What Woody "sez," the A.R.T. audience believes

by Alicia Anstead

The other night, when David Lutken began playing his guitar for the opening scene of Woody Sez at American Repertory Theater, the audience fell silent in a combination of readiness and reverence. The show is about folk and Everyman icon Woody Guthrie, whose populist music -- This Land Is Your Land -- taps deeply into the American spirit and identity. Lutken, who plays both the narrator and Guthrie in the show -- he is also co-creater and music director -- channels Guthrie and, with three additional uber-talented cast members, the milieu of Guthrie's life and times. The result is part revival, part rally -- to the human spirit and to the power and penetration of folk music. The show, running through May 26 at the Loeb Drama Center, is a 90-minute tribute to Guthrie. But the experience is as much about the performances as it is about the stirring of Cambridge audience members -- many of whom are likely to bring their guitars, mouth harps, fiddles, spoons -- you name it -- to a series of post-show hootenannies with the cast and special guests. Below is an edited and condensed interview with Lutken, whose championing of Guthrie is nothing short of an American mission.

Why did you want to write a show about Woody Guthrie?

I’ve done a lot of guitar playing in my life. When I began working in the theater in the late 1980s, I immediately caught the wave of what could be called "guitar theater." It’s been a great thing for me, and I’ve done a lot of varied things in the last 25 years. I happened to know about Woody Guthrie from being a folk musician for a long time, and Woody’s life is really what it is. That’s really what it is about: Woody. What he did, what he accomplished and what he tried to accomplish with the music he wrote. Woody’s story is all the more interesting because of the life that underlies it. And that’s what made it theatrical. What he was trying to do with his music and social consciousness was, to some degree, unique.

What’s unique about his life?

Part of what is unique about his life is his tragedies and his travels, which he experienced all because of his art. It occurred to me that Woody’s life and experiences with his mother and her descent into madness and all the operatic things going on around him – his house burning down, his sister dying, his father being set on fire – swirled into this tornado of poetry and creativity in him. Then when it came out, it also had an element of speaking for the displaced and trying to get people to do right.

You talk about wanting to change people’s minds with this show. That’s no small mission. What is it that you want to change people’s minds about?

When I first got the idea to do this a long time ago it was with the help and encouragement of Harold Leventhal, who was Woody’s old manager – and Pete Seeger’s manager, and Arlo Guthrie’s manager and Bob Dylan’s manager for a little while. Harold was a great old guy. I came to him with the idea of doing a children’s show, and he went into the back room and dusted off an old script of his called California To The New York Island. This was right after George W. Bush had been elected president for the first time. I was looking to do something international to try to prove we could export art and other things that didn’t have to do with what our international image was at the time. To cut to the chase, we ended up touring all over Austria and the Czech Republic and central Europe a few years later. In Austria, a teacher came up to me and said: Young man, are you responsible for this? And I said: Well, yes sir. And he said: You should be very proud because you have done more for you country in 45 minutes than your government has done in the last 25 years. I got all choked up and thought that was great. When it came around to going on to create a real theater piece beyond the children’s show, I guess I always kept that fellow in mind.

The audience has intense identification with the character of Woody Guthrie in this show. It’s almost like a revival. What’s it like for you to represent an American icon? Is it creepy?

My portrayal onstage – whomever I am in a show – is influenced heavily by the writer Peter Stone and his musical The Will Rogers Follies, which I did on Broadway as an understudy for the guys who played Will Rogers. That, too, is a role where the actor is in one way always himself and is playing the title character narrating his own life from some omniscient perspective. It’s sort of like The Great Gatsby being told by Gatsby instead of by Nick. So it’s three-tiered. To use some actor-school speak: I go in and out of two circles of concentration. Both of them are playing Woody Guthrie. It’s only rarely that I go back to David playing Woody Guthrie playing himself. It’s fun and interesting and strange. I suppose it’s eerie. Not creepy.

Do you come from a family that prized music?

There are a lot of musical influences in my family. My father’s mother was a classically trained pianist from the backwoods of Mississippi. She was a brilliant musician and a soloist with symphonies and orchestras in the 19-teens. Then she married my grandfather and had three sons. She continued to play all of her life, but not at the professional level. My mother’s father – also from Mississippi – was an interesting and garrulous fellow who played popular stuff. He knew all kinds of old songs and was not a musician but would sing and dance. So that was a big influence on all of us. I’m the youngest of four children, and all of my older siblings play mostly string instruments – my one brother plays a wind instrument. When I was a little boy, that’s just what everyone was doing. I studied classics at Duke University -- and played in bars and honky-tonks -- and in 1986 at age 30, I went to acting school in London and got a classical education in theater. I went to New York City and immediately got a job playing a guitar in a musical. The very first show I did was a show about Woody Guthrie back in 1988.

What have you learned from this internal encounter with Woody Guthrie? As a human being – not as an actor – what’s your takeaway?

I keep coming back to a quote of Woody’s that I’ve always really liked that is not in the show. He said: "I think back through my life to all the people that I owe. I mean the ones that I can remember in person. Of course I know that I owe these folks, and they owe some other people, and all of us are in debt to others. And all of us owe everybody, and the amount that we owe is all that we have. And the only way I could ever pay back all of you good walkers and talkers is to work." I guess that applies to me. I learned through the whole process that there isn’t any such thing as a one-man show. I could not have done the physical production without the help of all these other people. But as an actor, I couldn’t have done any of this without my grandmother and grandfather and siblings, and Woody’s sister Mary Jo. These all add up to what happens every night when you walk out there.

[Caption: David Lutken as Woody Guthrie in "Woody Sez." PHOTO: Wendy Mutz]