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Jean Stapleton: Broadway, Pinter, Shakespeare and me.

Jean Stapleton is known throughout the world, and in an ever-expanding circle o interstellar space, for her indelible creation of Edith Bunker on CBS's All in the Family, for which she received three Emmy awards. But Stapleton began her long career in the theatre and has returned to her roots time and again playing everything from Moliere to Pinter, Foote to Bowles. This spring she played her first Shakespearean role, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, under Barry Kyle's direction at Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre, in the company of Jay Goed and Marin Hinkle as the star-crossed lovers.

Her performance was notable for the rough-hewn pragmatism with which she carrie out the Nurse's actions--while clearly driven by an intense loyalty to Juliet, she bustled about through Verona's streets and houses in a perpetual state of discomfort about the ethics of what she was being asked to do, first by the young lovers, and later by the various authority figures in the play, from Fria Laurence to the Capulet elders.

The following conversation took place last March in a corner of the Shakespeare Theatre's spacious lobby, visible from the street through wide glass doors. Unbeknownst to Stapleton, who was facing into the room, passersby would stop every few minutes and catch sight of her profile, occasioning gesticulations to friends and the momentary gathering of a small crowd.

RD: Many people are not aware of the scope of your theatre work--I daresay even a lot of people in the theatre identify you with Edith. But you began in the theatre, you've done Broadway, touring shows, regional theatre, and for many years you did summer stock in Pennsylvania at the Totem Pole Playhouse.

JS: I've always said that if I ever write a book it will be called I Married a Summer Theatre, because I was married to William Putch [Totem Pole's director for 31 seasons, who died in 1983] for 27 years and did something there each summer. And I did a lot of summer theatre when I was first getting started, too

Tell me about getting started. I have a feeling that it was a slightly differen theatre world than it is today.

I started out in New York, where I was glad to be, because my family couldn't have afforded to send me off to the big city. Off Broadway was not even thought of except for a few little showcases and groups, and I was lucky enough to fall in with two--the American Apprentice Theatre and the American Actors Company, one of whose founders was Horton Foote. And I was lucky to get involved with Equity Library Theatre, because I was in a showcase there of The Corn Is Green, which led to my first job with a Broadway management--84 weeks touring with Harvey.

I'm a creature of the regional theatre and too young to be nostalgic for the Golden Age of Broadway, but I do have the sense that it must have been interesting to have a recognized, agreed-upon place where the best plays were--kind of a standard.

Yes, which Broadway was. Now there's no central point. My first Broadway show was In the Summer House by Jane Bowles, and I remember coming in from the pre-Broadway tryout to my home town, Manhattan Island. It was truly like lookin through rose-colored glasses. Everything looked new and different and wonderful because I was coming to Broadway. I'll never forget that sensation.

Let's talk about your work on Pinter. What was it like to do Mountain Language and The Birthday Party on the same bill at the CSC Repertory in New York?

Mountain Language reflected Pinter's passion in terms of politics; he was cryin out against the things that were happening to the Kurds, and his medium of course was through language. They were not allowed to speak their native language and were imprisoned if they did. The production was very stark, and we had to acquire a stillness in our physical attitude and manner, which was a tremendous discipline, and very powerful. I'm glad it was only 20 minutes long, because it was grim and demanding. And it was wonderful to go into The Birthday Party right after it.

Did you get a chance to work with Mr. Pinter?

Oh yes, he joined us in our second week--too early, of course. We weren't ready to show our stuff, but he sat there as a participant in the work. Fascinating.

What kinds of things did he say?

You see, he hadn't thought much about The Birthday Party since the '50s, so he was eager to get back to it. He saw that our set at CSC Rep had a staircase and remarked that "we never had a staircase." And [director] Carey Perloff said, "Well, we need one here." So he said, "Well, all right, if you have a staircase you have to have a line for going up." And so he wrote one for us. I don't remember the line, but I think it's adorable that he would do that.

And he was always so professional, so serious. I was doing a speech that had phrases like "I have" or "I am" written in the script, and one would make contractions out of them almost automatically. But that's not how they were written, so he stopped and was very serious for a moment. And I thought, how exciting! He came over with his pencil and said, "I want to make a change." And I was in great anticipation--this is finally Pinter at work. The change was "make that 'apostrophe m.'" I didn't laugh aloud, but it did tickle me.

And the other great moment, which must be preserved in writing, is when he said "The biggest mistake I ever made was to have that 'pause' put in print." In other words, it's not an apocalyptic thing. He's not married to it. It's useful but it's not this big tool. So many people think it is.

That's revolutionary.

And of course the "Pinter pause" has gotten into our lexicon.

Whole dissertations have been written on it.

I'd love the scholars to hear this.

Now they will. From Pinter to Shakespeare. This is new territory for you?

Absolutely! I have a niece who heard I was doing this and said, "Do you have to have a British accent?" And I said, "Heavens, no." This is a universal playwright and poet, and Barry Kyle, our director, would always caution us against getting "Shakespearean."

Were you guilty of that at first?

Oh yes, in rehearsal. It's a temptation. But Barry respected the reality that American actors can bring to Shakespeare.

Your Nurse is very earthy, very vivid. And she clearly is extremely close to Juliet.

Barry made it very clear that the Nurse is really Juliet's mother in so many ways--that poor Lady Capulet is almost prevented from being a mother by the effort to sustain her position in society.

What's next for you?

I'm like Eleanor Roosevelt who said in an interview, "I take what comes along."

Undue modesty on both of your parts.

I have a few film projects. I'm just always on the lookout for good material, thank you, Mr. Shakespeare.

And with that, Jean Stapleton excused herself to attend a workshop performance given by the Shakespeare Theatre's apprentice company of actors.

Rick Davis is artistic director of Theater of the First Amendment, a professional company based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
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Author:Davis, Rick
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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