Elaine: The Extended Cut

The legendary Ms. Stritch on humor, happiness, Tennessee, Beckett, and bad directors

In conjunction with Austin Cabaret Theatre's presentation of Elaine Stritch at Liberty, the Chronicle had an extended conversation with the celebrated entertainer about her life and her 50-plus years in show business. A portion of that chat appeared in "Elaine Everlasting," Aug. 28. Here's more, in which Stritch talks about getting away with murder because she was funny, her friendship with Tennessee Williams, her recent appearance in a production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, happiness, and the importance of change. The call took place at midnight, Eastern time, Stritch's preferred time for interviews.

Elaine Stritch: This is my time of day. This is when I really relax. Everything's done, you know?

Austin Chronicle: Have you always been a night owl?

ES: Well, it wasn't so much my choice. It's just the way the theatre is. You don't go to bed until two or three in the morning if you're in the theatre. And once you start doing that, it's hard to shake it. And now, something I have to pay attention to is diabetes, and once you get on a schedule it's better to stay on it. So when shows close, I don't go back to eating at six o'clock or seven o'clock in the evening. I keep the same hours as I do if I were working all the time.

AC: And were you working today?

ES: No, I didn't work today. Just getting ready to go to London, so I have chores to do. What did I do today? I went to the doctor's. That's what I did. I went to the doctor's and had some blood work done and had a checkup on my diabetes, and I spent a lot of money. [Chuckles] I spent a lot of money. It's so funny, I bought some Prada luggage, but the thing that kind of balanced it for me: I took a scarf back. It just doesn't make sense, does it? I took a $500 scarf back, so it justified the thousands of dollars I spent at Prada. It just doesn't make sense, Robert. But I play around with things like that and try to convince myself that I'm balancing the budget, so to speak.

AC: How long has it been since you've been in London?

ES: A long time. I did Elaine Stritch at Liberty at the Old Vic. When? Now let me see, I opened in New York in 2001. 'Cause we went into rehearsal the day that 9/11 happened. It was the first day of rehearsal, and so what I did was have – I was just about to say, I had the cast up to the Regency Hotel, but it was me. We couldn't go to the Public because that was below 14th, but we just worked at the hotel and tried to fill the day up with activity, and everybody did the same thing. The bartender kept making drinks, and the maids kept making beds, and the waiters kept waiting on tables. Living in a hotel, it was very interesting. Most of the patrons came down to the Library bar because nobody wanted to be alone. It was very strange. Very strange. But we went into rehearsal seriously, and we worked an 8-hour day. But anyway, what were we talking about?

AC: I was asking you about London.

ES: Oh yes. So after the show closed in New York, I went on tour. And after the tour was over, I went to London. So I would say 2002.

AC: During the years you lived in London, did London feel like home to you?

ES: Oh yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. I loved London. And I'm a big believer in any place I hang my hat, I can make it my home. I mean, if I have the desire to be there in the first place. But even if, oh, let's say for supposition's sake that somebody told you you had to spend the next six months of your life in Akron, Ohio [laughs], it would be tough, but I would find a way to make that pleasant and interesting. I'm very good at that. I like making home out of any place that I am.

AC: I think that's a special gift.

ES: Well, it is because what else are you gonna do?

AC: I'm not the world's best traveler. My wife is so much better at that than I am.

ES: Well, you're lucky to have her.

AC: Absolutely.

ES: I'm not a good traveler, but I can make a home out of any place I go. I mean, if I have to stay there. Because first of all, I've had a lot of practice. I've toured a lot in the theatre. More so than most people. Because I love it. I love meeting new people and ... not the traveling. I used to love traveling because traveling used to be glorious 25, 35, 45 years ago. It was terrific. I mean, when I went on tour with Call Me Madam, we had the most wonderful time. we worked for a very snazzy producer, Leland Hayward. They weren't tight with their money, everything was first class, and you got on that wonderful old ... now what did they call it, the train to L.A.? What was the name of it? It was famous.

AC: It wasn't the 20th Century, was it?

ES: Of course it was. Brilliant. That's brilliant. You didn't even have to Google it. But I mean that was travel. I was just borderline to the days when you dressed up for dinner on the train. Now, you get on any – first class, second class, it doesn't matter, everybody looks like they're digging ditches. We used to get all dressed up to fly, too. That was a cocktail party.

AC: It was a big deal.

ES: You bet. Well, it's not the way it used to be, but I'm not complaining.

AC: And you loved the audiences at the different places across the country?

ES: Oh yes, absolutely, they're very much the same audiences. There's no big change. There's a little bit of a difference between London, the West End, and Broadway, but that's just normal. I mean, the English people are different than the Americans. But I think basically their humor and basically their sentiments are the same. I really do think they are. I never understand performers who say I so much prefer one or the other. I don't think they're different. I think human beings are very much the same. I don't think about that. I just think about going out and doing what I'm supposed to do. I'm interested in doing, oh God, just doing Elaine Stritch at Liberty for the people out front. I'm not interested in what nationality they are. I think that's a waste of time.

On being a funny girl and bad directors

ES: I don't know, I have an awful hard time going back in my life and saying ... I can't remember myself as a child. I just don't remember anything. I think I was so busy doing what I was doing that I can't remember it. I have fond memories of being a youngster, but I can't remember it. I can remember from about when I was in the seventh or eighth grade or something. Then I began to nail things down. But I can't remember when I was in kindergarten. I don't have a conscious memory of myself. I don't know why. I know I laughed a lot. I know that, because that's told to me by my parents and my sisters, that I was the clown of the classroom. The clown of the convent, they used to call me. And that's the way it was, I didn't choose that. I was funny. And it's taken me many, many years to admit it, at the age that I am now. I am funny. There is no two ways about it.

And I've also gotten to the point where I realize that humor can be very scary. And one of the reasons that I think it frightens me is because you can get away with so much when you're funny. My mother used to say, "Elaine can get away with murder." And I used to get away with murder. I was very clever with finagling, with getting my own way. Because humor is such a strong weapon. You make people laugh, and you can get them to do anything for you. It's amazing. I mean, the nuns knew I was doing it, but they still gave in to it. I still got away with murder. All my life. And then I met a few people that were wise to me in the "Never crap a crapper" way of thinking, and that was people like Hal Prince and Gerry Gutierrez and Noël Coward. You know, you get with people who are smarter than you are, and the humor only works when it's real. You can't depend on your tricks anymore. And of course, that's when you start to grow. That's when you start to get better. Coward used to always say, "Always work with people who know more than you do." Well, sure, but sometimes they're hard to find when you're smart. And boy, I've had some bad directors in my time. There's nothing as terrifying as having a bad director. [You think,] "I have to quit the show." And you can't, you know, when you're young; you don't think you have the right to do that. You hang in, and you never get the talent out there right 'cause you're scared of the director or he's taking advantage of you. Awful.

On Beckett and Tennessee

ES: I'm difficult. I admit it. Freely. I was never aware of it until just a few years ago, I think since I stopped kicking my heels up and partying and doing all that stuff. I think you have to quiet down to get an idea of who you really are. You know what I mean? I was moving too fast to have any idea of who the fuck I was, as the saying goes.

AC: What was that realization like for you?

ES: Well, a lot of the things about me I like, a lot of the things about me I don't like, and I try to work on what I don't like and improve every day. 'Cause I dig change. I just dig it. I want it every day of my life. I want to change a little bit.

AC: I would say squatting in a trash can doing Beckett is a bit of change.

ES: I'm glad you brought that up. Everybody told me that Beckett was so hard to understand, and, Robert, I don't think Beckett is hard to understand, I think Beckett is hard to do. Of course, you have to understand it or you couldn't go out on the stage, in or out of an ash can. I couldn't go out there unless I knew what the hell I was talking about. But [with] Beckett, it's so hard for you to tell the audience and make them understand what Beckett's about. There's your problem.

I have a lot of identification with Beckett. Beckett tells me in Endgame that unhappiness is the funniest thing in the world. It's my line. I knew that, you know, from the very first time you see a comic fall on a banana peel. So we know that if we take it in, and then we begin to understand those things. That all helps when you go to do Beckett.

And then I found out that John Lahr – he was so helpful in writing the script of Elaine Stritch at Liberty, he was so helpful to me – he made the connection to Beckett with me, and he chose a quotation, and guess what it was from? It was from Endgame. So almost 20 years later I'm doing the play, and we're having the first readthrough out at BAM, and I said, "My God, that line's in my play." I never realized it. The line is "Absent always." We were talking about how when I drank a little bit too much than was good for me, I wasn't there 100 percent. So John Lahr suggested, "Why don't we use the quote from Beckett?" I never knew it was from that play. It's a very good thing that you brought that up. That [production of Endgame] may go to Broadway.

AC: Oh really?

ES: They're talking about it. I would do it for a short run. I wouldn't sign on for a long time because I don't want to be in that atmosphere too much. I remember Tennessee Williams, after I did Small Craft Warnings in London, he offered me his new play then, and I can't think the name of it but it was about drug addiction, and I had just gotten married [to John Bay], and I was so happy – for the first time in my life, I was really joyfully happy, and it had nothing to do with show business, and I was thrilled about that. So I told Mr. Williams, I said, "Tennessee, I don't want to do that play. It's a wonderful play" – I wish I could think of the name of it, one of his lesser successes but a good play – and I said, "I don't want to get into that unhappy state, because I'm really happy, Tennessee." And he said, "Oh, Elaine, don't be so silly. Nobody's happy." And he really got angry at me. And I think it's sad that he said that, but I think he's awful close to the truth.

You know, happiness is a tough thing to hold on to. I sometimes feel moments of unbelievable joy, and I love it when I get up to my apartment at night, and I say, "My God, that was a terrific day!" Nothing hurt; I didn't have a sore knee or a bad back or anything. Everything was fine. I had a lot of laughs. I accomplished what I set out to do. Wow, what a feeling! But I've learned, too, I've learned an awful lot in my life – but late in my life, 'cause I really kicked my heels up for a lotta years. And I had a ball, I'm not sorry I did. I wouldn't have had my life any other way but the way it was. 'Cause it's foolish to [say], "Oh, I wish ..." I think supposition is a crashing bore. You know, "What if?" I immediately say, "What if what? This is it. There's no what if." I think even bad news about your health or anything, you can turn that into a gift. Because something good will come out of it if you just don't go down with it, you know. It's tough. That's a tough way to handle things, but it is manageable. It is manageable, and I'm glad I didn't do that play. I'm glad I had that year. The 10 years I had with John were just wonderful, and I did other plays. But I didn't want to get down and dirty. I did The Gingerbread Lady, which was a great comedy, the first year I was married. That was great.

AC: Sometimes you need to make that choice between art and life, and you were at a point where life trumped art.

ES: Well said, that's well said, and it's true. But I certainly wasn't aware that that's what I was doing. I just wanted to be with John, and I didn't want to be thinking about cocaine in a downer, downer play, and it was terrifying. Anyway, that's enough talk about that.

I loved [Tennessee], incidentally. He was a great friend of mine. I don't know whether he felt that way, but I sure did. I think he loved me. I think he loved me, I really do. I think that Tennessee really cared about me, and that's a nice feeling. That's a nice feeling. He was a sad guy, but he was so full of fun, you know. He was terrific. I just loved him to death. Sometimes you pay very highly for your talent, and I think I had started to say this at the beginning of the intermission – intermission, the beginning of the interview ... oh, I said humor is dangerous. So is talent. Talent, oh my God, it's a high price. Talk about Prada luggage. It is really expensive. You just pay through the nose. You really do. There's no place else to go. You have to express it. If that gift has been given to you, you better rise to the occasion.

AC: You must occasionally give talks to students ...

ES: I do, I do! I love doing that.

AC: So can you give them any advice on how to cope with that danger?

ES: No, I tell them to go for it. If they think they can do it, do it. I warn them that this is not a lotta laughs. This is hard work, and you pay a great price for being talented. I see a lot of people who just are having a ball in the theatre, and they're just crashers. They're boring. You know, kids that are jumping up and down in the wings, they can't wait to get on. I've never seen talented people who can't wait to get on. Unless you've worked all your life ... For instance, I'm just beginning to look forward to performing. And when I say sober, I mean conscious of every moment. You don't need a shot to go on the stage. You don't need a glass of champagne to make you feel bubbly. You do your work, and you create your own bubbles. You do all the work yourself. You don't depend on anything. And that's the way to do it. But it takes a long time to learn that. It certainly took me a long time to learn it. But I'm being given an awful lot of years to be able to enjoy that knowledge. Because I go about my work a lot differently than I used to, but I think most people do as they get older. If you don't get smarter as you get older, I don't know what direction you're going in, do you?

On big rooms, small rooms, and dressing rooms

AC: Have you been to Austin before?

ES: Never! I can't wait! My musical director [Rob Bowman] – you'll just love him, he's so brilliant, he's so good – he loves it. He has friends there. He loves it, and he tells me that I will love it. We're gonna fly from London straight to Austin, so I'll be there about a week before I open.

I said something in an interview, and I just thought of it. It was an interview with the Guardian in London ...

AC: Yes, I read that interview today.

ES: Did you? Well, you know, I just love what I said about Alec Baldwin: "I wouldn't count on him to bring a quart of milk home, but I just adore him." Oh, I can't wait till he reads it. Did you see the Guardian, or did you just have a copy of the interview?

AC: I read it on the computer.

ES: Yeah, well, it didn't show the picture, did it? It's the most terrible picture – wonderful picture of Alec and me, but there's a picture of me that not only do I look like an old, old lady, I look like an old, old man. It is the worst picture I have ever seen of myself.

AC: Oh, I'm so sorry.

ES: You're sorry? You're sorry? I mean, I am getting up in years, but this was ridiculous. And of course, my makeup woman in New York said [in Russian accent], "But Stritch, dahlink, you didn't have no makeup on." I said, "Yes, but I've had pictures taken with no make-up, they've been fine." I have too many interviews, Robert. I can't put make-up on. I hate make-up. And I can't take it. I can't take it. So I have my hair done, maybe put a little hat on and dark glasses, but everything shows through. I look 180.

AC: Oh no.

ES: It is the worst. So let's not talk about that. But the interview's good.

AC: And congratulations on the Emmy nomination.

ES: Yeah, that's nice, isn't it? Another day, another Emmy, huh?

AC: Now how big is the theatre in London where you're performing before you come here?

ES: I don't know. Normal, you know, over a thousand. I don't know, honey, I really don't know. I don't ask a lot of questions. I really don't. Is my dressing room on the stage level? That's my first question. And do I have a pretty dressing room – a nice, clean dressing room? And I just love to be near the stage. I can't go up stairs or up in elevators and then do a show. I can't. When I was in A Delicate Balance, there was no dressing room on the stage level, and the stagehands built me a little dressing room right off stage left.

AC: How nice.

ES: I loved it. And I don't need a big dressing room. And I usually come into the theatre with my make-up on. I have it done at home.

AC: It's just I know it's going to be such an intimate room where you'll be performing here, ...

ES: I'm so looking forward to it. It's like the Cafe Carlyle. See, Rob and I were rehearsing one afternoon, and we couldn't get a suite at the hotel, it was booked solid, so the manager said, "Why don't you go in the Cafe Carlyle? You can rehearse in there. There's nothing going on in there." I was rehearsing Elaine Stritch at Liberty, I think, for a date in Philadelphia, but we started to do it, and we both almost said it at the same time: "This works in here. I could do this show in here." So we did. And it works, Robert. It really works. And if something works, it works in a small cafe or it works in a huge theatre. If it works, it works.

AC: Do you like one better than the other?

ES: I like the cafe better now because it's a challenge. I've never done it before. So that's good. You know, change change change.

AC: Change change change.

ES: That's right.

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Elaine Stritch, Austin Cabaret Theatre, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, Noël Coward, Rob Bowman

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