For Kathleen Turner, Success Requires The Courage To Fail The actress is playing Mother Courage onstage in Washington, D.C. NPR's Jacki Lyden speaks with her about her singing debut, as well as her long and illustrious career.
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For Kathleen Turner, Success Requires The Courage To Fail

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For Kathleen Turner, Success Requires The Courage To Fail

For Kathleen Turner, Success Requires The Courage To Fail

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Kathleen Turner has been a film star and a stage star; a vamp and a tramp, comic and deadly. It's been a long, dramatic arc for Ms. Turner, whose voice now is both as warm and fuzzy as whiskey and as hard as the shot glass which holds it.


KATHLEEN TURNER: (as Mother Courage) I'm Mother Courage. Everybody knows me. 'Cause wait...

LYDEN: For the past six weeks, she's been Mother Courage, the 1939 character created in a play of the same name by Berthold Brecht. Set against the 30 Years War in Europe, Mother Courage is a war profiteer and a mother, a peasant without a country trying to calculate her chances of survival. And for this Arena Stage production here in Washington, audiences can hear Kathleen Turner sing.


LYDEN: But she changed her tune in that regard and for this production, there are more than 10 original compositions, many written just for Kathleen Turner. Brecht's play is considered one of the great dramas of all time. Staunchly anti-war, it showcases one of theaters great female protagonists.

TURNER: Mother Courage is one of those roles that most actors of substance intend to do.

LYDEN: Tell us what Mother Courage means to you and tell us a little bit about the play. Of course, you know, we know that she's pulling her cart across Europe. It's the early 1600s. She crosses Bavaria and Poland. She's come down from Latvia and...

TURNER: Sweden.

LYDEN: ...Sweden, all kinds of places.

TURNER: Well, it's the Thirty Years War, which was one of those examples of insanity that we are constantly creating, the humankind. Something like war starts, stopping it or finding avenues to resolve it are almost impossible. This is still clearly quite true today. Mother Courage, to me, is an eminently sensible, practical, I think, loving woman, mother. I've heard, you know, people, interviewers have said to me, well, didn't you find it difficult to play such an awful person? I'd say what?

LYDEN: You mean because she's been profiting from the war and will lose by it?

TURNER: Well, she is not a landowner. She doesn't have a position in any kind of society. She has to, whatever skills were available to her, which in this case is marketeering, essentially, black-market work, is a very respectable and a very positive sort of business for her to have as a woman with three children. I think she's done quite well to set herself up in this business.

LYDEN: She certainly is stalwart. But she's also often frightened. She's certainly frightened on behalf of her children. And this is one of the takeaway lines from the play:


LYDEN: Yeah, wow. You know, I have a special fondness for this play. This is the sauciest production I've ever seen of it. It was one of my first big plays. I was a young correspondent for this network in London in 1990; saw Glenda Jackson doing it...

TURNER: That would have been interesting, I think, yeah.

LYDEN: the Mermaid Theater in London. Oh, she was amazing. And it was a much more grim production that what you've put on.

TURNER: Well, this is something that is a hindrance. And I found this also with "Virginia Woolf." You know, people who had seen the film, you know, would say it's about two drunks screaming at each other. Why would I want to go spend three hours watching it? And, of course, that's not what the play is, was, at all. So, I run into this kind of attitude now. It's, oh, it's Brecht. It's about the Thirty Year War. It must be grim. It must be so - but, and you go, you know what? Come and laugh with us. Because you will.

LYDEN: Well, do you think the stage is where you want to remain now?

TURNER: Well, no. I still do on-camera work. Although I much prefer stage. I find filmmaking very slow, kind of boring, unless I'm directing it, which is a whole different thing. But I truly am of the philosophy that I have to find projects that I might fail at doing. Because if I don't, then I am just repeating what I already know I can do. And secondly I won't ever know what I might be able to do. Now, the risk is failing, you know. But that is the price of finding out what more you can do.

LYDEN: Kathleen Turner, it has been a real honor...

TURNER: Boy, that went fast.

LYDEN: ...(unintelligible) and talk with us.

TURNER: Thank you.


LYDEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin returns next week. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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