Terry Teachout, 60, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, is also a biographer and opera librettist. Five years ago, he adapted his biography of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong into a one-man play, Satchmo at the Waldorf. In May, he makes his professional directorial debut with the play at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach (it runs from May 13 to June 12). Hap Erstein reached him by phone at his home in Connecticut prior to the start of rehearsals.
Erstein: You’ve given Palm Beach Dramaworks national exposure with your reviews. How did the company first come to your attention?
Teachout: I knew there was theater in Florida, but I didn’t know anything about it. So I called Betsy Maupin, then the drama critic of the Orlando Sentinel, and I asked her to give me a list of companies and Palm Beach Dramaworks was on it. So I looked up their season and they were doing Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs.
And I said to myself, “How is it possible that a drama company in Palm Beach is doing Ionesco?” I didn’t know anything about Palm Beach, I’d never been there. But it just didn’t strike me that it would be a center for avant-garde theater. So I put it on my calendar and I came down. This was when they were in the old storefront theater. So I show up and I think, “What have I gotten myself into?” I sit down in that little shoebox and I saw one of the best productions of anything I’d ever seen in my life.
My rule in regional reviewing is when I see something astonishing that I’m not expecting, I try to come back the very next year to see if it was a fluke. So I came back the next year, they were doing (Michael Frayn’s)Copenhagen and it was not a fluke. And that was it. I have a list of companies that I try to see every year. It’s a short list — maybe five or six companies.
It was immediately apparent to me that what Bill (Hayes, the company’s producing artistic director) and Sue Ellen (Beryl, managing director) were doing was as good as anything anybody was doing anywhere in the United States. I say that not because I’m working with them now, but I’ve been saying this in public now for a decade. I was always excited to see what they would be doing when I was going to be in town.
Erstein: How did the idea of them doing your Louis Armstrong play arise?
Teachout: Bill and Sue Ellen saw the first northern production of the play at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. in 2012. They told me, “Gosh, this is a really terrific play. We might want to do it.” And I said, “Gee, thank you.” People are polite on opening nights. I was flattered that they liked the show, but it certainly didn’t occur to me that it would lead to a production.
It turned out that they were dead serious about wanting to do the play. By that time, other regional companies were reaching out to do it so I said Yes. Why would I not say yes? This is one of the companies I admire most in the United States, they want to do my play, what a wonderful thing.
They understood, as everybody understands who wants to produce my play, that if you do Satchmo, I’m not going to be reviewing you for a while.
This actually first came up when I wrote my first opera, The Letter, which was premiered by Santa Fe Opera [the music is by Paul Moravec]. There was no precedent for that and so we sat down at the (Wall Street)Journal and kind of worked through a conflict policy. I was determined to be completely transparent with it. TheJournal is very serious about these matters because historically the Journal is a financial paper. It understands fiduciary responsibilities. So we developed a policy and, therefore, it was in place when Bill and Sue Ellen came to me and said, “We want to do your play.”
I explained to them what that would mean and they said, “We still want to do it.”
Erstein: What are the specific limitations of the policy?
Teachout: It sort of depends. This is a new circumstance. I’m directing the play as well. We originally said I wouldn’t come back to a company for two seasons after the last performance. We haven’t really sat down and talked this through, because Satchmo’s being done a lot this year. I think there are six productions. It is a very nice problem to have.
We’ll figure it out. The Journal is reasonable, I am transparent with them, we all understand that this is serious business. So I won’t be coming to West Palm Beach as a critic for a while.
Erstein: When did the notion of your directing the production occur?
Teachout: It was an afterthought. It was not my idea. I was in town for another reason and I had lunch with Bill and Sue Ellen. And they sprung this on me.
Now I have never directed a professional production of a play. But I did direct the workshop performance of the first half of this play back in 2011, at the Winter Park Institute in Winter Park. I was very excited by this and I thought to myself, “Maybe I might want to do this at some later point if the play does well.”
So when Gordon Edelstein directed his first production of the play at Shakespeare & Co, in 2012, I went to all the rehearsals, including the technical rehearsals. I said, “Gordon, I’m thinking that maybe I might want to stage this at some point,” and he said, “Let me tell you what I’m doing and what I know.” So Gordon really opened the bag and discussed the process in detail with me.
By the time we opened, I was thinking, “Yes, if anybody ever gives me a chance to do this, I’ll say yes.” So I was primed when Bill and Sue Ellen asked me. It was out of the blue and I was startled, but I thought to myself, “I will never get a better chance in my life to try directing.”
Erstein: Gordon’s production, with John Douglas Thompson playing Armstrong, went to several regional theaters very successfully, so your directing it now is not a disgruntled playwright showing what he really had in mind, is it?
Teachout: No, not at all. I just see it as a new challenge, which I see as a logical development. Most playwrights don’t direct, but some do.
So not only have I seen Gordon’s production, but when Charles Newell directed Satchmo at the Court Theatre in Chicago in January, I was deeply involved in the rehearsal process. I told Charlie, just as I had told Gordon, “I’m going to stage this myself,” and Charlie too really invited me into the shop, talked to me in detail about what he did and how he did it.
And the two productions were radically different. They had nothing in common — the approach, design, the actor — everything was different. So that couldn’t have been better for me. I’ve now seen this play done in two almost diametrically opposed ways. That really frees up your sense of possibility for what you yourself might want to do with it.
Barry Shabaka Henley.
Erstein: Who will be your Armstrong?
Teachout: The actor, Barry Shabaka Henley, is the actor who did the play at the Court Theatre in January. That, in fact, is why we chose him. This is a hard play to cast because he has to play three characters — Armstrong, his manager Joe Glaser and trumpeter Miles Davis.
Erstein: Henley doesn’t actually play trumpet, right?
Teachout: No, you have to look comfortable holding a horn, but I deliberately wrote the play so that the actor never tries to play the horn. That never looks right. He has to sing some and he does that very well, but as far as playing I never wanted it to work that way
The joke that Charlie Newell and I had is that he paid Shabaka to learn the play for me. I will, in a sense, be lifting Shabaka out of the Court Theatre’s production and putting him into my production, which looks totally different.
Erstein: You first became aware of Louis Armstrong when you were a young boy. Tell me that story.
Teachout: I was 8, I think. I was born in ’56. This was the year that Hello, Dolly! came out, which was ’64. I come from a small town in Missouri, so I was out in the backyard playing on Sunday night, the sun hadn’t set yet. My mother comes to the back door and calls to me, saying, “C’mon in, I want you to watch something. I want you to see this man, he won’t live forever and I want you to remember him.” It was Armstrong and the All-Stars performing “Hello, Dolly!” on the Ed Sullivan Show. He made the same impression on me that he made on everybody the first time. I was just amazed and delighted by what I was seeing.
When, a few years later, I became seriously interested in jazz and started to play it, he was very much a part of my consciousness as a growing musician.
The cover of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2009), by Terry Teachout.
Erstein: Many years later, you wrote a biography of Armstrong. How do you choose your biography subjects? What do they have in common?
Teachout: Well, the four biographies I’ve written are all about American artists, not necessarily born in America. Duke Ellington, H.L. Mencken, George Balanchine and Armstrong. I think in different ways they’re all distinctively, characteristically American artists.
I wrote about Armstrong because I knew that his private tape recordings, the ones that he made from 1947 to the end of his life, were all at the Armstrong archives at Queens College. They had been conserved, they were playable, but no biographer had ever used them, because they had only just been made available to researchers. So I knew there was this cache of really important primary source material.
Having just written this biography of Mencken, I knew what you have to know to write a biography. You want to know about the family, know about permissions, know where the source material is. So I realize that Armstrong makes sense as a biographical subject and I love him, so why not?
Erstein: When did it occur that the biography could become a theater piece?
Teachout: I had never thought about writing a play. So flash forward to 2009, when my first opera opened in Santa Fe and a month or two later Pops is published. In December, after the book tour is finished, I got an email from a man whose name I didn’t recognize — John Schreiber — who said, “I read your book and liked it very much. I think there is a play to be written about Armstrong. Have you thought about writing it or trying to find somebody to write it?” Until that moment, I had never thought about such a thing.
I Googled his name and he turned out to be a theatrical producer. I was quite thunderstruck. At the very least, it wasn’t just a suggestion from out of the blue. A month or so later, I was back down in Florida, doing a residency at the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College, so I had a little more time on my hands than I usually do, I was turning over in my head the idea of a play about Armstrong.
Suddenly, one day, the whole thing came together in my head and I sat down and started writing. Three or four days later, I had the rough draft of Satchmo at the Waldorf. I then spent about a year polishing it.
I came back to the Winter Park Institute the next year and offered to do the play there. So they hired me an actor and I workshopped it there. They hired a wonderful actor named Dennis Neal and we did a workshop performance of the first half of the play. Dennis then came to me and said he’d like to do a production of the play in Florida, in Orlando in 2011.
At that point, word was starting to get around that I had written the play and Shakespeare & Co. approached me and asked to see the script. I sent it, they read it and said, “We think we might like to do this. Would you be interested in having John Douglas Thompson play the part?” My reaction was, “How high do you want me to jump?” So we were off and running, and in 2012 we had those first three productions of it. And it’s been off and running ever since.
Erstein: Do you expect to write plays based on your other biographies?
Teachout: Oh, no, I don’t want to write that kind of play again. I do want to write more plays. I have written more plays. If I have it in me to write more plays, then I would want them to be different from Satchmo at the Waldorf.
Erstein: Good, because I hate watching one-person plays.
Teachout: So do I, and I see a lot of them.
Erstein: Was this always conceived to be a one-person play?
Teachout: Yes. In the first draft, it was a one-character play. It was just Armstrong. A friend read it and said, yes, this works, but she knew I liked plays where one person plays more than one character, so he asked if I had thought of that, and I hadn’t. So I sat down immediately and wrote Joe Glaser into the play. He had been just talked about before that.
At that point I asked myself, “Is this a two-person play?” but I dismissed the idea immediately. What drives this play, what gives it its theatrical dynamism is the idea of one person not only playing these two characters, but crossing a racial line to do it. That’s really what gives it that special twist.
And then when we went into rehearsal with the play in Lenox, Mass., in 2012, Gordon and John suggested to me on the first day of rehearsals that I write Miles Davis into the play as a character as well. So I went home that night and did it. That’s when the play took its final shape as a three-character play.
One-person plays tend to be very dramatically static. They lack conflict. They’re usually plays where a famous, beloved person comes out onstage and spends 90 minutes telling you how wonderful they are. I don’t like that kind of play. I don’t like to review it and I knew I didn’t want to write it.
I knew I was a long way down the road from avoiding that kind of play when I wrote Glaser into the play into the second draft of the play, because I realized I had just built in the kind of conflict that you don’t normally find in one-person plays. And of course it was heightened further when we put Miles into the play.
But believe me, I am as sensitive to the potential problems as you are. I have panned so many one-person historical plays, so I knew what I didn’t want to do and I did my best not to do it here.
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971).
Erstein: Race is obviously an important theme in the play. Miles Davis accuses Armstrong of being an Uncle Tom. Why?
Teachout: Well, there’s a generation issue working here. Remember that Louis Armstrong was born in 1901, to a world very different from the one into which Miles was born.
Armstrong was the illegitimate son of a part-time prostitute. He grew up in the roughest, dirtiest part of New Orleans — black Storyville. And he is dark-skinned. Remember that intraracial prejudice is an important theme in this play. So there’s a class issue and a generational issue going on.
Miles is a member of the black middle class, the black bourgeoisie. His father was a very successful dentist. He went to Juilliard. He comes along really two generations after Armstrong does, at a time when younger black musicians are starting to think of themselves less as entertainers — as Armstrong always thought of himself — and more as artists.
Armstrong wasn’t politically insensitive. He was very aware of how the world works. He was very frank about it, but he didn’t feel this was something he needed to bring onto the bandstand with him. Miles was a very different man, from a different time and a different place. In the play, he functions like a Greek chorus. He is the character who is telling us what younger blacks think about Armstrong.
Miles said a lot of the things he says in the play in real life. Armstrong was intensely aware of the fact that he had lost much of his black audience. That younger blacks had different attitudes about him. And it disturbed him; he really didn’t understand it. He didn’t see himself as an Uncle Tom. The very idea disgusted him.
He knew very well that he had been a race hero as a young man, one of the great role models for generation after generation. So if you’re a younger person whose idea of Louis Armtrong is of this old black guy who gets up on Ed Sullivan, grins and sings “Hello, Dolly!,” you’re going to find out things about him that you didn’t know. The man behind the mask and a moment when this private man becomes public and astonishes America.
Erstein: How does the play differ from the biography?
Teachout: It’s more a matter of showing than telling. The book contains the information that is supplied in the play, but there’s a big difference between reading it on the page and seeing it brought to life by an actor who’s playing three characters.
In addition, a biographer is obliged to stick to the literal truth. But there are questions about the relationship between Armstrong and Glaser that can’t be answered by the factual record. I describe this play as a work of fiction, freely based on fact. That allows me to speculate on some things that we can’t know about. So you’ll have a radically different experience from watching the play compared to reading the book. I think everything in the play is plausible, but there are certainly things that are completely fictional.
Erstein: In what ways are you a better drama critic for having gone to the other side of the footlights?
Teachout: I was always text-oriented as a critic. So writing a play didn’t transform me. For me the big difference has been watching the process of production. It is not something that a critic normally sees. While I had done theater in high school and college and I’d been a professional musician, so I know something about the act of performance, it was really instructive to be to watch Gordon and Charlie stage the play.
Because I have been so deeply involved in the process of mounting this play several times, now when I go to the theater and see a production, I see direction more clearly. I’m in more of a position, I think, to speculate in an informed way about what’s happening and how it works.
Now that I’m actually getting my hand on the wheel in West Palm Beach, that’s going to teach me things that I couldn’t possibly have learned any other way. For me, this experience has really been priceless. I think it has made me a better, more comprehending critic.
I don’t have any desire not to be a critic anymore, by the way. It is the best job in the world and the best part of it is going out on the road to get away from New York, to get away from Broadway, to find theater companies in places I don’t expect to find them, like West Palm Beach. But at the same time, I’m really having the time of my life, first writing this play, then helping to produce it and now directing it. I want to do a lot more of that. I hope the opportunity to continue working in the theater is available to me.
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Satchmo at the Waldorf opens May 13 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, and runs through June 12. Tickets: $64 and up. Call 514-4042, ext. 2. Or visitwww.palmbeachdramaworks.org.