Foote Horton

Encore for Comedy by Horton Foote

Posted on March 6, 2009. Filed under: Foote Horton |

Published: January 4, 2009

Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” is one of the many Broadway productions that played its final performance on Sunday (it was planned as a limited engagement), but the show will go on in the spring. Hartford Stage has announced that the play, with most of the New York cast intact, will be presented in Hartford from May 28 to July 5, when it will replace the theater’s previously planned gospel musical “Gee’s Bend,” which has been postponed until next season. Mr. Foote’s comedy about a bickering Texas family is directed by Michael Wilson, the artistic director of Hartford Stage. His Connecticut production will feature the entire creative team from the recent co-production of Lincoln Center Theater and Primary Stages. The cast — including Hallie Foote, Arthur French, Penny Fuller and Gerald McRaney — will also head to Hartford but without Elizabeth Ashley. Ms. Ashley, who played the family matriarch, will join the Broadway company of “August: Osage County” next month.

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‘Dividing the Estate’ to Survive in Hartford

Posted on March 6, 2009. Filed under: Foote Horton |

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” is moving to Hartford.

Of the nine Broadway productions that closed this week, one is taking steps — some of them unusual — to revive itself for the Tony Awards and beyond, in spite of the current economic climate.

The new lease on life has been granted to “Dividing the Estate,” an acclaimed play by Horton Foote that began Off Broadway in 2007 and had a limited 10-week run on Broadway, which ended on Sunday. In May it will be transferring, largely intact, to Hartford Stage for five weeks. The producers and cast members said they hoped that the move would not only help Mr. Foote, who is 92, win his first Tony this June, but also interest other nonprofit theaters around the country in the production.

Hartford Stage will continue to pay the 13-member cast its Broadway-level salaries — about twice what it typically pays — and the current producer, Lincoln Center Theater, is providing the sets, costumes and scrim curtain to Hartford for only a nominal fee. The atypical arrangements also provide for five of the actors in “Dividing the Estate” to appear in a Hartford Stage production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” adapted by Christopher Sergel, which will immediately precede the reopening of Mr. Foote’s play.

If the production does receive Tony nominations, which will be announced on May 5, Tony voters would have a second chance to see the play at Hartford Stage, where it is to reopen on May 28. Tony balloting ends on the evening of June 5.

Mr. Foote is a longtime favorite of the New York theater world; he won Academy Awards for his screenplays of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies” and a Pulitzer Prize for his play “The Young Man From Atlanta,” which was seen on Broadway in 1997. (“Young Man” was nominated for best play that year, but lost to Alfred Uhry’s “Last Night of Ballyhoo.”)

“It would be wonderful to win, of course,” Mr. Foote said at the closing-night party for “Dividing the Estate” at Sardi’s on Sunday. “But I have come not to expect such things.”

Michael Wilson, who is both the director of “Dividing the Estate” and the artistic director of Hartford Stage, said he hoped the show’s run there would win attention from theaters in Washington or Los Angeles that might be interested in a transfer — or even from producers in New York, for another run in the city.

The Broadway production of the play was always intended to be a limited run; its theater, the Booth, was already booked with the forthcoming musical “The Story of My Life,” which opens next month. Still, given the strong reviews for “Dividing the Estate,” Mr. Wilson and cast members said they had hoped to extend the run at the Booth, perhaps with “The Story of My Life” finding another theater or delaying its opening.

“The cast and I had several discussions — we wanted this to continue,” Mr. Wilson said. “And we concluded that, if we can’t be in New York, two hours away is not very far. But having it run to coincide with the Tony Awards made it all the better.”

“Dividing the Estate” stood out as an anomaly in the 2008-9 season: it was neither a revival of a well-known play with movie and television stars in major roles (as in the case of “Equus,” “Speed-the-Plow,” “The Seagull” and “All My Sons”), nor a new play with a famous actor who is known to theatergoers of all ages (the coming “33 Variations,” which stars Jane Fonda).

Nor was it particularly successful financially, though because Lincoln Center Theater is a nonprofit producer, financial success was not the primary object. (Lincoln Center Theater’s current smash, “South Pacific,” is generating plenty of income.)

Lincoln Center Theater allocated $2.3 million for “Dividing the Estate.” During the play’s run on Broadway, revenue from ticket sales exceeded expenses for 6 out of the 10 weeks, said Bernard Gersten, the executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater.

Mr. Gersten said the play also filled, on average, about 80 percent of its audience seats; according to weekly reported grosses, that was a higher percentage in some weeks than those for “Equus” and “Speed-the-Plow” (though those shows are in houses with more total capacity). Mr. Gersten said the production brought in a total of $200,000 more than its weekly operating expenses.

About 45 percent of “Dividing the Estate” tickets went to Lincoln Center Theater members (who are similar to subscribers, but have more flexibility than a typical subscriber arrangement allows in choosing shows to attend); they paid $40 to $50 per ticket, while the rest of the tickets were sold to the general public. In the run’s final week the average paid admission was $65.90.

“I thought ‘Dividing the Estate’ did quite well, from a financial perspective, but Lincoln Center is not in this to make money, and you couldn’t call the show a real moneymaker, per se,” Mr. Gersten said. “Its importance to us was the high quality of the writing and the heartfelt quality of the performances.”

Mr. Foote, whose first play, “Texas Town,” was produced Off Broadway in 1941, had a few more productions on Broadway in the 1940s and ’50s; since then he has been represented there only by “The Young Man From Atlanta” in 1997 and “Dividing the Estate” this winter.

In 2006 Signature Theater Company was eager to find a Broadway house for its production of Mr. Foote’s “Trip to Bountiful,” which was widely praised, especially for the performance of Lois Smith in the leading role. Going to Broadway was “a no-brainer,” said James Houghton, Signature’s artistic director, but the producers could not find a vacant theater.

That failure to move to Broadway, which would have made the play eligible for the Tonys, was a severe disappointment to some of those involved in the production; they said privately that Mr. Foote would have had a good shot at a Tony for best revival of a play, and Ms. Smith for leading actress.

“Dividing the Estate,” meanwhile, was a critical and popular Off Broadway hit in the fall of 2007 at Primary Stages; it was next to impossible to get a ticket for its limited run, once the reviews appeared. Among its admirers was André Bishop, Lincoln Center Theater’s artistic director, who in 2002 had worked with Mr. Foote on a production of his play “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” which Mr. Wilson also directed.

“We had a relationship with Horton,” Mr. Bishop said, “and I very much wanted to work with him again, and ‘Dividing the Estate’ seemed like a wonderful Broadway play, and so many people had been unable to see it Off Broadway.”

With the continuing run of “South Pacific” taking up the larger Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, and its sister theater, the Mitzi E. Newhouse, occupied with other productions, Mr. Bishop and Mr. Gersten turned to Midtown theaters as homes for productions of “Dividing the Estate” as well as for their coming revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” by August Wilson.

The team behind “Dividing the Estate” said it hoped that its efforts to keep the show alive would not only reward Mr. Foote with a Tony but also prove that the current recession is not a death knell for some plays.

“The economy is proving very bad for a lot of theaters, a lot of productions,” Mr. Gersten said, “so I’m even more proud that you just can’t kill this play of Horton’s.”

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Two Theaters to Produce Nine-Play Cycle by Foote

Posted on March 6, 2009. Filed under: Foote Horton |

By PATRICK HEALY, Published: January 21, 2009

Signature Theater Company in Manhattan and Hartford Stage in Connecticut are teaming up to produce the world premiere of a nine-play cycle by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Horton Foote, performed in repertory over eight months.

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Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

Horton Foote in 2006.


Times Topics: Signature Theater CompanyHorton Foote

Mr. Foote, who is 92 and was most recently represented on Broadway with “Dividing the Estate,” said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that he had been working for months to adapt the nine plays — known collectively as “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” — into a “relatively tight” nine hours of theater.

“While I don’t want to lose too much from the original nine plays, I’m also well aware that I can’t ask people to sit there for 15 hours,” he added.

Mr. Foote’s adaptation of “Orphans’ Home” will be structured and performed in three parts. They will play in repertory and, at times, as daylong marathons.

The nine plays, including “1918” and “The Widow Claire,” were mostly written in the 1970s though often first produced later. They trace the life of Horace Robedaux, who is abandoned by his mother after his father’s death, and his experiences over two decades that encompass World War I and the flu epidemic of 1918. Horace is based on Mr. Foote’s father.

James Houghton, artistic director of Signature, which typically devotes its seasons to a single author (including Mr. Foote in 1994-95), said he pursued the “Orphans’ Home” project partly because he had a hole in 2009-10, since Suzan-Lori Parks had become too busy to complete a new play in time. The season devoted to her work has been postponed. A new play by Ms. Parks will make its debut at the Public Theater in June as part of the Public LAB series.

Mr. Houghton and Michael Wilson, who will direct the Foote cycle and is the artistic director of Hartford Stage, said in interviews on Wednesday that the production would cost several million dollars, but they added that final budgets, as well as casting decisions, had not been set. Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter who has won acclaim as an actor in many of his plays, is expected to be involved.

Mr. Wilson is the director of the Broadway production of “Dividing the Estate,” which is opening in May at Hartford Stage. The “Orphans’ Home” plays are scheduled to run from late August to mid-October 2009 at Hartford Stage and from late October to mid-April 2010 at Signature.

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Horton Foote, Chronicler of America in Plays and Film, Dies at 92

Posted on March 6, 2009. Filed under: Foote Horton |

Rod Aydelotte/Associated Press

Horton Foote on the set of “The Traveling Lady” at the Mabee Theatre at Baylor University in February 2004. More Photos >

Published: March 4, 2009

Horton Foote, who chronicled a wistful American odyssey through the 20th century in plays and films mostly set in a small town in Texas and who left a literary legacy as one of the country’s foremost storytellers, died on Wednesday in Hartford. He was 92 and lived in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and Wharton, Tex.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

From left, Arthur Miller, John Guare, Maria Irene Fornes, Edward Albee and Horton Foote. More Photos »

Mr. Foote died after a brief illness, his daughter Hallie Foote said. He had recently been living in Hartford while adapting his nine-play “Orphans’ Home Cycle” into a three-part production that will be staged next fall at the Hartford Stage Company and the Signature Theater in New York.

In a body of work for which he won the Pulitzer Prize and two Academy Awards, Mr. Foote was known as a writer’s writer, an author who never abandoned his vision even when Broadway and Hollywood temporarily turned their backs on him.

In screenplays for movies like “Tender Mercies,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Trip to Bountiful,” and in plays like “The Young Man From Atlanta” and “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” Mr. Foote depicted the way ordinary people shoulder the ordinary burdens of life, finding drama in the resilience by which they carry on in the face of change, economic hardship, disappointment, loss and death.

Robert Duvall, an actor who was one of Mr. Foote’s most frequent interpreters, making his screen debut in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) and winning an Oscar for best actor in “Tender Mercies” (1983), said on Wednesday that “Horton was the great American voice.” He added, “His work was native to his own region, but it was also universal.”

Frank Rich, who as chief theater critic of The New York Times in the 1980s was one of Mr. Foote’s champions, once called him “one of America’s living literary wonders.” On Wednesday Mr. Rich described Mr. Foote as “a major American dramatist whose epic body of work recalls Chekhov in its quotidian comedy and heartbreak, and Faulkner in its ability to make his own corner of America stand for the whole.”

In 1986, in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, Mr. Foote expounded on the themes that run through his work, saying, “I believe very deeply in the human spirit and I have a sense of awe about it because I don’t know how people carry on.” He added: “I’ve known people that the world has thrown everything at to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. And yet something about them retains a dignity. They face life and they don’t ask quarters.”

Mr. Foote spent most of his life writing about such people. In more than 60 plays and films, most set in the fictive town of Harrison, Tex., he charted their struggle through the century by recording their familial conflicts.

He often seemed to resemble a character from one of his plays. Always courteous and courtly, he spoke with a Texas drawl. He enjoyed good food and wine, but he usually opted for barbecue and iced tea or fried chicken with a Coca-Cola when he was home in Texas. He was jovial with a wry humor, and his white hair and robust frame gave him the appearance of a Southern senator or the favorite uncle who always had a story. Harper Lee, a lifelong friend since Mr. Foote adapted her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” once said that Mr. Foote “looked like God, only cleanshaven.”

Albert Horton Foote Jr., one of three sons of Albert Horton Foote and the former Hallie Brooks, was born March 14, 1916, in Wharton, Tex., a town about 40 miles southwest of Houston. His father was a haberdasher and his mother taught piano.

Although he boarded a train for Dallas at 16 to pursue acting, Mr. Foote never really left home. From his first efforts as a playwright, he returned again and again to set his plays and films amid the pecan groves and Victorian houses with large front porches on the tree-lined streets of Wharton. His inspiration came from the people he knew and the stories he heard growing up there.

Mr. Foote spent two years studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, then went to New York to become a Broadway star. He continued his studies there with Tamara Daykarhanova, a Russian émigré, and joined Mary Hunter’s American Actors Company. While rehearsing a production of one-acts, Ms. Hunter had her cast perform improvisations based on life in the actors’ hometowns. After Mr. Foote performed his, Agnes De Mille, who was doing choreography for another show, asked Mr. Foote if he had ever considered writing.

“No,” he replied. “What on earth would I write about?”

Ms. DeMille, who became a lifelong friend, gave Mr. Foote the age-old advice to every beginning playwright. “Write what you know about,” she said.

Mr. Foote went home that night and wrote a one-act called “Wharton Dance,” about the Friday-night dances in his hometown. He wrote the lead part for himself. The company performed the play in an evening of one-acts.

Mr. Foote continued to pursue acting and appeared in a few other plays. Then, during a trip home, he decided to write another play. This time he spread a large canvas, writing a three-act, multilayered drama set in a small-town drugstore. He called it “Texas Town,” and the American Actors Company staged it in 1941, with Mr. Foote in the lead.

To Mr. Foote’s and the company’s surprise, Brooks Atkinson, the critic for The Times, came to see it. Atkinson called it an “engrossing portrait of small-town life.” He praised it for being “simply written” and for giving “a real and languid impression of a town changing in its relation to the world.” He added, “Mr. Foote’s play is “an able evocation of a part of life in America.”

To support himself, Mr. Foote took various jobs, including night elevator operator and bookstore clerk. While working in the bookstore a Vassar student came in looking for a summer job. Her name was Lillian Vallish. Mr. Foote asked her on a date, and the two were married the next year, on June 4, 1945. They had four children and remained together until Ms. Foote’s death in 1992.

Besides his daughter Hallie, an actress who became a main interpreter of her father’s plays, Mr. Foote is survived by his three other children — Horton Jr., who also acted and directed and is a restaurant owner in New York; Walter, a lawyer; and Daisy, also a playwright — and two grandchildren.

After World War II, Mr. Foote and Lillian moved to Washington to run the King Smith School along with Vincent Donehue. (Mr. Foote had been barred from serving in the military during the war because of a hernia.) The new theater fashion in those years was to blend words, music and dance into one theatrical experience, and Mr. Foote tried to write in the new form. One achievement during the Washington years was that Mr. Foote opened the King Smith theater to all races, the first integrated audiences in the nation’s capital.

Mr. Foote returned to New York in 1950, just as television was beginning to command America’s attention and producers like Fred Coe were recruiting writers to work for it. Mr. Donehue was hired by Mr. Coe to produce a weekly TV show for children that starred Gabby Hayes, the cowboy movie star and Roy Rogers sidekick.

Mr. Foote went to work for Mr. Coe at NBC, and his first assignment was to help write weekly half-hour episodes of “The Gabby Hayes Show.” In his spare time he continued to write plays. One, “The Chase,” in 1952, introduced Kim Stanley to Broadway, although it did not have great critical success.

Mr. Coe shortly signed Mr. Foote to a contract to write nine one-hour dramas for television. Mr. Coe liked to have one-page plot synopses from his writers, but for his third TV drama, Mr. Foote recalled, he didn’t know how to put it on paper. So, by his account, he just told Mr. Coe the plot.

“It’s about an old lady who wants to go home,” Mr. Foote said.

“That’s it?” Mr. Coe asked

“That’s it,” Mr. Foote replied.

“Go ahead,” Mr. Coe said. “I trust you.”

“The Trip to Bountiful” starred Lillian Gish as the gentle and long-suffering widow Carrie Watts. The play would have several incarnations over Mr. Foote’s life, including a version on Broadway, a revival Off Broadway, a London production and, three decades later, a 1985 movie for which Geraldine Page would receive an Academy Award for best actress and Mr. Foote was nominated for the screenplay.

Mr. Foote went on to write 10 plays for television, mostly for Television Playhouse and mostly directed by Mr. Donehue. When Mr. Coe moved from NBC to CBS, Mr. Foote wrote several teleplays for “Playhouse 90,” including adaptations of the Faulkner stories “Old Man” and “Tomorrow.” Faulkner was so impressed with the latter that he offered to split the publication royalties with him.

Television had moved to the West Coast by this time, and Mr. Foote’s work in TV there led to his first film projects. One of them was to adapt a screenplay of Ms. Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” about a white Southern lawyer defending a black man on rape charges. For his screenplay Mr. Foote received his first Academy Award. Gregory Peck won best actor for his performance as the lawyer, Atticus Finch, and the film introduced to the screen a young actor named Robert Duvall as the eccentric Boo Radley.

Mr. Foote had another film success with “Baby, the Rain Must Fall” (1965), a reworking of his play “The Traveling Lady.” The film starred Steve McQueen.

But Mr. Foote’s Hollywood honeymoon began to sour. His next Hollywood venture was to adapt his play “The Chase” into a screenplay. But studio executives were unhappy with the script, and the producer Sam Spiegel hired Lillian Hellman to rewrite it. When the final film version was released, almost none of Mr. Foote’s original material remained. Mr. Foote was then hired by Otto Preminger to work on a screenplay for “Hurry Sundown” (1967), but the producer never used a word of his dialogue, although Mr. Foote appeared in the credits as a co-writer.

The experiences so depressed Mr. Foote that he moved to New Hampshire to live on a farm, and even contemplated giving up writing. It was after the death of his parents that Mr. Foote began the nine-play cycle called “The Orphans’ Home,” inspired by his father’s family and spanning 1902 to 1928. The first of these plays were staged in New York by Herbert Berghof, who with his wife, Uta Hagen, ran the H-B Theater workshop. It marked the start of the Foote revival.

If Brooks Atkinson helped launch Mr. Foote’s first career as a writer, it was Mr. Rich, of The Times, who helped start his revival with enthusiastic reviews of the cycle’s plays. Producers started paying attention to Mr. Foote’s work again, and a new generation of audiences was introduced to his work.

One of those who applauded Mr. Foote’s return was the director and producer Alan J. Pakula, who had hired him to write the screenplay for “Mockingbird.” “In a seemingly undramatic way,” Mr. Pakula said, Mr. Foote “has a specific voice, a specific style, and he has never abandoned it, even though it has cost him.”

While Mr. Foote worked on “The Orphans’ Home” cycle, his agent, Lucy Kroll, suggested he write an original screenplay. He began working on a story about a group of young singers trying to break into country and western music. When his daughter Hallie reminded him that Mr. Duvall could sing, Mr. Foote started molding a character for him.

The movie, “Tender Mercies,” was written specifically with Mr. Duvall in mind for the role of Mac Sledge, a washed-up, alcoholic singer who finds redemption in the love of a young Vietnam War widow and her small son. The film was shot in Waxahachie, Tex., for only $4.5 million, and at first no studio wanted to distribute it. But, Mr. Duvall went on to win the best-actor Academy Award and Mr. Foote received his second Oscar for the screenplay.

With his new success, Mr. Foote again turned toward writing movies, but this time he pursued an independent route. With his wife, Lillian, as producer and the rest of his family acting or working behind the scenes, he made movies of two plays in the “The Orphans’ Home” cycle, “1918” and “On Valentine’s Day.” Both were shot in Waxahachie, cost under $2 million each and starred Hallie Foote.

The second act of Mr. Foote’s career was given an extended run by the Signature Theater, an Off Off Broadway company that devoted its 1994-95 season to his work. One of the Foote plays that season had been written some years earlier, but had never been performed. It was “The Young Man From Atlanta” and was about a couple nearing retirement in Houston in the 1950s and trying to come to terms with their grown son’s suicide and suspected homosexuality. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

As the 21st-century dawned, Mr. Foote wrote “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” a play in which three grown daughters of a carpetbagger look back over their lives and the 20th century in alternating monologues. It was staged at Lincoln Center and drew sold-out audiences in an extended run. Another revival of “The Trip to Bountiful,” with Lois Smith, was a hit for Signature Theater, and Mr. Foote scored a Broadway success with the revival of “Dividing the Estate,” under Michael Wilson’s direction.

Mr. Wilson, director of the Hartford Stage, and James Houghton of the Signature, put together the production of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” that will be staged in the fall and was Mr. Foote’s lifelong dream.

Mr. Foote had all but completed work on adapting those plays at his death. Only a week ago, he had seen a preview performance of the stage version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Hartford Stage Company and had been anticipating the staging of “Dividing the Estate” there in April.

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing,” he said in a 1999 interview. “I write almost every day. I’d write plays even if they were never done again. You’re at the mercy of whatever talent you have.”

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