The Beckett Plays: Catastrophe

In the summer of 1982, my second marriage was coming to a rapid halt. I had taken a job in New York City shooting five episodes of a new nighttime drama called The Hamptons. My husband had now become president of Columbia Pictures, and with his success he did not care to have me working. He had taken a three week boat trip to Mexico and while he was there I received the offer to do The Hamptons. It was for very little money, but I desperately felt the need for my own self-expression, and acting was my skill. The network needed an immediate answer. Finally I was able to reach my husband in Mexico, and I told him that this was what I needed to do. He agreed. This decision to work again, and be away, proved to be the end of the marriage.

The Hamptons was an experiment. It was shot in daytime soap opera video format, however it was to air as a nighttime drama. It didn’t work. Nighttime viewers wanted film,

The Beckett Plays: Catastrophe

not the “video look” that daytime viewers were used to and enjoyed. When I returned home from New York, my husband and I decided to separate. He already had a new relationship, and I decided to leave everything behind, return to New York and find work in the Theatre. I left with nothing but my clothes, and a dream once again. I rented a small apartment above a Chinese restaurant and I began looking for a job.

Very quickly I met with Jack Garfein who ran the off Broadway Clurman Theatre on 42nd street. A trilogy of one act plays had been running there for a year, called The Beckett Plays. In one of the plays called Catastrophe, the actress needed to leave for a film commitment. She was to be replaced immediately without any performances being missed. The original, and only, director of these plays at the Clurman was Alan Schneider. He was a highly regarded director of Beckett and Pinter. At that moment, he was teaching acting in San Diego at a University.

Jack Garfein asked me if I would like to take the role. I said yes! He told me “the only requirement” would be my willingness to pay for Alan to fly in on Friday from San Diego, and rehearse me all day Saturday. I would then open the very next day, in Sunday night’s performance. Again, I said yes. This was now Wednesday and I had two days to learn the lines before Alan’s arrival. This was no easy task. I had never performed in Beckett and the language appeared almost nonsensical. The cues did not follow regular speech rhythms or thought patterns. These rhythms of speech were musical and so highly stylized that it was a form of poetry.

Still it was quite a task, as my brain was not used to memorizing this kind of text. I used a tape recorder to record the other character’s lines and left empty space for my responses. I needed to learn my cues and my lines by rote. I approached Beckett mechanically at first and then my inner life would have a structure to rely upon. I met Alan in early October on that Saturday morning in the Clurman Theatre for the first and only rehearsal. Alvin Epstein, a fine actor, played the other role of the Dictator. He, of course, was there.

Catastrophe is a fascinating one act play that Beckett wrote as an homage to Checkoslovakia’s Pavlov Havel. Beckett wrote this play while Havel was still imprisoned as an outspoken dissident in Checkoslovakia. He was freed while The Beckett Plays were still running and went on to become the President of Checkoslovakia.

This particular play is an exquisite tribute to the ability of the human spirit to transcend oppression and torture, and turn it into triumph. As we began to rehearse that Saturday morning, a very elegant and dapper man entered quietly, and sat in the first row without any apology. It was a private rehearsal with an enormous amount to accomplish in the very short time of just one day. His entrance felt a bit intrusive. Alan then introduced me to him, his name was David Warrilow and he also would be appearing in this play. He and Alvin exchanged roles every other performance.

I later learned and experienced, that David was a truly great actor, especially of Beckett’s works, as well as other very avant garde theatrical pieces. He was also a close personal friend of Beckett’s, or “Sam”. David’s speaking voice sounded as if it was from God himself. He was quite a presence. He watched carefully as I continued my intense rehearsal with Alan and Alvin. When the day was done, David called me aside to speak with me. He had come to watch my rehearsal, he said, because he was deeply concerned that a “television” actress had been hired to perform in Beckett. In his eyes, the television style of acting could not possibly translate to Beckett. After watching me, he told me he was impressed with my ability to focus, take direction, and “get” the rhythms and precise timing of Beckett. He also noted that I was already bringing depths of meaning and poignancy to the text. Would I consider auditioning for the role of Hedda in the Tyrone Guthrie production of Hedda Gabler?

He was set to play the role of Dr. Brack, and he felt I would make a magnificent Hedda. I must say, this was one of the greatest compliments I have received in my years of working. David and I became great friends and soon shared profound spiritual interests as well.

I opened the next night, and every one was very pleased. No one was more pleased than I was, as I had accepted the challenge, climbed the “mountain” at a rapid pace and metaphorically planted the flag. I went on to travel with The Beckett Plays to the Edinburgh Festival, to London, and to the Mark Taper Theatre in Los Angeles. The production was soon joined by the great Billy Whitelaw in Beckett’s Rocking Chair. In each venue, The Beckett Plays were impeccably produced with fine performances, and we received wonderful reviews. I wrote Samuel Beckett from Edinburgh. It was a letter of love, regard and gratitude. He responded, and we met in Paris and spent a glorious day together.

My work in these plays re-ignited my creativity and passion for my own abilities, and the desire to share my talent. The evening I closed in London, I flew back to Los Angeles to begin shooting the very next day in a film for United Artists called Secret Admirer. This was a light-hearted American farce. I was playing a “Valley wife” In the very first scene we filmed, I was engaged in an outrageous food fight. Talk about shifting! From Beckett to a food fight. The next chapter had begun.
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