Next February will mark 30 years since the death of Tennessee Williams, and while it’s barely needs restating that he was one of three or four or seven most seminal American playwrights of the 20th century (alongside stalwarts O’Neill, Miller and Albee, and the remainder up for debate), he remains something of an enigma. In fact, he is one of the most curious figures in American letters in the sense that his biography is extremely well known, yet the more we read about him, the less we feel sometimes we understand about him. He was, in a sense, slippery, clever, endearing, maddening and troubled; he was also exuberant, loving, giving and wholehearted; he was vain, catty, cauterized, gimlet-eyed and chilly. He was, inexplicably but inevitably, our Tenn.
But even as the announcement of the 874th Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has Main Stem wags agog (and maybe more for Benjamin Walker as Brick than Scarlett Johansson as Maggie), the most insightful theater practitioners know that Williams’ plethora of one-acts — largely unseen, fitful attempts to channel his early smashes — is where the interesting action really is. Indeed, Williams is often no finer than in miniature mode. And while the playwright never lacked for strong opinions about his own characters, one could argue that he didn’t always understand what they were trying to say even as he heard them speak; it has been left to later generations of actors and directors to provide probing interpretations in Williams’ posthumous stead. Would that Tenn were alive to see the complex, gloriously messy legacy that his complicated, gloriously messy career bequeathed to a grateful world.
Ken Schatz, a widely known acting teacher and coach, is one such soul charting that interpretative path. On-the-rise actors know him the faculty of Circle in the Square Theatre School, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the Stella Adler Studio of Acting; general audiences know his directing work from innumerable projects around town, including with the infamously edgy Gorilla Rep. And if you don’t know Schatz’s coaching work with actors Tim Blake Nelson, Steve Buscemi and David Arquette, good — you’re not meant to see his handiwork there.
In fact, like all fine coaches, Schatz understands that his guiding hand should be unnoticed in the final product, even as it shapes it. And ditto for directorial view on a project like Something Wild, running at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex through Oct. 6. Something Wild is an evening of rarely performed short plays by the aforementioned Williams, including “Hello From Bertha,” “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” and “This Property Is Condemned.” (This list made us remember another super-short Williams play, “A Perfect Analysis Given By a Parrot,” that someone ought to have fun with soon.) It’s not that one’s directorial take on Williams isn’t important — as we noted a moment ago, it’s critical, especially for the overlooked minor pieces in the playwright’s canon. But it’s equally vital to let Williams be Williams, which Schatz surely knows. Sometimes the best thing for a director to do is to get out of the playwright’s way.
Still, we couldn’t let this passel of three short plays, all written in 1946, go by without pinning Schatz down on his directorial take on Williams. And he was wonderfully accommodating with our request.
And now, 5 questions Ken Schatz has never been asked — and a bonus question:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Whenever artists are working well — whenever anyone chooses to consider what it means to be human — brilliant questions just keep on coming. The most perceptive questions about acting tend to be the simplest.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
There are no idiotic questions. They get treated as dumb a lot, but actors and audiences are smart. Really fantastically smart, if you give them a chance. If you let them, they will join the expedition, asking ever more wonderful, insightful, and inspiring questions, and we will all learn something.
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
4) If Tennessee Williams showed you the first draft of any or all of the three short plays in Something Wild back in 1946, what would you have advised him to do and why?
Hire me to direct!
5) As an acting teacher and coach, what is the easiest and hardest part of performing in a play by Tennessee Williams? What rookie mistakes make you the craziest?
The thing that makes acting necessary, the thing that makes it possible, the thing that makes it amazing, is the very thing that often makes it very hard to do — consciousness — the unique human ability to observe ourselves doing something at the same time we’re doing it. Because the things that make up acting as an activity are things that all human beings do naturally, there are no rookie mistakes. I love that I find myself asking and answering the same questions, and pointing to the same kinds of opportunities, whether I’m working with a celebrity or a beginner.
6) God has granted you five minutes with Tennessee Williams — enough time for one question and one statement. What would you ask him? What would you tell him?
I would say thank you. And then I would ask him for infinity wishes.