Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
In the spring of 1995 a Mike Leigh play, Ecstasy, opened here in New York. I had heard the production was excellent and had seen the riotous cast pick up their Obies a week before, so I went by. I was rocked. It is hard to explain the sheer quality of execution, not to mention the wild writing. A perfect ensemble cast took the audience back to 1979 and gave us all a merry and depressing ride through the lives of six dead-end Londoners. It was intense. The director was a young man named Scott Elliot. He followed this perfect production a year later with The Monogamist by Christopher Kyle and Curtains by Stephen Bill, also set in England.
I spoke with Scott Elliott about his short and powerful career as a director a week or so after seeing Curtains, another superb ensemble piece. He was in the midst of rehearsal for the new Arthur Miller play The Ride Down Mount Morgan at Williamstown, having just opened Jon Robin Baitz’ play The End of The Day, also at Williamstown. He is about to begin rehearsals for Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at the Roundabout in New York, opening after Christmas.
Eric Bogosian Do you have a theater background?
Scott Elliott Yeah, I was working and living as an actor. I did musicals, I did straight plays, I worked in all the regional theaters, I did little parts in the movies. I worked a lot but I wasn’t really happy with my life as an actor.
EB Big surprise.
SE As a director who has been an actor, I keep that in mind, not necessarily in trying to make actors happy, but to work in a way that makes each actor feel like he or she is part of the experience, as opposed to being a pawn.
EB Few directors trust the artistic abilities of the actors. But so many actors are prima donnas. Myself included.
SE See, I never have problems with actors. Never. I mean, I even work with actors who people have said, “Don’t work with them.”
EB Obviously you know how to communicate. Actors get difficult when they get scared, when they feel like they’re not in a good situation. But actors blossom when you’re directing.
SE I choose to work with actors who are bold and not afraid to reveal themselves. And I, in turn, reveal myself, so that they don’t feel that they’re just putting themselves on view. There are a lot of directors and writers who sit back and expect the actors to create everything and don’t want to give anything of themselves. But I choose to share things about myself—in the line of the work—and hope that the actors will be bold in their turn, in their choices.
EB How did you decide to do Curtains? Stephen Bill is not well known here.
SE Stephen Bill’s wife played the lead in Ecstasy in Hampstead. They came over and saw the dress rehearsal of Ecstasy I directed here, and loved it. So she asked, can we send you this play?
EB Both of these plays jump back slightly in time. Not a long time ago, but they’re not contemporary either. They create a weird feeling of dislocation. Ecstasy takes place in 1979.
SE That’s what makes the play universal rather than alienating. I set it in ‘79, but it didn’t have to be. I could have set it today, but I wanted to do it in the period it was written. Because so much has changed in the last 15 years.
EB Personal computers, VCRs, cable TV, Ronald Reagan, AIDS.
SE Right. The lead character in Ecstasy is a woman who pumps gas. In 1979, even with the women’s movement, women just weren’t pumping gas. It says something about her independence and ultimately, her loneliness. Plus the look of the times, and the poverty…
EB You seem very familiar with the way the English speak, their dialects. A lot of people are “on the dole” in Great Britain. Americans don’t know about that.
SE In Ecstasy the characters are from all different places. It’s interesting, Mike set the play in a town that is now mostly Black and Pakistani. But in 1979, the Black and Pakistani division was just beginning.
EB How did Mike give the play to you?
SE I got it through his agent. I was talking to her about another writer and she said she also represented Mike Leigh. I immediately passed out because, you know, I adore him and his work.
EB So you didn’t know the play at the time?
SE I didn’t know that he had written plays, I only knew he was a filmmaker, having seen Nakedabout six times. I knew he wrote a wonderful play called Abigail’s Party about the nouveau riche, which is now a cult film you can get on video. But I didn’t know he had written anything else.
EB Had you been directing prior to that?
SE I directed some plays after I graduated from school. I started my own non-profit theater, The New Group, because I wanted a place where I knew I could do the kind of work I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in theater, I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker, something that I’m now going to do. But I wanted to understand the actor’s psychology and how to really work with them, so I thought, what better place to do that than the theater. And low risk—I didn’t want to waste everybody’s money.
EB This is a strange turn then, because you’re well known from theater work that was really only practice in working with actors.
SE At first, I worked with a specific group of actors all the time, but that became insular.
EB You had a company.
SE At the very beginning, but after a little while it seemed unhealthy. It became important for it to become a writer’s theater, a theater where new writers could be seen, because actors are only there for a certain duration, their careers take them all over the place.
EB The tradition of losing a successful actor goes back to your namesake, the Group Theater, where Kazan, Odets and others started. As soon as an actor begins to get outside work, they’re gone.
SE So I turned ours into a place where writers could develop their plays and new writers could have a chance to get going.
EB And how does the financing occur?
SE Our first play had a budget of $1,000 in a tiny space. We developed an original play, Nothing To Dream About by Diane Bank, a little underground word-of-mouth thing, and it was a smash. Ran three weeks. No critics. It was one of those things where I thought, maybe I do know what I’m doing. Diane and I still work together at The New Group. But the first time we really opened ourselves up to the critics was three years later with Ecstasy, because I knew that people were interested in it, I had a feeling about it. And it was the sparsest thing. I don’t get driven by text, I get driven by subtext. I’m all for wonderful writing but if it’s all writing and I can’t hear the undercurrents, I don’t want to do it. If the subtext is there it changes the play from a play to an experience.
EB So how would you define “sub-text”?
SE In rehearsal I’ll often do an exercise with the actors where I’ll have them say something like, “I love you,” with many different intentions so that it doesn’t really matter what you say, it matters what you mean. And what you mean is what lies beneath the words. Anything you mean—your intention, your action—is what makes the words come to life. If the actors are clear about that then the play has meaning, and it will be great. If they aren’t, and often they are not, then there’s a big problem.
EB We’re always watching actors who don’t know what they’re saying.
SE Or we’re getting some sort of tour de force. Laura Esterman, who’s the lead in Curtains, could have turned that role into a tour de force, but she didn’t. I didn’t want her to. I created the ensemble in such a way that nobody felt like “the star.” Everybody was there for the right reason.
EB How do you do that?
SE I cast and then I take it from there. When I’m working I don’t do any of the “right” things: I don’t keep a director’s log; I don’t keep my blocking written down—I work instinctually. I encourage the actors to explore human behavior as opposed to exploring the text. In Curtains, and also in Ecstasy, you’ll hear different people in the audience laughing at different times.
EB I’m a person who laughs when no one else is laughing.
SE Me too, because it’s about behavior. You’re not laughing because of what the people are saying. You’re laughing because the behavior is honest, and you identity with it.
EB One of the great props in Curtains is the newspaper that sits on the table. And these horrible things are being discussed among the family—accusations and recriminations—and different people pick up the newspaper and read it while the others are arguing—it looks so real.
SE I encourage the actors to do everything that they want to do because it frees them. If they come in with some preconceived idea, I would never say “no.” But I force people to identity their own mistakes. So they do it and then they realize, oh, it stinks. Or the opposite might happen and together we discover something wonderful. But to me it’s important that everybody express themselves. Through that process a collaboration of give and take emerges. And I have a sense for what’s funny—so I do throw things in, like Jayne Haynes’ character Margaret in Curtains. There’s a lot of me in that character. A lot of the comedy comes from my experience, none of it’s in the text.
EB Jayne Haynes was seamless in that role.
SE We did a lot of work on developing a family history. It’s very, very important that actors have background to draw from, that they’re never left on stage in the eighth performance of the week with nothing to think about. And I hope that when Jayne Haynes looks at David Gale, who plays her husband, that she can drum up some sort of history. This is true for the entire company. So that nobody is ever empty. I went back and visited them the other day, and I said, “You guys don’t look bored.” And they said, “We’re not bored at all—we’re still working.” Which made me feel really good. I thought it had never been better, the performance grew in my absence. The sense of history and relaxation and trust that I tried to develop in the rehearsal process was still so there.
EB You never finished your story about getting Ecstasy.
SE Well, I got the script and I loved it. It was snowing early on a Sunday morning, and my phone rang. “It’s Mike.” (And of course, I idolize him.) He said, “I really want you to do this,” and I said, “All right.” It was that quick. So I had to find a cast, which was not easy. Literally. Ecstasy opened and I went to bed and woke up the next morning with a whole new life—it was only one year ago. And it’s been a really wild year. I want to write a book called The Year I Met Everybody.
EB Two plays have been set in England and they were incredibly authentic. Have you ever been to England?
SE Many times.
EB You seem to have this deep understanding.
SE The English are a sub-textually rich people. They just keep everything in, so I’m fascinated by the way they communicate, the way things are sugar coated—how people say things and mean something completely different. I’m completely not like that.
EB Let’s talk about what you’re in the middle of now. You’re directing Robbie Baitz’s The End of the Day.
SE Yes. It’s been almost completely rewritten since the Playwright’s Horizon production. I’ve got a wonderful cast. My take is Brechtian, which really elevates the play, it’s very dark. The protagonist is now a shrink in a hospital. The set looks like a painted shower curtain with a big Plexiglas sign with “eat me” spray painted on it. The stage revolves and changes perspectives—it spins around in between scenes.
Tomorrow we start rehearsals on the Arthur Miller play, which is very exciting. It’s a great cast—F. Murray Abraham, Michael Learned, Patricia Clarkson. Arthur and I had an immediate chemistry, so we’ve had so much fun. We talk everyday on the phone: “It’s Arthur…how ya doin? Callin to say hi.” It’s interesting for me. Having the experience of being with him.
EB He’s been writing longer than anybody in theater now hasn’t he?
SE Yes he has, he wrote Death of A Salesman in his early thirties. He’s about 81 now. He’s an icon.
EB Isn’t it hard getting in your two cents with writers like Robbie Baitz and Arthur Miller?
SE Robbie and Arthur and every other writer whom I’ve worked with wants the same thing. They want their play to be directed well. I’ll call Arthur up and say what do you think about blah-blah scene and he’ll say, “Oh, I don’t know.” And I’ll say, why don’t you just try blah-blah, just give it a shot and if it doesn’t work we’ll throw it out.
EB What’s the name of the play by the way?
SE It’s called The Ride Down Mount Morgan, and it’s about a man who’s paying for living a life of excess. It’s very wild, his funniest play. The main character’s been living a double life, and he gets into a car crash riding down Mount Morgan, and through a series of flashbacks, he scrutinizes his life. I’m doing it like an acid trip, very colorful, weird things going on, all very light driven—floors that light up into different colors. It’s going to be wild.
EB So you’ve really tailored your production for the sensibility of Williamstown. Genteel, cultured…
SE (laughter) Right.
EB You’re of a different generation, aren’t you afraid of rejection?
SE Even more so with Robbie’s End of the Day than with Arthur’s play. My intention with End of the Day was to direct it as an assault. The music’s very loud covers of patriotic songs. It opens with Jimi Hendrix blaring the Star Spangled Banner. My take on it was the destruction of the American morale. And in the second act, when the play moves to England, I use Sid Vicious. It’s violent, very bold with its sexual takes. And so of course I was nervous. I made them put up this little sign in the lobby which says, “Please be advised that this production contains loud music, drug use, sexual content, cigarette smoking. Enter at your own risk.” As it turned out, the audiences were eating it up. These older people were just going crazy for it. I didn’t want to go to Williamstown and not do what I wanted, I didn’t want to edit myself. They’re really happy, it’s a big hit. And Arthur’s play is also very bold, it’s his sexiest play. You know, it reveals a lot about him. Arthur is very complicated, in a delicious way.
EB As long as I’ve been in New York there’s been this notion that “You have to please the bluehairs, the subscribers.” And often I look out at my audience and a lot of them seem pretty old. But the years go by, and those people who look old out there, some of them were at Woodstock, they know who Jimi Hendrix was.
What are you doing next?
SE I’m getting ready to do The Three Sisters at The Roundabout here in New York. I want to put together an eclectic group of people who have the right kind of Eastern European soul for the play.
EB How will you deal with the formality of the language?
SE This translation is very accessible. It’s Lanford Wilson’s. It doesn’t feel like “today,” like the David Mamet translation for instance. Instead it feels like a beautiful middle of the road that could be spoken by anybody. So there won’t be any dialects, just excellent acting. And I’m doing an extra long rehearsal process, about five weeks.
EB Twenty years ago six weeks rehearsal was standard.
SE I know, and this is Broadway, and they have only given me four weeks. We’ll do an intense couple of weeks, act by act. I’m sure they’ll be saying, “Who the hell does he think he is, 33 years old! Doing that play.”
EB It’s well-known, so how will you approach it?
SE As an ensemble piece, like all my plays. I will tell the actors to throw out whatever they think they know about the play, earlier productions, etc. Start fresh. No stars, and everybody has to be willing to get down and dirty, and just do the work for work’s sake.
EB Another ensemble piece. You keep digging them up.
SE I don’t keep digging them up, I just approach them differently. If you were to look at Ecstasy and read it on the page, it looks like Jean is the lead. Or with Curtains, it looks like Catherine is a big tour de force performance. But I don’t work that way, because I find it incredibly uninteresting to watch a play with somebody who’s doing a star turn. Everybody’s important and I have a respect for each person’s performance. So I don’t find these ensemble plays, I approach them all like ensemble plays, because to me, it’s important for the First Lieutenant to feel as important as Masha. That makes people feel that they’re not just getting up there and walking through a play.
EB What we see on-stage is very cohesive because you’re treating people as people. We need more of this! By the way, you have film projects now also?
SE Well, yeah, I’ve already gotten stuff. After Three Sisters I’ll make a decision. I’m being cautious because I want to make sure it’s the right material. Sam [Cohn] is making sure everything I need is there. Robbie Baitz and I are working on something.
EB It’s good to be careful, but if you enjoy the work…
SE Exactly. I didn’t get into this to get famous. I did it because I really am an artist. For whatever success I’ve had, I still work the same exact way I always have. Of course my confidence has grown, which enables me to be more articulate about my way of working with people. And I think that people trust me because I’m able to draw out the kind of talent that I really want to work with. I only want to work with people I like as people. I’m not interested in people who are gonna be nasty. I’m very up-front in meeting with actors, celebrities. I say, “Look if you feel like you can’t let go and trust me and collaborate with me then we shouldn’t go any further.” It has to all be laid out before we go anywhere or do anything. There’s that thing about celebrity actors wanting to have casting approval. I won’t go there. We can all collaborate and work wonderfully together but it’s not an actor’s job to cast a play or a movie. It just isn’t. It’s the director’s job, the director’s the person who has to live with the choices. And in the end, it reflects on the director.
EB Dramas without stars in them are becoming rare. If one of these plays you’ve been working on up in Williamstown were to move to Broadway, wouldn’t you need a star? Wouldn’t you have to deal with a prima donna?
SE I’m not interested in doing something just for the sake of doing it.
EB Some actors can play nice for awhile, especially in early meetings, and then go crazy on you.
SE I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
EB Do you read a lot?
SE Yeah, but I read less and less and it’s not from not wanting to read. But lately I’ve been sent so many scripts and I do a lot of reading for my research. When I work on a project I immerse myself in that world. With Ecstasy I threw myself into the tabloids of ‘79, and for Curtains I read a lot about euthanasia and the dynamics of how families behave in crisis. Knowing that I would be working with Miller I read his and Elia Kazan’s autobiographies.
EB You and Robbie Baitz are around the same age. Do you guys feel like you’re a new generation in theater?
SE It does feel nice because we do kind of see eye to eye in our politics. But Mike Leigh’s also really fun to work with ‘cause he’s always been a big hippie, he’s so free in his work. He’s an idea man. He’s the perfect example of someone who’s not rich but his work is so brilliant, and that alone drives him through the day.
EB Well, the fixation on money is absurd. People put themselves out in L.A. and stay there looking for more and more money.
SE That’s why I didn’t go to L.A. for film school, because I saw myself getting sucked up in some development thing from which I would never emerge from.
EB I have seen people who have never emerged. Is it possible for a stage director to make a living now without becoming an artistic director of a regional theater? How many people are actually doing this in this country today?
SE There are only a few of us who are lucky enough to make a living at it. But like I said, because of my attraction to the movies, I know that’s where I’m going to end up. But at the same time I love theater so much that I’m not going to abandon it.
EB I love making theater. I really like making movies. There’s a difference. Something analogous to making love versus masturbating.
SE Because the process of theater is thrilling to us. The result is less thrilling than the process. Living in it, it’s so gorgeous, and it can’t be preserved. If it’s good, every moment on the stage is like bliss and watching it is that way also.
EB Are you trying to say something with your work that speaks to your generation, to these times?
SE My philosophy goes back to everything that I do, from The New Group to working in the commercial theater. I think it’s really important that artists evolve and that they just don’t do one thing over and over again. Movements only happen when people are bold and allow themselves to evolve and express. I feel like I’m in the middle of a movement and I don’t really know exactly what it is. Something is breaking below the surface. I definitely feel that all we need to do is encourage each other to go out on a limb, and not to worry what people are going to think of it. That’s how movements happen.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.