One Foote in Front of The Other

Despite his prolific career, it’s easy not to have heard of Horton Foote.

He’s won two Academy Awards, for his work adapting To Kill A Mockingbird for screen and for his original screenplay Tender Mercies, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for his 1995 play The Young Man From Atlanta.

But the role of a screenwriter, he’s quick to point out, is a thankless job. And despite his consistent work in the theatre, none of his stage plays have quite become household names.
Now ninety-two, the gravelly-voiced Mr. Foote cuts an imposing figure despite needing to be helped into his chair. On November 13, he participated in a platform discussion at Lincoln Center, which is producing his latest play, Dividing the Estate, on Broadway.

The event was moderated by Lincoln Center Review co-executive editor Anne Cattaneo. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Foote addressed his life as a writer who’s run the gambit throughout his career. He’s achieved dizzying heights along the way, but it’s clear his sturdy Texan boots are planted firmly on the ground.

Despite somewhat limited mobility, Foote is still very much involved in Lincoln Center’s Broadway production of Dividing the Estate, which takes place not at the company’s usual home at the Vivien Beaumont but at the Booth Theatre on 45th Street in the heart of the theatre district.

The play, which concerns the diyvying up of a Texan family’s estate, premiered in 1989 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. The play was substantially revised for its New York premiere at Primary Stages in 2007. Following the success of that production, the decision was made move to the main stem in order to reach a wider audience.

Though Foote seems happy to have his play on Broadway now, it hasn’t been a straight and narrow path that’s led him to this place in his career. When he was younger, he wanted to be an actor. In 1938, he was part of the American Actors Company, a group he co-founded with luminaries the likes of choreographers Jerome Robbins and Agnes DeMille, the latter of whom planted the seed of his playwriting career. The Russian-trained group of actors often carried out improvisational work. DeMille took note of his way with words, inquiring of him whether he’d ever thought about writing.

The result was his first play Wharton Dance, named after his home town in Texas (the play was later renamed Harrison Dance after word of the play’s satire reached his hometown folks). The company produced others of Foote’s debut works before the company disbanded in 1945 and Foote moved on in new directions.

Of acting, Foote said, “It gave me up,” though his early notices (including those for Wharton Dance) were positive. His focus shifted to writing, a talent he’s molded into the crux of his life’s work. “Sometimes I can’t sleep for thinking of ideas,” he said, adding that the geneses of great plays can’t be forced. What he considers most important is staying as close to the truth of one’s characters as possible and trusting in their motives, listening to them like a choir of independent voices. “I like it when they’re all there waiting for me,” he said of his characters. “I’ve learned you can’t force things.”

Foote’s early desire to act has clearly left an indelible mark on his theatrical outlook. Though Foote never writes characters for specific actors, he’s a champion of loyal actors once the play has been completed. “To me an actor is a sacred thing,” he said, citing dancer-actress Martha Graham and Tender Mercies star Robert Duvall as two of his favorites. But he refused to rattle off a longer list, for fear of leaving a valued friend out from amongst their ranks. “I’m grateful to all of them,” he added, humbled.

When moderator Cattaneo praised his even-keeled, encouraging temperament as one of the virtues that most endears him to colleagues, he was quick to evade her compliment, as if to remind her that he’s many things to many different people. “Ask my children,” he added, smiling.

If he’s anything less than easy-going around his family however, it’s difficult to imagine, though he regrets that he had to miss football games and other family events because of his dedication to his craft.

“A writer’s life is a selfish life in some ways,” he said with a note of nostalgia, adding “I think it’s best for the family to take part if they can.” Luckily, they’ve done just that. All four of his children have followed in his father’s footsteps, forging lives in the theatre. Two are actors (Horton, Jr. and Hallie), one is a playwright (Daisy), and the other is a director (Walter).

Hallie, who’s appeared in numerous productions of her father’s work, currently stars in Dividing the Estate. When asked if the lines blur between their familial and professional relationships, however, Foote said he was careful to draw the line. “We both respect that there is a point where you leave them alone,” he said of his characters, adding that she can come to him with questions about her role but that ultimately her interpretation must be filtered through the director, Michael Wilson in the case of this production.

Foote’s next project is a cycle he’s completed, The Orphan’s Home Cycle, nine plays meant ideally to be done in rotation. Four have already been made into experimental films. The plays loosely follow a character based on his father, tracking his experiences during the influenza epidemic, war, and the loss of his son.

Of the scope of the cycle, Cattaneo exclaimed that there must be an “epic virus in the air,” citing August Wilson’s career-spanning Century Cycle (featuring a play set in each decade of the twentieth century) as evidence. In Lincoln Center’s own recent past, another example comes to mind – Tom Stoppard’s nine-hour The Coast of Utopia, the three parts of which were presented in repertory to great critical acclaim.

He’s not sure just how his cycle will be done, or if it will ever be done with the grandeur of scope he envisions. But throughout the platform talk, he made it clear that if there’s anything he values it’s not-for-profit theatre “We’re so blessed as a nation,” he said, giving credit where credit to the theatre companies he sees to have most fostered the growth of playwrights and companies.

Asked if he’s working on anything new, he replied, “It’s the first time in my life that I’m not involved in something. I’m beginning to come out of this darkness,” he said of the intense creative process surrounding Dividing the Estate, “and then I see this light,” he added, referring to his nine-play cycle with a sense of excited dread.

Foote’s life is a testament to the adage that a writer’s work is never done. After he was finished speaking, he was off to the Booth to observe Dividing the Estate. Then, who knows? But if the breadth of Foote’s work looks as if it’s beginning to wane, he’d be the last to admit it.

Read the musicOMH review of Dividing The Estate.

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