Four-time Tony award winner Zoe Caldwell can seize a crowd just by stepping onto a stage. But the commanding actress is courting a considerably more intimate group with her new one-woman show, “Elective Affinities.”
Previews of the American premiere of David Adjmi’s play get under way tonight at an undisclosed Upper East Side town house where only 30 guests will venture in each night. Ticket holders won’t find out the location until their seats are confirmed via e-mail. And media is unwelcome until the Dec. 2 opening night performance. That’s quite a set-up for a marquee headliner whose portrayals include Cleopatra, Virginia Woolf, Hamlet’s Ophelia and opera diva Maria Callas. In between rehearsals for “Elective Affinities,” Caldwell brought WWD up to speed about what appealed to her about this relatively covert project and why a septuagenarian like herself isn’t afraid of taking risks. “At least once I’ve done it, I will know what it’s like and I will either never do it again or I’ll say, ‘I only play parts in town houses across from the Met,’” Caldwell said.
WWD: Is there more pressure preparing for a crowd of 30 compared to a large theater audience?
Zoe Caldwell: I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s taken incredible courage to do it but I just felt theater should be provoking, not just telling you a tale. I’m 78. Every time I read the New York Times, as I do every day, and listen very early in the morning to National Public Radio, I hear things like “torture” and “prisoners” and all sorts of aggressive things that theater doesn’t really talk about at all. I thought, “What am I doing but just staying at home here reading The New York Times?” I liked the idea of doing something that will make people think more.
WWD: Why now?
ZC: I’ve just been grandmothered to twin boys. They were about four weeks old when I spoke to one of them resoundingly. I told him, “We’ve messed up the earth, we’ve messed up the world and we seem too old and too incompetent to do anything about it. But it’s up to you, my lad, with the help of your brother and your friends to make things right. I am sure you can do it, so don’t let me down.” There was something in the tone of my voice that seemed to register with him.
WWD: How would you describe your part?
ZC: In this play, I’m Alice. I’m supposed to be 80, that’s good. I’m Alice, one of those incredibly wealthy, well-schooled Brearley types, which I really don’t know about. But I had an enormously good friend, Patsy Preston, who was just like Alice. I thought of her a great deal as I was preparing for the play and two weeks ago she died. I have a photograph of her in my little dressing room. I was schooled in Australia and I barely got by. I am not an Upper East Sider.
WWD: What appealed to you about the role?
ZC: I thought anything I can do to keep people ill at ease about the state of the world would be good — or maybe appalling.
WWD: How do you dress the part?
ZC: I very, very carefully looked at photographs of Patsy and women I had met through her. It always stunned me that these women didn’t wear the clothes of the moment. They wore good clothes. Do you know what I mean by good clothes? And they wore marvelous jewelry. The jewelry did it all. From my undergarments to everything else, I am Alice. I am speaking as Alice as much as I can. I have to greet everybody as they come into the town house and offer them tea and sandwiches when they arrive. I have just, with my husband, paid for a big piece of art and I want my friends to come and see it. There will be some improvisation on my part to keep my wits about me. It’s a mystery, but I kind of feel you can’t just give up and sit in your house in a room in Pound Ridge. You’ve got to be part of the world and give something of yourself.
WWD: Why do you feel that way?
ZC: Well, look at what is going on with the world today. Kings and queens are being bounced out of power left and right. Look at what has happened in Greece with [George Papandreou] and in Italy with [Silvio] Berlusconi. There has always been the extremely rich and the extremely poor but now the poor are becoming educated and they know what’s right for them to have and what they need to learn.
WWD: How is the show coming together?
ZC: They’re all so good, David Adjmi, Sarah Benson is Soho Rep’s artistic director, Louisa Thompson is the set designer and Susan Hilferty is doing the costumes. What is so remarkable about all these people is that they are relatively young and they all are serving the theater. They produce, they act, they design. The amazing thing is they don’t have any need to be the most important person on the block.
WWD: You grew up in Australia but have lived in New York for years. Is there anything that still surprises you here?
ZC: The damage that we can do — in the capacity of practically of everything.
WWD: What made you become an actor?
ZC: I couldn’t do anything else. I could dance, but not well enough. I could sing, but not well enough. What I did have was a learning disability. I couldn’t do math or sew on a button but I could keep people awake and in their seats. My parents were extremely helpful and encouraging. We’ve all got disabilities. It doesn’t matter. Just use it to make you strong. If we could take all the kids with learning disabilities or autism and tell them, “so you’ll do one thing, but you’ll only be able to do it marvelously well.”
Excuse me I have to answer the door….It was the silly cell phone. I don’t have e-mail. I don’t go Googling. I don’t even recognize the ring of my own cellphone. I read a lot but my eyes are giving in, which is a sad thing. But everything gets tougher as you grow older. I don’t wear makeup except for all this glunk around my eyes. I don’t buy fancy clothes. I’m not interested in all that.
WWD: Where might we find you when not rehearsing, performing or spending time with your family?
ZC: I love being on the street, not in a way you might think. And I’m sorry that everyone now is using their cell phones, or typing — what is that called? I walk down the street now and someone will say, “Oh hello,” and I turn around and say, “Oh hello,” and of course it’s not me they are speaking to. People don’t catch your eye. The ones who are available for any eye-to-eye contact are the little ones in the strollers. They’re just sitting there looking blankly with their little shoulders drooped near their ears. But if you crouch down and look at them on their level, they smile and suddenly become interested because their mommy, nanny or daddy is standing there on their cell phone — cut off. This is supposed to be the time of great communication. But it doesn’t seem as though you can catch an eye. That’s why theater should communicate. You should walk out knowing a little more about yourself and the world that surrounds us.
WWD: Do you know what you will work on next?
ZC: I have just played a grandmother in Stephen Daldry’s new film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” It has a fantastic cast — Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Jeffrey Wright, James Gandolfini and this wonderful black actress, Viola Davis. She’s bigtime — just exploding.
WWD: Will you write another book?
ZC: I nearly didn’t write the first one. A nice man, an editor, from W.W. Norton rang me. He gave me the most marvelous direction I have received. He said, “We don’t want to know everything about you. We would like you to try to recall everything that made you how you are as an actor and a woman. And when you feel as though you are formed, then stop.” No one told me how long it takes to write a book, so at the end of six months, I took my little book to him. He said, “You can’t be finished yet.” And I said, “Well, it is a very little book.” The book’s title was “I Will Be Cleopatra,” and he said, “That is a rather grand name.” But I told him that by having a photo of myself at the age of 7 on the cover, they would know I wasn’t being grand. This same editor liked the way I described the stories of Shakespeare that I had performed. I have done an inordinate amount of Shakespeare. He asked if I could write all the stories of Shakespeare that I had done for another book. I started to, but then I got the film. Maybe I will go back to the book or maybe I will spend the rest of time tickling my twins.”