Why is this the first time that all 3 plays have been performed together?
Well I guess one reason is that Not I is rarely performed and Footfalls has never been performed by one actress playing both roles of Mother (off stage) and May (on stage), and to my knowledge no other actress has tried to perform all three roles in one evening. Up until I tried it, I didn't even think it was possible.
What do you feel is the single, most urgent theme that runs through Beckett's plays?
Gosh one single theme?!.. Well if I have to squeeze all the sentiment, the ideas, the layers and depth into one single theme, I think DEFIANCE is a good place to start. Beckett celebrates the very human spirit of I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on.
Do you have a favorite of the 3 you're performing? If so, why?
All three are so different and require so much and each have different rewards. Not I is so physically and intellectually taxing but so exhilarating and liberating at the same time, I discover new and profound almost spiritual depths every time I perform Footfalls, and Rockaby's simple compelling poetry grabs me by the throat each time, examining loneliness and yet the honest sharing of this experience and the connection it has with the audience makes me feel less alone.
What do you think audiences are attracted to in Beckett's plays? Is it the harsh reality of the human condition? It is often said that Americans are hooked on violence. Do you think this element is universal?
For me the big attraction is the type of truth Beckett puts on the stage and the fact he isn't selling it to us. He isn't selling us anything, As Pinter puts it "he isn't standing over us with his hand over his heart", There's no polemic, pr or worthy preachiness and I'm so grateful to him for that. He simply puts his finger on his own wounds and in that gentle dark space he leaves us room to find our own. He pays his audience a great compliment.
Do you feel that Beckett manages to entertain while getting out his message? How does he do that?
The great news about Beckett is that he's not out to entertain, there are no stories on sale here nor does he have an explicit message. As a result we observe the human condition and it’s that profound and real recognition that have us weeping and laughing at the desperate hilarity of our situation.
Talk in depth about Billie Whitelaw, as an actress and human being, and how she helped you.
When Billie Whitelaw spoke, she did so with the arresting gravitas that only someone of profound integrity can. She never minced her words, she was direct, never suffering fools, but she was also disarmingly open, extremely generous and often seemed so emotionally vulnerable as someone who seemed to live life without their skin on. This is precisely why Samuel Beckett loved her.
Despite being a child star Billie had no formal training as an actor. She was therefore a very instinctual artist with a fierce commitment that came direct from the gut. She fearlessly stretched her private landscape around Beckett’s creatures and Beckett drew as much from hers as his own. Their names will always be intertwined as one of the greatest theatre partnerships: a towering master of European theatre and his muse.
I know that I am only able to perform these late Beckett roles, especially the mouth-only piece Not I, because Billie Whitelaw did. Even before I got to know her, she made that possible. Like Roger Bannister who broke the four-minute mile, Billie’s performance also broke a psychological barrier by turning the famously “unlearnable” and “unplayable” into theatrical tours de force, thus granting those of us who dare to follow in her wake the confidence that it was possible.
But it was Billie alone who was the pioneer of the most innovative theatre of the 20th century. I first met her in 2006 a few months after my first performance of Not I in London. Edward Beckett attended one of those performances and over a Guinness with me afterwards suggested that it might be finally worthwhile to meet her, now that I’d “found my own way”. Up until that point neither of us had ever met anyone who had played Not I, and we greeted each other like two long-lost war veterans. We immediately swapped our trench stories of how we trained our mouths and diaphragms to speak at the speed of thought without moving a millimetre out of the meagre pinprick of light that allows just the lips alone to be seen.
Once she collapsed during rehearsals and Sam rushed over to her saying “Billie, Billie, what have I done to you? What have I done?” Coming to, she replied, “I really don’t know how to answer that Sam.” “Never mind,” he said, “back you go.”
“I would have walked on glass for that man,” Billie admitted. A year after our first meeting she called me out of the blue. “I want to give you his notes, I have to give you his notes ...” Now I had no idea that I would ever play this role again, so I wasn’t quite sure what had me standing in Billie’s kitchen later that afternoon. I thought she might take out and dust off an old rehearsal manuscript, but instead she told me to sit down at the table and “Begin!” As I started speaking she sat directly opposite and began waving her hand, conducting me. I later learned that was exactly what Beckett had done to her, across her kitchen table.Billie lifted the lid on all of his well-worn notes, especially his instruction Don’t Act: “No colour”. She was adamant not to let me emulate her performance or veer towards a surface “Beckett-style” reproduction, but wanted instead for the work to connect deep within the performer. She explained that Beckett dealt with such truths that he had no room for an actor’s craft. He did want emotion, only he wanted all of it – the real stuff, the guts – not some polished fool’s gold. Like a diviner carrying an ancient wisdom she tirelessly helped me and all of us who encountered her to search deep within. She taught me that truth has a sound, a timbre. I will always be in her debt for this. And, of course, for her parting northern wisdom: “Just get on with it.”
What do you hope audiences will take away with them from this newly organized evening?
The most I can hope for is that people will have a personal visceral experience and not an intellectual one. Beckett can be chewed to pieces in the mouths of academics, leaving us to absorb the leftovers, but in fact Beckett wanted his work to play on the nerves of his audience and not on their intellect. Ultimately I would love even just for a few people that when they close their eyes and think about theatre that they remember this show. If it can stay alive in the imagination of just a few long after its performance I would be very very happy.
With such fantastic reviews, why are you leaving Beckett's work this spring?
All good things must come to an end. I've been performing these works for over 11 years now and I really have to hang up the lips at least as its wreaking havoc on my neck and my body as well as the strain of putting myself into a nightly state of trauma for such a long and sustained time. I'd like to be able to walk away from this work in one piece. However I'm not done with Beckett and I don't suppose he's done with me and I'm preparing to work on two of his prose pieces one of which with open in the Old Vic Theatre in September and the other I hope to work on in America as I've just got a green card and am planning to make New York my home.
Has this been the greatest challenge of your acting career? How?
It has been the greatest challenge but also the greatest privilege. There is no other experience that has stretched me so much intellectually, physically, psychologically, emotionally and imaginatively. There is no greater gift as a woman than having the issue of your body removed and being given the freedom to inhabit a role like this, where to be - is to be a slice of life, being paid the compliment to be consciousness itself from womb to tomb. Wow.. It's very hard to go back to being a petty little bite size cardboard cutout character from the chambers of a frightened limited mind. Women's roles still haven't graduated that far from the three main sexist gears..The bitch, the psycho and the bimbo. We wait in hope..but godot, we've waited a long time.
Plays Thursday, April 7 at 7:30pm; Friday, April 8 at 7:30pm; Saturday, April 9 at 2:00pm and 7:30pm; and Sunday, April 10 at 2:00pm. The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage is at 1310 11th St. in Santa Monica. Parking is free
Box Office at 310.434.3200