BWW Interviews: Group Rep's Artistic Director Larry Eisenberg Talks About Reviving Clifford Odets' Classic AWAKE AND SING
2013 Interview with Larry Eisenberg by guest journalist Steve Peterson
You've been with The Group Rep for quite a while. How did you first get involved with the company? What keeps you excited about The Group?
In 1990 Bonnie Snyder who was a member of the company called me to play Richard III for a Monday night project she was directing. It was a good experience and I ran into several GRT members whom I had known and worked with over the years. Then, after a conversation with Lonny, I decided to join. They were auditioning for Room Service and I ended up playing Sasha, the Russian waiter which was great fun and a terrific experience. I acted in a number of shows and wrote and directed an original project called Nautilus. I left in 1994 to enter the MFA directing program at CalArts. I was gone for almost ten years but remained close to Lonny and the company, visiting often. One of those visits was for the 1999 renaming of the company as the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre. In 2003 I joined again and have been with them ever since.
There is a connection with the naming of The Group and the famous Group Theatre in New York. How did the name for The Group Rep come about?
It was a deliberate tribute to that original company. Lonny had been mentored by Elia Kazan who was one of the original members of The Group Theatre. Kazan brought Lonny to California for a role in "East of Eden" opposite James Dean. Lonny had also been a close associate of Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio in New York and through him, learned about the early days of the Group. It was Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford who created the Group. Lonny felt that the original Group was the birthplace of modern American acting and the place where Stanslavski's methods were first introduced. In addition to Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, and Bobby Lewis were among the original members. These were the people who went on to teach acting the way Lonny had learned it and therefore, the original Group represented an ideal for Lonny; it was one that he wanted to honor and to use as an example of the kind of work and environment he wanted to create.
Is there one particular moment that you treasure or stands out in your mind in regards to working with Lonny Chapman?
Quite a few...I acted with Lonny in several shows but by far, my favorite was as Kit Carson in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life opposite Lonny's Joe. Most of my scenes were just me and him sitting together telling each other outlandish stories and drinking beer. It was a particular treat because The Time of Your Life had been a big part of Lonny's life, and William Saroyan was one of Lonny's favorite playwrights. Lonny loved to tell the story about how when he played Tom in a revival of the play presented at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958, Saroyan would sometimes walk onto the stage in the middle of a performance, sit at the bar and drink whiskey while watching the actors perform the play around him.
By the end of 2006 Lonny was starting to get very frail. I directed a play called Chaim's Love Song by Marvin Chernoff and despite Lonny's declining health, he managed to come and see it eight times. I can't tell you how moved I was and how happy it made me that he would go to all that trouble. He was no longer able to drive and had to get rides with people to the theatre, but there he would be rooting us on and encouraging us.
As it turned out, Chaim's Love Song was the last play Lonny ever saw at The Group Rep.
Was there a particular reason that Awake and Sing was chosen for The Group Rep's 40th Season?
The reason is simple. Awake and Sing remains the signature piece created by The Group Theatre and we want to honor that past as we move into the future.
What is the play about?
It's interesting that Odets' original title was I've Got the Blues. On its face the play is about a second generation Jewish American family struggling through the depression in New York during the 1930s. Three generations of the Berger Family are stuck together in this Bronx apartment. They are dominated by mother Bessie who has no patience for daydreams or weakness. Each of the children faces hardship, bitterness and struggle. After work-shopping the script with Harold Clurman, Odets changed the name to Awake and Sing! So essentially, the play is a celebration of the human spirit and a call for living life with joy. "Life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills."
The play has numerous themes. As the play's director, is there any particular theme or themes that you are focused on?
Well, some people have called it a socialist play. I pretty much disagree and see it more as a family drama; perhaps even comedy/drama. But it does explore the conflict between individual expression and serving the greater good. Social consciousness and responsibility are major "topics" discussed and argued over by our characters. The two children, Ralph and Hennie, each are struggling to find their personal independence, but are challenged by responsibility to family and the rest of society. One question the play asks is should the individual sacrifice him/herself for the greater good. Odets does not proselytize. He takes no position, just presents the arguments beautifully and poetically. In the end, the brother and sister choose two totally different paths. He commits to laboring for the greater good and she chooses to follow her dreams. I imagine that Ralph will one day go to law school and eventually become active with labor unions or with civil rights. Hennie may end on a pleasure boat sailing to Havana.
What do you want the audience to experience or take away from having seen this production of Awake and Sing?
That life is not easy, and everyone does their best they can with the tools they have. We must not let our lives stagnate by "singing the blues." It's much better to Awake and Sing and grab life by the throat.
What's up next for you as a director, as an actor?
There's a production of Arthur Miller's The Price that I'm hoping to do at another theatre next year. I also suppose it's time to start thinking about our 41st Season.
Previews tonight and tomorrow night, September 18 and 19, and opens Friday, September 20, 2013. Tickets/Information: www.thegrouprep.com or (818) 763-5990.
Photo Credit: Sherry Netherland