Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 2000
At a website called The Austin Pendleton Worship Page, there’s a quote from Harlan Ellison’s 1973 review of “The Thief Who Came to Dinner”:
“Oh my. Austin Pendleton ought to be on exhibit in the Smithsonian. He is a national treasure. People ought to come pouring out of the studios and bury him in money to make film after film, starring Pendleton as whatever he wants to be. … Austin Pendleton is a wild winged wonder.”
That could make an actor awfully swell-headed. But Austin Pendleton seems like a regular guy, cheerful and charming.
Best known for the quirky characters he’s played in some 50+ movies (from “What’s Up, Doc?” to “Amistad”) and dozens of TV appearances (including the recurring roles of Giles in “Oz” and Dr. George Griscom in “Homicide: Life on the Street”), Pendleton is equally respected for his directing and, more recently, his playwriting efforts. His latest play, Orson’s Shadow, which premiered at Chicago’s celebrated Steppenwolf Theatre last January, is having its West coast premiere at the Old Globe Theatre (September 16-October 21).
Still a member of the ensemble, Pendleton periodically appears in Steppenwolf productions, and teaches in their summer program, as well as at HB Studio in his home-base, New York, where he first trained under the legendary Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof.
He was performing in New York in 1979 when he was invited to direct in a new Chicago company. “It changed my life,” he says of his experience at Steppenwolf. “For any of us who were there from the beginning [including, one assumes, Steppenwolf alums like John Malkovich and Gary Sinise], it was the defining moment in our lives. It was, and still is, a rare and potent combination of very raw and very nuanced work.”
Pendleton thinks of himself primarily as an actor, but he “always intended to be a writer.” He just didn’t get around to it until 1990, when he turned 50.
He was thrilled with the Steppenwolf production of his third play, Orson’s Shadow,” which moved on to Williamstown, MA and Westport, CT last summer. The Chicago reviews were enthusiastic. “Hugely entertaining, deftly written…” a “bright and touching new play… sparked by a real-life incident.”
Orson’s Shadow is set is 1960. Renowned London/New York theater critic Kenneth Tynan tries to encourage the reclusive, down-on-his-luck Orson Welles to direct the ever-ambitious Laurence Olivier in a revival of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play, Rhinoceros. Add to these super-egos Olivier’s new young love, Joan Plowright, and his fading wife, Vivien Leigh, and you’ve got quite a formidable cast of characters.
“Almost all the individual facts in the play are true,” Pendleton says of the disastrous clash of paranoias and peccadilloes that was brought to his attention by Judith Auberjonois (wife of acclaimed actor, Ren ¾ ). “But the way they’re put together is imaginary. I did add one fictional character. And Kenneth Tynan didn’t really bring Welles and Olivier together for this ill-fated production. But I thought Tynan would pull it all together, and serve as narrator.”
The play is not just historical fantasy. “It’s about contrast. About people who survive and people who don’t. People who will do anything — in their life and in their art — to survive, versus people whose art and life are bent on self-destruction. Those two kinds of people are drawn to, mutually fascinated by and equally terrified of each other.”
The difficult task for this play is to universalize it. “If the situation were as exotic as the characters, the audience wouldn’t regard them as human beings like themselves.” These gargantuans are often ruthless in their behavior, and that can also affect audience loyalties and reactions.
“A life in the arts makes people brutal,” Pendleton explains. “Particularly the dramatic arts, which require absolute toughness and absolute vulnerability. Those who stay at it become very strong, and they are indeed capable of brutality.
“For an audience, it’s always easier to identify with the victims. We can all identify with those like Orson and Vivien, for whom the world is just too much. It’s the predators the audience has more trouble with. We can’t condone what they do, but we have to understand. When people feel they are being pulled down, they’ll do whatever it takes to survive. The closer it gets to that level, the more humanly comprehensible they are. We don’t always like or admire theater characters. But the best plays make people identify with the more difficult parts of themselves.”
Pendleton is still tinkering with the play for the Globe production, which is directed by Kyle Donnelly, a 1980 graduate of UCSD and currently its Arthur and Molli Wagner endowed Chair of Acting.
“One thing I’ve learned,” says Pendleton, “is that the play is really a chamber piece; it has to be done in a small space. The Cassius Carter sounds perfect. Maybe because of the large egos onstage, the audience needs to feel intimate, like they’re in the room, too.”
He hasn’t yet shown Orson’s Shadow to Joan Plowright, the only surviving member of the heady troupe in his play. “I feel like I’ve actually spent time with these people. Before I contact Joan, I want to be absolutely sure I’ve been totally fair.”
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.