Like Sheet Music: Actor Marco Barricelli Talks Pinter

Friday, January 19, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

Staccato. Threat-filled. Intelligent. Universal. These are just a few of the words that A.C.T. actors Graham Beckel, Anthony Fusco, and Melissa Smith have used to describe Harold Pinter’s work. With the opening of The Birthday Party, we reached out to a fellow veteran of the Geary stage, Marco Barricelli, who plays McCann and previously acted in A.C.T.'s productions of Celebration and The Room (2001), to get an inside perspective on his impressions of and approaches to the playwright’s unique aesthetic. 

McCann (Marco Barricelli) tears a newspaper into strips as Stanley
(Firdous Bamji) looks on in A.C.T.'s production of
The Birthday Party. Photo by Kevin Berne.
What first comes to mind when you think of Pinter’s plays?

His writing is very self-assured. The remarkable thing to me is that he seemed to hatch that way. With other playwrights, you look back at the beginning of their careers and you can see that there’s talent there, but they need to develop it, mature it, hone it. There’s a gradual rise to writing incredible work. With Pinter, he was born fully formed. If you took The Room [1957] and Celebration [1999] and told someone who didn’t know Pinter that he wrote one at the beginning of his career and one at the end, she wouldn’t know the difference from the writing.

How do you approach a Pinter script in rehearsal?

The script of a Pinter play is like sheet music. There are dashes, ellipses, pauses, and silences. If you follow these notations in the script, then you can play it. In my experience with Pinter, I’ve found that the way to rehearse it is to honor those notations, even if you’re not sure yet what they mean. And by the simple fact of repeating those rhythms and silences, you will see what the moment is about.

You have to play the moment purely for what it is—What do I need? What is getting in the way of my need? What is my strategy to get around it?—and not spell it out for the audience. It’s essential that the actors and the director resist the impulse to explain it. I want them to lean into the material and figure out for themselves what is going on.

What do you enjoy most about Pinter's writing?

Part of the joy of Pinter’s work is that you don’t get to have it spelled out. And isn’t it cool to be presented with all the questions and not have any of the answers, to let the answers come to you where they will?

Pinter is known for not providing much exposition—why do you think that is?

He’s not interested in explaining himself in his plays. And the man was that way too. I once had dinner with him, his wife Lady Antonia Fraser, and Tom Stoppard in London. He leaned into me at one point in the dinner and said, “I’ve written a poem. Would you like to hear it?” Of course I said yes. He stared at me for a few seconds—seemed like an eternity—and then said, “And it goes on. And it goes on, and on it goes . . . And it goes on, and on, and on; and on it goes . . . And it goes on, and on . . .” This was extended for some time and I was unsure what to think. Is this a joke? Is this serious? Finally, Lady Antonia piped in and said, “Oh Harold, I thought you were talking about our marriage.” And everybody laughed. That moment of not being quite sure of what the hell is going on, but at the same time being totally fascinated, is something that is essential in Pinter’s work.

The Birthday Party runs through February 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Pinter from an actor’s perspective? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Pinterland: The Life and Work of Harold Pinter

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

Bursting onto the theatrical scene in the 1950s, Pinter radically changed storytelling on the Western stage. In his 29 plays and 23 screenplays, he explored universal themes of loyalty, friendship, memory, communication, and the thin line between the personal and the political, transforming the language of east London into a unique poetry. He “took the narration out of theater,” says American playwright David Mamet, “and put the poetry back.”

Study for a portrait of Harold Pinter. Graphite drawing, 2008, by Reginald Gray. 
Photo by Reginald Gray. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 
Pinter was born on October 10, 1930, in Hackney, a working-class suburb in east London. Despite having a large extended family, he was an only child who could often be found daydreaming alone under the backyard lilac tree. This Eden came crashing down in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. At the age of nine, Pinter found himself on a train to rural Cornwall with other children fleeing the Blitz. 

In 1951, Pinter dropped out of school to join actor-manager Anew McMaster’s repertory company. Under the stage name David Baron, Pinter acted in theaters from Bournemouth to Birmingham, playing killers, detectives, and romantic heroes. Between performances, Pinter was writing and submitting work to BBC radio and television, without success. Ironically, Pinter’s “big break” came about not via this institution, but thanks to his childhood Hackney friend Henry Woolf. In 1957, Woolf asked Pinter to write a play for Bristol University’s drama department. After initially responding that he couldn’t possibly write something in less than six months, Pinter sat down and created The Room in just four afternoons. It was a success with audiences and critics alike.

Based on the positive reception of The Room, Pinter moved ahead with plans to bring another of his plays, The Birthday Party, to the West End. The Birthday Party opened at London’s Lyric Theatre on Monday, May 19, 1958. The critical response took Pinter by surprise. Every British theater critic—save one—dismissed the play. London critics didn’t know what to make of Pinter’s tale with the pace of a whodunit but none of the clarity regarding who did what to whom and why. Where was the exposition? Where were the characters’ backstories? What was the play about? Only Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times got it, declaring Pinter to have “the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.” But Hobson’s review didn’t run until Sunday, and the producers had closed the production down the previous night.

Steven Anthony Jones, Marco Barricelli, and Diane Venora in A.C.T.'s production of The Room (2001).
Photo by Kevin Berne.
By the time Pinter’s next major play, The Caretaker, premiered in the West End in April 1960, theater critics had done a U-turn. They hailed the work as a resounding success and Pinter as British theater’s leading new voice. Pinter had risen far, fast by 1965. His work could be heard on the radio and seen on television and at the cinema, as well as in the West End and on Broadway. In 1966, Pinter was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and the next year, The Homecoming won the Tony Award for Best Play. 

Although Pinter’s last major play premiered in 1999, he continued acting, directing, and writing—penning several sketches, directing No Man’s Land (2001) and Simon Gray’s The Old Masters (2004), and acting in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (2006) in London and New York. Always a political person, he frequently wrote letters to leading newspapers to criticize Prime Minister Tony Blair and his decision to send troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. Behind all this activity, however, Pinter’s health was deteriorating. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, he was too ill to attend the ceremony, but he left the hospital to record his lecture. In it, he talked about his work and, ever the nonconformist, he used the opportunity to rail against American foreign policy. Pinter continued to be vocal about current events until his death on Christmas Eve, 2008.

The Birthday Party
runs through February 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Harold Pinter and his work? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Like Staging a Boxing Match: An Interview with Birthday Party Director Carey Perloff

Thursday, January 11, 2018

By Simon Hodgson

In 1987, Carey Perloff wrote to Harold Pinter to gain the rights to The Birthday Party for Classic Stage Company. The odds were against the 28-year-old director. Pinter was unhappy about American productions of his plays that were overly psychological. “Americans tend to do dramaturgy that’s confessional,” says Perloff. “If you tell the truth, you absolve yourself. But the British don’t tend to tell people what they think. For them, language is a smokescreen.” Perloff’s persistence earned her not only the rights to the play, but the beginning of a collaboration with Pinter that would span 20 years. As Perloff returns to The Birthday Party for the first time since the ’80s, she spoke about the play and her long partnership with Pinter and his work.

Director Carey Perloff and playwright Harold Pinter during rehearsals 
at Classic Stage Company in 1989. Photo by Tom Chargin. 
Why do you keep coming back to Pinter?

There’s nothing better. [Laughs] He’s such a touchstone for me. I love the mystery of it, the muscle. Every line is active. You’re either predator or prey. When you direct this play, it’s your job to know in every moment: who’s on top? It’s like staging a boxing match.

What did you learn from working with Pinter?

Having him in the room was incalculable. Pinter never explained something in terms of what it meant. I asked him why Meg always asks Petey to read her the newspaper; what does it tell us about their marriage? He said, “I believe she’s forgotten how to read.” That is something an actor can play. He always said “I believe” because as a writer, he trusted his characters to teach him what the play was about.

You first directed The Birthday Party in 1988. What’s different about this play for an audience in 2018?

We’ve gone through a lot more terror. We’ve been through 9/11. Remember that Pinter grew up during World War II. The fact that he was a Jewish kid living in London during the Blitz at a time of enormous anti-Semitism is highly relevant to Pinter’s sense of the world. The Birthday Party is about the individual against the state—the visceral experience of being hunted—but it’s also about coercive religious and political institutions.

David Strathairn (Stanley) and Jean Stapleton (Meg) in Classic Stage Company’s production 
of The Birthday Party (1988), directed by Carey Perloff. Photo courtesy of Classic Stage Company. 
Why is Pinter one of the great playwrights?

He brought a liveness and muscle to drama that had been very conversational. If you look at who had come before him—Noël Coward, J. B. Priestley, Terence Rattigan—they’re quite different. Pinter’s plays are like athletic events. All about competition. The drama is sexual and active. It’s about moment-to-moment experiences of people caught in a room, trying to either protect or defend themselves.

As you prepare for opening night at The Geary, what has been the most enjoyable part of the process?

Being in the rehearsal room. It’s absolutely alive. You can’t analyze it, you have to do it. You have to be incredibly bold. It’s funny and rigorous and uncompromising and delicious. It’s pure theater. Everything was theatrical for Pinter. He was a real actor. Every show I direct, I think about him—what would Harold have done?

The Birthday Party runs through February 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about director Carey Perloff's artistic relationship with Harold Pinter? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
Welcome to the A.C.T. social community blog!
Join in the conversation, engage with fellow theater lovers, and enjoy amazing offers throughout the season.