Lewis Black on Caris’s Peace
Documentary Featured in Williamstown Film Festival
By: Charles Giuliano - Oct 20, 2011
Director: Gaylen Ross
Q&A after with Ms. Ross, Rebecca Nelson, Brad Watkins
Screened at Images Cinema as part of the Williamstown Film Festival on Sunday, October 23 at 10 AM.
The documentary film conveys the extraordinary true story of Caris Corfman, a gifted young actor, singer, and dancer whose rising career was abruptly cut short. With the love and support of her friends, Yale classmates, family, and above all herself, with steely determination Caris fights to reach what appears an unattainable goal: her return to the stage. A deeply moving documentary about talent, tragedy, and the human spirit.
The comedian and playwright, Lewis Black, appears in the film and was one of its producers. We spoke this week about Caris and his role in supporting the film.
This summer he brought the play One Slight Hitch, which he has been working on for thirty years, to the Williamstown Theatre Festival. We talked about that as well as his time at the Yale School of Drama and how he evolved from a frustrated playwright to an angry comic.
Charles Giuliano How are you?
Lewis Black I’ve got a cold. That first fucking fall cold.
CG There are those words. I guess that’s who you are.
LB I’m about an hour away from you. I’m on the tour bus and we’re on the way to Vermont. We just passed Albany.
CG Are you leaf peeping? What bus?
LB My tour bus. I do a standup show.
CG OK. I thought you were seeing fall foliage.
LB Oh God no. There were leaves when I was a child.
CG We are talking about the film you were a producer for Caris’s Peace. It is being shown this week as a part of the annual Williamstown Film Festival. How did you become involved in that project?
LB I knew Caris (Corfman) for quite a long time. I was out of school but living in New Haven. She was a student there. When I moved to the city she moved into the neighborhood near where we lived. I knew her for quite awhile. My brother knew her. We were close. I think that Gaylen (Ross, director) is a terrific documentarian.
CG You are on camera as one of the voices in the film. Can we talk about Yale? You sense that is a thread through this documentary.
LB Yeah. There is. We were all good friends. There was Tony Shalhoub (plays Monk on TV) and me and Kate (Burton) came later. She had worked with Caris. We all knew each other and that’s where she came out of.
CG What was unique about Yale in the way they you guys were interacting with each other?
LB My take is not the same as others. The thing with Yale, like any theatre school, is an environment in which you are embattled by some good teachers, some supportive teachers, and some who shouldn’t be allowed in a class room. There is a kind of bonding that takes place among the student body. In the best of all possible worlds there would be a supportive system that would allow you to come up with your own artistic point of view. With some of the stuff that goes on it’s deeper than bonding because you feel that your vulnerabilities are being probed by people who shouldn’t be probing. They have no clue of what they are doing. If you look at a lot of people who came out of Yale and went on to teach, are all terrific teachers, in part because they had shitty teachers. It’s really kind of true. People don’t want to hear it. If there was anything that needed comeuppance in this country, at least in my point of view, was arts education. I had a horrible time there.
CG Wow. Can you say in what sense?
LW Oh yeah. I wrote about it in my book. There was a kid who had a sibilant hiss. I’m not even sure what that means. (Produced with the back of the tongue raised toward the hard palate; characterized by a hissing or hushing sound (as `s' and `sh').) When you speak it’s a vocal speech thing. We had a month off from Yale because they were trying to conserve heat. That was back when we actually conserved heat. During the month off from classes the kid was told by one of the voice teachers that he should go to the, this sounds psychotic but it’s true. He was told to go to the Yale health center and have his jaw broken and reset during that time. It would get rid of the sibilant s.
There was a lot of overstepping the bounds of power. It was kind of reprehensible. Look I get that you are basically trying to teach a discipline and you can be as hard as you want. But once you’ve accepted a student into that framework, you’ve made the choice, now be supportive. It’s ludicrous to treat students in that environment in that way. They’re going to be treated that way when they leave. So, what, you have to get to them first?
As a result I think it created a bond among us. It’s the same kind of bond that occurs between prisoners of war.
CG I was surprised to learn that you came out of Yale. One sees you as this rough, tough, foul mouthed standup comic. It’s a disconnect to consider that you were a product of that refined classical education.
LB It certainly was on my part. I could have gotten right to comedy. Talk about a mistake. Yeah, it is odd. It’s also true the bonding comes from watching Caris and Tony working in plays. Also Mark Linn Baker. I don’t know if he’s in the film. I watched these guys so many times. So that artistic community which grew out of it is big. You see it at Julliard where Bob, Christopher Reeve, and Kevin Kline were close. Those kinds of things take place because you’re working together a lot. You’re in classes. That has something to do with it.
CG As a critic I work alone. Nobody is in the room when I’m writing a review. There is the sense that theatre is a community and family. It takes a number of people working together to create a play. Can you talk about the familial aspect. It was something that one felt warmly in this film. The sense of Caris connecting with a community and that connection relating back to her.
LB Here’s the interesting thing about theatre. What makes it unique is that you do bond as a group when you do a play. We just did a play at Williamstown (One Slight Hitch) and you do get close. One of the reasons that you get close, and there is that familial sense, is that there is a shelf life for a production. So you forgive a lot that you wouldn’t in a family if you are going to see the schmuck next Thanksgiving. I noticed this from the very beginning that a lot of people would get upset when the show would end. We were going our separate ways and yes it was sortah sad. But there wouldn’t have been as much joy if it wasn’t.
CG There was a poignant moment in the film. Caris is in New York with her one woman play and she stops by a theatre to leave a note for Tim Curry who she performed with on Broadway in Amadeus. It was one of a number of moving and very human vignettes in the film of her trying to connect with the theatre community. We often tend to treat actors as stars and remote while this film conveyed a sense of humanity.
LB That’s nice to hear. It’s how I feel. A lot of it has to do with the vulnerability of what we are doing. Especially if you’re an actor. You go through the process of an audition. For every part you get God knows how many times you get rejected. The same kind of thing. I saw an actress who I knew from around Baltimore. I see her on TV and I see her maybe every five years and when we do it’s like we’re close friends. It’s like family. Good family. In the end I think it’s better than family. I know people who go home to really great families but they are few and far between. That’s what makes theatre unique. It’s why I ended up in theatre.
CG As they say we can choose our friends but not our relatives.
CG You attended a performance of Caris’s one woman show which we see a part of in the film. Could you describe that experience?
LB It was overwhelming.
CG In the beginning she was so moved and tearful looking out at the audience. But then she composed herself for the performance.
LB Normally for an actress like Caris she would have a 40th birthday party and we would all be there. We were there to honor her. This was her moment and we surrounded her. The actors in that room. It wasn’t just Yale. It was a spectrum of actors from New York City who had not seen her in awhile but knew the story. They hadn’t seen her or been around her because she left. I think my parents came up to see it. They were there and they watched her work before. Plus there were all these people that she knows because she can remember that. (She had long term memory but no short term memory because of brain surgery for a tumor.) Not being able to remember from moment to moment but being able to remember your past. It was a huge emotional moment for her. For the rest of us you’re sad because of how tenuous life is and what it does to us. You’re talking about one of the most beautiful women, for me, that I spent a lot of time with.
CG By beautiful do mean physically or spiritually?
LB Yeah. And as a person. She never lost that. That beauty as a person. What she lost was the physical beauty. The tenuousness. One moment she is this and then ten years later you turn around and she’s all of a sudden a totally different woman physically. She even comments in the film on her physicality. The pendulum goes that way into depression and sadness. Mortality. Then the next moment she starts doing her thing and it’s all of this life force coming back.
CG In our culture with its fixation of youth and beauty there seems to be so little cognizance and respect for issues of mortality. I was just in NY and saw Sondheim’s Follies on Broadway. It was fascinating see several older women in the roles of former follies girls. To have a reprieve on stage. It was clearly very emotion and fulfilling for them. One senses that in the performance by Caris. The significance of being in front of an audience, working again.
LB A lot of us performers have the shelf life of athletes. You have twelve years and then boom the ball game is over.
CG That doesn’t seem to describe you.
LB Well. I went into comedy.
CG Is there a longer shelf life in comedy?
LB Comedy is timeless.
CG I like that.
LB As my friend John Bowman said “My favorite comic was Groucho Marx. Watching him, not only was he old, he was already dead.”
CG This summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival we saw One Slight Hitch which you had been working on for thirty years. Is there an update?
LB Yeah. It’s going to be produced at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle.
CG Are you still working on it?
LB I spent a couple of days working on it in Chapel Hill (where he owns a home). Not a big rewrite but I’m working on it. The opening and when the girl speaks in the closing. I’ve been trying to fix the way that the close works.
CG Why did this play take thirty years?
LB (Laughs) Because theatre is like living in an abusive orphanage. I have no idea why it took thirty years. I really thought that when it was in its original incarnation there was no reason it shouldn’t have been done. The original is not nearly what the play has become. But it was certainly as good as what was around at the time. It deserved to be seen. It was optioned for Broadway for seven years. I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. It just died on the vine. We didn’t have many productions.
CG Can you reach a point where you overwrite it?
LB Can I overwrite it? No.
CG Can there be a point where you fuss with it so much that it looses some of the initial freshness? The spontaneity gets edited out. Is that an issue?
LB What really got edited out was how come I’m the only one who has to rewrite a fucking play. Here’s two scenes that don’t seem to work and nobody seems to care. I never got to the overwriting stage. I would go away and went back to writing one acts and I really made the transition to writing comedy. Once it seemed to be the end of the line with that play.
CG So that play had a role in starting your career as a standup comic.
LB Yeah. I was broke. I kept thinking I can’t go on like this.
CG So it wasn’t your initial impulse to do standup.
LB Not at all. My initial impulse was to be in theatre and write plays. Probably teach in order to support myself.
CG Did you ever think of being an actor?
LB Later on but on the side. Always on the side. When you’re around the actors I was around. Now I feel more comfortable acting.
CG So your first impulse was as a playwright.
CG That’s interesting.
LB Do you know what my first impulse was?
LB I wanted to be a critic. At that time it was a golden age of criticism. Robert Brustein and Richard Gilman and Kaufman. There were some really great critics around and it was as close as you could be. In a sense it was like being a sports writer but you were writing about an intellectual event.
CG What do you want out of criticism? What do you hope for in a well crafted critical piece?
LB First I hope that the critic went to school. Took theatre. Spent time in it. Got a sense of it. Has a sense really and an understanding. It’s tough. You can ask anybody in the theatre and they go to see something you can walk out and there’s five different opinions of it. You hope for at least the ability to separate the actor from the role. The role may be a piece of shit and the actor’s fine. What it is that the director does? Separate the actor from the director. To maintain those separations. I think the role of the critic in the end is to help everyone who was involved to become better. That’s a kind way to put it. But that is a part of it. It has to be the impetus. Then after they watch a hundred thousand plays I can understand when they say this is such an inordinate piece of shit I’m going to kill myself.
CG Do you read your reviews?
CG The usual answer I get is no.
LB I’m an idiot. I do because every so often I get something from it.
CG That’s something I never hear.
LB This summer I read some things (for One Slight Hitch) that Joe (Grifasi the director) said helped what he was doing and helped what I was doing.
CG So you went into Williamstown this summer with an open ended spirit. It was a work in progress so the critical reception was an important part of the information.
LB Yeah. And the audience. I trust the audience more than the critic. But I could see as it went on but it becomes a part of the whole gestalt. I’m watching it every night. I’m watching the audience every night. The critics write something. You start to line things up. I get it.
CG How did the Williamstown experience work for you? The run was only two weeks. Was it helpful? Was it successful?
LB It was hugely successful. First off by the end the show was where it should have been but it’s not because you have just three and a half weeks of rehearsal time. We lost one of the actresses. We were lucky because we picked up a really fine actress. At the end of the two week run, by the last three shows, Joe kept telling me this thing’s got to be funnier. There’s got to be more punch lines. He kept going, no you’re out of your mind. By the end it was a much funnier play than it was the first three or four nights.
CG You had a great comic treasure in Jeanna Phillips.
CG So when is it going to be done in Seattle?
LB We begin rehearsals in May and it goes on in June.
CG Can we talk about your language? Where does it come from? Is that just your natural way of talking?
LB That’s just my natural way of speaking. I find it hard sometimes standing there talking with somebody. If I sense they know me I’ll go “That’s a piece of shit.” Some of the time I should say, you know, something nicer. Find a nicer way to put it.
CG I’ve been watching your HBO production. That’s who you are. That’s what you’re known for. Right?
LB That’s the way I’ve talked all my life. Not all my life but most of it. If I’m expressing anger, frustration, rage, yeah, that’s how I express myself.
CG How do you make that funny? That’s the really wonderful part of the equation. How to make that naturalism work as comedy?
LB I overblow it. I take that and blow it up. Make it larger than life. Somehow that works. Whatever the extension of me becomes this character that I’m out there portraying. It really does the job.
CG It seems that as a human being you have a hair over your ass and that becomes your work.
LB (Laughs) Do that again.
CG You have a hair over your ass and that becomes your work.
CG You have an acerbic way of looking at life, a nastiness. That becomes the comedy. Do you pick up the Times every day and get pissed off?
LB Yeah that’s where it starts. What makes me funny is when I’m angry. When I was a kid when I was angry it was funny. I may be stupid that it took me so long to figure this out. But that’s really the key to it. I don’t know why I’m funny when I’m angry. But I am.
CG How is that on the people who are close to you?
LB They get a kick out of it. When I’m with my friends I calm down a lot. They still think it’s funny.
CG It can be tough on a relationship.
LB It was. But it was lucky in terms of some of the relationships it got me out of.
CG Lewis you’re a funny guy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Caris and helping us to understand this film.
LB It was a pleasure and I’m glad you like the film. That’s terrific.