Under the direction of George Keathley during the past four years, the Ivanhoe Theatre has become one of the most consistently respected professional stages in Chicago. Theatre audiences in the city have come to expect standard-setting work from Mr. Keathley, and that he has provided with a growing list of critically applauded productions. Chicago has come to admire George Keathley.
And it's two way admiration. Says Keathley: "Chicago is a theatre town. The audiences at the Ivanhoe are genuine theatre audiences. We sometimes get the ladies' social group out for a night on the town or the traveling businessmen looking for a good time, but generally, our audiences come to see the play. That makes a difference to us."
George Keathley stands tall and straight. His trim form and toned appearance suggest a man of consistent personal discipline. His approach in conversation is direct and comfortably familiar. He knows his mind and expresses it well, but not at the expense of his listener. The influence of his work with acting has given something of a theatrical bent to his conversation, but more than a simple affection, he speaks with color and intelligence.
Keathley comes originally from Miami, a city which early in his career served him well in his first position as a director. After high school and service in the Army, he went to Hollywood and studied theatre for two years under Maria Ouspenskaya. After two more years with Erwin Piscator at the New School for Social Research in New York, he returned to Miami where he opened his own theatre, Studio M. At Studio M, Keathley began to direct not only a good deal of theatre, but also his own future in theatre. In six years he produced, directed and/or acted in ("But only when I had to") some one hundred plays. Broad recognition of his stature as a director came in 1956 with the world premiere in Miami of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth.
Following Miami, Keathley directed both on and off-Broadway as well as in major theatres around the country. From a post as artistic director at Philadelphia's Playhouse in the Park, he moved to Chicago and the Ivanhoe, a city and a stage which he now regards as home.
Keathley is thoroughly professional, and so does he regard his stage. "The Ivanhoe is not a dinner playhouse in the sense that Candlelight or Pheasant Run is. We do a much more serious type of play at the Ivanhoe. None of these sillyass comedies whose main an sometimes only attraction is a big name. That kind of thing is very slick, very commercial, and it may be successful at the box office. But it's not good theatre. The Ivanhoe is not a dinner playhouse; it's a theatre with a restaurant next door."
Of the highly successful comedy, Status Quo Vadis, which recently closed its six-month, record-setting run, Keathley observes, "It's good comedy, and yet it's a gutsy kind of play. It makes you laugh and yet it does so in a very forcible way. It says something; it tells the playgoer something about himself and his society. It's not at all the light kind of slapstick that's often passed off as good comedy."
While the current production at the Ivanhoe, House of the Blue Leaves, is also strong comedy, the majority of plays which Keathley chooses for production are serious, contemporary tragedies. "I am honestly more attracted to the tragic," says Keathley. The Pulitzer Prize winning The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds which opened in January, 1971, was an exceptionally well staged drama of the tragic failure of a middle aged mother of two girls to be either mother to them or woman to herself. Out Cry, Tennessee Williams' somewhat undisciplined howl of personal fear, was given its world premiere at Keathley's Ivanhoe in July, 1971. And again in the tragic vein, Edward Albee's tormented Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf played to stunned audiences during the fall of 1970.
In interview, Keathley discussed a range of theatre topics.
Q: How do you explain the success of your work? Do you have some kind of formula with which you approach a new production?
"Not really. I work very had to try to get the very best that my actors have to offer … as long as it serves the play. The actor has to be cast reasonably well, and he's got to be allowed to develop as best he can. By 'best he can' I mean guided in the way that's best for him—again, all on the terms of the play.
"When everybody understands a play from the same point of view, when everyone involved can make a contribution toward that same point of view, then the production becomes one, a whole. And, it can be difficult to get everyone involved with a play to see it from the same point of view. As a director you must be very subtle in implanting ideas in an actor's head about a play, and still not make it a challenge to the actor. A lot of directors will challenge an actor, and it becomes a conflict between them. This happens often, often, often … most of the time. If you can get an idea across so that the actor thinks it's his … and it becomes his … then without question, he's going to contribute to the success of a play."
Q: What kind of freedoms do you assume with the script of a play? Is the script above change, or do you modify?
"I could be sued for what I'm about to say, but we modify. A play written twenty years ago may be full of topical references that make no sense. Sometimes a playwright sits down intending to do such-and-such and gets … not lost … but involved in detail to the point that he often doesn't see, or he forgets, where it is he's going. Whenever I or an actor discovers that, we'll make a change.
"I do stay close to the play. After all, we're doing the play because we believe in what the author was saying. But I don't say, 'Wouldn't it be great if we had a scene where the Empire State blew up or the Virgin Spring happened.' That's superimposing. I try to get next to the guts of the play: where's it at? what's it all about? why did the man write the play? what's he trying to say? what are we trying to say by doing the play? Often I'll take a line from one actor and give it to another because it doesn't make sense. Often I cut in the interest of time … some plays are interminably long and just must be cut.
"Virginia Woolf was an extraordinarily long play, and I cut one speech out of it. That's all I cut … one speech. The dynamic was just too long for me. Albee came to see and and complained about the one cut … one little short speech.
"Sure, I modify. I'm shaping a play for a particular theatre, a particular stage. The play must be an alive thing; it must be adjusted. This isn't because one director is better than another; it's because the situation is different."
Q: How do you personally measure the success of your plays?
"I try to evaluate a play before we open, before we know what kind of a business it's going to be. My test is: does it hang together by itself? There's a point in almost any production where the thing has its own life, its own weight. I'll come into it and look at it as if I were totally removed form it, and if it seems real, if it moves well, then I think, "O.K., we've pulled it off. Often this will all happen in the middle of a run. If a play is extraordinarily complicated or if we've had unexpected problems in rehearsal, it may not come together until after it's opened. But still, I see a successful play as one which shows a life of its own.
"That doesn't mean the public's going to like it. That doesn't mean its going to get good reviews. It doesn't mean that everybody's going to see it as I see it."
Q: Are you familiar with the work of "experimental" or "community" theatre groups throughout the city?
"I'm not really as familiar with those groups as I should be. The whole idea of experimental theatre, though, gets complicated. The very nature of an outside movement, the nature of a movement that is not "establishment' always is and will forever be very exciting and very interesting. They aren't limited by the demands that we in professional theatre are limited by. They can do things in this kind of theatre which we cannot do commercially. We must at the Ivanhoe, for example, make $12,500 a week to stay open. We do that with a much heavier, much more professionally oriented kind of play than the experimental groups could possibly work with. If we did Grease, I don't think we could make it go If they did Status Quo Vadis, I don't think they could make it go. They want to do Grease< they should do Grease. It's the kind of play that only they can do because of the nature of the people themselves. The people who spearhead such a movement have a propensity for material which is very close to home, very close to them. It's material which can be very progressive in the theatre. There's a great deal of excitement in this. We couldn't do it at the Ivanhoe."
Q: You then see the experimental theater as useful?
Very, very much so. Theater in general has been very much changed by what happens with the experimental. We do things now in professional theatre which we couldn't have dreamed of doing had not experimental theatre made way for. The whole language of the theatre, for example, is changing. We can do do now use language that we couldn't have though of suing were it not for the experimental."
Q: Tennessee Williams' play Out Cry, which opened last August at the Ivanhoe, was generally received poorly by the critics. What was wrong with Out Cry?
"The play initially had a lot of promise to it. Tennessee didn't seem to be able to knuckle down to the work that was necessary. He liked too much what he had … he didn't see any reason to change. I have to say that this was a bitter disappointment to me. In Key West when we were talking about the play, long before we went into rehearsal, he said that what didn't work we would change or cut … he made all kinds of promises. When we got into the production period, he liked it all too much. I tried to make suggestions for changes, and he wouldn't listen. When we opened and we got very bad reviews about the play, very good reviews about the production. I then said to him, 'Tennessee, I've got some ideas about the play.' He became angry. He accused me of wanting to cut and change the play simply to satisfy the Chicago critics and the Chicago audiences. He said there was simply nothing wrong with the play. I couldn't get him to come to terms with what the play was really about. He could not work on the play; he did not work on the play; and therefore, the play did not work."
Q: in your view what was the play about?
"The play was about man's flight from fear. But there has to be a resolution to this kind of thing. I didn't care if was an affirmative ending necessarily, but the play had to resolve itself in some way. It was unresolved. The point of the play was unclear. It did not hold up."
Q: Was Williams too involved personally in Out Cry?
"Yes, of course, it's that, but that doesn't say it write right. He was incredibly involved, he was incredibly close to it. He filled in all the gaps that nobody else could fill in; so it said things to Williams that it didn't say to anybody else. The critics said it was too personal and that it didn't have a life of its own. Tennessee took that comment and tried to twist it against the critics by saying, 'They think a work of art should not be personal, and I think a work of art should be personal.' Well, of course a work of art should be personal, but it should also communicate to a broad spectrum."
Q: Is Williams no working on the play?
"I haven't the slightest idea. I think that my relationship with him is now ruptured beyond repair. That's the way I want it. I don't want to have anything to do with him. He's an impossible man."
Q: Why did you choose House of Blue Leaves for production?
"Well, I saw it in New York and fell in love with it. I was looking for something to followStatus Quo Vadis; there's a problem of transition here that is a very subtle but important thing. Blue Leaves just seemed to fit. And, it's an extremely fine play; one of the best, I think, that's been written in recent years. It's a now … today kind of play which makes the audience work. You must spend energy when you see this play in order to figure out what in the hell's going on. And, you must be perceptive. If you can spend this kind of energy on it, you'll find Blue Leaves rewarding. You'll laugh a lot, and you'll cry at the same time. In all, it's an enriching experience."
Q: How do you evaluate the production?
"Because I was ill just shortly before opening, the rehearsal period was much too short. We opened with only one and a half weeks of rehearsal, and the opening was, admittedly, a bit rough. All of the major critics, though (except for Claudia Cassidy) have seen House of the Blue Leaves as a fine play. Whatever else can be said, we do have an incredibly fine cast."
Keathley would agree that professional theatre is not necessarily theatre at its best. Professional productions may often be less than satisfying because of simple error of priority. Perhaps a "name" actor may throw the production out of balance; often the interest of the box office overshadows the interest of esthetics; at times, professional theatre fails due to sheer pretension.
None of this is commonly the case at the Ivanhoe. Most, though not all, of the Keathley-stamped productions there have been reviewed by the Chicago critics as successful. Most, though not all , of his audiences have received his work with pleasure. When Keathley directs, he show is a balanced respect for the play, the players, and the audience. That is his art. The Ivanhoe under George Keathley is a good theatre.