Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with actor, director John Tillinger
John Tillinger is a consummate theatre director who has worked with just about everyone who’s anyone in the industry. Just a partial list includes icons like Colleen Dewhurst, Jason Robards, George C. Scott, Eli Wallach, Maximillian Schell, Charles Durning, and countless others. Indeed, instead of playing Six Degrees Of Separation with Kevin Bacon, we should be playing it with John Tillinger.
Pillow Talking had the pleasure and honor of catching up and chatting with Mr. Tillinger shortly after the opening of What the Butler Saw at Westport Country Playhouse which he directed. Stay tuned for a fascinating look into the world of John Tillinger.
PT: Thank you so much for granting us this interview. We met you opening night and loved What the Butler Saw. You have worked with just about everyone who’s anyone in the business.
JT: Well, thank you.
PT: We know you were raised in England. Tell us about your background.
JT: I was born in Iran. I state that because in Iran I fell in love with all entertainment. I loved Iran and still love Iran. But it was the real contact with the Western world and Western culture as it were – you know, Fred Astaire and all those adventure movies. So when I came to England – I don’t quite know why – but my mother took me to one or two shows and I thought that whole thing was just magic. And from then on it never stopped. All my friends who I made at school were theatre buffs. There weren’t that many but there were enough and we would go to important plays with important actors. I was very lucky that I emerged at a time when Olivier, Richardson and Guinness, Gielgud and Scofield – my favorites – were doing their best work. So I saw some extraordinary plays when I was eleven and twelve. My parents continued to live in Iran and I had vacations almost by myself renting a room and we would go to the theatre every night as much as we could afford. So that became a passion for me. When I graduated from school, at first I thought I wanted to pursue architecture in Rome, but that didn’t last too long. And then I went to a drama school.
PT: How was that?
JT: It was great. I had a very good time. I had some impressive people who were at drama school with me. I had Robin Phillips who ran Stratford and Patrick Stewart and a few others who worked very well in England. After that I managed to – for very peculiar reasons – get a British passport and I worked in regional theatre in London and then in the West End. I did television, too, but I didn’t do any movies. I did Doctor Who and various other things like that.
PT: That’s a classic! (Stephanie) My sons would be thrilled to know that. They are huge Doctor Who fans.
JT: Oh, really? One of the tragedies of my episodes of Doctor Who – I think I did five or six – one of the episodes was set on St. Bartholomew’s Eve which if you remember was when the Catholics killed the Huguenots in Paris in 1572. But my episode was with Emma Thompson’s father whose name was Eric Thompson who also became a director. But the BBC in its infinite stupidity for an economy measure wiped out the tape because they needed the tape for another show.
PT: Oh my God!
JT: Had they kept it, I would go on earning money and they would earn even more money selling the tape.
PT: What a debacle.
JT: But then my parents came to America. My father was not well. So I came over here and within three weeks – I can’t believe it – I got my first Broadway show as an actor. The show didn’t run very long. It had Patricia Routledge in it. I don’t know if you know who she is, but she’s in a television series that is popular here called Keeping Up Appearances.
JT: So my show ran for about three months. And then one job led to another frankly. And then I did a play with Anthony Quayle and Sam Waterston that also ran for about four months. And then I went to the Long Wharf and did a couple of plays there including The Changing Room, which was quite a hit on Broadway with John Lithgow. Actually Johnny won a Tony from it. It also had George Hearn and a few other famous actors. And then I went to do a play and when I came back my second child was on the way. And I thought I better earn some regular money. I was married to Dorothy Lyman, an actress, a very successful soap opera actress.
PT: Yes, we were aware of that.
JT: But we were broke. So I took on the job of dramaturg at Long Wharf [Theater in New Haven, CT]. Arvin [Brown] wanted someone who had worked in the theatre rather than having been university trained. I was flattered and it was a very good relationship. He’s the most supportive, wonderful person. I was at Long Wharf for twenty-four years as a dramaturg.
JT: I used to prepare plays that Arvin or somebody else would direct. I was preparing this play called Solomon’s Child. Arvin was going to direct it. And then suddenly Al Pacino decided he wanted to do American Buffalo with Arvin. So they offered me the opportunity to direct the play. Arvin said it was a good idea. He said to me, “You know more about this play than anybody else.” And it was quite a success. It actually went to New York and had a short run. But I got a taste for directing. Then what happened was that I put on Entertaining Mr Sloan and that was a huge hit Off-Broadway. It ran for about nine months. We put it on ourselves – a friend of mine and I. We raised seven thousand dollars to put on this play. I had a fabulous cast. I had Joseph Maher.
PT: Such a great actor.
JT: Barbara Bryne and Maxwell Caulfield as well. We transferred to the Cherry Lane Theatre where it ran for quite a long time. In fact we had to change casts at one point. And then my directing career started taking off. I was much happier directing than I was acting.
PT: You have such a great resume. You’ve worked with everyone – Maximilian Schell, George C. Scott, and countless others. Out of everything you’ve done can you pick one project that was the most difficult to do from a director’s standpoint?
JT: Believe it or not, it was the play that I just did, What the Butler Saw. It’s very complicated – I don’t want to say difficult, but it was a huge challenge. It’s a very iconoclastic play. It insults everybody.
PT: (Laughs) Yes, it does that!
JT: But I feel that Joe Orton, in his plays, is saying that if you can laugh at our foibles, our misconceptions and our perversions, then we have a chance of surviving – which is true of Sloan and certainly true of Loot – and this play is more complicated than any of the others. It’s not that he’s attacking psychiatry, but he is making fun of it. Frankly you don’t know if the part that Paxton plays – if the man is an escaped lunatic or not. By the end you think he must be. But I think that was one of the most difficult plays. Judgment at Nuremberg was very hard and I liked doing that. But New York did not respond. What else was difficult? Terrence McNally’s A Perfect Ganesh. It was Off-Broadway and it ran for quite a long time. That was very hard because of the multi-scenes. I was so lucky to get Ming Cho Lee to do the set and Santo Loquasto to do the costumes. And I had Zoe Caldwell and Frances Sternhagen in the play. So I was very lucky that way.
PT: As we said, you’ve know worked with just about everyone. It is just incredible!
JT: George C. Scott was a wonderful person to work with. I was just telling someone that we were ready to open Inherit the Wind and George became very ill. People thought he was on a bender, but he wasn’t. He became very ill and we had to postpone the opening. At one point we thought he’d never come back. And then suddenly he was there and the play ran for the length of his contract. That was a hard play.
PT: That’s a great story.
JT: And Julie Harris more than anybody else. She was the best. One of the reasons I worked with so many stars is that I did Love Letters – and I did Love Letters with every star in the book – from Jessica Tandy to Julie Harris to Elizabeth Taylor. So it was quite a gamut of different actors.
PT: Getting back for a moment to What the Butler Saw – we know you did that play Off-Broadway in the late 80s. We were wondering from a director’s standpoint having done the play so many years ago – what was it like doing it again now? Did you make any changes or modifications?
JT: Well, I did it in 1989 in New York Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club and I think we ran about four months. And then I did it in London in the West End where it also ran for four months. And then I had a break. I did it in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum two years ago. That was not as much fun to do as this production. There are certain changes I made – and I hope I’m not being indiscreet – but the word “rape” appears in the original version. I realized that rape is a political word now. And no one in the play is raped – the wife is constantly wanting to get ravaged. So we changed the word from rape to ravage and that made all the difference. A lot of alarm bells go off when you have the word rape being thrown around.
PT: That’s interesting. We understand completely.
JT: He touches on every taboo subject. When you think this play was written fifty years ago, we’ve come a long way because if you know, the original production was a very big flop with Ralph Richardson. I don’t know if you know that. Orton’s work in this country was a huge flop. He did Sloane and Loot on Broadway and they ran for five minutes. When I was trying to raise money for Entertaining Mr Sloane, people asked, “How can you want to put on this play about a boy who murders his father and then they blackmail him so they can get sexual satisfaction?” I said, “It’s very funny. It’s about hypocrisy and the hypocrisy that exists in England at that time.” You pretend it’s all great and you don’t let on what’s really going on.
If you hear me suddenly scream, my cat is about to do something terrible.
PT: No worries. We have three dogs who are always doing something terrible!
JT: What I was thrilled about was that we are doing What the Butler Saw at Westport which is – I don’t know if you’d call it conservative – but middle of the road area – and the laughter that you heard on opening night has been terrific every performance.
PT: The play is hysterical.
JT: Yes. They [the audience] get it. They get the language. It’s very complicated language. And that is one of my great pleasures of the play.
PT: The jokes and one liners were flying fast and furious. You’ve worked at Westport before.
JT: Yes. This is my fourteenth production.
JT: Yes. I did five or six Alan Ayckbourn plays. And some of them were very successful. The darker ones were not quite as successful and, of course, they are the ones I like best. Then I did a play with Cloris Leachman. And another one with Jean Stapleton there – actually that was part of a tour – the “straw hat circuit.” It always was a lovely theatre but since Paul [Newman] and Joanne [Woodward] converted it, it’s gorgeous. And it’s wonderful to work there.
PT: Yes, we love it. It’s like you are walking into history.
JT: It’s been there since the ‘20s. You know why it started. In the 20s, 30s, and 40s, New York closed down in the summer. All these stars would take their shows out around the country – to Westport, Ogonquit, Cape Cod and even as far away as Denver. But now it’s changed especially since Paul and Joanne took it over. It’s a much more solid, regional theatre.
PT: (Wayne) Our readership consists of many artists – actors, musicians, writers, etc. We always ask this question because our readers like to know about process and method. You mentioned Terrence McNally before.
JT: I did four world premieres of Terrence’s work. I did It’s Only a Play, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, The Lisbon Traviata which changed Nathan Lane’s career and Ganesh which I mentioned earlier. And I did seven world premieres of Pete [A.R.] Gurney. And three of Arthur Miller’s. I’ve done the gamut.
PT: You certainly have! In our interview with Terrence, we asked him about his process or method and he said he didn’t really have one and if he did, he wasn’t so keen on telling us (laughs). So I haven’t learned my lesson and I want to ask you if you have a process that you undergo in approaching a project.
JT: In a sense he’s [Terrence] is right. As a director, no play is the same. Each one has its own magic and its own process. And you can’t say When I do a new play, I always do such-and-such. Each play and playwright takes a different process – if that is a right answer. My main thing to do with a play is to get the actors all in the same style of the play and to be as comfortable as they can be. That way they can try new things if you see what I mean.
PT: Yes, absolutely.
JT: A case in point, Nathan played a gay character in Traviata and it was the first time he’d ever done that. He won every prize he could, but I was glad to say that he could try out all sorts of things he’d never done before. And I encouraged him to do so.
PT: That’s just so spot-on. What’s on your future agenda? What do you have coming up?
JT: Not too much at the moment. You do know I’m 500 years old (laughs) – I was offered a couple of things that didn’t really turn me on. You have to really believe in a play. The commitment is so deep. If it’s a revival it’s different. You read the play and either like it or don’t. If it’s a new play, you have to really, really love it. Otherwise you can’t give your time and effort to it in good faith. You see what I mean.
PT: Yes, we do. (Stephanie) Do you have a preference with respect to doing revivals versus new plays?
JT: I think a bit of both. I love doing new plays and I’ve done a lot of new plays. As I said, I’ve done world premieres of three of the major playwrights in America. I did four of one, three of another and six of Pete Gurney. But I also like the comfort of doing a revival because some of the things have been ironed out. So you just have to deal with the text and figure out how to bring the text that is there to life. And maybe make a few adjustments like the one I just said about changing the word rape to ravage.
PT: (Wayne) I hope I’m not being indiscreet, but back in the late ’80s when you did Butler, was there full male nudity?
JT: Oh, yes. Let me tell you, we were all naked in The Changing Room – full frontal nudity. John Lithgow sat center stage stark naked while he was being dried and dressed. You know in England, they never stop taking off their clothes (laughs). You want to say, “Please put some of them back on.” But in this case, the line predicates that he runs around naked – although hardly anyone sees what he’s got – but it gets very big laughs. It gets two actually. The first person who did that part for me was called Bruce Norris who won a Pulitzer Prize as a writer. You know who he is?
PT: Yes, we’ve heard of him.
JT: He was the first person who did that part.
PT: That’s great. What advice would you give young playwrights, actors and directors?
JT: My son’s an actor and my daughter is in the business, too, but not as a performer. First of all, I’d say to actors it must be the only thing you want to do. It has to absorb you and you have to be passionate about it. You can’t do it casually. You have to be very flexible to do the various parts that come your way. With respect to directors, if they ever ask me questions, I’d say you must study the text from top to bottom. Then you’ll know what your play is about. I think that’s what works. I think the English way of working is very strong in that they really study the text. Now the innovations of new staging has taken over – but for some of us who are very old – we saw some of that in the ‘60s when the whole pattern of presenting plays changed radically. Up until then, it was very realistic sets and so on. With What the Butler Saw you have to have a realistic set. I trust the author to tell me what the set should be like. If you had it all jumbled up, the laughs wouldn’t happen. It’s got to be a realistic set.
PT: (Stephanie) I have a thing for sets. I’m always pleased when we get to a theatre early enough and I can take in the whole set before the show starts. What the Butler Saw was a fabulous set.
JT: Yes, this was a particularly lovely set. He did one two years ago for Things We Do for Love which was rather successful, too. It was three floors. The top floor, the first floor – the grand floor – and the basement and you have to have all of those seen from the front. It was a real challenge for him, poor chap.
PT: How do you feel about your children both being in the business?
JT: Emma is president Sikelia Productions and she produces all these movies. I never expected that. But she is very good at handling people and moved very quickly up the ladder and I was always very competent that she would succeed in whatever she wanted to do. At first she said, “I don’t want any of that.” But once she started, she really liked it. It is very taxing and full of stress. With my son, when he wanted to be an actor, I was again surprised that he would want to do something like that. He acts and he also paints and does pottery, so it’s a very diverse thing. Woody Allen has a TV series – I think on Amazon – it hasn’t been shown yet and Sebastian is in that.
PT: That’s great!
JT: He was thrilled. I asked, “Who was in the scenes with you.” He said, “Well, Woody Allen is in the scene with me and Elaine May and Miley Cyrus.” And I said, “That’s not too bad.”
PT: (Laughs) Not too shabby at all! We will definitely have to watch for it. You’ve really had such a diverse career in so many ways! We are staggered by it.
JT: My work has been so diverse. I do mostly comedies but it’s been diverse. And I’ve worked with these amazing actors – even some English actors like Eileen Atkins and Zo Wanamaker.
PT: Yes. You also had mentioned Maxwell Caulfield. He did Grease 2 and Dynasty.
JT: Yes. He got Grease 2 by doing Entertaining Mr Sloane. I loved working with him. All of the Orton plays were really fun for me because of Joseph Maher who I then took to London to do What the Butler Saw in London. For me to do an English play in London was a bit of a leap, but Joe was Irish. Peter O’Toole came to see the show. When he walked into Joe’s dressing room he said, where on earth have you been all this time! He just so loved his performance.
JT: Yes, he played George Burns in Say Goodnight, Gracie. It’s funny you mentioned his name because tonight – I’ve never seen Bells Are Ringing – and there he is in that movie with Judy Holliday. That show ran for well over a year on Broadway and then we took it on the road a few times so that really paid off.
PT: If you never made it as an actor or director, what do you think you’d be doing right now?
JT: I would have gone to a landscape gardening school and learned how to design gardens. I love gardens.
PT: Something that still has an artistic and creative bent! We’ve chatted for a while and we know you are busy. We have a signature question with which we always end our interviews. If you were to sum up your life and career to date in one word what would it be?
JT: Oh My God!
PT: (Laughs) That’s three words.
JT: Unexpected! I didn’t expect any of this and was thrilled that it happened. I didn’t think I’d be a director. I didn’t want to be a director. It just sort of happened. And then I loved it when I did it.
PT: You’ve had such an amazing career and we want to know what’s coming next for you. We’re thrilled to have seen your work and to have had this opportunity to speak with you! Thank you so much for granting us this great interview!