Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. George Bernard Shaw
“…We set up an afternoon with tea. The bell rang and it was Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, Marian Seldes, Anita Loos, Maureen Stapleton, Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Olivier and Plowright read Higgins and Eliza, Ruth read Mrs. Pierce. Helen Hayes showed up late, then left because all the good parts were taken. Fairbanks was Freddy Eynsford-Hill… Tea careened into cocktails. Then Plowright and Olivier decided they would switch roles. It was just a laugh fest and discussing Shaw. Some of them even KNEW him…” The occasion? An impromptu play reading of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Location? The New York apartment of actress Hermione Gingold (1897-1987) who, that afternoon, played Alfred P. Doolittle. The observer? Then 17 year-old David Staller. Gingold was his godmother.
Young David Staller and Hermione Gingold
A life-long insomniac, Glencoe, Illinois born Staller discovered classic films on television’s The Late, Late Show. The first with which he remembers connecting was Philip Barry’s Holiday. “New Year’s Eve with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant…” (Highly recommended) He began to haunt revival houses and to develop decidedly period aesthetics. Aware of her godson’s precocious nature – they wrote frequently – Gingold gifted him a copy of Shaw’s Pygmalion at the age of ten.
Shortly thereafter, Staller made his first commitment to George Bernard Shaw with the purchase of a framed photograph by Yousuf Karsh that has since traveled everywhere with him. The portrait was more than he could afford, so he paid for it over time with earnings from babysitting, cutting grass, and newspaper delivery.
Culture and politics were valued at home. Staller’s grandmother took him to (adult) theater in Chicago. The Glencoe Public Library had a basement full of old Theatre Arts magazines replete with play scripts and production photos. “I read them all.” His mother was politically liberal and active; involved with the League of Women Voters, even campaigning door to door. Growing up, he “latched on” to popular liberal causes – Anti-War, Anti-Nixon, human rights, sometimes admittedly not defining personal views until after demonstrations or marches.
The adolescent began reading through Shaw’s canon in high school finding precepts that were particularly useful for a teen in the 1970s. “…questioning/challenging accepted tenets of society, making bold personal choices and taking responsibility for them…” Shaw believed in “gradualism,” achieving change incrementally rather than by revolutionary action, but change was always on his ideological horizon.
At the age of 15, a move to New York put Staller in more frequent contact with Gingold whom he began to regularly escort to cocktail parties and theater. I envision Auntie Mame, but am told unequivocally that she was, in fact, “deeply intellectual, never wacky.” Doors were opened for the eager young man, connections established. Studies at RADA, with Uta Hagen, and Lee Strasberg followed. Time passed.
David Staller in Mrs. Warren’s Profession 2006; The Gingold Theatrical Group’s Mrs Warren’s Profession 2017
In 2005, Staller found himself acting in Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Irish Repertory Theater. At that point, he strongly felt the George W. Bush administration was creating an extremely dangerous environment for this country. “Now, it feels like the good old days.” Reminded of and inspired by Shaw’s sociopolitical stance, he determined to begin a series of readings implicitly highlighting those ideals. The playwright’s oeuvre was a perfect place to begin. As with Shaw, plays would be Staller’s peaceful activism, his weapon.
It was the entrepreneur’s intention to make a difference in the way people think and behave; to evoke questions like “who do you want to be within the finite time you have, what do you want the world to be when you leave it?” Staller thinks of Shaw as the first modern English playwright who brought theater into the realm of Ibsen and Chekhov. “He wrote in contemporary idiom advocating debate/discussion, championed the disenfranchised, and believed that all living beings had the right to personal freedom…”
The Cast of Heartbreak House 2006 at The Players Club
Dozens of phone calls later, The Player’s Club agreed to host. “I’m on the telephone with New York State. We get our employee identification number and they ask the name of the company. I think, it will probably just last a year, so let’s name it for Hermione.” He looks bemused. “Gingold Theatrical Group sounds good.” The first presentation was 2006’s Arms and The Man. They sold out. It seemed to make sense to continue with Shaw.
In 2012, Staller helmed the group’s first fully staged production. He chose Man and Superman. “It encompasses all of Shaw’s principles: define yourself for yourself, don’t let others dictate who you are, question everything, war is pointless, people in authority aren’t always the most insightful, history is relative, the world is absurd so embrace the madness and get on with life.” Three more full presentations followed annually between monthly readings. The next year they found a home at Symphony Space.
The Gingold Theatrical Group is the only organization on the planet including the Shaw Festival in Canada to have performed all 65 of George Bernard Shaw’s plays. Some are in public domain, others are not. (The author kept writing until he died in 1950.) Staller often uses earlier versions, but reads them all. Candida was an example of this choice. It was rewritten several times for Katharine Cornell to whom Shaw actually gave the rights. She made many successful tours of it. The artistic director preferred earlier variants. “There were nine different versions of Major Barbara, so I went word by word through every edition I could find to create the most comprehensive script.”
Blair Brown and Michael Cerveris in Candida at Symphony Space Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy
“I didn’t read all of Shaw until we were actually doing it. Some plays were not even published. His first was about Jesus before he became a religious leader. It’s like a sitcom. Jesus is living at home with his annoyed mother and ineffectual father…” Staller chuckles. Running time of Shaw’s plays range from fifteen minutes to nine hours. The latter refers to Back to Methuselah, the history of human kind from origin to a future which even depicts cell phones. In 2018, Gingold will present an abbreviated version of this over the course of two evenings.
Full Production of You Never Can Tell – Sean McNail and Amelia Pedlow Photo by Al Foote III
Programs then expanded to include playwrights like Harley Granville Parker, Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde, Barrie…others who shared Shaw’s sociopolitical viewpoint. 2017’s theme, Women Take the Stage included pieces by Elizabeth Robins whose 1907 offering Votes for Women was “the first feminist play to hit the mainstream,” and A Man’s World by Rachel Crothers.
“I thought we’d have a woman president.” Disappointment rises like a balloon. “It’s the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in New York…” I ask about Shaw’s own family. His headstrong mother was someone who probably didn’t want to get married or have children, Staller tells me. Relationships with two sisters were cool. Female relatives eschewed activism. Shaw’s passion was not galvanized by example, but rather in reaction to it. Women had no rights then. The playwright saw them as marginalized people. “… a great untapped resource of energy… who tend to drive the bus in Shaw’s plays.”
Tony Sheldon, Mark Shanahan and Rebecca Luker in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion at Symphony Space- Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy
“I adore George Bernard Shaw’s work. His is a distinct voice and one so ahead of his time. His love and understanding of strong female characters is what attracts me to his writing the most. It’s an honor to bring his brilliant work to life.” Rebecca Luker
The group’s theme for 2018 is The Power of Persistence, A Theatrical Survival Guide. Next year will hopefully also see the continuance of new educational affiliation with The Broome Street Academy, a charter high school for at-risk kids. The class, lead by Gingold Theatrical Group’s Associate Director Stephen Brown-Fried who joined in 2016, and Staller, will examine Pygmalion.
“Eliza’s at the very bottom rung of society. Even her violets indicate this. You can’t keep violets alive overnight, they have to be sold.” Staller assumes that Eliza had serious ambitions for a better life before Higgins seemed to dangle the possibility, not that she was merely trying to survive. He feels the kids will empathize with her situation. (To the artistic director, Shaw was a disenfranchised kid.) Students are asked to write short plays in response. Professional actors will be invited to read both Shaw and original work aloud. “Higgins is black, Eliza, Asian,” he tells me excitedly referring to casting. “It’s an opportunity for kids to creatively examine their current social situation.”
Full Production of Major Barbara – Dan Daily, Hannah Cabell, Richard Gallagher (Photo by Richard Termine)
Gingold offers an Acting Class with Brown-Fried and Staller, for Shakespeare and Shaw (respectively) which concentrates on language and technique. A program called Speaker’s Corner after the Hyde Park locale where, since 1855, anyone may publicly hold forth on any subject, was inaugurated this year. Eight playwrights were asked to read Man and Superman, chosen, Brown-Fried tells me, both because it’s widely considered one of Shaw’s greatest works and because it contains almost every major theme he examined.
Participants then react to the icon’s ideas with their own full length plays. “We explicitly discourage our writers from attempting to replicate Shaw’s style, but by examining his way of interrogating accepted moralities and challenging us to think more deeply, they’re inspired to push more profoundly into their own inquiries.” (Brown-Fried) Each will then receive the opportunity to explore further in a small-scale reading or workshop environment. Information on site.
2017/2018 Speakers’ Corner: Emily Daily, Ren Dara Santiago, Hank Kim, Nick Gandiello, Stephen Brown-Fried
Next August/September the annual Shaw New York Festival will offer panels, lectures, and debates exploring that season’s fully staged production of Heartbreak House. “Multidisciplinary symposiums are apt because Shaw was a critic…There was a time Arts Criticism was an integral creative element in the art form…” Staller almost audibly sighs. The celebration also includes The Shaw Concert. Traditionally presenting work by Brahms, Wagner, Dvorak… musicians Shaw advocated, the 2018 event will instead be a cabaret comprised of popular songs of the playwright’s day.
Also innovative, this particular Heartbreak House is inspired by Hermione Gingold’s stories of performing in shelters during the London Blitz. When a play was interrupted, actors would grab anything they could in the way of costume and props. The cast would then read/perform entertaining their displaced audience. Who knows this role? someone would ask. Who knows this one?
“We’ll do it as if in a shelter…The play was written at the start of WWI. The only way characters can move on at the end is together. Its last words are: We will resist. We will persist. I want to do it because we’re living very comfortable, passive lives. There are demagogues and dictators out there. They’re coming and we have to step up…” Staller’s brow furrows. “It’s also entertaining, theatrical fun.”
2018: The Devil’s Disciple; Pygmalion
“The artist is individual thought,” he muses. “People who control the world tend to be against this. Today’s the most extreme political climate I can remember living through. I have friends who escaped from camps and they say that’s what this feels like…This seems more important than performing, a higher purpose. It gets me out of bed. Today, I’m going to try in every small way to make a difference. We’re all seeking shelter and safety, but we have to make sure we stay awake.”
You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul. George Bernard Shaw
Staller’s Bucket List for The Gingold Theatrical Group: Two full productions a year – one of our ‘classic’ plays and one of our new plays. Also to continue developing our outreach programs: new plays, educational programs, discussion groups, acting seminars and classes.
All GTG full productions have been filmed and archived at the New York Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Unattributed quotes are David Staller
Opening Photo: 2017 Posters, George Bernard Shaw-photo courtesy of Wikipedia
COMING UP- Project Shaw Reading: A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde 7 p.m. December 18
Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Symphony Space
2537 Broadway @ 95th Street
NEW SEASON begins January 22 with The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw