Some thoughtful conversation with Susan Charlotte, New York's impresario of all-star, Lunch Hour Theatre.
Susan Charlotte is the tireless artistic director of Food For Thought: Lunch Hour Theatre, a series of all-star readings of one-act plays. The series' new season opens September 24, with readings held on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 1 to 2pm at The National Arts Club. Visit www.foodforthoughtproductions.com for further information; but, before you do that, look below to see what Charlotte has to say about her very exciting project.
JIM CARUSO: Tell me about this unique series you've got going.
SUSAN CHARLOTTE: It started with an idea last year. I'm primarily a writer and have always loved the one-act form. A play of mine, Love Divided By, was produced at the Actors Studio and was made into a short film scored by Phillip Glass. Chris Noth was interested in doing a production of it, but one-acts are just so hard to put on. I figured if we couldn't get it produced with Chris, we'd never be able to do it. Then I thought that maybe we could produce several one-acts all together starring people I know. I called a few friends--Judith Ivey, Blair Brown, Maria Tucci, and Cliff Robertson. They said they'd do something, which totally surprised me. Peter Stone told me he had a one act that he had written for Lauren Bacall 25 years ago that I could do. Tony Kushner had a play, East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis, that had never been produced. I called his agent, and they gave it to me.
JC: You keep getting the green light.
SC: I've been in the business a long time and am getting used to getting the purple light, or no light at all! So this was a great gift. The manager of The Producers Club, a small midtown theater, said I could use their space. Another friend suggested lunch, so Lunchtime Theatre was born. Suddenly, we had five plays and incredible actors like Robert LuPone, Marlo Thomas, Rita Moreno, Kate Burton, Judith Light--all in our first season! There's really no venue for one-act plays in this country; that's our main mission. We also like doing these as readings because there are no heavy production values to deal with. You can get the best people, too. The actors come in at noon, read through the play once with our resident director, Josephine Abady, then go on at 1:30. Some of the readings have been better than some full productions I've seen. Then there's a Q&A session with the audience. Each play is done four or five times and always with a different cast. For instance, we did a John Ford Noonan play with Robert LuPone and Blair Brown. Then we did the same play with Mary Alice and Earl Hyman on a different day. The audience loves the idea that the play changes with the cast. One of my plays, Come On, was done at different times by Betty Buckley, Christine Baranski, Judith Light, Barbara Feldon, and Julie Halston! Some people in the audience came all five times.
JC: What is your season schedule like?
SC: There are six plays in each season of eight to 10 weeks. We have shows every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. At first, I was worried that no one would want to do it; now, Judith Light's manager calls to book trips around our shows! The actors have such a ball. The word is out, and everyone recommends that their friends do it. We got Judd Hirsch through Judith, Kyra Sedgwick came through Campbell Scott, and on and on. It's not like there's big money here, either.
JC: What a great experience for your audiences.
SC: It's interesting for them to watch the actors in an almost-rehearsal situation. And you also get to see the actors watching the other actors--like Marian Seldes watching Brian Murray doing the lines opposite her for the first time. It's unforgettable. The audience is privy to all this, plus we have our Q&A sessions.
JC: And your ticket prices are very reasonable.
SC: We started out charging $25; now we're up to $29. That's for a Broadway-quality show with lunch! Where else could you see Patricia Neal and Eli Wallach doing Portrait of a Madonna by Tennessee Williams? The audience went berserk. Another mob scene was when we had Elaine Stritch, Bob Dishy, and Arthur Miller on stage together.
JC: What's the future of this program?
SC: We want to keep these seasons going. We're also adding a "Cocktail Hour" from 6:00 to 8:00 once a month at Rosie O'Grady's, starting in October. Then we want to do the series in other places. There's interest in Berkeley and Aspen. I spend a lot of time in France and would love to do it in Paris.
JC: All of this has happened in 10 months?
SC: Yes. We started less than a year ago, which is why we're all exhausted.
JC: I think a nap is in order!
SC: Yes. Actually, that's Plan A. We also are publishing a book called Food For Thought. I have the rights to 13 plays that have never been published, along with actors' recipes. Finally, in about a year, we're going to put three plays into full production. It's wonderful because we get to try them out at lunch, know what works and what doesn't. December 6 will be our hundredth play reading and, to celebrate, I just secured the rights to another Arthur Miller play, A Memory of Two Mondays. We'll be doing that and, hopefully, Arthur will come. There will be a big party and a percentage of the proceeds will go to a scholarship for young playwrights.
JC: What's up for this season?
SC: We're opening with Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, directed by Melvin Bernhardt, starring Bob Dishy and, I hope, Elaine Stritch. Then we're doing plays by Dorothy Parker, Harold Pinter, Frank Gilroy, Richard Wesley, LeRoi Jones, August Strindberg, Tennessee Williams, and a few new pieces I wrote.
JC: I'm amazed that you still have time to write, with all this activity.