Tuesday, May 26, 2015

(May 27, 1879 - June 24, 1962)

Born in Canada,  she studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1900.  Her first professional appearance was in The Wisdom of the Wise (1902) and she impressed Producer-Manager Charles Frohman who was responsible for her steady career in productions of high quality.

Several of the plays were written by the renowned dramatist Clyde Fitch whose play The City gave her a two-year run (1909-1911), which was astonishing at the time.

An early supporter of the Theatre Guild, she first appeared under its auspices as Lady Utterwood in George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House (1920).

Other important roles included Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. From 1934 when she made her film debut in J. M. Barrie's What Every Woman Knows, she alternated between stage and screen for seven years.
Some of the best known film roles occurred in A Woman Rebels (1936) starring Katharine Hepburn, the Garden of Allah (1936) starring Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich; and Waterloo Bridge (1940)
Lady Utterwood
with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor.

One of her best and most typical roles was as Norma Shearer's mother in
The Women (1939) an adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce's stage hit.

With the outbreak of World War ll in Europe (1939), Lucile Watson, along with
such notables as Josephine Hull, Rachel Crothers, Gertrude Lawrence, and
Antoinette Perry, became a board member of the American Theatre Wing
War Service.  Watson was chairwoman of the workroom committee, thus in
no small way assisting the service to help sell war bonds, entertaining members
of the armed forces both in this country and abroad, and collecting food and
clothing for the war effort.

Her best-known and most acclaimed stage role was Mrs. Fanny Farrelly in
Lillian Hellman's expose of creeping fascism Watch on the Rhine. She delivered the play's most pungent line: "Well, we've finally been shaken out of the magnolias!" She recreated the role in the film version and received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.  There were other film roles but she returned to the stage in 1950 where she was featured in Christopher Fry's  adaptation of Jean Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon. Three years later, she
announced her retirement.  She led a quiet life in her New York brownstone and reflected that her parts were "high comedy, with feeling, with pathos, funny, gay, kind, tart, and naughty."  In 1950, The New Yorker critic Wolcott Gibbs summed up her great ability as a comedy actress, "She is one of the most extraordinary comediennes in the theatre, impeccable in timing and delivery, getting her effects with a wonderful economy of gesture and admirable social restraint."
    Reference:  Notable Women in the American Theatre, 1989 edition                                  

Monday, May 25, 2015

(May 25, 1882 - October 9, 1956)

A direct descendant of Patrick Henry, Mary Katherine Stuart, was born in Duncannon, Pennslyvania where her father was a prominent Wall Street lawyer.  Her stage name Doro is a contraction of the nickname "Adorato," by which her family knew her.  She was preparing for Vassar College when she persuaded her father to let her try for the stage.

In 1901 she made her stage debut in a stock company in St. Paul, Minnesota. Two years later she debuted in New York in The Billionaire. Producer and manager Charles Frohman discovered her and groomed her for stardom. Future engagements included: J. M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton (1904), produced by William Gillette's company; title role in Gillette's Clarice (1905) and a revival of his Sherlock Holmes in 1906.

She also starred in Gillette's Electricity (1910) and the highly praised revival of Oliver Twist, playing the lead role.  She claimed that Oliver was her favorite role, her delicate frame and soulful eyes made her perfect for the part.    In London she appeared in Victorien Sardou's Diplomacy opposite William Gillette. They were rumored to be romantically inclined, but insisted they were just friends.

On a tour of England, she acted with the unknown teenaged Charlie Chaplin who was besotted with her. Later, when he was famous, they met in America, but she had to confess that she had no memory of him.

She was a Dresden doll-like brunette, described by drama critic William Winter as "a young actress of piquant beauty, marked personality and rare expressiveness of countenance."  Offstage she was intelligent, an expert on Shakespeare and Elizabethan poetry, and possessed a penetrating humor and an occasional acid wit.

Charles Frohman's death on the Lusitania in 1915 ended her stage career until 1921 when she appeared on Broadway with Josephine Drake in Lilies of the Field.  She made 18 silent films starting in 1915 when she was under contract to Adolph Zukor's Famous Players. Few survive.  By the early 1920s she became increasingly disillusioned with Hollywood and her acting career.  She relocated to Europe and made a number of films in Italy and the UK.  And when she returned to America, she became increasingly reclusive and drawn to spiritual matters.  

Her technique of practicing subtle nuances of facial expression in a mirror to prepare for her roles served her well as a silent screen actress.

Marie Doro was awarded unusual honors during her career. She was the first American actress to give a command performance at Windsor Castle. She played in Diplomacy before England's royal family in 1914. She was the first American to be awarded the Legion Commandatora, given by King Victor of Italy in 1920.

In the course of a twenty year career, she rose in critical esteem from a professional beauty and dilettante to a major dramatic star, holding her own in the company of such actresses as Mrs. Fiske, Ethel Barrymore, and Laurette Taylor.  The New York Times Review of Oliver Twist described her as "a lovely and sympathetic little Oliver." (2/27/1912).  Another reviewer declared after seeing her in Barbara  "By some magic, her girlish prettiness and charm have been touched with the flame of real beauty--a beauty that is as compelling as it is exquisite and unaffected." (November 6, 1917).
  References:  Wikipedia,  Notable Women in the American Theatre, 1989 edition

Monday, May 18, 2015

(May 19, 1930 - January 12, 1965)

"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"  (Harlem  by Langston Hughes)

Born in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago, incurring the wrath of their white neighbors, she knew the impact of racism on her and her family. She wrote about another black family who wanted a better life in a suburban white neighborhood in her award-winning play Raisin in the Sun.

She moved to New York City in 1950 to pursue her career as a writer, attended The New School, and moved to Harlem where she became involved in activist struggles such as the fight against evictions.   She joined the staff of the black newspaper Freedom, edited by Louis E. Burnham and published by Paul Robeson and worked with W.E.B. Du Bois.  she was an activist for gay rights and wrote about feminism and homophobia.

On March 11, 1959, Raisin in the Sun became the first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway.  At the age of 29  she was the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

An ardent advocate for women's rights, she commented that women who are "twice oppressed" may become 'twice militant". She held out some hope for male allies of women, writing in an unpublished essay: "If by some miracle women should not ever utter a single protest against their condition there would still exist among men those who could not endure in peace until her liberation had been achieved."

After a battle with pancreatic cancer she died at the age of 34.  James Baldwin believed "it is not at all farfetched to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man."  At her funeral, the presiding minister recited a message from Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. "Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn."

Friday, May 15, 2015

(May 16, 1836 - July 11, 1911)

She was christened Catherine Mary Reignolds, the granddaughter of an English soldier who had been among the first killed at the Battle of Waterloo.  In 1850 her widowed mother left England and brought Kate and her two sisters to the U.S. settling in Chicago.  For four years the family attempted to earn a living on the stage in Chicago and Kate recalls in her memoirs how she carried most of the burden of support for them.

By 1855 Kate moved to New York where she arranged to meet Edwin Forrest.  After Forrest auditioned her, she was hired to play the ingenue Virginia to his title role of Virginius in Sheridan Knowles's play.  After her New York debut at the Broadway Theatre, she was employed in the theatre for almost fifteen years.   With Laura Keene's company she appeared in sixteen productions and then moved to the Bowery Theatre under the management of John Brougham.        
     She joined Ben De Bar's company at the St. Louis Opera House. and performed in his stock company  at the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans, where she could perform with visiting stars. She performed Juliet to the Romeo of Charlotte Cushman and also appeared with Matilda Heron, James E. Murdoch and James K. Hackett.   She then joined the Boston Museum stock company for five years playing many leading roles including Desdemona, Juliet, Lady Gay Spanker, and Peg Woffington.  While there, she also appeared opposite John Wilkes Booth, whom she described in her memoirs as "violent and uncontrolled", an actor who left her frightened on Desdemona's deathbed and bedraggled in Juliet's torn costume.

Courtesy PictureHistory.com
With her reputation established in this country. she traveled to England in 1868, where she appeared at the Princess's Theatre in London and toured in regional theatres. While appearing in Nobody's Daughter in Exeter, she injured her back in a fall on stage. The remainder of her tour was canceled and she returned to America.

In 1886 she began to present dramatic readings for Boston charities.  Three years later she appeared in matinees at Boston's Columbia Theatre in staged readings of Henrik Ibsen's plays.

After retiring from her active stage career, she taught elocution to young women interested in acting. Her memoir, Yesterdays with Actors, is based on a series of articles originally published in the Boston Herald and released in book form in 1887.

During a severe New England heat wave on July 11, 1911, she died of heat prostration at her summer home in Concord, Massachusetts.

I own a rare copy of Yesterdays With Actors by Ms. Reignolds-Winslow (Winslow being the surname of her second husband).  In her introduction, she wrote:
     "In the memories of theatre-goers, a generation is said to count no more than ten years, and we are reckoned old folks by the public after a comparatively short service.  But I was startled to find in a recent book of dramatic biography a statement that my father was killed at Waterloo; whereas it was my grandfather who died there, when my father was eight weeks old.

     This seemed to crowd me rather cruelly into an historic period, and the incident has been the spur to jot down a few trifling recollections that may be of some slight interest to those who share them; before their subjects are forgotten, and the writer has become 'the idle singer of an empty day'."

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

(May 12, 1907 - June 29, 2003)

KATHERINE HOUGHTON HEPBURN was born to wealthy and educated parents in Hartford, CT. Her career on stage, film and television spanned over 66 years earning her 4 Academy Awards, 2 BAFTAs, 1 Emmy Award and a total of 57 nominations for awards of excellence. The product of a liberal and socially conscious environment, her parents were instrumental in shaping her vibrant and headstrong personality. Her father, a surgeon, fought for birth control and the eradication of sexual diseases and her mother marched with suffragists for voting rights for women. Katharine was the second child of a large family whose athletic activities and zest for life provided her with a love of sports and a self-confidence that would exhibit itself often both on and off stage. Hepburn was known for performing all stunts herself and for being an expert swimmer, golfer and tennis player.

Following in her mother's footsteps, she attended Bryn Mawr College, the all women's institution in Pennsylvania where she majored in history and philosophy. She struggled with college life; her grades were poor and she considered dropping out.  Then, after appearing in several student productions, her focus changed and her grades excelled.  She became determined to be an actress on the stag and despite the disapproval of her father; in 1928 she began her professional career in earnest.  Upon the recommendation of John S. Clark, a man who lived next door to Bryn Mawr's campus and who had witnessed her performance as "Pandora" in The Woman in the Moon during the Elizabethan May Day celebrations, she travelled to Baltimore to meet Edwin H. Knopf, producer, with Clark's letter of introduction firmly in tow.  Initially rejected, she persisted and eventually was cast in a small role in Knopf's stock company.

Her acting training was non-existent and at this time it was evident that she needed vocal coaching and practical advice for appearing on the stage. Frances Robinson-Duff, the preeminent voice teacher of the day took her on and worked with her regularly to correct her inconsistent rhythms and often-high pitched and shrill sound.  After a somewhat rocky beginning on the stage, including being fired from no less than 4 productions, at the age of 25, she played the role of "Queen Antiope" in The Warrior's Husband on Broadway to glowing reviews and caught the attention of Hollywood agent Leland Hayward. He convinced film director George Cukor to see a screen test of Hepburn and as a result, she was cast opposite
John Barrymore in the young director's RKO film A Bill of Divorcement. Thus began Hepburn's film career; starring in over 44 features, and winning her first Academy Award for Best Actress in Morning Glory in 1933.

In spite of several major hits, many of her films were declared box office "flops" at the time (yet recognized today as classics).  Her love of the stage combined with her desire to resurrect her image from the failure of these films brought her back to the theatre time and again.  In 1938, after being labeled "Box Office Poison" by the Hollywood press, she returned to New York and collaborated with playwright Philip Barry to bring his new play The Philadelphia Story to Broadway. A sophisticated comedy about a privileged young woman from an A list society family, the role of Tracy Lord was written for Hepburn and fit her to a tee. During the successful run in New York, her then beau,
Howard Hughes, purchased the rights for the film version and through skillful negotiation, she orchestrated her salary, casting and full control of the project with MGM.

Hepburn's business acumen and savvy approach in contract negotiations secured her reputation as a woman who knew how to handle the male dominated profession many times throughout her career.  Never one to sit idle for too long, she performed Shakespeare on Broadway as Rosalind in As You Like It in 1950 and subsequently spent two seasons at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, CT in the roles of Cleopatra, Portia, Beatrice and Viola. In 1969, almost two years after the death of her co-star and partner in life, actor Spencer Tracy, she starred in her first and last musical, Coco, playing the legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel. She received her first Tony Award nomination for her performance and her second in 1982 for The West Side Waltz.  Hepburn died at the age of 96 at her family home "Fenwick" in Old Saybrook, CT.

Happy Birthday, Katharine Hepburn

This bio was written by Paula Ewin for the program of Stage Struck From Kemble To Kate in which she portrayed the actress in a ten minute solo piece.  Since then Paula has appeared as Kate in her program A Date With Kate before appreciative audiences. She also performed on tour as Kate Hepburn in the one woman play Tea at Five.


In a magazine interview (1969) with George Cukor, she said "...Magic can make anything survive. It's this mad endeavor to reduce everything to the physical facts.  Heart, soul and will make one survive. I was brought up in a hospital and talked endlessly to my father, who would operate on people who were very old, and he would say it was marvelous the way people with an "up" spirit and a determination would survive. They wouldn't die because they were going to leave someone who couldn't get on without them----and they lived! They lived. It's the spark of life."

Monday, May 11, 2015

(May 11, 1894 - April 1, 1991)

Time Magazine called her "Dancer of the Century" in 1998; People Magazine claimed she was one of the female "Icons of the Century": and The New York Times acknowledged her as a"brilliant dancer."

Martha Graham was American modern dancer and choreographer whose influence on dance has been compared with the influence Picasso had on the modern visual arts, Stravinsky had on music, or Frank Lloyd Wright had on architecture.

Martha Graham danced and choreographed for over seventy years.  She was the first dancer ever to perform at the White House, travel abroad as a cultural ambassador, and she also received the National Medal of the Arts in 1985.  In the 1994 documentary The Dancer Revealed , she said, "I have spent all my life with dance and being a dancer. It's permitting life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasan't. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless, it is inevitable."

Her Presbyterian family never encouraged dancing but when she was 14 she watched Ruth St. Denis perform at the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles. In the mid 1910s, she began her studies at the newly created Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn until 1923.
                The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance was established in 1926 and she debuted with her first independent concert of 18 short solos and trios she had choreographed.

She collaborated with many composers including Aaron Copland on Appalachian Spring, Louis Horst, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Carlos Surinach,
Norman Dello Joio, and Gian Carlo Menotti.

Throughout her career she resisted requests for her dances to be recorded because she believed that live performances should only exist on stage as they are experienced. But in later years her thinking on the matter evolved and others convinced her to let them recreate some of what was lost.

An entire movement was created by her that revolutionized the dance world and created what is today known as modern dance. Choreographers and professional dancers look to her for inspiration.  According to Agnes de Mille:  "The greatest thing she ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine.  I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft's restaurant over a soda. Martha said very quietly, "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."

In 1976 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford (First Lady Betty Ford had danced with Graham in her youth). Ford declared her a "national treasure".

References: Wikipedia, Martha Graham, Martha, a biography by Agnes de Mille, Blood Memory, autobiography of Martha Graham in which she lists her final performance in Cortege of Eagles at the age of 76.www.facebook.com/SPTheatricalhistory

Saturday, May 9, 2015

She wrote Goodbye, My Fancy, whose congresswoman hero was modeled on Eleanor Roosevelt.  A huge hit on Broadway in 1948, she declared "I'm a big feminist. I've put into my play my feeling that women should never back away from life."

(May 9, 1917 - March 27, 2013)

She was resourceful, fearless, enchanted by films and performers. At age 12, according to Harriet Reisen, (Jewish Women's Archive) she won a state spelling contest and met New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was "smitten" with both Roosevelts, who maintained a connection with her. Too young to vote, she was a speaker for FDR in the 1932 presidential campaign and later visited the Roosevelts at the White House.
                                     After earning a B.A. at the University of Southern California, she became a
script reader at RKO Studios.  "I stayed on at night to do my own writing. I walked on sets, invaded editing rooms, snooped, made friends. Hollywood was like all your childhood fantasies come true, full of beautiful people having a simply marvelous time."  She met Michael Kanin (Garson Kanin's brother) at RKO, married him in 1940 and they spent their honeymoon writing a screenplay.  After buying a New Yorker short story by A. J. Liebling about a boarding house for boxers, they spent six months writing an adaptation entitled Sunday Punch (1942). MGM bought the screenplay.


"We would make a story outline together with rather detailed descriptions of the scenes. Then we divided up the writing, each taking the scenes we felt strongly about. Then one or the other of us would put it all together into a single draft.
We did find a common voice, though we had different strengths....Writing with someone else always requires some degree of compromise, as does marriage.
    We became hyphenated in people's minds: Fay-and-Michael Kanin. To become Fay Kanin and Michael Kanin took some doing."
    Their first broadway hit (Goodbye, My Fancy) starred Madeleine Carroll (on the Playbill cover) Conrad Nagel and Shirley Booth and was later filmed by Vincent Sherman in 1951 starring Joan Crawford and Robert Young.

              THE BLACKLIST

While they were on holiday in Europe they learned that they had been blacklisted by the HUAC.  "What they had against us was that I had taken classes at the Actors Lab in Hollywood where some of the teachers were from the Group Theater and therefore suspect, and we had been members of the Hollywood Writers Mobilization, an organization in support of World War ll to which almost all of Hollywood's writers belonged. There was nothing we could do about it. We took a larger mortgage on the house and started writing a play, but we didn't work in films for almost two years."   The noted film director Charles Vidor insisted that MGM hire them for Rhapsody starring Elizabeth Taylor.

For Teacher's Pet (1958), a romantic comedy about a crabby and dismissive newspaper editor played by Clark Gable and a spunky journalism teacher played by Doris Day, the Kanins were nominated for an Academy Award. Other films include The Opposite Sex starring  June Allyson in 1956, a musical adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce's play The Women.


         They also adapted Akira Kurasawa's Rashomon for the Broadway play of the same name.  It starred Claire Bloom and Rod Steiger and was later adapted as a western film called The Outrage, with a cast including Ms. Bloom, Paul Newman and Edward G. Robinson.


        Because Hollywood wisdom deemed women fit to write only women's pictures, "small" stories of character and relationships supposedly unsuited to the big screen, she turned to the new TV movie genre where a writer (especially if she co-produced) could see her conception realized. She wrote or adapted and co-produced Tell Me Where It Hurts (1974), Hustling (1975), Friendly Fire (1979), and Heartsounds (1984), movies featuring women's lives and issues.  
      She called her TV films the blossoming of her own personal statements.  She combined a journalist's curiosity and a dramatist's appreciation for points of view. Embraced by women as a model and trailblazer, she responded, "I don't think you think of yourself as a pioneer. I just felt very fortunate."

Monday, May 4, 2015

Theresa Helburn Founder of the Theatre Guild - Talks About Casting


To learn more about Theresa Helburn, Cheryl Crawford and Jean Dalrymple,
The League of Professional Theatre Women and Legendary Lives will present:
 Visionary Producers of the 20th Century
on Saturday, May 30, 4:30-7PM 
with Mari Lyn Henry, Milly Barranger and Nancy Rhodes.

Manhattan Theatre Club, 8th Floor, Studio 3. 
 Admission by donation. RSVP: marilyn.henry2@gmail.com

 Autobiography: A Wayward Quest Chapter 9, “Cast and Miscast” an excerpt


     In 1921, Ms. Helburnʼs duties as executive director included attending to the preliminary casting for the board which, under the Guild system, was responsible for each play.

     “I had the conviction that I was no good, and the curious thing is that, in spite of this--for I believe in the value of self-confidence--I worried through. It was an absolute surprise when I found some instinct in myself for picking actors for parts.

     Casting is a seeking, unsure thing. One lies awake nights trying to think of the man or woman inevitable for a particular part, or sad because of the hurt that must be inflicted on an actor who hasnʼt proved right for the part and must be told. One strains for a purely impersonal viewpoint; executive work must be so. But I donʼt think I ever reached the impersonal absolute where disappointing a fellow actor was all in the dayʼs work.

     One of the most interesting features about casting was the exciting results that came from trying actors out in roles that were totally new to them. Often the results were amazing and we learned--and the actor learned too--that he had talents none of us even suspected.

    Once I took a little comedienne who had been playing in sex farces for years and put her in an emotional role. She proved that she could reduce her audience to tears more effectively than she ever had to laughter. Again, in desperation I picked an unknown girl out of the acting course of a new teacher, for the road tour of a S. N. Behrman play with Ina Claire. This was Anne Meacham, who turned out to be excellent and to have an extraordinarily promising acting career ahead of her.

    I am usually cautious about taking credit for giving actors their start, for the matter of credits in the theater is one of the most interesting, subtle and dangerous of all its pitfalls. There is never a successful choice that isnʼt claimed by somebody other than the director or producer, and time is too short to track down rumors and evidence to an authentic conclusion.


    One of the most unexpected requests that ever came my way in casting was from an agent named Baldwin. At my office at the Guild one day, he asked:

    “Do you have a good part for Mae West?” “In the Theatre Guild?” I exclaimed, startled. “Well, no, but she is looking around for a play with a good part for her.” “Iʼll think about it,” I promised him. “Oh, I know of a part in which she could make a sensational entrance. What's that?  Mrs. Warren's Profession I told him. He did not know the play; neither, it appeared, did Mae West, so I gave him a copy.

      After an interval he came back. “Will you talk to her about it yourself?” My memory of that meeting with a typical American phenomenon is bolstered by a copy of my letter to George Bernard Shaw in which I described it.

      I went to her dressing room, where I found her resplendent in a white satin negligee and unsubdued by the jail term she had just served. The huge vaudeville house in which she was playing was packed. Every few minutes during our interview she had to go to the window and throw pictures of herself to the mob of admirers who were blocking traffic below. Her public, she told me, expected a certain line of work from her and she indicated the line most graphically by one of her characteristic gestures.

      “What did you think of the play, Miss West?” I asked her. " “Well, Iʼll tell you, dear, “ she replied. “I feel I owe it to my boys not to play the part of a mother.”


      One of my favorite casting jobs was putting George M. Cohan in Ah, Wilderness! People were amused at the idea of Cohan appearing in a Eugene OʼNeill play but it proved to be, without doubt, his greatest role. I have never known any other actor who understood an audience as well as Cohan. Before he went on the stage he watched them, sensed their mood. He played them for laughs like a fisherman. He could stretch out a laugh as long as he wanted. By the time I caught up with the play on tour it was running a half-hour long. I was frantic. Oliver, who was with me, said. “Donʼt worry. The audience is having a marvelous time.” They were too.


      People have asked me about my method. I do my casting from the pit of my stomach. If it feels hollow, I know that the actor is not convincing in the part. If there is a more rational approach to casting, some infallible rule of thumb, I donʼt know it. It is a kind of empathy, an awareness of the actorʼs potentialities that grows while you watch him and listen to him. After interviewing in excess of ten thousand applicants for roles in the theater, I still canʼt say more than that about my method.


      Inexperienced actors almost always make the same serious mistake. You ask them to read a bit of the script and they try to give a complete, well-rounded performance instead of merely indicating the character. I donʼt want a finished performance at an audition. The actor who gives a detailed performance at the outset is more than likely to be incapable of growth. I listen to the audition, instantly alert if the actor appears to be reading too well, giving too finished a performance. A good actor gropes around, he feels his way, his mind meanwhile working at the meaning of the character. So the strongest audition may mean the weakest performance; it may mean the actor has not the strength we need for the part, that he is soft to the core.

     What I look for are general qualities. Since speech is the actorʼs major tool, slovenly or artificial diction ruins his chances immediately. If he cannot articulate clearly or his voice is bad, there is no earthly point in his trying to become an actor. He is attempting to live beyond his artistic means.

     Overacting is another serious mistake for an actor to make during the audition. The more quiet, relaxed, and simple he is, the better one is able to judge his potentialities without his own personality intruding too much. Experience is not essential; it may be bad experience.

     Appearance also has its effect. When Celeste Holm came to try out for a part in one of our plays, she found out from the other actors who were waiting for an audition what the play was like. She promptly went to the washroom, where she changed her hair-do and make-up to fit her better for the part. It helped land the job for her.


     On the other hand, the first time Katharine Hepburn came to my office to discuss an acting career she was carelessly groomed and she had taken no pains at all with her appearance. Still an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr, she was an odd-looking child. But when she opened the door it was as though someone had turned on a dynamo. The air vibrated with the electric force of her personality. She lacked any vestige of humility. When the young people who later founded the Group Theatre first began to hold their meetings, Katie attended. She listened to their plans and then she stalked out.
“Thatʼs all right for you,” she told them, “but I intend to be a star.”


     Getting across the footlights--an intangible quality--but it is the difference between life and death on the stage. How often two girls have come in to try out for the same part. One is pretty, she looks like the type we need, she reads adequately. Then the other, with a fraction of her looks and not a type I would have imagined suitable, begins to read. Something electric comes through, something I call “released vitality.” That is the thing I mean by personality.

     I suppose the actress who possessed it to the greatest degree of anyone I ever knew was Laurette Taylor. Laurette, helpless and loving. Her inner radiance fell like moonlight on an audience without the use of any stage tricks that I could detect. In my day there has been no other such radiant personality as hers. She had a quality--oh, call it an ability to love, for I canʼt think of anything closer to it--which got across the footlights and aroused an immediate response. And without it there is nothing. What you look for in the audition is that electric quality though you donʼt always find it. You do get a general feeling of the way an actor attacks a part, of the intelligence with which he searches out its meaning. Of the truly great actors and actresses of the theater today few are exceptionally good-looking, but all of them can create an illusion of irresistible charm. That is what counts.


     What I looked for in auditions was potential, appearance, diction, humility of approach to a role and the power of projecting personality. I donʼt believe in casting to type, particularly if the role is a strong one. In such a case, the character is apt to be overstressed so that it throws the whole play off balance.
    The most fascinating part of casting is fitting a man or woman into a totally new kind of part, which widens his versatility and deepens the scope of his technique.

     There was one casting difficulty which rarely faced us. Because we did not appeal to investors for support in producing plays in those early years, we had the freedom of action that comes of using oneʼs own money, however little it may be. One of the bugbears attached to money that is advanced is the strings that go with it. For instance, money is often forthcoming if a manʼs mistress can be cast in the leading role. Fortunately for us we were independent enough never to have to compromise by taking an inadequate actor for the sake of financing.

     Our worst problem came from a distinguished drama critic who became permanently embittered because we would not give his temporary mistress a part for which she was clearly unsuited. He waged verbal warfare against us for years. My complaint is not a moral one; it is an artistic one. There is no possibility of maintaining acting standards as long as players are featured not for their abilities but for their extracurricular activities.
     Looking back over these pages, I am uneasily aware how vague they sound, as though the thing we seek in an actor is so intangible we canʼt pin it down. Well, it is, in a way. Itʼs the fluid thing that makes one person stand out in a room, even when he may be the least impressive physically. Call it personality or what you will.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

(May 3, 1917 - November 23, 2006)

This multiple Tony Award winner for such musicals as
On The Twentieth Century and On The Town  was one-half of the musical-comedy duo, Comden and Green, who provided lyrics, libretti, and screenplays to some of the most beloved and successful Hollywood musicals and Broadway shows of the mid-20th century.  Her writing partnership with Adolph Green lasted for six decades, during which time they collaborated with other leading entertainment figures such as the famed "Freed Unit" at MGM, Jule Styne  and Leonard Bernstein.

Adolph Green and Betty Comden wrote the musical comedy film Singin' in the Rain.   Perhaps the most notable clip from that iconic film features Gene Kelly literally dancing in the rain with the umbrella declaring his love for Debbie Reynolds.  How many of us have tried to do that because Gene made it look so easy!

Born in Brooklyn, she attended Erasmus Hall High School, and studied drama at New York University.  In 1938, mutual friends introduced her to Adolph Green, an aspiring actor. Along with the young Judy Holliday and Leonard Bernstein, they formed a troupe called the Revuers, which performed at the Village Vanguard, a club in Greenwich Village.   Due to the act's success, the Revuers appeared in the 1944 film Greenwich Village but their roles were so small they were barely noticed. Back to New York.

Their musicals, Billion Dollar Baby (1945, music by Morton Gould) and Bonanza Bound (which never got to Broadway) convinced them to return to Hollywood and they found work at MGM.       Screenplays included The Barkleys of Broadway,  The Band Wagon and It's Always Fair Weather.   They received three Screen Writers Guild Awards.
  Their stage work of the 1950s also included Two on the AisleWonderful Town,
Bells Are Ringing, which reunited them with Judy Holliday and Jule Styne. The score, including "Just in Time", and "The Party's Over", proved to be one of their richest.

 They appeared on Broadway in A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, (1958) a revue that included some of their early sketches which they brought back to Broadway in 1977.  Their Hallelujah, Baby! score won a Tony Award. Their final musical hit was 1991's The Will Rogers Follies, providing lyrics to Cy Coleman's music.

Betty Comden was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1981 and the same year she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green were seldom mentioned individually. In an interview with them in 1975, the author of the New Yorker's "The Talk of the Town" wrote that "when Comden and Green are talking or inventing they seem to be one doubly alert person."  They told him that they thought their partnership had survived because they were both happily married to other people. She was married to Steven Kyle; Adolph was married to Phyllis Newman, the actress and director.    Harold Clurman commented on Adolph Green's "ebullient nature" which is somehow "disciplined by Betty Comden's decorous wit". (Nation, 3/11/1978.)  Brendan Gill in the New Yorker spoke of their "acute, affectionately bantering view of human frailty, and that they "have never lost their freshness, and it is plainly their intention, growing older, never to grow old."