Andrew Schrag in "Sedition," Chris Sarandon aspires to be like the main character but he is not so sure he would have the same courage to stand up for his convictions.
"Sedition" is David Wiltse's new play that will be staged Aug. 4-18 at the Westport Country Playhouse.
The role of a professor of German at the University of Nebraska just as the United States is entering World War I, gives Sarandon the opportunity to exercise his "hero muscles" not someone who rescues people from burning buildings, but an individual who puts his future and life as an academe on the line for what he believes in.
"I don't know if there are many of us who would do that," Sarandon said during a recent interview at the playhouse before heading into rehearsal.
"Most of us would just say, 'You know what, I am just going to put my head down and just get through this. Let other people take the flack because I have to live my life,'" he said.
Schrag did lead in his life. He went before a hearing at the university for exercising his freedom of speech and left the campus when the university shut down the German Department.
Schrag is Wiltse's grandfather, who was born in Kansas and died sometime in the 1950s from a brain tumor, said the playwright, who had little contact with his grandfather, whom he described as "intimidating." Wiltse was closer to his grandmother, who told the story of her husband's leaving the university to Wiltse's brother, who wrote about the incident in a college paper. The incident prompted Wiltse to spend the past two years writing the play.
Wiltse, of Weston, said his new play, his sixth production at the playhouse, is not intended to be a biography or history. He used his grandfather's experience as a prompt to write a new play, which, he said, has "parallels impossible to ignore today. The story when those in power try to exceed the Constitution is always timely." And, he noted, the laws subsequently are found to be unconstitutional." The U.S. Sedition Act of 1918 was later repealed.
The playwright declined to speak specifically about the play's message. "I don't want to spell it out. I'll leave it to the audience," he said during a recent telephone interview. However, he said the play examines the motivations that go into the kind of self-destructive behavior that occurred with his grandfather. While Schrag's standing up for free speech may have resulted in the greater good for others, that was not Schrag's motivation. There is something inherent in his personality that resulted in the confrontation between the German professor and the university. The play examines the grandfather's motivation.
"It takes enormous courage," Wiltse said.
In preparing for his role, Sarandon said he looked within himself to connect with his character, who stood firm with his convictions despite the personal fallout affecting his relationship with his wife and friends. While he said Schrag is the kind of man he would like to be under similar circumstances, "I have never been tested this way," he said.
Quoting his character, Sarandon said, '"If I don't have my principles, then what do I have? If I don't have my self respect, then what do I have? I have nothing.'"
"It's a great part," said Sarandon, noting that a "confluence of events" led to his decision to do the play. In addition to the role, the actor, who moved to Fairfield with his wife, actress Joanna Gleason, last year, said he was drawn to the Westport Country Playhouse tradition in presenting great plays with some of America's most respected actors. Also, he was attracted to the project because the playhouse's artistic director, Tazewell Thompson, would be directing.
In recent weeks, the actors and director have been practicing in the playhouse rehearsal hall where the walls are posted with photographs and newspaper articles from World War I, including portraits of the soldiers from Nebraska who died in the war. Sarandon said the photos and clippings are part of the research in preparing for the role.
Sarandon loves "soaking up a period" because it gives him the opportunity to pretend that he is in "another time, another place and in another body. It's really what you did as a little kid. It's our job to create as much of a time, place and character as we can, and the research is part of it."
As a child, Sarandon enjoyed taking on imaginary roles of soldier or cowboy. "Kids live in a world of fantasy and they move in and out of it in a kind of easy, almost seamless, manner," he said. "As we get older, we lose that, except actors don't. They hold on to it."
Acting took hold for Sarandon in college when he had to fill an elective requirement and chose an acting class, mainly as a lark. At the time, he really didn't know where he was heading in life. He had grown up in West Virginia in a Greek immigrant family who were in the restaurant business. In high school, he enjoyed playing in a rock 'n' roll band and participating in student government. His primary drive at the time was to be popular, and politics was a way into it.
Once he took the acting class, he was hooked. He graduated from West Virginia University and enrolled at Catholic University where he pursued acting with a passion. Graduate school afforded opportunities to perform not only on campus, but also with touring companies and professional productions in the summer. After a stint with an improvisational company in Washington, D.C., he went onto Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Then he made his Broadsway debut in 1970 in "The Rothschilds," followed by "Two Gentlemen of Verona." In 1975, he earned an Oscar nomination for his role in Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" with Al Pacino.
Both Sarandon and Wiltse have a long list of professional credits in their respective fields on stage, screen and television.
As playwright-in-residence at the playhouse, Wiltse continues to be a prolific writer. He has written 11 plays, published 12 novels and produced more than 50 projects for film and television. He's ready with another new play scheduled for the 2008 playhouse summer season. The setting is the office of a golf magazine that is in takeover mode. The play, like Wiltse's "Doubles," which debuted at the playhouse and subsequently ran on Broadway in 1985-86, is not about a sport, but about relationships. "It's a farce," he said, describing it as a play with "four doors and six characters."
Wiltse has no problem thinking up new ideas for his plays and other writing forms. For someone who has earned a living writing all his life, he's said he "can't afford writer's block." Besides, he said, as a writer, one has to prepare the ground in the mind for the ideas to come. He tells himself ahead of time what he is going to think about and then during the course of a period of time say, while he may be going for a walk -- he'll find that he, indeed, can concentrate on ideas for his writing project. "When you are in the frame of mind, the ideas aren't so hard. You have to free yourself," said Wiltse, who at age 67 is aware that he has "limited time to write."
Both Wiltse and Sarandon have become part of the tradition at the Westport Country Playhouse that the actor said "washes over" him as he walks throughout the facility where posters of the giants of the theater who have acted there since its founding in 1931 hang in the lobby.
Sarandon said, "It's like walking through the halls of Cooperstown."
The actor is also enjoying living on the East Coast after many years in Los Angeles. When he and his wife found themselves both appearing on Broadway, Gleason in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrel" and he in "Light in the Piazza," they realized they should be back in New York.
Also, Sarandon loves to garden "where you easily see the results. You can stand back and say, 'Oh, that's changed. I did that' The art exists in a totally different way. This doesn't happen often for an actor, particularly if you're doing films or television. You do it and you see it three or four months later and someone else is totally in control of it. It's not as much the case in theatre. Also, it's a sense in having space.
"We love the town. We're so happy here." said Sarandon, who together with Gleason have four adult children.
"We feel like we're home."
Performances for "Sedition" are Tuesday at 8 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Opening night on Aug. 4 includes a post-performance party. The Sunday Symposium on Aug. 5 will bring in authorities on the themes of the play to provide the audience with insights on historical and dramatic context. Prologue on Aug. 10 offers a pre-show, half-hour conversation with Thompson providing details about the production. Open Captioning is available on Aug. 12 for audience members with varying degrees of hearing loss so they can watch an easy-to-read digital screen with scrolling words in synchronization with the performance. During Backstage Pass on Aug. 15, following the matinee, the production staff explains the play's technical aspects including sets, lights, props, sound, costumes and special effects. On TalkBack Aug. 16, members of the company return to the stage after the performance for a lively discussion with the audience.