Interview with Austin Pendleton
Director, Tony Vellela's Admissions
1. What attracted you to this play?
AP. There are fantastic ensemble opportunities in it. That's on an immediate theatrical level. Something else that attracted me is that it's a real, strong dramatization of what young people are up against today. It's one where the situations are dramatized -- it's not just a lot of talk. You really see what they're up against, from without, and within, among each other. That's an enormous subject, because it's a whole generation. There it is, in that play.
2. What are the important dramatic elements?
AP. Well, the most important thing to establish in the play is that they really want, these people, all of them, to make this work. And if you really go after that, then the dramatic obstacles that the play presents can be counted on to keep derailing them. And derailing them increasingly. It should not ever start out, or proceed from the idea that it's a play about a bunch of contentious people, or people who want to be contentious. You should really feel on stage the pressure that the people in this group do, because it's their one shot, as Arletta herself says toward the end of the play. So as the derailments come, thicker and faster as the play goes on, the tremendous emergency of having to try to get things back on track must always be felt. Or else it's just about a bunch of people who squabble, which is not the intention of the play. And, that's never interesting theatre, anyway.
3. Are there humorous elements?
AP. Yeah, there are a lot of them. Just the way these people's obsessions play out, because obsessions are frequently funny, because they're so inherently limited. [Veteran theatre critic] Walter Kerr once said that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that comedy is about the limitations of people, and tragedy is about the infinite capacity of people to try to expand their reach, which is finally going to bring them up against tragedy. That's very persuasive, and this play has both of those things in it. There's an infinite reach among these people, collectively, and individually, to varying degrees, to really achieve something enormous. And at the same time, there are the limitations of their different obsessions. And that's automatically humorous, but also, often in an individual moment, it can become actively funny.
4. The play's locale is non-specific. Do you think this play is suitable for high schools, and colleges, and regional theatre, in the sense that there are issues that go beyond either a geographic, or more specifically, a college experience?
AP. Yes. The issues are about something that everybody can relate to. When you have the whole cutting edge of a generation of people up against things that can blunt their lives, that affects everybody. Any articulate, intelligent high school student can see this right down the road. And older audiences know that this is about tomorrow.
5. Did you "discover" things about this play during rehearsals?
AP. Yes, and that's true with any good play, and certainly with this play. The language in the play is extremely direct, but what you find -- it plays direct, what the audience hears -- and it contains a lot of the drama of the play, but you keep finding that that's fueled by this tremendous subtextual charge in a lot of the exchanges between them, that often involves the past histories of these people, or their hidden agendas. You keep uncovering those as you rehearse the play. Sometimes people are speaking to each other out of a history that they've shared, and sometimes they are saying one thing, but actually, they're pursuing a private agenda. And in either case, you don't hear, directly, everything involved in the moment, and the more you rehearse it, the more you uncover those things, and they become more important in giving the play its charge in moving forward.
6. Can you describe how minimalist the design was when you did it?
AP. It was something that evolved, quite naturally, out of the way it was rehearsed. It began as a series of staged readings, and I wanted to find a very dynamic way of doing the staged readings, so I just had them move their chairs around a lot. So that was a very heightened version of what a reading usually is. And I found it quite exciting, and theatrically viable on its own terms, so that when it moved to full production, I thought, why don't we reduce all the reality, the naturalistic elements of a full production, to those chairs, so there's this "place" in between a highly heightened staged reading, and a full production. It's a place I'd never exactly seen in a play before, that we found for this, that just stripped everything away from the play, except the important thing, which are these eight people, and these chairs. And that was it, and it made it quite electric. In the full production, they could walk around, and they could maneuver those chairs, and use some hand props, but it gave it an elegance that stripped away a lot of what can become the naturalistic encumbrances of a play.
7. So when it moved to full productions, it was a choice to do that?
AP. Yes, but it's a choice that I'm not sure would have occurred to me, had we not done all the staged readings.
8. Could there be some drawbacks to doing a full naturalistic production?
AP. I'm sure that a whole other set of possibilities would emerge with that decision. I became so enamored with how this worked that this is the way I would always want to do it. It also had the advantage that instantly, the audience was confronted with a look they had never seen. And that's good, that's always good in the theatre. There isn't that moment when they have to cut through the crust of the theatricality of what is familiar, and it makes this theatrical experience unique. It's always good to find something like that, if you can.
9. Especially with this play, where the audience thinks it will be seeing something familiar.
AP. Oh, yes. They think it's going to be a bunch of people in a room. It is, but it's not. And the room is the theatre, the room where the audience is, and that becomes quite electric. And it releases the electricity that's in the writing.
10. What are the challenges to actors doing this play?
AP. I think a good actor is a person who knows how to be in a room with other people. And this play tests that to the max, because you're in a room, for the students, in a room with six other people, almost all the time. And the more you're alive in that room, with all those people, the more you're going to be released into the play. And there are actors who know how to be alive in a room, and there are actors who don't. They may have other skills, and they may even be effective actors, but this play really asks for that capability.
11. And how does the writing pattern in the play, where there are so many interruptions, play into that?
AP. One of the things about acting is to be able to pursue an objective with tremendous concentration and force. The more in this play that everybody is pursuing an objective -- first of all, there's the group objective, which we talked about earlier, but also their own objectives toward that group objective, and sometimes against it -- the more the interruptions are really going to cause friction. If they are anticipating the interruptions on any level, they're off the mark. They're not going to allow the interruptions to have their full effect.
12. What challenges are there to a director, or even designers?
AP. I'd say, keep it spare. This play is not about President Kistler's taste in furnishing his office, although it's possible that someone could evolve something powerful about that. But that's not the theatrical heart or the dramatic excitement for me of this play.
13. The television press conferences were done just with sound, a remote control, and people facing the audience area, but no television. How do you think that worked?
AP. That's part of the reason I found it so effective to keep it spare, because you didn't have that thing where you create a full-blooded naturalistic environment, and then over, to the side, at one point, part of that area arbitrarily becomes the steps of the Library. It's a space, and it is what it is. You can do whatever you want with it. I always have trouble with that in the theatre. Are we in the room, trapped in the room, or aren't we? If we are, why compromise it with these little sidebars. But if you strip everything away, it's not a problem any more.
14. Something is what it is, at that moment, and nothing more, or less.
15. What challenges and advice do you have for someone planning to direct Admissions?
AP. Everything I've just said. Make sure that that group wish to make everything work is palpable, all the time, so that as it encounters more and more problems that well up from inside it, the collision of the group wish for success, and the divisions that spontaneously come up from within, provide a real clash that builds and builds and builds. Without that group wish, there is no play.
16. Are there specific rehearsal processes that you think fit this play?
AP. That depends on the individual director. I, as a director, never ever work with improvisation. If a director was really astute working with improvisation, they might achieve some really phenomenal things that way, but I never have done that. Improvisation, as it's usually meant in rehearsal, is not meant to rewrite the play. It's for the actors to explore subtext and behavioral possibilities, so that when they return to the text, at the end of the rehearsal -- not the rehearsal period, but the individual rehearsal -- they have a more detailed sense of the things that go on among them. I do think it takes actors who are highly skilled at using it, so that things don't meander off. And I've never encountered a director who did not begin the first rehearsal with a full read-through.
17. Any final observations?
AP. It's a great play, and you will have a wonderful time working on this play.
Austin Pendleton has directed The Little Foxes, Spoils of War, and The Runner Stumbles on Broadway; and Mass Appeal and Say Goodnight, Gracie Off-Broadway, among others. His extensive acting resume includes the Broadway revival of The Diary of Anne Frank, Doubles, Grand Hotel, and Oh, Dad, Poor Dad. His film acting credits include My Cousin Vinny, Guarding Tess, Catch 22, and The Muppet Movie. He is also the author of two acclaimed plays, Booth and Uncle Bob.