DigBoston: The Art of Making Art

Publication date: 
September 19, 2017
Christopher Ehlers

There is little doubt that WARHOLCAPOTE, now in previews at the American Repertory Theater, is one of the most compelling and hotly anticipated theatrical events of the season. This “non-fiction invention,” as it is being called by adapter Rob Roth, has been in the works for over a decade and is drawn from the actual recorded conversations between Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, two touchstones of 20th-century pop culture.


Roth, best known for his direction of the stage adaptation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, was holed up in his room on a cruise ship with a copy of The Andy Warhol Diaries, a book Roth says he’s read 20 times, when a particular line jumped out at him in a way that it hadn’t before: “Went to Truman’s apartment,” wrote Warhol, “got six good tapes for the play.”


For an entire decade of his life, Warhol walked around with a tape recorder. Over 3,000 cassette tapes were discovered after his death, though laws about recording people without their consent have kept them from being released. Thus, they’re locked away at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg where lawyers are likely to make sure that they never see the light of day.


But Roth’s wheels started turning, and he was fascinated by the idea that Warhol and Capote may have been collaborating on a play together. Might any conversations between the two be preserved on some of the thousands of tapes? It could make for an interesting play, Roth thought, but the first step would have to include getting access to those tapes. It took a while, but Roth successfully got the Warhol Foundation on board.


An archivist at the museum spent eight weeks sorting through the tapes and found 59 90-minute cassettes labeled “Truman.” The 70 hours of recording became 8,000 pages of transcription, and from there, work on WARHOLCAPOTE began.


This world premiere production stars Tony Award-winner Stephen Spinella (who originated the role of Prior in Angels in America) as Andy Warhol and Dan Butler, a constant presence on television for over two decades (probably best known for playing Bulldog Briscoe on Frasier) stars as Truman Capote. Tony-winner Michael Mayer—one of the best stage directors of our time, responsible for the likes of Thoroughly Modern MillieSpring Awakening, and the recent revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch—is at the helm.


Although a world premiere event of this nature would be quite thrilling enough on its own, A.R.T. has partnered with Harvard Art Museums for a fabulous series of Act II events that will aim to further engage with audience members following the performance. What’s more, on view at the museums’ Art Study Center on select Mondays will be six screen-prints from Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe series. The prints, which were acquired by the museums in 2015, will be shown side by side, offering an unprecedented look at some of the most iconic and important images of all time.


Your time is running out, though: The screen-prints will be on view for only two more Mondays, Sept 25 and Oct 2, 1-4 pm. Museum admission still applies, though free admission will be granted to WARHOLCAPOTE ticketholders who show their tickets stubs at the admissions desk.


Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Harvard Art Museums, is thrilled about the partnership and the opportunity to see, up close and personal, Warhol’s ideas behind the iconic image of Marilyn.


“[Warhol] is known as someone who was all about making the consumable something that is high art,” said Enriquez. “Marilyn was obviously also a consumable in some sense because she was this figure who society made into a kind of representation of the beauty and the starlet and fame all at once. You get to see both his ability as a printmaker but also the idea behind the subject matter.”


Enriquez, who is admittedly not a Warhol buff, says that working with these prints has opened up a whole new way of thinking for her about Warhol and the important contributions that he made to 20th-century art.


“When you look at these versions of Marilyn side by side in a series, you begin to see layers of depth and a means of representation that is completely different based on how you change the colors and the ways in which they contrast with each other,” said Enriquez.


Warhol and Capote were both obsessed with fame—both being famous and being around famous people—and that’s one of the things that drew them to one another. It is hardly a coincidence, then, that the dark side of fame is one of the things that stuck out for Enriquez as she spent more time with the prints.


“You see her as a mask because each time you see a variation of her and you look at the color difference, you think: ‘Okay, it’s just the same image over and over.’ But somehow it looks completely different when you combine a bright blue face with bright green and orange hair versus a pale pink face with golden hair and turquoise eye shadow. She doesn’t look the same even though it’s absolutely the same face. She looks completely different, and she becomes both a mask that is completely superficial on one hand and, on the other hand, you read more deeply into the idea that there’s actually a person behind that mask. And yet fame made her into a mask, which Warhol accentuates with these images. I can use words to describe them, but seeing them is far more powerful and almost painful, on some level. You begin to see that this one person is actually a person—not just a mask.”


Enriquez herself will be participating in a discussion with artist Jesse Aron Green following the Wednesday, Oct 4 performance. Other Act II guest artists include DJ, artist, and writer Jace Clayton on Sept 20; adaptor Rob Roth on Sept 27, 28, and Oct 12; author and journalism professor Dick Lehr on Oct 3; and—incredibly—Warhol “superstar” Jane Holzer will be on hand following the Oct 10 performance.


Ryan McKittrick, dramaturg and director of artistic programs at A.R.T., says that the theater is committed to thinking about how it can inspire dialogue after the curtain comes down and how post-production discussions can be curated.


“We’re thrilled about the people who are coming,” said McKittrick. “There are questions about what it means to make art and where art comes from. What is art? Those are the type of questions that are arising from the play.”


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