Wicked Local: “WARHOLCAPOTE” play brings recorded chats to life at A.R.T.

Publication date: 
August 30, 2017
Author: 
R. Scott Reedy

Like many good friends, artist Andy Warhol and writer Truman Capote could spend hours talking with each other.

And they had much to discuss. Warhol’s silk screen paintings of everything from Campbell’s soup cans and Jackie Kennedy to his Marilyn Diptych had made him a leading name in pop art, and Capote’s novels, including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” had given him status as a major literary figure.

In the late 1970s, the provocative pair began talking about co-authoring a play together. Warhol’s recordings of those free-wheeling tête-à-têtes have now been adapted by Rob Roth into “WARHOLCAPOTE,” a stage production being given its world premiere, under the direction of Tony Award winner Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”), by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge beginning Sept. 9.

Roth – a 1994 Tony nominee as Best Director of a Musical for “Beauty and the Beast” – first learned about the tapes about a decade ago while re-reading one of his favorite books.

“I was on a gay cruise for families which my then-boyfriend, now-husband Patrick Meade wanted to take. I didn’t want to go, so I knew I wouldn’t be leaving the room and would need to bring a good book. I had already read ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’ about 20 times at that point, because I just love them, but I bought another soft-cover copy to take with me on the cruise. And when I read them that time, one line jumped out at me: ‘Went to Truman’s apartment, got six good tapes for the play.’”

Once back on dry land, Roth – who remembers seeing Warhol playing himself on a 1985 episode of “The Love Boat,” and Capote, in a rare acting role, in the 1976 feature film comedy “Murder by Death” – soon discovered that while their play never came to be, the tapes lived on.

“I called Vincent Fremont, Warhol’s longtime right-hand man and the business manager of Andy Warhol Enterprises. I asked him whether the tapes really existed. It turned out Andy had recorded most of his life, sometimes surreptitiously, for about a decade. When he died in 1987, there were over 3,000 cassettes, and they didn’t know what to do with them,” explained Roth by telephone from New York recently.

“The tapes ended up going to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Andy’s hometown. At the time, it was illegal to record with only one person knowing, so all the tapes were embargoed until 2037 – 50 years after Andy’s death.

“Vincent introduced me to Joel Wachs, president of the Warhol Foundation. I provided him with as much information as I could find indicating that Capote would have consented to the release of the tapes. On the advice of lawyers, the foundation’s board of directors twice denied my request for access to the recordings. But two board members – filmmaker John Waters and photographer Cindy Sherman – said the tapes could represent an unfinished piece of Warhol art, and argued that an archivist should examine them for me.”

With the Warhol Foundation ultimately supporting the idea, a museum archivist began looking through the thousands of cassettes, an eight-week process.

“Then he called me to say he had located 59 90-minute Sony mini-cassettes marked ‘Truman’ in Andy’s own handwriting. It was almost unbelievable. It made me cry, because it was like finding a pot of gold,” recalls Roth.

“I had to get a bonded court reporter to do transcripts of the tapes, which took over a year to complete. I put each transcription in a binder until there were 8,000 pages of transcripts and some 70 hours of recordings on digital files. I then spent two years listening to and indexing the tapes.”

Roth says the conversations between Warhol – whose New York studio, the Factory, was a gathering spot for intellectuals, drag queens, Hollywood stars, playwrights, and wealthy art patrons, and who coined the maxim “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” – and Capote –a fixture both in the highest echelon of New York society and on the talk-show circuit of the time –were well worth a listen.

“Most of the tapes are from the summer of 1978, which is when they got the idea to collaborate. On one I found Andy saying to Truman, ‘Can’t I just tape you?’ They’d share ideas for the play, of course, and also talk about dinner parties they’d attended. Days would go by and I wouldn’t find anything interesting, and then they would start on one of their favorite topics – sex, fame, money, art, genius, and Liza,” says Roth with a laugh.

“What comes through clearly is how sad they both were. They had both wanted fame very badly from a very early age and they were both odd from an early age. On the tapes, they talk about how hard life is and how hard art is. They were both media stars, but they could see the media starting to turn on them. They never turned on each other, but Truman did eventually pull away because of his problems with drugs and alcohol,” says Roth.

The River Edge, N.J., native is quick to acknowledge that, when it comes to “WARHOLCAPOTE” – being presented with the support of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Truman Capote Library Trust – he is an adaptor, not a playwright.

“Every word is theirs. The play’s subtitle, ‘a non-fiction invention,’ describes it perfectly. They actually said everything in the play, just not in this context. I didn’t make them say anything they didn’t mean, I just put their words into what I believe are four funny and compelling sections.

“This is a very personal story and it is an honor and a privilege to share it with the public. I hope audiences will come away with a deeper understanding of Andy Warhol and Truman Capote as people,” he says.

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