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Austin Pendleton: 60 Years Of Theater And Loving It!

Imagine having a true life “in the theater”, what would that mean? Austin Pendleton, now celebrating his 60th year in the theater can tell you. Pendleton, the prolific actor-director-playwright, currently appearing prominently in Tracy Letts’ The Minutes at Studio 54 has just been honored this Spring with the New York Drama Critics Circle Special Citation for his 60 years of work in the theatre, The Actors Equity Foundation Richard Seff Award for veteran actors and was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play. 

Pendleton, now 82 years young, developed his love for theater when he was as a child, as theater rehearsals were happening in his living room. You see, he grew up in Warren, Ohio. After WWII–it was an industrial hub–but the people wanted to begin a community theater. They came to his mother, actress Frances Manchester for help. “She told them to raise money and she helped them and they pulled her into directing and acting. Their early productions were rehearsed in our living room and I got so into it,” recalled the actor, director and playwright. “I grew up with theatre literally in my own home. There are all kinds of wonderful advantages to theatre, where you get to do the play every night. Once theatre is a bug in your system it stays there, you just keep wanting to do it.”

It’s not surprising that when he went to school he got involved in school plays. But, it wasn’t just being bitten by the bug that inspired him to be involved in theater. “What attracted me to acting was when I was a kid, I stuttered very badly and I found that when I would act in school plays that went away. That was before there was a sophisticated approach to treating stuttering. I escaped into acting,” Pendleton shared.

Pendleton began his professional New York acting career in the 1962 Arthur Kopit sensation, Oh Dad, Poor Dad Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. Now six decades later he is on Broadway in The Minutes. 

The Minutes, about a City Council meeting that goes awry, beginning as, The New York Times declared, an “expert comedy” then morphs into “jaw-dropping horror”. Pendleton plays the character of Mr. Oldfield, a stick in the mud. He’s been on the City Council year after year and he has views that are not with the times. “I want them to find that amusing, but I also want them to feel like what it would be like to be that person. That’s what you want with any character, you want the audience to know what it would feel like to be that character,” Pendleton added.

Looking at his journey with The Minutes and the pandemic, Pendleton reflected, “We got within three days of the official opening night two years ago. We got it together, we were working on the day of the night the press was coming, then came the lockdown.”

Austin Pendleton’s 1964 breakout role on Broadway as the tailor Motel Kamzoil in the original cast of Fiddler on the Roof.

Pendleton has had the privilege of working with some of the crème de la crème of theater. And one opportunity has led to another. He began his career in Oh Dad, Poor Dad…, which was directed by Jerome Robbins. His performance led Robbins to cast him as Motel in the Original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. Later Pendleton played the role of Leo Hubbard, in Mike Nichols’ famed production of The Little Foxes. Pendleton is quick to admit that while playing the role, he feared getting fired and was saved by simple advice from his co-star Anne Bancroft. “There was something not working about my performance. Anne Bancroft gave me the key–she said you walk the wrong way for the character. Lillian Hellman was so impressed with the way my performance suddenly turned, that 14 years later she thought of me to direct a revival of Foxes, which also served as the Broadway debut of Elizabeth Taylor.”

Pendleton developed his acting craft while training at HB Studios with Uta Hagen. He was also in the Lincoln Center Training Program and worked with theater legend Robert Lewis. Pendleton has found over his six decades that while acting was fulfilling, he also had the propensity for directing and playwriting. He found himself writing musicals, while an undergraduate at Yale. He wrote the script for Tom Jones and Booth Is Back In Town!  in his Junior year. He later made Booth Is Back In Town! into a straight play called Booth, which is still performed today. He wrote a dark play called Uncle Bob, which is his most produced work. Reflecting on how he came to New York, he recalled coming to pursue being a writer due to the two musicals he had done at Yale. “I got ambushed into doing Oh Dad…,” he mused.

Directorial opportunities came about due to Robert Lewis, who also taught at the Yale Drama School and saw something else in Pendleton, something that he shared with Nikos Psachopoulos, who ran the Williamstown Theatre Festival. “There was something that I did in a scene as an actor and Robert said that is an idea a director would have. Lewis told Nikos that I had talent as a director. I knew about directing because I would watch rehearsals of the community theatre at home, and there were three directors, including my mother. I would watch how they worked. Nikos invited me to Williamstown and the first two shows I directed there were huge hits. I was able to direct three shows on Broadway that got Tony nominations. When I worked with Jerome Robbins, I watched the clarity of his storytelling. He was unmatched at that.”. 

Pondering the role that the audience serves to inspire him when he’s on stage, Pendleton said, “The key word in putting on any theatrical piece is suspense, which is much more important than the laughs. If you feel the audience literally and figuratively leaning forward wanting to know what’s going to happen next that’s what you look for. If they are not leaning forward, then you know that’s something you have to fix.”

In his six decades Pendleton shared that he’s had ups and downs, but he’s stayed the course. “There were a couple of times my acting was pronounced officially over. I had a late lunch with Lynn Redgrave, I had career killing reviews and she said you just have to keep acting, it will take seven years. In those years you can’t stop acting. Act in showcase productions, theaters outside of town and that was a professional life changing conversation. So that’s what I did. When they were able to come back around to me I was ready. So that led to this longevity. If you stop for too long, you’re going to be afraid to do it again and no one will want you to. You will fade from the memory. If you keep doing it, it’s just one long continuum.”

Whenever Pendleton takes on a role he brings such an authenticity to it. Talking about his process he shared, “It’s kind of different with every role. You keep reading the play or the script and look at how your role contributes to the storyline. Sometimes you feel an immediate identification and sometimes you don’t. You find a small thing you identify with and you build on that. Like with The Little Foxes, I started with the walk. Anne said angle your body differently when you walk and she was totally right. I had no way of identifying with the character, nothing in my life identified with his. When I changed my walk things began to happen.”

Madeline Kahn and Austin Pendleton in What’s Up, Doc?

For 60 years Pendleton has not only acted, directed, written plays, but he also has taught directing at The New School and teaches acting at HB Studios. He has been a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble since 1979 and served as Artistic Director of Circle Repertory Company. He simply lives an all-encompassing “life in the theater”. When asked why, he said, “It just fascinates me. There are vast numbers of things that I don’t know. I can’t understand how they operate. I stick with this because it’s the only thing I have any skill at.”

Over the years Pendleton has received accolades for his work. In 1970 he won both an Obie Award for Performance and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance in The Last Sweet Days of Isaac. In 1981, he received a Tony nomination for Best Direction of a Play for The Little Foxes. Other Tony nominations for Direction included Shelter and Spoils of War. In 2011 he won the Obie Award for Directing for The Three Sisters. In 2015 he was nominated for both The Lortels Outstanding Director Award and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Play for Between Riverside and Crazy. He was also honored as a Legend of off-Broadway in the same year.

Accolades are still coming as Pendleton is the subject of “Starring Austin Pendleton,” a documentary film about his life and legacy, in which many of his famous challenges reflect on their friend including Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Olympia Dukakis, and Ethan Hawke. Pendleton, while epitomizing a life in the theater, he has also appeared in 100 films and television shows.

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STORIES FROM THE STAGE – TONY GOLDWYN

I had been a member of Actor’s Equity for over a decade before making my Broadway debut.  The opportunity finally arose in 1995 with a revival of Philip Barry’s Holiday, directed by David Warren at the Circle in the Square.  Laura Linney played Linda Seton opposite my Johnny Case.  Also in the cast were Reg Rogers as Ned Seton and Kim Raver as Julia Seton.  From the first day of rehearsal, I was in a state of euphoria.  I had done a number of plays Off-Broadway, as well as in regional theater.  But Broadway really did feel different.

Unlike most kids who grow up in Los Angeles, my parents took me to the theater a lot and I can recite every show I ever saw — don’t worry, I won’t.  My first was Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel.  I was 4 years old and spent most of the play under my seat convinced that the ghost of Golde’s grandmother Tzeitel would reappear to pluck me out of the audience.   Despite my terror, I was hooked.

David Warren’s production of Holiday was excellent and, from what I was told, received rave notices.  I learned early on in my career to avoid reading reviews like the plague — which is exactly how I view them.  Reviews are totally debilitating to an actor.  Read a bad one and you can quote it word for word until the day you die.  Read a good one and your performance is forever cursed with a voice in your brain saying, “Oh, this is the bit they liked.”  I find it much healthier to glean a general “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” from the degree of elation or awkwardness on everyone’s faces the day after Opening Night.

During the run of Holiday, I will admit to a bit of a hitch in my “critical discipline.”  One night, a couple of old friends who were not in the business came to see the show.  As we walked to grab a late bite at B. Smith, one of them said, “How do you handle bad reviews?”  “I don’t read them.”  “Yeah, but what about the really bad ones?”  Gulp.  She didn’t stop there. “Like the one in New York Magazine?”  Apparently, the raves were not unanimous.  Another life lesson: they never are.  John Simon, the legendary chief critic for New York Magazine, was universally loathed in the theater community for his viciously clever eviscerations of actors, invidiously centering on references to their physical attributes — or lack thereof.  My first stop after supper was the late night newsstand on 8th Avenue to rip through the current issue of New York.  I had to laugh out loud when I saw that Laura Linney was a “goddess” (which she is) but that “Tony Goldwyn with his raw, somehow unfinished face, was sadly miscast in the role of Johnny Case.”  I have no idea what a “raw, somehow unfinished face” actually is.  But that’s what I looked like to Mr. Simon.  Like I said, you remember ever word of the bad ones.

John Simon’s snark notwithstanding, the run of Holiday was pure joy.  Laura, of course, was magic and so was Kim in her New York debut.  Reg Rogers gave a hilarious and heartbreaking performance as their alcoholic brother, Ned.

One night about three months into the run, Reg and I were doing one of our favorite scenes.  The entire second act of the play is set in the attic gymnasium of the Seton mansion.  My character, Johnny, never leaves the stage while the others enter and exit in rapid-fire succession.  We had played the scene a hundred times but, as can happen to the best of us, my mind inexplicably went blank.  In theater parlance, I “went up.”  Badly.  Pace is everything in a Philip Barry play, so my brain freeze gave me the sensation of being shoved off a cliff.  Fortunately, what seemed like five minutes probably lasted less than five seconds.  Reg saw the panic in my face and looked at me like, “Don’t worry, I got you.”  The calm confidence in his eyes somehow coaxed the words to start firing out of my mouth again, as Mr. Barry had written them.

Crisis averted.  Or so I thought.  Unfortunately, the body has some unpredictable reactions to stress;  one of them is commonly known as a “flop sweat.”  Not a pleasant experience for an actor decked out in white tie and tails.  About thirty seconds after getting the train back on the rails, a surge of heat flooded my face and my fancy suit was instantly drenched in sweat.  As each new actor entered the stage, I watched their faces go from puzzled to concerned to horrified. When the lights came down at the end of the act, I descended through a trap door in the stage to the basement below, where the entire company was gathered, along with two paramedics ready to wheel me into an ambulance.  Everyone thought I’d had a heart attack.  The EMT’s made me lie down on a stretcher and it was no small task to convince them that the only thing I needed was a change of clothes.

And, as they say, the show went on.

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FIRST BREAK – Jayne Atkinson

By Jayne Atkinson

LINK TO SECTION

The moment that changed my life: I was working with Kathy Borowitz (Wonderful actress and married to John Tuturro) in a patisserie on 72nd and Columbus- I think there’s a sock shop there now. I had just graduated from Northwestern and was trying a summer out in New York. She had just graduated from Yale Drama School. She was so lovely and funny. She would practice her French accent on our customers. She was also rehearsing Cloud 9 down at the public. ( She was amazing).

I had only known of one person who had gone to Yale Drama School… Meryl Streep. To me, the idea of going there was a star that was so out of my reach. Meeting Kathy made me realize that a regular actress like myself could reach for that star. She encouraged me and helped me believe in myself. I auditioned…and I got in! It was the first step to believing in myself and seeing myself succeed and that moment changed my life forever!

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STORIES FROM THE STAGE: Jason Biggs

‘American Pie’ premiered in 1999, catapulting me and my castmates into the cultural zeitgeist and changing the course of my professional and personal life forever.

Doing press around the release of the film, I was often asked what it was like to be an “overnight sensation.” While it was impossible to ignore the simple fact that yes, everything literally changed overnight, I found myself resenting the question and its implication that I had come out of nowhere to achieve this success.

Because in truth, I had been acting professionally and working fairly consistently since I got my first agent in 1983. And while nothing I did in that decade and a half had the reach or impact that ‘American Pie’ would eventually have, there were still a few projects that at the time I considered to be “big breaks.”

One of them was my first play, a production of Herb Gardner’s Conversations With My Father. I was with the production from the very first reading in 1990 at HB Studio in the West Village, to the two-month tryout at the Seattle Repertory Theater (the first time I ever “went on location”), to the Broadway run in 1992. From the age of twelve to fourteen, I acted almost nightly opposite Judd Hirsch (in a role for which he won the Tony) and Tony Shalhoub and a brilliant ensemble, learning everything I could from them, watching and listening to the show when I wasn’t required to be on stage. It was here that I gained the confidence to play to the audience, and the ability to know when not to. I learned that no two performances were alike, and that when I enter stage left and accidentally trip on a step and improvise a line to my father about him needing to fix it, Judd Hirsch will clap back with a “yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it” and then carry on with the scene as written.

I learned how to be present and connected to another actor. I learned how to help lift an actor when they were struggling, and how to receive the help when I needed it. I learned how to show up on time, always. I learned how to be a part of a work family, and to have fun offstage. But perhaps most importantly, I learned that all good jobs come to an end.

It taught me to be grateful for the opportunities that I would get. To enjoy the moment, and to not get ahead of myself. This would serve me especially well years later when ‘American Pie’ would become a global success. I have an inherent understanding that not every job I do will be as successful, and that even the successful ones will eventually fade into memory. There are just no guarantees. But that’s ok. Because the way I see it, the next “big” break is always right around the corner.


Jason Biggs is an American actor and comedian known for his work in the American Pie comedy film series, and Orange Is the New Black. He also starred in Boys and Girls, Loser, Saving Silverman, Anything Else, Jersey Girl, Eight Below, Over Her Dead Body, and My Best Friend’s Girl.

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Stories From the Stage Holly Wasson

COPY PASTE THE ARTICLE HERE. meow meow meow. I am not a cat, I am holly. I’m stuck with this cat filter on my face. My assistant is coming to help me but I am not a cat

I repeat I am not a cat. I am holly

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PIAF. . . Her Story. . . Her Songs

Broadways Best Shows and The Actors Fund present Raquel Bitton’s acclaimed musical event “PIAF… Her Story… Her Songs.” All proceeds from suggested donations will benefit The Actors Fund.

Available for streaming on Broadway’s Best Shows Youtube channel and The Actors Fund Youtube channel beginning Monday, February 15 at 7:30PM ET. The concert will be available for four days through Thursday, February 18.

Part documentary, part stage performance, “PIAF… Her Story… Her Songs” is a “powerful, emotional and mesmerizing” (San Francisco Chronicle) look at French chanteuse Edith Piaf as she tells her story through a theatrical presentation by singer Raquel Bitton. Bitton literally becomes Piaf while singing, but steps back and tells her story – in English – between the mostly French songs. Archival photos of Piaf illustrate her life of lucky breaks and tragedy. Some of the evening’s best moments are of Bitton and Piaf’s friends, lovers, composers happily discussing Piaf over food and wine at a Paris bistro. The event features 16 songs performed with a full orchestra, including “La Vie En Rose,” “No Regrets” and “Hymn to Love.”

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Directing via Zoom

“The fabulous invalid” has been in traction for most of 2020–laid low but, miraculously, not out by the coronavirus. Somehow in these pandemic times, theater has a way of seeping through and finding an audience, no matter where it’s sheltering. Broadway’s Best Shows has been providing one substantial way with the “Spotlight on Plays” series of livestream readings it offers to benefit The Actors Fund.

The series’ first season concluded with a Zoom presentation of Barbecue, a rambunctious social satire which premiered five years ago at The Public Theater. Robert O’Hara, currently Tony-contending for his direction of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, wears two hats for this opus—director and playwright, lording over a cast of ten, the third largest cast in the series.  

“We got some great actors and just let them go,” O’Hara declares with some delight. “Jeffrey Richards, the producer, cast most of it, and then I made a few calls to some of the people I knew. Everyone we asked said, ‘Absolutely!’” You couldn’t get some of these people if it were normal times because they’d be working. These are all professionals, and they have genuine comedic skills. You don’t have to worry about them landing the joke. Having these amazing actors read the play was great for me.”

Emmy winners S. Epatha Merkerson and Laurie Metcalf head the cast, along with Carrie Coon, Colman Domingo (who directed the L.A. version of Barbecue), Kristine Nielsen, David Morse, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Annie McNamara, and, from the original Off-Broadway cast, Tamberla Perry and Heather Simms

Barbecue

 “When we all got together on Zoom, I let them ask questions, and we discussed it,” O’Hara recalls. “They’d already read the piece, and they had their thoughts, so we read it a few times to see if there were any questions. These days, actors don’t have to all get together in the same room. And it doesn’t take that much time to do. It’s a charity reading.  If it were a production, it would be much more involved.”

Barbecue is a comedy full of surprises and sharp right turns, and critics in 2015 bent over backwards keeping its secrets. “We begged them,” admits the author, “because that’s part of the fun. You keep wondering, ‘What’s going on here?’ It’s always fun with plays when you can hold on to a secret. Very few things are secret anymore.”

The entire original Broadway cast of seven in Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other reunited to do their Zoom reunion. Time Stands Still also reunited its original company of actors. 

The cast of characters consists of a lonely, conflicted gay (Gideon Glick), his granny (Barbara Barrie), his girl (space) friends (Lindsay Mendez, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Sas Goldberg), their spouses (Luke Smith)—plus Mr. Right (Smith, doubling) and Mr. Wrong (John Behlmann). The play put in time Off-Broadway at the Laura Pels before bowing on Broadway on Valentine’s Day of 2017 (“Singles Awareness Day,” it insisted). 

“I felt especially grateful that we got the original cast back together again because of Barbara Barrie,” beams Trip Cullman, who directed both stage versions and the Zooming. “She was magnificent on stage, but she’s such an accomplished film actress her performance on Zoom is like, honestly, Academy Award-worthy.” He does not exaggerate. Actors Equity Association presented its Richard Seff Award to the 89-year-old actress.

Of late, Cullman has been exploring a different medium than the stage, co-directing with his brother a short film called The Soldier, which they are now in the process of submitting to festivals. 

Thinking cinematically was how he approached Zooming Significant Other. “It was sort of a discovery process,” he says. “Because it was recorded and we edited it afterwards, I really felt I could make some adjacent kind of choices in terms of pacing and the way the characters related to each other. The ability to use filmic techniques like cuts was super-helpful in getting across the kind of compulsive forward momentum of the play.

“I’ve done live Zoom things as well as recorded and edited Zoom things, and I’m much more a fan of the latter. One of our actors, for instance, had terrible internet connections. We had to completely re-tape her audio in post-production to fix it because she was unintelligible. If we had been doing it live, that would be how it would go out to people—and no one wants that.”

Phylicia Rashad, who collected her Tony for the 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, turned director for the series and addressed David Mamet’s gripping drama, Race.

Basically, the play is a taut court-roomer that takes place far from a courtroom—in the office of three criminal lawyers (Ed O’Neill, David Alan Grier and Alicia Stith). There is a fourth character–their client (Richard Thomas), a wealthy businessman accused of a racially charged sex crime—and the drama, sharp-tongued and smart like most Mamet, lies in the interplay of the three attorneys over a red sequin dress as they prepare their defense.

Direction is new to Rashad’s skill set. She enjoys dabbling in both disciplines, but “Zoom-directing is different from anything I’ve ever done. If I was just doing a reading of a play, I would have had more time. With the Zoom factor, it’s all very quick. Zoom means fast, right? We were not allotted much time with this. Fortunately, we had a very good cast.”

Grier, a current Tony nominee (for A Soldier’s Story), and Thomas have a head-start on the play, hailing from the original Broadway company. O’Neill was already cast when Rashad came aboard, but she personally assigned Stith the role Kerry Washington originated. “Alicia’s a new face, coming out of the NYU graduate program. I’m very pleased with what she brings to the play.

“The significance of these Zoom presentations is that they can be enjoyed specifically for their literary value. You don’t have staging, you don’t have wardrobe. What you have is the text, and you have the actor. That’s all you have. You don’t have a live theater space. The actors are not even in the same room. Ed was over in Hawaii somewhere, David was in Los Angeles, Alicia was in Baltimore, and Richard Thomas was in Canada. Everybody is on their own computer. It’s an interesting way to work, I’ll put it that way.”

Jerry Zaks, who has won four Tonys and been nominated for four more, has a special way of approaching a play if he is directing it for Zoom: “Reluctantly,” he laughs, and there’s a discernible ring of reality in that laugh. “It’s so lacking in what makes rehearsal special, which is the in-person contact. Directing in person—that’s obviously gone for the duration, but there’s no denying that it’s fun to work.

Luckily, he picked the perfect play for these pandemic times: Love Letters, A.R. Gurney’s deceptively simple epistolary two-hander of 1988. It was written to be read to audiences by actors sitting at their respective desks, reviewing the correspondence of a pair of lovers who go through life never connecting. With rotating star-couples, it racked up impressive runs Off-Broadway and on and was last seen on Broadway in 2014 with Mia Farrow and the late Brian Dennehy.

Luckily again, Zaks got an ace pair of award-winners to do the honors—Tony and Emmy-winning Bryan Cranston and twice-Oscared Sally Field. “They worked so hard, and the three of us got along so well. Is it better than not doing something? Yes. It’s better than the alternative, which is nothing at this moment in time. Look, I’m grateful that I had a chance to work with these great actors.”

As with these other Zoom shows, a table read is a quaint thing of the past. “I’m on my iPad. The actors are on their computers, and we’re talking to each other via Zoom. You can only spend so much time working on Zoom. You get tired looking at the screen. The nature of rehearsals is different. You don’t have as many rehearsals. With Love Letters, it was really important that the actors become as familiar with their words as possible. Ordinarily where I might stop and start and stop and start when I’m in rehearsal, I really didn’t want to take a chance on the actors not getting a chance to rehearse the whole piece so I had to be very careful about when I interrupted them.”

Among the plays that will be shown in the spring season of the “Spotlight on Plays” series are Adrienne Kennedy’s The Ohio State Murders, Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, Sarah Rhul’s Dear Elizabeth and Pearl Cleage’s Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous.

All proceeds for these events will benefit The Actors Fund, to aid during this time of unprecedented need.


Harry Haun has covered theater and film in New York for over 40 years. His writing has appeared in outlets such as Playbill Magazine (“On the Aisle” and “Theatregoer’s Notebook”), New York Daily News (where he wrote a weekly Q&A column (“Ask Mr. Entertainment”), New York Observer, New York Sun, Broadway World and Film Journal International.