In Part One of “A Conversation with Betty Buckley”, Unsung Broadway’s Founding Editor, Scott Kaufman sat down with the Broadway legend, discussing her childhood, ‘Carrie’, “Norma Desmond”, and how ‘Cats’ almost didn’t happen for her!! We also talked about her newest show, ‘The Vixens of Broadway’. In Part Two, we continue the conversation with the Tony winner as she lists some of her favorite roles, as well as some of the great musicians that continue to inspire her today. We also discuss her incredible technique, and philospohy for creating such iconic performances.
Betty Buckley received her second Tony Nomination for her work as the character Hesione in the musical Triumph of Love in 1998. When asked about other favorite characters, Buckley recalls her roles in Tender Mercies, Sunset Boulevard, Cats, and Horton Foote’s newest play, The Old Friends which had its World Premiere this past August at the Signature Theatre in New York City. I asked about other artists that inspire her, and I found out that Buckley has a strong affinity for jazz artists. She cited bossa nova, Della Reese, Sarah Vaughn, Ella, Judy, and Streisand as long time favorites. The pianist Keith Jarrett was a big influence for her along with other jazz instrumentalists. She is also a child of the 60s, so groups like Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, and Fleetwood Mac are at the top of her list. She is also loves Steely Dan, Michael McDonald, The Doobie Brothers and Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Allison Krause and The Dixie Chicks.
Betty Buckley peforms on “The Tonight Show” for Tender Mercies (1984).
Interestingly, Betty Buckley has always seemed to have a cosmic connection to great music, growing up with mega-star musician/producer T Bone Burnett. “My mother and his mother were friends. When we were both 19, he engineered the first recording of my voice. It was intended to be an archival record only.” She is speaking of the album Betty Buckley: 1967, beautifully released by Playbill Records in 2007. Buckley is finally releasing her second album produced by Burnett named “Ghostlight,” which is due to come out in 2014.
The conversation somehow sidetracked towards author/composer Rupert Holmes and The Mysetery of Edwin Drood. We both agreed that Drood was one of the best cast albums ever. And Ms. Buckley mentioned that her company in that show represented the “best singing actors” that she had ever worked with. The cast included jazz great Cleo Laine, George Rose and Patti Cohenour. We then exchanged our mutual love for actor, Howard McGillin.
Betty Buckley and the cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at The Tony Awards (1986).
After speaking about Sunset Boulevard, I couldn’t help but say to Ms. Buckley what I had always thought. “You just have this beautifully haunting aspect to your voice.” “Thank you!” she said. “What do you think that is–what do YOU hear?” I struggled to find the words to answer her question. “Honestly?” I asked. She nodded, yes. “I hear a sort of guarded strength–a stoic, yet vulnerable aspect.” I continued to awkwardly search for my words. “What does stoic mean to you?” she asked. “Oh, shit” I thought. “Proud, courageous–proudly courageous.” “Do you always hear this in my voice or just as ‘Norma’?” “Always.” I responded. “Interesting” she said. (Ms. Buckley, the word I was searching for was “ethereal” = celestial, exquisite, ghostly, intangible and sublime.)
Ms. Buckley has been an instructor of Song Interpretation and Scene Study for over forty years. She teaches in New York at the Terry Schrieber School, and has a loyal group of students at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. She also teaches in L.A., and recently completed a five day workshop at the University of Oklahoma.
“What can a student expect when attending one of your Master Classes?” I asked. “I teach my students the practice of meditation as the means for focusing your mind.” Buckley studied with Paul Gavert for nineteen and a half years. He passed away in 1992. “Paul taught me that beautiful work is about beautiful focus. Precise and exquisite focus, he would say. That’s all there is, and the rest all falls into place.” Ms. Buckley says the she has also been meditating for forty years. That is when Gavert’s words started to make even more sense to her. “The ‘line’ of the music is very important. How one note becomes the next note, becomes the next note and so forth. You have to find the connection. And that is what I have found through meditation–one thought becomes the next thought, becomes the next thought.” Buckley explains that “when you focus your mind in a one pointed way, then the rest follows.” Buckley not only teaches her students to meditate, but she also teaches a “universal spiritual philosophy as the means of making choices as an actor.”
“The desire that we all have as humans is to love and be loved. That’s the essence of all human beings. Our experiences are different, and we are different as individuals. But, universally, we are all the same. The longing of the heart, the longing to connect, that is essential humanity. If you tell your stories from that place–the place of ‘I know that you know that I know that you know,’ then that connection can be sustained. Communication, connectedness, already exists.” Buckley teaches this, along with the philosophies of all of her great teachers concerning core essentials for an actor. This includes understanding the “line”, vocal production, vowels and how to tell the story of the character with “an awareness of essential humanity.” Not as a separate human being from the audience, but as a connected one.
Buckley uses the same principle when working with another actor in a scene. “Non-judgement is very important. Not just in acting or story telling, but as a universal philosophy. It’s something you must adhere to and practice. Especially in today’s world with the internet, and gossip, where people are so quick to judge and condemn. How can we not search for some kind of commonality or compassion for one another? It’s so easy to be belittling of others and of ourselves! I teach my students that you must love your character, as you must love all other human beings, without judgement. This doesn’t mean that you condone bad behavior.” Ms. Buckley began to refer to her character in Horton Foot’s The Old Friends , Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff. (This was her second time working on a project by Foote. The first was playing “Dixie Scott” in his Oscar winning film Tender Mercies.)
Buckley says that it was a wonderful opportunity for her to work with director Michael Wilson, and great actors like Lois Smith, Hallie Foote, Cotter Smith, Adam LeFevre and Veanne Cox. “My character, Gertrude, was a wealthy Texas lady who was also a drunk and very, very manipulative. It is my job to be her advocate in the play. To represent her as I would before a court of law to a court of her peers.” Buckley doesn’t dismiss the characters bad behavior, but explains “I have to understand the reasons for the way she behaves. Compassion is the rule.” she adds.
I confessed to Ms. Buckley that, I too, meditate as a daily practice. “I meditate on stage, too.” She said. “I’m meditating while I’m singing.” “In what way?” I asked. “I’m thinking about our oneness, all of the time. I’m keeping my mind in that one-pointed, focused remembrance. My mind goes somewhere, and I bring it back. And that’s why you feel connected to me when I sing, because I am connected with you.” “I felt that!” I said. “And because of the essence of who we are, that is why we are always connected.” Buckley explains of her technique. It’s a very, very powerful way of working. I just need to remember that every song I sing, every role I play, is a vehicle for the remembrance of our connection, our oneness. Every story that’s told, every song that’s sung–that’s all there is.”
She goes on to give an example, “If you were moved by my character ‘Norma Desmond’ in Sunset Boulevard, that’s why. Because I was remembering all of that, and her story is THAT story. The longing to connect and the inability to do so.” I started to grasp what she talking about. “All human beings want to connect. That’s our only true motivation. But, aberrant behavior occurs because we don’t know the truth. Or we forgot it. Or someone defined love for us in an abusive way, so the psychology is off. But, underneath that is this longing.”
Essentially, she understands that her characters are most likely sticking to whatever constructs they might have been brought up with. One must have compassion for every aspect of the character. And the character’s longing for connection, combined with the audience’s longing for connection, is why we feel connected to her while she is on stage. This is also her same philosophy in work in film. “It’s no different.” she adds.
“The same energy that resides in me, resides in you”. “The ‘collective unconscious’ ” I chime in. “Yes! The atomic structure in my body, is the same as in your body. The essence of our souls, is exactly the same. Our individual vehicles might be very different, but on an atomic level, we are ALWAYS connected. Always have been, always will be.”
I likened her philosophy to a Buddhist sensibility. She clarified, saying “Yes, and it’s also Christian and a Universal spiritual philosophy. This Truth is what is at the core of every religion on the planet, we are all connected in the same Truth. But then the jargon, the secular nature, and the rules with which each religion presents the spiritual information–that’s different.” Buckley explained that this is why we feel connected to a performer on stage. “It can be learned. This is what I teach. When you start practicing meditation and applying it in your life, life becomes very different.”
Ms. Buckley, and I discussed our love for certain writers of spiritual philosophy including Shakti Gawain, Pema Chodren, and Thich Nhat Hanh. “I think more and more people know about meditation. Some people just know this innately. With other people it is learned and practiced over time. I think a lot of the great musicians know about this kind of connectedness.” Buckley adds “I think we are in a time where more, more people NEED to start adopting this kind of philosophy of oneness and non-judgement, seriously.”
While she was speaking on all of this, I was having little breakthroughs. I thought of how it is so common for younger people in musical theatre, or people just starting out in the musical theatre craft to feel like the performance should be an outward expression, coming from an in-your-face “I’m gonna entertain you!!!” idea. But what Buckley clarifies is that it must start as an inward meditation. And only from that place, can you truly tell the character’s story. “You must not try to go out and get the audience. You must learn to remember that the audience is already with you. You can tell when a performer is manipulating you and trying to get your approval, and you don’t like that. What you’re waiting for is an experience of the heart. That’s makes you remember who you really are.”
“The performing arts is a service profession” she recalls. “Theatre began with the Pagan religions, with pageants that celebrated birth, death, life and harvest.” She reminded me of ancient Greece and how Aristotle originally made the rules for theatre. “The audience must willingly suspend its disbelief.” In other words, you can’t make the audience have an experience, the audience has to come with a willingness. The Greeks formalized all of that. Their myths helped educate and enlighten the people. “And by entertaining an audience, they were really assisting the community with a remembrance of their own humanity” she explains.
I have to say, Ms. Buckley must be quite an effective teacher, indeed. Not only did she define the experience of that theatrical exchange between an actor and an audience so eloquently, but she reminded me of the connection that we have together through music as a whole. Democrat or Republican, black, white, red, brown, or purple, we are all ALREADY connected in a beautiful way. We just need to remember this on a daily basis. We could truly change the world that way, if we wanted to.
I went in for an interview with one of the great “Broadway Stars” of our day, and I experienced a woman who has clearly worked hard to learn and adopt an authentic sense of humanness. I think that is what great artists are able to do. To create that tangible experience with their audience and ultimately remind us of our humanity. Now, after all of these years of wondering, I think I may have finally defined what it means to be “A Star”.
—Written by Unsung Broadway’s Founding Editor, Scott Kaufman.