"The experience of live theatre is irreplaceable," Alvin Epstein says. "Nothing equals its power. We're in front of a live audience, and anything can happen. Anything."
Epstein, 86, has been in front of audiences for 65 years. The Village Voice once called him "one of our culture's hidden treasures." New York magazine said he's "one of the great classical actors of his generation."
An actor and director, Epstein has worked on 150 productions in theatres from New Haven to New York, Minneapolis to Tel Aviv. He was the artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and associate director of Yale Rep, where he appeared for more than a decade. He performed with the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard for two decades. He toured on and off for 17 years with Martha Schlamme in A Kurt Weill Cabaret.
In the 1940s he studied dance with Martha Graham and mime with fellow student Marcel Marceau. He performed with Habima Theatre in Israel in the 1950s. He was the Fool opposite Orson Welles' King Lear on Broadway in 1956; the same year he played Lucky alongside Bert Lahr in the New York premiere of Waiting for Godot. He acted with Sting in 1989 in The Threepenny Opera. He recently worked with Sam Mendes' Bridge Project and, in early January, wrapped up a critically-acclaimed run as the servant Fiers in The Cherry Orchard at Classic Stage Company, opposite John Turturro and Dianne Wiest.
Epstein grew up in the Bronx, his father a physician. "When I was 18, a friend gave me a book, The Theatre - Advancing, by Edward Gordon Craig," a renowned actor, director, scenic designer and proponent of modern theatre. "It was a revelation. He spoke my unconscious desires. It was what I wanted to do."
After serving in World War II, he met Craig in Paris, was influenced by the renowned French film "Children of Paradise," and then studied with Graham in New York. "After a year, I realized I would become a dancer, and I didn't want to." He left and returned to Paris to study with famed mime Étienne Decroux, and met Marceau.
In the mid-'50s, while working with Marceau in New York, he was hired as the Fool. "Welles was self-destructive. At one performance he almost killed me. When he said, 'Fool, I shall go mad,' he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and was rushing forward. It was like being pushed by a locomotive. Behind a curtain was a steel lighting tower. I wriggled like a maniac to get out of the way. I got out a split second before disaster, but he crashed, lost his false nose and badly sprained his ankle."
Then came Godot. The star, Bert Lahr, "called me to his dressing room after a matinee. I went thinking I had done something wrong. He said, 'You know, you're a very talented young man. You should change your name.' I thanked him but felt it would betray my family and cultural background."
In the late 1960s, Robert Brustein invited Epstein to his Yale Rep, and later to American Repertory Theatre. "I've always considered myself a company actor," Epstein says. "Which means I wanted a theatrical home. My interest in theatre was based on what I could contribute toward a theatre worth contributing to."
Looking back, "I can't believe I've done so much. I didn't choose the plays. I didn't choose the roles. They were decided on by artistic directors. It feels much richer than if I had chosen them myself.
"I'm waiting to see what happens next. Doing that has been good for me."