Beckett beckons again for PICT’s Alan Stanford

By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Martin Giles (foreground) and James FitzGerald in Waiting for Godot. Photo by Larry Roberts.

Martin Giles (foreground) and James FitzGerald in Waiting for Godot. Photo by Larry Roberts.

Alan Stanford greets a caller with the warning that he’ll be beardless at next sighting, the result of a bet that had him shaving should PICT Classic Theatre raise $15,000 on the local arts scene’s Day of Giving. The goal having been exceeded, it was off with his beard of long-standing — and he was happy to do it.

It has been a tumultuous 15 months of changes for Mr. Stanford and the former Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre. He accepted the reins of the company on the eve of the 2013-14 season, when co-founder and artistic director Andrew Paul was fired by the board of directors, and the longtime actor-director is settling into the role at the top.

He’s also in the process of re-creating a role he thought he had left behind — that of Pozzo in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” For 20 years, he traveled the world with the Gate Theatre of Dublin’s renowned production, including at the Byham Theater in 2009.

“It’s all Stephanie’s fault,” he said of Stephanie Riso, PICT’s co-founder and now managing director, part of a restructuring that has Mr. Stanford listed as artistic and executive director. “I had an idea of doing some work by Yeats, taking the Coholan plays and re-examining three of them.” Although that project is probable for down the road, it seemed overly ambitious for the director’s first season, so Yeats will have to wait. Mr. Stanford didn’t know it, but he, too, had been waiting — for “Godot.” It was Ms. Riso who suggested it.

“I worked out a cast and who was going to direct it, because it wasn’t going to be me. And — I swear this is true — after intense pressure from just about everybody in the PICT organization and various supporters, the only person who didn’t want me to play Pozzo was me. So I said, ‘All right.’

”Six years I’d sworn not to do it since we’d finally finished doing it after 20 years. I said, ‘Never ever, ever again.’ Never say never.”

It seems there’s never a wait for “Godot” to come along. Beckett’s absurdist take on a couple of guys passing the time while waiting for, well, you know, is in constant production somewhere, including the recent Broadway revival with Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.

The play premiered in 1953 and sparked endless analyses and interpretations. In 1956, The Irish Times critic Vivian Mercier famously wrote that Beckett “has achieved a theoretical impossibility … he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.”

“It’s not,” Mr. Stanford declares. “It’s the play in which absolutely everything that can happen to you happens. … Apart from childbirth.”

Following in the footsteps of the Gate Theatre, PICT has patterned its production after Beckett’s own, when the playwright directed it for Schiller Theater of Berlin in 1975. Mr. Stanford holds with the writer’s insistence that “Waiting for Godot” is all about — wait for it — waiting, and the games people play to pass the time while they wait. That’s it. No frills, no incidental music; just Vladimir and Estragon volleying words while waiting in vain for the unseen title character and encountering the servant Lucky and his pompous master, Pozzo.

“Godot is that light at the end of whatever you’re waiting for, and the idea that it may not come is wrapped up in the character of Lucky, which is what Samuel Beckett chose to call the man with no expectations,” Mr. Stanford explains.

This is a play that spits in the eye of wasting time while expertly showing how it is done. In a moment of clarity, Vladimir tells Estragon, “We wait. We are bored. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let’s get to work!”

Mr. Stanford doesn’t need a push to get to work these days. He’s usually there.

While re-creating “Godot” with his longtime collaborator, director Aoife Spillane-Hinks, Mr. Stanford addressed the audience each night before curtain for the season-opening “Blithe Spirit,” which he directed. He will direct the next PICT show, “Woman and Scarecrow,” by contemporary Irish writer Marina Carr, and the final show of the season, “Macbeth.”

“David Whalen deserves his Macbeth,” Mr. Stanford says of one of PICT’s favorite leading men.

In “Godot,” another company favorite, Martin Giles, returns to the stage as Estragon, “A role I’ve always wanted to play,” and James FitzGerald will portray Vladimir in his 13th production for PICT.

The season was already underway when the company got around to unveiling its new title. Mr. Stanford replaced “Classical” with “Classic” to enhance the idea that a work can be classic at any age. And “PICT” remained because the “Irish” part of the equation begun by Mr. Paul and Ms. Riso is not going away.

“PICT was always an acronym, but it was an acronym that always fit properly,” Mr. Stanford says, referencing the long ago Celtic tribe known as Picts. “ ‘PICT’ is a perfect description, because the Picts were a thorn in the side of the Romans, and any theater should be a thorn in the side of the imagination.”

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