Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Role of A Lifetime at Henley Street Theatre.


"I can add colors to the chameleon,
change shape with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it further off, I'll pluck it down."


I remember November of 1997. I was working as a day laborer for my cousin's construction business in Leesburg, VA. I toiled from sunup to sundown, laying bricks and doing spot-work with a group of migrant workers who didn't speak much English. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare at the time, and I kept practicing the above speech of Richard's from Henry VI, Part 3, Act III Scene ii. Over and over again. The guys I worked with just kind of stared at me. Either it was the language barrier, or I must have really sucked.

At the time, I had just finished a run as 'Northrup' at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and I was staying with my cousin to plot my next move and make (very little) money. I was also sending out headshots and resumes all over the place, but no one was hiring me, much less inviting me to audition for anything. It was truly 'The Winter of my discontent.' I felt like I couldn't get arrested if I tried. Things weren't going my way. A production of Cabaret-- that I was almost involved with-- became extended as a tour, and eventually moved from Sheffield MA to Boston, netting the non-union cast members their AEA Memberships, while I looked on enviously from a construction site in Virginia. Bad times.

Desperate to do some good work, I sent a headshot/resume to Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA, one town over from my hometown of Pittsfield. I placed a follow-up call to see if they got my materials, only to be told by someone there:

"I'm sorry, but we don't hire any actors who haven't completed our training course."

"Well, excuse ME!" I thought. I felt stonewalled at every turn, frustrated, and eager to prove myself. I was renting Shakespeare movies at night-- Olivier's 'Hamlet,' all the Kenneth Branaugh films, from Henry V to Hamlet to Much Ado-- and digging ditches and moving equipment by day. I bought a book of all of Shakespeare's plays and immersed myself in them, chewing up speeches and dreaming of playing everything in the canon while I cleaned up during walk-thrus of overpriced houses made for rich people I would never meet. I was very unhappy. All I wanted was to be taken seriously as an actor. I wanted to do good work in an environment where I felt comfortable and welcome. And I wanted to play many roles in Shakespeare's works, and I wanted to do them justice.

Eventually, I landed in Richmond, VA. I soon began a great working relationship with many theatres in town, including The Richmond Shakespeare Festival. Before I knew it, I had a job playing 'Malvolio' in a tour of Twelfth Night where I started dating my 'Olivia,' a sweet gal by the name of Jennifer Meharg, who is now my wife. As I write this almost 11 years later, I have added to my Shakespeare credits: Don Pedro in Much Ado, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, The Gravedigger in Hamlet, Stephano in The Tempest, Bottom in Midsummer (Twice!!) and Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew.

Quite a lineup for a guy who just a few short years prior was told he'd have to take classes in order to play with the other kids, no? Looking back, it is quite a mix. I played the statesman, the warrior, the jester, the death-dealer, the villain, the Ass (TWICE!!) and the Clown. Of course, all along, there was still one role I was dying to play. The character whose speeches I muttered under my breath as I carried a wheelbarrow full of bricks beside a tired old Guatemalan man who was probably wishing I would just shut up. One role that I always felt would combine aspects of all of the ones listed above. One role of which I always said, "I've got to do this someday, and do it WELL."

The role I wanted to do most of all?

Richard III.

It has often been called 'The Character Actor's Hamlet.' A tour-de force role that puts enormous physical, vocal and emotional demands on anyone who attempts it. Some of the best actors in the world have thrown themselves into it. Burbage. Olivier. Barrymore. Ian Holm. Ron Cook. Anthony Sher. Al Pacino. Robert Lindsay. Ian McKellan. Plus countless others who aren't household names, but whose artistic lives have surely been made more frustratingly wonderful by their time spent hacking through the 'Thorny Wood' of Richard's 'Inductions Dangerous.' Here in Richmond, the fantastic actor Rick Brandt danced with the crooked-backed 'Ultimate Bad Guy' in a 2003 Richmond Shakespeare Production, to sparkling notices.

Now, thanks to James Ricks, Alex Previtera and The Henley Street Theatre Company, I'll finally get my chance. I just hope I'm up to the task.

This fall, just in time for the 2008 Election cycle, I will attempt to bring Richard, Duke of Gloucester back to life under the direction of James Ricks at the brand new Henley Street Theatre Company. Director James Ricks and Artistic Director Alex Previtera, are really enthusiastic about bringing this production to the Richmond Theatre Audience.

James Ricks has perhaps the most tireless work ethic I have ever seen. His passion for this project has been unbelievable. James has spent almost a year and a half laying the groundwork and honing in on just what he wants this production to say, while finding a suitable home for it to grow. Well, after a lengthy search, Henley Street Theatre Company is the place. And we couldn't be happier about that.

I've known James Ricks for about two years now, since we worked together on SCAPINO! He is one of the most intelligent, intuitive, talented and passionate actors I know. His Hotspur in last year's production of Henry IV, Part One was the performance of the year in Richmond. James is a real gentleman-- an incredibly fun and funny guy to be around-- and, for real, my boy is Wicked Smahhht. He also likes my Mac N' Cheese. At least I think he does. He seemed to... He ate it all, I think.

Oh, yeah, he also likes hockey. Just not the Boston Bruins. The Bastid.

Anyway, I was able to see the fantastic Richmond Shakespeare Company production of Richard The Second that James directed last October, and I was blown away by his incredibly clear and passionate storytelling. The urgency and electricity of Shakespeare's language came to life with vitality and clarity. I look forward to working with him, and one thing is for certain: If I want to do well, I'd better do my freaking homework.

James' vision for communicating this classic story is fresh, original, first-rate, and above all TIMELY. The conversation this production should spark-- a lively discussion about power and media manipulation-- is going to be reeeeeally interesting.

I look forward to the challenge of finally playing Richard III, and I thank Alex Previtera and the Henley Street Theatre Company for their continuing mission to bring vibrant reinterpretations of classic plays to Richmond audiences. I think that Richard III will be something very special.

"I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die!!"
-R III, Act V Scene v


Richard III opens September 26th, 2008 and runs through October 18th, 2008 at Henley Street Theatre Company. Details will be available soon at www.Henleystreettheatre.org.

12 comments:

Andrew Hamm said...

You should do Richard as Homestar Runner:

"Now is the wintew of ouw discontent
Made glowious summew by this son of Yowk!"

Seriously, it woukd be great.

I'm feeling your joy, my brothah. I'm playing my role of a lifetime in Measure right now, and all it has done is stretch and grow me as an actor. I can't wait to see your performance.

Anonymous said...

You are going to destroy that role...there was an actor who did it an Cincy Shakes a couple of seasons ago who is like a poor man's Scott Wichmann and I watched thinking I would kill to see you do it. I may have to come back and check it out...

BTW, Shakespeare and Company sucks and Tina Packer is utterly insane...

Peace
Rick

Frank Creasy said...

My friend, my friend...my heart is filled with joy for you. The role of a lifetime, you say? Sure it is. Some would say you've had few of those already, as in "I Am My Own Wife." Quickly, they would add, you richly deserved them. I'd echo that sentiment.

I can totally relate to your story of 1997, except that mine was sometime in late 2001. Following years enjoying the study and teaching of karate, the tragedy of September 11th reminded me that life is brief and to borrow a phrase Andrew will appreciate, "The future is now." I had put theatre on the back burner too long. In early 2002, I went back to auditions once again, hoping someone would offer me a role, any role. Meanwhile, watching productions beautifully directed and performed at outstanding theatres such as Barksdale, I hoped one day to join that fine cadre of actors.

A few years later, I, too, began what has become a beautiful partnership with Richmond Shakespeare Theatre. Having played Caesar in an elementary school production, however, I never thought I'd become a Shakespearean actor. That was for far better actors than myself.

The summer of 2005 proved to be one I'll remember fondly to my dying day. Sharing the stage and becoming a friend to Scott Wichmann has been one of life's great blessings for me. That "Midsummer Night's Dream" was, indeed, a Dream come true. Andrew Hamm's beautiful, haunting music remains a fixture on my iPod, and brings a smile to my face every time the Shuffle god pushes it into my ear.

I know you'll devote all you have to this Richard. And one more thing: If I should get the chance to read for James for a supporting role, I'll lay all my cards on the table for another chance to share the stage with you. Barring that privileged pleasure, I'll gladly take a ticket in the house.

Congratulations to you Scotto. This promises to be one for the books.

Thespis' Little Helper said...

Had a great time reading with you yesterday. Greatly looking forward to seeing your full performance...A LOT! Rock it out man!

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