Vol. 20, No. 13

April 5, 2001

New book spotlights comments
by contemporary performers

A close-up, behind-the-scenes view of the art of acting is the theme of a new book by Richard Davison, English. He is coeditor, with Jackson R. Bryer of the University of Maryland, of a book of exclusive interviews with some of the country's most outstanding and talented performers, entitled The Actor's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Stage Performers.

The book is a series of 17 interviews with renowned actors and actresses in live theatre, from Jessica Tandy, who made her stage debut in 1927, to Nathan Lane and Cherry Jones who were born in 1956 when Tandy and her husband Hume Cronyn were already well established in their careers. The interviews focus on the actors' art and experiences, providing an overview of contemporary American theatre by those who have contributed so much to it.

As Davison wrote in the book's introduction, "They have all continually given us the gift of their native talents and transmuted their stage and life experiences into performances that are transcendent and unique."

In general, these actors "make clear that acting is very hard work, not just something that happens spontaneously and naturally," Davison wrote. "How they achieve this appearance of spontaneity and fluidity through study and hard work is what many of the actors in this book try to explain. As with most artistic geniuses...it is often difficult for them to explain how they do it. But their attempts to do so are fascinating to hear."?

For example, Cherry Jones who spoke recently on the UD campus, described how she had to alter her acting to complement each of the three actors who played her father in a production of The Heiress. The first, Philip Bosco, she described as a "theatrical force of nature...a meat eater; the second, Donald Moffat, was more "psychological and more naturalistic" and the third, Remak Ramsey, had the "arrogance of a blueblood."

She added, "Then, I had to deal with three lovers!"

Lane talked about getting tired doing eight shows a week and deciding to relax a little in his role. "Then I get out there," he said, "and the audience is from heaven, and suddenly you would go to the ends of the Earth for them...It changes everything." ?

Jason Robards spoke about his training in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he learned everything from makeup and sword play to voice and speech and Greek drama, and eventually playing in front of an audience.

He also recalled his professional debut, along with actor Tom Poston, in Rehoboth in a play called Out of the Frying Pan. "It was a light comedy about a bunch of out-of-work actors: that was very good for us because we all were," he said.

In theatre, he said, "the playwright, the audience and the actor form a triangular frame that goes into something else and becomes another life, another understanding."

Although two of the actors, Robards and Tandy, are no longer alive, the others are active performers, Davison pointed out. Five are on or soon will be on Broadway–Nathan Lane in The Producers; Blithe Danner in Sondheims Follies; George Grizzard in Justice at Nuremberg; Cherry Jones soon to appear in Major Barbara; and Julie Harris soon to appear in Belle of Amherst.

The book had its beginning when the Smithsonian Institute celebrated Broadway's 100th anniversary in 1993, and part of the event was interviewing seven of the actors for posterity, Davison said.

Davison, in addition to editing the book, also interviewed all 17 actors for different projects and seven actors for the book with coeditor Bryer, including Eli Wallach, Ann Jackson, Ruby Dee, Julie Harris and others.

Davison said he has enjoyed the theatre from both in front of and behind the footlights. Growing up near New York City, he was able to see many Broadway and off-Broadway shows. The first show he saw was Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury, and his first Broadway show was South Pacific. While teaching at Gettsyburg College, he took part in productions there and later directed and acted at the University of Wisconsin as a graduate student. He is still an active reader and performer at UD and in Newark.

Davison's field is American literature, and he carried out research on writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Frank, Charles and Kathleen Norris. He also has studied theatre and drama. At UD since 1968, he has taught courses in drama, given more than 80 public lectures on literary figures, books or the theatre and has published extensively.

A graduate of Middlebury College, Davison received his master's degree from the University of Rochester and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. His publications include Charles G. Norris and Charles and Kathleen Norris: The Courtship Year. Currently, he is writing a book with the working title, View from the Mezzanine: New York Theatre in 1958.

Davison is an enthusiastic supporter of the Professional Theatre Training Program at UD. "PTTP is one of the best things that has happened at UD," he said. "Thanks to it, my daughter has seen some of the 30 greatest plays ever written in wonderful productions–what an opportunity!" Because of his appreciation for PTTP, he is donating all his proceeds from The Actor's Art to the program.

–Sue Moncure

Discussion and book signing set April 19

Richard Davison, English, will discuss his new book, The Actor's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Stage Performers, at 4 p.m., Thursday, April 19, in 108 Memorial Hall. Davison also will sign copies of his book, which will be for sale, and proceeds will benefit UD's Professional Theatre Training Program.