by Carole Di Tosti
During this time of sheltering in and staying safe from the Covid 19 pandemic, I checked in with Tony nominee, actor, director, playwright and instructor Austin Pendleton. Austin Pendleton most recently portrayed Mr. Oldfield in Steppenwolf’s production of The Minutes by Tracy Letts, directed by Anna D. Shapiro. I digress to fill you in about the production and then I’ll share with you my email chat with Austin.
The Minutes enjoyed its world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, where Shapiro is artistic director and Letts and Pendleton are ensemble members. The production with Letts, Armie Hammer and Jessie Mueller in lead roles was scheduled for its Broadway premiere at the Cort Theatre on 15 March.
Like all NYC productions, The Minutes was suspended to keep tourists and New Yorkers safe with the hope of stopping the spread of this insidious, novel coronavirus. The 7th of June re-opening date depends on many factors as the seven-state consortium of governors in the region make decisions based on public health concerns, first and foremost to keep citizens away from the vicissitudes of Covid 19.
In light of these circumstances, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to have seen The Minutes in a dress rehearsal the week before suspension. I thought the writing (the play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2018) acting and directing were smashing. The last twenty minutes that moved in a crescendo like a titanic wave riveted us to our seats. The conclusion, which broke over the audience in a stunning denouement, shocked as the audience witnessed the mythologies and behaviors that keep rabid tribalism alive and well in the human heart. And of course, Austin Pendleton was exceptional.
As a reviewer and theater-goer I’ve noted Austin’s acting and directing chops for years. His performances, whether in film (My Cousin Vinny, A Beautiful Mind) or theater (Playing Sinatra-2013, Life Sucks-2019, Choir Boy-2019, The Minutes-2020) sneak up and startle you with their spot-on authenticity and humanity. His direction (A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur) is no less specific nor memorable.
Austin’s role as the unintentionally humorous Mr. Oldfield , a city council member who insists upon taking over another member’s parking spot as a key concern during a town council meeting is striking in its import which you “get” after the play’s conclusion.
Catching up with Austin via email, I asked him whether he is staying in touch with the cast members of The Minutes. I also asked if he is considering any projects for the future.
Regarding The Minutes, who knows when Broadway will re-open? Meantime, we of the cast get together on Zoom, every two weeks. We do a run-through of all our lines, so that when we DO re-open, we’ll be in fighting spirit. Also, there are some directing jobs I had lined up. All of these have been pushed back, of course, but we still work on them. First, is a production by the company called La Femme. The production is of Tennessee Williams’ revised version of The Red Devil Battery Sign. This will be at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
Austin is teaching at HB Studios where he has been an instructor for years. Currently, HB is holding classes on Zoom. I asked Austin whether teaching on Zoom offered a different perspective than if he was teaching Acting, Studio Practice in person.
Zoom classes have been actually exciting. We of the HB Faculty had a few days of Zoom training to get up to speed on this. The classes have been going well, and turn out to have been of alternative value to the work at HB in the classroom. Simply put, it’s become like a course in acting for the camera. HB has those, in the classroom, but I’ve never taught one of those.
A number of actors and performers have presented their work on YouTube and Zoom. I asked Austin if he had considered this either solo or with others.
I haven’t had any talks with anybody about solo work on Zoom. I’ve had some individual coaching sessions, helping individuals getting ready for auditions, but that’s all.
We ended our chat on a positive note when I asked if he might share something to edify actors, writers and creatives.
Just…try to stay busy. Try to do things that you’ve never gotten around to doing. And then pray for everybody on the front lines, both the helpers and the wounded.
His words are an unction to all of us.