The Tapes Marked “TRUMAN”

SEP 10, 2017

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WARHOLCAPOTE adaptor Rob Roth discusses the never-before-heard recordings at the heart of his new play with A.R.T. Director of Artistic Programs & Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick.

RYAN McKITTRICK: This play is drawn from taped conversations between Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. How did you discover these tapes existed?

ROB ROTH: My husband, Patrick, forced me to go on a gay family cruise—totally against my will, because I didn’t want to be trapped on a boat with loud children! I knew that I wasn’t going to leave the room, so I brought a new copy of The Andy Warhol Diaries. I had already read the Diaries twenty times since they had been published—I just love them. And when I was reading them this time in our little stateroom, something popped out at me: “Went to Truman’s apartment, got six good tapes for the play.” And that started what’s now become a ten-year journey to get here to the A.R.T. When we got o the cruise (which was actually lovely), I called my friend Vincent Fremont, who was Andy’s right-hand man from the time Vincent was 17. And I asked, “Vincent, do you think this is true? That they were working on a play?” And he said, “Well they certainly talked about it enough, but whether they did anything is hard to know.”

Andy recorded most of his life for about a decade. And when he died, they didn’t know what to do with all these tapes—over 3,000 cassettes. It’s a big legal issue because in the seventies, it was illegal to record with only one person knowing. Andy was going to Studio 54 and hanging out with Jackie Kennedy, and there were potentially a lot of famous people on those recordings. So the lawyers at the Warhol Foundation had decided to embargo all the tapes. When I first asked if I could have access to them, the answer was a flat-out “no.” They were given to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and were literally under lock and key.

Then Vincent introduced me to Joel Wachs, the President of the Warhol Foundation. Joel got excited about the idea and offered to go to the board to see if there was a way around the embargo. So the day of the board meeting comes and I’m very very nervous, waiting by my phone. And Joel called and said he was sorry, but the lawyers said no. But he also said that two people on the board were irate with the lawyers, because they thought that this may be a piece of unfinished Warhol artwork. Joel asked me to come back with every quote I could find from either Warhol or Capote about the play. There wasn’t a lot, but there were some really good quotes about the play being Andy’s “nest egg” and how he wanted to have six Broadway shows running all at once.

Eventually the Warhol Foundation got behind the idea, and an archivist at the Warhol Museum looked through more than 3,000 cassettes. That took eight weeks. Then he called to tell me he had found fifty-nine, ninety- minute cassettes marked “Truman”. Which was unbelievable. I actually cried a little bit because it was like finding a pot of gold. Or potentially finding a pot of gold. I had to get bonded court report transcriptions of the tapes, which took over a year to complete. I put the transcriptions in a binder as they came in, until there were 8,000 pages of transcripts and about seventy hours of recordings on digital files. Then I started reading and listening.

Were the tapes in any kind of order?

No. The tapes are undated. But for the play that didn’t really matter because it ended up being such a Frankenstein. I took things from all over the place and from other interview sources, so the chronology of it didn’t actually matter. Andy says on the tapes (and it’s in the play): “Plot isn’t important. It shouldn’t have a plot.” And this doesn’t have a plot like a regular play does. They left instructions on the tapes about what the play should be. They wanted it to be edited conversation, which Truman says will be both real and imagined. Truth treated in fictional form. So that’s what the play is. They spoke every single word in the play but not remotely in this way. If they came to see this play they would say, “Well that’s completely ridiculous…that didn’t happen at all like that.” And that’s what they intended!

Could you describe the experience of listening to the tapes? Did themes begin to emerge as you heard these conversations and read through the transcripts?

I had a lot of really disappointing days because there were hours of just drunk talk. And then I got to the day where Andy says, “Truman, we should work on something together.” “Okay, what should we do?” “Let’s do a Broadway play.” I almost passed out. That was a pretty exciting day. So there were days where I was elated: “I’m gonna tell you the story about how I jerked o Humphrey Bogart.” Great! Or, “I’m gonna tell you what it feels like to be a genius.” But in seventy hours of recordings those moments were few and far between. They got together, drank, and talked, and Andy taped it. I think what happened was that when they were aware of the tape recorder, Andy got Truman to tell some really good stories. And when they forgot the tape recorder was there, they talked about personal things and revealed themselves to each other. In the Diaries, Andy wrote, “Truman died and I didn’t go to the funeral. But I’m listening to those tapes we made and they’re awful. I talked on them so much that I ruined them.” I really wanted to pursue that idea of Andy talking too much, which was not like him. Not his public persona.

You’ve broken the play down into four scenes. Could you talk about the progression from space to space?

They get more private. First is Studio 54—a public space with a thousand people. The next is a restaurant that’s nearly empty—it’s the two of them but still in a public place. Then we go to Andy’s studio, which is a very private place for him. And finally to Truman’s home. I knew the play was going in this more personal direction, so that’s how I set the scenes.

Warhol and Capote were different in so many ways. What do you think drew them to each other as friends and artists?

Fame. It started with Capote’s picture on the back of his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms. It is an outrageous photograph. Andy was obsessed with Capote and I think it was fame that drew Andy to him. Then in 1978, when they met again, Andy was more famous than Truman. And I think that fame drew Truman to Andy. Capote was ostracized from society because he had written Answered Prayers and told a lot of secrets about his rich friends. And the rich friends completely cut him off. Andy was a way back into high society for Truman. So fame was a big thing between them. It was very important to both of them. And it disappointed both of them. They were very odd men, and I think they dreamt that fame was going to cure that. And when they got famous, it didn’t cure it. As a matter of fact, it made them more alienated. Like Andy says in the play, “I go home, and I’m happy to see a cockroach.” There is a huge, sad disparity between being at Studio 54 surrounded by people and noise and lights and paparazzi, and then going home to an empty brownstone.

We live in a country that is obsessed with fame and celebrity. How do you think their conversations resonate today, four decades later?

Andy Warhol might have been an alien from the future. He predicted where we are today. He said that everybody should be bugged and photographed all the time. And now we are! You’re bugging me right now! It’s everywhere. When they were having these conversations in 1978 they were the darlings of the media. And the media was making money off their celebrity by promoting them. Andy predicted that it was going to turn. He said, “I think soon they’re gonna make money from bashing us and that’s going to be scary.” And we’re there right now. When I heard those moments on the tapes I got chills.

What about Capote? Could you talk about his importance today, especially as the subtitle of your play, “non-fiction invention,” references his work?

Truman Capote was a gay and out man in the fifties and sixties, which broke a lot of ground. He was on Johnny Carson all the time. They were friends and lived next door to each other. Truman would just call up and say, “Johnny I want to go on.” And he would. He was eccentrically gay but he wasn’t afraid to go on TV and be eccentrically gay. That’s groundbreaking. He was way, way, way ahead of his time and paved the way for a lot of other people. And Capote reinvented journalism. He called In Cold Blood a “non-fiction novel.” He told true stories in a fictional form and a lot of great writers have taken that on. I wanted to pay homage to the “non-fiction novel,” and I wanted audiences to know this play is invented. This did not happen like this. I feel like I’m collaborating with Warhol and Capote in some way. They wanted their words edited into an imagined play. So that’s what I did.

Ryan McKittrick is Director of Artistic Programs & Dramaturg at A.R.T.

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