By Susan Carnahan
I want to thank Susan Carnahan for providing her report for use on Totally Kate!
Here is a summary of what Kate said in a discussion held after the Tea at Five performance on Thursday, April 3, 2003. Near the end there are some spoilers, which are highlighted.
Producer Daryl Roth was on stage with Kate. Kate emerged back on stage after about 10 minutes, sans make-up, wearing a short-sleeved white knit shirt, khaki pants, and beige sport shoes. Her hair was tied back in a short ponytail.
She looked tired when she first came out and wiped her eyes a couple of times. But as soon as she started answering questions, her natural charm, beauty, and grace came through and she answered all the questions thoughtfully. Having seen Kate at a number of conventions and giving a talk to actors at the Stella Adler Academy, I think the best way to describe it is that this was Kate the actress, not Kate the star before us. She was not the almost larger-than-life exuberant personality, but a professional responding to intelligent questions.
What surprised me a little was that she seemed just a bit guarded when she first came out after the performance. It may be that she knew this was a sophisticated New York audience and might (as it did) include people who knew Hepburn.
I almost agree with the comments from the Reuter's reporter in the Yahoo/CNN interview: "...she was all business, answering questions with measured, controlled responses. Exuding an aura of cool elegance, she never lowered her shields." But she wasn't totally business as she joked a few times and as I said before, her charm and grace came through. Several people near me commented on how natural she was in the discussion.
Kate responded to the inevitable first questions of whether or not she had met Hepburn, what did the family think, etc. Both Kate and Daryl Roth said that they thought part of the negative reaction from Kate's niece is that she reportedly has written her own play about Hepburn and may have wanted to star in it although this may be pure speculation on their part. For those who remember "Guess Who's Coming to Diner", it was this niece who played Hepburn and Tracy's daughter in the film.
When Kate was asked what it was like doing a one-woman play, she responded: "Life after death", to much laughter. She said some of the same things as are in the Reuters article--that it is very lonely. She said it was frightening at first to consider the part, as she has always been in roles where there is another person to play off, get cues, etc. She also mentioned that the audience became her partner, but that she couldn't count on any particular reaction from the audience, which heightened the feeling of loneliness.
I don't think any of us in the audience, even those close to the stage, had a real appreciation of how physically demanding the play is for Kate until she talked about it. Kate is very active in the first half of the play and even jumps up on an ottoman at one point and lies down on the floor in another. The second half is physically demanding in another way, as Kate superbly creates the older Hepburn with Parkinson's disease.
Kate does a different voice for each half of the play and she has said that she has to trick her voice. In fact one of the great things about having Kate stay for the discussion is that you finally heard the wonderful trademark Mulgrew voice.
Kate said it takes her entire energy and focus to do the role. She cannot let down her voice, physical presence, or energy level or forget any of the words for even a second. In a normal play, these are times when you are silent and observing other actors.
Kate said that the entire day is spent getting ready to play the role. She gets up at 8, works out or goes for a walk, takes a nap, has her chicken and goes to the theater where she does exercises, reads through the play, does her make-up, and goes on stage. She gets to the theater three hours before the performance. There is no time for a normal life, including lunches, cinema, or shopping.
But all this effort and focus is worth it when it all comes together for her in the way she wants it to. Which it certainly did the two times I saw the play.
Someone asked what was the key to her "finding" Hepburn. Kate said that it was empathy, the more she learned about Hepburn, the more she saw her vulnerability and the losses in her life the more understanding and feeling she has for Hepburn. Kate said that without the empathy, she would have just done an impersonation.
The one hint of news came when a question was asked about the Promenade Theater and if they had thought about having the play at a Broadway theater (as some of you know, the definition of Broadway and off-Broadway is determined by the number of seats in the theater, not the location.) Both Kate and Daryl Roth said they preferred the intimacy of the Promenade and felt that the play worked better there than it would in a larger theater.
Kate then said to Daryl that they might not be able to get such an intimate theater when they take the show on the road. The operative word was "when", not if, Tea at Five goes on the road. No specifics were mentioned, but let's hope it comes to theaters near all of us at some point!
It was interesting to hear them say they like the intimacy of the Promenade and that it really "worked" with the play. Daryl Roth, who has produced major plays both in NYC and London, like 'Art' and 'Wit', said she loved the Promenade because the theater is like a "hug". Kate has never thought about it like that, but said she was now going to think about the audience not only as her partner, but hugging her!
I think we know that the producers did try to get into a Broadway theater, the Booth. Interesting that the Booth has been dark since the Paul Newman play ended in January. Maybe they should have picked up Tea at Five!
There was a big story in the NY Times when we were in NY about the difficult time that some of the theaters are having because of the war and recession. Urban Cowboy almost closed after the first weekend and The Miracle Worker with Hillary Swank will not be coming to Broadway. So perhaps it is better for Kate and the producers that the play is in a small theater with sold-out audiences.
Here is just a word about the audience before repeating some of Kate's comments that may be spoilers for people who have not seen the play. We saw three other plays while in NYC, all in big Broadway theaters. The audience at Kate's Thursday show (but not on Sunday) was much more dressed up than the more casual audiences at Vincent in Brixton, Life x 3, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
It was a classy crowd. Many of the audience members looked like well-to-do people who might live on the upper West Side. The audience at the Sunday matinee was predominantly female and older. There were many more men and young people on Thursday night.
The one person who had met Katharine Hepburn said he had worked with one of her brothers and questioned whether or not her brother Tom had really committed suicide. The family talked about the fact that Tom often did magic tricks and may have had an accident attempting one. Kate responded that she knew about the magic tricks that Tom and Katharine did, but felt certain from all that she had read that he had intended to kill himself. Kate said that Tom's suicide left a hole in Hepburn's heart and was what defined her.
Another person asked how Kate could square Hepburn's fierce independence with Spencer Tracy's abusive behavior toward her and how Hepburn "waited at his footsteps". Kate replied that Hepburn was a complicated lady and that is part of what makes her fascinating. Hepburn often said that Tracy was the alpha male and that she met her match when she met him.