Theater
6:20 am
Sun March 2, 2014

For Kathleen Turner, Success Requires The Courage To Fail

Originally published on Sun March 2, 2014 10:30 am

Kathleen Turner has been a film star and stage star, vamp and tramp, comic and deadly. It's been a long, dramatic arc for Turner, whose voice now is both as warm and furry as whiskey and as hard as the shot glass that holds it.

For the past six weeks at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., she's been playing the lead character in Mother Courage and her Children, the 1939 play by Berthold Brecht. Mother Courage is a war profiteer and a mother, a peasant without a country trying to calculate her chances of survival.

Brecht's play is considered one of the great dramas of all time, a staunchly anti-war broadside that showcases one of theater's great female protagonists. NPR's Jacki Lyden spoke with Turner about tackling the massive part in an ambitious in-the-round production — and about her long career.


Interview Highlights

On the character of Mother Courage

Well, it's the Thirty Years War, which is one of those examples of insanity that we [humankind] are constantly creating. When something like war starts, stopping it or finding avenues to resolve it are almost impossible. This is still clearly quite true today. Mother Courage, to me, is an eminently sensible, practical — and I think loving — woman, [a] mother. Interviewers have said to me, "Well, didn't you find it difficult to play such an awful person?" And I say "What?"

She is not a landowner. She doesn't have a position in any kind of society. She has to [turn to] whatever skills were available to her — which in this case is marketeering, essentially, black-market work. [It is] very respectable, and a very positive sort of business for her to have as a woman with three children. I think she's done quite well to set herself up in this business.

On what courage means to Mother Courage

She lost her older son. He was impressed into an army. When they were on the road, he was taken by a recruiting sergeant and impressed. She hasn't seen him for two years. And she comes upon him at the camp of this commander-in-chief who is rewarding her son for having killed some peasants and captured some cows to feed the troops. And she says, "He must be a rotten general, because he needs his men to be brave. Let's face it, whenever the heroics are called for, it means somebody has screwed up. Think about it. What is courage but a failure of planning? That's all."

On whether she felt intimidated by past performers in the role of Mother Courage

Honestly, I make a point to never see a production of something that I think I might do. Though I ran into Olympia Dukakis when in December we were doing a poetry reading together ... at Town Hall in New York. And she said, "I hear you're taking on the Mother." And I said, "Yeah." And she said, "Well, I've done it seven times ... so I'll tell you this. Think of this as your first time." I thought that was kind of helpful.

On people's expectations of the play

I run into this kind of attitude. "Oh, it's Brecht. It's about the Thirty Year War. It must be grim." And [I] go, "You know what? Come and laugh with us. Because you will."

On whether she plans to continue pursuing stage acting roles

Well no, I still want camera work. Although I much prefer stage. I find filmmaking very slow, kinda boring — unless I'm directing it, which is a whole different thing. But I truly am of the philosophy that I have to find projects that I might fail at doing. Because if I don't, then I am just repeating what I already know I can do. And secondly I won't ever know what I might be able to do. Now the risk is failing, you know. But that is the price of finding out what more you can do.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Kathleen Turner has been a film star and a stage star; a vamp and a tramp, comic and deadly. It's been a long, dramatic arc for Ms. Turner, whose voice now is both as warm and fuzzy as whiskey and as hard as the shot glass which holds it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MOTHER COURAGE")

KATHLEEN TURNER: (as Mother Courage) I'm Mother Courage. Everybody knows me. 'Cause wait...

LYDEN: For the past six weeks, she's been Mother Courage, the 1939 character created in a play of the same name by Berthold Brecht. Set against the 30 Years War in Europe, Mother Courage is a war profiteer and a mother, a peasant without a country trying to calculate her chances of survival. And for this Arena Stage production here in Washington, audiences can hear Kathleen Turner sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MOTHER COURAGE")

TURNER: (as Mother Courage) (Singing) That's what God wants from you. That's what God wants from you...

I have never sung on stage before. I mean, when I first started in the business and I came to New York, even at that time, I was not going to be singing soprano leads. So, I said I don't sing, I just act.

LYDEN: But she changed her tune in that regard and for this production, there are more than 10 original compositions, many written just for Kathleen Turner. Brecht's play is considered one of the great dramas of all time. Staunchly anti-war, it showcases one of theaters great female protagonists.

TURNER: Mother Courage is one of those roles that most actors of substance intend to do.

LYDEN: Tell us what Mother Courage means to you and tell us a little bit about the play. Of course, you know, we know that she's pulling her cart across Europe. It's the early 1600s. She crosses Bavaria and Poland. She's come down from Latvia and...

TURNER: Sweden.

LYDEN: ...Sweden, all kinds of places.

TURNER: Well, it's the Thirty Years War, which was one of those examples of insanity that we are constantly creating, the humankind. Something like war starts, stopping it or finding avenues to resolve it are almost impossible. This is still clearly quite true today. Mother Courage, to me, is an eminently sensible, practical, I think, loving woman, mother. I've heard, you know, people, interviewers have said to me, well, didn't you find it difficult to play such an awful person? I'd say what?

LYDEN: You mean because she's been profiting from the war and will lose by it?

TURNER: Well, she is not a landowner. She doesn't have a position in any kind of society. She has to, whatever skills were available to her, which in this case is marketeering, essentially, black-market work, is a very respectable and a very positive sort of business for her to have as a woman with three children. I think she's done quite well to set herself up in this business.

LYDEN: She certainly is stalwart. But she's also often frightened. She's certainly frightened on behalf of her children. And this is one of the takeaway lines from the play:

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MOTHER COURAGE")

TURNER: (as Mother Courage) Well, think about it, What's courage? A failure of planning, that's all. Now, some general takes his men into a stupid situation or tries to save money by hiring too few in the first place. Well, it's kind of law, isn't it? The more useless and stupider the general, the more spectacular the men have to be.

She lost her oldest son. He was impressed, you know, into an army. When they were on the road, he was taken by a recruiting sergeant and impressed. She hasn't seen him for two years. And she comes upon him at the camp of this commander-in-chief who is rewarding her son for having killed some peasants and captured some cows to feed the troops. And she says, you know, she says a man, you know, he must be a rotten general, 'cause he needs his men to be brave. You know, let's face it, whenever the heroics are called for, it means somebody has screwed up. Think about it. You know, what is courage but a failure of planning? That's all.

LYDEN: Yeah, wow. You know, I have a special fondness for this play. This is the sauciest production I've ever seen of it. It was one of my first big plays. I was a young correspondent for this network in London in 1990; saw Glenda Jackson doing it...

TURNER: That would have been interesting, I think, yeah.

LYDEN: ...in the Mermaid Theater in London. Oh, she was amazing. And it was a much more grim production that what you've put on.

TURNER: Well, this is something that is a hindrance. And I found this also with "Virginia Woolf." You know, people who had seen the film, you know, would say it's about two drunks screaming at each other. Why would I want to go spend three hours watching it? And, of course, that's not what the play is, was, at all. So, I run into this kind of attitude now. It's, oh, it's Brecht. It's about the Thirty Year War. It must be grim. It must be so - but, and you go, you know what? Come and laugh with us. Because you will.

LYDEN: Well, do you think the stage is where you want to remain now?

TURNER: Well, no. I still do on-camera work. Although I much prefer stage. I find filmmaking very slow, kind of boring, unless I'm directing it, which is a whole different thing. But I truly am of the philosophy that I have to find projects that I might fail at doing. Because if I don't, then I am just repeating what I already know I can do. And secondly I won't ever know what I might be able to do. Now, the risk is failing, you know. But that is the price of finding out what more you can do.

LYDEN: Kathleen Turner, it has been a real honor...

TURNER: Boy, that went fast.

LYDEN: ...(unintelligible) and talk with us.

TURNER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin returns next week. I'm Jacki Lyden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.