In the summer of 2009, Austin Pendleton played the Herbie to my Louise in a production of Gypsy. That high school theatre production, complete with a 30-piece orchestra, was a seminal experience. Sharing the stage with Austin was a master class, and when I joined his scene study class in HB Studio a few years later, I’d beam whenever he brought up the magic of hearing the Gypsy overture swell through the 1,800-seat theatre.
Over the past decade, Austin has continued to be a wonderful mentor, teacher, and friend. I admire that he follows the work that interests him, whether it is or on Broadway stage, with his Steppenwolf acting ensemble, in a small Pennsylvania town at a theatre camp—or on Zoom. A few weeks ago, I spoke to Austin on the phone about how he’s pivoting his busy life online amid the coronavirus pandemic, and if he has any advice to share, because he doles out the best.
ALLISON CONSIDINE: Austin, how have you been holding up?
AUSTIN PENDLETON: I’m doing okay, how are you doing?
I’m here in Brooklyn, taking things one day at a time.
One just has to get used to the fact that it is going to be one day at a time, for however long it is one day at a time.
You are one of the busiest people I know. What all were you juggling when the theatres closed?
I had, as usual, all these projects all lined up, theatrically. I began to get emails from some of the people involved in those things saying, “We have to talk about this, we have to meet on the phone and talk about things on Zoom or whatever.” And I find myself saying, “Uh, why? We have no idea when we’re going to do it!” [Laughs] I understand where they’re coming from, but I just don’t want to pass the days in these meetings about projects that are absolutely indeterminate right now.
Among those projects was The Minutes by Tracy Letts on Broadway.
That was three days from opening. Broadway was closed on Thursday morning [March 12], and so on Wednesday night we did what we did not know was going to be our last performance. Our producer, Jeffrey Richards, is just determined to reopen. In fact, the set is still up in the theatre. In a way it was good. Through the whole preview period, they were really pulling the show together—and it really came together on that Tuesday night. But if the reviews had even been mixed, you know, it would probably be much harder for Jeffrey to reopen. But now we have this show that had started to gain a real momentum. So I think he’ll have an easier time opening it again, and he’s determined to do it, which is great.
That’s good. How are you preparing for an eventual reopening?
We had a line run-through just yesterday. We had been having one every week, but it began to seem silly. Yesterday was the first time in a month, and I guess we’ll do another one in another month or two, just to keep it in our thoughts. But I have no idea, and neither, I think, does anyone else.
How has it been teaching scene study remotely?
I find that teaching goes well on Zoom. You could knock me over with a feather, I wouldn’t have expected it would. The teaching is actually kind of exhilarating on Zoom.
Why is that?
I have no idea even how to explain it. And I thought, Well, okay, anything for HB Studio, you know, but Zoom? Come on… [Laughs] Zoom is antithetical to scene study. I keep trying to analyze why it works so well, and I’ve been groping for an explanation. More and more students who have said, “No, I think I’ll sit this class out,” are hearing how well it’s going, so they keep joining the class. So it’s fascinating.
From what I remember from being in your class, you usually work on two-person scenes. How does that work over Zoom?
Well, they rehearse, obviously, in their two separate apartments. And I imagine they do that on Zoom, each pair of people. And then on Zoom, they do the whole class. We have everybody stop their video who’s not in the scene, so the only two people on the scene are the only two pictures you see on the screen. Each person in the scene hides self-views, so they can’t see themselves. They can only see their partner.
In a way, any scene is about two people in two different emotional spaces. And each person in the scene wants to bring the other person into their space, and the other person is resisting their emotional space. And that’s the conflict. So now they are literally in two spaces. The quality of the work in the Zoom scenes comes at a more advanced state of the work process, even though they probably rehearsed less. At first I thought it was a fluke, but that is happening every week. I began to point this out in the class, and I said, you know, when we get back in the classroom—in the year 2027 or whenever it is—we’ve got to remember what we learned from this, because there’s something happening to the work that’s exciting.
I just read that you’ll be directing and performing The American Clock with Steppenwolf Theatre Company this month. How is that coming along?
It’s going great. I directed that play twice. Do you know the play?
It’s Arthur Miller. There are like 50 different roles in it—5-0! It’s sort of a mural of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and it goes all the way from just before the stock market crash in 1929 to the very tail end of the Depression, just before the war, and there is a little epilogue after that. It keeps returning to a family that was clearly Arthur Miller’s family. There’s a scene of the Farm Revolt in Iowa, there are other scenes involve family members, there’s a scene in a welfare office, then there’s a scene in a bar—a very quiet scene in a bar the night the stock market is crashing, with all these high financiers talking to each other and seeing that they’re losing everything. Just like that. Miller goes all over the place.
I’ve always been very drawn to this play. I saw it the first time it was ever done, at Playwrights Horizons. It was in the same location it is now, but it was when that whole block over there was—you hardly dared go into that block after dark in those days. It was originally a showcase, it wasn’t reviewed or anything, and then they took it down to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. And it was done in L.A. A good friend of mine, who actually died from the coronavirus, the actor Mark Blum, played the young Arthur Miller part in L.A.
Then I decided to do it at Williamstown because you could use as many actors as there were characters up there with the Equity, non-Equity, the apprentices, and the local people. You could have 50 people playing 50 parts, essentially, with minor exceptions. That was very exciting, and then I did the same thing at HB Studio with some of the same actors, two years in a row. I’ve always loved the play. I’m a big Arthur Miller fan; not everybody is. I love all the plays, but for the most part this has always been my favorite play. For some reason.
How did this latest iteration come to be?
Anna Shapiro, the artistic director at Steppenwolf, when all this happened, said she’d like to do something where we can use the whole ensemble together. And so people submitted thoughts and I suggested The American Clock. And Anna said, “Oh yeah, great.” So we spent over two weeks recording it. We recorded it and then went back and recorded a lot of the scenes over again, and now it’s being edited. It will hit the streets in mid-June.
It will be released as a radio play?
Yes, effectively, it is a radio play. The phrase they use is audio podcast. So that’s the story of The American Clock in my life.
I look forward to listening. What do you think will be the lasting impact of the coronavirus for both theatremakers and theatregoers?
I have absolutely no idea.
It seems like the effects will reverberate for many years.
Speaking of The American Clock again, the genius of—and I don’t throw that word around—the genius of FDR was he led people through all those years of the Depression when it looked like things were never going to change. As every year went by it got clearer, and the feeling got more and more pervasive—we’re never going to get out of this. But FDR and his leadership was phenomenal, and consisted of just telling the truth to everybody in a gentle way. He had the fireside chats in the evenings on the radio. Saul Bellow, the novelist, wrote about how when he was a young man he would walk down a residential street in Chicago, and it was before air conditioning, so you would hear an entire FDR speech just by walking down a block. Everybody’s windows were open, and everybody was playing FDR. These things were live, obviously. Those fireside chats were vital because they offered uplift, but the uplift consisted of saying exactly what was going on. I need not point out the contrast…
I think radio plays will become a more popular mode of theatre. I also keep thinking about how plays will reflect this time, especially about how the COVID-19 shutdown is affecting the climate.
It’s hard write plays about a theme without it sounding editorial, but that’s the kind of thing Arthur Miller could actually to do very well. He could write about urgent social issues, but somehow he would get lost in the characters.
Did I ever tell you about the talk between two men after the original production Death of a Salesman? Of course, people were emotionally shattered by that play, and justly so. Somebody who saw the original production told me that afterwards they went down to the men’s room. They were waiting in line for the urinals, and two guys who clearly did not know each other were at two urinals side by side. There was just total silence. And one of the men finally turned to the other and said, “That New England territory never was any good.” [Laughs]
It’s a huge play that actually changed the way employees were treated—that play had an impact on society. But it was about a guy who was dealing with the fact that he was assigned the New England assignments. And they weren’t very good. The play was about a kind of small thing, but it had this huge reverberation. So I think it probably won’t be plays that are directly about climate change. They will be about individual people and somehow climate change will be in there somewhere.
Do you think there will be more plays written about sheltering in place and isolation?
When you think of all the great American plays, all of them are about that. They’re all about people sheltering together, and things coming to a boil because everybody’s in the same room. That’s the plot of Death of a Salesman. The plot begins when Biff comes home and then Happy moves back in, so the family is all together in that house for the first time in a while. And as a direct result of that, all that happens. A Streetcar Named Desire is Blanche sharing a small apartment with her sister and brother-in-law, and sheltering in place, if you will. Of course, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is about four people in the same living room from two in the morning to six in the morning. A Long Day’s Journey and The Odd Couple is about two people who are living together who should not be living together. All the great American plays have been about that already. We’ve been way ahead of the curve.
Years ago, after a performance of Between Riverside and Crazy at the Atlantic Theater, you walked me to the subway station and you asked how I was doing. I had just graduated college, and my pause in response prompted you to tell me to remember to look up to the second stories of buildings. We walked down Sixth Avenue looking up at the edifices of buildings and admiring the architecture. It’s something I continue to do when things feel hard. So what advice do you have now as we navigate this crazy time?
Well, exactly that, look up. And I presume you’re wearing a mask?
Yes, of course, I’m wearing a mask!
So wear a mask and look up to the second floors of buildings. It’s just that simple. Somebody told it to me once in the late 1960s when I was going through a rough time, and whenever I remember to do that, everything immediately changes.