BWW Interview: Multi-faceted Tony Tanner GIVEs ME THE SUNny & Dark Sides of Making Theatre For Years
Theatre veteran Tony Tanner's latest directorial project GIVE ME THE SUN, his adaptation of Ibsen's GHOSTS, world premieres September 15, 2018 at the Lounge Theatre. The actor/writer/director, having worked with a Who's Who of theatrical talents, allowed me to pick his brain on his extensive theatrical history.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Tony!
What originally sparked your interest in adapting Ibsen's GHOSTS?
I was moderating for the Classical Theatre Lab and thought the last scene in GHOSTS might be of interest to two of my favorite actors. I checked out a couple of translations and liked neither one. It seemed like not too onerous a thing to re-imagine the scene in my own words and did so. We'd barely put the scene on its feet before the idea of embracing the whole work took hold of me.
Your projects range from the classics (OTHELLO, SHERLOCK HOLMES, Pinter's THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, to contemporary musicals (JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT) What criteria do you look for in a project to commit contributing your creative energies to it?
First, I need to know if I think the work is any damn good. Then, having established its credentials, at least in my mind, if I've been asked to act in it, I have to be able to 'hear' myself doing it, more or less at once. If I've been asked to direct it, I need to be able to 'see' it onstage, just as quickly. If I find myself sitting around asking whether or not to take it up, the eventual answer's invariably 'no thanks.' The response, you see, should be visceral, and for me at least, should be quick. I can intellectualize into infinity later, if that's what the (mostly American) actors want, but a 'yes' or a 'no' comes very quickly from somewhere down there.
You have an L.A.-based theatre company LEO 9. When did you start it?
LEO 9 is a name I'm using for this production for the first time. I produced my own work in Los Angeles for twenty years as Bare Bones Theatre, before finding out that another company had the same name. When I did find out, incidentally, I'd just run out of money, so I relinquished the name to those nice, fiscally sound people at once.
Is your theatre company join-able? Or do you have specific auditions for specific shows?
It is not join-able. I have, however, accumulated over the years, an informal group of about sixty actors who'll work for me without pay and when I can't find within their ranks exactly what I need for the next project, I audition others, so the door is always at least ajar.
Growing up in London, do you remember what show or program that first made you say, "I want to do that !"?
It wasn't a show, it was a teacher. Miss Hill, English Lit. She and I discovered simultaneously that I could, at the age of 12, 13, 14, pick up Shakespeare's plays and read them as if I knew the author personally. She suggested eventually that I audition for the Webber-Douglas School of Drama in Kensington. Till then, I'd wanted to be a tap dancer. My sister and I were to be the Fred and Adele Astaire of Hayes Middlesex. However, I auditioned for the school and got in. So the two worlds were beckoning from very young.
You wear many creative hats - director, writer, actor, singer, choreographer. Is there one now that you prefer over the others?
People always ask me this question, though not quite in this form. What I'm usually asked is "What do you like doing best?" To which I invariably reply, "I like making theatre." That's my job description - I make theatre.
Who were your British Theatre idols growing up?
I was ravished by Olivier's Richard III. Also by Margaret Leighton in everything she did. Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois in the Theatre has been eclipsed by her performance on film, but it was a bravura display not often seen on a London Stage. Edith Evans was always a shimmering presence. Michael Redgrave gave the best young leading man performance I have ever seen in SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER with the Old Vic Co., though he was more than forty at the time. Alan Howard was almost as good in WILD OATS. Later, weirdly enough, For Caedmon Records, I played Tony Lumpkin in SHE STOOPS with Alan playing the Michael Redgrave role.
And American icons?
How would you compare being on Broadway in 1965 (When you took over in HALF A SIXPENCE) to working the London theatrical boards?
I'd rather catalogue the similarities. In both towns doing big roles in musical theatre is bloody hard, worrying work.
Now that you're settled in Los Angeles, how would you compare and contrast the L.A. Theatre community with Broadway's?
You can't compare them. People always say "Oh, L.A. isn't a theatre town." Oh, yes, it is. Too much theatre. Much more than in New York. It's just that here, most of it is in tiny theatres and most of it stinks. And when the occasional humdinger is born, it lives and dies right here.
The big shows don't start here. They start in San Diego from time to time, but they don't start here. The only big shows we see, come here as a stop on their tour. And it makes me crazy. My re-telling of the material in THE TROJAN WOMEN and THE ORESTEIA, both packed into one fun-filled evening was Critic's Choice and had glowing epithets showered upon it: "Dazzling, Olympian." But it went nowhere. If my music version of AS YOU LIKE IT, which I did as part of the Free Theatre Program of the City of West Hollywood, had been seen even Off-Off-Broadway, it would have moved up in the world. Three shows I did Off- and Off-Off-Broadway moved to the Great White Way. In L.A., there ain't a G. W. W. to move to.
L.A. is a media town. In that sense, of course the people who say, "Oh, L.A. isn't a theatre town." are, of course, correct. I asked a friend who produces movies if she thought there was an agent in this town who still cared about the theatre. Her answer was succinct, "No."
Included in the press release for GIVE ME THE SUN, I read an impressive quote from an impressive actress. Must have been said before she became a Dame, right? Tell me a particular exchange with Dame Judi Dench you'll never forget when you directed her in Jean Anouilh's ROMEO AND JEANETTE in 1965.
Actually, Judi Dench sent that quote you refer to via email recently (just in July of this year). To be honest, the things I remember saying to Judi and remember Judi saying to me are not for publication. Make of that what you will.
However, she went onstage wearing a wedding dress that I'd okayed, very unhappy with its design. She played the scene, came off and said to me at once, "It works." That's who she was.
What were some of the best memories you have of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT you were double Tony-nominated for in 1982?
Previews for JOSEPH went okay, but we knew that it wasn't long enough and didn't quite give the audience the exaltation they needed at show's end. I paced up and down at the back of the theatre for days. Finally, I asked the musical director to give me a string of reprises of all, or most of the numbers in the show. I then staged visual reprises, with the actors pouring off the stage at one point to grab ass with the audience. The first time we tried this out, the people in the auditorium stood up and cheered. Talk about exaltation.
Back to the present, what thoughts/feelings would you like your Lounge Theatre audiences to leave with after GIVE ME THE SUN's curtain call?
I'd like them to say, "Now that, that is what Theatre should be."
I'd also like them to say, "I need a drink."
Thank you again, Tony! I look forward to basking in your SUN!
For ticket availability and schedule thru October 7, 2018; log onto www.sstproductions.org