STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Ian McDiarmid and Piazza Telecast Director Kirk Browning Plus Tony Thoughts

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Ian McDiarmid and Piazza Telecast Director Kirk Browning Plus Tony Thoughts This month we chat with Tony nominee Ian McDiarmid (The Faith Healer) and director Kirk Browning, who, with TV credits dating back to 1948, helms the June 15 "Live from Lincoln Center" telecast of The Light in the Piazza (which won six 2004-05 Tonys). And since Tony night is next Sunday, we also take a glance at this year's nominations and the 2005-06 season.
Ian McDiarmid in Faith Healer.
Ian McDiarmid in Faith Healer. Photo by Joan Marcus

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While awaiting Tony night, Ian McDiarmid is already a winner. His Broadway debut in Faith Healer has earned him a 2006 Theatre World Award, a prize that will be presented June 6 at Studio 54, by co-star Ralph Fiennes.

Was McDiarmid prepared for all the hoopla surrounding his New York debut? "I don't think anyone can prepare you for Broadway. We arrived, we rehearsed, we did the previews, and then we were on. Then, to our delight, we were told that we were a hit. And now the Tonys. It's one thing after another - quite extraordinary! I'm sort of flabbergasted. It's like all those words you see outside the theatres: 'Excited!' 'Outstanding!' 'Overwhelming!'

"Lots of Brits are here at the moment. I think I've seen more of them the past few weeks than I have the past few years. Richard Griffiths [also a Theatre World winner] and I are old friends, and there are lots of very friendly American artists. We all meet regularly because of the Tonys [and their related functions]. I wish there was more of that in London. The only regret is that we can't see all of the shows [due to conflicting schedules]. I try to see as many as I can. The other week, I saw Pajama Game, which was great. Next is Shining City."

How does McDiarmid, who received a 2001 London Critics Circle Award as Best Actor, feel about awards? He says, "The same, I think, as most actors do - that it's very nice to get one, to be recognized. On the other hand, they're add-ons. It's the show each night that really gets you going - that's why we're actors. "There are so many awards ceremonies now. I pity the poor people who have to watch them, never mind the artists. You [Americans] do it well. You started it. Everyone in England knows that the Oscars and the Tonys are the major ones every year. Everything we do back home is a rather half-hearted attempt to copy those."

Although he's making his Broadway acting debut, McDiarmid is no stranger to the New York stage. As co-artistic director (with Jonathan Kent) of London's Almeida Theatre, he's "had lots of shows here: Medea, Hamlet, with Ralph [Fiennes]; the David Hare play about Oscar Wilde [The Judas Kiss], with Liam Neeson. We had Coriolanus and Richard II at BAM." Adds McDiarmid, "I'm delighted by the way New York audiences listen. They've got a lot to teach people back home."

Brian Friel's The Faith Healer consists of four monologues, relating basically the same events but from different perspectives. Fiennes as Frank, an Irish faith healer, has the opening and closing soliloquies, recalling his travels through Wales and Scotland. Cherry Jones has the second as Grace, who's either Frank's mistress (he says) or wife (she says), and McDiarmid, the third, which starts Act Two; he's Teddy, Frank's Cockney road manager.

McDiarmid compares it to a symphony: "Each of us occupies a moment; Ralph occupies two. You're conscious all the time that you're playing great music. But, within the formal structure of the writing, there is room for individuality of performance. What's also interesting about the play is that it's about what artists do, and how difficult that is to talk about and to conjure up, and how sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't - and you never really know why."

James Mason starred in the original 1979 Broadway production, which failed, with Clarissa Kaye (Mrs. Mason), and Donal Donnelly. The play has since come to be regarded by many as the playwright's masterwork. "Brian Friel says that Mason was magnificent," declares McDiarmid. "There were problems with [the play], absolutely, but [Friel] liked [Mason's] performance."

When McDiarmid auditioned for his present role in the original British production, "the director was very kind. He said, 'It's very good, but you're much too young. In about 20 years, you should play it.' It happens that in 20 years, I did.

"I'm very close to Jonathan Kent [who directed the present production]. When I originally did [the play], it was in London at the theatre we both ran. I was presumptuous enough to suggest myself as Teddy. Not everyone jumped at the idea. It wasn't an obvious piece of casting. First of all, I'm not [from] London, and you would probably look for an authentic Cockney to play the part. But I knew that somewhere it was in me. Anyway, they took a chance - and here I am. It's enabled me to do it with a number of actors.

"Another actor played Frank before Ralph, and Cherry Jones is the third Grace. She's quite remarkable. She made us investigate other areas in the play and dig deeper. It's been a great experience." Jones sits in a chair for 40 minutes and mesmerizes the audience with her performance. Remaining seated, notes McDiarmid, "was a decision that she and Jon [Kent] arrived at together. Previous actors in that part had gone off and pulled a drape."

During Teddy's monologue, he consumes five bottles of beer. Actually, admits McDiarmid, "It's boring old, cold tea. The moments I drink is specified by Brian - it's part of the rhythmical piece - but he's quite flexible about that. He's not as rigid as Samuel Beckett. In Teddy's case, he has two supports: the drink and that night's audience. People say, 'What was the most challenging aspect of the part?' I say, 'Bladder control.' Some nights, I leave the wings rather rapidly."

Offstage for Act One, how does he spend his time? "Various ways. I have a kind of routine. Cindy puts my hair on [referring to his dresser's application of the wig he wears]. The three of us [he and his co-stars] get together just before Ralph goes onstage for the first monologue. We always felt that it's important to connect in some way before the play starts, because we don't get together until the curtain call. I listen to Ralph and to Cherry [on the intercom].

"Ralph comes and visits me after his first monologue. We talk mainly about the audience. He goes away and I put on my makeup. Then it's the interval. I usually go up and have a word with Cherry [during intermission]."

Which role has brought him the most satisfaction? "It's usually the current one, but one role I've loved as much as this, in fact slightly more to be frank, is Prospero in The Tempest. It's probably the most interesting part I've played. Jonathan Kent directed that in our last year at the Almeida."

Born in Carnoustie, Tayside, Scotland, when did McDiarmid know that he wanted to be an actor? "Oddly enough, it took me awhile to articulate it to myself. I think I recognized it when I was five years old. I went to a variety show, where my uncle was a stage manager.

"In those days, because they had footlights, everyone wore a great deal of makeup, the men as well as the women. The show was completely fascinating, and then I got to meet the performers. A comedian named Tommy Morgan was charming to me. I was very shy and very scared. I remember thinking: There's something fascinating about this - and something terrifying as well. I can see [Morgan's] face as I talk to you, and there's a little bit of him in Teddy.

"That was the beginning, I think. I went to university and studied psychology, but I was just treading water. At the end of university, I took the plunge. Thank goodness I did, because I don't think I'd be very happy if I hadn't."

Portraying a much older character in a Sam Shepard play, Seduced, led to McDiarmid being "seen by a casting director, who suggested me to George Lucas for 'Star Wars.' It was great - very, very good luck. George [Lucas] is a terrific guy." As the Emperor in "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi" (1983), he notes, "I just happened to fill the bill. I wore a hideous mask and pretended to be a hundred and twenty."

Three prequels followed: "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999), "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones" (2002), and "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005), in all of which McDiarmid reprised his character.

"To go back [after 16 years] and play the character at my own age was an extraordinary journey really. It was an absolutely unique situation to create the character's younger self, while actually being older than you were when you first played it.

"I've done four ['Star Wars' movies] and I'm in five. In 'The Empire Strikes Back' (1980), my character appeared as a hologram. That was someone else in a mask and Clive Revill's voice. Since technology allowed George Lucas to do it, he thought it only right to put me in [the DVD of 'Empire Strikes Back']." Is he often recognized off-screen? "Yes, quite a lot," claims McDiarmid, "but it's manageable."

Following the limited Faith Healer engagement, which ends August 13, Ian McDiarmid hopes "to spend some time in Scotland. I recently got a place there, not too far from where I was born. It's on the sea, and couldn't be a bigger contrast to New York."

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On June 15 Kirk Browning directs the "Live from Lincoln Center" presentation of the Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas musical, The Light in the Piazza. "I think it's a very good piece for television, but the mechanics of it are going to be challenging."

No doubt the 85-year-old Browning will meet the challenge. This is his 58th year behind the camera. His numerous credits range from early-TV classics such as "Amahl and the Night Visitor" and Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti" to the more recent "Death of a Salesman" (taped, "but done in real time") and a live presentation of Contact.

Of his nine Emmy nominations, seven were consecutive (1983-89), and he won the award in 1987 ("Goya with Placido Domingo" on "Great Performances") and again in 1988 ("The Metropolitan Opera Presents: Turandot").

Will Piazza director Bartlett Sher be involved in the telecast? "I would be absolutely delighted for him to participate," states Browning. "I would love for him to see what I'm up to, but he lives in Seattle. If he knows my work at all, he probably trusts me to some extent. I've been doing this for a long time."

There will be no cuts. "Originally, we were considering doing it as a two-hour show without an intermission, but it was impossible to run the show without a break. It's two-and-a-half hours." Lighting will be enhanced [for the telecast]. "Changes won't be apparent to the audience or to the performers. There are no audio changes. They have body mikes." Interviews during intermission are pre-taped.

The musical's current principals include original cast members Victoria Clark (who won a Tony as Best Actress), Michael Berresse, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Patti Cohenour, and Beau Gravitte, along with replacements Katie Clarke, Aaron Lazar and Chris Sarandon. "There's no reblocking," explains Browning. "No rehearsals are required. We're recording their performances. "If we were doing a television show, we would be in control, and they'd have to adjust to us; we're not doing a television show, so we're adjusting to them. You work on what you think will serve their performances and the property the best."

According to Browning, it's an advantage doing a show near the end of its run [which occurs July 2]. "It's very much disciplined, absolutely set in its dynamics. The performances don't vary."

Browning accepts the fact that "choices I make [in a live telecast] may appeal to some people and horrify others. There's no single way of doing a show like this. I'm perfectly delighted to be advised in the process. If somebody thinks I should change something, I will. This is one of our more difficult assignments."

He's seen the show twice, "once before it was ever considered for a broadcast, and again when they told me they were going to do it on TV. That allows me to know where I'm going to put my cameras. I get an advance work tape of the show. In this case, on two cameras I recorded a wide-shot of the whole stage and a slightly tighter shot of the performers." A month before the telecast, he tells me, "I've been working every day for the past three weeks, and today I have my basic script finished. Obviously, I'll make revisions, but it's about 85 percent set.

"Two nights before we record it will be my first actual rehearsal. I'll see what my cameras are recording. I try to imagine the sight lines, but I may be wrong. I have ten cameras. Seven are spaced equally, kind of semi-circle, from house left to house right in about Row H - sort of eye level with the performers.

"Another camera is high center, and one is a boom camera. [The set up] worked very well with Contact [telecast September 1, 2002]. My tenth camera is backstage for the opening and the intermission. We have two shows [Tuesday and Wednesday] before we do it live, and we also may do the Wednesday matinee on camera."

Insists Browning, "Everyone thinks that the story of how I got into directing for television is apocryphal. My wife and I were living in the country, and I worked on an egg farm. I sold eggs to Samuel Schotzenov, the music director at NBC. In the course of bringing him his eggs on the weekend, I got to know him.

"He was married to Pauline Heifetz, the sister of Jascha Heifetz. I was writing music at the time, and [Schotzenov] was interested in what I was doing. We became very friendly, and he persuaded me to come into TV.

"My first real job was 'The NBC Opera [Theater].' In 1951, we did 'Amahl and the Night Visitors,' the first opera commissioned for television. I was a staff director at NBC from '48 to '63, and was very happy doing it. I must say I met some fascinating people."

One was Frank Sinatra. The director answered a telephone at NBC one day and a voice inquired: "Is this Browning?" He affirmed that it was. The star identified himself, and told him, "I want you to come out [to California] and direct my first show." Recalls Browning, "I'd never met him. I said, 'Why in the world do you want me?' He said, 'I look at every one of your shows.' He was an opera fan. 'If you can do those, you can do mine.'"

A problem existed, explained Browning. He had an exclusive contract with NBC, and Sinatra's show was going to be on ABC. A short time later, Sinatra called back and informed Browning that NBC head David Sarnoff was giving Browning two months off.

"I flew out and met with Frank. The stars [for the debut] were Peggy Lee, Bob Hope and Kim Novak. It wasn't very good, and not too well received. Frank was a very difficult man to work with, but he treated me very well."

Come the early sixties, agencies began to produce shows and brought in their own directors. "I went freelance, and with a wife and two children, I almost starved to death. Fortunately, Public Television started, and I've worked there from then on."

Among his shows was a 1974 PBS program that Browning co-directed with Burt Shevelove: "June Moon," which featured Stephen Sondheim's acting debut (and swan song). "Burt was a very dear friend. We were in the War together. He and I wrote a show for [WWII] troops. When we came back, Burt said, 'Kirk, I'm doing a Broadway revue called Small Wonder. How would you like to do the music?'

"But I turned it down. I didn't think I was good enough to compose a Broadway musical. When Burt became interested in television, he got the rights to June Moon [by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman], and got Sondheim [his very good friend] to play a role."

Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein were, states Browning, "two geniuses I met and got to know. It was a privilege to have worked with both of them! We commissioned Lennie to write 'Trouble in Tahiti' [NBC, November 16, 1952]. It was his first TV opera."

Looking back, he observes, "There are moments that I treasure. I have had some shows that were pretty damn good. And I can't believe that I'm directing television at my age. It ain't easy, but I'll settle for it. After all these years, I can't complain." It beats an egg farm, to which Browning doesn't intend to return, does he? With a hearty laugh, the delightful Kirk Browning replies, "Not yet."

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Among the memorable male characters of the 2005-06 season were a teacher who occasionally gropes students, a psychologically disturbed authority figure, a teen with a crush on a classmate, a lover of show albums, a fellow who sings falsetto, a madman bent on revenge, a lad too violent for the IRA, and someone obviously raised by apes. It was reminiscent of most young men's high-school experience.

In case you haven't heard, Sunday, June 11, is Tony night, the 60th anniversary of Broadway's top honors. Instead of a host, there will be 60 presenters, including Julia Roberts, whose Broadway debut was greeted by neither critical acclaim nor nomination (just sell-out business). However, the "Pretty Woman" star proves that she's not a petty woman star. (Or is she just after a gift bag?)

Up for Best Actor in a Musical is three-time nominee Michael Cerveris (winner for Assassins) in the title role of Sweeney Todd, along with four first-timers: John Lloyd Young (Jersey Boys), Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone), Harry Connick, Jr. (The Pajama Game) and Stephen Lynch (The Wedding Singer). Proving he's a good sport, Cerveris has offered to give each of his competitors a free shave.

My guess is that John Lloyd Young will win. For Actress in a Play, I pick Judy Kaye (Souvenir). Ironically, each of the nominees in her category are up for plays that have closed, and Lois Smith (who won Best Actress honors at the Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards for Off-Broadway's The Trip to Bountiful) could not make the trip to Broadway because the Bountiful producers were unable to find an open house.

It was the season of The Color Purple and the color red: Sweeney Todd, Lestat and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Festen reminded us what fun family gatherings can be; Lestat was the latest fatality about the undead; and In My Life was DOA.

We welcomed Man in Chair (either the delightful Bob Martin in The Drowsy Chaperone, or the splendid Zeljko Ivanek in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial), Woman in Chair (the stunning, and overlooked, Cherry Jones in Faith Healer), Man Who Bared His Chest (Harry Connick, Jr.), and Blonde in Thunderbird (the underwhelming Suzanne Somers).

Actor in a Play, I believe, will be Richard Griffiths, and for Featured Actor and Actress, my choices are two other History Boys) nominees: Samuel Barnett and Frances de la Tour. I think that Nicholas Hytner will go to the head of the class as Best Director, and that History Boys will take home top honors as Best Play.

There's a somewhat morbid theme among Best Play contenders: The History Boys deals with a dead teacher; The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a dead cat (with a few dismembered IRA members thrown in); Rabbit Hole, a dead child; and Shining City, a dead wife's ghost.

For Best Actress in a Musical, I think that Sutton Foster will edge out Patti LuPone and LaChanze. Jim Dale should win as Featured Actor in a Musical for his splendid turn in Threepenny Opera (though Danny Burstein might surprise with his Drowsy over-the-top Latin lover), and the Chaperone herself, Beth Leavel, should get Featured Actress in a Musical. (I'll drink to that.)

Among the Best Musical nominees is Color Purple, which rated 11 nominations. Curiously, the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie version of Alice Walker's novel - which introduced Oprah Winfrey, now a highly publicized producer of the musical (and a Tony presenter) - also received 11 Oscar nominations. It scored zero. Will history repeat itself? I bet Drowsy will wake up as a winner. It should also be a Drowsy victory for Book, Score, Orchestrations, Lighting, Sets and Costumes.

We had singing Jersey Boys and British History Boys (some of whom sang). Also, loping lizards (Seascape), sliding projections (The Woman in White) and flying gorillas (Tarzan).

While Kathleen Marshall should dance off with the choreography prize for Pajama Game, I'd also give her Best Director. But John Doyle will probably win out for his innovative Sweeney Todd.

While I can't count out the demon barber for Revival of a Musical, I hope the award goes to The Pajama Game. Revival of a Play, I believe, will go to Awake and Sing (which sounds like advice for The Drowsy Chaperone). For Lighting, Sets, and Costumes of Plays: Mark Henderson (The History Boys), John Lee Beatty (Rabbit Hole), Catherine Zuber Seascape).

Finally, does anyone agree that to present Sarah Jones (Bridge and Tunnel) with her special Tony for one-person show they should ask Antony Sher (Primo)?

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.

Director Kirk Browning (left) and Executive Producer John Goberman in the Live From Lincoln Center broadcast truck
Director Kirk Browning (left) and Executive Producer John Goberman in the Live From Lincoln Center broadcast truck Photo by Stephanie Berger