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Sam Wanamaker talks with Studs Terkel ; part 2

BROADCAST: Dec. 4, 1964 | DURATION: 00:32:09


Terkel interviews actor/director Sam Wanamaker. They talk about his latest production of Macbeth at the Goodman Theater. This interview is done in two parts.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel And thus, Sam, perhaps we can come now to another aspect of your Goodman Theatre production, lights and music. We spoke of Macbeth himself, the idea of Macbeth, Shakespeare, the set, that central machine, the turbine and everything in the middle there, lights and music.

Sam Wanamaker Well, first of all, as far as lighting is concerned, let me start on the premise of the witches. Now, in Macbeth there's always, you know, the problem of the witches, the supernatural. As you know, there's always been great kind of controversy as to what the witches represent. I mean, are they Macbeth's conscience, are they meant to be witches in terms of Shakespeare's time when witches were accepted as a fact of nature, that witches did exist and there were evil forces that did exist and so on. And then the apparitions, and the apparitions' scene and so on, where Macbeth goes to the witches and they call up these various apparitions who, who, who forebode vari -- prophesize certain things that will happen to him or won't happen to him and so on. And I, in the productions I have seen of Macbeth, I have always been, you know, disenchanted by the treatment of the witches, they're always, you know, three either young kids dressed up as old, gnarled ladies and they've all got high voices, and they're all singing away, you know. Or you get various interpretations one way or another in the opera of Macbeth, I've seen it, you know, the witches are done traditionally as ballet dancers and I've seen very effective productions which have used the witches in, in balletic ways and so forth. But I have never, ever, believed in the witches on the stage. I've never really felt there was anything supernatural there. And, you know, producers have always traditionally tried to use whatever effects or whatever tricks they could achieve to create these witches. In Shakespeare's time, the witches and Banquo's ghost appeared through trapdoors and, you know, they used to come down from the heavens on the stage machinery of their time and so on. So I said, "Well, now, wait a minute. If Shakespeare were alive today and he were given the facilities of the modern theater, would he make use of them?" I mean, are we bound by the fact that Shakespeare wrote his play in a time when there was limited equipment in the theater to achieve certain effects? I mean, when they wanted to create thunder in the Elizabethan theater, they would have cannonballs up in the roof of the stage house and they'd roll these cannonballs around and that would create the effect of thunder. Well, today we have electronic means of doing this, we have other devices, technical devices, which by virtue of our development, you know, the mechanistic age, we have now been able to develop certain devices for the theater of a mechanical nature. Now which brings me to the question of lighting equipment. We have a great command of lighting equipment in, in, in our time. Now we can fade lights in, we can narrow the beam, we can make lights move and change in a marvelous way that creates effects and moods and so forth. Shakespeare naturally didn't have them, he had only daylight. They didn't even use candles, which they used in the 19th century. So I said, "How can I create a feeling of the supernatural with these witches that is really fresh and exciting and really give the audience a feeling of the supernatural or give the feeling the audience that these figures are materializing in Macbeth's own mind?" And I decided there was a line in the play which I used as the sort of basis, a starting point for my interpretation of the witches. Macbeth says, or Banquo says, "Where have they gone?" The witches disappear. There's a, the stage direction in the play that says "the witches disappear," and Mac -- and Banquo says, "Where, where have they gone?" And Macbeth says, "Into the air, and what seemed corporal melted as breath into the wind." "Melted as breath into the wind." Now, how could you today create this feeling of a three-dimensional form disappearing and melting into the air? And I decided that since we have the means, it was no longer necessary to make the witches three-dimensional, to bring them onto the stage in terms of little old ladies with cracked voices and with beards and so on, which as I say has never convinced me for one moment. So I decided to use lights to materialize them. I decided to use sound to materialize them, and therefore we devised a way of creating a, a lighting effect which was both mobile and visual in such a way that cre -- that the light itself created amorphous forms and shapes and changed and turned and moved around and disappeared into the air, actually went from the stage platform onto the cyclorama and back and around and moved around very easily and quickly. We were able to amplify the voices of the witches and put on certain electronic sounds which gave the voices a disembodied supernatural quality. Now, we were partially successful in the sound thing, because of the limitations of budget we were unable to record the sound in the best possible way of the voices, and therefore there is a lack of intelligibility in some cases. This is a real criticism and I am sorry to say that this is so, because the one thing we must not do is obscure the intelligibility of the language. Unfortunately, the caliber of the equipment that we were using was not of the best, and therefore we weren't able to achieve real intel --inteligibility all the way through.

Studs Terkel May I say this, though, Sam, that knowing the Goodman Theatre cyclorama, that marvelous "cyc" in the back, it's the first time I've seen it really used, the full, that you are aware of that particular property that you had there, that "cyc" with the lights and the--

Sam Wanamaker Well, with the, the lighting equipment, you see, another thing in relation to the use of the cyclorama that you were talking about and the use of the kind of set that we were using, we decided to use lighting in two ways. One, of course, to reveal the actors so they could be seen. Secondly, to create the mood of the scenes and the mood of the play, which is black and dark and of threatening skies and no sunlight, mysterious, dark. The whole sense that Shakespeare expresses in his play when he talks about nature in turmoil, nature and evil taking over and superseding the good values in nature as well, so that things like the sun were blotted out. Shakespeare calls on the night, "Come, seeling night, and scarf up the tender eye of pitiable day." The nights and darkness and blackness is a very important part of the mood of this play, and the character of this play and the conflicts of this play, so that I want to achieve all that kind of black turmoil with the lighting. Secondly, the cyclorama was used with certain kinds of abstract patterns in color and shape which enhance the, the kind of non-objective quality of the whole production physically, so that the patterns on the cyclorama and the colors were there to create mood and to give a sense of background in the terms of the set, and I think we have achieved something that is quite remarkable. I think the Goodman Theatre with its limitations of equipment and money and so on nevertheless was able to achieve something that I have seen nowhere else in any of the professional theaters I have worked in anywhere in the world, and I've been in a lot. I think we accomplished something which, in the words of George Izenour, who is the leading lighting man in the United States and head of the Yale Drama Department, came to a dress rehearsal and saw the, the lighting equipment and the things that we're doing and he thought it was the most remarkable achievement in, in the terms of, of this play and the style.

Studs Terkel Since you mentioned Izenour, the board, there's a remarkable board backstage. It might be worth talking about, Sam, how you -- this is called the Izenour board. You might, perhaps, just tell how you use this particular, the nature of the board itself.

Sam Wanamaker Well, this is a, a lighting board, which this man George Izenour invented, and is used in many professional theaters throughout the world, is a marvelous board which allows the pre-setting of complicated light cues. You know lights are constantly changing in the theater and in particular this play, there are 95 light cues here, which is a terribly complicated business. And this board is almost, I mean, the simplest way to express it is like a, an organ board, it has a number of keys on it, and the light cues, 10 light cues ahead, can be set up on this board. It's like an IBM machine in that respect. So that while one scene is going on, the other light cues are being set up on the opposite panel, and then they simply, by a master control, simply slowly fade one lights, and that is, one set of lights going down, and another set of lights going up. And you can preset this 10 light cues ahead, which is a tremendous advantage. And there is a kind of marvelous syrupy quality to the lighting, that is, it's, it can happen very imperceptibly, it can happen very quickly. But whatever it happens, it happens smoothly and it flows beautifully in this great, very subtle control of the light values, and it's a wonderful board, and the boys that are operating it are just marvelous.

Studs Terkel We haven't talked about the music. You mentioned the music. You used, you employed some, I suppose I have some "musique concrete" here, too, and strange sounds.

Sam Wanamaker Well, another thing, you see, about production. I mean, again, it has to be all of a piece. And I believe that sound in the theater is coming back into its own, and I don't mean, again, literal sound or kind of schmaltzy music which was the tradition of the, the early twentieth century play, but sounds which are in themselves also abstract, sounds which produce an effect of a mood or a feeling. For example, the whole opening of the play has to suggest nature in turmoil. It has to suggest that the skies are black with thunder and lightning, that sup--that these, this, this is not just natural thunder and lightning, that this is some strange, supernatural thing that's going on. So we have to create a sound that was not a familiar conventional sound of thunder and thunder sheets and a recording of thunder as we know it, but I wanted to create some kind of sound that was not recognizable in conventional terms to the audience, but would strike terror in the hearts of the audience, that would frighten them, that would give them a sense of something new and strange and weird. And it's the character of the sound that we have used, which incidentally was made and recorded at the University of Illinois sound workshop, where a, a composer--

Studs Terkel Harry Partch, I'll bet.

Sam Wanamaker No.

Studs Terkel Was it?

Sam Wanamaker No, no it wasn't Harry Partch. No, it was a, a man by the name of Don [Andress?], who was an instructor in a music department of the University of Illinois. And they have a very important electronic musical laboratory there, one of the best in the country, and we approached them and they were very excited about the idea of cooperating with us, because this kind of sound is -- and music is very seriously considered in the music field. It's still in an experimental nature, but I think it's the most exciting sound to use in the modern theater. And I needn't go into the fact that in European theaters today this is accept -- the accepted. The use of abstract sound and electronic sound is being used in European theaters to great success, and I think it may seem a little strange to American audiences and possibly American provincial audiences because there isn't much experimentation going on here, and therefore this may strike them as a little strange, but the fact is that the sound, in the same way as the lights, in the same way as the setting, is all of a piece. It's meant to be abstract, it's meant to create new experiences in the mind and the eye and the ear of the beholder, of the audience, to create a total new experience. And the sound does that, the music which is sometimes with real instruments, sometimes with created instruments, sometimes with electronic effects are created, we are trying to create sounds that are something that no one has ever heard before, not just for the sake of making something new, but to create a new experience in the audience, so that they cannot identify that sound with any conventional thing they've ever heard. But the experience that they hear is a new experience, a frightening experience in the case where it should be frightening.

Studs Terkel I think, Sam, we should point out that you're not speaking of innovation for the sake of innovation. Pier Luigi Nervi, the Italian designer/architect, says one of the great dangers of our day, he's speaking of architecture, he says these, newness for the sake of newness, not that, but you, you think of innovation for the sake of rediscovering an old truth.

Sam Wanamaker Well you, one is always in danger of being accused of, you know, doing something just for the sake of doing something new. I am not interested in that. I think this is a dangerous point. One is always on the hairline, on the tightrope always where an effect that one is striving to achieve is going to distract the audience and make them conscious of the sound and take them out of the play, that sound is wrong, or that lighting effect is wrong, and that stage effect is bad. No, what I'm striving to do, and I think the innovators are people, the honest innovators are people who are always striving to reveal the truth in a fresh way. That is what art is. Art is the examination of the truth and the revelation of the truth in a way that is unique and fresh and personal. That is what I'm trying to achieve, and I always ask myself whenever I'm trying to do something fresh, "Is this going to distract or is it going to create a new experience?" And there will always be people in the audience who will react to it in a negative way. They will be distracted by the new effect and, and think, "Oh well, what is that sound?" You know, and immediately their concentration on the play is destroyed. On the other hand, there are other people whose experience will be enhanced, enlarged and made greater, more sharp by a new experience. I still believe that terror is struck in the heart of the audience at the beginning of Macbeth because we are using sounds that are so terrifying and so frightening that it strikes terror in, in the hearts of the audience. And you know very often that if you hear something that's unfamiliar to you, you become afraid of it. Because it's something you can't identify with, and until, you're not satisfied until you, "What is that noise? What is that sound? What? What?" And it frightens you. Well, that's what I'm trying to achieve. It's like Macbeth when he says, "Whence is that knocking?" when, after he's committed a murder, there's this knocking at the gate. Well, this first knocking, knocking is a terrifying sound to him. He says, "How ist with me when every noise appalls me?" He doesn't know what the sound is. It terrifies him. Therefore, it cannot be a familiar sound to him, and the sound we use is a sound of knocking, but it's the most terrifying knocking that you've ever heard.

Studs Terkel That's an interesting point. Now, this could have been a traditional knocking at the gate, but because of Macbeth's inchoate terror and his conscience, the knocking is strange, wholly, something he's never heard before, and thus the audience, too, would be receiving the same, the same fear.

Sam Wanamaker Well, that's when I'd hoped, I'd hope that when this knocking comes, the audience is so startled by it, is so shocked by it, is so unable to identify that sound of knocking with any knocking that they know, that they experience the same kind of uncertainty and fear that Macbeth does.

Studs Terkel Sam, you were implying earlier that were Shakespeare alive today, naturally, he'd be using every modern means, technical means at his disposal.

Sam Wanamaker Yes, I certainly believe that. I mean, we know for a fact that Shakespeare was not only an actor, but he was a producer. He owned the company, he shared ownership in the company of the Globe Theatre. Therefore, he was a very practical man. There's a very interesting book that's been written recently of research on stage sounds during Shakespeare's time, and it's most fascinating. This detailed study in this book which shows the multiplicity of sounds that they used offstage to create effects for the ghosts, for the flourishes, for the alarms, for the thunder, for the lightning, they used a number of theatrical stage effects, and Shakespeare was a stage man. He was a practical man of the theater, he was not some dramatist writing in, in a little room separated from the practical nature of the theater, and therefore, I mean, one can only conclude that Shakespeare, because he was a practical theater man, would have taken every opportunity to use every device he possibly could. And after all, that theater was built for Shakespeare by Shakespeare's company. That -- and, and they had all kinds of trapdoors and devices in it in order to produce all these effects that they knew they had to do. And that's why I say Shakespeare would have leapt at the opportunity of using all these technical means that we have at our command today. There's no question in my mind about that, and when people start talking about the aesthetic of Shakespeare and Shakespeare's language and all that, let me just say, by the way, we haven't talked about this one thing about Shakespeare's language, and Shakespeare's poetry, and the American actor in relation to Shakespeare, and Shakespeare in the American theater and things like that. To me this is a very exciting and a very interesting subject, because the more I work on Shakespeare and I have, as you know, the last time I was on your program I talked about playing Iago at the Stratford-on-Avon, I was the first American with Paul Robeson to appear in Stratford in the, in its entire 100-year history, so I'm very proud of that. And -- but I, at the same time having lived in England a long time, I have been exposed to a lot of Shakespeare on his own home ground, so to speak, and I have always felt, and I think every actor feels, that the, the mountain that Shakespeare represents in terms of the theater art, you know, is the highest peak that one could possibly climb. To play Macbeth, one has to be very humble. To play any Shakespeare play, one has to say, "I am nothing, and now I am beginning to try to use my craft and my art on the greatest work of genius that the theater has ever produced," and this is not a task that can be accomplished in four weeks or five weeks. I mean, I'm only beginning to touch the part of Macbeth. I hope I will have another opportunity to work on Macbeth again and to play him again. But this question of the poetry in Shakespeare, when I was a student at the Goodman Theatre many, many, many, many years ago, I rejected Shakespeare as false and theatrical and phony and had nothing to do with my life and my reality and today, and when I came to playing Shakespeare I was always opposed to this idea of the poetry. The false values of poetry as expressed in terms of the vibrato of the Shakespearean actor's voice and all the clichés of the big gesture and the grand speech and the singing sound of poetry. However, I have come full circle in my attitude and my approach. First of all, I believe that poetry is a special thing. You cannot ignore poetry, you cannot read or recite poetry as you would Tennessee Williams or Clifford Odets. It is poetry, it has a particular form, it has a particular shape which is formalistic and one has to deliver poetry as an actor in terms of poetry and not try to negate it. So I'm very much for doing Shakespeare in poetic terms, that is, reading his words as poetry and at the same time trying to create a real human being. Now this is very difficult, because real human beings don't talk poetry, they talk ordinary prose and very naturalistic speech. But we have to look at Shakespeare in a different way. We have to look at Shakespeare in terms of opera. It is the opera of the spoken stage, in my opinion. Now that means that the actor has to really have a sense of poetry. He has to have a sense of the rhythm and the forms of poetry and give them their full musical value. But at the same time he must not destroy the truth and the reality of the character that he's playing, the content of what he's saying, and he must make believable each moment that he's on the stage in terms of the truth of the emotion and the intelligence of what he's revealing. And this is extremely difficult to achieve, I can tell you. I, there are very few actors that can do it fully, successfully. One of them is Laurence Olivier, another is John Gielgud. There are very few actors who can accomplish that.

Studs Terkel This point that you're making, Sam, that poetic theater, larger than life certainly, at the same time reflecting the innermost truth that is in life. You know, it's not a pavement reality, but a reality over and beyond the sidewalk, and this is--perhaps we can just say as a, as a postscript of mine, we haven't talked of Sam Wanamaker the, the actor as Macbeth. Sam, as I think everybody will agree, is a most interesting performer to watch. What impresses me, Sam, about you on stage all the times I've seen you is this element that I would call "presence," sense of presence, and I think the students working with you are, are much rewarded, 'cause this is the, perhaps one of the most key aspects is not the actor, that sense of being there, this word, does this register with you, Sam, this comment "presence"?

Sam Wanamaker Well, yes, I think acting of course is largely personality. I think it's got a great deal to do with, with what you are and a force of personality. I come on to the stage, I think, with a great sense of where I am and who I am, and a great sense of the, the character. I try to lose the conscious self as much as is possible. It is never possible, nor should one strive to lose total consciousness of oneself, because then one is no longer an artist. An artist is, is a conscious being, and an actor is an artist insofar as he is in control of himself, but he must try to go as far as he can in losing himself in terms of the character and only leaving a very small area of control, a constant watchfulness, and it is this element, I think, which is what you call presence, this degree of losing oneself in the character, that is, Macbeth being a king, Macbeth, Macbeth being a man who is huge in stature emotionally and mentally, has to, has to suggest that when he comes on the stage, he has to have the authority of that, and the trouble with, I think a lot of young actors is, they haven't quite got that authority yet. I think this authority comes with experience. After all, I've been in the theater for over 30 years, and with that comes some degree of authority when walks on the stage, I'm scared to death every time, but I still can have enough grip on myself to have that authority. But I'm--really want to get back to the--really what I consider more interesting thing about, about the whole idea of a classic theater. I believe American actors can play the classics. I believe they can play Shakespeare very well. They have the strength and they have the virility--

Studs Terkel May I just make this one parenthetical comment, this point you're making, Sam, is one that was made rather interestingly by Peter Hall, the young British director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He spoke of the American virility and vitality that is so integral a part of Shakespeare.

Sam Wanamaker Yes, that's right. But now what the American actor needs is a development of his speech, the development of his sense of poetry. It's certainly something that I'm striving for myself. As I say, it is a, it is a very dangerous line, because--I don't know. I don't know. Let me give you an example. I think a lot of people know of Dylan Thomas's work and his records and have heard him at one time or another. The fascinating thing about Dylan Thomas is that he gave you this great sense of poetry in his readings, but at the same time he gave you the great sense of truth of the characters he was describing in his poetry. And this, I think, is a very good guide for a lot of young people who are trying to learn how to do poetry in terms of Shakespeare. Dylan Thomas is a good example. If you listen to Carl Sandburg, for example, and of course Chicagoans are certainly very similar -- familiar with his work and his readings. There is another man that I use as an example for me as a guiding example. The way he reads his poetry, he gives it poetic values and at the same time--and a singing quality, and at the same time there is the reality and the belief in the human beings and in the ideas which he's putting across in his poetry. I think American actors, once they learn not to be self-conscious about poetry, once they understand that poetry is music, poetry is song without the orch -- orchestration of the orchestra and the accompaniment of the orchestra, that he must make the music with the poetry, with his voice. When the American actor learns that, he will be able to do Shakespeare, and this requires a lot of work. I think a lot of it has to do with speech. I think American speech is bad for the most part. It's corrupted.

Studs Terkel Lazy.

Sam Wanamaker It's lazy, it's slovenly, and so on. And this is particularly true of Chicago's speech, unfortunately. My own speech, as a Chicagoan, I had, you know, terrible influences of, of, you know, various different foreign languages on my own speech and apart from the Midwestern twangs and so forth which I had to struggle to get rid of, but, and I'm still struggling to get rid of many of them, but this is the one thing that the American actor needs: dignity of speech and as you say, overcoming this slovenli-slovenliness of speech.

Studs Terkel I think that a little uniqueness should never be lost either. Sam Wanamaker, how quickly our tape has run out and is running out. I think, perhaps, we're due for another session with Sam Wanamaker as to plans, other ideas of theater classic and contemporary. But at the moment there's a chance for audiences to see Sam Wanamaker's production of Macbeth in which he plays the role of the ill-starred Scot, at the Goodman Theatre, until when, Sam, what's the date until?

Sam Wanamaker The twentieth of December.

Studs Terkel Until December twentieth the chance to see a, certainly a, a, a, how can I describe it? A stimulating, a different production. Not to guarantee everyone will say, "Huzzah," some may boo, I hope so. You don't mind, but certainly will rouse, it -- cause people to think anew in reference to Shakespeare and Macbeth. Sam Wanamaker, thank you very much, this time for our third session. We'll have to have another one before you leave town.

Sam Wanamaker I'd be delighted, Studs, it's a great experience, always talking to you. Thank you.

Studs Terkel That's the Goodman Theatre. Sam Wanamaker's production of Macbeth until Dec--