Joyce Aaron: Actor, Director, Teacher

Joyce Aaron’s career took off in the 1960s off-off-Broadway scene in plays by Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and Jean-Claude van Itallie, among others. She performed at places like the Judson Poets’ Theater, La Mama, Caffe Cino, and the Public Theater. Aaron also appeared in such “mainstream” productions as The Knack and Slow Dance on the Killing Ground. In the mid-seventies and early eighties, Aaron worked as an actor
and a director for Interart and the Women’s Project.
She won an Obie Award [1975-6] for her performance in
Acrobatics, a play she co-wrote with Luna Tarlo and also directed. For much of the sixties, Aaron was a member of
the Open Theater. She had a long association with Joseph Chaikin, whom she calls “a brilliant director,” adding, “it was a great thrill to work with him.” Their final project together was Samuel Beckett’s
Happy Days at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2002.

Terry Stoller spoke with Joyce Aaron in September 2014 about the early days of her career, the special nature of Sam Shepard’s plays, the explorations and productions of the Open Theater,
her experiences as an acting teacher, her work on
Happy Days, and her reflections about growing older in the world of the performing arts.

Terry Stoller: You joined the Paper Bag Players early in your career. What made you want to work with them?

Joyce Aaron: They asked me. I had met one of them, Shirley Kaplan, socially. She suggested that I come watch them work. I did, and I found it stimulating. The group members were Judy Martin and Remy Charlip and Sudie Bond. Later, Daniel Jahn joined as the musical director. We eventually began to perform—and forty, fifty years later, it’s still thriving. It was wonderful performing for children. But I reached a point, after about a year or so, when I felt I had to move on.

Did you decide to leave the Paper Bag Players to build a career? Did you think that way?

I didn’t think that way. I never thought that way. I trusted my intuition. I remember I was babysitting for Richard and Esther Gilman, for their son Nicholas, who’s my godson. Richard Gilman [the theatre critic] was observing the Open Theater, which had recently started. Dick said, You know something, Joyce—you should go down to the Open Theater on Spring Street. They meet on Mondays. Tell Joe that I suggested you come down. I went, and that was it. I stayed.

You stayed, and you also did lots of off-off-Broadway work. Why did you
choose that path?

When I was quite young, I went for a Broadway audition. I think the play was Blue Denim. I remember waiting to be called in to read. I looked around and said to myself, Joyce, you look like every other person here who’s reading for this part. And look at the script! Are you interested in this material and in saying these lines? I didn’t get the part, and that was it for me.

Did you have a model in mind for an artistic path?

I followed my intuition and what interested me and what drew me. Because I was very passionate about the work, I always ended up taking classes. I worked with people like Jerzy Grotowski, Wynn Handman, Bobby Lewis, and many more. I always went to classes, even when I was in the Open Theater.

Brian Bedford directing Joyce Aaron in The Knack, 1965.

When you were with the Open Theater, you were also doing Sam Shepard plays as well as other projects. And you went off to do some commercial theatre. In 1965, you were in Ann Jellicoe’s The Knack in Chicago.

I also did Slow Dance on the Killing Ground by William Hanley in that period.

Did you see this work as on a continuum?

I saw it as a continuum. I saw it as part of my life that was different, in the sense it was different material, different actors. I loved having new experiences. I loved working with Brian Bedford, who directed The Knack, and acting with Gerry Ragni and James Rado.

Did people at the Open Theater get upset when you went off to do a play?

No. I never left a project. The only thing I did that was a major change was when I left the Open Theater and went to live in Europe. That was a very personal decision, and that was much later, around 1970.

Could you tell me a bit about the Judson Poets’ Theater and working with Al Carmines?

I did one of my favorites there. I was Piglet to Al Carmines’ Winnie-the-Pooh in Sing Ho for a Bear in 1964-5. I loved doing it, and every night there were ovations because Al Carmines’ music was so wonderful. Earlier in the sixties, I used to do Happenings in the art world with people like Claes Oldenburg and other artists who worked at the Judson. There wasn’t enough theatre happening for me, so I was doing those things on the side. I felt the Judson was like a home, and when Sam’s Red Cross was staged in 1966, I did it there with Florence Tarlow and Lee Kissman.

You had been in a Sam Shepard play at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1965.

That’s how I met him. He cast me in Up to Thursday. And in the cast was Harvey Keitel. I loved the material, and it was greatly received. I started living with Sam at that time.

Joyce Aaron and Roy London in a sketch at La Mama, mid-1960s.

In the mid-sixties, you were also in van Itallie’s I’m Really Here for the Open Theater, Lanford Wilson’s The Sand Castle at La Mama, and the sketch More. More. I Want More! at La Mama.

That was written for me. Remy Charlip wrote it with Michael Smith and Johnny Dodd.

You were getting to know a lot of people.

I knew a lot of people in both worlds, in experimental theatre and commercial theatre. I did a lot of new plays and readings. I loved working with writers on new plays.

At the Open Theater, you were experimenting with ways of working. Did you take those ideas with you when you were in other productions?

If there was an opening to use some of the techniques, I would try to use some of them—as long as that helped illuminate the material. And if they were not appropriate for conventional plays, then no. But I think the work creeps in. What creeps in is that in the Open Theater, you learned a lot about energy and about working with an audience and relating. So I have to say, on the other side of that answer, I was cast in many roles, and I believe I got them because I developed confidence and certain performing skills from the work at the Open Theater.

When you say “energy,” are you referring to what Joseph Chaikin termed the presence of the actor?

Yes, the presence of the actor and the actor as messenger (that’s Brecht). And transformation was a major exploration for us. You could transform yourself, your person, your very being.

I’m thinking that the idea of transformation is similar to concepts like accepting the circumstances and belief in what you’re doing.

My basic training, which I always used—it is Stanislavski, but I got it from Sanford Meisner when I studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse—was that acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. That is what I followed, no matter where I was working or what I was doing.

Does transformation mean that you can get to another piece of your imagination more quickly?

For the transformation exercises in the Open Theater, one might start with a movement, and then it would become something like this [she demonstrates wild growling]. That’s a transformation. In other projects, you’re not doing that kind of work. You’re exploring a text, a person. But both kinds of work feed each other. The thing I found interesting is that when I would read for things, I was very physical. And I would find that actors who came in and read—I would watch them, and sometimes I directed and cast them—weren’t physical at all. The physicality came from the Open Theater work. That work freed me up and gave me confidence.

Sometimes you dealt with heavy subject matter at the Open Theater.

That was Joe. Dark, heavy subjects, but with much humor and laughter. Even if we were exploring death, as we did in Terminal, we would laugh at creating something grotesque. He would say, We’re going to explore dead babies. And we’d look at each other: What are we going to do for the dead babies? So we would laugh during these difficult explorations. And Joe laughed too.

Did the Open Theater work feed into the Sam Shepard plays?

Sam’s work was very special and unique. His language was special. His long speeches were like arias, changing rhythms, shape, and form in midstream.

Can you tell me how you approached your role as the girl in his play Red Cross?

Sam’s text is very rich and alive. You begin to make connections (not necessarily in the script, but within yourself) to be able to express what happens from moment to moment in the play. You must take the leaps that are in the text. It’s another level of acting. It’s almost as if you go into a dream, but you enact the dream and fulfill it.

Jean-Claude van Itallie’s America Hurrah was directed by Chaikin and Jacques Levy. It opened in 1966 at the Pocket Theater, and it was a big success.

We didn’t even have an ending for TV the night it opened. We eventually had it. [America Hurrah comprises three short plays: Interview, TV, and Motel.] This piece was a commentary on the breakdown of American values, about the lack of communication, and about the decaying of morals. The thing is, we didn’t know it would be a massive hit. We had no idea. And then it got in the New York Times, and many people from the art world came, and we were interviewed. We were reaching an audience with very interesting material. I enjoyed getting on that stage and giving that performance to the audience, and surprising them because they hadn’t seen form and content like that.

The Open Theater’s The Serpent premiered in Rome in 1968. Was that project a collaborative creation?

Oh, yes.

Could you explain what that means?

What that really means is that there were certain subjects that were explored, and we improvised on those subjects. We were examining the myths of the Bible. Joe and whomever he was working with, whether it was Roberta Sklar or Mira Rafalowicz or someone else, would look at pieces or moments that we created and look at them again. They might ask you to change something or try something else.

Were you interested in exploring the subjects?

I was always interested in the pieces that we did; otherwise I don’t know how I would have done it, because it was very hard work. But what happened on the floor was always fascinating, whether we used it or not. People like Robert Wilson, Anaïs Nin, Susan Sontag, and Joseph Cornell would come in and observe.

Was this piece being fashioned for a performance?

We didn’t discuss performance. We just worked. And then some Monday nights, we would present a few sections at midnight in a dark theatre like the Sheridan Square Playhouse to get an audience’s response to the work. Those evenings were full of surprises.

Did you develop a kind of style as a group for the pieces?

Each piece was explored, and you found a style for those moments for that piece. Sometimes the work broke a pattern and broke open. When work became institutionalized, Joe would drop it, even if he liked it. Joe was constantly questioning and developing processes of exploration.

You’ve been an acting coach and conducted your own workshops and classes. JoAnne Akalaitis and Spalding Gray were both in your workshop in New York City.

Spalding Gray mentioned the work in his book Sex and Death to the Age 14. He credits me for starting him off with an exercise in the workshop. Because ten years later, he went back to that exercise, and it led to his storytelling form.

[Gray wrote in the preface to his book that when he went to Joyce Aaron’s free workshop, the students were asked to tell a personal story “as fast as we could.” If they froze, they were supposed to “jam, like a jazz musician, on a particular word or phrase until a new passage came.” It turned out he told his story so fluently that Aaron asked who had written the piece for him. See page x in Sex and Death to the Age 14, Vintage, 1986.]

Can you demonstrate the jamming technique?

It’s as if I say: “I had my surgery. UHH! I had my surgery, and I went into this hospital, Bzzzzzzzz. DOCTOR!”

You’re finding other vocal and physical ways of expressing your thoughts.

I’m not finding them. They’re surfacing. They’re coming to me from my unconscious. I just made that up now. Or, if I said to you: “And I came home, and I got a bed, and they gave me the cane, and I got the cane, and I got the cane, and I got the cane—and then they gave me the wheelchair, and I had the wheelchair. I got the aide. The aide came in, the aide went out, the aide came in, the aide went out, the aide came in. She bought the food, she bought the food, she bought the food. Butter, eggs, eggs. Butter, milk. What else? What else? She can’t cook. SHE CAN’T COOK! SHE DOESN’T COOK! I don’t need any more. I don’t need any more. I don’t need any more.”

So I had my students tell stories. I had them riff the way I just did. Storytelling was a big thing in the Open Theater, and it could come out in many different ways. The interest was to get into the essence of a story, rather just than the storyline. Here’s a good example in the play Terminal: If you would say to someone, And I went to the hospital [she demonstrates a silent scream]—that’s enough. You don’t need to say, I’m scared.

In the early seventies, you lived in Europe. And you taught there?

In Amsterdam, I taught at the theatre school and conducted my own workshops. I worked in TV with different Dutch directors. I had a very full theatre life.

Peter Brook contacted me there. He knew I was in Amsterdam. He had met me in England when I was performing in America Hurrah at the Royal Court Theatre. He asked me to come and work with him at the Bouffes in Paris, and I went. But I was under contract in Amsterdam at the time and had a full life there. I had just left the Open Theater to open my life up, so I was not able to even consider joining another group. However, working in Paris with Peter Brook was a major moment in my theatre work, always to be valued and remembered.

You came back to the U.S. in the mid-seventies and did van Itallie’s A Fable directed by Joe Chaikin. And you wrote your own play, Acrobatics [1976], with Luna Tarlo. How did that come about?

She’s a good writer, and she was an old friend. I was in a kind of existential state. I was living at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. She came to visit me from Europe. We started to talk about our states of being, and we said, Let’s write this down. This is like a play what we’re doing in here.

You also directed the play and performed in it. You were a triple threat.

Now it would be called a performance piece. Many performers do it. But then it was considered odd and arrogant. Anyway, it was well received, and I won an Obie for the acting, which was very fulfilling.

Joyce Aaron as Winnie
in Happy Days, 2002.

Chaikin had directed A Fable, and you were also in his Winter Project. In 2002, he directed you in Beckett’s Happy Days, not long before he died. Can you talk about the process for that production?

I took a long time to work on the script, because the script is so difficult. And at the time I was working on the script, my partner was dying of cancer. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it. Sitting with him at chemo, memorizing Beckett’s lines. I would sometimes meet with Joe and work for an hour. We would do a scene, and he would give me a suggestion. And [dramaturg] Bill Coco was present too. So we worked like that for a while, maybe six months before we rehearsed—not more than once a week.

The importance of the humor in Happy Days was what Joe wanted to explore. It was an interesting process because Joe had had a stroke and was left with aphasia. It felt like trying to enter his mind. I knew he was trying to tell me something, and I was trying to understand it.  Sometimes he’d get frustrated, and he’d stop. Then I would try it again, and he’d say, “No. No. Pause. Stop.” The thing I loved was when he’d say, “No acting. No. No.” Then I knew I was doing too much.

I grew into the script. It was a very slow process. The script was extraordinarily difficult. You’re never satisfied, but I eventually felt I had grown into the performances. I became more and more comfortable. It flowed more easily, and I loved performing it. We had good responses. Ovations, packed theatre, and people even came back several times. The experience was thrilling, from the first rehearsal with Joe to the last night. At the end of the last night’s performance, Joe gave me notes! That says it all.

And you worked with Ron Faber, who played Willie.

I love him. Ron is a wonderful man—kind, generous, and a gifted actor.

What did you come to feel about Winnie, that woman “embedded” in the mound, eventually up to her neck in it?

She was going to persevere at any cost; she was going to survive. But within, she was in deep despair. That struggle is what one tried to find. And, of course, the humor—Joe always kept stressing the humor. I’m grateful that Joe gave me the opportunity to perform this material. The Performing Arts library at Lincoln Center has a recording of the production in its archives. How wonderful that my little grandson will someday be able to see it.

I want to tell you a story about an experience I had in the late sixties when I went with Joe to Denmark for a seminar with Grotowski. The seminar ran for several days. The participants were Swedish, German, French, American. Here’s what happened: I would go into the breakfast room and say good morning, but nobody would speak. Nobody would say good morning. Everyone was very serious. I did my work for Grotowski with Chaikin. Joe said it went well. I had no idea. At the meeting on the final night, Grotowski spoke at midnight. He was speaking in French. The meeting went on a long time, with Grotowski saying to certain actors, You are a nothing. You are a seed. He then looked at the group and said, But Mr. Chaikin’s assistant, she is an actress. She is not a dilettante. And they turned around. All these people who would never speak to me, who thought I wasn’t a serious actor, that I was too friendly. That was it for me. I just sat there and smiled. It was one of the greatest moments in my life.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I’ve had a rich and varied theatre life, which I’m very grateful for. Now I’m facing the reality of an older actress. I’m no longer a young ingenue; I’m not even middle-aged. I’m observing myself becoming invisible, which is surprising to me and always a jolt. Inside I’m the same person I’ve always been, full of passion and creativity—and my sense of humor continues to thrive.

It seems that Happy Days may have been my swan song, and if that’s so, it was a great one. But I do see an open road ahead for me. I have so much knowledge and experience that I would like to pass on through my writing and teaching and coaching. And perhaps new or classic material will come my way again in the right circumstances. That would be wonderful. You never know—an opportunity might suddenly appear and steer my life in a new direction.

All images courtesy of Joyce Aaron. Top photo: Joyce Aaron in a 1960s publicity shot.

Profiles in Art, Copyright 2014 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council

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