Warhol and Capote: From the Archives

WARHOLCAPOTE, at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge MA (Photo: Gretjen Helene)

In the early 1990s, Anna Deveare Smith created a new kind of “documentary theatre” based on the language that came from taped interviews with everyday people. Fires in the Mirror was about the 1991 Crown Heights riot, and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 dealt with the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Smith’s genius was in taking what she heard, word for word, and bringing it into the artifice of the one person theatrical performance. Her way of working sounds so simple. And yet what Smith did broke new ground on so many levels. Her works capture the experience of those riots in a way that no documentary footage ever could. Her intention was so much more than reportage, and her productions feel like timeless touchstones.

Before Smith there was Andy Warhol, art and cultural icon, who was obsessed by his tape recorder. He took it with him everywhere and called it his “wife.” When he died in 1987, over 3,000 cassettes were found in his possession. Given the legal issues forbidding the recording of people without their consent, the tapes have been embargoed in the archives of the Warhol Foundation.

Rob Roth, denizen of Broadway and a big fan of The Andy Warhol Dairies, came across a reference to a theatrical project that Warhol had wanted to do with his friend, Truman Capote. Roth went searching for any remnants of that joint undertaking. After much cajoling and finagling with lawyers and Foundation gatekeepers, Roth was finally able to acquire the content of 59 tapes of conversations that were held between the two.

In development for over 10 years, WARHOLCAPOTE (currently at A.R.T. in Cambridge) is based on words spoken by Warhol and Capote. Yes, they did discuss doing a play together. But there is so much more than just that.

According to Roth from an interview with A.R.T.’s dramaturg Ryan McKittrick:

The tapes are undated. But for the play that didn’t really matter because it ended up being such a Frankenstein. I took things from all over the place and from other interview sources, so the chronology of it didn’t actually matter…They left instructions on the tapes about what the play should be. They wanted it to be edited conversation, which Truman says will be both real and imagined. Truth treated in fictional form. So that’s what the play is. They spoke every single world in the play but not remotely in this way. If they come to see this play they would say, “Well that’s completely ridiculous…that didn’t happen at all like that.” And that’s what they intended!

Like Smith’s productions, Roth’s “non-fiction invention” (Roth’s term) inhabits the interstitial space between documentary and artistic artifact. And how similar that is to the interstitial space where Capote also took his own writing, moving from more traditional narrative forms like his 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s to his iconic “non-fiction novel” (Capote’s term) In Cold Blood from 1966. Both Capote and Warhol were epic dismantlers, taking old forms in literature and art and upending them to make room for something new, a different kind of real/unreal.

While very different in temperament, Warhol and Capote shared some common moorings. Both gifted children who grew up gay during a time when that reality was hidden and closeted, they found new ways to be artists. The trope of the hardworking writer bent over a typewriter (Ernest Hemingway comes to mind) or the visual artist slaving in the studio (Jackson Pollock flinging paint in his unheated space on Long Island is iconic for me) were of no interest to these two. They merged their creative drive with their fascination for famous people, lifestyle and the courting of celebritism. As Roth put it, “They were very odd men, and I think they dreamt that fame was going to cure that. And when they got famous, it didn’t cure it. As a matter of fact, it made them more alienated.”

Listening to their banter about the rich and famous in New York during the 70s and 80s feels like eavesdropping on precocious children. They are solipsistic and privileged insiders, and the world they inhabit with the likes of Jackie Kennedy and Liza Minnelli is very far from the gritty downtown chronicles that also date from that period, Patti Smith‘s Just Kids and M Train. (My memories of living in New York City in the 70s are closer to the Smith accounts although I did have a few overlaps at Studio 54 with Warhol.)

And yet you can’t stop listening. Behind the late night talk show palaver, something quite striking about what these two were doing to their respective fields emerges. So much has been written about the contributions each of these complicated men made to the practice of writing and visual imaging, and yet I found this particular dual portrait of them very singular and memorable. What is art anyway? How do you make it? What does it mean? Those questions are not spoken but laced surreptitiously throughout the production, a hidden other narrative that is there in background.

The play—which I highly recommend—has a minimalist set which feels just right. Two Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs and a projectable backdrop are all Stephen Spinella (Warhol) and Dan Butler (Capote) need to bring the audience—especially those of us old enough to remember—back to that time when both Warhol and Capote were recognizable icons of their time. The peculiar intonation and the signatory body gestures are uncannily accurate and serve to resuscitate these two quirky, mouthy, exasperatingly petulant, gifted, visionary artists.

WARHOLCAPOTE runs through October 13.

2 Replies to “Warhol and Capote: From the Archives”

  1. This play sounds fascinating. Indeed, these two were peculiar and unique–fame only made them more different from “the rest of us.” But they did spur innovations in art and writing. I know more about the latter, as that’s my area–but just think of how many “non-fiction novels” there are now…and films “based on a true story” that are actually novelistic re-tellings from a fictional viewpoint. Thank you, Truman Capote.

    I also wondered whether there could be version after version of this play, given the description that it arises from a series of taped conversations. Roth could construct any number of “plays” from these archives. THAT would be a cool project!

  2. deborahbarlow says:

    What a provocative idea. I don’t know of another production that has taken that tack. Thanks for sharing that here Ann.

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