“There is only one pure state of acting … that you don’t know what you’re going to say.” — Shirley Knight

October 6, 2009

SHIRLEY KNIGHT

This story is based on an interview I had with Shirley Knight for the Home News Tribune and the Asbury Park Press.

NEW BRUNSWICK: Shirley Knight is in the cast of Arthur Laurents’ new play, but she will not give a single performance.

The actress — a Tony and Emmy winner and an Oscar nominee — will appear at George Street Playhouse in Laurents’ drama “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are.”

She will create the role of Marion, a psychological therapist who — along with the other four characters in the play — is trying to cope with the implications of the death of her charismatic son, Paolo.

The others are Sara, a professional singer — played by Alison Fraser — who was married to Paolo for 27 years; Richard — played by John Carter — who was Paolo’s father; Michelle — played by Leslie Lyles — Paolo’s disaffected sister; and Dougal — played by Jim Bracchitta — who competes with Paolo’s lingering influence as he courts Sara.

Laurents, 92, who will direct this production, has woven into the play both the kind of introspective and unblinking discourse that has characterized most of his works and an underlying conviction that love is the most important factor in a human life.


ARTHUR LAURENTS

ARTHUR LAURENTS

The playwright, who has recently directed the Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” for which he wrote the book, has introduced several plays and dozens of new characters on the George Street stage.

As Shirley Knight gives life to one of his newest characters, she said, she will approach the opportunity with a mindset that is necessary if Marion is to be spontaneous and, therefore, credible.

“I never give a performance,” the 73-year-old actress said. “Each night, I have another rehearsal. And that is essential because if you just do a rerun of what you did the night before or the week before or on opening night, it would be unbelievably boring.”

When she appears onstage at any time during the run of this play, Knight said, she won’t be acting Marion so much as she will be Marion. And that will mean that she won’t anticipate what will occur, no matter how many times she has heard it.

SHIRLEY KNIGHT IN 1966 ROLE

SHIRLEY KNIGHT IN 1966 ROLE

“There really is only one pure state of acting,” she said, “and that’s that you don’t know what you’re going to say, you don’t know what you’re going to do. You don’t know what the other person is going to say or do. You don’t know where the play is going. You have to do a play as if you haven’t read the play.

“Now, of course, you have read the play — but you cannot be in that state of knowing. You have to be in the state of going absolutely from moment to moment.”

The actress has honed this approach in 35 stage plays over the past five decades. She has also appeared in 49 films, 162 television productions, and a dozen radio dramas.

While she was engaged in this busy career, Knight — who holds a doctorate in fine arts — also managed to have a family life. Her husband, John R. Hopkins, was a prominent film and television writer. She has two daughters — actress-singer Kaitlin and TV-stage writer Sophie.

KAITLIN HOPKINS

KAITLIN HOPKINS

“Kaitlin at the moment is doing something different,” Knight said. “She just finished a year’s tour of “Dirty Dancing,’ and she has taken over the theater department at Texas State University. My youngest daughter (Sophie) is writing plays and teaching school in Los Angeles. She has her master’s from Columbia in English and fiction writing, and now she wants to teach.”

From her own prolific and varied career, Knight can mention several high points, though she seems to have a special place in her heart and memory for “Dutchman,” a 1967 film she produced, an adaption of a play by Amiri Baraka about the explosive relationship between a coarse, racially biased young white woman and a mild black man.

The play won Knight the Volpi Cup as best actress at that year’s Venice Film Festival, and “Dutchman” was named best film of the year at Cannes.

“We shot it in five days,” she recalled. “It was on a shoestring. In the year 2000 when the Whitney Museum did “Great Art of the 20th Century,’ the only film they showed about civil rights was “Dutchman.’ That made me very happy.”

PORTRAIT OF SHIRLEY KNIGHT BY JASON TOWLEN OF GANNETT NEW JERSEY

PORTRAIT OF SHIRLEY KNIGHT BY JASON TOWLEN OF GANNETT NEW JERSEY

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