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Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III is having a brief encore run at Theater for the New City December 3 to 5. At press time, discount tickets were available.
Between acting, directing, writing and teaching, Tony nominee Austin Pendleton is always busy -- and that's how he likes it
While most of his industry peers take a break during the dog days of August, Austin Pendleton is working up a sweat in NYC, juggling multiple projects. Earlier this summer, he spent his days directing the revival of John Wulp's The Saintliness of Margery Kempe and his nights rehearsing Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III, a mash-up of two Shakespeare histories that he adapted, directed and acts in. He's already knee-deep in his next gig, helming an Off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, which opens in September, and he's prepping for his return to Broadway as a performer after a 20-year absence in Manhattan Theatre Club's Choir Boy this December. And somehow he still finds time to teach a heavy course load at HB Studio and write plays. At an age when many others have already retired, the 78 year old is busier than ever, and that's by design.
"I like doing all this stuff, so it's not that exhausting," insists Pendleton, who's also a sought-after TV and film character actor, though he considers the theatre his vocation. But he's no elitist. Despite having made his name on Broadway playing Motel in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof and earning a Tony nod for directing Elizabeth Taylor in a revival of The Little Foxes, Pendleton is willing to take interesting work wherever he finds it. And for the past four decades, that's often been Off-Off Broadway.
"There's a reason for that, a thing that happened in 1978 -- the spring of 1978," he intones as if about to launch into one of the Bard's soliloquies. "I did an acting season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with this company that was begun by this marvelous English director Frank Dunlop. And he cast me very far out: Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and an offbeatWaiting for Godot. It was a thrilling set of challenges that resulted in some really remarkably terrible reviews for me. And, all of a sudden, my theatre career was over. Lynn Redgrave, who was a friend of mine, said, 'If you got these reviews in London, everybody would know that you'd be on stage the next season no matter what. New York is not like that. They're going to make it very hard on you.'"
That's when Pendleton discovered the Showcase Code, which allows union actors to participate in limited-run productions at theatres with less than 100 seats. Suddenly, Off-Off Broadway was his oyster. "It got well known in the Showcase circles that I was available," Pendleton recalls. "I started being offered all these great Shakespearean roles in these church lofts where you rehearse for a year and you do 16 performances and after all of that you get a check for $80. That's when I played Hamlet. In a way, that catastrophic set of reviews and that exclusion from the upper tiers was one of the best things that ever happened to me. When you go through something like that, you learn there's no point in even making any distinctions. You go where the work is. I realized I could do anything I wanted."
Forty years on, that remains Pendleton's career philosophy. If a project intrigues him, he signs on, regardless of pay or profile. Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III came out of his friendship with producer/co-star Matt de Rogatis. "A few years ago, Matt [who was then a stranger] asked me to come see him in a production that I think his family had largely raised the money for," Pendleton says. Amazingly, he accepted the invitation, which led to Pendleton coaching de Rogatis for his next role as Hamlet. "As far as I know, it was the second piece of acting Matt did," he says. "And it had entire passages that really came alive. I said, 'You're good at this!'" In 2017, de Rogatis said he wanted to tackle the title role in Richard III and Pendleton suggested they add in parts of Henry VI, Part 3 to illuminate the villain's backstory. "I've always felt that Richard III doesn't make sense to the audience unless you put a lot of the preceding material in it," Pendleton explains. "So I started working on compressing the scripts into one play. Matt and I met on and off for months and then we finally went into rehearsals with me as Henry VI and now here we are."
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur also came out of a friendship: with actress Jean Lichty. "She sought me out about eight years ago, wanting to play the leading role in Bus Stop," Pendleton says. "That's a play that has always moved me a lot. I didn't know her work but I could tell she was serious, so I said sure. We did it in Maryland. Ever since then, we do a show every couple of years. I suggested Creve Coeur. I'm of the opinion that some of Williams' late plays are very good, very underrated, and I've always had a particular fondness for this one. It's a straightforward story [about a quartet of women struggling to find themselves in '30s St. Louis], but it's so beautifully written."
Although Pendleton's character is named Mr. Pendleton in Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy, he got the role through the traditional audition route. (When asked whether the part was written for him, Pendleton says, "I presume so but I've never asked -- I don't know how to ask Tarell without sounding coy!") Pendleton originated the role of the comically clueless teacher in the play's world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's Off-Broadway space in 2013. But he never thought it would be the show that would bring him back to Broadway.
"It was a great experience, and then it was over," he says. "Then five years later they say, 'We're going to do it in our Broadway space now.' Things always happen that you don't expect, and then things don't happen that you do expect. But I figured that out years ago."
Pendleton says that through all the ups and down, teaching has helped sustain him, both financially and creatively. "It's the only thing in this business that I can rely on, although sometimes I get paranoid and think, they're going to say they hear I'm not teaching that well anymore," he says, chuckling. "But I have to laugh. All these things fall under the heading of the value of 1978. I just don't take anything for granted."
Top image: Matt de Rogatis and Austin Pendleton in Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III. Photo by Chris Loupos.