The Old Guthrie
Michael Langham had a way with words, often very profound, poetic. He knew exactly what he meant but sometimes others didn’t. For instance, he had a special phrase to motivate actors: ‘When you step on stage, bring the world with you.’ Now it worked with actors, so they must have understood what Michael was trying to get across them. But sometimes his Michaelisms puzzled us stagehands.
Here is a great Michael remembrance that perhaps explains his advice to actors. It was sent to me by Lance Davis, a mainstay in the Guthrie acting company during the Langham era. Lance is currently the Founder, Artistic Director, play adapter, actor, and the force behind THE PARSON’S NOSE Theater, Pasadena, California.
Here is the story in Lance’s own words: ‘One of many Micheal stories for me was during the rehearsals for LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST. I was confused at two lines Costard had that didn’t seem to go together. I asked Michael and he said, “Why, I think he sees a squirrel. He starts one thought and then sees a squirrel.” So I put it in. Cranny, the stage manager, was sitting next to Michael at the next rehearsal and the line came. Cranny leaned over to Michael who was chuckling. Cranny asked, “What in the hell is Lance doing?” and Michael said, “He sees a squirrel!’
So when you step on stage as an actor, bring the world with you, even the squirrels.
My all time favorite Michaelisms came during the tech for OEDIPUS THE KING, a Langham- directed adaptation by Anthony Burgess. It called for an earthquake at the end of Act I. When the play came back the next season, Michael changed it to a one-act, no intermission but still with the earthquake.
Bill, the sound man at the time, tried sound-effects after sound-effects of earthquakes. Each time he played one for Michael, Michael always thanked him, but… Bill tried every sound library he could think of, the Guthrie’s, the public library of both Minneapolis and St. Paul, the one at the TV studio that Bill had worked for. Always the same, ‘Thank you, Bill. But…’ This went on for almost a week.
Finally Bill got on the horn in the booth and asked, ‘Michael, just what exactly are you looking for?’
Michael, standing on stage, looked up to the booth. He extended his arms and thought for a bit. Finally he answered, ‘I want it to sound like..like the earth in anguish.’
Bill, never one to be without a retort, said over the mic, ‘Oh, gee, Michael. I wish you would have told me sooner. I wouldn’t have bothered you with all those other effects.’ Bill toggled off the mic, turned to me and repeated, ‘The earth in anguish? That’ll take two-six packs of beer to figure what Michael means by ‘the earth in anguish.’
The next morning Bill mounted two huge bass speakers, cone up, a few inches from the underside of the stage floor. When he played a lengthy tape of an earthquake with those two bad boys cranked up to eleven, not only did he get a world-in-anguish eruption, he also caused the stage floor to shake a little.
That afternoon Michael walked on stage to get ready for a bit and pieces rehearsal. When he reached center stage, Bill turned the mic on. ‘Michael, just hang right there. I got something to play for you.’
First came the low rumble from under the stage, then Bill increased the volume slightly and sent it also through the surround speakers. Michael had a strange look on his face as the effect grew louder, and when the stage began to shake, he just stared at the floor. When it ended he looked up to the booth.
‘Perfect, Bill’ he said. ‘Just what I wanted. Thank you, Bill. Thank you.’
‘I thought you would like it, Michael,’ said Bill.
‘But, Bill,’ Michael asked, ‘Will it be safe?’
“Oh, sure, Michael,’ Bill answered, as he shut off the mic. Then he turned to me and said, ‘Anyway, I hope it will be.’
And so we found out what was meant when Michael meant by asking to hear the earth in anguish.
Since theatrical sound was still in it’s infancy at that time, Michael didn’t have a handle on it yet; but not so with theatrical lighting. After opening night of any of the plays he directed,, he would wait for several performances and then watch and do some fine-tuning. A change in blocking. Perhaps in the delivery of a line. Maybe a cue to be called a tad later, or perhaps a change in lighting. Even though the lighting designer was no longer around, Michael trusted me to make his changes. Perhaps a big change that would enhance the particular mood he wanted. Or maybe he would ask a small change like having me dim down the upstage in a crowd scene. ‘The extras up there are trying to act,’ he would tell me.
The spear-carriers might bring their world, complete with squirrels, on stage with them, but Michael wanted them to save their acting it out for a production where they were more than window-dressing.
It seemed that no matter what the changes, large or small, that Michael made, always made the play better.
Michael made a point to know everyone in the Guthrie family and went out of his way to talk to them. A special theatrical director, but also a special person.
Chuck, a carpenter in the scene shop, had been a navigator in a plane that was shot down over Germany. In his first and only parachute jump, Chuck broke his back and was captured. He lucked out and spent some time in a German civilian hospital under the care of good doctors; and then, when he was healed, he was transferred to a stalag where he spent the rest of the war as a POW.
Before the war Chuck and his wife Mary Margaret had hoped for a big family. Three years and nothing. They were about to take the doctor’s advise and adopt a child, but Pearl Harbor happened.
When Chuck made it back home they reasoned that Chuck, having through so much, needed some time before they adopted a child. Surprise! Chuck hadn’t been home six months when Mary Margaret announced she was pregnant. Their first child was a boy. Their next six were also boys. The last son was starting school, they figured their family had reached it limit. Surprise! Their little tag-along was a girl they named Margaret Mary.
During the Langham years at the Guthrie, the sitcom about POWs in WWII, HOGAN’S HEROES was a prime time favorite.
Michael liked to go to the shop on the day after a HOGAN showing and laugh over the episode with Chuck. Often one of the two would relate a funny incident from his stalag, and the two would laugh and laugh.
Two men, born an ocean apart, both figuratively and literately, British and American, upper class and middle class, united in the experience of having been a prisoner-of-war in WWII. Two men, management and labor, artistic and technical, both united in the fact that they were both war heroes, who endured.
And that’s a wrap.