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THEATER : Beckett’s Her Hole Card

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Although she’s reluctant to admit it, Ruth Maleczech’s reputation precedes her. “I don’t really have a career,” demurs the four-time Obie-winning actress, fresh from a rehearsal, as she sits down to discuss her life in art.

“Careers are when you become more well known and you make more money and you can make more demands. But I do have a body of work. And that is in fact the way I think of it.”

Known for her nuanced performances in plays by a range of contemporary writers, from Lee Breuer to Franz Xavier Kroetz, as well as in classics from Samuel Beckett to Shakespeare, Maleczech is among the most widely respected and versatile actresses of her generation working in the theater today.

Her acting “is extreme in many ways,” says Michael Greif, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director, who has followed Maleczech’s work in New York for more than a decade. “She has great technical precision and makes really bold choices, but it’s always informed by a detailed and deep emotional life.”

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Maleczech--a member of the influential New York-based theater group Mabou Mines, which she founded along with Breuer, JoAnne Akalaitis, Philip Glass and David Warrilow--is in town to play Winnie in the La Jolla Playhouse production of Beckett’s “Happy Days,” directed by Robert Woodruff and opening next Sunday. It is a difficult role, but the veteran actress, 57, is well prepared for the task. Beckett has been a major figure in her life, particularly in her work with Mabou Mines.

“Other than original works, which is what we do mostly, and except for Kroetz, Beckett is the writer Mabou Mines has been the most involved with,” she says. “It’s great to know him again.”

Part of what’s fascinating about Beckett, the actress says, is his relationship to the 20th century.

“He’s part of a time [the ‘50s and ‘60s] in which the theater itself was changing from more realistic to less realistic,” Maleczech says. “And he’s one of the people who was instrumental in creating those changes.”

Beckett’s innovative style also makes his plays particularly challenging for actors.

“Because his writing is so concerned with stripping away rather than a kind of lushness in language, it’s difficult to work on his work,” Maleczech says. “It’s hard to find a way in unless you just throw yourself in there.”

The key, she says, is to be exacting: “Especially in ‘Happy Days,’ it’s clearly set out. Pause means one thing, period means another, and dot-dot-dot means another. The precision is part of the challenge, actually.”

Even more so for a director, as Maleczech knows from her 1984 staging of “Imagination Dead Imagine” at the Performing Garage in New York, featuring the voice of the late Ruth Nelson.

“As a director,” Maleczech says, “you pay a lot more attention to what is the pause, what is the period, what is the comma--what is the exact punctuation, and therefore the rhythm, of the work--because he was very exacting about all those things.”

Winnie in “Happy Days,” a woman who lives half-buried in a mound, is, to say the very least, an ambiguous character. So conventional character-building strategies won’t work.

“Literally, Winnie could be anyone,” Maleczech says. “But she can’t be anyone, because she speaks in this very broken kind of a way. So if you just speak that way, you learn more things about her than by trying to investigate her psychology.

“It’s surprising what you find out about her just by saying it the way Beckett set it out. Sometimes deep things are [revealed] just because of the way it’s punctuated.”

For instance, Winnie has a tendency to speak discontinuously.

“She’s forever stopping and starting all the time, always with great attention and purpose,” Maleczech says. “So you feel that if she would just keep going . . . but she can’t.”

The character’s verbal patterns are part of the play’s strategy.

“The play itself is not written in a conventional kind of climax-enouement structure. It has peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys. It’s more like a musical form,” Maleczech explains.

“It’s as though the play happens to you, as a performer, rather than that the performer makes the play happen. A lot of it is about getting out of the way. And yet you can’t really get out of the way. You have to let the play hit you like a truck. You can’t stand on the sidelines and objectify the play.”

Maleczech was born in Cleveland to Yugoslavian parents and grew up in the Arizona desert. She came to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, where she majored in theater arts.

After graduating in 1960, Maleczech moved to San Francisco, where she started working with the Actors Workshop and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. She also began collaborating on interdisciplinary performance works with an ad hoc group of artists based at the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

She lived in Europe from 1965 to 1970, performing in Paris, London and Edinburgh, Scotland, in an array of plays by such writers as Beckett, Brecht and Genet. During these years, she also studied with Jerzy Grotowski and the Berliner Ensemble.

A 1967 staging of Beckett’s “Play,” which she performed in at the American Center in Paris, in fact, later became part of the 1975 bill of Beckett works that was Mabou Mines’ first certifiable American hit.

In the late ‘60s, Maleczech and the group of artists who had been her work mates for several years began to investigate officially forming a company. They checked into options and conditions on both sides of the Atlantic, before deciding to make New York their home base.

“We’d been living in Europe for a while, so we weren’t necessarily thinking about doing it in the United States, but it did turn out that New York was the best place,” Maleczech says. “We wanted to explore the American voice, and that’s what we have done, except for Beckett and Kroetz.”

Mabou Mines, which borrows its name from a mining town in Nova Scotia, was founded in 1970, when Maleczech was 30. The original members were joined almost immediately by a fifth member, Frederick Neumann. (Today, the company consists of Maleczech, Breuer, Neumann and newer member Terry O’Reilly.)

The company’s purpose, then as now, was to create a context in which the artists could live and work freely.

“The idea was to gather together a group of really good artists and then see what we would make,” Maleczech says. “And that has essentially remained the same idea.

“We were concerned with artistic freedom, wherever that might lead, for each individual in the company. We wanted to create a situation in which there was no hierarchy--there has never been an artistic director of the company. We tried to get rid of those categories, and I think we were successful in all those ways.”

Although the core group has always been small, other artists have often worked with the group. “We were concerned to open that freedom up to the people we were working with,” Maleczech says. Currently, the roster of artists associated with the group numbers about 250.

Other goals, however, were more elusive: “The other thing that we wanted to do was to support ourselves from our work, to not take outside jobs, to be stand-up regular people, citizens,” Maleczech says. “And that’s the part we did the least well with.”

Mabou Mines began performing in “galleries and museums, because nobody thought it was theater,” recalls Maleczech, referring to the practice of touring such venues throughout the country and abroad, as the group did from 1970 through 1975.

It was during those formative years that the company’s first guardian angel came along. Ellen Stewart, then artistic director of La MaMa theater in New York, took the fledgling company under her wing.

“She was the first person who ever supported Mabou Mines,” Maleczech says. “That was a gift from gods, because by then we were pretty much at the end of what we thought we could manage to do with no money.”

Mabou Mines was in residence at La MaMa from 1971 through early 1974, during which time it developed many original works. After that period, however, La MaMa could no longer support the company, so the artists found themselves again without a base. “It was murderous, really bad,” Maleczech recalls.

The turning point came in late 1975.

“We put together the Beckett program, ‘Play,’ on a bill with ‘Come and Go'--and people loved it,” she says. “It was a hit, it really was.”

Even people who hadn’t known Mabou Mines’ work came to check out the production.

“Joe Papp came to see it and he said, ‘Why don’t you come on over to my place?’ literally,” Maleczech says. “And so we became kind of in residence at the Public Theater.”

For the next 13 years, times were good.

“We had the amazing Mr. Papp, who actually let us do just exactly what we wanted to do, because those were the terms under which we agreed to be there,” Maleczech says. “We would decide what the pieces were, when they were ready, when they would close. It was really an amazing moment of generosity.”

During the years at the Public, Maleczech created some of her best-known characters, including Madame Curie in “Dead End Kids” (1980), a performance she reprised the following year for Mabou Mines’ film adaptation of the same piece. In 1983, as a soloist, she presented the multimedia performance poem “Hajj,” for which she won her second Obie. (Her first was for co-designing “Vanishing Pictures” at Theater for the New City, a production she also directed.) And in 1984, she garnered yet another Obie, this time for her performance in Kroetz’s “Through the Leaves,” a Mabou Mines production staged at the Women’s Interart Theatre in New York.

Aside from affording Maleczech and her collaborators the opportunity to create some of their most influential work, the Public also expanded the Mabou Mines audience.

“It really brought the presence of the audience into the work in a way that’s probably the greatest gift,” Maleczech says. “That’s never left us.”

After the Papp days ended in 1988--which Maleczech declined to give a reason for--Mabou Mines found it costlier than ever to self-produce.

“We tried a number of things, none of which worked,” she says. “Even though we were used to losing money, we were more out on a limb than we had been before.”

Between 1990 and 1991, the group “holed-up.” It reemerged with a popular gender-reversed production of Shakespeare’s “Lear,” featuring Maleczech as the titular monarch. The show opened at the Triplex Theatre in New York and later toured.

“Lear” not only won the actress her fourth Obie but also helped put Mabou Mines back on its feet.

“We actually lost very little money and we toured it,” Maleczech says.

The production’s success led the company to explore other options. It looked into being presented by host organizations, co-productions and the possibility of residencies to build work. The group is, for example, slated for a residency at University of Texas at Austin this fall.

Mabou Mines has also always maintained a studio in New York, where it develops its works.

“Now our studio is being made into a theater, which is a new event for Mabou Mines,” Maleczech says. “It will be the first time we’ve ever had our own theater. It sounds silly because it’s only 75 seats, but it’s really important.”

The key to future survival, though, is not finding new ways to finance productions, nor even a theater of one’s own. It is, rather, what Maleczech calls “stubbornness, a kind of unwillingness to give up, a cussedness, coupled with occasional moments of great joy.”

That, and the personal-professional interplay that only a company setting can provide.

“Everyone knows each other long enough and well enough to be in artistically unknown areas sometimes, and to be there with a kind of trust,” Maleczech says.

“The purpose of all that is to allow you to go to a place that you’ve never been, where you can do things that you never thought you would. It’s this great challenge to combine differently each time. And it’s a great solace, in terms of making work which is often not acceptable or well-received, to be able to go on.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that Mabou Mines has achieved all its goals.

“People still have to work in other situations, some of which they don’t like,” Maleczech says. “So that kind of across-the-board support that the company was designed to give we still aren’t back to yet.

“As far as notoriety, though, that is unquestioned. It has a reputation.”

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“Happy Days,” La Jolla Playhouse, UC San Diego campus, La Jolla. Opens next Sunday. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 8. $19-$36. (619) 550-1010.


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