Capote Comes Home For The Holidays

By on 2 December, 2013 in Greg Thornton, Interviews with 0 Comments

Holiday Memories cast in rehearsal

“Past certain ages or certain wisdoms it is very difficult to look with wonder; it is best done when one is a child; after that, and if you are lucky, you will find a bridge of childhood and walk across it.” — Truman Capote, “To Europe;” 1948

Whether Tom Wolfe was right about going home again is a matter of great debate. Writers have penned volumes on leaving home, traveling back, attempting to “get in touch” with what it is or what it was that formed their personality, defined their character, inspired their journey or got in the way of it. Homer, Marcus Aurelius, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Twain, Faulkner, Williams, Conroy and Capote are among the countless writers who mine the unending yearning in all of us to make sense of that formative period. It is a sometimes ineffable tale, but always fascinating, returning to that time when we were around hearth and home and who or what it was that made us leave and then, tugged at us to come back.

“Holiday Memories,” based on two of Truman Capote’s beloved works, A Thanksgiving Visitor (1968) and A Christmas Memory (1956), is the Cloverdale Playhouse offering which opens Thursday, December 5, and runs through December 15. The play, adapted for the stage by Russell Vandenbroucke is a beautifully evocative rendering of the relationship between young Truman (Buddy) and his much older cousin Ms. Sook. The stories describe Capote’s time in his cousins’ Monroeville, Alabama home in the 1930’s. This is a work of love and remembrance, of abiding friendship and lasting loyalty.

The Playhouse is blessed to have the wonderful Fiona Macleod as Sook, and the talented Cushing Phillips as Truman. They are joined by Max Zink, an exceptional young actor, who takes on the role of Buddy. Completing this cast is Sarah Looney and Michael Dilaura. Macleod, Phillips and Zink spent some time talking about the play, their characters, and the particular message this play holds for each of them, especially for this holiday season.

Greg Thornton: We spent a good amount of time in rehearsals talking about memory, its effect on us, its elusiveness, its hold on us. Does this kind of discussion feed you as an actor or is it better to come at the work with a clean slate?

Cushing Phillips: For a piece of this kind – where my character spends so much time in reflective memory, in active memory resolving some part of his past, and then seemingly present in the memory – spending time looking at the nature of memory itself: how it sometimes changes the facts, how we hold on to certain pieces while discarding others, and how powerful it is, provided clues outside the script to help with my interpretation. I don’t like to bring anything into the play that isn’t already there. It’s challenge here, since “Holiday Memories” is autobiographical, and we have information on Capote that even he didn’t have when he wrote the short stories, but still the only way I feel I can be true to the story. But understanding memory allowed me to read the story from that perspective, and provided color to it.

Fiona Macleod: This is essential to me. I prefer there to be no surprises. As I age, the director has the big picture and initially I paint by numbers and then, as the character inhabits me more, the details reveal themselves. This is perhaps a tedious process to watch, but gives me a foundation.

Greg Thornton: As Truman, it seems all is reflection in these pieces and as Sook it seems all of the moment. Two very different approaches to telling the story. Does this affect the way your approach these great roles?

Cushing Phillips: I don’t believe it affected the way I approached the role – learn the lines, learn the blocking, find out what I am trying to accomplish and set out to accomplish that, even if it is simply understanding why a thing happened, or why I feel as I do — but it certainly affects how I present the story. So much of it I am telling to the audience, or holding an internal dialog, which allows me to break the fourth wall. I am looking forward to discovering how the telling changes with different audiences. As an actor, I have been guilty of holding the audience responsible for my energy. Here, I will have to be very careful not to fall into that trap.

Fiona Macleod: I have been finding the richness of the moment tempting me to indulge myself with her feelings, and want to pause forever before responding, so that I can look at Buddy more. I am thinking as if some of Truman’s words are actually Buddy’s, and that gives me more of an appreciation for that sensitive boy. Right now what he is saying about what Sook and Buddy enjoy makes me want to play and laugh more going out on the different journeys and especially the kite monologue. However, I am fighting what seems to be the ponderous mood of memory plays, which can lumber along — and I want this to dance. That was my memories of being that age — delicious fun spiced with poop. In the second story, she knows it could be the last time for everything. And they are going into her hope chest. Right now I am waiting until part way through the “As for me sentence,” to inhale him like the tree ocean.

Greg Thornton: Capote’s language in these stories, which I think is truly honored in this adaptation, has an almost poetic nature to it. How does it challenge you to tell the story? Does it help or hinder your approach?

Cushing Phillips: Cheap answer: Learn the lines precisely. There isn’t room to paraphrase, because as soon as I do, I become lost. His prose is magnificently connected one image to the next, and his use of alliteration propels the story, gives it energy, life. It is almost as much a play about the language as the story the language tells. The process is the same, but even more important.

Fiona Macleod: Glory, it has been a huge digestive problem. But it does lead you to the gold of him. He is delicious. Faulkner is one thing, he is another with a celebrated choice of words. If it is difficult to say, it is worth honoring, and that gives me pause. I can feel the mistakes, but am enraptured when the flow is going. Jings, he’s good. A very sombre P.G. Wodehouse. He creates the stage directions for me with the sounds and echoes of his words.

Max Zink: Capote’s language allows me to step back in time to Depression-era Alabama. The stories feel bittersweet and nostalgic. I am able to envision the holidays that Buddy and Sook shared. Capote’s prose is sophisticated but still manages to capture the spirit of the rural South.

Greg Thornton: All of these characters come at this story from very different angles. What kind of a “map” do you use to chart the geography of these characters? Are there certain road signs you look for, certain paths you need to avoid?

Cushing Phillips: In reading and annotating my script, I had to specifically note where I was talking to Buddy, where I was describing an ongoing action, and where I was talking to myself. The playwright does a good job marking a few of the asides, but even the internal dialogs have a different importance and pace. And I had to find the humor and enjoy it. The most dangerous places are those where I am completely outside the action, where I can fall into the trap of mere narration. Truman is not telling a story – he’s telling his story, and that’s very different. The emotional connection has to be there always.

Fiona Macleod: Oh, the journey? I find her such a reactionary person that while there is a plan, it is so spontaneous, she has no signals. In many ways, she does not speak until spoken to; seen and not heard, etc. She has a friend at last and she can play and create fun out of the drudgery of her life. She’s Marley let loose of his chains. She is living a life for the first time in forever. She watches the clock for him to get out of school. Buddy is her sign posts. The other people in the house are her chains and burden.

Max Zink: Preparing for this role was intuitive. This role doesn’t feel like acting because I can relate to Buddy’s fear of the unknown, his challenge in dealing with a local bully, and his love of a family member. Honestly, I find that Buddy’s challenges as a seven-year-old are not that different than challenges that many kids face today.

Greg Thornton: Fiona, you directed this at the Red Door Theater in Union Springs. Max, you played Dill in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the most recent production at ASF. Cushing, it is clear how much you love these stories, but this is your first time playing this role. Does your history with these projects help you in these roles, or in your case, Cushing, perhaps you have an advantage because it’s all for the first time.

Cushing Phillips: I don’t know that I have an advantage or disadvantage. I was able quickly to care about my character. I think that’s important. Even if I’m playing a villain, I have to care about him. Here it was easy.

Fiona Macleod: Oh, having directed this Southern classic, I was burdened by what I heard from those I spoke to about the project and it made me more timid than I wanted to be. I wanted action not just trusting the words, but we aging director/actors have knees that don’t want to do, confound it, what we want them to do. So my juggernaut of a brain may have made life more tedious than necessary. I was blessed with my cast and crew. To play Sook was a part of my bucket list. I passed over too many chances and have been nervous about doing the part of my career that has given me most joy. So the iron was hot after Blithe Spirit, and I struck. Fear has lent me wings when it was not strangling me.

Max Zink: My parents joke that I have been typecast as a cerebral loner! I have to remind them that I have played Santa Claus in a school production. But seriously, it has been really cool to have the opportunity to portray a young Truman Capote in two different plays. I feel like I really know his character. To prepare for both roles I first read Harper Lee’s and Truman Capote’s fiction. Sometimes people can live through the same events and have completely opposing memories of history but both Capote and Lee seem to remember Capote’s younger self quite similarly.

Greg Thornton: Could you share a bit of what the holidays were like or are like around your homes? Does any of that enter into how you go about playing these characters?

Cushing Phillips: It’s funny – my family loved the holidays and had very traditional celebrations of them. Thanksgiving was my mother’s, and Christmas was my father’s. But our celebrations tended to be the immediate family – not extended – so the idea of the large celebration eludes me still. But, “It’s always the same, a morning arrives…” certainly rings true, whatever the way of officially inaugurating the Christmastime. For us, it happened later. My birthday falls in mid-December, and my mother always insisted the two be kept separate. But the trip to find the tree (a tree farm, not the woods), the boxes from the attic with the same decorations year after year. It’s all very familiar and very warm in my own memory. I believe audiences will connect with it too – even if the specifics of the tradition are different, we all have such strong memories of growing up, wanting, getting socks and such. I found I could bring all of that into Truman — we weren’t much different in all that.

Fiona Macleod: Of course it enters in. My mother and I shared the same delight in Christmas and always made, when we could not buy. I was proud of giving my  brother a carefully razor blade sharpened, favored green drawing pencil, wrapped in a sliver of the one piece of Christmas present I could afford. Giving an aunt a tiny porcelain Wade squirrel that was the size of a thimble. Most of the time, if I didn’t knit things, it was embroidered handkerchiefs. As I read more, I began identifying with Katy Did sister’s, then the Jane Austen daughters. Now, life is fleeting and so different as we rush to get there and then no time. It’s like being the White Rabbit as I try to contact two sons with their three families and it is lacking the ease. So I take time to savor what I know is best. And that is what Sook is trying to bring to her family.

Max Zink: My family loves to make a big feast around the holidays and my Dad is the master chef. Having a Dad in the kitchen is definitely a departure from Capote’s more traditional Christmas, but my sister Zoe does insist on setting a formal dining table much like Sook and Buddy had in this play. Every year is different for my family. Some years we travel during the Holidays and other years find us right here.


By Truman Capote Adapted by Russel Vandenbroucke
Directed by Greg Thornton
Dec. 5 through Dec. 15
Th/Fri/Sat 7:30 p.m. – Sunday 2PM Tickets: $18

Auditions for INTO THE WOODS
Tuesday Dec. 10  6:30 p.m.
Call 334.262.1530 for details
The Joe Thomas, Jr.
3rd Tuesday Guitar Pull 
Singer/Songwriters perform original music 
Dec.17  Jan. 21  Feb.18 
Admission at the Door: $10

        The 2014 Season:
Feb. 13-23 
April 24-May 4
June 19-29
Oct. 23-Nov. 2
 A Live Radio Play 
Dec. 11-21
For tickets and further info call:
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