News & Articles

Every Tongue Confess

Their chat began with stories from the early days of both Steppenwolf and Remains Theater Ensemble, a Chicago company William Petersen helped found in the 80s.   MARTHA LAVEY: Can we talk about when you met each other. Randy, were you a Steppenwolf ensemble member by the time Remains started? You weren’t, were you?   RANDALL ARNEY: No I wasn’t. I can tell you, though, when I met Billy.   WILLIAM PETERSEN: I know when I met Randy…   RA: It was—well, the first professional play I’d ever been in was Balm in Gilead—   WP: Yeah, I met you in the diner!   RA: That’s right! I came up from college. In fact, was two or three weeks late—a week late, maybe—for first rehearsal.   ML: Because you had just graduated college?   RA: Yeah I had just gotten my MFA from Illinois State University, I was trying to decide where I was going to move. And John Malkovich—I had been buddies with him from school—and he said, “Well. I’m casting a play right now and nobody’s getting paid anything but if you wanna do that you can have a part.” And that was kinda why I went to Chicago instead of New York or somewhere else.   ML: Oh really?   WP: Good idea though—   RA: I remember I was a week late and I walked in on one of those rehearsals, Billy, where the script was just crazy—   WP: Yeah I remember I was literally in the diner [on the set] when I met you!   ML: So you worked together in Balm in Gilead. And what else?   RA: And the great one, Billy and I were just talking about it: 29 years ago this summer we did Fool for Love.   WP: And the Steppenwolf company was out of town. The company was actually doing Balm in Gilead, weren’t they?   RA: That’s right. That summer Balm was going on in New York. And we did Fool and it was successful enough it ran all summer.   WP: Yeah, we started in the spring and we kept running it. And it was Phyllis, Wilson, Eich, Randy, Rondi and me.* Remember we’d go up on the roof and drink beer—   RA: And shoot bottle rockets at the neighbors!   ML: Billy haven’t you been at Geffen, under Randy’s direction?   WP: No. But I see his plays. And we talk about it literally every time we see each other.   RA: Exactly. We meet in the grocery store and talk about what we’re going to be doing and when. And it’s funny, I’d actually talked to Billy about Slowgirl too, independently of you.   ML: What happened, did I call you up Randy and say, will you direct Slowgirl?   RA: You did.   ML: But you guys had already been—   RA: We had chatted about the play—   WP: Martha, you and I had talked about, remember I had talked to you about if first and I said I don’t think I should do it. And then I talked to Randy separately about something else. And he mentioned this play called Slowgirl and I said, “Randy, I just told Martha I didn’t want to do it!”   ML: Well, I had asked Billy if he would come do a play and he brought Slowgirl to the table and I said I really like it. And Billy said, yes, but I don’t think I’m right for it. And so we read all these other plays. But the one that stuck with all parties was Slowgirl.   RA: And I remember you, Billy, saying to me the play is intriguing but I just don’t think I’m right for the part.   WP: I still feel that way! I completely feel that way. Every night before I go to sleep I think, “What the…” (trails off, laughing)   ML: But don’t you think, Randy, that’s one of the things that makes Billy interesting for it?   RA: Totally. And in fact I think that’s such a strength of Steppenwolf too. Living out here in Los Angeles you see how much people flow in what is perceived as their type. And over the years, the strength of our company has been that we’ve been able to give each other parts—   WP: —that you wouldn’t normally get— RA: That you wouldn’t normally get! And what’s great about that is right away you’ve created an even more interesting character, because you’ve got some opposites going on inside the part.   ML: Let me ask you something, Billy. Does the idea of escaping like Sterling in Slowgirl— does that ever appeal to you at all? The idea that, “I’m just walking away from all this.”   WP: I think that is the case. I’m not sure that there is any guy who doesn’t think about that, especially if you’ve been married. (laughs) But no, I don’t think I could do it. Certainly not with the way my life has been. Well, there’s two things. Part of it is because of playing sports on teams with other guys and being in theater with other people. Seeking those groups: that’s sort of who I am. And I will say that I’ve been studying – probably dabbling—in Buddhism the way that Sterling does in the play. And I do understand the value of being able to be alone. I’ve been alone a lot when I was traveling on movies. Even in some plays. I’ve spent a lot of time alone—days, weeks. And I don’t think ultimately I could do what Sterling is doing.   ML: I think the three of us as theater people can probably relate. We are energized by being in casts—families, really—that come together and then dissipate. There is something I think in us that is both deeply social and deeply alone. Why would we be in pursuit of something that keeps giving us the chance to inhabit what is basically a mask?   RA: And as you say, come into a family structure that is really intense and breaks up in two months.   ML: Randy, what do you feel the play is about?   RA: What’s great is the play is about a lot of things. There’s something about redemption in the play. There’s something about learning to live with one’s self. There’s a great thing about family in the play. Just the connectedness of family, and Sterling’s choice to get completely out of that, or to allow himself to be pushed out of it. And yet somehow the tentacles of that family stay current. The older I get, I think in every single play, every character in it ultimately just wants a hug. It comes down to that with these two loners. Becky, Sterling’s niece, she’s not a loner exactly, but she’s alone with her problems and her fears. And both of these characters are given the gift of having a listener.   ML: You know, Randy, isn’t that so great? What is theater but that we get to be the silent witness to the people who are going through the worst thing. We get to be their listeners. To me theater provides the hope that our craziest parts can be humanized, they can be understood, they can be empathized with.   RA: Empathy. That is so true. Theater teaches empathy. We sit in the dark and we let people confess. It’s good for them and it’s good for us. * Phyllis Schuringa: Assistant Director; Wilson Milam: Box Office, who later directed at Steppenwolf; Stephen B. Eich: Managing Director; Randall Arney: Martin; Rondi Reed: May; and William Petersen: Eddie.