Company Report from Brooklyn
A record of
The Actors' Company
visit to the US
January - February 1974
January 14, 1974: Final preparations of our new production of King Lear in energy-starved rehearsal-rooms. Last fittings of costumes and first look at the scenery during its trial mounting. Alan Barlow has fashioned 40 miles of rough, thick string that can be lit to represent masonry, forests, sky and rain. String Lear.
January 23: A " free" day to pack: but half of us take District Line to meet front-of-house staff at the Wimbledon Theatre, whither we'll return after New York.
January 24: 12.30 pm flight from Gatwick free from British Caledonian. Our sets, though, have gone on by sea. Formalities at Kennedy waived by Customs man who has booked for Lear. Most are to stay at the Chelsea Hotel where Dylan Thomas died. Some with friends. My host is an American actor who trained 12 years ago at RADA. We compare lots and I'm introduced to the near-impossibility of working in New York Theatre. Television commercials and serials, radio and under-paid off-off-Broadway shows are main sources of income. Broadway itself is a dream turned nightmare— empty theatres, old-fashioned musicals, interminable runs or immediate closures — all governed by Clive Barnes, Limey drama critic of the New York Times.
January 25: 10.30 am to Sardi's, still-flourishing theatre restaurant, near Times Square. Guests of the Drama Desk — i.e. NY theatre critics —some know the Company from 1973 Edinburgh Festival. Barnes not there. Coffee and Danish pastries. 2.00 pm. Lear rehearsals resumed.
January 27: Morning, adjusting Knots to a new stage. Evening to a Sunday night opening (most theatres here take Monday as the Sabbath) of Lorelei — a re-working of Carol Channing's greatest success — with the original star onstage and Anita Loos, the original author, in the stalls. We watch, from our box, the audience as much as the stage — all white, all middle-aged, all cheering — necrophiliacs at a wake. Others in the Company more dutifully attend the RSC's closing performance of Richard II at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — our theatre for the coming four weeks. So called to avoid the vulgar associations which "Theater" held for the genteel Brooklyn of 80 years ago, BAM has two adjacent auditoria — the larger Opera House, where we'll do three of our plays and the Music Hall for Knots. They share a large foyer, the whole encased in a newly-cleaned, flood-lit, white-brick fortress challenging the barren, unglamorous, run-down downtown of Brooklyn. It's only a mile across to Manhattan and 20 minutes by cab up the frost-havoced avenues to Times Square. We've been warned that America's pioneering spirit stops at the Brooklyn Bridge, so we shall need all publicity, luck and Clive Barnes (NY Times critic) to urge an emigration south. But the weather is spring and shirt-sleeves and we are not depressed. At sea, though, there are storms and the Lear sets and costumes are delayed by them.
January 28: Dress-rehearsal for Wood Demon. Friendly and efficient local stage-staff-with overtime. they earn probably twice the actors on Equity touring minimum of 300 dollars a week. Robert Eddison and I share the stage-level dressing-room where Caruso reputedly died. Our dresser is a Mexican Indian and provides fresh apple-juice and anglophilia against the overheating. There is, though, no hot water to wash away greasepaint
January 29: Nearly 2,000 at Wood Demon opening, laugh from the first scene and confirm its success on our British tour.
January 30: 1.15 am at 72nd Street newsstand we read Clive Barnes: "It was all very Chekov and all beautifully acted. This play is one of those rarities that does not deserve to be so rare, and the Company is a joy to welcome."
10.30 am. Rehearse Lear. The sets, etc, are nearer port but far from being at BAM in time for full technical lighting and dress rehearsals. Should we cancel the opening? Bookings are heavy. 2.30 pm. Company meeting encourages the director David William to our nearly unanimous decision to open on schedule, with or without the sets. 8 pm. Knots opens — an hour's music-hall adaptation by one of us, Edward Petherbridge, of R. D. Laing's fankles, tangles, disjunctions, impasses — apt, considering String Lear.
January 31: Newspapers praise the Company's good humour and versatility — Juan Moreno's juggling and tap, Caroline Blakiston's organ-playing, Paola Dionisotti's cartwheels! — but undervalue the text's complexities. Is New York less sophisticated than its reputation? Certainly it is excited (cheers at the end) — and generous. Yesterday a party by a local Conservation Society and invitations to individual homes. Everyone insists that British stage acting is the best in the world. Overwhelming lady goes on and on about my brilliant Richard II last week — I'm Ian I'm English, so I must be the RSC's Richardson! Today Friday: Lear opens Saturday: sets now due Sunday. Eddison, as the King, borrows a long white suede coat, taking comfort from false hair and beard which the wigmaster brought over as hand luggage. Lear's daughters wear evening dresses; his Knights a uniform of windcheaters. There are swords — so I (Edgar) can kill Matthew Long (Edmund). We hold an undressrehearsal.
February 2: The final run-through of any play (without the encumbrance of sets, costumes, make-up) often seems superior to subsequent performances in intensity and clarity: but we can underestimate how much audiences depend on illusion and spectacle. Tonight we try and compensate for their lack — voices soar and imaginations work. Standing ovation at curtain-fall!
February 3: 12.5 pm. En route for a 1.30 pm matinee, I'm trapped on the Brooklyn subway which breaks down between stations. All the carriages, inside and out, are covered with engaging graffiti so I settle down to decipher. No obscenity, no politics, no cartoons, just repetitious scribblings, in coloured felt-tip, of Puerto Rican names and abbreviated addresses, e.g. TICO 118 (his street). Tico is shouting his individuality. I'm pretty near shouting, too, with half an hour to curtain-up (fortunately I'm wearing Edgar's costume!) 1.00 pm. We inch into a station — backwards. I change trains and direction. 1.03 pm. We break down again. More graffiti; same names. Subways are supposed to be dangerous – I’m certainly feeling murderous. O, for the District Line. Fellow passenger, drama student, tells me his plans to study with Grotowski – I feel we’re both currently performing in Kafka. 1.24 pm We clatter to my station in time to apologize to my understudy and face the critics who presumably take cabs to Brooklyn. Between shows, I discover a hot shower, 100 yards and two elevators away from dressing-room. Snacks ordered from Steve’s Café across the avenue. My palate has reverted to childhood and adores American food-sandwiches, milk, pecan pie, jello – all kid’s stuff, all delicious. Why can’t Britain make American Ice cream? Today's temperature is 12 below freezing.
February 4: Stage-staff hang the String — actors free. Television traps me. A friend from experience explains that on quiz shows younger participants are often out-of-work actors fraudulently engaged as anonymous "students", "salesmen", "teachers" because they react reliably on camera, look presentable and need the prizes. As usual we share out publicity assignments. I talk to BBC in an attic off 3rd Avenue — tape-batteries are weak and my voice, deep as Robeson, is dispatched to Portland Square. Then an hour’s interview for New York's only radio station without adverts (financed by listeners' contributions). Through snow, past suspicious doorman and up 20 storeys above Central Park, I'm to be interviewed for a glossy theatre magazine which, judging from its photographs, isn't found in many normal doctors' waiting-rooms. My interviewer is a diligent hostess, inviting me to remove my boots, to have wine and Danish and to peer through the blizzard at the YMCA's sun roof-" That's why I took this apartment — fun!" She wants to photograph me but has no film. I admire her pictures in numerous dance journals Our chat is taped (for posterity? ) she has kept her Anthony Hopkins interview and replays it for comfort and amusement). I talk on about my work, background and the Actors' Company. Am given more wine and urged to be indiscreet about myself — about the Company, then . . "about anything!" (" Hopkins told me a lot about everyone!") Do I have any secret desires? No. She does — and tells me about them. Two hours later I've read her poetry — by this time-the tape is as exhausted as we are. "Look, why are you so darn happy? Can't you give me just a bit of sensation? My readers don't want — you can't be that happy!" I apologize and suggest it might be a change for her readers. She will send a photographer round next week. I promise not to smile.
February 13: First-night of Way of the World sells out (unknown since Nureyev first danced at BAM). I play four-line footman tonight — just as Petherbridge walks on in Wood Demon — any of us does when required. BAM asked for half as many performances of Congreve as the others — underestimating the attraction for Americans of an English cast in an English classic, not seen here for 20 years. Shakespeare is the same — despite a black King Lear on television during our stay.
February 24: Last two performances. Lear dies (now in full costume), the audience cheers (will they in Wimbledon?) curtain falls and from the wings emerge all the American stagehands to applaud the Company. Genuinely fond farewells.