August 24, 2005
By John Clark, Special to The Times
On a chilly night in April, a group of
distinguished actors — Steve Buscemi, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip Seymour
Hoffman, John Goodman, Brooke Smith, John Slattery — took their places
onstage without makeup, costuming or props and began speaking in
tongues. Since what they were saying was written by Joel and Ethan Coen
("Fargo") as a parody of western serials, they channeled prissy
schoolmarms, belligerent gunfighters and crusty country doctors. They
sounded as if they'd fallen off the front porch.
After they retired from the stage, another group of actors — Hope
Davis, Peter Dinklage, Meryl Streep — came on. These three, spouting
the words of narrative-bending writer Charlie Kaufman ("Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), played a variety of urbanites, members
of the audience watching them perform and versions of themselves. They
sounded as if they'd fallen down the rabbit hole.
"That," said one slightly stunned audience member after the actors casually strolled off the stage, "was amazing."
Fortunately this rare theatrical experience won't be limited to
the lucky or well-connected few who were at one of three presentations
at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse or a single show at the Royal
Festival Hall in London. The Coen brothers' "Sawbones" and Kaufman's
"Hope Leaves the Theater," both scored by Carter Burwell (who has
scored all the Coen brothers' films, as well as the Kaufman-scripted
"Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation"), will be broadcast this Labor
Day weekend on the satellite station Sirius as a pair of radio plays,
together called Theater of the New Ear.
That this project got off the ground is a minor miracle, since
there is no real contemporary precedent. It falls between the cracks,
which is just where many of the participants like to be.
"Part of what interested us is the collaboration with Carter, so
it's the idea of trying to combine: What is it? Is it a concert? Is it
a theater thing? That's what we liked about it, that it was ill
defined," says Joel Coen.
As he suggests, the primary mover here was not the brothers or
Kaufman or Streep or any of the other heavyweights involved. It was the
lowly composer, Burwell, whose work behind the scenes got the project
made and whose music inspired what got made. Originally Burwell was
approached by the Royal Festival Hall with the idea of presenting live
excerpts from his film scores. He says he didn't find the idea
interesting, because the music would be ripped from its context. Then
he hit upon the idea of approaching filmmaker friends for written
material — scenes or snippets of dialogue that were just lying around —
that he could score and then present onstage. However, when he
discussed the matter with the Coens, it was their turn not to be
interested. They did make a counteroffer, though.
"What he said was, 'Actors at microphones saying lines and a band
onstage,' " says Joel Coen. "And we said, 'OK, let's write something.'
When we write something, it generally implies something dramatic. And
so it was something dramatic that actors were reading at microphones
with a live band onstage. Whatever that is."
Burwell also approached Kaufman, who agreed to write "something"
and then later asked to see what the Coens did first. The idea was that
his piece would involve characters attending performances of both
"Sawbones" and "Hope Leaves the Theater" and commenting on them. He
didn't think of it strictly in audio terms, however. That wouldn't be
interesting, or destabilizing, enough.
"When I was trying to conceive of it, the fact that there were no
visuals but you still saw it was important," Kaufman says. "I like the
idea that the character of Louise [played by Davis] is supposed to be
in the audience, but she's sitting right up onstage with the other
actors. And that when she leaves the theater she doesn't leave the
theater. So there's all this mental confusion, which is really
appealing to me. It becomes more of a radio play when you put it on the
radio because you don't have that information."
What Burwell says he originally had in mind was a guerrilla
operation in which they would round up actors and musicians in London.
However, when the Coens turned in their script, it required half a
dozen American actors and crack timing, meaning a lot of preproduction
work with performers they'd have a hard time finding in London. And
since Kaufman's characters were discussing the Coens' piece, it was
necessary for the sake of clarity that they be three different actors —
three very specific American actors, as it turns out, entailing even
more preproduction preparation.
Suddenly Burwell was confronted with a much more massive
undertaking, one that required a theatrical troupe rather than a pickup
band, so he and the Coens, who had a relationship with Sirius President
Scott Greenstein, turned to the satellite radio station to underwrite
the expense of putting together the production in New York and then
bringing it to London. In exchange, Sirius received exclusive broadcast
rights for five years.
Unfortunately, by the time Burwell secured the scripts and cast
commitments, the Royal Festival Hall had scheduled something else for
the slot he was originally offered. Now he had some of the most
celebrated directors, writers and actors in the English-speaking world
assembled for a project that didn't have a home. That's when it was
decided to stage it at St. Ann's, a relatively small venue that would
complement the intimacy of the material. Also, according to Burwell,
"we thought, 'Better to keep it small so that if nobody buys tickets it
won't be so embarrassing.' " Once again, he vastly underrated what this
project would become. It not only sold out St. Ann's, it also packed
the 3,000-seat Royal Festival Hall (which somehow found space for the
show on its calendar). Dinklage says he even got to meet Paul McCartney.
Meanwhile, as he was wrangling all this, Burwell was also
providing the aural landscape to two very challenging plays. In the
first one, "Sawbones," it turns out that the crusty Westerners are
actually on a TV show that is playing as a backdrop and counterpoint to
the domestic difficulties of a married couple who are addicted to
"The assignment was, How can we make this interesting?" Joel Coen
says. "If you're not seeing anything, what would be interesting to us
and to an audience? And so we started thinking: Supposing the drama is
these two things intersecting and then you realize that one of them is
coming through a television? Building on that, we thought: What if we
go to different locations but the television show is always showing in
each one, so that's the consistent thing?"
" 'Assignment' is a good description of it," says Kaufman, who
thinks that he and the Coens met their assignments in similar ways
while still being different from each other. "I like assignments.
You're forced to think in a way that's not necessarily comfortable for
That may be, but Kaufman did manage to incorporate many of his
obsessions, which he neatly summarizes as "I like things that step out
of what they are into the real world." To that end, he included in the
playbill accompanying the performance, which is usually a sober,
telegraphic guide to what we are seeing, such phony descriptions as
"Scene Six: Engine room of an Argentinean freighter, 1943" and "Scene
Seven: The Void, Thursday, 6:53 am EST." And he indulged his penchant
for riffing on the public personas of celebrities.
At one point Streep, who had worked with him in "Adaptation,"
breaks character to scream at the audience as "Meryl Streep," an aging
diva who is peeved at a patron's ringing cellphone. Dinklage also
breaks the fourth wall by telling her, in effect, to shut up.
"I think he [Kaufman] was working off a familiar trope that an
audience might have of a famous actress and a big, gigantic, preening
ego, which I'm sure he realizes there's no resemblance to the real me,"
Streep says, laughing.
"It's funny to have people doing that to themselves," Kaufman
says. "I did it before in 'Being John Malkovich.' I did it to myself in
'Adaptation.' She was milking it, she was enjoying it, so she can't
What she can blame Kaufman for was his continual revisions, as
opposed to the Coens, who tweaked but did not rewrite. At the last
minute, Streep was given a song to conclude the evening. ("That's our
Char," she says affectionately, as if he were being a naughty boy.)
Kaufman doesn't beat himself up too much about this, saying that most
plays go through many revisions over many months, whereas he had only
four days of rehearsal.
Burwell, who had to score the revisions, including the song,
absolves him for different reasons: "I decided to go with the flow
because what he's done is brilliant and I would not do anything to slow
down the creative process he's been following. If someone had done that
on a film, I would have been [ticked] off."
In fact, Burwell is more than happy with the results, as are the
actors, the Coens and Kaufman. A CD, probably of the third performance
(which will be the radio mix), may be in the offing. The Coens say they
would like to write another one. And Kaufman is restaging "Hope Leaves
the Theater" at UCLA's Royce Hall next month, paired with a different
play (the "Sawbones" cast had prior commitments). It's called
"Anomalisa" and stars David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom
Noonan. The author is Francis Fregoli, "a pseudonym for someone who,
for his own reasons, would rather remain anonymous," says Burwell.
Necessarily, it will be a different experience for the audience — and
"There was sort of a feeling of evaporation when it was over,"
Kaufman says. "And there was something sad about that. But there is
also something kind of neat about it. There's this experience that we
had one time, it's gone, we can remember it, but we can never really
see it again."
'Theater of the New Ear'
What: "Theater of the New Ear," presented by UCLA Live
and the Arts at St. Ann's. Writers Charlie Kaufman and Francis Fregoli,
composer Carter Burwell, and actors Hope Davis, Peter Dinklage, Meryl
Streep and others to be announced.
Where: Royce Hall, UCLA
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 14-16
Price: $38 to $60
Where: Sirius satellite radio, Talk Central, Channel 148
When: 3 p.m. Sept. 2, noon and 5 p.m. Sept. 3, noon and 5 p.m. Sept. 4, 3 p.m. Sept. 5