By Michael D. Minichiello
This month’s West Village Original is director Marshall W. Mason, born in Amarillo, Texas in 1940. Mason co-founded the Circle Repertory Company in New York and was artistic director for 18 years. He directed such plays as The Hot L Baltimore, Fifth of July, Talley’s Folly, As Is, and Burn This. Nominated five times for a Tony Award for directing, in 2016 he received a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement. Two years ago, Mason moved from his long-time Christopher Street apartment to Jersey City with his husband Daniel Irvine.
“I was headed for the theater at birth,” says director Marshall W. Mason. “I was sure I was going to be an actor. I did my first play when I was seven and I loved it!” However, it was a youthful experience that made Mason aware of another possibility. “When I was about nine years old I saw the movie Pinky. It was a really powerful film about a black woman passing for white and I was profoundly moved by it. The credits listed the director as Elia Kazan. I didn’t know what a director was, but I went to school the next day and announced, ‘My favorite director is Elia Kazan!’ ”
An important first step on Mason’s journey was deciding to go to Northwestern University. “I studied acting for a couple of years, but it turned out I wasn’t very good at it,” he says. “So, I thought, ‘Uh-oh. It’s law for me!’ ” But another teacher asked me if I had considered other roles, like writing. ‘No talent in that,’ I replied. What about directing? Well, there was a play I wanted to direct— Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It dealt with issues that resonated with me: my sexual identity, football because I’m from Texas, and Maggie and her poverty because my family was very poor and I got a full scholarship to NW. My production of Cat was a tremendous success and so I thought, ‘Apparently I’m a director!’ ”
Mason moved to Manhattan in 1961, where he began working in the burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway theater movement in venues such as Caffe Cino and La MaMa. “I found my voice at Caffe Cino,” he says. “I did my first play in New York there.” It was also where Mason would meet playwright Lanford Wilson, thus inaugurating a lengthy and very successful writer/director partnership. “Lanford was quite flattered that I’d seen all his plays,” Mason says. “Ultimately, I think we were so successful because we started off with honesty, which was really important in our subsequent years together. He and I had the longest professional collaboration in the history of American theater. That was certified by Playbill about halfway through our career!”
Why does Mason think he has such an affinity for directing? “That’s an interesting question,” he replies. “I think because watching actors performing and creating right in front of your eyes always excited me. When I realized I wasn’t such a great actor myself I also realized that I could help actors achieve more than they thought they could. I was really an actor’s director for the first years. It wasn’t until I met Lanford that I began to shift toward being a playwright’s director as well, in terms of helping them with their structure, characterization, and dialogue. It’s bridging those two worlds, between playwright and actor, that the director facilitates—turning the play into a living thing through the actors.”
In 1969 Mason and Wilson would join Tanya Berezin and Rob Thirkield to found Circle Rep, originally housed in a theater on the Upper West Side. “We were called The American Theatre Project when we began but it was suggested we call ourselves Circle Theatre. So, we agreed. I was afraid that we would be confused with Circle in the Square. We, in fact, were confused with them throughout our whole existence,” he says, laughing. In 1974 the company moved downtown to the old Sheridan Square Theatre and spent the next twenty years there. “We immediately became a Village institution,” Mason says. “Bringing a theater back to life is a big deal. In addition, we had a wonderful audience and strong subscription list.”
Mason attributes much of that success to the special qualities of the neighborhood itself. “The West Village back then was quite wonderful,” he admits. “It was a very supportive, encouraging, and convivial atmosphere. We felt a little bit like the Impressionists, with the kind of camaraderie that existed among those artists who invented a whole new way of looking at painting. I still consider a cafe on Christopher Street my office, even though I’ve moved to Jersey City. And being a Tony voter brings me into the City to see everything on Broadway. People always say, ‘Oh, how wonderful that you get to do that!’ ” He laughs. “Sometimes!”