William Ball discusses the American Conservatory Theater
BROADCAST: Aug. 16, 1966 | DURATION: 00:48:06
William Ball discusses the American Conservatory Theater in Pittsburg, PA. They discuss in great detail how different the company is. Specifically that they keep themselves learning and perfecting the classic style. Dick Christiansen theater and film critic joins the conversation.
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Studs Terkel The town has exploded into life, passion, partisanship, and above all burning interest in attendance at the shows Ball has created for us since he quit New York and headed out over the Alleghenies last July. One of the fragments from a column by Jerry Tallmer, who was a very perceptive drama critic, one of the younger ones and a very observant one indeed of the New York Post, describing a phenomenon that may be of great importance to Chicagoans, I trust. A Pittsburgh theater, the director William Ball. William Ball who will be in charge of the American Conservatory Theater's productions at Ravinia this summer. William Ball himself perhaps has been acclaimed more than any other, I say new director, I say new just from the standpoint of establishing time, that's all. William Ball, ever, ever since "Six Characters in Search of an Author" off-Broadway and his Chekhov Ivanov, his work in Pittsburgh and practically every festival theater in the country, has created a great deal of excitement with his productions, with his ideas. And I'm thinking about your Pittsburgh experience, Mr. Ball. You established this, the American Consevatory theater in Pittsburgh. Can you describe it,
William Ball Well, our first visit was in Pittsburgh. We spent six months there, then we went on to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then to New York where we did some television. We did the television film of the full-length "Under Milk Wood" which, I believe, played in the Chicago area. And then we are now engaged in Westport, Connecticut and we'll go to East Haddam, Connecticut. And during the middle of the summer to Stanford University in Palo Alto California, and then to Ravinia. We're, oh about 68 artists and craftsmen in search of a home. The Conservatory Theater is a new concept in theater. It's not just a repertory theater. We are founded on the belief that the, well it, it might be a negative way to put it, but that the American theater artist has, somehow or other, gotten himself backed into a corner where he now is probably the laziest and utmost unknowledgeable artist. And as far as being called a professional is concerned, there is so much subjectivism and opinion, so much lack of knowledge and standards or criteria of work that we are ashamed to call ourselves members of a profession. The Conservatory is based on the concept that everyone, including all the directors, myself, right down to the wardrobe mistresses and the other craftsmen, are all in study. We're, we're researching, trying to find new techniques for the theater, trying to review all the old techniques, ecclectic training. We're trying to completely revitalize and re-examine the craft of comedy which, as you know, disappeared somehow or other in the-
Studs Terkel May I just interject, William Ball's Tartuffe, Moliere's Tartuffe, was the one play during the earlier regime, administration at the Lincoln Center, that was acclaimed, and they were quite wild about that with O'Sullivan, wasn't it?
William Ball Michael O'Sullivan who has performed here, the Goodman Theater.
Studs Terkel I'm sorry, you, you were describing your new approach to comedy. And here's your Moliere that obviously was very
William Ball That's right. And we'll be doing what I consider to be the greatest farce in the English language which is "Charlie's Aunt", will be part of the season of six plays that will present at Ravinia for four weeks beginning on August twenty-third. "Six Characters in Search of an Author" originated with me. I should say, my production originated five years ago in Milwaukee of all places. And the production was received very well there. We went to New York with it. We went to London with it where the leading roles were played by Sir Ralph Richardson and Barbara Jefford, Megs Jenkins, and the work came back to New York and we put it in the repertory and it has traveled with us since. It's probably one of our most dynamic and certainly best received works. We have the "Misalliance" by George Bernard Shaw, "Uncle Vanya" by Chekhov and "Beyond the Fringe" which is an exercise of a kind of madness for some of our young comedians.
Studs Terkel So here is a wide range as far as repertory is concerned, from an early American farce, Charlie's Aunt, and then to see William Ball's approach to this, as well as "Beyond the Fringe", a revue, a young British revue, and Chekhov and Shaw.
William Ball And then we have "Tiny Alice" which we just opened in Westport. And there was a storm after the opening night which I could hardly believe my ears when the audience rose to its feet. And this play, which was regarded on Broadway as incomprehensible and which failed after a six or eight weeks run, Edward Albee's new and controversial, metaphysical, melodrama, apparently for some reason struck a chord in, in the Westport audiences, and they really just-
Studs Terkel But something you did apparently as the director here. Here's a play that was considered incomprehensible, directed by a very, very expert director indeed in New York
William Ball A marvelous director.
Studs Terkel and, whereas your approach was what? This was, you did this in Pittsburgh.
William Ball Well I think, yes I, I started the production in Pittsburgh where I've been working on it now for a year. And that's one of the beauties of having a permanent repertory that you can continue to add. Now for instance, in "Tiny Alice", I've been developing a theme, a musical theme that works all the way through the evening based on, "Oh Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" by Bach. And it gets sort of turned upside down and inside out and it gets harp versions and piano versions and there's one even, there's a frug version or a rock n roll version. And just recently I've been trying to find a combo of three electric guitars to play "Oh Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring". Now that sounds possibly a little freakish. The play is, is freakish, it's certainly not for children. But the ability to keep the play in repertory for a year and keep working on it allows these ideas to be, to be polished off.
Studs Terkel Well just as you're talking, William Ball, it occurs to me what you're, what you seek in plays as a director is clarity rather than obscurantism, it's clarity. No matter how complex the play may be.
William Ball That's right. I think that if the playwright doesn't reach the audience, then the evening has been wasted. And my notion of theater is maximum playwright to maximum audience. That is, not to maximum number of audience, but somehow to his maximum spirit, reaching as deep into him and moving and changing him in a way so that when he leaves the theater, he, he will be somehow different than when he comes. It could be because of a lightheartedness. It could be also because of an enriched understanding.
Studs Terkel When he leaves the theater he will be somewhat enriched, somewhat different than when he came in. Now here we come a theme, what theater is all about, isn't it?
Studs Terkel Not just floss. Nothing wrong with floss, providing that it, of course you've got "Charlie's Aunt."
William Ball "Charlie's Aunt", "Beyond the Fringe." We, I actually, we have "Servant of Two Masters." We have 19 plays in the existing repertory. Now most repertory theaters have, oh at most on this continent, five have been done in a season, sometimes they approach a sixth. But when the season is closed, all of those plays are put away in trunks and they don't appear the next year. This is the only theater company that exists for 50 weeks out of the season. We have the largest acting company in the country. We carry an active repertory of 19 plays and we keep adding to that. Most of the roles have two performers to play them, sometimes three. In "Six Characters in Search of an Author", for instance, we have three chaps who have played the son and three women who have played the mother, and so forth. One of the advantages of the large repertory is that it gives a lot of actors opportunity to play a lot of really big and important roles because what we're trying to do in a sense is to get the cobwebs out. To get them, to get the actor moving again. He's been intimidated and frightened and his soul sort of stultified in a kind of television truth. What we want is flamboyance, vigor, sometimes-
Studs Terkel Television truth, sorry, go ahead, that's, that's a very-
William Ball Well it's, it's, it's putting all the sentences in the proper order. It's somehow or other never getting expressive or, you know in life we change our mind as we speak, we pause, we do all sorts of gooney things and we make gestures that are inconsequential and sometimes our sentences go awry. And we do-
Studs Terkel Inconsequential, seemingly inconsequential yet very revealing.
William Ball Yeah that's right. And sometimes the, the most freakish gesture can be more revealing than the gesture that you would expect. Now in television, everybody modifies, well I think this is true in life, we, so many people are so busy modifying themselves, standardizing themselves, lest they should be thought eccentric, trying to obey the rules of good society and the intimidation is, is rampant. Now if the actor can't swing loose and cut loose of some of the standardization that's going on around us, and have the daring to, to bounce around a bit, I, I, shouldn't use that particular phrase, bounce-
Studs Terkel Bounce
William Ball Well, I mean, my name is Ball. It doesn't work [laughing] so well. But I mean somehow or other he should be able to swing wide and, and behave capriciously. Now I don't mean only just in a daffy way. I don't mean like pop art. But I mean in ways that he feels are vigorous, that are assertive. The thing I like about you incidentally, since the moment we met, you, you're, you're an affirmer or, what I call, positation. I don't like affirm because it sounds like affirmation sort of slides in. I like positation because it has [laughing] some kind of very firm, clear placement. Negation is, got, is good, firm annihilation and there's so much of that going on. I like people who positate, if you like. Who really come on and say "I like this, I believe in that. Let's do that. Come on let's get to work". That's fine, you know?
Studs Terkel Amen.
William Ball Right. That's the only thing that, I, I do this with the kids you know, in the company. As a matter of fact, I've limited the negatives which I found were destructive like don't, never, won't, no.
Studs Terkel Open to all possibilities
William Ball Right.
Studs Terkel that the human experience can be open
William Ball And you know when you say yes, when you encourage, it does make a big difference. Now maybe every, every parent knows this to be a fact with their children. But boy, in art, when you say yes, these, these children, I think of them as children, my 32 actors, have, they're all top talents. As a matter of fact, Douglas Campbell of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater saw the company in action, he said I never saw so much talent in one place in my life. It was, from him that's, was a-
Studs Terkel That's because you unchained what might have been chained.
William Ball Well, we at least say yes. And, and the fun thing about it is, you know we finished a scene one day in a, a, in, in a kind of class, we have a thing called histrionics which is a new subject we have been studying. Do you know I even teach them how to laugh technically, [laughing] and there, there are certain actual techniques for laughing. I think actors don't, are not apt these days, almost no one is apt to laugh very much. At any rate, to go back to your-
Studs Terkel Because no has been the word-
Studs Terkel and
William Ball they're frightened to death. So we say yes and they, they've exceeded even my imagination. I have a great belief in their potential, but then suddenly they'll loom out. They'll suddenly do something that I would never even dream of them to be capable of. And that's when it's a celebration, that's when it's a joy. [pause in recording]
Studs Terkel Celebration you said. Perhaps this, you really, what you, you're celebrating life, not only what it is but what the possibilities are. We speak of theater as being larger than life. You're saying you're going a step beyond. You're saying, it's not a question of being larger than life, life itself can be larger than it is.
William Ball That's right. And we must make it large. We must, we must somehow or other not only witness it, not only sort of creep through it or, the terrible thing is endure, most people are enduring. Short range goals, they say all, all I really want is to get through to the end of the day. And the only endeavor that I really feel strongly is to avoid the pains and the, the, the mashugana and the difficulties. To
Studs Terkel To avoid pain rather than to experience joy.
William Ball That's right. Or to experi, if Albee says in "Tiny Alice" to consciousness, he says, consciousness is pain, to be aware is pain. And if you take that for granted, then if you're going to be alive, so pain is part of the accompaniment. It
Studs Terkel It seems to me that William, William Ball has come along at a very interesting time in our society. It seems, when we speak so much about dehumanization about zombiism, about acceptance, about enduring the day, surviving the day, a man, a director comes along, William Ball who says oh sure, beyond that and live the day.
William Ball That's right, because to endure, do you know a psychiatrist friend of mine said despite all the complaints he gets in his office, the one thing that is universal is wantlessness. People don't know what to want. They want to be instructed what to want. They have given up somehow. Now that's the opposite of endeavor. Endev, one of the things in the Elizabethan era was that man believed that if he endeavored he could achieve, and the whole renaissance was based on that. Nowadays we spend so much time and at, one of the actor's tools is what we call given circumstances or conditions. Another tool is the verb, the verb that he uses to accomplish his endeavor. Well in our modern society a man, from the time he gets up in the morning till he goes to bed at night, may spend 10 or 20 minutes on the verb of his endeavor. The rest of his day he's, he's dealing, he's spending, dealing only with his conditions, trying to mitigate, mitigate the oppression or the difficulties or trying to sooth over, somehow or other straighten out, the oppressive conditions and how much he actually vigorously hunks into the endeavor of achievement is is very limited. The zest comes from the verb not from the condition. And I think what we have to do somehow or other, at least I'm trying to do it with the actors, is to so neutralize the conditions and so encourage the verbs that they, they zip along and, and the more they do it, every day they increase.
Studs Terkel You encourage the verbs because a verb is do, a verb is act, act.
William Ball Right act. That's why A.C.T., the American Conservatory Theater is act. Act is to do and the very doing of something, as opposed to modifying the things that keep you from
Studs Terkel Or being done to.
William Ball That's the thing, that's it. Being done to is, we are, the thing is, as increased population, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as victims. Well what else can I do? I'm not allowed to do that. The whining, the complaining and the lack of self-determination are the things that the theater can be very useful. If, if an audience can admire the way the actors sort of lope out into life and say what they want and stand up and yell and, I got this, as a matter of fact, idea, I, I saw a Greek tragedy done in Central Park in New York City for an audience that paid nothing. They were just walked in, it was a free thing. And they pounded their feet and yelled and screamed. Now this was "Electra", and it was very high formal Greek tragedy, but these ordinary people off the street, they screamed and roared and yelled at the end because they liked the way Electra stood on her own feet and claimed what she wanted and she wasn't going to take any nonsense and everybody was going to have to clear out of the way, she was gonna get it. And the people in the audience loved having a champion who would stand up and say this is what I want and I'll go for it. And they said, you know, they said "Way to go, way to go. That's the way, that's the way I want to be. If you can do it, I can do it". There's a kind of courage in that.
William Ball [laughing] I think the theater can have value like that.
Studs Terkel Well this must be what you, obviously William Ball has found here is a secret to something. A secret that has been well kept for so many years but he sees breaking through. That people, theater and life connected, that there's an exhiliration. As you say people leave different than when they came in. And many you say have never seen, in Pittsburgh, and if we make a return to this experience and to the, your conservatory theater, there are many people perhaps who had never seen flesh and blood actors
William Ball That's true, that's true. And I think that many people think that the stage play is similar to a motion picture or television and that is one of the most exciting thrilling experiences to have. Oh a couple or an individual or sometimes a school, a class come to the theater, many of whom have never seen a play before. That is almost like a sacred moment. It is so thrilling when, you see, what we do in the theater is appeal to possibly the most adult and the most infantile of, of the verbs of man. That is, in the adult, the verb of admire and the infantile, the verb of wonder. Now the first thing a baby does is, he wonders. And the richest thing, the most mature verb that an adult can participate in, it may not be admire, it might be to honor, to revere something. Now those in the theater, admiring and wondering, although they sound like the same thing, those are at opposite poles. The theater, because it's neutral, a man goes and sits there, can get to those deep afar poles. And if we can awaken wonder and admiration, then we're successful, and there's nothing more beautiful.
Studs Terkel Interesting, you know Burr Tillstrom of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, was speaking of the childlike quality, not childishness but child likeness. The wonderment, the questing rather than the triviality childishness that so much, seemingly mature phenomena has.
William Ball Yes, childish is infantile, and childlike is, somehow or other, available, willing, vulnerable. That's the thing is everybody is so afraid, too afraid to be vulnerable, you know? And that's one of the things that with the actors, it's taken me a whole year, but now they almost make vulnerability the challenge of of doing their work. Because, you know, the training of an actor and his life experience, most of the time he's frightened for his job, he's frightened of the critics, he's frightened of the amount of money he won't be able to get and whether the play will run. He's frightened of the other actors trying to, as they say, upstage or outdo him or that he won't show well. He's frightened of the director who may be dictatorial. Well, the fears that are, that beset this rather sensitive mechanism are so overwhelming in, in our particular culture that it's not any wonder the, the actor has become uncreative. He he hasn't learned anything new. And look, since the 30s where we had the Group Theater, they introduced realism and Stanislavski. And now the teachers in the theater, 35 years later, the teachers in the theater, the leading educators are Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, Morris Carnovsky, Stella Adler, Luther Adler, Bobby Lewis, all the people of the Group Theatre. Now that's been 35 years at, during which nothing new has been added to theater training. But I might say that things like vaudeville and comedic technique, high comedy, mimicry, all sorts of characterization. You know we have some funny, funny titles for, incidentally, for your audiences any of, any of your audiences who are interested in in coming to some of our seminars and exploratories in, in the theater are welcome. We, we're, our hope is to spread as much knowledge as possible. And we also have a special program of late shows, sometimes at 11 o'clock in the evening, of plays that are not on the current list of the repertory. I mean these-
Studs Terkel This would be where, at Ravinia you're talking about.
William Ball At Ravinia. We have the regular series which is "Six Characters in Search of an Author", "Charlie's Aunt", "Uncle Vanya", "Beyond the Fringe", "Tiny Alice" and "Misalliance". Then we'll have special performances from the other 19 plays in the repertory, and among them will probably be the "Apollo of Bellac", "An American Dream", a Shakespearean play, "In White America", "Death of a Salesman", "The Devil's Disciple", "Endgame", "Under Milk Wood", and one special which I can't announce at this point but it will be an original work and and very likely to be a musical. Now all of these things will take place in Ravinia as specials to which there will be only one performance or two performances so that the tickets will go rather rapidly and people have to keep an eye out for them.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of this vast rep, repertoire that you have here. That's due to the fact that your company is, not only in number, but because of their, of the work. I'll ask you about the manner in which you work.
William Ball Oh well, you know, sometimes after we finish a performance at 11 o'clock, 11:30 and we gather for, one of the classes would be connotations. Now this is a new subject, but, we'll go into a small, into the small theater and, I give them hamburgers and beer because that's what they, you know, they usually go out and they usually gossip. They're very high, they're bright, they're exhilarated from the performance. Their imaginations are, are vivid. Their adrenaline is up. Usually they spend that time gossiping. And we thought well perhaps that could be a creative time with all that energy going. So we, we gave connotations at, between 11:15, 11:30 and 1:30. And as long as they got their beer and could relax during the class, didn't have to work with too much energy, they found it a very productive time.
Studs Terkel So it sounds like an, well, it's obviously an exhilarating experience, both for the performers as well as for the audience, it's both here.
William Ball Well yes. The, all of these actors have had offers from all the legion, all the regional theaters in the country, who have sort of landed on us one by one and all at once and tried, in some way or other, to persuade our actors to, to go to their own theaters. But it amazes me that this cluster of, of people, I think they've worked so hard in something they believe in, they are a marvelous group, they've all stuck with the repertory. I think they're all aware also, that, that if one of them left the rep, even though we've, we've guarded most of the productions by double casting, it would be a terrific loss to our accumulative work. And we're, we're really hopeful to, well I think that there is a belief in the company, a love in the company. I think affirmation always produces love and it produces achievement. I'm not interested in power, and the difficult thing in our, in our lives, what with politics and what with the cultural explosion now producing great ambitions in all sorts of businessmen and in all sorts of politicians, power is entering the field of art. And it's very depressing. However, if we continue to go on working on the basis of achievement, we can hope that we will be able to find someone who is interested in protecting that achievement and not in using it so that we still don't have a home and we could be available to to any offers as far, I think, Ravinia, so far is our final engagement. [pause in recording]
Studs Terkel Let's talk about this for a moment. This is a very exciting proposition, if I could use a businessman's phrase here, Brother Ben in, in Death of a Salesman. It's a gilt-edge proposition.
William Ball Well I don't want it to be, it sounds as though I, I'm proposing.
Studs Terkel No no no, it's just the point. I'm just, it's rather interesting that Chicago, the second-largest city in the country, does not have a professional repertory theater. There's the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, The Arena Theater in Washington, the theater workshop of San Francisco, there's Dallas, there's Seattle, Chicago does not. Now the American Conservatory Theater, your group of professional actors of course, how many are they?
William Ball Well there are 32 Equity actors and then between 16 and 24 fellows who are graduates of universities and drama schools at the basic level. Now I should say, I, my very good friend John Reich, who is at the Goodman Theater and whose work I have great respect for, has been developing a program here. I understand "The Misanthrope" that he did was quite a successful one. I think the groundswell is in the city. I, I've I've heard other sort of passing comments about groups and ideas, about the mayor's committee. There is somehow or other a, a vigorous feeling of movement in Chicago, and-
Studs Terkel Let's put it this way, a vigorous feeling of need.
William Ball Well, do you know that reminds me, in Pittsburgh I once said to the, to the audience, I made a curtain speech of some sort and, and then I said, "I wanted to thank you all for this kind of explosion of enthusiasm that you've shown for us", I said, "it is nothing short of dazzling. You've overpowered us with this, this great eagerness and, and, and generosity of expression". And the lady in the second row said loud enough for everybody to hear, "Well we've been waiting long enough for it". And I think that, and everybody laughed and applauded. I think that the, the cities of the country have been waiting for good theater to come and take roots in their midst.
Studs Terkel Since you've mentioned Pittsburgh, William Ball, our, our guest did. It was one of the reviews somewhere with one of the magazines about "Tiny Alice", a production of William Ball that is so original and vital and clear that was in Pittsburgh. Now there's a comment, here again by the young critic, and I say brilliant young critic, Jerry Tallmer, talking about Pittsburgh. And he's quoting a a Pittsburghian, a Pittsburgher. He's at that, oh, says Tallmer, "It's not the statistics", speaking of the effect, the impact, of the American Conservatory Theater on a city, Pittsburgh, a Midwestern, near Midwestern city. "It's the buzz, the snap, the crackle, the pop, the fever". And then he quotes a local man, he says, "I've been a subscriber to the local group here since time began, only because of the use of the bar and the restaurant that goes with the membership. I've never gone to their shows. This year I've gone to all of Ball's productions and I will only tell you that theater has come to Pittsburgh, and it's like being born again".
William Ball Well-
Studs Terkel Somehow that reaction-
William Ball We've had some marvelously positive reactions. At the same time, you know, things are slow to change. And there are many, many people I think who, as we were talking about fear before, a fear of adventure, a fear of moving out-
Studs Terkel Fear of being vulnerable, you say.
William Ball That's right. That's right. Or of living a little dangerously. Like, some people are, we get awfully nervous because I don't create a schedule of our classes and rehearsals more than three, four days in advance. [door creaking] We schedule our opening, opening performances. But we, we have confidence that when the time arrives, you know the next day or three days from then, that we will be able to make the good judgment to schedule our time aptly. But I think institutionalism is the death. And anything that survives on the basis of discipline as opposed to fervor is, I'm sorry I'm shouting it to you, but
Studs Terkel Keep
William Ball But the thing is, I, I believe this more than anything, that, that institutionalism in this country is is, is so over disciplining our lives and making us feel so, now in some senses guilty, in some senses rigid, and fervor as a, as a motive is, it's completely dis, disappeared. Now I don't know very many universities that operate on the, on the scheme or the theme of fervor. I do know many that operate on the theme of discipline. Most institutions or big business and so forth operate on the basis that everybody knows his job and it's disciplined and orderly. But how often does it get off the ground and get real exuberance. I mean real excitement. Now these actors, you know actors are usually troubadours. They like to change their place. Well, here, a hundred actors and, and craftsmen who have stuck with this organization for a year even though we've had the most harrowing experiences that you can imagine, and but, I mean, because they believe in it. And they, I encourage them to be assertive even if it happens to be a little hard to take. If it's aimed at me, it's hard to take. But sometimes they'll say, they'll say, "Now don't you get soft, now don't you give up, now go", [laughing] and they'll sort of cuss me out and, and, and they'll say, "by golly I've got to keep the thing going", and "they're not going to take any nonsense from me". And you know they give me a rough time. But I, even though I might feel like putting them down now and then, that assertion is valuable. That's what, that's what I've been making an investment in. Because when they start asserting themselves then they start creating. They believe in things.
Studs Terkel So it's this, this fervor, this assertion, the discipline will come along with it.
William Ball Listen, discipline supports fervor just like food supports life. In other words, discipline isn't an end in itself. But if you want to accomplish things, if by fervor you want to accomplish things, discipline is highly desirable. But if you only aim at discipline, if that's only the goal, you'll, fervor will never grow out of it.
Studs Terkel See I was thinking, as you're talking, there's so many thoughts come to my mind. Talking to William Ball, of course. His ideas as, all in together come out in flashes, lightning form which is so exciting. The, the vul, the fear of being vulnerable, fear of mean, what I call mean competition, the competition for mean little things. As an Englishman, [Collum?] McGuinnes loved Billie Holiday. And you see he loved Billie Holiday because she was not afraid to be vulnerable. It's her vulnerability-
Studs Terkel that makes her a great artist. She revealed herself.
William Ball In the theater peop-, I think in the theater, people go to the theater very much the same way they go to a boxing match. Let's face it, in a boxing match people go, whether we like to say it or not, more or less, I sh, why I wouldn't want to say necessarily to see blood, but to see one guy, you know, smash another
William Ball They, they want to see some suffering. And they want to see some conquest or conquering. Now in the theater, that's a, in, in boxing that's the physical kind of conquest and a physical kind of suffering. We sympathize with a guy who's taking a, a beating and we feel the triumph or the victory of, of the winner. Now in the theater, if you took away the physicality, what happens is we want to see the suffering of the afflicted or the, the, the protagonist who has, somehow or other, is going through a horrible human dilemma. We want to see him suffer because that assures us that we're not alone, that somebody else has been there before us. And we want to, in a way, suffer with him [door creaking] and we want to see him overcome the suffering and the situation and to win it. [pause in recording].
Studs Terkel This is Dick Christiansen, editor of Panorama Daily News, William Ball, drama critic. Dick, what, you could enter the conversation too, Dick. And we're talking here about, Bill Ball, about the, a million and a half subjects, primarily excitement and exhiliration. He's explaining theater, why people go to theater, speaking of boxing matches, physical suffering, physical triumph to be part of it, and now in theater.
William Ball Yeah, I think that they, they, just as with Billie Holiday, you want to see the soul. You want to see the soul ache, and then you want to see it somehow or other grow wise because of its aching, or grow victorious because of the aching, or somehow or other, change circumstances or, anything but give in. We don't like to see somebody give in to their aching, because we don't take any strength from that. We always say "Ah rubbish, he's just a weakling". We likes to see somebody fight, and fight and fight and fight. And that's why a good tragedy is just as exhilarating as a good comedy. Because if the odds are pretty heavy, and the guy is plowing his way through from beginning to end against terrible odds, you're fighting with him. You're saying "Come on, you can do it!". I mean for Hamlet, I'm a cheerleader for Hamlet, I'm saying "Oh it's not so bad as all that. Come on get up! Go! Go!" And you cheer. I think the theater wants rooters anyway. I hate the whole notion that the people in the theater are judges. In New York City you know, they sit there like judges. They say "Well I liked it", or "I walked out". And this is the kind of, they, they pass judgment and then they elevate the underdog and they feel that somehow or other they are deified because they have generously bestowed something on the, the the actor who is no threat to them.
Studs Terkel Let's come to that, the actor who is no threat to them. They sit there then. Earlier you were saying theater does enrich one way or another, whether it be "Charlie's Aunt" or whether it be "Electra." They come out enriched. Now what, here is the, let's say the expense account man, whoever it might be, sits there in judgment, then, therefore he is unmoved.
William Ball Well I think in New
Studs Terkel Unenriched.
William Ball Unenriched. I, that's an audience that I'm not terribly interested to reach. I mean let's say the minority who go to the Broadway shows. I've never directed for Broadway. And, well I don't think you consider the Lincoln Center Tartuffe Broadway, because those people have too much hairspray. I think that they, somehow or other, they are not available to wonder or admiration. They go for increase of self-esteem which allows, you see in New York, everybody is afraid to be, of being trampled to death. You, you fight all day long, your surroundings, and the, since we know that self-esteem is higher even than the survival motive. We know that because people are able to, well to go to war, to commit hari-kari, to-
Studs Terkel Peace.
William Ball to burn themselves on the steps of the embassy and so forth, martyrs, even suicide are all based on self-esteem above survival. Well, if it is a primary life force, self-esteem, it's very hard to get in New York because there are so many people that everyone's going around trying to rob it from each other. So if you, along comes the theater. Now how
Studs Terkel Deep down they don't have self-esteem.
William Ball That's right. They're too, well for one thing, there are too many people to have it. They all, it seems to me there is a notion in New York, I may not be noticed. I may yell and no one will come. I don't matter. I, the thing, is the terrible thing I think is that they may fear that they don't matter. If they're not careful, they might not matter. They might disappear. Well, as I say, I think the more pertinent may be trampled to death because I think the crowds are oppressive. But when they go to the theater, it's no longer to go to witness a work of art or to be somehow or other changed or modified by witnessing something outside themselves. The theater, like everything else in New York, like the taxi ride, has to be used. Everything of the waking day has to be used, somehow or other, to, to rob, beg borrow or steal that self-esteem. So they use the theater in that way, they, appointing themselves as some kind of judges. And when they come in, they are prepared to pass judgment and exonerate themselves at the intermission. And the first thing always in the intermission, is that the weaker or more fearful of the two will turn to the other who is happy to appoint himself the judge and
William Ball and "What do you think? Well what do you think?". [laughing}
Dick Christiansen But that's, that's the scene that a lot of people want. Ellis Rabb's APA group, Rabb had, as I understand it, offers to go other place and wanted New York, insisted upon having a, a season in New York. He thought that was very important to him. I mean, there's a, a similar concept such as ACT, and here's Ellis Rabb insisting on going into Lyceum on Broadway, on New York, and wanting that kind of audience. That's the audience he wants apparently.
William Ball Well I think that my, my notion for, you see this is a philosophic difference. Ellis believes that New York is the center of culture and therefore that's, that's where the theater should be. I'm not adverse to performing in New York but I would like to be able to select my audience. In other words, if I could go out to Nassau County and Orange and Westchester and Richmond, and somehow or other pull the people who are still available to be changed or modified, my whole, I, I learned, I heard once an expression that the quality of greatness or the degree of greatness in a man is measured by his ability to change lives. Now that can apply to Hitler as well as to Albert Schweitzer. But I think that, I'm not really sure anything about why we're here or what we do except that if we can change things for the better and somehow or other, if, if the good guys can hold their own, because good as we all know is not the militant force. We know that the infantilism and the, and the assertion and so forth of destruction is more compulsive than the seeking for achievement, which is not usually compulsive.
Studs Terkel Good can be in a nonviolent form, too.
William Ball Right. So that, I think that it's important for people who, who have an aim toward achievement, positiveness, the realization of potential to, to become pretty strong, pretty active, pretty fervid in that area. Otherwise, as you might say the good guy, bad guy, the bad guys are gonna win out in the sense that compulsion, as we see the destruction in the streets, compulsion and, and neurosis and psychosis will be pervasive.
Studs Terkel So we come back to someone always saying "Look at me, look at me". Whereas you, your actors, members of your company, you assume they are somebody. You are saying they are somebody. Now since they're somebody, they can go on from there.
William Ball That's right. That's half the battle then. When they believe they're somebody, they don't have to apologize for themselves. And, and, nor anything that's individual about them. The most freakish special thing about anyone in my company, I'll defend to the death. I don't mean their, a performance trait. But Harry Fraser, one of our company, is a pilot and he's about 350 pounds. And it's a, something very special about him. But these kind of, well, there are many kind of sort of eccentricities and specialities of all the company. I think that they might not, one girl happens to have a hobby of the trumpet. Now that's not usual for, I think somebody in "Gypsy" blew the trumpet, but this is not related to anything like that. She learned the trumpet when she was in school and was ashamed of it, and sort of wouldn't play and so forth. And now it's quite, it's quite a party piece and she does it every now and then for the company. I think the thing is that they're not afraid of each other. They respect each other. And there are no cliques in the company, there's no backstage gossip, there's no undermining. They're, well I don't know, it's just so healthy.
Studs Terkel Well since you have this company, obviously this is almost like an oasis in what seems to be this strange desert in the world of theater of mean, you spoke about this earlier, the mean competition, wanting to be someone, to make it. There's no need to make it since they're part of a world here that's terribly exciting in itself.
William Ball Well you know I, I've been playing around with what I've called positation and negation. And also I've been working with anti-gravitational force with, in relation to the metaphors of the star system. A, a few, a few things that have to do with ascendants. And the, what I've been finding is that, just as physically, well let me see if I can put it th, a way. Or let, I'll put it in the obvious way. And I think this is, this is an old religious theme. Just at the time when the strongest desire would be to take or to pull toward or to close off, what I find is, by discipline, if the exact opposite is observed. I mean, I try to do it mainly with myself. The time when I really want to say "Now look, this is the", I would revert that and completely throw the doors open and say, "Well anything you like. Now how would you like it to be?". As soon as I went all the way in the giving, what happened was the whole situation, any situation that happened to be difficult, would relieve itself of, well it would discharge all of the, the apprehension or nervousness, and it would solve itself in a minute. And, and it sort of, you know, in crashing through the sound barrier, instead of, I think if you saw that picture, instead of pulling back on the, on the stick in the airplane, to hold the plane up he pushes forward, which ought to, at, at, when he's going at the speed of sound, one would think that pushing forward would make it go even faster. Now I have, it's not the stick, it's some, something that makes the acceleration, but when it's at a critical moment, instead of doing the pull back in order to to modify things, to make them more controllable, if you push forward and release, in other words go all the way in the wrong direction, you end up in the right place. That's I think what, I even sometimes profess that, that this company has gone all the way in the direction of insanity and we come out making the best sense in the world.
Studs Terkel It does come out through that to sanity. I know Dick you have many questions to ask Bill Ball, I, and perhaps it is something you should ask him aside from this, although I'm delighted to have it on tape. But I think perhaps one last comment. There's, obviously this is just scratching the surface, touching, it's, it's just the top of Ball's comments, his company the American Conservatory Company will be appearing in this wide repertoire at Ravinia this summer. But since two plus two equals four, Chicago has no professional repertory company as Dick Christianen so often pointed out too in his columns and that, which we know. And Bill Ball is one of the most exciting directors in the country has a terribly exciting company. Since two plus two equals four, perhaps four might come to be, indeed a-
William Ball Did you say ford or four?
Studs Terkel Let's say four for now.
William Ball Well that's good. And anyone who would like to help us, because we are sub, are new here and we have only four weeks to make work. Anyone who would like to help us with a subscription to the plays could call our office at the Ravinia Festival. It's in the phone book and it's at State 2 9 6 9 6. And, and we would be delighted to have anyone come and, and help us make the season a success.
Studs Terkel Let's call this part one, obviously part one, beginning of the conversation. William Ball, a terribly exciting director in American theater, thank you very much.