Hot off its PBI Award win for Best Dramatic Destination, Palm Beach Dramaworks opened its 2015-16 season last month with William Inge’s Picnic. This Pulitzer Prize play continues its run to November 8 and is followed by The History Boys (December 4 to January 3), Long Day’s Journey into Night (January 29 to February 28), Outside Mullingar (March 25 to April 24), and Satchmo at the Waldorf (May 13 to June 12).
The season ender puts Dramaworks in the spotlight of the greater theater community. A one-man play based on the life of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Satchmo at the Waldorf represents many firsts for playwright Terry Teachout, the well-known drama critic for The Wall Street Journal. Not only is Satchmo the first play he’s ever written, but this production also marks his directorial debut.
Teachout has been coming to Palm Beach Dramaworks for about six years and fondly recalls the first show he saw there, Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs. “I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into,” Teachout says, “and the lights [went] down and I saw one of the best productions I’d seen in years.” When William Hayes, Dramaworks’ producing artistic director, asked Teachout to direct, he accepted the challenge.
A fervent Armstrong fan, Teachout began writing Satchmo shortly after the release of his 2009 biography of the late jazz trumpeter, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. The play has since been produced around the country, but Teachout is excited to flex his own directorial muscle. PBI.com spoke with Teachout about Satchmo and his transition from critic to director.
PBI.com: Prior to Satchmo, you’d also written a biography of Armstrong. What made you want to bring Armstrong from the page to the stage?
Teachout: It wasn’t my idea. Pops came out in 2009, and I had just written the libretto for an opera that was produced that summer at Santa Fe Opera. I had never written for the stage before but I had this experience under my belt. Not long after Pops was published, I got an email from a theatrical producer saying ‘I read your book and I wonder if you’d thought there might be a play in it?’ And I hadn’t thought about it; it simply hadn’t occurred to me. When a theater producer asks you a question like that, you do give it some thought.
As it happens, a couple of weeks after that, I was doing a residency at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, so I had a bit of time on my hands. Suddenly, the idea for the play came to me, and I sat down and wrote the first draft in, I think, four days. So, this play is very much a Florida play. I wrote it here, it was first staged in Florida, and now I’m going to make my directing debut in Florida.
For the biography, you reviewed hundreds of Armstrong’s personal tapes. How did they impact how you built the character in the play?
In a sense, I’d already gotten the value out of them in working on the book. I didn’t know Armstrong—I’m not old enough to have known him—but the tapes, which are very intimate, very casual, and informal, really gave me a feel for what he was like offstage in private life. One of the things they told me was that the private Armstrong, in some ways, was different from the public figure that we know. For one thing, he used very strong language in private, and the play does too. This is not a play for children in any way. Not only that, but Armstrong was capable of becoming very angry, of talking with great candor about subjects like civil rights, and this was also not something he typically did on The Ed Sullivan Show. Because I knew this, because I had heard Armstrong talk this way, it struck me that part of what would bring a play like this to life would be the contrast between the Armstrong that people thought they knew and the private Armstrong. It would startle them, and that’s part of what drives the play is this gap between expectation and reality. The public Armstrong is real, it wasn’t just a mask that he put on. He was, I think, a fundamentally happy man who loved life, who loved what he did—that smile was in no way insincere. But, like most of us, he was more complicated on the inside.
What is the essence of Louis Armstrong as a character?
I see Armstrong as a fundamentally happy and fulfilled man but also one who at the end of his life was trying to come to terms with certain things. One was his feeling that Joe Glazer, his manager, had betrayed him; another was the fact that his own people, the black audience, had to a great extent deserted him at the end of his life and he was terribly troubled by this.
The actor plays three different characters: He plays Armstrong, he plays Glazer, and he plays Miles Davis, who knew Armstrong casually and who comments on his public image in the play. Through Glazer, we get to see what Armstrong cannot see. We get to see inside the heads of these two very different people. Of course, it presents the actor with a tremendous challenge. Playing one man in a 90-minute play is quite challenging enough—he’s got to memorize a 12,000-word script—but when you’re playing three different people and you have to cross a racial line to play one of those people, that’s a real challenge. It’s the kind of challenge actors get excited about.
How much of Armstrong’s music is featured?
Well, this is not a musical. This is a dramatic play, and I don’t think people look convincing when they’re pretending to play a musical instrument onstage. I wrote the play in such a way that the actor never pretends to be playing trumpet. He plays with the trumpet—he takes it apart, he cleans it; it’s clear that it’s an important part of his life—but the playing takes place offstage. We hear a lot of music, which is kind of woven into the play as a soundtrack, and he sings—not an enormous amount, but you expect him to. At the end of the play, we don’t frustrate your expectations.
What about Armstrong’s music appeals to you emotionally? Why are you such a fan?
Aside from all the obvious things—it’s great jazz, it swings, it has all those qualities—what appeals to me, and I think appeals to most people about Armstrong, is the warmth and joy of the music. I say somewhere in Pops that Armstrong is a major key artist; I think that really gets to the heart of it. It’s not that he doesn’t understand the pain and suffering in the world—he really did. When you hear him sing a song like What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue? you know that this is not a naïve man, but his fundamental attitude toward life was an attitude of love and, in the deepest sense, acceptance. There’s just something about that that fills the listener with joy as well. In a sense, it’s like being around a person like Armstrong. You can’t help but be warmed by his presence, and listening to his music is the closest we can get to that.
When writing the play and watching it on stage, had you been taking mental notes about how you would direct it?
I had. The play had a commercial run in Orlando, and then it came up north for a new production—the one that’s been done all over the country with John Douglas Thompson, directed by Gordon Edelstein—and we were still revising it at that stage. So when the play was first produced by Shakespeare & Company in Lennox, Massachusetts, I came to all the rehearsals. By that time, I had a feeling that I might someday want to direct it, so I told Gordon Edelstein this, and he said ‘great, I’ll tell you what I’m up to.’ So, I came to the rehearsals, I watched what he did. Afterward, he and I would talk about the process. I’ve read a lot about directing, and I had dipped my toe in when I directed the workshop production, but this was like getting a master class in technique and how to do it.
[However,] I didn’t want to be a backseat driver with this production. It’s really important to me to let the director and the actor find their own way; if they want my advice, I’m sitting there. But, as I watched, I thought ‘you know, maybe I might like it to look this and feel like this.’ I have clear ideas about how I think it might work in ways somewhat different from the ways its been done before. Now, this too will be a collaboration. I will be collaborating with whatever actor we cast. I will be collaborating with our set designer. I don’t think theater works well when you take your own ideas and say my way or the highway. I just don’t feel that way. I’ll tell them what I think, then I want to see what they think, then I want, out of that collaborative process, to come a new production.
In what ways will your experience as a theater critic affect your approach to directing?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Obviously, it can’t help but have some effect on it because I’ve spent the last 12 years reviewing 100 plays a year. I see a lot of theater. [As a critic,] I try to think my way into the process and decide how it works, what’s good about it, and what might have been better about it. But for me [as a director], it actually works more the other way. Having been involved first in writing operas and then in writing this play, I’ve learned things about theater that I couldn’t have learned just by being a critic, and I know that they’ve affected my sense of how to do what I do as a critic. I’m sure it will work both ways. I’ll tell you more after we get it up on stage.