Lissa Tyler Renaud[1]

Robert Goldsby, actor, director, professor, administrator, producer, translator, master teacher, scholar and author © Courtesy of R. Goldbsy
Robert Goldsby, actor, director, professor, administrator, producer, translator, master teacher, scholar and author
© Courtesy of R. Goldbsy

Robert Goldsby has been a man of the theatre, in the fullest sense, over a more than 60-year period: actor, director, professor, administrator, producer, translator, master teacher, scholar and author. Starting out acting for the troops in the Philippines in 1945, he earned a B.A. in French and Comparative Literature (Columbia, 1950) and, along with directing studies, an M.F.A. in Acting (Yale, 1953).

Goldsby was actor, resident stage director and conservatory director from the beginnings of San Francisco’s celebrated American Conservatory Theatre in the late 1960s. For 30 years (from 1957), he was professor of acting, dramatic literature and directing in the influential Dramatic Art Department at the University of California at Berkeley, and he served as chair of this department during years that included the volatile 1970s.

Goldsby was a founding director of the legendary Berkeley Stage Company (1974–1984), introducing many important new plays and playwrights to America. Since then, having re-located to Los Angeles, he has worked as actor and director at the major university and professional theatres of the region, as well as beyond.

A simple tally of his directing in New York, Paris, Marseille, San Francisco, Berkeley and points in-between: 153 productions, including 46 plays from the classical canon, and 98 plays from the modern canon. As both director and scholar, Goldsby has been particularly devoted to Molière. His “tally” includes 15 productions of 11 plays by Molière, some in Goldsby’s own translations. His long-awaited book is just out: Molière On Stage: What’s So Funny(Anthem Press, London).

There is a sense of expansiveness about Goldsby’s work this is a ruling quality in his temperament and a quality that informed our interview. Questions were likely to be answered voluminously, with facts liberally supplemented by poignant or delicious anecdotes. A request for a photo might result in dozens of photos pouring in from theatres and colleagues far afield. What follows is a sampling of his remarkable remarks, capturing some of the expansiveness of Goldsby’s great artistry, as well as his deep humanism:

1. Are there social issues contemporary American theatre has failed to address? Is censorship a factor?

Doing plays for social or political ends has never appealed to me. I did Mother Courage because of scenes like the death of her son and not because of a critique of capitalism. I’ve done Molière for 50 years because I love his comedy and his emotional heart, and not because he critiqued 17th-century society. “The mask and the face” is a lifetime passion, and I’ve never really felt a Swiftian view of society and/or its people. Working in New York, San Francisco, Paris, or Los Angeles, there has never been any force in censorship except by the audience not showing up. The Vietnam era was the only real time of political theatre for me. At UC Berkeley, we did Galileo on the stage where Edward Teller taught physics, and doing Aristophanes’ The Birds in Berkeley’s 6000-seat Greek theatre took me back to Thucydides and the tragic expedition to Syracuse — a direct parallel to the American invasion, occupation and defeat in Saigon. (The best expedition was the trip to the moon.)

“The Birds” by Aristophanes (rehearsal). Hearst Greek Theatre, Berkeley, 1961. © From the UC Berkeley Dramatic Art Dept. archive.
“The Birds” by Aristophanes (rehearsal). Hearst Greek Theatre, Berkeley, 1961. © From the UC Berkeley Dramatic Art Dept. archive.

I did Genet’s The Blacks and cast every black student that came to tryouts, and learned a great deal about life in the black community. During the war, we shut down the university and in protest we did an original evening of political scenes — politically correct, but not high art, like Brecht. Later on, I did The Cherry Orchard in a season where we produced all four of Chekhov’s major plays, and I cast blacks as Ranevskaya and her brother Gayeff, but not to make a political point, but because they had the best quality for the roles. I hoped the audience would be colorblind. I was wrong.

What I have most loved is the energy driving young actors in rehearsal and performance, and the exhilaration from working with great professionals, when I had the chance, with actors like Ron Leibman in Tartuffe at the Los Angeles Actors Theatre, or Michael O’Sullivan in Arrabal’s Architect and Emperor of Assyria at the American Conservatory Theatre in 1968. Bringing plays from the past to life in the present, and making one thing out of opposing times and spaces, are what theatre is for me, and not whether I’m doing politically correct theatre on the “cutting edge.” Maybe the motto should be, “Back to the Future,” or “Old Souls into New Souls.” I believe Michael Chekhov was right in thinking that the basic thing in theatre is “Transformation!” Turning one thing into another can be social and political, as it is for Ariane Mnouchkine, or it can be more individual and personal, as it is for me.

“Tartuffe” by Molière, Rob Leibman as Orgon; Jessica Walters as Dorine (Leibman, Tartuffe). Los Angeles Theatre Center, 1986. © Photo by Chris Gulker
“Tartuffe” by Molière, Rob Leibman as Orgon; Jessica Walters as Dorine (Leibman, Tartuffe). Los Angeles Theatre Center, 1986.
© Photo by Chris Gulker

In a picture from that Arrabal production: Peter Donat in the foreground, (half) naked; Michael O’Sullivan over his shoulder. 80 people stood when he sang his aria about God (unprintable!). There was also a wild photo of Michael’s 27-page monologue: he stripped and got into a nun’s outfit with a red bra, etc. Evidently all the old files at ACT were disposed of after the 1989 earthquake.

Peter Donat (half naked) and Michael O’Sullivan in “Architect and Emperor of Assyria” by Arrabal. Marines Memorial Theatre for American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco, 1969. © Photo, Donat archive
Peter Donat (half naked) and Michael O’Sullivan in “Architect and Emperor of Assyria” by Arrabal. Marines Memorial Theatre for American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco, 1969. © Photo, Donat archive

In your long career, you must have seen profound changes in the United States, as well as in the theatre.

The first years of my work were at the end of WWII through the 1950s. We were sure of ourselves, we had the GI Bill of Rights, built highways, and were full of assurance. Vietnam changed all that into insecurity and uncertainty about our national identity. From then on we have been changed by war policy in which the Congress has abdicated its responsibility to declare war, pay for it, and draft those who fight in it. But during all these changes, my work has remained interpretive, not “primary.” It begins and continues centered in the “Text,” and how the “Word” is shared between actors and then from actor to audience. Overall, my intention has always been to try and figure out what the author wanted and how to make that come alive to a contemporary audience. Living in two worlds of theatre: in university theatre, with the energy of young actors with intelligence, openness, and imagination; and in regional and professional theatres, with a vast variety of actors from Actors Equity and SAG [Screen Actors Guild], all of whom came to rehearsal with many different points of view gained from their experience.

I suspect this country has the most interplay between universities and professional theater. One can’t imagine a working theatre in the midst of the Sorbonne.

2. What is difficult in communicating with designers? How do you exchange views? Have you designed shows yourself?

Almost always I work on the text before talking to a designer. I have read the play fast and slow; made the flow chart; dreamed about atmospheres, thought about themes, and tried to imagine how the play should be cast. Ground plans and casting are the fundamental structures for rehearsal. I bring to the meetings with the designers my sense of the production necessities we have to solve together: in Hamletyou have to have a place to “bury” Ophelia; in Don Juan of Molière, you have to have a way to send him to Hell. If the play depends on the hero finding a place to hide on stage, you have to provide one, etc. I am responsible for the actions of the characters in the story, but I want the designer to make an original contribution, as an artist himself, to the composition of the spaces, colors, forms and textures of flats and levels, etc. We have to agree on the “period,” if that is an issue, and on the style of the play. If you are working with a professional scene designer, you trust him to help you decide all these; if you are working with a visual artist (a painter, for example), you have to make sure he knows he must solve these problems, and you may have to insist that he or she do a model, not just a sketch.

Every show is unique in its relationships: I worked on The Birds with a year of preliminary written communications between New York, where I was located, and my collaborators in Berkeley and Texas; the artistic choices with Henry May, a very experienced professional stage designer, were difficult because he could design anything in any style; with Ariel [Parkinson, painter], at the Berkeley Stage Company, the set was always an “Ariel” painting in three dimensions. Earlier, in the days of summer stock, it was not so much a question of design, but of stage managing, and deciding whether the sofa was stage right and the table stage left, or vice versa. I never had real knowledge of how to cut cloth for a period coat, or the physics of stage lighting, both of which inhibited my control of the whole look of a production.

[Interviewer’s note: Quite a number of Ariel’s astonishing designs for Goldsby’s shows can be seen at http://www.arielimago.com under Stagecraft.]

3. In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least?

Over the decades, I had a few experiences with designers who, through arrogance and/or ignorance, insisted on their way, and I, through ignorance and submissiveness, let matters get out of control. In my first major production of Danton’s Death at Columbia College, the undergraduate lighting designer took down the 28 instruments that were a part of a professional school set up, and put up 48 instruments. He lost control of which instrument was connected to which control, and on opening night a scene was played down stage left and the lights came up down stage right. It was an anxiety dream only it really happened. I never did learn what I should have known about lighting.

Another time, in a regional theatre, the costume designer for an intricate play did no sketches and 10 days before opening I had her lay out on the theatre floor all her completed work and there was virtually nothing there. Fortunately, the management found a wonderful artist who made it all happen before catastrophe struck. So “the wheel turns and still is forever still.”

The moral: make sure you have professionally trained designers, or original painters with great vision, who are also willing to look at “what happens” on stage.

4. This journal can serve to open communication, giving directors a chance to “speak directly to the critics.”

What Happens in “Hamlet” is the title of Dover Wilson’s book on Hamlet, and his critical question is where I always start as a director of any play. While Dover Wilson is a scholar-critic, most of today’s critics are from the media. Both critics and directors think about their audience; the director faces the audience as the “beast with a thousand eyes” whom he or she must persuade to laugh or cry, and they spend months making choices that they hope will connect with the public at the performance taking place in the present time; while the critic must see the work for the first time and then “write” about it for a public that has not seen the performance, but who may want guidance about whether or not to attend. So the aim is at a different public.

The director works with actors and in public, while the critic works as a writer for a solitary reader. The problem for the director reading the critic is that when the performance is over it is too late to change anything, and, furthermore, what the critic has to say may not help when the director moves to the next play, which has a whole new set of problems to solve. Communication is difficult. In Waiting for Godot, after they decide to insult each other to pass the time, one of them, at the top of series of insults, shouts, “Critic!” and the other collapses in defeat. Both are extremely difficult professions, and both need each other for the good of the theatre.

At the Berkeley Stage Company, how was your directorial process different, working with new plays? Did the dynamic with the critics change?

The most memorable author I worked with there was Albert Innaurato. He had a hit show, Gemini, on Broadway for years. I read his unproduced new play, Earthworms, and went to New York to ask Joe Papp, who controlled the rights, for permission to do the play. Mr. Papp said he didn’t quite get the play; I said I did, and he gave me the rights. Albert came out to see it. My wife, Angela Paton, was sensational as the roach-killing, blind, and crawling-about operatic character named Edith. This play won Best Production of the Year by the Bay Area Critics Association. I also did Innaurato’s Wisdom Amok, about a priest sent to a nunnery for overeating, which featured a baseball game with a baby as the ball. This one had Scott Paulin in a tour de force role, and Angela did the Mother Superior with a beautiful blonde shadow amanuensis. He wrote Passione for Angela, who played the lead in New York at Playwrights Horizons and on Broadway. Albert wrote “singing” dialog, albeit scandalous in diction, and had an Italian love of opera — he appeared on the Metropolitan radio broadcasts as an expert in the Quiz section. His last play opened to 400 critics and he has not been heard from since, to my knowledge. What a loss to the American theatre.

Angela Paton in “Happy Days” by Beckett. Berkeley Stage Company, opening program, 1974. © Photo BSCo. Archive
Angela Paton in “Happy Days” by Beckett. Berkeley Stage Company, opening program, 1974. © Photo BSCo. Archive
Angela Paton in “Elizabeth Dead” by George W.S. Trow. Berkeley Stage Co. production, produced at Stages Theater Center, Los Angeles, 1985. © Photo BSCo. Archive
Angela Paton in “Elizabeth Dead” by George W.S. Trow. Berkeley Stage Co. production, produced at Stages Theater Center, Los Angeles, 1985.
© Photo BSCo. Archive

Directing new plays has one major difference from “the classics” I had done so often. When you do King Lear, you know others have made it work. When you do a new play, you have no idea “how” or “if” it will work. I felt Life in Albert’s work from my first reading. Mr. Papp and all my actors did not feel it at first, but in rehearsal, Life spilled all over the stage, and we all became infatuated with the action floating under the singing words.

Speaking of King Lear — which I once spent almost a year preparing — one of the critics opened his review of another wonderful play at Berkeley Stage, by Lynn Seifert, called Coyote Ugly, by saying it was not King Lear. I was so outraged by his contempt for the new play that, knowing Berkeley Stage was not going to continue for lack of funds, I wrote an open letter to all the Bay Area Critics about their sabotaging new play work by such ridiculous comments. Obviously, given the power of the press to keep people safe from the risks of seeing a new play, I wouldn’t have written such a letter if the theatre had been going to try and stay open.

French theatrical culture has played an enormous part in your work life.

I was fortunate enough to have a GI Bill and went to Paris in my junior year at Columbia University. My first visit to the Comédie-Française was an ecstatic experience watching a great actor return after the war to the role of Alceste in Le Misanthrope. He came on from up stage center; the audience stood up and yelled; the actor starting weeping, so did the public; he lost his voice, and the moment kept going for what seemed like an eternity. What a beginning for a beginner in the theatre. I saw great theatre over and over that year: Louis Jouvet, Charles Dullin, Jean-Louis Barrault, as well as playwrights like Giraudoux, Anouilh, and most of all, Molière. I lived with an actress at the Comédie-Française and became fluent in French. A year or so after these experiences, Eric Bentley commissioned me to do a translation of Sardou’s Divorcons, played by both Duse and Bernhardt. This translation was produced in London and ran on the West End for a year. I also did the play early in my time at the University of California, Berkeley. My first play at Berkeley was Lady Gregory’s translation of Scapin, called The Rogueries of Scapin.

I was also fortunate to spend a semester at Berkeley with Jean Renoir, helping him translate his play,Carola, which we also produced at the university. He did it again in Paris with Leslie Caron. He was a really free spirit who didn’t like bullies, either domestically, like Maurice Chevalier—or countries, like Germany in WWI and II. See Grand Illusion. And he liked cooking steaks in the fireplace, and/or going out in his old Jaguar to find my daughter Wendy, who had gotten bored with our translating and had disappeared.

As a beginning director, I unashamedly stole a lot of business from Jacques Copeau’s version printed by Louis Jouvet.  From those beginnings, I’ve chosen to direct a good number of French plays, from Feydeau’s Occupe Toi d’Amélie in my own translation at UC Berkeley, to Anouilh’s Becket at the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, and of course, many of Molière’s. My new book on Molière arrived yesterday!!

“Les Précieuses Ridicules” by Molière. Two girls enjoying life (for the moment): Jilian Boyd, Hilde Guitormson. Trans. R.W. Goldsby. University of Washington, School of Drama, 2005. © Adam Kaplan
“Les Précieuses Ridicules” by Molière. Two girls enjoying life (for the moment): Jilian Boyd, Hilde Guitormson. Trans. R.W. Goldsby. University of Washington, School of Drama, 2005. © Adam Kaplan

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[1] Lissa Tyler Renaud, (M.A Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training in California. She has taught acting and voice throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions throughout Asia, and in Mexico. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Foundations grants, she is an award-winning actress and a recognized director and alignment practitioner. She publishes and lectures widely on the European avant-garde. Her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training, was published by Routledge (2009; paperback 2011). Renaud was guest speaker and master teacher in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2010 and 2011. She is currently writing a chapter for an international volume honoring Stanislavsky’s 150th birthday (2013).

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“Old Souls into New Souls” — Interview with Robert Goldsby, U.S. Director