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Carl Andress Tells The Whole Story, Starting With “The Third Story”

by Karen Tortora-Lee on February 23, 2009

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When it comes to the theatre, Carl Andress was practically weaned First Row, Center; he’s been writing, acting, and directing for as long as he can remember, and it’s always been his passion.  He got his start years ago when … well, I’ll let him tell you all about that.  His latest directorial offering The Third Story stars Kathleen Turner and Charles Busch and is currently running through March 15th at the The Lucille Lortel Theatre.  Carl took some time to chat with me about the play, what it’s been like collaborating with Charles Busch over the years, and how his career in theatre began.

KT: Hi Carl, thanks so much for taking some time to talk with me.   I’m really excited to be able to chat with you about The Third Story … it sounds like a wild ride – “Gangster flicks, fairy tales, and B-movie sci-fi collide in this epic comic fable from the imagination of Charles Busch“.  PLUS it also stars the amazing Kathleen Turner.  How did it all happen?

CA: I guess it was around 2007 when Charles Busch was commissioned to write a play for the La Jolla Playhouse (LJP).  He gave it to me to read first and I fell in love with it immediately. The La Jolla Playhouse is a very successfully non-profit theatre out in San Diego … a lot of great theatre has come out of there; it’s been in existence since the 50s. More recently, shows like Big River and the revival of How to Succeed in Business …, Tommy, and Jersey Boys started there.  They do a lot of new work, new plays and big musicals. And they sometimes commission works, just like they commissioned Charles.

A short while later Christopher Ashley read it and said to Charles that he’d like to do a reading of it, and suggested I direct the play.  Chris Ashley … he’s had a very successful directing career and is now artistic director there.  What I love about LJP is they attract really good people and have a top-drawer staff. So I was thrilled to get the opportunity to do The Third Story at the LJP last fall; we opened in September.  I spent around 6 weeks out there putting the show together, and while it was still running out there MCC Theater invited us to bring it to their season this year.  The reason it got to Off Broadway so quickly was because as it happens, MCC Theater co-artistic directors Robert LuPone and Bernie Telsey had originally planned to do a new Neil LaBute play in their winter slot.  But then at the same time reasons to be pretty (which is another Labute play) was moving to Broadway and they didn’t want to cannibalize their audience.  So they moved what they were working on and sought to replace it with a really fun event which was very fortuitous for us.

KT: The Third Story stars Charles Busch and Kathleen Turner.  Tell me the truth.  Who’s the bigger drag queen?

CA: (laughs) I am! No, really, I am. I have this habit as a director when … to get the point across to the actors  … I’ll get into their character and sort of saunter across the stage to demonstrate an entrance or a cross and the actor usually will say Am I really supposed to do it like that?. Seriously, though, neither of my leading ladies are drag queens at all … they’re terrific actors. And there’s no ego or vanity involved, they’re both very serious about the work.  And they’re both just a lot of fun!  Kathleen – you think you’d be intimidated by someone of her stature but honestly, she’s really just a great gal; she puts you right at ease and she’s a total pro.  She decided to do the play because she thought it was a great part for a woman and that the project would be a breath of fresh air for her.  When we first started thinking of casting her role, Bernie Telsey said “What about Kathleen Turner?” I said “Yeah, right … isn’t that kind of ‘pie in sky’ thinking?“  But lo and behold she said yes so it just goes to show that nothing’s impossible.

KT: Charles Busch not only stars in The Third Story but he wrote it as well.  What are your challenges as the director to work with someone else’s vision without changing his intentions?

CA:  Charles is always wearing 2 hats, Actor and Writer, in most of his projects and he’s got different priorities that go with each.  When he’s working in the scene as an actor then he’s focused on what he’s portraying – he’s got the Actor Hat on.   And sometimes there may be a point when he’ll stop and ask his writer-self, “What am I supposed to be doing here?”  That’s when we talk it through, break it down, think about what the specific scene means and ask, “What are we trying to accomplish here?” Maybe we need to cut or add or rewrite.  Then he’d switch and put on the Writer Hat and deal with that end of it.

As the director I usually try to illuminate what Charles the actor brings to the table and communicate that back to Charles the writer.  So in this regard I’m keeping my eye on the whole thing to illuminate it for Charles as he finds his place in the play. It’s a lot of give and take.

Charles also has a good internal clock; he likes to trim and get to the essence of a scene.  But sometimes he’s a little scissors-happy and so I’ll kind of protect him from his instinct to cut too much, or to be too critical.  Ultimately it’s my job to take his whole play and imagine it in 3 dimensions … How do we clothe the character? What world do we put them in physically? I pick up where he leaves off.  We very much have a shorthand with each other and we’re very honest with each other.

KT: A partnership like that is very rare. You both are lucky.

CA: We are lucky; we’ve been close friends for years. We’re like family.

KT: It’s almost like you’re the Tim Burton / Johnny Depp of the independent theatre world. You’ve collaborated on so many things, what did you enjoy the most?

A Very Fun Process during A Very Serious Person

A Very Fun Process during A Very Serious Person

CA: Each play has had its own rewards … each one had different elements that I’ve enjoyed.  But the one project that was probably the most rewarding was the movie we did - A Very Serious Person. Basically Charles wanted to direct a film and he said, “Help me write a story.” That was the first time we ever collaborated as writers.  We had a few false starts; first we thought it would be a caper film … but we could see the budget just growing and growing with all sorts of locations piling up. It was supposed to cost under a million dollars and suddenly in our imaginations it would be closer to $25 million! So we knew we needed to simplify!

We sat around and tossed around different story lines and we acted out potential scenes together which was a lot of fun and a great experience. There are echoes of that process in The Third Story with the mother and son screen writers; the elements of writing and discussing, going “Okay, now we’re in a living room,” and you picture and imagine the characters taking shape as you’re taking notes and writing it all down.

That whole experience of making A Very Serious Person was like going to film school because it was such a full experience; from writing, to shooting, to putting teams together, even the editing and scoring process … we were involved right up to the finished product. It was so unique and different from what happens with a play; with that process Charles writes it and he’s done till he hands it over to me … then we cast, we rehearse. But once the play opens the director’s job is done, then it belongs to the actors and the stage manager.

KT:  How long was the actual process from first germ of an idea to last note of scoring?

CA: It was actually very quick.  We were fortunate … Daryl Roth, who was one of the producers on The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, was our guardian angel.  Charles had made a short subject for Showtime and showed it to Daryl and she said, “If you ever want to do a low budget feature I’ll do it.” We started putting ideas together in the fall of 2004. By the time Daryl saw the first draft it was January.  She gave some notes and we started filming in July of 2005! Not since Warner Brothers in 1933 has a movie been put together so quickly! We put together a wonderful cast: me, Charles, Julie Halston, Polly Bergen and Dana Ivey and just had a lot of fun shooting in and around New York for 25 days.  Then in August we did the editing and started scoring. We knew we wanted to submit it to The Tribeca Film Festival so we did and it was accepted!  We premiered it there in May 2006 got an award for it and now you can go and Netflix it!

KT: Let’s hear about your early years … what drew you to the theatre?

CA: I was fascinated by the theatre because I had parents who were fascinated by it.  My mom’s parents loved opera and Broadway shows so my mom developed this love of music and singing. She grew up in New York but in the mid-60’s her father moved ten of the fourteen kids …


CA: … that’s right, she was one of fourteen kids. So ten of them moved up to Nashua, New Hampshire.  Mom was a singer … she was actually Miss New Hampshire 1969 and won the pageant singing songs from the musical Kismet. My father was the local reporter back then and came to do a story about the pageant; he asked her out on a date and they eventually married.  At that time Dad was mainly a sports writer but also loved Broadway and musicals so my parents would go to see a lot of shows that would try out in Boston first … shows like Follies and Company. I treasured those Playbills!

My mom sort of became the queen of musical theatre groups in the area and would bring me to rehearsals when I was a child.  I remember being a toddler; I’d sit on the floor next to the director and watch them stage a play — that fascinated me.  My parents eventually also became local theatre critics, so we’d see everything done in the Greater Boston Area and we’d also come to New York to see Broadway shows. I had all these magical experiences associated with the theatre, it makes sense that I gravitated toward show biz as a career.  As a kid, I figured the only way to get into that world was to audition.  So I started by being in shows … being an actor in college and directly after. I was doing small shows here and there in New York … then I got a chance to replace the wardrobe woman for this off-Broadway musical, Swingtime Canteen.

KT: How did you get to replace the wardrobe woman?

CA: I was told about the job by a friend and when I went for the interview, I kept talking about how I was such a fan of the entire production team and cast. I guess they bought it because they offered me the job and after a few months Charles Busch took over the leading lady role. We immediately became friends and wound up working a lot together over next few years.  And one day he said to me, “Kid, you’re a director,” and gave me that opportunity to direct a new play.

He was right, of course. It just goes back to me being that kid who had a mom who did theatre … me watching while someone was staging a show, and having the good fortune to observe how all that happened.  As a child I had all these books about theatre history; while other kids would be playing sports and video games I was losing myself in these books thinking, “How did Theoni V. Aldredge come up with that costume or how did Jo Mielziner dream up the concept for that set?” or “How did Gower Champion or Harold Prince, my idol, come up with that notion … I’d like to come up with such a notion.“  I’d even staple bed sheets to the ceiling in my basement or on the back porch to set up a stage and tell the neighborhood kids, “Alright, today we’re doing Man of LaMancha and I am going to be Aldonza the Whore and you, Jennifer, you’re going to play Sancho Panza!” And we’d lip sync to the original cast recording. I used to get into a lot of trouble for scratching my mom’s records.

KT: You probably struggled for a bit; everyone who works in the theatre in New York does.  But when was that moment when you started thinking, “Hey, this thing just might work out!”  In other words, what was that big-break moment that turned the tide for you?

CA: Well the first time someone in the professional theatre believed in me was when Charles Busch said, “I

Good Fortune with Shanghai Moon

Good Fortune with Shanghai Moon

think you’re a director.”  But I’d say the first real turn of the tide actually came a couple of years later in 2003 when I directed Shanghai Moon with B.D. Wong. That’s when I felt like things started coming together in a positive way. People loved the play, and that led to other opportunities.  People took notice a little more.  I got a manager, an agent.  I got reviews … I got my first regional gigs from that show.  That one got me a little bit further along in the business. It’s not about awards or recognition so much, it’s about how you deal with a play, how you take it to a different level. You can interview anyone in any industry and you’ll find there’s no such thing as an “overnight sensation”.  A lot of actors, designers, any type of artist, they work hard and get no recognition, they do a lot of work for little money thinking, “I’m getting older… when does this pay off?”   But it could be the next project that could turn into your dream project … that’s the gift in this business.  I come across people who get very discouraged.  I understand that, but you shouldn’t give up because you never know.  Isn’t it more fun to stick around?  Even if you have to do other things to pay the bills? I say don’t ever close the door.  Nothing is sadder than seeing really creative people get discouraged and quit.

KT: I did my research, and I happen to know you played Harold Hill in a regional production of The Music Man.

CA: That’s a funny story … I ended up getting hired by an all girl’s summer camp called Brown Ledge … they have a really good theatre program and a really good equestrian program.  Richard Currie who runs the theatre program, was in the Ridiculous Theatre Company with Charles Ludlam. He called me and gave me a really fast sell … I had no idea what to expect … but it ended up being the most magical summer of my life. It was all these girls ages 9 to 17 and we did a play a week; the first week the counselors put on a show, the next week was three one acts, next week was three more one acts again, then a 3 act play and so on, ending with a musical … it was crazy.  They wanted to do The Music Man and said, “You should be Harold Hill!” and I said, “Really? All the townspeople of River City will be women!”  They didn’t care. It ended up being really cool and fun especially since I knew all the songs already. It was a crazy time but very rewarding to work with the kids and encourage their enthusiasm and try to instill some good habits in them.

That’s a reward in itself.  In showbiz you think about yourself a lot.  So it’s good to be an example and in a situation where it’s not all about you.

KT: You’ve worked in several different media – film, theatre … and you’ve worn the director hat as well as the actor hat.  Out of all of it, what do you like the best?

CA: Director hat is my favorite.  You get to have so many elements of collaboration.  If it’s a new play you collaborate with the writer and get at what his intention is. If it’s not a new play, you form this bond with the existing script. Then you bring in scenic designers, lighting and costume designers, composers … that’s even before you work with actors … then you work with great casting people … wonderful craftsman.  The brilliance of these people is amazing, everyone brings their “A” game. It’s humbling when you turn around for a minute and see these people are all putting themselves on the line just because I had this kooky idea in my head. I find that really gratifying.

KT: The Third Story runs till March 15th; what projects do you have lined up after that?

CA: For an actor or a director, “What are you going to do next?” is always one of the most terrifying question, but it’s also the most exciting because if you don’t have an answer on Monday you just may by Friday.  For an actor, every day’s another day to audition.  For a director, every day’s another day to have someone say, “Wanna work on this crazy project?”

KT: Bonus Question Time:  The microphone is all yours, Mr. Carl Andress.  Here’s your chance to say whatever you want about any topic you wish.  Serious, whimsical or irreverent.  No topic is off-limits.  Go for it.

CA: Wow, NOW you tell me I could be irreverent?

KT: You want to go back and amend a few comments …?

CA: (Laughs) No, no … that’s fine. But I most certainly censored myself a couple of times! Anyway, let me think …

KT: Okay, if I can prompt you … here’s something I’d like to know. If there was one composer who would score the Broadway musical of your life … who would it be?

CA: HA! Well, sometimes I think it’s Stephen Sondheim, sometimes it’s Stephen Schwartz, and sometimes it’s Jerry Herman. Some days I’m very “It’s Today!” other times I’m rather “Every Day a Little Death” and other days I’m totally “The Wizard and I“.  Sometimes I’m on the subway listening to my iPod and I know that person next to me is listening to some very cutting edge rock group on their iPod while I’m there listening to Linda Lavin sing “Ooh, Do You Love You” from “It’s a Bird It’s A Plane It’s Superman” from 1966. When that happens, it’s a very Charles Strouse day!

Recently during tech for Third Story, I was sitting in the balcony absently humming to myself and my assistant looked at me and said, “Are you humming ‘Someone In a Tree’? from “Pacific Overtures?” I certainly was. That’s how I was feeling that day. It’s the fragment, not the day. It’s the pebble, not the stream. It’s the ripple, not the sea that is happening. Not the building but the beam, Not the garden but the stone, … bit by bit … Putting it together.

KT: Carl, thanks for putting it all together for me.  And thanks for sharing your stories – all of them.

For more information about The Third Story click here or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

vinceNo Gravatar March 12, 2009 at 3:17 am

I did summer stock with Carl a million years ago in a barn in Maine. He was a great guy then… really talented and lots of fun. I’m thrilled for his success!

karenNo Gravatar March 12, 2009 at 5:11 pm

” … a million years ago in a barn in Maine …” sounds like a great set up for the next play!

I can definitely vouch for the fact that Carl is extremely talented; The Third Story was fantastic. I can’t wait to see more of his shows and see where his talent takes him next.

EB WestbrookNo Gravatar June 17, 2009 at 3:08 pm

I played Zaneeta in that Brown Ledge Camp production of Music Man when I was 16! I also did a couple other shows Carl directed that summer-he’s wonderful and even though I spent 8 summers at Brown Ledge and he was only there one he is one of the counselors that had the most impact on me! If you’re reading this Carl, congratulations and thank you! And come to alumnae camp some time!

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