Improper Bostonian: Read Tapes

Publication date: 
September 1, 2017
Author: 
Alexandra Cavallo

In the late ’70s Truman Capote and Andy Warhol decided to create a Broadway play—though it never came to fruition. However, hours of recorded conversations between the two men about the project—and art, life and love—will receive a staging in Warhol Capote, a production adapted from the tapes by award-winning director Rob Roth. We spoke with the first-time playwright ahead of the world premiere at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center on Sept. 9.

How did you discover the tapes? Ten years ago my boyfriend, now my husband, Patrick, forced me to go on a cruise against my will. It was a gay family cruise, with children. … So I bought myself a new copy of The Andy Warhol Diaries. I had read it 20 times before—no lie, it’s my favorite book—but this time, in our state room hiding from the children, one of the entries said “Went into Truman’s apartment, got six good tapes for the play.” … And that made me go, “Wait a minute, I’m going to find these and see if this is real.”

How many times did you listen to them? I only listened to them twice in full. I’ve read them more than that. Once I pulled out the sections that I liked, there must have been like 300 pieces. … And then I had these 300 chunks that I named. So there’d be one called “Liza” and “Studio 54” and “Marilyn Monroe” and “Sex,” “Jealousy,” “Love.” I tried to boil the subject matter down to a word.

As your first play, what were some challenges you faced? You know, one of the hardest things was just not to give up, to keep going. I felt like because they—the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Capote trust—trusted me with this material, I have a responsibility, literally, to Andy and Truman to get this out there. So that kept me going. I wore a lot of Andy Warhol T-shirts every day.

And that was the first time you’d ever noticed that line? Yes! It was the salt air, it was the hiding from the children, I don’t know. So when we got off the boat in Miami, I called a friend of mine named Vincent Freemont, who was Andy Warhol’s right-hand man when he was alive. And I said, “Do you remember this?” And he said, “Oh yeah, I remember him talking about them, they talked about it a lot.” And he said that all the tapes that Andy recorded—and he recorded a lot of his life—were donated to the Warhol Museum. So we called the Warhol Museum and we spoke to the archivist there, who said, “Well we have all of Andy’s tapes, but nobody has ever listened to them, and they’re on embargo until 2037.” So we called the Warhol Foundation board and I spoke to the president and he said, “Well, when Andy died we didn’t know what to do with the tapes, because he was recording surreptitiously, which is illegal.” And it opens up a legal quagmire, because who knows who he recorded on those tapes and what they’re doing on those tapes. So they decided to protect themselves and just put an embargo on them until 2037. … Anyway, I don’t know this for a fact, but I heard that Cindy Sherman and John Waters were on the board and they very much wanted to see this piece of art of Andy’s to come to life. So they got the lawyers to say that if Rob would agree to this list of requirements, we will let him hire an archivist to look at the 3,000 cassette boxes that are there, to see if any of them said “Truman” on it. So I fulfilled these requirements, to basically sign my life away, and the archivist found 59 90-minute cassettes that said “Truman” on them in Andy’s handwriting. So I ended up getting access only to those 59 cassettes, which is still a lot. And the requirements were that they be digitally transferred so that you don’t damage the tapes, and that they be bonded court reporter transcribed, which means that a company legally stands by the transcriptions. I ended up with 8,000 pages of transcripts, and maybe 65 hours of audio. And I just dove in. I started reading and listening at the same time. That took about a year. And then I started again and started pulling out chunks of transcripts that caught my ear and eye and brain.

How many times did you listen to them in full? I only listened to them twice in full. I’ve read them more than that. But once I pulled out the sections that I liked, there must have been like 300 pieces, I had to edit them to take out any person that was on the tape—because sometimes it would be, like, Andy and Truman at lunch with two other people. It was very rarely just the two of them alone. So I had to edit them through because I only had rights to their words. And then I had these 300 chunks that I named. So there’d be one called “Liza” and “Studio 54” and “Marilyn Monroe” and “Sex”, “Jealousy,” “Love.” I tried to boil the subject matter down to a word. So then I had these cards, and I’m shuffling the cards around to find a structure to the play. It took over the next six years—and up until right this very minute when you called; we were just rearranging sections—to shape the play.

How much of the recordings was really juicy and how much was just mundane conversation between the two men? Well, it was mundane conversations between a lot of people. [Laughs] But really, there was a lot of stuff that was interesting to read, but wasn’t interesting enough to be in the play. Truman told many stories, because he was a great storyteller. I chose to include the stories that involved him instead of stories that happened to other people. That was kind of the criteria, was that I was looking for the personal. And because they’re such good friends they ended up talking about what it feels like to be an artist. And what is art? I mean, they were both geniuses, and I think they both knew that they were, on some level. So they’d talk about it. What does it feel like to have a brain like they have? So that’s all in the play. And another thing that was interesting was that the day that Andy asked Truman, you know, “We should work on something, Truman.” And Truman says, “OK, well what should we do?” And Andy says, “We should have seven Broadway plays running at the same time.” And they start talking about writing a play and Andy says, “Truman, can’t I just tape you and can’t the tapes be the play?” So the instructions for what I was going to do—and I had no idea what I was going to do!—was on these tapes.

I understand you originally wanted to debut the show on Broadway—how did you end up with the A.R.T.? Fantastically, and very happily, one of the Broadway producers is married to Diane Paulus. So the play got to Diane—and Diane couldn’t read the play, because the A.R.T. is a nonprofit organization—so Diane Borger, who is the executive producer, read the play and loved it and said to Diane [Paulus] “We have to do this play.” And once the A.R.T. committed to it she read it, and happily loved it. This is my first play, and to have a chance to do it at the A.R.T. is a dream come true.

As a longtime director, do you find it difficult to let [director] Michael Mayer take the lead? You know, we talked about this and he said something so beautiful to me. He said, “Listen, you’re brain’s not going to change overnight. You’re going to watch the play like you watch the play.” So that was very freeing. And he’s very open to me saying, “Well, how about this?” or “What about that?” And I’m very open to him talking about the writing. As a matter of fact, he just suggested adding a scene, dividing one scene in half. So we have a really open, fantastic collaboration. I’m so happy to be working with him on it. He makes it not weird, is the truth of the matter. [Laughs]

As this is your first production as a playwright, what were some challenges you faced? You know, one of the hardest things was just not to give up, to keep going. I felt like because they trusted me—the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Capote Trust—with this material, I have a responsibility, literally, to Andy and Truman to get this out there. So that kept me going. I wore a lot of Andy Warhol T-shirts and things every day. And I have a lot of Andy figurines around my apartment in New York. So they’re like, “Yeah, keep going!”

If you could spend an evening with Warhol or Capote, who would you choose? Oh, that’s so hard. I would choose Andy because Andy was less drunk. [Laughs.] I think that in the time of this play, which was 1978, Truman was in decline. And it’s sad. So, if I had to choose, gun to my head, in 1978, I would have gone out with Andy.

What would you two do? Just sit and talk. Try to get him to talk. I’m not a nightclub person. But going to Studio 54 with Andy might have been fun too.

So I guess, in the end, you can credit this whole play to a gay family cruise. Absolutely! It was Rosie O’Donnell—to go back—she’s a friend of Patrick’s and mine, and she invited us on this cruise. And I said no to her right away. I said, “Oh, thanks Ro, but no.” Boat and children? No. And when I told Patrick [who was studying for his medical boards] that he said, “Well, I need this.” And he’s a doctor now—he’s a psychologist. So it paid off for him, too. He passed the boards. So the cruise was really, really worth it, yeah. [Laughs]

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