By Kenneth Jones
03 Jul 2010
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Burton stars as 20th-century actress Katharine Cornell — a beloved creature of the stage who made only a few television appearances — in A.R. Gurney's warm ode to theatre people, The Grand Manner, at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi Newhouse Theater. The play, set in the green room of a Broadway theatre in 1948, after a performance of Antony and Cleopatra, is an imagined meeting between a young man and the grande dame. Both are Buffalo natives. It was inspired by Gurney's real, brief meeting with Cornell in '48. The playwright expanded and fictionalized the encounter to be about the weirdos of the theatre — and those who want to be near them, or become one of them.
Part of what makes The Grand Manner so intriguing is that it's a glimpse, even though it's fictional, of this 20th-century actress that we don't know today because she hasn't been on film. I can't help thinking about Laurette Taylor or Helen Hayes, to a certain extent — both acclaimed, but unknown today, partly because they were not major film actresses. Do the lives of actresses who came before you interest you?
Kate Burton: Yeah. Because I grew up in a theatrical family, I kind of knew a lot of these actresses. I think I probably met Helen Hayes. I don't actually remember meeting her, but the actresses who were my mentors growing up — Eva Le Gallienne, Colleen Dewhurst, Maureen Stapleton, Rosemary Harris — these were all actresses who I knew and three of whom I worked with. And there's a sweet kind of symmetry, because when you think of Cornell being in Cleopatra, in this production, and Maureen Stapleton is one of her young actresses in the show, and then cut to 1982, when I shot "Alice in Wonderland" on PBS and Maureen Stapleton played the White Queen and I was Alice — and then cut to 2010 and I'm playing Katharine Cornell, and young Bobby Steggert [who plays the Gurney character] — we're meeting this wonderful young man, who's just so extraordinary… So, it is that wonderful thing of the theatrical traditions being passed along.
I learned a great deal when I worked with Maureen, and I'm sure Maureen learned a great deal from Katherine Cornell. And I worked with Marian Seldes, who also worked with Cornell a lot. You know, Cornell was a kind of a mystery to me, frankly. Coincidentally, I was watching Turner Classic Movies with my mother [Bay Street Theatre artistic director Sybil Christopher] last October, I think it was, and they were showing "Stage Door Canteen," and that's the one time that Cornell's on film, because she's in it as herself. And I remember watching it with my mom and going, "Oh, my God! That's Katherine Cornell! I've never seen her!" And I didn't really know that she had never done any other movies, but it occurred to me that I had never seen her. And then cut to early December, I get a call — I'm in London with my mom — and I get a call from my agents saying, "You've been asked to play Katherine Cornell." And so they sent a copy of the play to my British agents and I read it on the tube and I just go, "Oh, my God!" I immediately loved it and said, "Oh, yes, I'll be doing this."
It's sort of interesting that you bring up somebody like Maureen Stapleton or Marian Seldes because they have one foot in the "grand manner"-style of acting and one foot in the Brando era, don't they? That's what the play really deals with, in a large sense: a change in the air.
KB: Right. I mean, frankly, the whole idea of…[Tony Award-winning Best Play] Red — the wonderful Red. You know, when I went to see Red, I thought, "My God! There's so many issues about art, and what is art? And old art and new art and how do you produce art? Whether it's a painting by Rothko or whether it's a performance by Katharine Cornell, you know, somebody new comes along…it's the classic thing that happens in the history of art." That's our story, in a lot of ways.
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Did you do research?
KB: You know, we all used similar source material. The source material for the play, besides Pete's own experience, was Tad Mosel's book, "Leading Lady," which is written with Gertrude Macy, who is played by Brenda Wehle in our show. And it's sort of considered to be, I guess, the definitive biography of Cornell, although there are many wonderful memoirs of Cornell. I read Christopher Plummer's chapter about Cornell and Guthrie McClintic. I'm not a big research person. I tend to do it as I go along, and I tend to use the play as my road map because I've had some experiences, times where I've played real people — in fact, I just did a film where I played a real person, and what we shot on film was just a little dab of paint of this person's life but I did an enormous amount of research for it and I found it frustrating, because I wanted to bring so much of my research to what we did and there was just no opportunity to do that. So this time, I decided to just let Pete take me on the road that I needed to do, and then I've been sort of filling in the blanks. For instance, when I talk about Michael Arlen's The Green Hat — any time there's a reference to something very specific, a play that [Cornell] was in, I will read [about it]. I've read everything about her experience of doing that play.
Frankly, the Lincoln Center magazine is an incredible resource. We've all read it multiple times because it's very useful. It's interesting knowing how I work as an actress and knowing what she experienced. There are a lot of things that she experienced that I don't experience at all. She had incredible stage fright, and she was very, very nervous before every performance, and that is not my experience. [Laughs] I'm very nervous before the first performance, and I'm often quite nervous before opening night, but the rest of the time, that's just not been [my style]. So it was really interesting to play. And [there have been] a few times where I've not been feeling 100 percent and doing the play [but] Cornell always felt like she was on the edge, you know. Continued...