Six actors. In search of 11 characters? No, that’s a different story. This is the story of the six actors who are playing 11 roles in the adaptation of Tartuffe currently being presented by the Annapolis Shakespeare Theatre in the Courtyard at Reynolds’ Tavern this summer. With the brilliant concept that ‘bodies are humorous’ (coined by Director Sally Boyett-D’Angelo) in mind, I sat down to discuss with the cast in a free-for-all conversation style interview the notion of reviving this classic in a more modern manner. Here is Part 1 of that conversation. Part 2 will appear tomorrow.
Amanda: What was it like working with the more modernized approach, adapted by Timothy Mooney?
Ryan Neely: I think it definitely makes the text more accessible to the audience. I think this adaptation has a modern tone and a modern ring to it, which is easier for the modern ear to pick up. Our ears hear very differently than how Tartuffe was originally written, and you sort of ask yourself at what point do we pick up what’s really happening and I think with this particularly adaptation; the text lends itself to the way we expect to hear and interpret things.
Alyssa Bouma: There are several places in the script where it sounds more modern so we picked up those places and really played with those so that the audience will really hear those moments. We have these moments, vocal expressions of “huh” and then we have these childish modern fight from my and Ryan’s character—it’s you leave, no you leave, no you leave, no you leave! That whole concept of that argument has a very modernized flow and feel to it, and it’s written write into the text, not in so many words, but those are the things that will catch the audience’s ear and enable them to more thoroughly enjoy what they’re hearing.
And then of course there’s just everything that Tartuffe (played by Stephen Horst) is doing, especially with Orgon (played by Alex Foley) it just has this mad feel to it. Sally wanted these big over-the-top reactions all around and you really get that with the two of them, and it plays right into the modernization of this adaptation.
You guys get to play around with a lot of accents because of the character doubling, how did you establish these sounds and what was that experience like?
Ryan: First off I think we wanted to really establish the Received Pronunciation as this very simplistic British based dialect. That is where the house resides, in a neutral English accent and the world builds around that base from there. I have three different characters that are each vocally distinct from one another. My monsieur Loyal is the only one of my characters that actually says where he’s from—France—so he’s the only one that I really pushed to bring that out in his accent. Valere falls into the standard RP and then my officer character at the end does a sort of Cockney sound which just breaks down the class structure by sound.
Alex Foley: To be perfectly honest the sound I end up creating for Orgon is just a creation all my own and sometimes I just like to talk that way— sort of like I’m talking now. I know he’s the patriarch figure of the family so he has to be articulate, and he’s older so his voice is going back up into this old man voice except for when he’s really angry. He’s really just this befuddled old man who gets taken advantage of and the sound just comes from there.
I actually pulled a little inspiration from when I played Toby in Twelfth Night two years ago, and it’s nice to have that character in my repertory because he’d this old person and good to pull inspiration from for those big angry moments that Orgon encounters.
Alyssa: My accent, like Ryan said, started with the basic RP and I listened to Lauren, who played my mother. I was trying to keep up the propriety of her character because she speaks with this little higher class accent and I kept with that but added a little whine. Sally is always saying, “Pitch is too high! Pitch is too high!” So I kept trying to bring it lower to make the audience want to kill me when they’d hear me speak.
Where are you drawing your particular character inspirations from?
Ryan: Um, I think with my three characters I always have something in mind, it’s always this hodgepodge of things I’ve previously played or read. I think the accent is really from other roles I’ve played, there was definitely a character from a while back who was blustery but laid back and he was French, so I know for Loyal I’m drawing from that.
With Valere it’s more important for him to understand his function in the play as the young love interest who is in love with Marianne. And with that comes certain not responsibilities but duties; and with those duties, discovering how to express them in that role.
Alex: I’m not really drawing from anything or anyone in particular, other than Toby like I mentioned, but even then not really. I always find that all characters end up slightly different through the rehearsal process than how you originally thought they might. This is what Orgon happened to become. I mean I do use some of the tricks for playing an old person; older people don’t move very gracefully their arms don’t move and flow the way that they used to. So I use that physicality for Orgon and it’s just sort of natural. He’s me, no acting, he is Potato Lumpkins. ;-)
Alyssa: It’s funny because you know I saw my costume before we actually started rehearsing, we put them on, Maggie had found a couple of dresses for me to try out, and I put this one on, and I was just like, “Oh My God I am an American Girl Doll!” My sister had this Kristen American Girl Doll and “Oh My God, I’m a doll!” So that whole notion of becoming this character through costume discovery happened for me, and then I’m basically the company ingénue so I just try to make all of the characteristic differences in Marianne based on those two concepts.
Sally and I actually just saw Peter and the Starcatcher and the girl playing Molly had fantastic facial expressions, they were just larger than life. So when we were rehearsing I just kept thinking about her and really drew from her to help find Marianne.
Alex and Alyssa you each only have one role in this show—what’s that like for you while everyone else is running around doubling and tripling?
Alex: For me, just personally, I like it. It gives me a chance to really focus on one character and just do him justice. Orgon’s in a lot—he has 10 whole pages when he’s not there but then for everything else—the whole rest of the time he’s on stage and actively a part of the show. To be Orgon and then to be double cast would be nigh impossible I just couldn’t’ do him justice if that were the case. Orgon has all these lines so in my case, the less lines I have to commit to memory, the better. And it would be too much to just try and act out— by the end of it I’d just be one puddle of sweat on the ground because he’s already running around all over the place. So let’s just let him be.
Alyssa: Um, well the way the girls’ roles are worked out there really is no one else for Marianne to double with so I am quite content with the way that worked out. One day I’d love to do more than one role at a time because it’s a good actor exercise. To have to make that switch and to keep it clean; but in the mean time it’s nice to focus on one human and focus on her and her alone to really figure out what’s going on inside her head. I just came off of Pride & Prejudice as Jane, while understudying Elizabeth and that was about all my brain could take, so this was a nice change of pace.
There is definitely a deterioration of the 4th wall in this particular production because you are playing not only to the audience but you are in the audience. What are your thoughts on how that works for this show?
Alex: It definitely has its virtues and its vices, just like everything. What I mean to say is it’s a lot of fun because in some ways it makes the show better because you can bring the audience in and really engage with them. I’m ducking in and out of the audience and playing with them and it makes them a part of the story, but it’s also a danger because you run the risk of stepping too far out of character while pandering the audience for laughs and you can find yourself easily distracted.
Ryan: The saying in clowning is “the audience is your only hope” and that is essentially true for this show because in this show the audience is another character. They aren’t just watching you they’re there with you, and you can really see if what you’re doing is working or not and get help from them.
Alyssa: Um, I agree that it has its upsides and its downsides. It is such a dangerous but exciting feeling to be so close to the audience in every way; physically, mentally—
Ryan: They’re right there—they could just reach out and grab you. It’s very different from how we traditionally perform.
Alyssa: And because of that more so than normal we really have to make sure to keep it fresh and new every time. It’s hard to get a sense of doing something you memorized, but you really get that “be present in the moment” with Tartuffe because you can’t rehearse every single moment because of the audience being right there. And it’s a unique experience as well as a challenge.
Alex: Initially when I make the rounds out into the tables I’m not a silent character, but you get some people who are like “OMG this weirdo is behind me!” and then there are others who are like “Rahrah and totally agree with me.” That’s when you know that you’ve got them, that they’re with you on this journey, and having them right there with you is a great feeling.
We keep hearing the phrase “Bodies Are Humorous.” How does that factor into all of this?
Alex: Physicality is very very very important. Especially a character’s movement. It’s half of what makes a character fun and believable, the way the move. You can deliver lines all day but if you aren’t moving like the character you don’t have a complete character. Half of the fun is discovering Orgon’s movements especially because he’s very angry with those climactic moments, especially when I bring my whip! And then the low moments when I sink into the bench. It’s those moments— how you move in those moments that really tell the story. (Ryan: Potato Lumpkins— #hobbitintelligence)
Ryan: Movement for me, especially with distinguishing between my characters is as important as the voice. It’s good to tap into different body energies, finding specifics that are subtle but different for each one. Valere gets to move more, I know exactly how he storms away and back again in the fight with Marianne. It’s just really important to understand that.
Alyssa: Just working with Sally—who was an A-class ballerina and danced on Broadway—has really helped me to understand that. Focusing a lot on using my whole body to tell the story and it became this equilibrium of using body and voice to communicate not only the story but the humors of the show. Sally would tell me during rehearsals to cry with my whole body or react with my whole body, it was my most common note, to use my full body.
It’s hard because as real people we use our full body all the time without thinking about it but as a character we stop and think about it and then we forget to re-engage. Having characters that let us do this-like Alex who can run like a hobbit, and Marianne who has her tantrums to fall back into, the physicality becomes really true to the characters. I just need to point out that Alex and his old man socks during rehearsals, running around on his knees adding a whole extra level of bodily humor to this show.
What’s it like working with something that is so heavily comedic, in a sense almost dependent on the humor to function? And how do you keep those humorous moments natural?
Alyssa: The first thing that pops into my head is the fact that I find Alex and Stephen (who plays Tartuffe) really funny. I’ve known both of them since 10th grade, so it’s really incredibly to see them interact and make those humorous moments happen. It amuses Alyssa to watch them, and I use that to help ground Marianne. Because my biggest struggle in rehearsal was to make sure that I wasn’t laughing at just them being them and being silly. That if Marianne was laughing, which she doesn’t really do at all because she’s quite sad and upset over having to marry Tartuffe, that it was for an honest reason and not just because the two of them are really funny.
All of the funny moments really were found organically and came across quite truthfully during rehearsals. Obviously it’s going to continue to build and grow as we perform for different audiences but the big thing is don’t try to be funny. If it is funny then it just will be.
Alex: No matter what I’m doing I’m good at not laughing at myself, but Act I Scene III where I’m braking the news to Alyssa about her having to marry Tartuffe, she just makes this face—
Alyssa: It was a look into my eyes thing—
Alex: And I’m like “Noo! Don’t look at me! I was in character!” and then I lose it. I’m usually really good until someone else starts to smirk or laugh or even just crack an unintentional smile as they struggle to hold it together and then, nope, I’m done.
Alyssa: Especially when Stephen put on his wig— at the top of the show he’s Madam Pernelle—and with his beard it’s just ridiculous!
Alex: We actually toyed with the idea of putting fruit or a ship into his wig.
Alyssa: Or the Eiffel Tower. It would be too funny! I don’t think we’d be able to keep it together, we’re all already laughing at him now.
Ryan: I think I’m sitting this one out. What they’ve already said is brilliant.
Playing multiple characters do you guys find it more difficult to develop strong relationships with each other’s characters and how are you going about it?
Ryan: You have to stick to the basics. What are my characters’ relationships to this person. Just the basic questions and you’ll find you can easily play around with it and that it’s just sort of there. Don’t over complicate it with being hung up in the comedy or who’s playing what just think about the basics and it just sort of happens.
Alex: Most of the info for these relationships is actually in the text and it’s certainly one thing to say that Cleante (played by Grayson Owen) is Orgon’s Brother-in-Law but it’s another to actually know what that means. And that’s where you have to make the deeper connection. Orgon doesn’t’ like Cleante because Cleante is a drunk who is in Orgon’s house stealing his booze. That’s just one nuance. You look at the text and Orgon’s relationship to Tartuffe and it’s just so odd! It’s so weird. But like in some ways Orgon doesn’t know why he’s so utterly taken with Tartuffe. It’s something in his subconscious. The whole “Come here, my brother!” hug scene!
Alyssa: Which was majorly toned down because in rehearsal that scene went on forever.
Alex: Right. But it’s the trickiest relationship in the play because everyone else has some opinion; this negative opinion of Tartuffe and Orgon just doesn’t see it. So he’s exuding this brotherly love to this total miscreant and it’s j ust crazy. The real challenge is being so inexplicably taken with his character.
Alyssa: I totally stand by all that they’ve said. I think also from the actor’s standpoint, there are only six of us and we all know each other really well. Most of us have worked together before and that really helped make everything go quicker, made it easier to make those relationships on stage. It made it more fun because we were already comfortable with each other, we trusted each other and it made the process go much more seamlessly.
What has this overall experience been like for you?
Ryan: I think I’m going to say two things, which I’m going to make up right now. It’s been a good experience because it brings Tartuffe, a classic show, to a modern audience in a really accessible way. Plus it’s a great warmup to prepare us for the upcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing.
Alex: This is the company’s first real foray into ‘Naptown proper and this is the precursor for next summer’s free Shakespeare in the park event where we’ll be doing Two Gentlemen of Verona at the City Dock. It’s really exciting because this experience is helping us establish our presence here as a company in Annapolis!
Alyssa: I have never done this style of theatre before so that has been great to be thrown into it; a great learning opportunity. There is no better way to learn than to do. I am of the opinion that there is no point in doing theatre unless you are going to communicate a story to your audience. I found that I really enjoyed the mix of performing with audience interaction; it’s all good.
Read the other half of the conversation carried on with Grayson Own, Lauren Turchin, and Stephen Horst as Cast Chats-Tartuffe continues tomorrow!
Tartuffe plays Tuesday evenings through August 13, 2013 (with no performance July 30th) in The Courtyard at Reynolds Tavern—7 Church Circle, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call (410) 415-3513, or purchase them online.
Here’s the review of Tartuffe on DCMetroTheatreArts.