"Every playwright has got four plays. There's the one you think of, the one you write, the one the actors perform and the one the audience sees. With [the Olney Theatre's] Jim Waring you've got a good chance of getting three out of four." -- Irish playwright Hugh Leonard
ON TUESDAY, the Olney Theatre open "A Life," the eighth work by Hugh Leonard it has produced in the past 15 years. The long and fruitful association that Leonard talks abut has helped propel him into the theatrical big leagues in this country, including winning a Tony Award, and has reinforced the reputation of Olney, the Washington area's oldest surviving summer theater.
The man who started the Leonard's associatio;n with the Olney is James D. Waring, who is something of a Washington institution himself. Now 58, he has been teaching (and sometimes terrorizing) students at Catholic University's drama department since 1949, worked at Olney since the university began running it in 1953 and has moonlighted his triple-threat talents (directing, scene design and lighting design) everywhere from the Carter Barron Amphitheater to the White House.He'd like to be "rich and famous," but is neither, he says, and long ago decided that the mix of working with p rofessionals at Olney in the summer and during the rest of the year is proferrable to scuffling for jobs in New York, especially for a man with eight children.
"I've done more plays than most producers have ever seen," he said, and indeed, with an average of about nine productions a year that he either designs or directs, he's probably right. "It's bad enough working in this business with all the freaks and nuts in it.I can't see going up to New York."
"A Life" played for several months on Broadway last year, winning Tony nominations for playwright Leonard and the lead actor, Roy Dotrice. It is the first Leonard play Olney has done that was not at least a U.S. premiere (two have been world premieres), and the first since its production fo "All the Nice People" in 1976. "Stephen D," the 1966 Olney production that introduced Leonard's work in this country, went on to a brief run Off-Broadway, which Waring directed and designed. He's directed four Leonard plays at the Dublin Theater Festival in Ireland, and two at the Ivanhoe Theater in Chicago.
Leonard's best-known work, "Da," was even conceived and first performed at Olney As Leonard wrote in the 1973 program notes:
". . . Last year at Olney, during rehearsals for the Patrick Pearse Motel, I launched into an anecdote about my father's lifelong war with teapots which were too hot to touch, but which he picked up anyway, and someone -- Jim Waring perhaps -- suggested that there might be a play in the old man's 83 years on earth. At once the p revailing euphoria and the concomitant libations of Scotch triumphed . . . For better or worse, it belongs to Olney and all involved in its production."
The play was a success here and in Chicago, and in Dublin, where the late John McGiver repeated his success in the central role. And there the play halted, until 1978 when a producer optioned it for a New York production starring Barnard Hughes. Waring was offered the job of directing it -- at $100 a week. Not enough for eight mouths, although Waring maintains he would have done it if he hadn't had commitments at the university. mOthers interpreted the offer as rather a rude blow to the man who had nurtured the play. It went on to win the Tony Award for Best Play.
"We had a little fall-out on the 'Da' business," is what Waring says now. "He took the route that was available . . . Our first meeting after that was a little tense, but after a couple of jars . . ."
Leonard does not remember it as a "fall-out" but rather that Waring couldn't afford to take the job. "I didn't hear from him for a while," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Dublin. "But then he turned up in Dublin last year, and we renewed our friendship without any problem."
"yi suspect [Waring] was hurt by that whole business," says Richard Bauer, a resident actor at Arena Stage and former student of Waring's who has also worked at Olney. "After all, he is to Leonard what Alan Schneider is to Beckett in this country."
At any rate, the breach seems to have been healed, and Leonard is contemplating a visit to Olney during the upcoming two-week run of "A Life." c
Waring has been involved with theater since eighth grade in Dubuque, Iowa. First as an actgor, then as designer, teacher and later as director, he has developed a reputation for excellence in all fields, always combining assignments in an appalling schedule. Now, graying, rotund, with the hoarse voice of a man who smokes too much, he claims to be working less -- partly out of choice and partly because the jobs seem to have dried up somewhat since Washington has become more of a big-time theater town and some of the old establishments have closed.
He used to do the lighting at Carter Barron when the Feld Brothers put on big shows there; now the Park Service runs free concerts there one night a week. The National Ballet has folded, and the Washington Opera Society uses New York talent. Professional theaters like the Folger, Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center have their own stables of directors. "They don't need me," Waring says without self-pity.
He was the man who "lit" the four corners of the catafalque when the casket of John F. Kennedy reposed in the East Room of the White House. During the Johnson administration he did the lighting for entertainments after White House dinners.
Just as the list of plays with which Waring has come into contact is extraordinary, so is the list of actors who have somehow been in his orbit. In the original production of "Stephen D," for one example, George Grizzard was the lead, supported by then-unknowns Roy Scheider and Chris Sarandon. And Sarandon, while a student a Catholic University, was married to a young woman named Susan who was, it is said, rarely given a chance to act in any of the plays. Now she's the star of Louis Malle's film "Atlantic City," with Burt Lancaster.
Another early actor was Philip Bosco, who has recently been lauded in New York for his performance as ytarleton in Shaw's "Misalliance." Waring was reminded that Bosco had played Richard III at Catholic University in 1954 under Waring's direction.
"Philip Bosco! Why he built that refreshment stand out there," Waring said during an interview in his Olney office. "Laid the concrete and everything. He played Hamlet at the university, too."
"When we wre in school there were two main types of actors," said the Arena's Richard Bauer. "My kind, which I would call the more classical type, and the method type, of which Jason Miller was one. I always thought Jim didn't care a lot for my kind, but oddly enough he used me quite a lot. I was always scared of him. ybut I think now that he respects me, and I certainly respect him. I think he's one of the most admired people at the University.
"I remember in one class we were doing a scene from "Mourning Becomes Electra" in which the husband has a heart attack. After we did the scene he told me, 'You got to do something about that heart attack.' I said I was just using emotional recall because I'd had a heart attack myself a few years earlier. He said, 'Well that just shows that art doesn't necessarily imitate life. Work on the heart attack.'"
Critic Richard Coe recalls a time when Roger Stevens, then a New York producer, asked Waring to direct a play starring Siobhan McKenna. Waring read the play and said it was lousy, and turned the job down. "It opened in Boston on Tuesday and closed the following Saturday, Coe recalled.
Waring rarely does plays that he doesn't have an affinity for, although he freely admits that the season of plays at olney is designed to include "three crowd pleasers to pay for two that have merit." His relationship with Leonard has been particularly rewarding for him, he said. "The closest I've come to working with a first-class playwright.
"It's a hell of a lot of trust a playwright has to have in a director," he said. "A director can destroy the work just in the way he handles it. And the director has to trust the playwright. Now Jack [Hugh Leonard is his pen name] starts work at midnight. He quits at about 3 o'clock in the morning and then reworks in the afternoon. If he gets out half a page of dialogue a day he's going at quite a clip. He is a very meticulous playwright. He's willing to make changes, but not major changes.I figure if man puts that much work into something, you've got to respect the words. I think there's a lot of depth in Jack's plays that he isn't even aware of."
Leonard agrees that he doesn't like "people mucking about with the lines on their own," but he is amenable to necessary script changes. "Jim does me the honor of trusting me to talk to actors without undermining him. Usually the writer is not supposed to talk directly to them, but only through the director, because a playwright can do a lot of damage by telling the actor he meant something other than what the director has done . . . Jim and I have deadlocked on some arguments, but we never have had a rip-roaring row. We just talk it out."
Waring admires Leonard's plays for their depth as well as their entertainment value at a time when he says people "don't want to think in the theater anymore." He complains that audiences are conditioned by television to expect "'M*a*s*h.' every night." But he once said, in an interview long ago, that "human beings are the most fascinating, elusive, dynamic, unexplainable creatures in existence. This to me is one of the reasons why the theater will exist forever, because no other art will explain life as exactly as the theater."