Stretching the boundaries of her already full and rich career, Kathleen Turner will enter the world of Terpsichore with her participation in a program from Rioult Dance NY. I caught this exciting company’s Edith Piaf homage last spring and was dazzled by its vibrant mélange of choreographic styles, storytelling, and sound, and snatched the chance to speak with artistic director Pascal Rioult, and his very special guest star, a broad in the best sense of the word — down to earth, fun, and possessed of the most merrily twinkling blue eyes I have ever seen.
Turner explained, “Years ago, a very dear friend, Terry Rieser, who’s on the board of the Rioult company, took me to see them and I was very, very impressed by them. So I’ve come back on my own and with Terry. And this one, Pascal, writes me in early spring that he’s doing a piece about women in war, which is very, very attractive to me to begin with, and he wants a narrator. And I said, as I always do, ‘I need to read it, because I don’t do anything blind.’ So he sent me the script and it was good, and then I came to see the dances. Perhaps I’m prejudiced but the ones playing Helen and Cassandra are just amazing. I’m knocked out by them. I was an athlete, but never a dancer. So then I was sunk.”
Rioult added, “It’s a triptych. Three pieces in one evening called ‘Women on the Edge: the Unsung Heroines of the Trojan War.’ It’s based on Euripides, who always made sure that women had a central, important role, which was not common back in his day. But he obviously had a sense that women were more important than men and gave them always a role behind the scenes, at the edge of the action, which always fascinated me.
“The first piece is about Helen of Troy — ‘On Distant Shores’ — which is more a fantasy than really a tragedy. And then I did Iphigenia, the daughter who was sacrificed, another woman being used, and Helen was the pretext to this terrible war and men pillaging, which by the way, is the first war of the East against the West. It’s very current in a sense.
“And Cassandra is the third one, the one who knows what is going to happen and tries to tell the Trojans not to bring the horse into the city because this is the end of everything. But they don’t believe her because she’s cursed, with no one ever believing what she prophesizes. To me, she represents the voice of reason, so it was fascinating to me, as it became — For God’s sake, can’t we learn from the past?”
Rioult then talked about his delight in working with Turner, saying, “I have to say how much of an honor it is for me to work with Kathleen. I didn’t think she would say yes.”
“You knew I was a softie,” she interjected. “Terry told you I’d do it.”
Rioult continued, “It’s such a privilege to have her, the professionalism, which we also have as dancers. Her dramatic timing is wonderful, and on top of that she’s dedicating this to powerful women and women who’ve suffered. I think it’s just perfect.”
Turner observed, “There was an article today about how Orlando won’t generate any new protections or laws because of the political power of the NRA and the Republican Party’s fear of offending them. And, sad to say, I imagine it’s true. Women really do need to run this country.”
When I mentioned that Turner has always been something of a political activist, she responded, “I have, indeed. It is now 27 or 28 years that I’ve been chairman of the board of advocates for Planned Parenthood. And for 31 years, I have been on the board of People for the American Way and our mission is the protection of the First Amendment and watchdog on the religious right, so you can imagine how busy we are now. Extraordinary.
“The other group I do the most work with is City Meals on Wheels. I’m on the board and all of this takes up most of my time. I cannot take on another cause, because I believe that you cannot use my name unless I’m there. I will not just be a figurehead, and as the years go by that takes on a great deal of value because people know if thy see my name, they know I will be there.”
I thanked Turner for her searing, funny, and perceptive performance of Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” saying that after the Mike Nichols film of it, in which Elizabeth Taylor was out of her depth, and even a one-night live performance by its original star, Uta Hagen (who played her like a truck driver), the play finally made sense to me.
Of Taylor, Turner said, “Sometimes, I think I’ve spent half of my career fixing her performances. You know, with “Cat [on a Hot Tin Roof]” and ‘Virginia Woolf,’ for heaven’s sake, not to mention how awful her voice was. [Laughs.]
“To get that part, I went to Edward Albee and said quite bluntly that I didn’t think the comedy had ever been realized, and I still think that. I mean, Albee hated the film altogether, but he didn’t have the power to control it then. He said, ‘Really?’ and he let me do a reading for him. I asked Bill Irwin and David Harbour to do it with me. And at the end of the first act, he came over and said, ‘I’ve never heard anything like this since Uta Hagen.’ I get very cocky when I’m nervous, and I said, ‘Yes, and you’ve only heard one act!’ Idiot that I am, but, never mind.”
I asked her if she’d ever met Tennessee Williams, who wrote “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Years ago, when I moved to New York, I was interning at some event at which he was appearing,” Turner recalled. “They said, ‘You have to assist him and keep him sober.’ Yeah, right. What he decided he wanted to do was not enter the stage from the wings, but to come up from the orchestra. I said, ‘I don’t think they’ll let us do that,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Right, so we’re coming up from the orchestra and he bumps his head badly, and he’s reeling around. And I couldn’t possibly handle this guy — I’m a little thing. Well, I was never little, but, anyway, I certainly couldn’t handle his weight. We finally got him offstage and I thought, ‘Well, that’s it, never again.’ So I cannot say I knew him. I just had to try and handle him one night.”
Turner’s mention of Taylor’s voice reminded me of an early interview in which she, with her trademark sexy-husky trademark tones, railed against American women’s voices — shrill and Valley girl-ish.
“Oh, yeah. One of the things I do with People for the American Way is our young elected officials program. We have training seminars in which we teach them how to network, fund raise, and maintain, this kind of practical stuff, which I relate to most. I go and spend a few hours with young women, talking about their voices, their body posture, all that sort of thing. I met with some 30 women a couple weeks ago in Chicago, and I said, ‘First off, anyone who says “like” more than once is in deep shit. And if you say, “Um,” I will kick you.’ So there was all this, and I said, ‘Oh, yes, inflection.’
“But we had a great time and I’ve gotten so much feedback that it was practical advice that was really usable to them, so now they can review their speeches and presentations again, with those things in mind. I had a ball doing it.”
“You’re changing the sound of the world, one woman at a time,” I said, and Turner replied, “Damn right. I used to have a game with Lauren Bacall. When we first met, God knows how many years ago, we were at a restaurant. I went up to her and said, ‘Good evening, Miss Bacall, I’m Kathleen Turner.’ She said, ‘Oh, yes. You’re the new me.’ And I said, ‘Oh no, no. I would never say that. No one can be you.’
“So thereafter, every time we met, we had this little game where I said, ‘Good evening, Miss Bacall.’ ‘Good evening, Miss Turner.’ And I’d say [going lower], ‘How are you this evening?’ ‘Very well, thank you. And how are you?’ How low can you go — that was great fun. I liked her a lot.
“I’m turning 62 this weekend. Well, we’re still here and working. My rheumatoid arthritis is always there, but it’s under control. There’s no cure, but I have remission and I work out at least four times a week to try and keep mobile. Unfortunately, this spring I got a herniated disc. I already have arthritis of the spine and that really knocked me out for a while. I was like, ‘Really? I have to go through this now? But I am doing extremely well: I do two days a week of pilates with these amazing trainers. I think pilates gave me back my movement. They told me 20 years ago I’d be in a wheelchair and I said, ‘You’re fired.’
“Two days a week, I also work on crossfit training, very mildly. I need weights — and cardio, which I do on my own. If I don’t keep the muscles very strong, then the joints are threatened again. These are the facts of life for me.”
Coming up for Turner: “I’m going down to do ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ in Washington, DC, at Arena Stages, which is a brilliant space. I love it and did two productions there, one of which was ‘Mother Courage,’ which is ‘Lear’ squared, which tells me I can do ‘King Lear’ next.”
All of those plays have a whole lot of lines in them, and I wondered if remembering them is ever a problem, having known Patricia Neal who, after a certain age, refused to do anything unless a script was in front of her.
“Fuss and bother! You get better. You’re more trained. The brain doesn’t break down, like the body does, at least not yet.”
Wishing every single person in our magnificently varied tribe a memorable, joyous, and safe Pride. They may bully and attack, even kill us, but we are not going any-fucking-where. We are a simple fact of life. Accept it, haters.
RIOULT DANCE NY | Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave. at 19th St. | “Women on the Edge… Unsung Heroines of the Trojan War”| Jun. 23 & 25, at 8 p.m.; Jun. 26, at 7:30 p.m. (Kathleen Turner narrates Jun. 23 & 25) | Dream Suite, Polymorphous,” “Duets,” “Bolero” | Jun. 24 at 8 p.m.; Jun. 25-26 at 2 p.m. | $41- $56 at joyce.org or 212-212-0800