On January 7, 2018, Annette Saddik spoke about Stories By Heart with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
Annette Saddik is Professor of English and Theatre at New York City College of Technology and the CUNY Graduate Center Doctoral Program in Theatre. Her area of specialization is twentieth- and twenty-first-century drama and performance, particularly the work of Tennessee Williams.
An edited transcript follows:
(There are spoilers below)
Ted Sod: I’m thrilled to have Annette Saddik with us again. Annette has joined us before for other discussions. She is considered one of the foremost Tennessee Williams experts in our country and was the lecture guest for our production of Williams’ 1962 play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. She also participated in the lecture when we produced Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, and she and I were onstage together for our revival of Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly. She is a doctor of theatre and literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and New York City College of Technology. I wanted to start with the question John poses in the piece and deliberately doesn’t answer because he wants the audience to contemplate it. What is it about the human need for stories? How do you understand that need? What is that all about?
Annette Saddik: What I like to talk about in my classes is the relationship between storytelling and identity. There’s a wonderful excerpt from Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, where the character Eddie suggests to Martin that they could "tell stories" to pass the time, and Martin says, “I don’t know any stories.” So Eddie says, “Then make one up.” But Martin replies, “That'd be lying, wouldn't it?" And Eddie says, “No no. Lying's when you believe it’s true -- if you already know it’s a lie, then it’s not lying.” So what is it then? It’s art. It’s storytelling. This idea that we willingly suspend our disbelief to hear stories is timeless. It’s been happening since the beginning of theatre. In his memoir, John talks about having to flex your emotional muscles through storytelling. I think one of the primary things for me is that it allows us to experience multiple identities, multiple selves, multiple experiences, as well as making sense of our own experiences. We have all this stuff happening in our lives that doesn’t necessarily have a beginning, middle and end. Telling or listening to stories allows us to frame, shape, and control just like any other art. Music takes noise and random sound and orders it, makes it into something that we can relate to in a way that has meaning. Same with color and the visual arts, or words and telling stories.
TS: Annette just referenced John’s memoir entitled Drama. We both read it because we found it fascinating. The introduction to his memoir is about the genesis of the piece you just saw. I wonder if storytelling or the human need for telling stories is on the same level of love, shelter, food and, if you don’t live in the tropics, clothing. Is this need for storytelling something we are programmed with or is it an acquired thing?
AS: I think we are programmed. Every society has had a storytelling tradition. And when we meet someone, we want to know their story. There is a very popular movement in psychotherapy, which focuses on “changing your story.” Doing this evidently helps people change their lives. Stories shape our lives, there is an essential need for that.
Photo by Joan Marcus
TS: Does the medium matter? One of the things that John does at the beginning of this piece is ask the audience, “Why did you come here today, you all look so hopeful?” Do you think people actually think about why they go to the theatre before they go?
AS: I hope so. It’s a different experience to be in a room with other people hearing stories because otherwise we only know about our own experiences and, to some extent, those of our friends. When you go to the theatre and you see another world onstage and you experience that with other people, that’s something we don’t typically get to do. There’s this beautiful quotation from Gregory Moss, the author of the play Indian Summer, and he talks about how we go to the theatre because we need to contemplate things that we can’t explain. For instance, why are some people born into a world of money, with health, comfort, and beauty, and other people suffer in countless ways. These questions don’t have answers. The need for theatre is very spiritual and it’s also an intellectual and emotional need. We can’t really do without it.
TS: What about escape? Do you think reading, in a solitary way, is about escaping your identity?
AS: I’ve certainly experienced that. I think most people who read experience that. You enter another world and you’re escaping the limitations of your own circumstances. Why do we go on amusement park rides? Why do we want to be scared? Why go to horror movies? It allows us to experience different emotions.
TS: I also wonder if storytelling is something we need to help explain the psychology of the human race. I don’t know if we always get a satisfactory answer. Do you think we see or reread certain stories over and over again because they give us the answers we want to hear, rather than the truth?
AS: That’s a good question. Maybe they are the answers we feel are true, that correspond to what we know to be true. And those answers may not be true for everybody.
TS: I find that most people have friendships with people who think like them. You might gravitate towards writers whose work resonates with you and you may resist the work of people who are politically different than you.
AS: And emotionally different.
TS: Maybe we really only want to experience art that makes our world view valid. Do you think that’s true?
AS: Sometimes. I think those are most likely the works of art that we connect to most strongly. Some people do flex their muscles and go outside that. When I was a little kid, I read some Tennessee Williams and it made sense to me. Like John was saying about stories that he heard when he was eight that were not necessarily appropriate for children that age, but he got them. I got those Williams stories. Maybe they just corresponded with something I felt, my worldview at the time.
TS: It’s funny you mention connecting to Tennessee Williams as a child. I remember I snuck into the local movie house when I was nine or eight to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I did not understand what was going on. I sat through that film three times and all I remember is this finger tapping me on the shoulder; it was my father and he said, “Your mother is waiting for you, she has dinner on the table and you’ve been out of the house for six hours.” Then he looked up at the screen and saw Elizabeth Taylor in a full slip and sat back and watched it. That film was speaking to me in a way it shouldn’t have because I was a kid. There’s an organic connection to certain stories, whether it’s because it makes our point of view more valid or opens up a doorway to some understanding of who we are or where we come from. It’s fascinating to me.
AS: It’s like falling in love, sometimes you don’t know why. I think it’s similar with the authors we fall in love with. For me, it was Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in high school. I thought, wow, this is it! In my undergraduate classes at CUNY, I’ll have thirty students and perhaps two of them will have an epiphany with that play, and then others just don't relate to it at all. I found out that Williams and Beckett had a lot in common. Williams actually helped fund the first production of Godot in the United States at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida. There’s something about their world views -- at first sight they don’t match – but on closer inspection, they do. Something in Williams's work I connected to is the complexity of identity and truth, and with Beckett, there's also a very complex relationship to truth and how we come to know or not know truth.
Photo by Joan Marcus
TS: I want to talk to you a bit about the two stories John performs as part of the show. How did you relate to them? Are you a Ring Lardner or P.G Wodehouse fan?
AS: I know some of their stories; they’re not necessarily stories I'm connected to.
TS: So today you appreciated them on what level?
AS: I liked seeing them through John’s eyes. That, for me, was pleasurable about today. Also, I loved his performance of all the characters because the performing he does brings a whole new level to the work. When we see people performing a solo show as "themselves," we often don’t pick it apart, character is invisible. We take for granted the subtleties of character and behavior and gloss over them; we see something natural or seamless. But when you see somebody performing these different characters, it allows us to look at the performance and see various aspects of what it means to create a self. That’s what I really enjoyed. He’s an amazing actor.
TS: I wanted to point out that in Haircut, the twists are really up to the audience to figure out. The idea that the “halfwit” could have deliberately killed the jokester is not necessarily obvious to everybody, would you agree?
TS: I wonder if because I live in New York I have a darker sensibility. I sensed that that is what the audience should take away at the end. But just now I thought, everybody is going to take away what they want from that story. I’m curious what you took away?
AS: Being a Tennessee Williams scholar, I tend to have a darker sensibility. I also felt the same way you did.
TS: What I love about the structure of Lardner’s piece is the fact that the barber is oblivious to what was really going on. I kept visualizing the man in the chair and kept visualizing his reactions and kept trying to understand that this guy was taking all this in and probably making a judgment about this town. He seemed like a newcomer. With the Wodehouse piece, the audience gets to meet this marvelous scam artist. I’ve always understood that Americans love to read about con artists -- do you find that to be true?
AS: I’ve talked to several people who feel that way. David Mamet, of course, has done a lot of work about con artists and their games. I don’t know if it has something to do with our scrappy beginnings as a country -- we don’t have the same history as Britain or Europe. We care much more about getting by on the streets with our wits, our sense of making something out of nothing, the American Dream.
TS: It’s curious because Wodehouse is a British author writing about somebody who is probably not a con artist in his mind – he probably just saw him as audacious. He will try anything for an adventure. I’m not quite sure if he would be considered a con artist in Britain. The other thing that comes to mind is how come we like con artists in our stories, but not necessarily in our politics?
AS: It’s interesting that you bring up conning and stories because I often think about how when somebody sits and tells us a story that we believe is true, we put our faith in that person, we have an emotional connection. If it turns out that story was not true--for example, if we all found out tomorrow that John’s father is alive and well--we would feel a sense of betrayal. At some level stories are always a kind of con. But on another level, we want to believe there is truth or honesty, something that is real about the story. If you meet somebody and they tell you something about themselves and it turns out it wasn’t literally true but something they felt was true – it can be construed as a betrayal. For instance, Blanche DuBois telling Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire “I never lied in my heart.” Where is the line between truth and lying in storytelling?
TS: It’s funny you should bring up Blanche because she’s so complex. I never really sensed her lying to Mitch -- she just doesn’t tell him everything and there is a difference between telling a barefaced lie and holding back some of the facts. He has to find out through Stanley that she has a jaded past. It’s really that story of her past that comes to haunt her. And it is really fascinating to me as I believe it’s a moral lesson. This brings to me one of my last questions before we open it up to the audience. Does every story have to have a moral? It seems to me that audiences want that. They want to walk away with the question: “What did I learn from this?” How do you understand the phrase, “the moral of a story”?
AS: For me, the best stories don’t have morals. I think a story without a moral is most faithful to life. It’s not something that’s pretending to be the absolute truth. It allows us to digest and come up with our own connections and truths. A story with a delineated moral is not interesting to me -- a good story is one that’s more flexible.
TS: Do you ever ask yourself, what does this mean to my life when you’re experiencing a story? Or is that not important to you?
AS: What I look for is how does this story make meaning, how does it help people understand our place in the world. But I don’t think I do that consciously.
Photo by Joan Marcus
TS: What I took away from today’s performance is John’s relationship to his parents and the love that he has for them -- especially at the end when he wishes them both goodnight and hopes they are feeling better. It’s extremely moving to watch the adult son of deceased parents have that beautiful connection. It’s palpable how much he misses them and how much he owes them for his career and his understanding of humanity. Would you agree?
AS: Absolutely. His memoir echoes that as well. It’s a beautifully written book. I didn’t know that his father, Arthur Lithgow, was a man of the theatre. It’s his relationship to his parents, especially his father, that’s at the core of today’s show.
TS: His mom was a retired actress and his son, Ian, is an actor -- so he is part of an acting dynasty. Certainly, if you are a would-be actor or know any, Drama is a must read. There are two stories in his memoir that Annette and I love. One is about John coming back from LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where he had a Fulbright scholarship which allowed him to study there. He tells a story about one of his first jobs when he came back to the states – it was at the Bucks County Playhouse and he was in a Neil Simon piece playing an American, but he had acquired a distinct British accent. One of his sisters said she refused to talk to him until he “unacquired” it.
AS: The director just kept yelling at him until he lost his accent.
TS: Every time he would speak a line that sounded British, the director would ring a bell. It was Pavlovian. The second story I love is when he was doing a reading of a play at the Manhattan Theatre Club when they used to be on the East Side. I think the play took place in Appalachia or the Ozarks. He walked into a room and there was a young woman there he describes as a mousey blonde woman and he thought to himself, oh they got somebody from Appalachia to play this part. A real person. It wasn’t until a few years later when he was cast in Trelawny of the “Wells”, that he realized that that Appalachian woman was actually Meryl Streep.
AS: He was also cast with Streep in a show that was comprised of two one-acts, Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, a precursor to the film Baby Doll, and Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays.
TS: That was a double bill that I got to see. Streep transformed herself into this buxom character for the Williams piece and then became this taut, thin office worker in the Miller piece. We are opening this up to audience questions now. We are curious about what draws you to the theatre and what you think the human need for stories is?
Audience Member #1: What I love is the reaction that I get when I tell a story. For me, it’s understanding what it is to be human and to be a member of this race, this life. Our life is a story. Also, we all hear stories by experiencing entertainment. For instance, I love "Game of Thrones" -- the characters on that show are despicable -- but I look for a moral or hope. What I’m able to do is see parts of myself in these angry, horrible people. And even the worst characters on "Game of Thrones" love their mother or their dog.
TS: I actually brought some quotes which I think relate to this point. Mary Lawrence, who is a teacher at the Journalism School at the University of Missouri says, “People have had their stories from the beginning whether they’re fables, for teaching lessons great and small, or histories that tell us where we came from, or stories that help us cope with the world. Look how we crave stories about any event, like how a team prepped for a game or how people got out of the World Trade Center.” There is another quote that I thought was worthwhile. This is from The Atlantic: “A recent study in Science Magazine says that stories can help people understand others, determining that literary fiction uniquely engages psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences, that is to say, if you read novels, you can probably read emotions.” I think that’s true of going to the theatre. I often feel I learned more about human nature by being in love with the theatre than from my own relationships.
Audience Member #2: I’d like to build on that quote from that professor from the University of Missouri and the Sam Shepard story that Annette told earlier. To me, stories are a wonderful teaching vehicle because they are vivid and they’re memorable. If you had tried to make your point in an abstract way, I would have totally forgotten it. But I’ll remember that Sam Shepard story. How often do either of you use stories or narratives as a teaching vehicle?
AS: Maybe not consciously, but I do it all the time. It is what some students will remember. In religion, we use parables and in the theatre and in the classroom, we tell stories.
TS: I had no intention of telling that story of sitting through three showings of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But it seemed to relate to what Annette was saying about understanding Williams on some deep level when she was younger. I think the more personal we can make it when teaching or engaging audiences, the more effective it is. If it comes from the heart, it always has a great effect.
AS: Learning more about emotion and how to read emotions from our own stories is why the humanities are so important. Students will learn empathy, emotion, psychology from the arts. From telling stories. It’s not just about having fun, it’s not something to be dismissed, it’s a basic human skill.
TS: Having done a lot of teaching artist work in public schools, my biggest fear is that young people are losing empathy. I don’t mean everyone, I certainly don’t want to generalize, but I can sense that it may have to be taught. And the way it is taught is through storytelling and developing character. Empathy is extremely important for the wellbeing of our civilization.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Audience Member #3: In the spirit of John Lithgow, when I was very little I used to sleep at my grandmother’s house and I was afraid of falling asleep -- so I’d ask Nana to tell me a story. Thinking back upon that event as an adult, it seems we all face the great enigmatic question, “Why are we here?” None of us asked to be born or die and storytelling makes sense in my mind when faced with the question, “What does life even mean?”
AS: I think unlike religion, stories don’t offer any definitive answers, which makes them all the more wonderful.
TS: I think you’ve touched on something really profound. How do we wrestle with mortality? I don’t know if anybody is ever prepared for giving up this gift of life. I think in some way, the stories we read or the adventures other people go on might help us be prepared for that. That fear of the unknown is omnipresent and a big part of why some people are not ready to face mortality.
AS: There’s that saying that all literature is about sex and death. It’s true.
Audience Member #4: I wanted to ask you about space and how space relates to the tangible and intangible aspects of storytelling. If you take one extreme, Waiting for Godot in a black box theatre, and at the other extreme a musical with a spectacular set, there are two different expectations for what truth is in those extremes. For this space it’s an in-between. Where do you draw the line between truth and fantasy and how does that relate to stagecraft? What’s the connection between acting and the type of truth telling that comes through that space? What’s the relation between the space of the story and the story that’s being told?
TS: I would say when a director is hired to direct a show here, they’re sometimes given the opportunity to change the space because it’s vital -- and we have learned this the hard way -- plays don’t always work well in this space because it is very wide.
AS: Also, this is not a naturalistic piece, there’s the breaking of the fourth wall and John is talking to the audience in an intimate way. For a Broadway show, that’s very tricky. I can see why they chose this theater and the set design. I can also see this show working in a much smaller space.
John Lithgow: Stories By Heart runs through March 4, 2018 at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
Related Categories: 2017-2018 Season
, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart