THE FOOTE PLAY:
Dramatis Personae: Horton Foote, a 79-year-old playwright with thick white hair in two unruly clumps over his forehead. His ruddy face is etched with kindly smile lines. Though dressed in fashionably arty New York attire he still speaks in the gentlemanly drawl of his native East Texas. The recent Pulitzer Prize-winner is fresh from a New York season in which four of his plays were produced.
The Arizona Theatre Conference participants, perhaps 100 strong. The group includes professional, semi-professional and wannabe actors and playwrights from pretty high school students dressed in grungy clothes to others in their 20s and 30s with faces well known on Tucson stages. They listen with rapt attention to everything Foote says.
The Setting: PCC Center for the Arts.
Scene One: Foote listens to four actors' read-through of his play, Spring Dance, a one act that takes place in a mental institution. They've rehearsed only once. The five of them sit at a table together.
Foote: Let's read a little bit.
Young Actress Playing Annie: It's a lovely night for a dance, isn't it? (Continues through long monologue.)
Foote listens graciously as the actors go rather too quickly through their lines, nervous at the presence of the famous master. Sometimes he closes his eyes, seeming to imagine the scene they're creating, and smiles.
Foote, gently: Let's stop here. Concentrate. Don't get excited. Take time to figure things out for yourself. Don't rush so much. Think about the sensory things. You have the music drifting in from the dance hall. Is it a warm night? Is there a breeze? What is the difference in smell between a chinaberry tree and jasmine? Don't think about the text so much but about the sensory things.
The actors nod.
Foote, to director: How did you talk to the actors about the play?
Director: We talked about the pain that comes from loss and desertion, and how they escape that pain. We were using the metaphor of fog on glasses.
Foote: I think that's dangerous. You can't act it. To try to act that would be to intellectualize it.
Scene Two: Later that same afternoon. Foote sits at a table alone and takes questions cordially from the audience for over an hour.
Aspiring Playwright: What was your first play?
Foote: We began to do improvisations. I acted out one on Texas. Agnes de Mille, an improvisationalist, said, "You have interesting material. Have you ever thought about writing?" I was an ambitious actor, 23 years old, and I thought I'd write a play to give myself a part. I wrote a one-act called Wharton Dance, based on a real incident in my hometown and using real people's names. It was praised by a New York critic. Mother was so proud she sent a copy of the play around to everyone I'd written about. They were not pleased.
Second Aspiring Playwright: Do you use real people in your plays now?
Foote: I do, but I've learned not to be literal about it. Otherwise it's too stultifying and you're just reporting. It becomes a collage: you take bits and pieces of different people and it becomes a new person.
Aspiring Actress: How did you become an actor?
Foote: When I was a young boy, I used to take walks with my parents. They would always point out the home of a distinguished gentleman, Mr. Armstrong. "He got the call in the cotton fields of Mississippi," Mother would say, "to come to Texas to preach. Anybody can get the call." At 12, I got the call to be an actor. I don't know how it happened. Life's full of those kinds of mysteries...Later I just stopped acting. I wanted to write. It was like when a butterfly leaves a cocoon. That's over.
Third Aspiring Playwright: Do you have a trusted editor?
Foote: My wife's passed on. She was my dearest friend and my most trusted editor...My daughter says all my women (in my plays) have a little bit of my wife in them. I was raised by powerful women, my mother, my grandmother, my great-aunts. Life's been very unfair to women. I am moved by their courage, their unselfishness, how quietly they support other people and ask for so little. Of course they can be devils too.
Fourth Aspiring Playwright: How do you write?
Foote: The first draft is very uncensored. Then comes the hard work. I take out a lot, rearrange. Language means a lot to me. My acting training helped me. My advice is to get into all the disciplines. It's wonderful for a playwright to act and for an actor to write...but I'd be hard put to find any hard and fast rules for playwriting. You can encourage but I don't think you can really teach it...I never know the end of my story in advance. It's a great journey. I think I know the ending but I'm constantly surprised.
The audience rises to give a standing ovation. Foote smiles.
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