A Conversation with Playwright Murray Mednick
by Richard Whittaker, Mar 22, 2018
One Friday afternoon I sat down with playwright Murray Mednick at his home just north of LA for a conversation about his work of some fifty years in theater. He calls it "experimental theater," perhaps because we lack a category that might better describe his work. "In the East they understand this," he says.
Although I remember having heard of his early play "The Coyote Cycle" it took several decades before I met Mednick and began getting to know him a little. I'd always been curious about his projects, but circumstances had never appeared that would lead me to proposing an interview.
A few years back, however, we both were attending a conference and I made his acquaintance. It was the beginning of getting to know more about the playwright and eventually to the following interview. I turned on the recorder as Murray was reflecting on the trajectory of his career.
Murray Mednick: Everything helps you know. It's not like I have a huge audience. I’m on—I don't know what to call it—the more avant-garde side of things.
works: There's so much material there. So to begin, if you don't mind, I'd be interested in your life in New York City's East Village in the late 50s and 60s. It sounds fascinating.
Murray: I was a poet then while I was working as a waiter. At that time poetry readings were a big deal. Many of the poets who lived on the Lower East Side—and many were friends of mine—would attend each other's readings. We'd support each other. It was an actual community. You know, we were all smoking dope, and the poetry got more and more serious.
works: What were the locations where you would read your poetry?
Murray: Cafe Chino started out as a poetry reading place. La Mama. It was originally a cafe and it became a theater. St. Mark’s church. We had poetry readings in the cloister. It was known first as a poetry reading place. Then it became Theater Genesis in St Mark's Church. That was my theater. So the whole poetry-reading scene kind of developed naturally into the Off Off-Broadway movement because poems were more and more performed.
works: You wrote that the art of waiting tables was important for you, that it’s a performance, really. Would you say something about that?
Murray: You know, waiting on tables is very much a performance. It’s actually a kind of dance because it requires a graceful look, quickness and good posture—this is in good restaurants.
Murray: And you need to be intelligent. For example, in one place I would have three tables, maybe eight people to a table, and I needed to memorize the orders. I could do that after awhile. And the way I looked—I really took all that seriously. The gestures of picking up a plate and putting it down are very important, how far away you are and how you are with the customer. The way you put things down and pick things up is a performance—and your attitude.
works: A good waiter is much appreciated.
Murray: Absolutely, and recognized. There was one union in New York, Local 11, actually the Teamsters. I managed to get into that echelon. This was in my early thirties. So I was working with very high-class waiters underneath Rockefeller Plaza in a high-end restaurant. You know, we had red jackets and bow ties. That was my high point. I worked with a lot of Cuban waiters. They took it seriously. Their shoes were shined. Their hair was slicked back. You know, they looked good. They were quick. They were bright guys, and they enjoyed it as a performance. Very interesting. You have more of a chance of seeing that in a good restaurant in Europe. In America it's not considered a formal, artistic job. But in Europe it’s considered as something to study.
works: I can see that. A good waiter would have an intuitive sense of a proper distance and, at the same time, this quality of connecting without…
Murray: Yeah. You don't humiliate yourself. You keep your dignity. In fact that's one of the biggest struggles of being a waiter—because people piss you off, act like idiots. Or they're too demanding, you know? So you can't react to it. It took years for me to learn that—to keep my face straight, to keep anybody from knowing—and how far away to stand. I'm just realizing that now, to tell you the truth. I was very conscious of how far away to be so you could get the plate down without your hand getting in the way. And so they don't see your face. It can be interesting.
works: Well I can see how this would be, in its way, a preliminary
Murray: …to the stage
works: Yes. I can see that
Murray: Yes. How far away do you want characters to be from one another? How far away from the audience? The timing of this simple gesture. [demonstrates] You can go like this, you know. [careless] You can go like this [a subtle change, but a big difference]. Or you don't do anything. You let your words speak. Over the years I’ve evolved stylistic rules, you know.
works: I want to get into that because I think it’s extremely interesting. But first, let’s dwell a little more on your early life. You born in Brooklyn?
Murray: In Brooklyn
works: And that's where you grew up?
Murray: No. I spent a lot of time in the Catskills. That's how I got into the hotel business—as a busboy, actually, when I was 14. Some hotels were good. Some were bad. When I was 14 I worked in a Yiddish place, a hotel for Holocaust survivors. They never spoke. You'd have a table of eight people. They would complain to me though—without looking at me “I don't like this. Bring me something else.” And I would.
They would go out on the porch after breakfast and just sit there. Like this [demonstrates]. Once in a while the men would play cards in the afternoon. Sad people
works: Oh, my gosh.
Murray: In those days we didn't talk about the Holocaust. Nobody talked about it because everyone was too ashamed. And Jewish people wouldn't talk about it with each other.
works: I see. Well, you got into poetry. How did that happen?
Murray: I grew up reading a lot and was told I had talent pretty early. I started out writing very intense phrases, which had no meaning. But they sounded good. That was poetry, I thought. And after awhile I became a good street-poet type—until I saw my first play. That was in the 60s.
works: How would you describe a street poet?
Murray: It's the rhythm that comes from speech. There's a natural step from that kind of poetry to the theater.
works: You described yourself as a shy poet, so you must have had to pay something, in an inner sense, to put yourself in front of people to do that.
Murray: Yeah, I wasn't good at that. I was too shy. But I loved the idea of having someone else say my words. You know I thought that was just a terrific release. And I enjoyed that thoroughly. My first plays, I didn't know anything about it. None of us learned about the theater. We just gravitated to it because there was so much performance going on in the poetry reading.
works: But in the beginning, you were reading your own poetry at a café or something. How much of that did you do?
Murray: Quite a bit, maybe once a week for a couple years.
works: That would be like 100 times, roughly speaking.
Murray: Roughly speaking, yeah. I thought that was what you did. That's what we all did, and we would support each other. Once you get over that stage fright, which is the hard part, you can get the audience; it's just like the theater; once the audience’s attention is gained, you’ve got them. It's the same thing with the poems—which at that time had become a cultural phenomenon. This is the early 60s, late 50s in San Francisco and in New York.
works: I remember that.
Murray: Philip Lamantia. Remember him? He was a San Francisco poet and it was his play I saw that first night I went to the theater Genesis. It was called The Inspector With Baggy Pants. [laughs]
works: Was that an important moment for you?
Murray: Because it was a poet who had done it. And it was being performed with this common-ish atmosphere, which appealed to me, even though I'm more of a dark writer than he is. But he wrote a poem once about a rat and a cat fighting in the New York subway, which was really strong.
works: That sounds pretty… .
Murray: That was tough. He was a tough guy. He worked in the New York sewers; he was a plumber, Lamantia.
works: Oh, wow. So before we leave this whole thing of you reading your own poetry, how did that arc work where at first you don't know quite what you're doing and you're shy, and all that? There must have been an arc of development. So can you say something about that?
Murray: A lot of it is psychological. I realized that I was pretty good. And that helped a lot. I wasn't nervous about failing. And I liked the rhythms. And once you can establish those rhythms, which is not easy— poets take a long time to learn that.
works: I believe it. There's a lot of imitation out there that's just like, give me a break.
Murray: Yeah. It takes a long time to learn how to read and be aware of the audience's attention. Usually you’re just reading to get through it, you know. So that was very interesting to me. I could hear that. You know, as a playwright you need to hear from the stage. Not from anywhere else. It's not a box. It's not a screen. It's a stage, and the audience is alive. So the listening is something you can hear in other people—if your attention is good. There's a natural progression between different kinds of audiences, and what makes an audience: how to hold an audience, how stay with an audience, how to respond to an audience—how to slow down, speed up, talk louder, put in a pause. All those things start to become valuable. You see where the comma goes, where the semicolon goes, where a period goes.
works: Earlier when you were we were speaking you said, "You can do a gesture like this. You can do a gesture like that." And you changed it and made a slight movement with your head. That was very powerful, that tiny moment. I just want to say that.
Murray: That's true on the stage, too. That's what I meant. As I started directing my own work I became more and more minimal—because instead of this [demonstrates] the simple movement like that is much more powerful.
works: That is really [laughs], I mean you showed me again!
Murray: I can do it. And I know how to ask for it from the actor. You don't need to upstage yourself with movement [laughter], which is totally against naturalism.
works: That's really fascinating.
Murray: In the Orient they know about that. And they know about the timing that goes with that. They know how to move one eye; that signifies something. But the audience needs to be close. It depends on that. In general I try to have the theater movement be very stylized and minimum.
works: There’s a lot here, so where to go? How about “method acting”? I know you're not a fan. Would you say something about that?
Murray: Well it depends on emotional reaction. I mean, actors do study what would pass for an inner life. But on stage the audience is too far away to register that. There are no close-ups. Most theater acting now is taught for the movies and television. If I can come up close to you I can more or less get what you mean, if you're good at it. If you have talent you can register how you’re feeling. But in the theater the words are what count, not the face.
works: Well, that's an interesting statement.
Murray: I don't like any kind of movement when anyone is talking because it's the language that counts. When there's movement on stage, it's very stylized—when I do it. I don't want the audience to say, "Oh, that person is walking." I want them to say, "That walk is interesting."
works: You’ve said that the fundamental point of it all is catharsis. Now the way you described catharsis is not the high school interpretation I’m familiar with, which is that you get an emotional release.
Murray: No, I think it's more than that.
works: And the point of it all—you're aiming at something that’s very…
Murray: Can only be done in the theater, very specific, through a theatrical event—this aim that we're talking about.
works: That's very important.
Murray: People don't realize that. But it's true. It can only happen in that circumstance where there's a stage, or an area, and an audience. And it's the audience's attention; it's what Peter Brook talks about—the audience’s attention is being shaped, being informed; it's being made more intelligent and organized.
And once you’ve established that, you want to be able to almost skate on it, surf it. Your awareness has to be really complete. The actors’ awareness has to be as good as the audience's attention. That means there’s a minimum of naturalism—because we're not doing an imitation. This is where Aristotle is wrong. We are not trying to imitate life. We are trying to do something more than life, something that's more specific. That takes more attention; it takes more study, more rehearsal, more everything, than life.
works: And that’s very interesting. I think you said that part of the difficulty, and one of the things that has to be learned by the actors, is not to be captured by their habits.
Murray: Especially physical ones, and the emotional ones—all of them.
works: This is something we don’t read about.
Murray: No. But the actor has to be trained to do it.
works: We don't know about this in our culture.
Murray: No, we don't; we don't know it at all. People think that doing a play means imitating life in some way. But it's not that. It's first of all based on text—that you learn my heart. You learn the text, and value the text, and put the text first. That's the first thing that has to happen. So the actor is not the one that's important. It's the text.
works: What do you do if the text is shit?
Murray: Well, if you're the playwright, you change it [laughs]—as fast as you can. A good playwright will hear it. It's got to be a good text. We're talking about writing, good writing. That counts.
works: It’s important to qualify this. What is it that counts?
Murray: That's a good one. There is a thing we call talent, and that's true all around. It's God-given, you know? What counts is the rhythm of the language, the sound of the language, the inner rhyming—and then the meaning of the text. You need to know what your aim is. An actor knows where he is going and why, because we've been over it, and he's been told. Good writing means you don't repeat yourself, for one thing. No clichés. And it is about something that's meaningful, that counts.
works: To me this is a key thing because of the way you've defined catharsis—the possibility of moving from one level to another, for another level to appear.
Murray: Exactly. That's what catharsis means—more than one level. When that second level appears, you're there, and you know it.
works: And that second level, to experience it just for a moment, ipso facto, it's meaningful.
Murray: It's absolutely meaningful; it's another world. It means you touch a higher world, or one with more meaning than this world. And it happens, really, for the actor—more for the actor than for the audience. Shakespeare is a great example of that. His actors must have had a great time. And Beckett. If you're in a Beckett play you get a chance to be, you know? Because he sets it up for you; all the conditions are right for you to be there. And if you're not there, it's going to sound clunky. If the actor isn't good, it just sounds ordinary. Because his language is so precise. It's the precision.
works: You also mention the importance of presence.
works: How do precision and presence interface?
Murray: Well, precision can help presence, because it takes attention. It takes struggle to be precise, and it takes a certain amount of awareness. Without the awareness there's no presence. You know you could be the most charismatic person and the audience knows if you're bullshitting—no matter how talented you are. So you have to learn how to do it. Each play you have to learn how to do it. It's a learning thing—over and over and over.
works: So the words are of central importance, but if the words are spoken without the right kind of relationship to them, they're not going to count for much.
Murray: No. You need to bring your understanding to the word—your actor’s knowledge, your sense of timing, your voice, how you move. It all counts for the language. You know who's good at that kind of thing? Who would show you what he was doing? Olivier. He didn't hide anything.
works: I see. I'm just feeling almost a new thought in listening to you and that is, what is it that words can do? You’re saying that words can do something to bring you into this other place.
Murray: Especially a certain combination of words, sequence.
works: They can put you in another place in yourself.
Murray: Yeah. That would be catharsis. So if there's a good audience who gets it—and there are bad audiences—and the acting and the play is good, and everything is going right, the whole room changes. You can sense it. There’s a whole other level in the room. It can be called “attention,” for lack of a better word.
works: Right, so you've experienced this?
Murray: Oh, yeah, of course. I've had some great experiences in theater.
works: There must be a magic, at times.
Murray: It is magic, and that's why we keep doing it. There's no money in it. It's shocking how few playwrights make a living as playwrights. Mostly we teach.
works: Six, you said.
Murray: I think it is six! John Ware. Paul Simon. Stoppard. There are three others.
works: Mostly I’ve been disappointed with plays. But I went to Peter Brooks’ play Battleship. I couldn't hear the lines. That was very frustrating.
Murray: That's not good. You have to hear it.
works: Well, everything was very minimal. There was one musician and three or four other actors. Then at the very end there were two people saying lines, and then they stopped frozen in position close to the front of the stage. Then a third actor walked over and spoke, and then became completely still. A fourth came over and now there were four figures making this sort of diorama. Finally, the musician walks over and very quietly takes a position. All five were now frozen in this tableau each facing the audience in this deep silence. That room was silent, I mean, really silent. I’d never experienced a silence in a theater like it. They held that silence for maybe 60 seconds. Not one sound. It was really something.
Murray: He knows about that. He knows a few secrets. Directorially, he understands actors’ movement, and he doesn't try for ordinary movement. I've watched him work a little bit, and he's right to do that. But from a playwriting point of view there's a whole other emphasis I have to make that he doesn't have to make. He finds his text—or texts will come to him. But I'm behind my own text. So when I'm writing, I'm writing usually for my own direction because it's so unnaturalistic. Usually it's more poetic than natural. I don't mind sounding poetic, and I don't mind having the audience not understand everything right away.
works: As the playwright wanting to direct, how has that played out in your life?
Murray: I haven't done anything in a year or two now, but I try to direct every new play.
works: I would imagine that actors who haven’t been directed by you must go through some difficulties. How does that work?
works: How do you manage this?
Murray: I have some actors who I've trained, and I try and use them over an over. A new actor will pick it up partly from them, and otherwise I tell them. I'm very direct
works: You want the actors to face front, and no speaking in profile and no movement when speaking.
Murray: That's right.
works: This stylized approach, I find it fascinating. It seems just the opposite of what’s going everywhere else.
Murray: That's why actors have to be trained not to move when they speak, and not to move when somebody else speaks.
works: Has an actor said, "I never understood how this could work, and now I do"?
Murray: Sure. I mean that happens quite a bit.
works: That would be a revelation.
Murray: Yeah. They not only want to be doing something, they turn around go away fast. You know why? They’re trained to do that for the camera because in the camera you don't have time. You can't stay there like, I'm telling you a speech. "See, the sun is going down, Charles, and the water is blue."
It's more like, "The sun is going down, and the water is blue. I'll see you later." See what I mean? There's a difference there, stylistically. And partly it's to avoid naturalism. That's why I don't like profile. Audiences are used to profile because of the camera. I want the actor to be facing the audience almost at all times. That in itself is a shock.
works: Is this a lost art?
Murray: Yes. It’s a lost art. Originally, it was a rule. You do not move when speaking. In Shakespeare when a guy comes out and addresses the audience and says his speech, then he turns around and leaves. There's no scenery. There's a plot. You have to pay attention, right? But the actors don't do shit. You don't have to be lighting a candle. You don't have to be fighting with a sword. They’re just standing there talking. I learned years ago that I wanted to go against the naturalism.
works: How did that happen?
Murray: I learned it by directing and by trusting my intuition. I had to learn to speak up and see that I was right, because actors don't want to do that. They want to do their stuff.
works: It must have been a challenge at times.
Murray: It was challenge, but when I'm working with actors, I'm at my best. They know I'm smart and that I've done a few plays before. So you know, now it's not so hard. And if they don't listen to me, I kick them out. I'm not going to waste time. I don't work with actors who can't hear me. You're trying for something that's difficult. And it's going to be shown to strangers.
works: Listening to you, I feel this is quite special.
Murray: Yeah. But it really goes against the grain, especially here in LA where most actors are trained and want to be in the movies or on television. The whole idea of not rushing away from the camera is something they resent.
It used to be an old rule. I remember hearing about it when I was in high school, that you do not move when you speak, a simple old rule. But all the behavior that goes on in television has ruined all that.
works: But it’s much more than just being a simple rule because the point is to arrive at some sort of presence and through this careful work put people in touch with something.
Murray: That's right. It's on another level. And it's not what they are used to. People don't write that way either.
works: Well, people don't even know that there is such a thing. In fact I’d say there's an attitude among, let's just say people who have a theory about how reality is, that there aren’t other levels.
Murray: That's right.
works: And let’s not indulge in any romantic notions.
Murray: Or sentimental.
works: But you're not talking about sentimentality.
Murray: No. The actor is the one who gets to be—because the actors are on stage and get all that attention. Having that opportunity is special; you get to fly. It's like a magic carpet—if it's a good play, especially. If the play is written in a certain way, with a certain rhythm, you start to fly. You're actually flying.
works: The word being is a word we don't understand.
Murray: We don't think it's a big deal. We think we already are.
works: Exactly. So there's no question there to begin with, right?
works: But in spite of all that, if a person is brought to a place where they experience something, as you say, everyone recognizes it.
Murray: Yes. Because the whole quality of attention in the room changes at a certain point. It could be right away; it could be a few minutes. But somewhere along the line the audience has to change its mind.
People know, here in LA anyway, that when they see a play of mine they're going to stylistically see something that doesn't depend on plot, but depends on the style of performance. And they will have to listen to the words. They already know that much you know. But as far as I know, I'm the only one doing this. But I don't go out much either, so who knows?
works: Alright. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the Padua Players.
Murray: Most of the people I'm working with are from those days going back to 1978.
works: How many years were the Padua Players actually at Padua Hills?
Murray: Six years. We lasted 17 years under my direction, but we had to partner up with various universities.
works: Now were you a founder?
Murray: I was the founder.
works: Right. Let’s review your theater history before the Padua Players.
Murray: I was at Theater Genesis in New York at St. Mark's.
works: And Ralph Cook was someone important for you.
Murray: First of all he valued the text. That was very important for a poet. Ralph was very Christian and had this idea of the Soul as something there underneath the language, and that it could be brought out through the actor.
works: Something that could appear in performance, a mystical truth?
Murray: I don't know if he’d say it was mystical, but he probably would. He accepted that as a challenge and believed in himself as a director—and he believed in you as a playwright. He didn't even have to read my plays. He would say, “Okay.” Then he would help me cast them and I would direct them.
works: Did he just recognize something in you? How did that work?
Murray: That was part of it. It was also his theory of theater. The meaning of theater had to do with his Christianity. He would mainly stay within the neighborhood, Lower East Side, where most of us came from. I probably wrote six or seven plays for him.
works: Are there moments that stood out for you?
Murray: There were a few. We did some good stuff. For example, we did a play that I played music for. I wrote a scenario with a theme and then we found the characters through improvisation. Then we structured the scene so each scene was structured the same way, but for different characters. We had some fantastic moments doing that. People were so shocked that you could do a play that way. That was amazing. And I played music for it.
works: What kind of music?
Murray: I played the tambourine. And we did a play that Kathleen [Cramer] was in called The Hunter. She had some moments.
works: This is in New York.
Murray: Yeah. I was part of that scene Off Off-Broadway.
works: I know there was Sam Shepard and a whole bunch of people.
Murray: Yeah. He and I were friends. I got an award through Sam.
works: Those must have been really some lively times.
Murray: The best. It was very important, historically, that ten years in New York from I'd say '62 to '72. A lot of good work was done, and it was all experimental.
works: And you were all friends.
Murray: We were all friends and I brought that to Padua.
works: So when you came from New York you came with Kathleen to Laverne? How did that happen?
Murray: I'll tell you exactly. There was a guy who was teaching theater at Laverne University. He came over to my house one day and knocked on my door. He’d heard about me in New York. He said, "How would you like to start a workshop?"
I said, “What kind of workshop?”
He said, “We'll do it this summer. We'll invite people from all over the country. We’ll do a play-writing workshop, and we’ll pay for it.” Laverne University put up eleven grand at the time. So I said okay.
He said, “You be the artistic director and invite the people, and so on.” And that's how it happened. He took me up to Padua to see the place. We couldn't use the theater so we did all the plays outside. It was very interesting, though. We used everything else, but the theater—the dining room, various spaces. That's how I learned a lot about a certain style of acting that way, a kind of informality that’s strict—because we had to speak up to be heard at Padua.
We used the whole complex, you know, and people came. We had an audience. We didn't know it was going to be a festival. We thought we were just going to do the workshop. We had people coming from all over the country. We had twelve students in the first year. So we wrote plays for the spaces we were going to be in. They were site-specific plays. And we learned. The Coyote Cycle was one of them.
works: I remember that title.
Murray: Some of the actors who came through really had a special understanding of how to work outside. I don't know if I could explain it. There's a different emphasis. One thing that's good about it is the listening obligation. The actor and the audience have to listen hard. So it affected the style of performance, and that affected the writing—like Irene Forness began to write like her sound was meant to be heard outside. Not indoors. She really got it. So did John O'Keefe. We had four very good teachers. Irene, and John O'Keefe who was up north—and John Steppling who lives in Bulgaria or Poland now. He was a very good teacher. They all kind of learned how to work with the sound of it outside. Very interesting.
works: It's fascinating just hearing about this.
Murray: It was sheer luck for me. I was so busy doing that I didn't write. When I quit Padua I must have written 20 plays in five years.
works: That’s amazing. What has evolved for you in all these years?
Murray: [pauses] Now I know what I'm doing. I'm not bragging. I know what I'm doing—and I know why. Before I had a hint, but I didn't know. Now I know.
works: Did any of your plays satisfy you completely?
Murray: Oh yeah. It's a good question. The Coyote Cycle was a fantastic piece of work. We did it outside and the cues were twilight and the sun rising. We went all night before Peter Brook did.
Murray: You can't beat those cues! That was fantastic! I've been very lucky. Even though I'm not famous, I've had some very good experiences in the theater. There's a play I just did called Charles’ Story. It takes place in a rehab center. A couple of years ago there was a big fire here. Fire came right down to the center, right to the walls. I did a play that included that, and it really worked out well.
There was a play called Girl On a Bed, which was based on a newspaper article in the LA Times that an actor friend's son had written a poem around. He said why don't you take this poem and make it into a play? And I did, and it was a terrific play.
I did a play called Tirade For Three, which is three actors on a bare stage. Nothing happens, but it's a wonderful play. It was based on something that happened here in LA. Some guy was in a park. There was a drive-by shooting. He was killed by accident. I just started riffing on that. So the lead character is the father of the son who was killed. And he has two people with him as a chorus. So there’s a back of forth between this guy and the chorus. And that's the play. There's a bunch of them, you know. I've written about seventy plays.
works: I want to go back to this word “being.” I've tried at times to think about it and I find it very difficult. It’s completely overlooked and not understood at all in the culture
Murray: I think being is not thought. I think being is the whole man.
works: Exactly. And that can play into theater somehow.
Murray: Very much so.
works: This isn't talked about.
Murray: Well, Peter Brook knows about it—and Grotowski. I think he knew about it. But they have different angles on it than I do. They were directors; it's a different angle.
works: Yeah. Well, “being”—for instance, I exist. I mean, when we say words like that we just take it for granted. Of course I exist. Maybe saying “to dwell” is a little closer.
Murray: It's knowing you exist. It's not just existing.
works: Exactly. So that's an interesting question, right?—in terms of the theater.
Murray: Yeah. It's very important in the theater. It would be what Aristotle thought of as a transforming of one's awareness. This is how I see it, anyway. Aristotle somehow sensed that there can be a change in the audience—of it becoming aware of its own existence, aware of its mortality. But he thought it had to do with life. That was the mistake he made. It's not life.
Murray: No. It’s outside life. It's the Giver of Life. Whatever you want to call it, you know—heaven, or God. In Aristotle’s case it would be the Gods.
works: What do you make of, let’s just call it, the digital revolution?
Murray: I don't like it. I'm not a big fan of Facebook. I don't like these phones. But you know, I'm an old man. That's part of it. But I don't think it's good for the culture.
works: In today’s culture you hardly ever have to get out of your head. When you take a shower you’ll feel the water on your skin if you’re not totally absorbed in your thoughts. But you can entertain yourself endlessly and stay distracted until a car hits you, or something.
Murray: I'm not a big fan of it. It's a substitute for real thinking and real exchange. But nobody's asked me.
works: Well we don't need to go to the virtuality of existence, one could almost say.
Murray: Yeah. It's become virtual enough as it is.
works: So in a play, if the actor and everything works, something happens that’s not virtual.
Murray: No. Your real awareness has to be engaged.
works: To really know for a minute that I exist is an extraordinary…
Murray: It's a big thing. Something similar has to happen in the theater. You suddenly realize the consequence of life, the underpinnings of life. That's what you're here for; that's why people go. That’s why we keep doing it, although the theater's in a bit of trouble because of all this virtual reality.
works: Would you say a little about what you call “cover-up-acting”? Let me quote you, "I’ve noticed over many years of trying to produce and direct my own plays, especially during the audition process, that actors are taught to overcome bad writing. They're taught to make up for lack of substance by portraying artificial substance: emotional reactions, easily understood, familiar behavior. There’s lots of reliance on props, easily recognizable facial expressions, repetitive timing and so on. Television and movies usually are dependent on this mediocre approach to acting because the writing is not deemed important enough, alive enough, interesting enough.”
Murray: That's exactly it! That's really true. So that's what these guys do. We just had auditions maybe a year ago and it was unbelievable what these guys did! [laughs] This is what I learned from Ralph Cook—that the text will show you everything you need to know. That was invaluable. He was absolutely right, and I've learned that to be true.
works: So how does that work?
Murray: Well let's give an example of text. A guy comes in to addition and there's a speech here, [says in a low key, straightforward way] "Well, off we went on horses stolen for the King’s Manor. I took care of Tagery, eventually, around an evening fire when he annoyed me with his braggadocio." The way to do it is just to say it the way it's written.
But they came in and made a big thing out of it. "Well, off we went!" [louder, grander intonation] It's not that; it's more intimate — "Well, off we went."
It's straightness rather than “acting,” you know? So there's a kind of acting going on in the attention required, but not in the saying of the line.
works: There's acting in the attention that it requires. Would you say acting involves finding a relationship with myself?
Murray: That's right— that’s given to you by the condition.
works: It's not like making up something
Murray: No. You have the condition in the writing.
works: You have to connect with the text with as much of yourself as you can find?
Murray: Right, and not put anything that's not you on it. There's no need to.
works: Nothing that is not you.
Murray: Right. But they think they have to.
works: Okay. So it’s the part that's not me that degrades things.
Murray: That degrades it; it's bad acting and a good actor knows that without me telling him. But that's how they are taught— to “show you something.” I don't need to be shown anything. I wrote the play. See what I mean?
works: I do.
Murray: I say, “Just do the text, man. Just say the text.” They think they have to interpret, explain—because there’s so much bad writing. They think that's what's expected of them to cover up the bad writing.
works: Here’s a quote from you about the aim of the actor. “For the most part in plays like mine the aim for the actor is to bring a level of awareness into the theater via the linguistic movement of rhythm, theme and circumstance—the main circumstance being the heightened awareness made possible by the stage. It is to be an instrument of the text so that heaven and earth can be connected.”
Murray: It's right on.
works: You wrote it.
Murray: I did. I like that. That's true.
works: So that Heaven and Earth can be connected.
Murray: That's what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and that's what I mean by “being.” And a good actor gets to experience it. Then you can fly. I've had that experience a couple of times—you're light as a feather, you get where you going and everything is right. And that can only happen because it's set up. It’s artificial.
works: And the audience is required.
Murray: That's right. The audience is required. The audience makes it possible. There's no way around it. And a good audience is better than a bad one because the audience has a big effect, a huge effect. It's amazing, and no two audiences are the same. That's why an actor has to be alert. It’s why I like the vaudevillian approach because it's a straight-out approach. You have to be aware, and know that you have to be aware, of where the audience is so you can pause if you have to. Sometimes you've got to wait. If you're not aware of them because you're just doing your thing, it's off. It's phony. You have to know where they're at, completely—especially their attention. They're listening.
works: You wrote something about “the clown” that’s really interesting. Let me quote: "He is inwardly still. He scrunches down or scrambles up, but you will not make contact on his quiet level. It's too high for you, and you must pay by watching closely. You think his suffering is cheap or acceptable. It is not. It is expensive, and hard earned. He is aware of his suffering, and he has a role to play. He has to wake up every morning in no man's land. So you approach carefully and bow, those of you who have the presence of mind, and pay close attention.”
Murray: That's my vision of the clown.
works: I'm touched by that. By any chance do you know Wavy Gravy?
Murray: I know of Wavy Gravy.
works: I got to interview him a few years ago. I didn't know much about him. But he fits that description, I’d say. He's a deep man and has done so many philanthropic things.
Murray: They show his suffering. You know that's what they do, clowns. It's quite amazing.
works: Let me read another quote from you—it’s speaking about the right of the playwright: “It is spiritually criminal to deprive the playwright of the joy of completion, which is about those fundamental choices of light and sound and movement, and the life and death of a moment. These are cheapened by directors, usually for the sake of a lower level of understanding.”
Murray: I'd subscribe to that.
works: “The life and death of a moment.”
Murray: A good example of that is what I showed you about the way some people move away from each other on stage. This may not seem like much, but if I stand here long enough a moment will appear—the moment to leave. Right? That's not going to be the same every time because the audience is not the same every time. So sometimes I have to stand there. I'm talking and saying goodbye, and it could even be getting awkward because you expect me to leave right—but I wait. And then I go. That's a moment. That's an example of what can be had on a bigger scale, on the scale of a scene, for example—or on a chorus scale.
works: And you don't want such moments screwed up.
Murray: No. I don't want the moment to die, because everything depends on what happens afterwards. I want this moment to live so that that the next moment can live. And then, when she goes, I have something in mind. She has to learn how to do it, because when she goes from here to over there, she's carrying the meaning of the play.
works: Directing a play means to have all the moments in it.
Murray: All of them; and they are all connected. And a lot of directors will skip things because they don't understand the interconnection. They don't understand that this moment is related to that moment. And directors are taught to move things along, right?—and to add a lot of behavior, like eat a banana while you say that, or drink a cup of coffee.
I don't like any of that.
works: And posture would be important in here, right?
Murray: Posture needs to correspond; a kind of an awareness is needed that requires patience. In other words, you need to be able to wait. A good example is just standing here like this. You know there's various ways I can stand here. If I stand knowing that I'm talking to somebody, then my shoulders are going to say a lot. If they are like this [demonstrates] I'm scared or fed up, or something. But if I'm really relaxed, I hold power. The other example is defeat. When I stand like this [demonstrates], this is how most people stand. But if I stand like this on the stage, I'm a different person. Do you see the difference?
works: I do. I do.
Murray: And that applies to how I walk, how I gesture. It's important. This gesture [demonstrates]—I put them in like they’re dance moves, as opposed to naturalism.
works: This helps me understand the importance of pursuing precision, that everything counts in a performance. You have to be present.
Murray: Completely there at all times.
works: The whole thing is one long dance of being present.
Murray: It's a performance. But it's a rigorous, determined, artificial performance that can include two levels, at least.
works: Listening to you I can’t help think of the Oriental theaters.
Murray: Because they're aware of that level; they know what that means. I didn't learn from them, but I agree with them. The Chinese, too, and the Balinese. Artaud was trying to explain all of that, but he was too mixed up to get to it. But he had a feeling for it. He knew how big a gesture taking your glasses off could be, if you're really aware of it. Imagine Artaud doing that.
works: I got to be with a Tibetan lama last year. He came to the home of a friend and about twenty of us were there. My job was to have a little dialogue with him and then we would have a little q & a. So he came in and was showed where to sit. He took his time. He sat down and he was there. We were there. Then a woman helped him get set up with a microphone that had a strap that fit over his head. As all this is going on, he’s very relaxed just sitting there in front of us. It was close and intimate. We were all waiting as he was getting set up and now the woman sat down. But instead of getting started, he reaches back and is adjusting the strap behind his head. I was watching him closely. He fiddled with the strap, just taking his time. No tension. Why hurry? This went on for quite a while. And at a certain point, I got the impression he was giving us a teaching—just the way he was doing that. He wasn’t at all…
Murray: Freaked out by it. Yeah. That's the kind of quality I like on the stage. You can't do it all the time because sometimes you have to move quickly. But that's the quality I like on stage. I like thoughtful actors. You know there's thinking involved. You have to kind of know something. You can't be a dumb fool and be an actor. But that's never discussed. Intelligence is more interesting than stupidity. It's a true thing. I like to watch intelligent actors. I think stupidity is boring. And there's enough of it already.
works: What do you think about the place of theater here in the US, or in the West?
Murray: I do have some anxiety about it because of the virtuality of everything. It's hard to get an audience. So it's worse, in a way. I don't know what else I would say. Theater is a hard art, but it is a very fine art and it would be a shame to lose it.
works: I feel like an understanding has been opened up from this conversation. For some reason the thought of the Tea Ceremony, pops up.
Murray: It has a similar approach. It's about awareness and movement—refined movement… which can be observed in a theater.
works: And that doesn't just mean pretty, right?
Murray: It's delicate and thoughtful. And you can really get into it. That's what's fun. Because you’re working with the whole play. Can you imagine that? And I have my way of doing things. You know, I want to do it all the way—do the whole play with a certain refined intelligence. That shows. That’s what I miss when I'm not doing a play, because it's such interesting work.
works: I would think so, and when something has been born through all these efforts.
Murray: You've experienced more than one level, more than the ordinary—something intelligent.
works: You know tomorrow. I'm going to interview a Tibetan man named Lobsang Rapgay about what he calls “aesthetic thought.” He says that in the West we're too fatigued to engage in aesthetic thought. He says that when aesthetic thought reaches a certain quality it can bring the numinous down into circulation.
Murray: This is exactly what I've been saying!
works: He says that a culture cannot survive without it.
Murray: Wow, see? We're in trouble because of that. I think he's absolutely right! It’s a wonderful way to put it. That's what catharsis means to me. That coming down of intelligence—I mean real intelligence, a higher level of being.