John Douglas Thompson (left) and Terry Teachout are the star and playwright, respectively, of 'Satchmo at the Waldorf,' which is running off-Broadway. Fred Harper
A day after winning the Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance on June 1, actor John Douglas Thompson sat on the stage at an empty Westside Theatre, where he plays Louis Armstrong in "Satchmo at the Waldorf." Seated across from him on the set's sofa was Terry Teachout, the play's writer (and this newspaper's drama critic), who was awarded a Bradley Prize days earlier. Reunited to talk about the one-man play, the performer and playwright spoke freely about craft, process and an unlikely subplot—how they wound up as collaborators.
"Most playwrights want actors to stick to the script, while most directors don't want playwrights around during rehearsals to avoid intrusion," Mr. Thompson, 50, said. "But having Terry there at rehearsals helped me with Armstrong's intentions. He allowed me to validate my character choices."
Mr. Teachout, 58, jumped in. "When John first asked me, 'What does Armstrong mean when he says this?' I was stunned. My instinct was to say, 'Well, whatever you'd like it to mean.' But after a week, I realized he needed answers to build his character. Likewise, he suggested line changes that made the play stronger. Whenever we disagreed, we agreed to try it."
The "Odd Couple" quality of Messrs. Teachout and Thompson is unmistakable. As a critic, Mr. Teachout spends much of his time alone observing, analyzing and writing, while Mr. Thompson thrives on working with other actors. What they have in common now is artistic crossover. Few drama critics have written commercial plays or been intimately involved in a production, and most actors rarely get to perform alone or tinker with lines.
"Satchmo" opens with Armstrong backstage at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel after a performance months before his death in 1971. The Armstrong character reflects on a lifetime of Faustian bargains, global celebrity and painful abandonment by black audiences and younger jazz musicians. While Armstrong's Waldorf appearance occupies only a few pages of Mr. Teachout's 2009 biography, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong," Mr. Teachout used the green room as an ideal setting for Armstrong's stage confessions and confusion. In "Satchmo," Mr. Thompson plays not only Armstrong but also Joe Glaser, the trumpeter's mob-connected white manager, and a condescending Miles Davis—startling role swaps that occur instantly on stage through changes in voice, physical appearance and lighting.
Early on, Mr. Thompson's suggested line edits were subtle but significant. "At a critical moment toward the end of the play, Armstrong shrugs off an unfortunate event and says he'll include it in his autobiography," said Mr. Thompson. "When we started rehearsals, I said the line as 'I guess I'll have to put that in the book, too,' almost as an afterthought. Then I took out 'have to,' so it was more direct and emotional: 'I guess I'll put that in the book, too.' It's a self-realization that the event is an inescapable part of his legacy. Now the line is, 'Guess . . . I'll put that . . . in the book . . . too.' It's a bit slower and weighted, and resigned to what he must do."
From the start, Mr. Teachout knew what he didn't want. "I didn't want a Rich Little impersonation of Armstrong, because that's not what real actors do. When you mimic a character, you wind up with what Gordon [Edelstein, "Satchmo's" director] calls a 'taxidermy play'—a stuffed model of the real thing. That's not art. When Armstrong starts this play, he's not a finished product. When it's over, he is. He has answered the questions he has raised about the meaning of his life."
But how does a theater critic suspend self-evaluation when writing a play? "When I started, I told myself I'd write only lines that Armstrong actually said," recalled Mr. Teachout. "Well, that worked for about 10 minutes. I realized I had to go wherever the Armstrong character led me. The difference between writing a biography and a play about the same subject is you don't have to tell the truth in the play. In 'Pops' I could only speculate about things that I suspected. In 'Satchmo,' I could imagine things and create them myself. It was liberating."
Much of "Satchmo's" energy relies on keeping the audience off-balance. "The audience arrives imagining the play is going to be about old Louis blowing his horn and having fun," Mr. Thompson said. "But they quickly learn they're in the midst of this uncomfortable drama about a man coming to grips with his legacy."
Mr. Thompson credits Mr. Teachout's evening job for solidifying their relationship. "Because Terry watches plays as a critic, he knew when to suggest how to play something for an audience. There was a point in rehearsals when I wasn't really sure how to develop what Terry had written. I had the lines in my head, I had the blocking in my body but I wasn't sure about the balance between the play's intellectual and emotional ideas. Terry gave me the critic's perspective in those areas and he was my first true audience."
If there was a moment of rare divergence last week between Mr. Thompson and Mr. Teachout, it came during a discussion about whether the play had an ulterior motive. "I never thought of this play as a crusade," Mr. Teachout said. "I didn't write it as a mission to rehabilitate Armstrong's reputation or to tell audiences what they should think about him. It's up to them to determine whether or not Armstrong was an Uncle Tom, how Glaser felt about him and how he felt about Glaser. The play leaves it to you."
Mr. Thompson had a slightly different take. "As the play's performer, I had to come at it from the perspective of an African-American artist and the reality of my generation's view that Armstrong was a cartoonish figure, an Uncle Tom. Then I had to go on this journey through research to understand the forces he faced and his triumphs over hardship. Along the way I was exposed to Armstrong's integrity, virtuosity, generosity, kindness and love and his ability to entertain and spread joy. I wound up with a greater perspective and understanding of his life, which is what I want to share with audiences."
Mr. Teachout added a caveat. "Agreed, but the play wouldn't have worked if I had tried to do that in the writing," he said. "It would have come off as a sermon. Oscar Wilde once said no real artist ever tries to prove anything. What he meant is that if you tell the truth, it will prove itself. Hopefully, all of us told the truth and audiences will leave with a finer appreciation of the choices Louis made and the value of what he left behind."
Mr. Myers, a frequent contributor to the Journal, writes daily about music at JazzWax.com.
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