As an intern at WGBH, watching Elliot Norton Reviews and writing summaries of them for the FileMaker database every Friday afternoon never gets boring. Just last week, I came across a massive ¾ inch tape with a title that caught my attention immediately: Al Pacino [!].
In this episode, which aired on February 16, 1973, Elliot Norton interviewed a young Al Pacino about his role as King Richard III at the Church of the Covenant on Newbury St by the Theater Company of Boston. Alongside actor Paul Benedict (Duke of Buckingham), and director David Wheeler, Pacino talks about his love of language.
In response to Norton’s question about why he chose to play Richard III, Pacino explains that he used to do soliloquies from Hamlet and Macbeth alone in his room and chose to perform Shakespeare scenes for acting classes. He is inspired by the language and feels that as an actor, “language serves you,” as opposed to the other way around. Pacino believes that today people are lazy and do not open their mouths to speak, so this is an opportunity to really use language. Although this is his first professional Shakespeare production, he talks about performing the first half hour of Richard III at the Actor’s Studio three or four years prior. In this production, he did not use a director, which he claims is the “best way to do it,” casting sheepish look at director David Wheeler.
Norton commends Pacino’s ability to balance playing the demon that kills his way to the crown and the comic that enjoys himself while opening up to the audience. He likes the way Pacino addresses the audience and sets it up as a ‘game’ in which he is enjoying himself and encourages the audience to do the same. Pacino feels that he connects so strongly with the audience that when he tells them about the crimes he committed, he starts to wonder about what they will do to him.
This production drew national attention because of Al Pacino, who had made his breakthrough the year before with The Godfather. Norton notes that Pacino started out opening night with a slight accent and he was nervous that the actor had “gone Mafia.” Pacino blames this on nerves, claiming that when he is nervous, he inadvertently slips into accents.
What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and watch Al Pacino play a Mafioso Richard III…
As I watch and catalog the Elliot Norton Reviews as part of my internship in the WGBH Archives, I am constantly reminded of the ephemeral nature of theater. One of the distinguishing aspects of theater, and of the performing arts in general, is its willingness to change and grow every night, as each new audience fills the room.
A performance is in a state of continual flux from the first day of rehearsal through the last curtain call, even if attempts are made to reproduce the exact same show every night. The temperature is different, the lead actor has a cold, the lead actress ad-libs a few lines, the audience is bored, the audience cheers loudly, the country’s president was assassinated the day before… Any number of things can affect the mood in the theater and the experience of the performance for the actors and audience. Some of these changes are intentional and some are beyond our control, but every run of a show is a string of singular experiences; there is no definitive artistic product, no archival record for future generations to experience.
Several of the Elliot Norton Reviews I have come across so far discuss changes that were made to a play between different productions or during the run of the show. Norton valued the ability of the audience to judge a performanceand determine what does and does not work, what is too long, and what is not funny. He encouraged the testing of plays in different cities with different audiences before taking them to Broadway.
…a city where plays and musicals are tested, prepared, often revised, and made ready, not for us but very often at our expense, for New York.
Respected in the Boston theater world in the 1950s-1980s for his ability to recognize aspects of a show that could be changed to improve its quality, Norton was invited to premieres and his advice was taken into consideration before the producers from New York arrived.
Perhaps the most famous Norton story is when he suggested a pivotal change to Neil Simon’s smash hit, The Odd Couple: the return of the Pigeon sisters in the third act. This revision transformed the initially boring third act and the show became the tremendous success we know so well today (probably through the TV or film version).
In WGBH’s Elliot Norton Reviews programs, Norton discusses his likes, dislikes, and questions about performances he has seen with the actors, director, and other theater makers who produced it. Together, they work through script analysis and give us a glimpse into the creation and reception of theater pieces we know and love today such as The King and I, Richard III, and Annie with such talented actors as Yul Brynner, Al Pacino, and Reid Shelton in Boston theaters between 1958 and 1982.
Since there is no way to preserve each and every performance of a production, especially considering strict Equity rules for production recordings, the Elliot Norton Reviews are an invaluable resource for documenting the evolution of plays. The slippery nature of theater and the performing arts in general discourages its complete preservation in the way we think of archiving film or photography. We cannot archive the actual experience, but we can capture ephemera and recordings that capture aspects of the show.
One group that I am involved with that is attempting to preserve the American theater tradition through archiving theater materials is the American Theatre Archive Project (ATAP), an initiative of the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). A collaboration between regional teams spread out all over the US (with New York’s team paving the way), ATAP is working with theaters of all sizes to assess what types of records are being produced, held onto, and used for a variety of purposes ranging from research to marketing. The mission is to assist these theaters in archiving their records through workshops on best practices, in order to make them available to researchers and theater makers, and to preserve their legacy for future generations.
As Co-Chair for the Boston Team of ATAP, making the Elliot Norton Reviews available to the public, first in catalog form and then hopefully as digitized episodes down the line (fingers crossed), is a fun and worthwhile undertaking. They offer incredible insight into the history of Boston theater productions in a dynamic way that cannot be experienced through reviews and photographs. Check out ATAP’s beta site to read about their mission, see what teams in your area are working on, and even get involved!
by Jessica Green
Norton, Elliot. Broadway down East: an Informal Account of the Plays, Players, and Playhouses of Boston from Puritan times to the Present: Lectures Delivered for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Boston Public Library Learning Library Program. Boston: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1978. 8. Print.
Collier, Jay. “One of the Deans of Theater Criticism, Elliot Norton, Exits the Stage.” WGBH Alumni, Pioneers in Public Media. WGBH, 20 Oct. 2003. Web. 10 June 2011..
Last Monday night, the Boston theater community gathered at the Paramount Theatre to celebrate an impressive season of groundbreaking theater and honor the designers, playwrights, choreographers, actors, and directors that made it such a success. The 29th annual Elliot Norton Awards, originally known as the Norton Medal, were founded in honor of respected Boston theater critic, Elliot Norton, upon his retirement in 1982, after 48 years in the biz.
From 1958-1982, WGBH, one of the sponsors for the awards, was home to Norton’s television show, the Elliot Norton Reviews. Think Inside the Actors Studio with Elliot Norton as James Lipton, no studio audience, and all Boston theater people. Each 30-minute episode features one to three actors, directors, playwrights, or other theater personalities speaking with Norton about their recent or upcoming production, season, or career as a whole. They discuss the writing, rehearsal, and production processes and touch on topics including script analysis, production changes, design choices, acting styles, and casting decisions.
As an intern at WGBH and drama nerd, I have the privilege of cataloging the Elliot Norton Reviews this summer. This entails the joyful process of skimming through the videotapes of each of the 150+ episodes in the WGBH archives and writing a short summary of the topics covered by Norton and his guests. Unfortunately, it would take far too long to watch and transcribe every full episode, but these records will at least make researchers aware of the resources available to them at WGBH.
As a part of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported Participatory Cataloging Project, the records for the Elliot Norton Reviews will be published online and available free of charge later this summer. These records, along with other records in WGBH’s Media Library and Archives catalog, will raise awareness of the rich collections available at WGBH.
Researchers and theater enthusiasts will be able to view records of the individual episodes and potentially come to WGBH to view the episodes firsthand, or work with WGBH archivists to access them online. There will also be an opportunity for scholars to enhance the records that are specific to their areas of expertise. In addition, WGBH is planning to work towards supporting and making available streaming archival media. These archival records will be a valuable resource for scholars, students, and all the theater people out there who are looking to remount a production, deepen their understanding of Boston’s rich theater history and find out fascinating tidbits about some of their favorite plays and actors.