17 January 2011

Interview with Catherine Taylor-Williams, actress

This is the thirty-ninth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to see if you have missed any interviews, take a look at my conversations with those guests of most interest to you, leave some comments, or suggest future interviewees. Enjoy, and please share this series with your friends!

Interview with Catherine Taylor-Williams
via email

All photos by Kevin Sprague

IA: Please tell us about yourself: your acting, directing, producing….

CTW: I am an actor, director, producer and arts manager. I work primarily in theatre, but have an interest in all of the arts. I am the Founder of The Wharton Salon, which produces the stories of Edith Wharton and her contemporaries in her American home, The Mount, in Lenox, MA. I also freelance as an arts manager.

The ladies of the Wharton Salon

IA: What topics tend to recur in the plays you have directed and/or produced?

CTW: There are several themes that emerge. The role of the outsider, underdog or artist to reveal truths, heal or poke fun at society for its own good. I find the themes of redemption and rebirth also recur in my work.

IA: Do you think these themes recur primarily because they are timeless and human, or because they have something particular to say to Twenty-First Century America—or, let's even get more specific: to those who support the arts in, say, a small community like Lenox, Massachusetts?

CTW: I think all artists look for the underdog, for those who don't belong in a group. We notice what's similar, and what's different. As actors our intuition about people and what is going on inside them is on overdrive all the time. For this reason, I find city subways exhausting.

I think the artist is very welcome in Lenox, Massachusetts. There sure are a lot of us here in the Berkshires, and we tend to attract each other. In many of the stories I tell, a young woman acts as "muse" to a man in some sort of personal hell or underworld. She leads him through an ordeal and releases him at the other end. I'm very interested in this journey - Kevin Sprague and I collaborated on a book about it called Muse.

Catherine in Muse

IA: What specific techniques do you use as an actor and director?

CTW: My work has followed the training I received as an actor in classical theatre of the British-American school. My work is based in the voice work of Kristin Linklater, the Alexander Technique, and the teaching in Shakespeare I learned at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA and The Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival in Canada where I trained and saw the plays that most influenced my work.

IA: What theories inform your work?

CTW: The body has emotional memory trapped inside it that can be released on the voice and that knowledge of the body and voice as an instrument can be a powerful tool to connect to an audience.

There is no single way to play a role in the theatre. Each individual brings his/her own interpretation with them. To do this, an artist must possess a certain degree of self-knowledge as well as knowledge of the story and character.

The imagination can reveal truths about what its like to live in another time, to be another gender, to be part of another culture. Artists pick up on a frequency that is beyond what we can perceive with our senses in the normal world. It’s the job of the director to create the environment that makes this happen more frequently for the actors and as deeply as possible in rehearsal. With practice we can hear this frequency more clearly and we get used to it – then we invite the audience to watch.

IA: Do you think these topics, techniques, and theories are typical of those working in your genre?

CTW: I think so.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

CTW: I am a product of the Shakespeare & Company and Stratford Festival of Canada schools. Both have fairly rigorous training and have a certain dogma attached. I rebel occasionally, but I never stray too far.

In management I am a protégé of Michael Kaiser, the President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts’ esteemed arts management program. Mr. Kaiser taught me to see the arts as an industry and best practices for its survival.

IA: Could you expand upon the training you received at Shakespeare & Co and the Stratford Festival? What is the routine? What are the theories that drive it? What is that dogma? Do you think this rigor is good and necessary in order to create well-trained young actors?

CTW: I think rigorous training gives young people something on which to focus their considerable energy and anxiety. I found it helpful as I was beginning as an artist; now I'm a little more relaxed in my approach, and I welcome anything that works in telling the story. I was a very zealous and serious young person, so its hard to know how much was my teachers driving me on, and how much of it was some part of myself.

It's very hard to break down years of study into a few concepts. And it has now been years now since I have been in a Stratford or S&Co classroom. They will all sound odd and trivial, but I'll try.

Some of the practices I learned at the Stratford Festival are that there is a "world picture" in which everything is played. Comedy has the most narrow focus, Greek tragedy has the largest. Next time you watch a great clown, check out the focus, you'll see what I mean. They were also pretty clear that you were not to breathe at the ends of a line of verse so as not to interrupt the thought. We were taught to increase our capacity for breath and clarify our thinking and focus our argument to reach the audience in a large space. The Festival stage at Stratford was a famous thrust stage with many seats in the audience. It was best to play diagonally across it rather than in a line. There were certain places to stand still, and certain places in which constant movement was necessary.

At Shakespeare & Company we were taught to focus on where our own stories intersected with the words of the text. There were several long exercises taught where personal association with each word of the text was used. Some of these exercises went on for hours. The emotional life of the text was very much sought and encouraged. We were also taught to directly address the audience—as was done in Shakespeare's day. It was their aim that the body, voice, and text be one, so we spent a lot of time in fight, in voice, and in movement.


IA: What can you tell us about the current state of the arts? Please talk specifically about individual actors, directors, producers, theatre companies, playwrights, etc. whom you know (or whose work you know), their topics/techniques/theories, and in general about your sense of North American arts right now.

CTW: There are several layers of theatre production. North America is largely dominated by the commercial or Broadway theatre, which uses celebrities to draw in the general public who are much more familiar with television and films. The not-for-profit theatre in New York, regional and festival theatres are both attracted and repelled by the commercial theatre. They create most of the new content and develop new work or productions, but somehow hope that they will find a production they can transfer to Broadway (or at least New York from the regions) where it will be recognized. The commercial dominance in the theatre genre seems to me more pronounced than in other performing artforms.

I am very concerned about the inability for theatre artists to make a living. The idea that a person could make a living solely in the theatre has completely disappeared in my generation. Most practicing theatre artists must do film and television for their primary income, teach or work in management.

Outside of the tension between for-profit and not-for profit theatres, there are several kinds of work I see in America right now:

New American Plays: Realistic dramas that take place surrounding the family or workplace. Often realistic sets, a small worldview or microcosm that is meant to shed light of the concerns of the American family, society or politics. Playwrights: David Mamet, Sarah Ruhl, Theresa Rebeck, Annie Baker. There are some American playwrights who take this genre and explode it, or go into the larger picture, even the spiritual realm. I think of both Tony Kushner and Joan Ackermann as examples.

Living Newspaper: companies like The Civilians, who take topics they read about, research them for months or years and present their interviews with real people in play form. Their topics have included urban re-gentrification, the porn industry, and fundamentalist Christianity.

Shakespeare Festivals: There are over 100 indoor and outdoor Shakespeare and classical festivals in North America.

Physical-based companies: Influenced by UK or European companies, these companies’ work is largely physical. In the UK, the company Complicite has influenced many American companies. In Canada, physical theatre is very prominent in French-speaking Canada.

IA: If you have a religious point of view: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular arts?

CTW: This is not something I generally share in interviews. I think it comes out in the plays I direct, but I don’t address it in any focused way.

I was born into a fundamentalist Christian family. I am still a practicing Christian, but I’ve adapted it into a looser form. I accept all faiths and practices and am more interested in the mysteries of salvation, resurrection and the manifestation of God through creation.

To me there can be no correlation between the sacred theatre and the secular unless the church wants to use plays to question the nature of faith, its fundamental or core beliefs, and the existence of God. Plays are not meant to carry a moral, they are meant to ask the question we are afraid to ask.

Medieval Mystery plays or plays that teach dogma are very entertaining, but ultimately rigid with two-dimensional characters. As a theatre artist I find it much easier to embrace other artforms in churches – music or visual art which are not so literal and finite as the spoken word.

That said, I love to read the Bible aloud in church, in the King James version. Shakespeare was writing at the same time, and it was my comfort with the Bible that made me a good Shakespearean actor. The words are incredible, and with them I find it easier to believe.


IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?

CTW: Many arts organizations are taking the opportunity to film their work or present them live in HD like The Met or now the UK’s National Theatre. Companies are also developing interactive technology tools to help teachers in the classroom with Shakespeare and other texts.

Generally speaking though, I still feel our job in the performing arts is to offer human-to-human connection. I fear we are becoming a very lonely society, sitting with our little devices on the subway trains and pulling them out in every socially uncomfortable moment.

IA: How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?

CTW: I think we got to where we are by the rising costs of putting on performances and the inability to improve productivity. While other industries cover the cost of inflation by increasing worker productivity through new technologies, there are the same number of characters in Hamlet as there were centuries ago. Also, once we select a theatre, our income is bounded. Once we sell out a performance, we have no ability to increase earned revenue. I should say these are not my ideas, but those of my arts management mentor, Michael Kaiser. We have unique challenges.

Artistically, we got to where we are in the theatre from the emergence of the regional theatre and the repertory company in the later half of the 20th century. It’s falling away now, and I don’t know what will take its place. I also find the lines between professional and amateur theatre blurring as making a living is difficult and it’s harder to distinguish the professionals from the amateurs. In film production, making a film is getting so cheap and the ability to post your material and have it go around the world, that anyone can be an actor. I find that a little frightening, and a little bit of a relief too.

IA: Where are we going?

CTW: We’re in, and going further into the digital age. When people can buy endless online movies for $8/month to view whenever, wherever, what is going to make them leave their homes to pay $75 to see a play? I’m grappling with this. I hope it’s to connect with people, but who knows. What is revolutionizing the newspaper and music industries will happen to theatre as well.

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