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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Interview | Maria Aitken, Director of QUARTERMAINE'S TERMS

When I was told I would be assisting Maria Aitken on the upcoming production of Quartermaine’s Terms, I was thrilled! I feel that she serves as a strong inspiration to many female directors in this industry, including myself. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Maria about her relationship with playwright Simon Gray, the journey of Quartermaine’s to WTF, and the beautiful reflection of humanity in this upcoming production.

Kimberly Faith Hickman [Assistant Director on Quartermaine's Terms]: Is this your first time at Williamstown Theatre Festival?

Maria Aitken: Yes, it is. I only knew about it because I met Nicky Martin when I was doing a play in Boston, and then he departed for Williamstown, and I became very aware of it suddenly because I much admire Nicky.

KFH: And then he invited you to come and do this?

MA: Well, what happened was - actually, I was sitting in a restaurant next to Jefferson Mays [playing Quartermaine], between Jefferson Mays and David Richenthal, and Jefferson said to me – he named a certain theatre – and said, “They’ve asked me to do any play I want!” And I said, “God how marvelous! What have you chosen?” And he said, “Well, it’s play called Quartermaine’s Terms.” Well, I owned the rights to the play for three years in England, and I could never find the Quartermaine that I wanted, so I gave the rights back again.

So I said to Jefferson, “Look, I’m sure you have somebody in mind already, but just in case you don’t, would you think of me for directing it?” And he got up from the table, and ran out into the street! I said to his wife Susan, “Oh heavens, what did I…was I too pushy? What did I do?” She went after him, and when she came back, she said “No it’s all right. He’s crying with joy.”

KFH: Ohhh! That’s so sweet! How long did you know Simon Gray?

MA: Well I think I was twenty-two when I was in a Simon Gray play, a television play, called In The Style of the Countess, and I met him first then. That was in his drinking days, so he in fact doesn’t remember it. I then met him much, much later. I figured rather, unglamorously in one of his diaries, because he’d overheard me making a rude remark about one of his plays. And [the diary] said “This West End star dismissed it”…or something or other, and that was all me, and there was about a page of rant about that. And then I met him in someone’s dressing room, and reminded him that I was the poisonous West End star and we got on like a house on fire.

Then I directed Japes which is a play of his, at Sag Harbor. I directed Quartermaine’s Terms on the radio and wanted to do it on the West End, but the casting is so crucial, and the two people that I wanted to do it were not available. So I thought that was that, and it never really occurred to me that an American could be such an exquisite Quartermaine. And the definitive one, I believe, Jefferson’s going to be. But there was also a problem in England, which was that the man who created the role, Edward Fox, was so perfect, that actually no actor wanted to follow him. Even though it had been so long ago.

KFH: He set the bar so terribly high?

MA: Yeah, he did.

KFH: So this is the second production of Quartermaine’s that you’ve done?

MA: Well, if you count the radio, which I do…

KFH: Right.

MA: It is the second time. But it was a slightly different version. I have seventeen versions of this play in a tin trunk marked “Simon Gray” in my home in London.

KFH: And what brought you to doing the version that we’re doing?

MA: I asked him shortly before he died, because it’s always a bit of a nightmare with Simon’s plays because there are, always are, so many drafts, and you can end up with kind of insane patchwork if you’re not careful. And I asked him which one he wanted us to do and he said that he would like me to do the most recent one that toured in England, but rather ominously added – “because there were lines in it I hadn’t heard in a very long time.” So when we came to doing it here, I did in fact cut some of those lines again, with the permission of the estate and his widow.

KFH: Have you worked with Jefferson before this experience?

MA: No, I’ve just always wanted to, and I’ve asked him several times to do things. I think he’s a magnificent actor. Oh, that’s not quite true! I worked with Jefferson on Japes. He didn’t play it but we had to workshop it, in order to see if we were going to do it. And so Jefferson did that workshop for me, when he was in the middle of playing the marathon I Am My Own Wife one-man show. He so sweetly came and did two whole days of workshopping with me, and was superb. So I knew he was a Simon Gray person.

KFH: Have you worked with anyone else in the cast before?

MA: Well I taught Steve Kunken [playing Mark Sackling], so I know him from long ago. I’ve worked with Simon Jones [playing Henry Windscape] as an actress, myself as an actress, in sort of [Monty] Python type stuff. His wife used to manage the Pythons over here, and in London we did at least one television together with some of them. And Ann Dowd [playing Melanie] worked for me when she was in her twenties…the first thing I ever directed in America, which was The Rivals in Chicago, and she was a superb Julia, which is a really difficult part. I’ve taught all over America since then at Yale and Juilliard and Washington and so on. I always teach The Rivals, and I can still hear Ann Dowd. I can still hear the way she played a particular, and very difficult, speech.

KFH: How funny!

MA: It is funny, isn’t it?

KFH: It’s great. And you’ve never worked with John Horton [playing Eddie Loomis] before this?

MA: No, but what a find!

KFH: Yes! I thought because he’d known Simon, and you’d known Simon… I thought surely…

MA: Well that is a very extraordinary thing you should mention. When I auditioned him, he never said this until the audition was over, and I was completely in love with him, and determined to have him, and he then revealed that he was a life-long friend of Simon’s, and that he’d been given a copy of this play when it was in its very, very first draft, when it was called The Language School, which he still has…carries it about, and tries to make me give him new lines.

KFH: (laughs) I thought that was really cool, that he still had that, because how many actors…

MA: …keep those things, I know.

KFH: I mean, how often do you get to have a relationship with your playwright, as you guys did? But to be able to hang on to all of those…treasures…in a way. That’s really great.

MA: Well I spoke to Simon the day before he died about this play.

KFH: This specific production?

MA: This specific production. So I really feel, that somewhere…on the side, you know…

KFH: Definitely! And what is it about this play that speaks to you the most?

MA: I know no other play like it. I mean, not only is it quintessential Simon Gray… It’s – it’s more Simon Gray than anything else Simon Gray wrote. Perhaps it’s a little more benign than many of his other plays, but he… people use the word “Chekhovian” about it, and I wish I could think of a better one, but this is creating an absolutely believable society, for a play, about people whose lives we really have no experience of. And making them more and more and more and more believable as a group, until…. I don’t think American audiences are going to be put off by the fact that it’s so English.

KFH: Oh no, I don’t think so.

MA: It’s a bunch of eccentrics. Well, not even eccentrics. Just odd people, misfits, failures in a staff room.

KFH: Which we all are...

MA: Which we all are in some way, and kind of seems to me to represent a span of humanity. I kind of feel I’m in all of those characters somewhere. Or they are in me somewhere, and I think most people will feel that they recognize some aspect of themselves. It’s one of the reasons people laugh… is that they recognize some rather unattractive aspect of themselves. And of course the quality of the language, the style of the writing, the precision of the punctuation, the way he manipulates language and the cadences of real speech. He’s an extraordinary writer, I think.

[graphic design] Art Direction and Design by Iris A. Brown Design, Illustration by Kristin R. Spix Design

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