Musings on a Life in Theater
By Carey Harrison - Artistic Director to the Woodstock Players
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At the time my wife Claire and I founded the Woodstock Players, I never expected to do any more theater directing - I had for many years been focused on writing novels and it was a series of accidents (as described in the "About Us" page) that have brought me full circle to where I started, at the age of 17, when I directed Shaw's 'Passion, Poison and Petrifaction,' at boarding school. The play opens with a breakfast-table conversation, and I immediately hit upon a far from original trick, but one that gave me so much pleasure that I was immediately hooked. A husband and wife are at breakfast, and I hid the actor playing the wife behind a large newspaper until her first line arrived. She then lowered the newspaper and spoke, or rather 'she' did, since this was a boys-only boarding school, and my audience's delight at discovering my friend Robert Stilwell in the guise of a middle-aged wife temporarily stopped the show. I couldn't wait to tell my celebrated actress mother about my coup (my celebrated actor father was, as always, more elusive), and I can still see her smile of fond indulgence as I described the stage scene to her. Mama's approval! No wonder I was hooked.
I spent my college years at Cambridge (UK) directing one play after another with a dedication verging on the manic: sometimes rehearsing twelve to fourteen hours a day. (The undergraduate actors came and went, scene by scene; I alone was there all day, in the rehearsal room adjoining the undergraduate theater. It was a curiously devoted generation of youthful actors, perhaps an unparalleled generation - close to one hundred of them, from the three years of my time there, entered the profession, and many have made a good life in it.) Once, while preparing to direct a Harold Pinter play the following semester, I shut myself in my room at my Aunt Irene's row house in London - she was an actress too, as were both my mother's sisters - and spent the entire vacation writing out the play as a novel, so that I would have traced (or invented) every motivation, every unstated link between lines. In time, when I graduated and found work in the professional theater, I was shocked at the casualness of the directors under whom I worked as an assistant, including eminences like Peter Brook, Tyrone Guthrie, Laurence Olivier and Clifford Williams. They were largely reactive, waiting to see what actors brought, and nudging them in one direction or another. Guthrie and Olivier were masters of the stage picture, deploying actors in surprising moves that altered the tone of a scene. (I've worked since, though not often, with actors whose stage genius includes a full picture of the scene they are in, and expresses itself in unexpected and highly original moves; Olivier was one such.) Brook was a master of avant-garde improvisatory techniques, and frightened his cast by preferring these, even at a late stage of rehearsal, to conventional rehearsal. I was present during the final stages of his Oedipus rehearsals at the National Theater, featuring Sir John Gielgud as Oedipus, when Brook asked the cast to climb onto the stage one by one and do, he said, 'something to frighten me.' Anything; some people undid their pants. Others, more histrionic or just panic-stricken, screamed. Gielgud's turn was last. He clambered onto the stage, drew himself up, looking out over the stalls at Brook's tiny figure, and said, 'We open in two weeks.'
Clifford Williams was a master of indecision. (I've worked with directors who cultivated terror in their cast, finding that it shakes up complacency. No-one sufficiently terrified will stoop to merely 'phoning in' a performance.) During the weeks before the opening of his once-notorious all-male As You Like It (with Anthony Hopkins as Phoebe, of all unlikely casting), the set and costume design morphed in the final days from a decadent Roman apartment (supposedly 'Franco Zefferelli's latest party' - typically all male) to a World War II prisoner-of-war camp (all men - and the flight to the forest was the prisoners' wish-fulfilment) to its final incarnation as a vision of 'swinging London' (this was 1966), set on steep gleaming raked stage of white plastic. Kenneth Tynan, the National Theater's august literary manager, had argued for cutting the 'rustic' characters from the play because 'it made no sense that they spoke verse.' As assistant to the director I was present at the ensuing discussion, in Olivier's office, and was struck dumb by its inanity. This was the summit of the professional theater? Apparently so. Olivier, who adored drag shows, wandered around our dress rehearsals, looking up the skirts of the actors who were playing women. Yes, this was professional theater: vaudeville, at heart. What had I thought? That it was a temple for highbrows? It was fun - I remember Olivier at the final dress rehearsal for Othello, standing in the middle of the curtain call line-up and letting his dressing gown slip open to reveal his nakedness. 'How,' he cried to the empty stalls and the circle above them, 'can the greatest actor in the world have such a small cock?' It was fun, but it was also silly, and directors largely traded on the magical skills of the actors they employed.
I was 22. I had already begun to write plays as well as direct them, and this new direction consumed me for many years to come. Now that I'm back doing both once more, writing and directing, after many years writing scripts, screenplays and novels, I'm still haunted not by the very many professional directors I've watched at work on the scenes I've written or on others' scenes, but by some briliantly talented would-be theater directors I worked alongside at college. Some, like Stephen Frears, went on to be noted movie-makers. Others sank from sight, as is the way in life. One old friend, who recently resurfaced to 'friend' me on Facebook, had a gift so astonishing that it has left me, as a director, forever cautious (not always a bad thing) and conscious of lagging behind my former pal: he could see into an actor's mind. Like me, his mother was an actress; but he could read her, as I never could read mine. In speaking to his actors after they had tried a section of a scene, he could reflect back to them precisely how lost or how assured they felt, deep inside - the very thing they had been trying to hide. Alarming, perhaps, for his actors, you might think; yet not so - it was reassuring, rather. (He too, like me, turned to writing; then let this fall by the wayside, lacking the encouragement he most signally deserved.) I implore my actors to keep talking to me, to tell me where they feel on sure and where on shaky ground. It's a lovely, collaborative process, and I'm as much in awe of actors as I was when first seeing my parents on a stage. Just today I read the words of the great novelist, William Gass: actors are our enemies, he wrote, meaning the writer's enemies. How wrong he was to write this! Actors are the best friends a writer has, and a director too, and to bask in their generous gifts as they give their spirit to a role, is the height of human dignity - if the role's any good. Actors deserve nothing but good roles. They are our dreamers, our sleepwalkers, showing the way to a world more enticingly human than our own.

  • In addition to his projects for The Woodstock Players, Carey Harrison has collaborated with composer Nolan Gasser in writing the Libretto for an opera of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett for the San Francisco Opera house - this opera will premiere on March 1, 2013. For more on that, go to the San Francisco Opera website.
    Carey's novel Justice and a selection of his stage plays will be published by Dr. Cicero Books in late Spring 2013. To learn more about Carey Harrison's writing projects and to read (and download) Carey Harrison's plays including Midget In A Catsuit Reciting Spinoza, go to Carey's website and scroll down - click HERE
  • To read about Carey's thoughts, written for Roll Magazine, on the business of being a writer - also includes the script of Midget... - click HERE - scoll down for our contact details.
  • Video interview on Midget...  HERE
  • Promo Video on Midget...

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Carey Harrison: Artistic Director,  845 417 8251

Claire Lambe: Company Manager, 845 901 2893

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