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Talking with Stephen Spinella About Warhol and Capote Talking About A Play About Warhol and Capote Talking About A Play

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Sep 8, 2017

You know about Andy Warhol, right? Famously white-wigged and clad in black turtleneck, the prototypical pop artist who celebrated mass-produced images such as logos and packaging designs, prefigured the reality television era of society and politics, and re-cast iconic portraits into vividly-hued consumer goods? One of the twentieth century's most celebrated figures, played on screen in projects as diverse as Oliver Stone's 1991 film "The Doors" (in which he was portrayed by Crispin Glover) and Julien Schnabel's 1996 biopic "Basquiat" (in which David Bowie played Warhol)?

And of course you're familiar with the works of Truman Capote, the author of at least two seminal works of American literature: The 1966 true-crime book "In Cold Blood," which novelistically presented the facts of a chilling quadruple murder that took place in rural America in 1959, and the 1958 novella "Breakfast At Tiffany's," the story that led to the charming film with Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. (Let's not forget to mention that Capote, too, has been portrayed by some of Hollywood's best: Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2005's Bennett Miller-directed "Capote" and Toby Jones in Douglas McGrath's 2006 film "Infamous.")

Both Warhol and Capote were openly gay back in the days when being out of the closet was verboten. And both were participants in conversations that Warhol tape recorded, evidently with the purpose of one day turning the tapes into a play about the two of them making tapes to turn their recorded conversations into a play.

If that project sounds like a love child between a Moebius strip and all things meta, consider this additional twist: Playwright Rob Roth, reading Warhol's diaries, came across a reference to the tapes in question and realized two things: One, that the tapes even existed, part of a vast trove of recordings Warhol made over a ten-year period; and, two, that the exchanges recorded on those tapes might indeed make for compelling theatrical subject matter. A quest was born to gain access to the tapes, identify and transcribe the ones that included conversations with Capote, and finesse the raw material into a play.

Roth succeeded at that quest, realizing the plans of Warhol and Capote, and naming the resulting 90-minute work after the two visionaries. "WARHOLCAPOTE" is set for a world premiere run at the American Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center, from Sept. 9 - Oct. 13.

The production -- helmed by "Spring Awakening" director Michael Mayer -- was originally slated to star openly gay actors Leslie Jordan and Stephen Spinella. Jordan, of "Sordid Lives" and "American Horror Story" fame, was set to play Truman Capote, but had to bow out at the last minute. He was replaced by out actor Dan Butler, who is, among other many other credits, an alumnus of the sitcom "Frasier" (where he played "Bulldog" Briscoe for six seasons), Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk nominee for "The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me...," and the co-writer and co-director of the play "Karl Rove, I Love You."

Stephen Spinella -- who has appeared in everything from "The Normal Heart" and "Angels in America," for which he twice won the Tony Award, to "And the Band Played On" and "Will & Grace" -- stars opposite Butler as Andy Warhol.

EDGE had the privilege and the pleasure of interviewing Spinella early in the production's rehearsal phase. The interview was conducted well in advance of Mr. Butler having joined the cast. What follows is a conversation about a play that is about conversations conducted, at least in part, to create a play about conversations.

And with that, dear readers -- Stephen Spinella.

EDGE: From what I've gathered, the play is based on taped conversations between Andy Warhol and Truman Capote that the two of them thought might provide material for a play about the very conversations they were taping. As an actor, how do you negotiate those twists and turns between art and life?

Stephen Spinella: Mostly, right now, I'm learning the lines and trying to get [Warhol's] voice. The degree to which the play is going to be self-referential in that sort of meta way - I think that's what you're saying - I don't know. I think that will both appear and be teased out as we work on it. I don't have anything concrete to say about it because we've just started thinking about those kinds of things. I think the process is mostly going to be about figuring out what they're doing first, and the figuring out the degree to which they're doing it for the tape, you know, how much they are self-consciously performing for the tape and how much they are just grappling with things and just happen to be being taped.

It all rests on what it is, which is taped conversations between these two people, as well as asides. Andy has a whole series of asides to the audience that are actually asides from other sources - the diaries and other interviews, that kind of stuff. There's a lot of stuff going on, and I don't know yet to what degree the meta reality is going to be playing in our minds, and to what degree we're going to be grappling with what the characters are dealing with in the moment. With Andy Warhol - and, I would imagine, also with Truman Capote - you're dealing with people who sort of lived at that level a lot of their lives. Certainly, Andy's art was very much about that. I'm just a normal human being; I just deal with things as they come. Andy? I don't know how much he's going to be constantly aware that they're taping this. I mean, you've got to remember there are a lot of other people in the room and the amount of time that it's actually just the two of them I couldn't even tell you. He said most of the time there were four people there. Andy taped everything for ten years - I mean, I taped everything. It was sort of like his movies in the '60s. He would just point the camera at the couch and then have people sit on the couch and do stuff, like make out or whatever.

EDGE: Or have a nap!

Stephen Spinella: Right, or sleep for eight hours. Just turn the camera on the Empire State Building. So, the genesis of his idea to just turn on the tape recorder and start taping everything... I can't speak as any sort authority on this, but it seems to be it would have some genesis in [his experiments with film]. It's kind of like our world now; in a weird way, it's kind of like "The Blair Witch Project," where it becomes this kind of cinema verite thing.

So, for ten years he taped everything. Then, whenever Truman was on the tape, he wrote "Truman" on the tape, and all of that got transcribed. Some of that is in the play - it's 80 hours of tapes, and it's a 90-minute play. There's a lot of stuff that didn't make it into the play.

EDGE: But what did make it into the play is all Warhol's own words, and Capote's own words, that Rob Roth meticulously took and built the dialogue and the scenes out of.

Stephen Spinella: He cobbles together a narrative out of three hundred different pieces of tape, and it's all their own words. Honestly, I've got to say, reading this thing it's like, "Wow! You can't tell where the seams are." It feels like these are five different taped conversations that they had, except for the asides. Suddenly the lights change, and Andy turns to the audience and starts talking about some related subject.

EDGE: So is this more from Andy Warhol's point of view, since he's the one controlling the tape recorder and interjecting the asides?

Stephen Spinella: To some degree, I guess. He frames things slightly more. But I would say it's about 60-40 in terms of who talks the play. It's mostly Truman - Truman was just more loquacious. Andy was the interviewer, in a weird way; I mean, that's what "Interview" magazine was. He interviewed a lot of those people. [In this case] Andy was both interviewed and an interviewer. I wouldn't say it was either of their play.

EDGE: As you've been using Warhol's own words and finding his voice with those words, have you found that your idea of who Warhol is, and his impact on the culture as an artist, has changed?

Stephen Spinella: No.


It hasn't. It deepens it. He's amazing. I mean, there are things in the play that he predicts that have come true. There's one thing, in particular, that's, it's just shocking how prescient he is, and scary, almost. I think in this weird way he understood that the... the idea that we live in a construct, we live inside this discourse. We are constructed by everything around us; we are constructed by our culture, and we are constructed by our language, and we are constructed by everything around us. The French philosophers from the '80s - [Michel] Foucault and [Olivier Costa] de Beauregard, those guys. If that's true, if that's how it is, then that construct is going to have a particular effect on our behavior. We're going to behave differently now in the construct we're living in than they behaved in the 17th or 18th century, [living] in that construct [from those times].

I think what Warhol is experiencing is, he sees the construct, and he sees what happens to people reacting inside the construct - the world we have constructed around ourselves. He's able to predict that people are going to behave in certain ways inside that construct: They're going to rebel, and they're going to get violent, and they're going to be pacified by certain things, and certain things are going to grab their interest, and certain things aren't. You could call it the culture, but it's sort of bigger than the culture; it's everything. I think that's what the "zeitgeist" is. It's all these words for everything that makes us who we are, that is not our organism - our particular body. It's everything that makes our minds... he was able to tap into that. Who knows? Maybe what I'm saying is just all bullshit. But that's what I think. [Warhol] had a resurgence in the '90s and in the aughts, and people really began to understand just how brilliant and important he was. That's when I sort of began to understand and appreciate what he did, and what his contribution was. This play is only deepening that.

He really thinks, and he's very sensitive to what is going on; he understands a lot, even though he would describe himself as naïve. But what I think the naiveté brought him was - I guess you could say that those of us who are not naïve would just assume that it wasn't an important thing to talk about, and because he was naïve he didn't assume that, so he made art about it. That's what art is. It's a personal expression of something that we're seeing; it's an expression of an experience. That's what he made his art about. His naiveté allowed him to talk about things that most people just assumed they didn't need to talk about!

EDGE: You were in "Spring Awakening," which was a major Broadway success for the director this play, Michael Mayer. How is it to be re-teaming with Mayer here?

Stephen Spinella: Michael and I were at college together - graduate school at NYU in 1981. That's when we met. I was the graduate teaching assistant in 1981/82, and he was one of my students. He was two years behind me in college. Michael Mayer and I were in the original production of Tony Kushner's "A Bright Room Called Day." He was working as an actor then. Michael and I go way, way, way, way, way back. Perhaps to even before you were born!

EDGE: Heh, not hardly!

Stephen Spinella: And we also did a production of "A View from the Bridge" in the '90s together, after he became a director, and I did "Spring Awakening" with him as a director. It's very comfortable.

EDGE: You were mentioning Tony Kushner a moment ago, and you've been in several Kushner plays - including "Angles in America," for which you won two Tonys, playing the part of Prior Walter. That is a huge, sprawling play - and now you've got this 90-minute, much more compact show. With a shorter play are you able to drill down deeper into the text? Do you find the same amount of raw material to work with, only in more condensed or more focused form?

Stephen Spinella: I'm not quite sure what you're asking me, but I think any time you're doing good writing it doesn't matter how long the play is. You're always drilling down. The very nature of really good writing is you have to go to places that writing on the surface doesn't ask you to go. The other complication of this, of course, is that we're doing real syntax - not syntax constructed on the page for a character by a playwright. You can get playwrights who write beautiful, interesting syntax, but when you actually do another person, their recorded speech, you have to learn the way they put words together, and their particular tics - the particular idiomatic locutions, things like "Oh, gee." Andy says "Oh gee" a lot, and "Wow," and "Oh, that's great," and "Oh, yeah," and all of that sort of stuff.

All of that is important. Where they hesitate and they change directions - why did they do that? That's their living thoughts on the page. That kind of stuff is always challenging and interesting. One of the hardest plays I ever did was a 90-minute Genet play - one of the hardest things I've ever done, immensely difficult. Another really, really difficult play was David Mamet's "The Cryptogram," and that is 55 minutes. Immensely, immensely difficult.

EDGE: Speaking of playwrights who write with particular syntax.

Stephen Spinella: Yeah - beautiful syntax. Gorgeous! Really, truly. If you're playing a big, big part, like, I think Othello has the most stage time of any of Shakespeare's characters - I think it's Othello, I think that's right - they're just bears, because you have to do so much work because you're just on the stage for so long. It's a different kind of challenge, but it has less to do with depth, and more to do with stamina.

EDGE: Were you given the original recordings, or copies of them anyway, to use as a reference? It sounds like the Warhol Foundation was a little reluctant to turn the material loose even to the writer.

Stephen Spinella: No, and it's like I said before, it's a construction. The context in which they were having these particular little pieces of conversation that all got put together in this may have been very different than the context that they are in the play. The words are all there, and the ideas are all there, but the context that they are brought together within is not there. That is a construct.

EDGE: You've been in many gay roles - "Love, Valor, Compassion," I don't know how many others. As time goes on, are you finding that roles for gay characters are better written, have more depth and nuance, and have more realism? I think I'm seeing that happen.

Stephen Spinella: I think we're all seeing that happen. That doesn't necessarily mean that [those roles] are coming to me. I still see just as many shallow, cliché, obvious gay characters coming across the wires as I ever did. The world may change, but artists rarely do. It depends on the artist writing it; if you're gonna get somebody who writes shallow, cliché-driven scripts, that's what you're gonna get in the characters, and not just in the gay characters, but in all the characters. Just because they're writing more gay characters now, they're going to be just as shallow and cliché as the straight characters... and it's not really going to make all that much difference.

The thing that we have to be very happy about is that there is representation, and the representation is more diverse. They're writing a lot of interesting characters now. And they need to continue doing that. I think that's important. But honestly, truly, for every interesting character they write, there are five clichés out there. Do not lament the passing of the cliché. The cliché will always be with us.

The world premiere of "WARHOLCAPOTE" plays at the ART's Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square from Sept. 9 - Oct. 13. For tickets and more information, please go to http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/warholcapote

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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