Leonard Shapiro by Allen Frame

BOMB 31 Spring 1990
031 Spring 1990
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Leonard Shapiro. All photographs by Allen Frame.

As a theater director, Leonard Shapiro is passionately interested in what is live about theater—what is taking place in “real time” between audience and performers. Shapiro’s latest work with the Shaliko Company is a music-theater play called Strangers, a collaboration with jazz drummer-composer Max Roach. Ostensibly, Strangers, playing in March at the Washington Square Church, is about the private, psychic connections people make to understand traumatic public events: the Jim Jones catastrophe in Guyana, the Atlanta child murders, the testimonies of Americans who say they’ve been kidnapped by U.F.O.’s—or at least that’s how the piece started out. But whatever the strategy of form and content of this particular work, Shapiro is sure to focus underneath—and foremost—on the “actual event” that’s taking place in the theater, his concept of “testimony.”

When Shapiro first started directing, the experimental theater scene was in its heyday in New York. He formed the Shaliko Company in 1972 and their work as a company-in-residence at the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater included experimental versions of Ibsen’s Ghosts, Brecht’s The Measures Taken, and Büchner’s Woyzeck. It was a period when it was not unusual for a company like Shaliko to work on a play for nine months or a year, where the “commitment was to the process and anything that came out of it, any particular show, was sort of snapshot of how far you’d gotten,” remembers Shapiro. “But then that era in theater fell apart. What survived mostly was the formalist work, the stuff that was one individual’s vision. It wasn’t group work. It’s a very different impulse than this messier and more participatory, collaborative work that I thought was the American tradition, personally. My complaint is that it makes artists content to represent the fragmentation of a culture, with little fragments, so you get, basically, variations of the one-person show.”

So Shaliko disbanded in the late ’70s and reformed in 1983, after some of the members had gone off to work in regional theater and found out how difficult it was there to make a continuing commitment to experimentation. In 1983, they presented the American premiere of Andrea Dunbar’s The Arbor at La MaMa E.T.C. and went on to do another premiere by Soviet playwright Mark Rozovsky, Kafka: Father and Son. (Shapiro is slated to direct a Rozovsky play in the U.S.S.R. in the spring.) After that the work of the company shifted from “interpretive” to “creative” with two very unusual productions which have been acclaimed at international theater festivals: Punch! and The Yellow House.

Punch! is a physical theater play for three actors based on the Punch and Judy show. The Yellow House is a music-theater piece that “looks at the sources of Van Gogh’s creativity.”

In 1989, Shapiro directed Mac Wellman’s new play Whirligig in Shaliko production that kept pace with the playwright’s dizzying linguistic inventions. A highly original satire of the American scene (William Inge meets Rod Serling meets The Three Stooges), Whirligig was a sleeper, underrated by critics.

Allen Frame You have a concept of testimony. Could you explain exactly what that is?

Leonard Shapiro I was taught acting by Peter Kass who said: First make sense of the words; then find what your objective is and learn how to pursue it; and then find out who the character is and how to portray that. From the beginning of our work as a company, I was never interested in that last part, character. We just threw that out and made everything based on the other two, making sense and pursuing the objective. For us, very often, the objective is the social objective, communicating to an audience what the nature of the event is. That’s where testimony comes from. I’m interested in the actual, real-time event that happens in the room while you’re there. Most of our work tries to find out what is specific to that event and how to utilize it. Testimony is simply the actor speaking directly to the audience about what matters to them both in that moment, in a way that can change that moment, change the world they live in. You could call it didactic, except that to keep it alive—there is a methodology of investigation here. You don’t know beforehand what the answer is. You know what the question is. So you do the work to address the question. I’m trying to find out how tightly you can define the question and still keep it alive.

AF Is the content a pretext for the event?

LS The Yellow House is about the possibility of the artist being accepted in society and affecting society. It came out of a romantic identification with Van Gogh’s struggle—and his fate. All of that is available to any actor. I mean, any artist has those same problems and those goals and that struggle. This was using Van Gogh’s words without pretending to be him; to talk directly one-to-one, actor to audience, to find out how to use the story as a structure, not as an end in itself, so the event concentrates on the interaction between actor and audience. I had in mind, working on The Yellow House, that the audience was Theo, Vincent’s brother. This was never said. But the goal of doing that show was to make the audience feel like Theo and respond with that kind of generosity and understanding.

Punch! was the opposite in effect, a very heavy and hard, aggressive show. But it was also an attempt to deprogram the audience’s presumed habitual responses to identifying with the protagonist, making the protagonist real and the other characters around him just part of his revenge fantasy—which has basically been the formula of Western entertainment right through time. We did that with this idea of testimony—it’s Brechtian really—constantly interrupting the fictional story to make all the people equally real and present; to keep applying the present situation in the room to the story being acted out.

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In rehearsal for Strangers. Robbie McCauley, Cathy Bior, and Mohammed Ghaffari.

AF When the interaction between actors and audience is so important, you have to make an instant evaluation of what’s going on, the work could become very obvious. How do you deal with that?

LS In other words, how can it have the richness and complexity of the literature and still get immediate feedback? Well, through judgment. All theater depends on immediate response and judgment, like sports. Every live performer is in that feedback loop. Theater fundamentally differs from other forms of art because of that. On that immediate level, you do have to be very careful. The first time we had audience involvement as part of Brecht’s The Measures Taken—we stopped the show six times and asked questions of the audience: What did you think? Who did you think was right or wrong in this scene and why? They were very specific questions about ends and means. The play is about the murder of a young comrade who endangers the group as well as the long term goals of a revolution by giving in to immediate impulses of pity and sympathy. After we’d gotten the audience used to arguing, we played the last three scenes and never asked the final question; sent them out often quite frustrated in that way, because they had built up this expectation. But that was a conscious and positive response to exactly what you’re talking about, because I wanted them to not have the short-term release. The point of the dialogue was to get them to look at the show critically, as ideas in action are, not to be sucked into the story. Another strategy is to make the material represented so strong that it can not be encompassed by an immediate response.

In Punch! we had a lot of audience involvement, some of it really stupid. We started it off with follow the bouncing ball—they had to sing along with Punch to get some candy. But before it was over there was a Cowboy and Indian fight in the audience, where two characters on each side of the center row handed out guns, and it ended up with one half of the audience yelling, “Kill the nigger!” at the other. The point is to become conscious of how you are manipulated into false identifications. It got pretty weird in Scotland once, there were all these South Africans in the audience. But it’s not like that’s the show. In other words, the show keeps commenting: the fictional representation of violence and the mechanism of identifying with it are constantly contrasted—so the audience is constantly going back and forth between enjoying it and being shown how they’re enjoying it, and then being shown how the theater manipulated them into that. A lot of it is immediately didactic. There are other things that are totally indigestible. The scene where Punch kills his wife is indigestible: a 10-minute scene of the woman being raped and beaten. We had audience walk out every night. And it really was awful. And there’s, God knows, more subtle, sophisticated strategies, but that’s one strategy that takes the event beyond the container—that piece works later. It was never intended to work in the moment. My only desire in doing that piece is that the next time they go to a Batman, when those same patterns are played out, they’ll take themselves out of that innocent stupidity that we all love to fall into. I mean, we all want to finish our response while we’re there. You want this catharsis or result. People measure the success of theater by how completely they get off while they’re there. It’s like sex: if you don’t get off, then there was something incomplete about it. It’s not like reading a dreamy, symbolist novel that will detonate images 20 years later. The immediate impact is what we think of as theater, because you can’t go back to it. Yet, those of us who are doing this stupid and futile thing of working for this nonrepeatable moment—I have no idea how one justifies it. That’s the question: how do you make something immediate and have that depth and complexity? Shakespeare’s plays, the invention of epic theater and blank verse were answers to that question. Molière had an answer to that question. Euripides, Ibsen, Kabuki…How can it be sensual, immediate, and deal with complex questions that will resonate long after? All those examples of addressing that question had access to the same means: sustained group effort over time at, or near, the center of a culture that was willing to ask questions about itself. I don’t mean to say that any artist expects a subsidized life. They all started on the fringes and worked their way in. But the culture was looking to address those questions and was looking to the artists to speak it.

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In rehearsal for Strangers. Max Roach.

AF Why isn’t there a better network set up for touring in this country, like in Britain, and most of Europe? There is interesting theater happening in Chicago, and L.A., and Seattle, and Minneapolis, yet there’s hardly any flow between them.

LS I made a proposal to the National Endowment when the trains went broke, that the government buy the train system, that all those stations be turned into theaters, and all the theater companies be given their own trains. People would come to the station, often the most interesting architecture in town, natural performing spaces—to see theater. And if each company had their own little choo-choo, there’s your network. They didn’t go for that.

AF Brilliant idea.

LS I also tried to get them to institute a tax on movies that would support the theater—less than one percent. If you gave five cents out of every movie ticket to the theater, which is where all the talent comes from in movies, you could support theater throughout the country. Also, instead of having a statute of limitations on royalties so that they expire in 36 years or 80 years, whatever—they never expire. After one generation they revert to the state. And that’s how you fund the endowment for the arts—not through taxes, but through the royalties on art works. Do you realize how rich England could be from Shakespeare’s royalties? It would make artists valued members of society.

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In rehearsal for Strangers. Left: Cathy Biro, Robbie McCauleyn and Jake Ann Jones. Right: Cathy Biro and Steve Dominguez.

AF Here’s a Barbara Walters question: are you a difficult director? I read somewhere that you’d accepted the terror of directing. Do you think that directing is terrorizing?

LS Yeah, I do. There are two ways in which I am difficult. I have problems with authority, and I have had problems with producers, similar to my problems with critics. That’s…a character defect. The other is that I want what I want, and I resent not getting it. And that’s what most people mean by difficult. What you’re talking about is the real difficulty—that I am willing to work in an area that is completely unknown, and that is terrifying. It’s very difficult for an actor, because the actor has to get up in front of an audience before he knows what he’s doing. That’s the hard part. They have to do things they don’t understand. They’re asked to do them in a way that is very personal and very revealing before they get a chance to construct a vehicle that will carry them safely through, so that their process of dealing with themselves is unobstructed: it’s naked. And they’re not even given the confidence that this will all be shaped into something coherent before they have to do it in front of people. Because the real work on it is done in front of people. That literally is awful, it’s just awful…Some people can let it go through them, and some people need something like an accent so that it isn’t them before they can let it go through them. Or they need a prop. Vanessa Redgrave gave this incredible performance in Orpheus Descending, the like of which you’re not gonna see. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.

AF Yeah, I have. Twice.

LS She is completely naked on a Broadway stage, but she does it by hiding it every second. Have you noticed that she enters the stage backwards?

AF Yeah.

LS And at every big moment she literally turns away from the audience? I’ve never seen an actor have the guts to do that. And that thick Sicilian accent, which was preposterous. All the things that you are not allowed to do—that are stupid but permit her to be totally exposed. I wish that more experimental theater artists were willing to take that risk.

Allen Frame is a writer and photographer who lives and works in New York City.

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Originally published in

BOMB 31, Spring 1990

Featuring interviews with Jean-Paul Gaultier, Nick Cave, Joyce Carol Oates, Anton Furst, Tony Spiridakis, Larry Sultan, Liza Béar, Sally Beers, John Steppling, Lisa Hoke, Véra Belmont, Leonard Shapiro, and Christopher Brown.

Read the issue
031 Spring 1990