Directing: Jean-Claude van Itallie


The Changing Scene, Denver, 1971

Jean-Claude was and remains a good friend. I met him soon after I arrived in New York—he went to Harvard—and our paths repeatedly crossed, at the Caffè Cino and elsewhere. Joe Chaikin first took me to Jean-Claude’s farmhouse in the Berkshires, where I had memorable good times and became a regular, and after a few years Jean-Claude invited me to build a house of my own on his land. I built a woodshed first, and then a couple of years later finished my cabin, which became my favorite place. I went up as often as I could and spent countless happy days and weeks there until I moved to the West Coast in 1992.

Charlemont was a creative place for me, my house in the woods always intended as a place to write. In summer 1971, in the woodshed, which was all I had for the first couple of years, I wrote “Peas,” a one-act anti-war play to do at The Changing Scene in Denver, and I asked Jean-Claude for a play to do with it. He gave me “Eat Cake,” a macabre, punchy little play about a woman being raped by materialism: the “rapist” forces her to eat enormous quantities of cake. (For Denver reviews, see the entry for “Peas” under Denver Trilogy.) I like seeing actors eat on stage; it is such a common activity, unmistakeably real, and connects the audience with the character like nothing else. I had two good actors, Alla Makaroff and Ted Shackelford, and the play was chillingly effective. It left an amazing mess of white and chocolate cake on the stage floor after every performance.

“King of the United States”

Westbeth Theatre, 1972

The following year Jean-Claude asked me to co-direct his play “King of the United States” in the theatre at Westbeth. Judd Hirsch was in the cast. It turned out to be too hard to co-direct; we have different ideas about theatre, different styles and ways of working, and we rarely saw eye to eye. It was his play; so I withdrew to being just the lighting designer, settled down in the booth, and used light to help him make the play as good as it could be.

“Ancient Boys” (lighting designer)

La Mama, 1991

In 1991 Jean-Claude asked me to design the lights for “Ancient Boys,” a play he had written about a mutual friend, Robbie Anton (more a friend of Jean-Claude’s), an extraordinary puppeteer who had died of AIDS. Robbie made minute exquisite puppets and performed for a dozen people at a time, playing fantastically on the intense relationship between himself and tiny figure on his finger. Jean-Claude changed his art to sculpture, and the centerpiece of the play was a huge, fantastic bird made out of a million twigs by Jun Maeda, a Japanese sculptor long involved with La Mama. The great bird dominated the stage, and for key scenes the actor was supposed to climb on top of it and ride it.

“Ancient Boys” was a touching play, and I was excited about lighting it, in part because I had never before worked in La Mama Annex, a very large open space. I would have plenty of equipment and be paid a good fee. I barely had time to do it before I was scheduled to depart for Europe on tour with The Living Theatre, but I wanted and needed the gig and contrived to squeeze it in. In the event the bird was not as practical as Jean-Claude had envisioned, and the director did not understand its importance, in my opinion, and did not use the space well. I did some beautiful things, using an extravagant range of color: Urban blue, pale amber gold, surprise pink, mauve, peacock blue, salmon pink, medium red, light red, deep amber, steel blue, canary, apricot, moonlight blue, and pale yellow green.

The opening night performance went well, although the play did not really work. I had a good electrician running the show and was leaving it in his hands with reasonable confidence. But after the show Lou Zeldis, an actor I knew who had worked with Peter Brook, buttonholed me and attacked me for not showing Jun Maeda’s bird well enough. I thought maybe he was right, although it was the director’s fault for moving it upstage. Anyway, I was leaving that very night and couldn’t do anything about it. I tried: I phoned from the airport and left a message for the electrician to pull all the gels, which would certainly brighten things up and make the bird more visible, but I don’t know if he did it, or what Jean-Claude thought about what we were doing to his play. I must say, though, it was a thrill to open a play in New York one night and another play in Rome the next.