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Our Town
Masterpiece Theatre Our Town
Essays + Interviews [imagemap with 7 links]
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An Interview with Paul Newman & James Naughton

In May 2003, Paul Newman (the Stage Manager) and James Naughton (who directed the play at the Westport Country Playhouse, on Broadway, and the telecast) sat down with Steve Lawson (director of Manhattan Theatre Club's Writers in Performance series, executive director of the Williamstown Film Festival and the writer of Masterpiece Theatre's Our Town Teacher's Guide) to talk about the challenges of putting on the play and moving it to television. Joanne Woodward, artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse, was also present at the start of the conversation to explain how the project began.

Photograph of James Naughton and Paul Newman

Steve Lawson: Who had the idea of doing the play at Westport?

Joanne Woodward: I was down in Washington when 9/11 happened. We were in the middle of putting together the next summer season, and all I could think of was something somehow must make sense to us. Our Town kept coming into my mind.

James Naughton: Joanne called me and said, "You know how much I've always wanted to do Our Town?" And I did. She thought it would be particularly wonderful after 9/11. I agreed, and she said, "Well, I want to do it this year -- and Paul has agreed to play the Stage Manager. Would you like to direct?" I said, "Well, let me think about it and I'll call you back." (Laughter) So I read it again, and called back and said, "Of course."

Joanne and I had been scheming for 15 years how to get Paul back onstage. I'd about given up. Then, out of the blue...

Woodward: We were at the Hole-in-the-Wall Camp, and I told Paul that the Westport season was going to open with Our Town. I had the script there, and Paul said: "Let me see it." He wandered away for a while, and came back and said, "I could do this." He recited the first monologue, not word-for-word, but awfully close. And I rushed to the phone and told Jimmy.

Paul Newman: I had done the play in 1955 with Frank Sinatra and Eva Marie Saint -- a musical version on TV. I was thirty-something, trying really hard to be 16. (Laughter)

When you started to cast the rest of the parts, what were you looking for?

Naughton: I told Joanne and Paul that I thought it'd be neat if we cast as much as we could from this area, then Westport would be "our town." Jayne Atkinson was here, Jane Curtin lived just up the road, Frank Converse was here. And Jeff DeMunn had worked at the Playhouse, so we got the parents pretty quickly. Then we read kids for George and Emily. If Emily doesn't hit it out of the park in Act III, forget it. I found both Ben Fox and Maggie Lacey in auditions. They had a long way to go, but that's what rehearsals are for.

The week before Christmas, while we were doing the play in New York, Maggie's mother had a stroke out in Ohio. Maggie was gone a week, then came back, and all of us thought: this poor girl now had to go out and play this [cemetery] scene. I talked with her, saying in effect, "Now you really know what it's about -- take it, share with the audience." And she did. Amazing to watch.

Newman: It got simpler.

Naughton: That was the arc of her whole performance -- growing simpler and simpler.

Did you improvise at all in rehearsals?

Naughton: No, it was mostly a lot of drilling. Half the cast were kids, community-theater people, and we only had two-and-a-half weeks. So it was a matter of doing things over and over.

What about the move from Westport to Broadway?

Naughton: We had four months between the productions. The play seeped into us, lived in all of us. To get a chance to revisit something that we loved -- everyone was thrilled.

Newman: The main difference for me was this: at Westport, the balcony's practically at eye level, and at the Booth it's way up there. You opened up whether you wanted to or not -- you couldn't ruminate.

Naughton: If Maggie's arc was to get simpler, Paul's was to bring his head up. (Laughter)

Newman: I also never really got what you'd call comfortable in the part until maybe a month before it was over. Lots of hand sweating.

Naughton: Remember, he didn't have a partner to work with. The Stage Manager has to go out there and face the audience with no help.

Did you run into obstacles transposing the play to television?

Naughton: I told Paul early on, "This could work on television." You know, a regular television show is 44 minutes of screen time and it takes eight days to shoot -- that's five-and-a-half minutes of screen time per day. We shot 23 minutes of screen time per day. Plus nobody knew how many takes we'd get of any scene. Happily, we had one day where I worked with all the actors on scaling the performances down...

Newman: ... And adjusting some of the moves for the camera.

Naughton: ... Working out all the different places we could "find" the Stage Manager, discover him. Or we'd shoot over his shoulder and discover the choir.

Often the image of the next scene materializes in the background, almost as if the Stage Manager's conjured it up.

Naughton: Right. It was fun to do. To my knowledge, I don't think there's been a television piece made from a play that's anything like this. Usually they shoot a live performance, or shoot live and then get coverage of scenes. Which is weird, because whenever you cut back they're acting (loudly) like THIS, and then you cut into the scenes and they're (hushed) doing this.

Newman: Once you see that it's taking place on a stage -- once you have the conceit of the theater -- you can't simply eliminate it.

Did you ever worry that a work which is so theatrical by nature would lose something in transition?

Naughton: About ten days before we started shooting, I woke up and said, "What if I'm wrong?" (Laughter)

Did you consider doing it with a live audience?

Naughton: Yes.

Newman: We even thought about doing it as a last rehearsal -- "Okay, everyone on stage."

How did the style of the production evolve?

Naughton: I told (set designer) Tony Walton that it should be pretty -- moon, stars. We were always after that. Music was another issue. I kept looking for ways to use it. We'd had this waltz in the stage version, but couldn't afford the rights on television. So (musical director) John Oddo wrote something with a similar feeling. And I gradually realized that you can't introduce a lot of different kinds of music because the hymns are already there.

Were any cuts made for television?

Naughton: We had to lose the last line in Act I ("You can go out and smoke now, those that smoke.") We said, hold on... we're inviting people to take an intermission but we're not having an intermission.

A little earlier, the Stage Manager talks about Joe Crowell getting killed in World War I, whether we really had a quarrel with the Germans, "all that education for nothing." And one critic complained: how dare Naughton insert a political statement? But it's in the play!

Newman: Well... I did put some English on that line. (Laughter)

One goal (of the Masterpiece Theatre Teacher's Guide) is to help teachers put Our Town across to students -- in class, through readings, even mounting a full production. Can you offer some advice?

Naughton: I think a wonderful thing for students to do is read it, play a couple of scenes. When a student is doing Editor Webb, taking on the role of a parent, it works incredibly well. Seeing what the other side is like. But I think the play always has resonance for students. A guy in the audience at Westport said: "I've seen this play done five or six times, and this is the first time I've ever seen it acted by adults." (Laughter)

A big pleasure of directing this in the theater was to hear from people as they came up the aisle. One woman told me: "I'm here with my mother and with my daughter... and I can't tell you what an experience it's been for all of us." Three generations!

Newman: As far as the play being valid today... I think of this guy who raced for us, then left our team to go stock-car racing. He traded a 1,500-pound car with 900 horsepower for a 3,500-pound car with 750 horsepower. I called after his first test [race] to ask how it had gone. He was all excited: "Wonderful!" I said, "What? In that tank?" (Laughter) And then he said: "The speeds are human."

Well, in Our Town, the speeds at which people live and perform and rest are human... the acceleration of change can be accommodated by the mind. Today, the speeds are inhuman. What's that line -- in the computer age, an idea lasts half a second? In those days, an idea would last months, years! Maybe you can't go home again, but if there's some way to bring part of this play into your own life, [to] sit down, look around...

Naughton: There's a scene in Act II where George asks Emily if he can carry her books, and she accuses him of being stuck-up, only thinking about baseball. And he takes it on the chin, then asks her if she'd like a soda. And seven or eight minutes later the scene's over and Paul is saying, "Let's get on with the wedding." In almost no time, Wilder takes George from being a kid asking a girl if he can carry her books to a young man who's going to get married. Wilder touches all the bases... some kind of shorthand way. Now that's art.

Essays + Interviews:
Thornton Wilder | Williamstown, Westport, the world...
Paul Newman and James Naughton | OT: our town

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