Monday, March 17, 2014

Walt Witcover: In Memoriam

Walt Witcover

Walt Witcover, three time Obie Award winning director, was a star artist in his own right though you probably don't know who he is if you are under 50 and never studied acting in New York. A member of the Actor's Studio Director's Unit when it was established by Lee Strausberg in its hey day, Walt presented a La Traviata that for its time in the 1960s, was unparalleled in its scope, conceptualization and logical perfection. Strausberg was gobsmacked. It was so transformative and uplifting that directors who saw the production, one in particular, took Walt's ideas and implemented them as their own without giving Walt credit. Instead of calling out the director, Walt and Masterworks Laboratory Theatre, his non-profit company, quietly continued to make history for friends, fans, colleagues and others in the business of theater. He has left them memories that they will always treasure.

Walt's first directing stint at Cornell.
Walt was the type to keep hurts within. Also, he was more caught up in the doing than in the marketing and promotional aspect of his work. Today, theater is evolving and Walt's ideas have still not come into the mainstream in live theater. Money is a major factor which often hampers the director's ability to craft and hone a production. However, plays Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway are burgeoning. Here and there one does see hints of what Walt was about. And here and there the exceptional production manifests the ideas of Living On Stage, Walt's book. Opera has yet to wholly embrace the concepts of giving the characters life in staging their actions. With the exceptional director, as Walt was, it is intuitive and natural. When a production comes to life as Walt always attempted with his work, the result is breathtaking and you know something alive and magical is happening. I so look forward to seeing these types of productions. They remind me of Walt and what he always will represent for me; the finest in the dramatic arts and play production.

Walt was a perfectionist who would settle for nothing short of spectacular and mind bending. Looking back at what I've written thus far, he would snap his blue pencil and edit those last two adjectives. Excess was not something he tolerated as a teacher, writer, director and actor. He was Goldilocksian through and through. Whatever he accomplished had to be just right. If it wasn't, he fretted. Such was his creative genius. I was an acting student and friend. I regret I didn't see more of his work in the 1970s and 1980s. I also regret that he never got the opportunity to help stage a friend's play about Kate Chopin (The Awakening of Kate Chopin by Rosary O'Neill). He expressed a great interest in it and I tried to contact another director, but by that point, Walt was physically failing and the project, like so many projects, went into limbo. Too bad. It would have been wonderful to see Walt work for one last time, but it was not to be. Walt, I love you and am so glad I was able to know you. I so appreciate that we were able to enjoy four years of plays at Brooklyn Academy of Music. I will miss your grace, honesty and genius.
Walt's Memoir

                                          Walt Witcover

Iconoclast, perfectionist were you
In life. A visionary actor's friend.
Director, writer, teacher, actor, too,
On your shy, sweet love and strength we did depend.

Your innovations were artistic dreams,
Rich seeds you sowed within our hearts and minds,
That blossomed, grew, bore fruit in vibrant streams
Embodying the lively arts, serene, sublime.

Your legacy we will uphold with grace,
Your life's work chronicled in words and deeds,
Living on Stage, your book, will keep its place
In actor lore, an actor's onstage creed. 

Oh Walt, God made his masterwork in you.
We're thankful that we shared your life, your truth.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Peter O'Toole: In Memoriam

As Lawrence of Arabia, his breakout role.
 I adore Peter O'Toole's work. As a kid I first saw him in Lawrence of Arabia. It was a wondrous film. It is still one of my favorites because of his and Omar Sharif's iconic performances. The brilliant direction of Sir David Lean and the phenomenal screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson with the Maurice Jarre's music and the amazing cinematography need no additional discussion. It deservedly won 7 Oscars. The film's artistry is ineffable and incomparable. For me in its ethereality it represents the human soul bleak, bare and beautiful.

Sir Laurence Oliver directed him in Hamlet in the 1960s.
 In more mundane terms the film resonated then. It resonates now and it will for all time. When we watch it we are seeing age old issues related to defining identity and our abject inability to reign our ungovernable natures. The film highlighted issues in the Middle East that are vital today: the politics of subtle imperialism and the easy bloodshed fomented by internecine conflicts. Yet O'Toole didn't want to be associated with the role and for years selected parts that would take him out of the shadow of Lawrence. In an O'Toole biography I read, it was said he thought that his Masada role would finally free him from Lawrence. In later years, he grew to appreciate the association with T.E. Lawrence and the unforgettable journey of the film which changed his life, indeed, all of our lives.
In the shadow of T.E. Lawrence
 O'Toole was a great actor who could never be typecast. In each role, he wore the cloak of the character, looked out through the character's eyes, swallowed the saliva of the character, walked in his shoes, or at least, did with the characters in his finest performances: The Stunt Man, The Ruling Class, My Favorite Year, The Creator, Becket, The Lion in Winter, even Foxtrot. He was as acute an actor in his later work; I remember a BBC production in which he was frighteningly evil: The Dark Angel. aka Uncle Silas. He reached into the depths of humankind's wickedness and was its embodiment. Truly, it is an amazing performance. Of course his role in Venus, for which he received his last Oscar nomination was impeccable.
Later years, the 1980s.
This sonnet is from me to Peter, who referred to himself as a retired Christian. God loves the creative genius of artists which He fashions and encourages. In the finest artistry, we see His face in ours. If we allow Him to speak through us, as you did, Peter, then He and you are in a state of felicity. For surely, you are one of His bad boy darlings.

                                         Peter O'Toole

A feisty Irishman an actor King,
You were in life. Beloved for your art.
You worshiped Shakespeare, did the classics bring
To understanding roles, with a poet's heart.
Your intellect self-schooled, and RADA trained,
Evolved beyond the cares of Corn Flake men.*
You scorned commercial "art." It diminished brains,
And trashed humanity's worth; not of your ken.
Your quality of spirit and your grace,
Were known by family and a loving few.
Your self-destructive threads and sorrowful traits
Revealed. That knowing, you to you stayed true.
Your gracious love shines out in graceful art,
Remembered, lifted up. God's blessed, you, hart.

*Corn Flake men was O'Toole's reference to the corporations taking over funding for films.