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Turner debuts behind the scenes

The veteran actress talks about stage directing for the first time at a Massachusetts theater festival.

August 15, 2007|Frank Rizzo | Hartford Courant

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Mention the name Kathleen Turner and you may think of her vivid film performances in "Body Heat" (her movie debut, in 1981), "Romancing the Stone" and "Prizzi's Honor."

But the actress with the same sultry pipes she had as the come-hither Jessica Rabbit in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" has also had high-profile roles on stage ("The Graduate," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") and TV (as Chandler Bing's transvestite father in "Friends" and as a phone-sex operator who needs throat surgery on "Nip/Tuck").

Turner, 53, is trying her hand at something new, making her stage-directing debut this month with Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.

Turner is the type of outspoken, straight-shooting, look-you-in-the-eye-until-you-blink actress you'd love to have a drink with. After a recent long day's rehearsal, we did just that.

Question: Is this the first time you've directed for the stage?

Answer: I kind of like to say it's the first time for credit. I certainly feel I have directed in the past, but not, as I say, in this position. Yuh. This is the first legit production that I've done. [WTF artistic director] Roger Rees and I became good friends when we were doing "Indiscretions" on Broadway, and he's been bugging me to direct. I loved the idea, and since this is my 30th year in the profession, I thought I'd have a survival party.

Q: What have you discovered about yourself in directing?

A: The interesting thing about directing as opposed to acting -- and I wouldn't have thought of it before I started doing it -- is the absorption in the details. As an actor you kind of go, "Does this prop work? Fine. I'll keep it. Is the dress right? OK, good." You really don't look at the whole thing. Honestly, I didn't realize how much of that [seeing the details of an entire production] fascinates me. I really love being on the stage and being in the middle of it, but I love being out there too.

Q: Did you spend much time reading the play around a table and talking about the work?

A: We had a read-through, and then we got on our feet. I don't see the point of sitting around and talking about what you feel. Get up and show me! What's your foot doing. Are you lounging? Are you ramrod straight? Are you cowering? Doing it will bring the emotions as well as the emotions will bring that physical attitude.

Q: Did the fact that you teach acting at New York University help you as a director?

A: I have a course I call "Practical Acting: Shut Up and Do It," which has been very good. The kids tell me that they've learned more in eight weeks than they have in years, which is all very nice. I just feel as though I have a great deal of experience and knowledge and commitment to my art. But we do very practical stuff. We start with cold reading, because that's where you usually get or lose a job. And I bring a casting director who tells them what they look for. They also get up on stage in a Broadway theater to see what it's like to work on a house of that size. I bring in a top cinematographer too. We take that same material and then put it on camera and then I show them it's not just a question of technique. Sometimes you have to reinterpret for a different medium and you really have to reassess the performance. These are the kinds of things we do.

Q: What drew you to "Crimes of the Heart"?

A: I'm very interested in relationships with women, and these are the three sisters with such a different attack on life. I find women's reactions and their relationships less predictable, more layered in many ways, than the male-female sort of thing and I find that really interesting.

Q: Are there other shows you want to direct?

A: Yeahhhhhh. I'm talking about one with Roger, but he's not as wild about it as I am: Arthur Kopit's "Oh Dad, Poor Dad (Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad)." I love that play. I love stuff that's not explainable. She's keeping him in the closet in a coffin. OK, fine. We accept that. Today you have to explain everything, and so they do. Nope, I say. Figure it out yourself -- or don't. And I may possibly act next summer. Possibly. But I also have an offer to teach in Florence for a month, and I think that would be fine.

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