactly ringing off the hook. Hollywood is not…I would love to direct more films. I feel that I did well. The pressure of film is much more intense than the pressure of theater. Which is not to say that theater is not extraordinarily pressured. But in film everything comes together for this one little moment. This was a low budget film but we had a full union crew. I’m not used to working with the makeup brush and the prop guy there with the flamethrower and the camera assistant…I’m not used to being in a tiny little space with 30 people who are all working for one little moment and they are all working for the director. In film there’s much more hierarchy than the theater.

CG It seems to me there could be a theatrical experience where everybody was like that for the director. It’s just that the way you’ve chosen to work in the past hasn’t been in that form.

JA Well, indeed. Of course. In conventional, normal theater, the director is the big boss and has the final say. But the thing of space and time is quite different so that the designer or art department will be away quite a hit of the time during…

CG Everybody’s not on the set all the time.

JA Yeah. You don’t have someone there with a little needle and thread just before you’re getting ready to do a take.

CG So it’s like all those 30 people’s energy pushed into that space.

JA I found it very thrilling and quite romantic in…I don’t even know what I mean by romantic. I was shooting some stills that we needed yesterday and the cameraman said, “Isn’t making film romantic?” And I said, “Yeah, it is.” And I don’t even know what we both meant by it because we were just shooting pictures on the wall. It is. It is. And I think it has to do with this compression of time and space. And the money pressure is so much more intense. Because you don’t have tomorrow to get it. You have to leave this location.

CG Do you have a sense that you’re heading in a different direction in your work?

JA I never see myself as heading in any direction. So I don’t know. I don’t have a grand master career plan or life plan. I’m interested in music now obviously because of having to deal with opera.

CG How do you think your work has changed over the years?

JA I don’t see how it’s changed because I don’t see much relationship from piece to piece. So I don’t think I have any particular style or aesthetic content. I mean I must but I don’t think about it that much.

CG Other than being from your own vision.

JA Yeah. I think that as you direct more you learn more tricks. And a lot of the things that you learn are less tricks about directing and more what I think making theater is. And doing film is. It’s being in a very powerful community. More what I learn is about behavior and ethics and relationships.

CG You mean about how you deal with people to get what you want?

JA Yeah. I think that five years ago I was more easily frustrated or in more pain about things that would not be working out in a rehearsal than I am now.

CG So your ability to communicate what you actually want somehow seems to be better.

JA I think that one of the reasons why I wanted to be a director is because I felt that I was not a very communicative or articulate person. Nor a very organized person. And I think that directing forces you to be communicative, to use language clearly, to be organized, to be responsible, to be good to people. Not merely to get what you want because you are both, you and the actor, you and the designer, you and whoever else, you’re doing something together and you’re working for the piece, whatever it is. It’s just a profound opportunity. Directing is a profound opportunity to learn how to do that, to somehow function in a community.

Lynne Tillman by Geoffrey O'Brien
Tillman 01
Kate Valk by David Salle & Sarah French
Valk03 Body

“I worked at Shepherd-Pratt mental hospital, and I liked to take my name tag off and maybe be confused for one of the patients.”

David Levine by James N. Kienitz Wilkins
Occult image of Roddy McDowall and Lorrie Hull following a method acting seminar at Ripon College, ca. 1972. C-print, 29.5 × 23.5 inches. From the series Vertebrae by Vertebrae, 2015.

Body swapping, infinite loops, and ’70s conspiracy thrillers haunt the dynamic performances of a movie-loving artist and the actors he works with.

Becca Blackwell by Jim Fletcher
Becca Blackwell Bomb 01

The actors chat about performing masculinity, transitioning, and Blackwell’s one-person show They, Themself and Schmerm.

Originally published in

BOMB 5, Spring 1983

JoAnne Akalaitis, Gianfranco Gorgoni, H. M. Koutoukas, Rockets Redglare, Mary Mhoon, James McLure, Nightshift, Onue Kuroeman II, James Purdy, Maria Duval, and Joan Tewkesbury.

Read the issue
Issue 5 005  Spring 1983