Curtain Speech: Mike Nichols

As soon as I heard about the passing of Mike Nichols I knew who my last post for “Curtain Speech” should be about. For those who have not read his biography or obituary or seen his work, I highly recommend that you do so as soon as possible. His life, work, and wisdom have set a high standard for contemporary directors, writers and artists in both film and theatre alike.

Nichols moved to the US at the age of 7 in 1938 from Germany where his family escaped Nazi rule. He worked to put himself through college and to study with Lee Strasberg in NYC. He then began doing comedy in Chicago and became the father of what we know as Second City. A successful comedy career with his performing partner Elaine May made Nichols very well known and garnered him many awards in NYC and across the nation.

“In a weird way, when I was looking back, I didn’t know I was going to be a director until I was.”

His first directing experience came when he was asked by a producer to direct a play by a gag writer named Neil Simon. The piece was called Barefoot in The Park, which later became a major success. In this NPR interview, Nichols recalls the first summer stock production of the play that was done and his first day of rehearsal as a Director:

“On the first day of the first rehearsal – I think we got six days rehearsal for all of “Barefoot in the Park,” the first time in summer stock, first day I thought, oh, look at this, this is my job – who knew? Because I had very few doubts. And I just said, you go over there. I think you should have a cold, and so forth. And to my surprise – where I never quite got how I was going to be an actor because I don’t think I’m suited to be an actor, I immediately realized that all this time I thought I was thinking about acting, I was really thinking about directing.”

It was this moment that shifted Nichols to a career in directing. His career would span five decades, make him one of 14 EGOT winners, win him 8 Tony Awards for Direction and leave legendary productions of Spamalot, Death of A Salesman, The Real Thing, The Gin Game, and The Odd Couple as part of his legacy. Nichols’ varied and rich history of projects allowed him to turn out some really great advice for contemporary writers and directors alike.

“Improvisation is good training for a director because it teaches you what a scene is made of—-you know what needs to happen. I think the audience asks the question, “why are you telling me this?” and improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. There must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end.”

Nichols attributes much of his artistic success to his background in improv. His ability to face the fear of improv-ing a scene in front of a group of people is something he claims was invaluable as a director. It was the ability to focus on a moment while also knowing where you are coming from and where you could be going that honed his focus on what a scene was about and how to make it effective.

“There only are three kinds of scenes. There are seductions, there are fights, and there are negotiations.”

In all three of the ‘scenes’ he mentions, there is a want for at least one character, an obstacle, and plenty of opportunity for physical tactics and activity. It is important to remind ourselves that even though we might think a character is a certain way or wants a certain thing, our audience will not know that unless they see behavior that allows them to see or infer that information.

I have spent much of my time on this blog talking about political, theatrical, and poetic work but this last paragraph is about one of Nichols’ most brilliant moments and one of the simplest, most theatrical and beautiful things in recent memory. In Death of a Salesman, the stage direction reads, “Willy Loman stares in silence.” In Nichols’ production, he had Phillip Seymour Hoffman down center staring out into the audience from the apron where all his other imaginings had occurred, but it was the first time that Willy had stared directly out at the audience and been directly downstage center. We got a cinematic close up of a man who was staring into his future, which was nothing, for the first time in his life. That moment was simple but made a universal statement so accessible to an audience with one physical gesture. There was no circus, flying, or puppets. Just a human staring into nothing and having to deal with it for the first time in his life. The thing that I love about theatre is that that one glance can mean as much as flying a witch two stories at the end of act 1. Both things work, both things are right for their respective shows, but they show us two different sides of the human experience and move us with equal force albeit in different directions.

I leave you with an Elia Kazan quote about self-doubt and how after a multitude of success, there is still room for failure and mystery to be embraced. I hope that you find it as charming and inspiring as I do:

“So now pin me to the wall – this is your last chance. Ask me how with all that knowledge and all that wisdom and all that training and all those capabilities, including the strong legs of a major league outfielder, how have I managed to mess up some of the films I have directed so badly? Ah, but that’s the charm of it!”

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