|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 21, 1993
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
While your main attention, energy and money was being poured into the Ensemble, you kept going, maybe to fund it an alternative [way] ... another side to yourself was the Broadway-trained actor in a whole series of roles. How did you feel about this acting side of your life?
... [sighs] ... Well, it ... it's work. You develop a certain expertise and a certain skill. You do it and you have yourself an occupation. But the important part that I found in acting was obviously the effect you have on an audience and whichever role you take on, I mean, even in Kiss Me Kate or Kismet or Annie Get Your Gun, whatever, if you can see the effect on the audience, and it's the effect you wanted to see happen, it's a little bit like what Oscar Hammerstein said when he described the audience as a big black giant. You find a different kind of giant every night, a sleeping giant, a snoring giant, a waking, a laughing, weeping giant. Every night you fight the giant and maybe if you win, you send them out a nicer giant than he was when he came in. And when you can see the audience being affected that way, that's ... it's worth acting for. Beyond that, the real pleasures one gets out of acting is to work with a company of dedicated people, which is pretty hard to find in theatre. I found it with the Ensemble company. I found it with Oklahoma!, I found it with the Opera Company. Other places you have to go looking very hard to find it. It's there but you have to look for it.
What were your best experiences in theatre as an actor?
The best experience in one way? Startling the audience or ...
Which did you enjoy most? What role have you played that you've really enjoyed?
Oh, I think ... I think Brigadoon. I think. I can't be sure ... [laughs] ...
Why was that? What was it about it?
Well, I suppose in some ways it ... it paralleled my own life: this fellow who's discontent with the nine to five grind in New York, who goes off to another country and finds a magic village, this village which he doesn't know until later appears only for one day every 100 years and in it he finds all the things he's been looking for. And in a sense, I suppose, this is what happened to me after playing Brigadoon when I came to Australia.
You really feel that about it?
What are the things that you found that really meant so much to you?
People. Open people. Developing people, compassionate people. I found my wife.
Why is that so important to you?
Oh, let's be ... let's not be so naive. I mean, one looks all over the world for the person and I think one is very, very lucky when one can even get near it. And I think I've been luckier than most. She's an extraordinary lady.
What is it about her that makes her particularly right for you?
Well ... [sighs] ... I don't suppose I should tell you. But in so many ways we are the same and in so many ways we're different. Certain things she likes that I can take with a grain of salt and vice versa. But we have the same kind of appreciation of the importance of things, I think. And I think we tend to complement each other in many ways. She has taste; I have none. I'm more critical and analytical: she's more compassionate and she's more willing to put up with things, you know. I think we found a good partnership. And let's leave it at that, shall we?
You talk about 'know thyself' as being a guiding principle that was used in selecting what you put on in the theatre, because you felt that this was really important for human beings. On that same principle, how would you describe yourself?
I'm not going to tell you. I've spent my entire life developing two things, first, an understanding of myself and secondly, a way of keeping it to myself. And the mere fact that you have asked these penetrating questions I think has really proved to be extremely disarming in that I let you peer as closely as you have into my little secrets. Now I think in general terms, I see myself as a hard worker and a zealot, a peculiar person who's not prepared to necessarily go along with trends, who is very sceptical and very grateful for the life I've had.
On the negative side in your life, looking back, is there anything that you wish you'd done differently or that you feel perhaps ashamed of or bad about?
Oh, too many things. But as for doing it differently, I've always worried about that because supposing I did it differently, I'd probably end up doing it worse than I did it the first time. So ... [laughing] ... leave well enough alone.
But is there any particular regret? Is there anything that you feel bad about? You said guilt was your middle name. Is there any aspect of things that you think, well, that wasn't an area of my life that I did so well?
Yes, I did all sorts of things. I directed cigarette commercials. I worked for political parties I didn't approve of ... I was even instrumental in putting people into power who robbed their way through politics, you know. No, I ... I think there are certain things we do that we do for expedience. The thing was in doing it, I said, yes I'm a whore, but I am prepared to take the consequences of this. So to that extent, I should have no regrets, I went into it with my eyes open.
Were these things you did for money that you wanted to use for the theatre?
So do you feel that was a whole area where you thought about means justifying ends.
Well, I put it back to you. How would, let's say, a mother feel if she thought she wanted to keep her family fed and sells her body? There're mixed feelings, of course. One wonders if there might not be another way, but this was a way it presented itself at that particular time. So that's the way you go.
Going back to the Ensemble, what was the formula you used in order to decide what plays you put on?
We tried awfully hard to assess what was happening in the community. We'd look at Letters to the Editors in all the newspapers. We'd go around talking to people. We'd talk to various groups. We got feedback from patrons. We went through the streets. We read newspapers and saw the issues that were beginning to occur. And we tried to draw a kind of equation which said, here's an issue which is going to have a chance to resolve itself. Leave it alone. But here seems to be an issue which is progressively growing, that looks as though it's too embarrassed of itself to look for a voice to bring out and discuss. So we said, let's provide a voice for it. And those were the things that guided our plays. We did one for the money, one for the show. Well, we had no subsidy so the first show we would do would be a potboiler which would literally feed the pot. It would be something with popularist concepts, like a mystery, an out and out comedy, but even these things were designed to have some guts to them. Then we would spend the money that we made on these things — 'cause we usually made money — on something which was more confronting and more risky. And then we'd go back and do a money-raiser and then go back and do a money spender. And a peculiar thing happened. After a while, we found that the risky plays were making more money than the safe ones. So that's the way we went: one for the money, one for the show. One for the money, one for the show.
You were committed very much to the idea that nobody should stand out from the rest in the Ensemble group?
No, no star system. Nobody to be given preferential treatment. But the audience selects its own favourites in time. There's nothing — you can't do anything about that and you let it not only take its course, you help it along wherever it seems natural. But we insisted no star billing of the characters. The actors were listed alphabetically. Large roles and small roles, they all considered they had a part to play in doing things to the audience. And even if they came on and did nothing more than pronounce, ‘Dinner is served,’ they'd have to do it in such a way that it contributed to the evening. Because if they didn't do it properly the evening could collapse on us. So everybody felt that they were part of the operation whether they had a large responsibility or a small responsibility. And this was the thing we were basically concerned with and made us an ensemble.
Your own role was one where you tried to keep a lower profile, you weren't on stage. And yet you became the face of the Ensemble in popularising it and extending public awareness of it. How did you feel about that?
Well, that was a necessary evil because one of the reasons — I think I may have mentioned this in another context — but one of the reasons the kids asked me to front was because, being an import, I could probably attract more publicity. And this proved to be the case. If we said to journalists, ‘Here are a whole list of people.’ They'd say, ‘Well I don't know this person, I don't know this person. I may not even know Hayes Gordon, but he's come in from the States so maybe there's something newsworthy about it.’ So I did serve as a kind of a front to get journalists to come in and look at us at least. I didn't like certain aspects of it because, along with it, very frequently goes an invasion of privacy and I cherish my privacy very much. I dare say this interview is probably as revealing and open as I've allowed myself to be in an interview. I don't know if you're aware that Yul Brynner fabricated not only one public identity but quite a number. It depended on who asked him as to where he was born ... ... [interruption] ... ... He had several different places he was born.
He was a compulsive actor. You're a compulsive human being.
I don't know about that.
You were ... you were in this situation where you were the face of the organisation. Can I put it to you that perhaps through your life there's been a certain tension between the fact that you were an outstanding person who tended to get thrust to the front of things but at the same time your philosophy, your very egalitarian philosophy, creates difficulty for you if you're forced to shine?
Look, I ... frankly I'm just a moderate talent. I am not the world's greatest director. I'm not the world's greatest teacher. Because I've seen people who are real quality, so forth. I think everybody makes a contribution in some way and sometimes it's just fortuitous as the kind of contribution they make. I like to liken it, if I can be so abstruse, as dropping a pebble in a pond. A pebble in a pond, first of all, creates an obvious wave and by the time it gets to the edge of the pond, it's just a little ripple. But it ... it's almost impossible for even a little ripple to not shift at least one little grain of sand. And I think everybody in their lives, no matter what they do, are capable of shifting a grain of sand. Now if you just happen to be in a ... in a pond that has loose sand around it, even a little pebble will shift five grains of sand. Big deal. I think I'm a pebble, and I think everybody out there is a pebble, it depends on the pond we splash in and depends on how heavily we're thrown in and so forth. But I think everybody changes the world around them, whether they want to or not. Those of us who have some understanding of the way changes take place are probably luckier at it, but everybody out there is affecting everybody else. Two people talking, they're not the same when they finish talking as they were when they started. And probably all they said to each other was, ‘Good day, how are you?’ So, I think it's as simple as that.
Actors are well-known for having a desire to display their egos and its one of the things that people attribute to actors. Now you've been an actor but you really seem to despise egotism?
No, there's a difference between ego and egotism. Egotism is usually a sign that one doesn't have an ego and one's looking for one so everything is drawn to me, me, me, me, me. I think an important sign of a relatively balanced healthy individual is they have an ego, in meaning they're aware of themselves and they know their qualities and they know what they can do and accept themselves perfectly alright. So I think, yes, actors have got to understand themselves, but they don't necessarily have to be egotistical. I don't think that's necessary. I don't think displaying temperament or drawing attention to oneself is absolutely necessary. The finest actors I ever knew were people who were quite unprepossessing in private life. They didn't draw the ... attention to themselves. Brando could pass in a crowd as anybody else. Helen Hayes looked like the average housewife and made no pretences of being anything other than. No, it's ... you know, for work we don make-up and costume and get lights shone on us and a lot of publicity heralding us, and we're made to look like something. It's a terrible actor who begins to believe his own publicity ... [laughing] ... you know. So I ... I think it's important to have an ego.
Has there ever been tension for you internally where you perhaps wanted to grab the limelight or felt yourself being pushed into it and at the same time thought, no, look, this isn't the right way to go, this isn't the right thing to do?
Ye-es, yes, there was a time on Broadway when I ... I was being sold by my agent and manager where I said, ‘Gee that sounds like an interesting proposition, I wonder what it's like to have your name in lights.’ And then I saw my name in lights and it was a fascinating feeling for a moment. But then I had to remember that I was in a flop show. The show only ran 10 performances so what the hell does that mean, you know. Yeah, I ... I think I've been there and done that.
Do you feel yourself to be primarily an American or primarily an Australian?
Neither. When audiences come into the theatre, we don't say, ‘Hey where do you come from? Who are your parents? What's your religion, what's your politics?’ They're people. I think I'm a person. If there were such a thing as world citizenship, I'd apply for it. But I ... I don't draw boundaries around myself and I ... I worry about people who do. I don't like nationalism as such. And I don't like boundaries of any kind. And to label me in those ... in those terms, I'd rather not accept it. I know other people will classify me. I was kicked off the ABC for the American classification. I had a ... an American accent. Jay Wilbur was doing a program, a musical program, Tommy Tycho was arranging and I was singing, and letters started coming in, ‘What's this Yank voice doing on our national station?’ So that was the end of me for that program. But I don't see myself as a pigeon-holed person. I'm a person.
Can we just stop there while we've still got sun and we'll do a quick review of anything you want.
Hayes, how does it feel to be an actor and go on stage every night and assume a completely different personality from your own?
Whoops. I don't think it's necessary to assume a different personality. Fundamentally, when you get out on stage, your job is to take these people on a vicarious trip. You're taking them on a vicarious adventure, like a travel agent. And you do it by illusion, the same sort of illusion that you do in film. You create a series of images and one image leads to the next and the sum total of all these images makes the audience believe you're a character in a particular situation in a particular relationship. It's perfectly possible without identifying with the character at all to cut a performance together very much as you cut a film together. You do a little take, then you have another little take and you sew them together, and the illusion of continuity makes it look as though it’s a working situation. In portraying a character, I have to see what the various ... what the character has to do, moment by moment by moment. And then generate this particular moment and then another one, another one. The basic difference between film and live stage is we do the cutting on our feet. Whereas you people have the wonderful opportunity of going back to the lab and matching prints. So we have to cut as we go. But we're still working a moment by moment at a time. And if you break it down to something like that, it's not ... neither a formidable task nor is it fooling yourself into believing you're somebody else. You don't have to be anybody else. You never leave the stage. You're always there.
So how did you create the character for say some of your really well-known roles, like Fiddler.
Studied. Studied ... studied, well, for example, I attended a Friday night session at a very orthodox Jewish family's assembly to see how the various ritual is conducted, make notes, studied with a Rabbi to be able to pronounce Hebrew words, which I still don't know the meaning of ... [laughing] ... by the way, studied a particular Russian Jew who was quite different, by the way, in mannerisms from the German Jew or Jews from other parts of Europe. An old Russian Jew that I met, his particular mannerisms and gestures. By the way ... one of the things that attracted me was his shrug. Surprisingly. One of the shows I played here was played as an Italian. Another one was as an Arab. And the other one was a Jew. And each of them had to shrug. And each of the shrugs was different. The Italian shrugged by throwing his hands up in the air. The Arab shrugged by dodging his ... no, by lifting his shoulders. And the Jew shrugged by touching his neck ... [laughs] ... So you work out all these little things, the ... the physical mannerisms. The tempo rhythms. The type of relationship. The bravura that's used in interpersonal relationship. And then when you look at the script, you say, this is what's required here. And this is what's required there and this is ... and here's something I don't know anything of. So you go out and do research, to fit in with that particular moment.
Is there any part of yourself in that character?
Yeah, every bit is myself. I'm borrowing bits of myself. I don't know if you want to hear this one, but one of the things I found very difficult was to permit hatred to occur on stage. Now there's one scene where Tevye walks in and sees his daughter talking to an undesirable and a feeling of hatred overcomes him. And the only dialogue is, ‘Good day.’ And then a little bit later, ‘Good day.’ But the place is supposed to be full of anger and hatred. Now I found it difficult to reveal that. I'm capable of hating, but I couldn't show it off on stage. And one day, I saw in the newspapers, a Minox photograph of a guy coursing greyhounds, using live rabbits and live cats. Cats having their claws pulled out and rabbits being torn apart by dogs. And of course the full hatred glowed and I couldn't make out the figure of the person because being a Minox photograph, it was very grainy. I cut it out and stood on the wings before my entrance and looked at this guy and said, ‘It could be him. That's him. That's what he's doing. He's — he's moonlighting — when he's not in theatre that's what he's doing during the day, the bastard.’ And I put the thing back in my pocket and went out on stage and played the scene again. This was about a year after we started the show. During interval he came back and he said, ‘What's the matter? What have I done? ... Have I done something to you? I'm terribly sorry ... [laughing] ... whatever it is I've done.’ I terrified the hell out of him. But it was the first time I was able to get that little component into the performance. Up until that time I was making do with less than the real thing. So you put it together that way.
What did you feel about the character of Tevye?
I don't like the guy. No, I ... I think he ... he's a bigot, a male chauvinist pig, of course. He's henpecked, he allows his wife to push him around. He finds solace in the bottle, which I don't think is particularly nice. There were likeable things about him — but the unlikable things I was often afraid were those things I don't like in myself that I saw in him. Like he blows ... hard about those things he doesn't know anything about. He misquotes the scriptures, as it were. And I very frequently have to stop and say, now let's see, every time I open my mouth, do I really know what I'm talking about or am I just quoting scriptures too? In many ways, you know, he's a human being. He finally came to terms with his problems. He took action. But I wouldn't like to be him.
The tradition that you belong to, that you've ... the philosophy you've espoused in putting really to all the work you've done in your life, is that really of liberal humanism, where you really believe in people and you believe in their right to freely do the things that they want to do? Do you feel worried about the future of that open generous attitude to human activity? Do you feel that those principles that you've lived by are going to expand and do well in the world?
Look, I don't ... I don't believe ... I worry very much about labels such as humanism and so forth. I don't believe anybody is born bad or good. I think all these things, all these potentials, are in us just as much as particular genes are there to suggest that given certain circumstances we will bloom in a particular way. I think every one of us is capable of killing. Every one of us capable of loving, of being jealous, angry and so forth. I see at the moment those parts of the human nature coming to the fore in too-large portions, that are defensive, worried, anxious. I see kids with tremendous talents having to escape onto drugs as though there's nothing to look forward to, who don't realise it, they are in a position to change the world. They ... are going through the anxiety stage at the moment. But I do hold out hope, I'm the perennial optimist in this regard. That people tend to go only so far in a negative direction before the pendulum swings and they start coming in the other direction. I think the very kids that are getting off on drugs are the ones who are then loaded with enough insight at least to be able to, when they pull up, say, ‘Hey, I think I know what I can do to make it a little better.’ And I do think we are not going to kill ourselves. I don't think we're going to get to the 12th hour. I think we may get to 10 minutes to 12 before people start living like civilised human beings.
You set out to take the audience on a journey, to change their attitudes — do they have any effect on you, on how you go on the stage?
Well, the whole idea is to make sure that you are seducing them the way a script calls for. And be a little careful that the only thing they give you is the kind of feedback that says, ‘The cookie's crumbled, yes I see what you mean,’ or ‘no I don't like what you are saying up there.’ And they give you the clue as to how hard you have to work to persuade them. But the audience is not supposed to control us. We are supposed to take the audience on the vicarious adventure ... we can't help but affect the audience because the audience is very suggestible at this time. They've had all the prestige and publicity that goes before. They are now sitting in a darkened auditorium where their defences are down. They're sitting shoulder to shoulder with other people and they feel more secure and they don't have to guard themselves. And they have paid to come in. So they've given us permission to lead them and that's our job: to take them from place to place. But the moment they start manipulating us, there's something wrong. And, you know, very frequently we say, ‘Oh what a great audience. They're making me feel great.’ Whoops, hey wait a minute, how are you making feel ... the audience feel?
So how would you characterise different sorts of audiences?
Every audience is its own equation. It's very much like meeting individual people. An audience becomes a mass personality if you've played your cards right. They're not a bunch of individuals. They're an audience that looks like an individual. And you have to size up that particular individual rather quickly; we develop techniques for doing that sort of thing.
You've said civilisation is about people learning to get along with each other in a small space ...
... live cheek by jowl with each other in a small place.
And yet conflict is the essence of theatre.
Yep, sure. The definition of theatre actually that Arnie Goldman really came by is: ‘theatre is a device for creating or bringing to the surface conflict, with an attempt at resolution of that conflict.’ Now, we're all in conflict. We can't be in peace with ourselves, unless we've come to understandings of various decisions. You know, right shoe first, left shoe first. You have to make a decision. And some of these indecisions that the audience comes with have to do with their careers, their domestic relationships, their own ... egos, their own moods, their needs, their social needs, their appetites, their hunger, their occupation. They come with a whole range of feelings. To a very large extent, daytime television solves a lot, an awful lot, of these problems for them. At least, it confronts these problems for the audiences, but we are more suggestible, we are more effective in the theatre. Because when the audience listens to radio, they're only getting it by one dimension. There's a physiological rule I think which is, the more of yourself that's exposed to an experience, the deeper the experience. In other words, the more senses. Our sense of one dimension, gives us a certain impression. Seeing a picture that's a static picture is two dimensions. A moving picture is three dimensions, possibly four dimensions, because it suggests depth if we are using something stereoscopic. But theatre provides four ... five dimensions: height, width, depth, time and spacial relationships, we can look around the actors. So more of our senses are involved in a theatrical experience than they would be just watching it on film, for example. So we can be very seductive and we've got to watch our responsibility in so doing.
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