Nobody Dies in Singapore

APR 16, 1998

An interview with Alvin Epstein by Gideon Lester.

The National Arts Council of Singapore invited A.R.T. to present its production of Nobody Dies on Friday, Robert Brustein’s new play about Marilyn Monroe and the Strasberg family, at the Singapore Festival of Arts this summer. Cambridge audiences will have another chance to see the production at the Hasty Pudding Theatre starting September 30. In an interview with Gideon Lester, Alvin Epstein discusses his role as Lee Strasberg in the play.

GL: Nobody Dies on Friday seems, at first glance, a very American play. How was it received in Singapore?

AE: The Singapore audience really took us by surprise. We had wondered ourselves how an Asian audience could respond to a play that deals with characters who, while possibly known to Americans, are probably unknown everywhere else. The whole world has heard of Marilyn Monroe, but who knows about Lee and Paula Strasberg? But in Singapore our audiences were even more responsive than in Cambridge. They laughed a good deal at the funny moments in the play and were very appreciative at the end. The theatre was in the Raffles Hotel and at the end of each performance we’d leave through the hotel lobby, so we would often meet stragglers who were still there. It was clear that they had understood the play quite as well as any audience.

GL: Why do you think that is?

AE: Singapore is a very cosmopolitan city, and some of them clearly did know about The Actor’s Studio and Lee Strasberg. But those who didn’t were able to respond to the family dynamics in the play, which are universal. It doesn’t matter if none of these people are known to the audience. Once they hear about the famous movie star in the bedroom, they can understand the tension and the arguments that arise among the family. Even if we changed all the characters’ names, I think the play would not lose its appeal.

GL: And yet the play is based on real events and real human beings. When you were preparing the part of Lee, to what extent were you consciously emulating Strasberg himself?

AE: It varied over the course of our rehearsal process. At the beginning, when we were first reading the play, I was concerned with my own memories of Lee Strasberg and with recapturing some of the man’s obvious characteristics. If I had continued that for too long, my performance would have become a caricature, and Strasberg wasn’t a hard man to caricature. So I soon began to deal with the reality of the situation. An actor has to approach every role in three dimensions. On stage, many secret things happen in an actor’s mind that are personal to him, that he makes connections with, and that have nothing to do with the playwright’s words. They are a product of the actor’s sensibility, memories of his own life, and his imagination.

GL: When you perform the part now, does an image of Strasberg ever enter your mind?

AE: Yes. I had to keep recalling him because I eventually began to forget some of the little quirks and patterns of behavior that I had seen in him. Bob Brustein and our director David Wheeler had to keep reminding me. One of his easiest habits to remember is the funny clicking sound he used to make in his throat. I would forget to do that. I would completely lose any sense of being Lee Strasberg and would just play the character that I had developed. That character was of course derived from Strasberg, but I wasn’t thinking about him any more.

GL: This question of impersonation must come up often now that so many biographical plays are being produced.

AE: Movies have been made about Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe, but they’re never any good. They’re all phony. No matter how strong the actors are they can’t ever be the other person, who is so famous and so familiar. It’s one thing to make movies about Queen Victoria, who has become a figure of our imagination, but it would be hard to make a movie about Queen Elizabeth the Second, because she’s real and present and we have a very clear picture of her.

GL: How well did you know Lee Strasberg yourself?

AE: I attended the Actor’s Studio for quite a long time, officially as an observer and not a member, although eventually I was allowed to participate in the scene work, as any member was. Strasberg and I were in the same room twice a week. At the Studio I was in the very first production of Dynamite Tonight by William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein, which was the piece that brought me to Bob Brustein’s attention. It was among the very first production presented in a New York run by the Actor’s Studio.

GL: Was Strasberg a good teacher?

AE: Very good. He was well worth watching and listening to. He was very perceptive, not necessarily as a director or as a teacher, though obviously one learned from what he said, but as a critic. His teaching was reserved for his private classes, which were separate from these sessions at the Studio, where he was dealing with very professional, experienced actors. Occasionally he would introduce exercises from his Method training, but mostly he would criticize scenes. He was terribly quick to perceive what an actor was doing and whether it was helpful to the work or not, whether it was liberating the actor to function emotionally in the scene. While rehearsing Nobody Dies on Friday, we watched an archive film of Strasberg teaching at the Studio. In one scene he’s talking to an actress and he says some fundamental things that any good director would say. “The telephone is going to ring,” he says, “but you don’t expect it, so you should be busy doing something else before it rings. Let it take you by surprise.” He criticized the actress for not having found an activity to precede the telephone call so that her behavior when it rang wasn’t pre-programmed. That’s not the Method, it’s a basic element of acting technique.

GL: Do you think that a certain amount of the criticism now leveled at Strasberg results from a partial understanding of his technique? We take for granted a great deal of good that came out of his training.

AE: It is true that he carried his Method to a degree at which it might have had a bad effect on some actors. There are people who say that the Method, which was so rooted in looking at your past experience and trying to use it, contributed to Marilyn Monroe’s final collapse. Her childhood was so destructive to her that the more she connected with it the less control she had over her own life.

GL: Nobody Dies on Friday is as much about Strasberg’s private life, his relationship with his family, as it is about his public role as acting teacher. Did you have any experience of Strasberg off-duty?

AE: It’s too simplistic to say it, but he was a cold fish. You could tell just by looking at him that he was isolated from other people. When he looked at you it was almost as if he wasn’t seeing you. I met him once on the subway going down to the Studio for a session, and I said “good morning” to him, and he turned his head and looked at me with a blank stare and then turned right back to his newspaper without saying a word. And yet he was deeply connected to you when you were performing for him. He looked at you and saw you and analyzed your feelings and your actions. But when you weren’t acting for him, you weren’t there. The entrance to the Actor’s Studio was a narrow little passage, almost like a telephone booth. Once he was standing there, talking to Cheryl Crawford. The two of them were facing each other and I was trying to get past them into the building. They absolutely ignored me. It was impossible for me to get through. They kept right on talking as if there was nobody there.

GL: The play certainly presents Strasberg as a difficult man. Do you feel that the deck is stacked against you on stage?

AE: No. It’s part of an actor’s job to identify with whatever role he’s playing, to invent reasons for the character doing what he’s doing. I suppose I’ve justified to myself everything that I have to do on stage. I don’t see Strasberg as a vitriolic man. The way he relates to his own family, to Marilyn in the bedroom, or to the people who call him on the telephone, has become an automatic pattern of behavior. I don’t judge it as I play it.

GL: Are you looking forward to playing the part again in the fall?

AE: Oh yes, absolutely. The play has developed each time we’ve staged it, in Cambridge and Singapore. And I’m looking forward to whatever changes Bob makes to the script.

Gideon Lester is A.R.T.’s resident dramaturg.

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