HOUSTON -- Agnes de Mille suggested that Horton Foote turn from acting to playwrighting, the renowned writer revealed April 6 at a discussion at the Alley Theatre in an event called The Play's the Thing, organized by Inprint, Inc., Houston's only major nonprofit organization dedicated to the literary arts. "I thought I'd write plays for myself," Foote declared bemusedly. Critic Brooks Atkinson raved about Foote's first effort, Texas Town, in 1942, lauding the writing, the directing, the acting, everything, that is, except a certain young actor from Wharton, Texas, who was perplexed by the criticism since he studied acting with one of Stanislavsky's leading ladies in New York: Stella Adler.
Over the course of an informative 90-minutes, Foote shared numerous pivotal junctures in his prolific career, such as that he was the first ever to play the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie. In 1944, Tennessee Williams still knew Foote as a struggling actor, not a burgeoning dramatist, and he offered Foote the choice role in a workshop production. "But Tennessee was very forgetful," Foote recalled. Williams allowed Eddie Dowling not just to produce the memory play at the Civic Theatre in Chicago, but also to assume the part. Foote's loss was the theater's gain, seemed the sentiment of the mostly filled Neuhaus Arena Stage at the Alley, which seats more than 200.
Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd was supposed to moderate the discussion but he was apparently in New York on business. Instead, the proceedings were guided by Michael Wilson, who has just finished directing Ellen Burstyn and David Selby in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night at the Alley and is currently helming for the Tony Award-winning regional theater the first major production of Tony Kushner's Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Dr. Browne. Wilson recently directed the premiere of Foote's The Death of Papa with Burstyn and Matthew Broderick at PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina. As the newly appointed artistic director of Hartford Stage, Wilson announced he would revive it next season at the Connecticut theater. Wilson structured the 45-minute public interview to provide an overview of Foote's career, from his humble beginnings at the Pasadena Playhouse as a 17-year-old naif, to the pivotal support he received at HB Studios. Wilson referred to Foote's work as "microscopic" in the best sense, in that he "lovingly renders" "intensely emotional characters." When Wilson cited him as a modern day Ibsen, Foote shifted in his seat, saying, "Anyway . . ."
The evening began with Alley resident company member Annalee Jefferies reading an obscure Foote television play, The Tears of My Sister, produced in 1953. Although not known to be experimental, Foote placed the sister, who is addressed often, off-stage in such a way that she "was" the television camera. The one-act is a bittersweet affair, mostly narrated by a young girl, about how her sister feels obliged to marry a man twice her age because he can provide for her family. The 1953 production was, Foote said, Arthur Penn's first professional acting job. Kim Stanley had the lead.
Foote cut his dramaturgical teeth during the Golden Age of television. "In its origin, television was very near theater," Foote pointed out, because broadcasts were live and didn't allow for numerous sets. Foote's extensive oeuvre includes Valentine's Day, The Trip to Bountiful, and Lily Dale, all of which he adapted for film, as well as a nine-play cycle Orphan's Home Cycle. He won Academy Awards for his screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird and his original screenplay Tender Mercies.
Much of his work is located in the fictional town of Harrison, a stand-in for Wharton. "I don't think as a writer you choose anything," Foote explained. "Things choose you. I was advised early on to forget this Wharton business. Nobody will care about these people, I was told. Well, I care, I replied. I simply couldn't get away from it."
Foote continued. "I tried writing about the North, but it didn't work out." Foote politically declined to state what play was he talking about. "Well, I'm not going to tell you," he drawled. "Wharton is my territory."
During the audience Q & A, Foote revealed a deep ambivalence about adapting other writers' works for the screen, despite the accolades he's received for doing so. "I don't really like doing it. It's very painful. You have to get under someone else's skin," he said. "You hope you don't offend anyone." First and foremost, "You have to like what you're adapting." Foote said he was currently adapting the Little House on the Prairie books for the screen.
Among his other current projects are a number of shows in rehearsal, a draft of memoirs, and a CBS television version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man from Atlanta.
There was a time, Foote remarked, that he would have conclusively said he preferred writing plays over screenplays. Not anymore. "The theater is my home. But I'd hate to give up film." He's happiest when he adapts his own plays, though one pitfall to him is how disruptive "opening up" the action can be. About the only reason the bus ride was undertaken in the film version of The Trip to Bountiful when it wasn't in the original play, Foote said, was because he knew where the heroine needed to go, and how to get there.
"Money doesn't interest me," he elaborated about the lure of Tinseltown. "I wish it did. When I adapt my plays, I often take much less than I could get," Foote declared. "I want to be involved. In Hollywood, writers aren't wanted around."
A fan thanked Foote for the spirituality that imbues his writing. "People have often found that in my work and I'm delighted," Foote observed. "But I'm not a proselytizer. I think it's that I have a great appreciation for humanity." "I think life teaches you humility and respect for people."
By Peter Szatmary