“If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the north star.” Says Benedick of Beatrice in the Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. In the final part of the series, I sit down with actor Grayson Owen to get his thoughts on Beatrice and all things much ado.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself just so we know a little more about the dashing man who’s playing Shakespeare’s witty tongue?
Wow! Alright, well I went to Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia where I got my BFA in Musical Theatre. I did that in four years and since I graduated I’ve toured with National Theatre for Children, and some work with the Shenandoah Summer Musical Theatre program. And then since moving up here I’ve done Pride and Prejudice as Mr. Bingley with ASC, and then Tartuffe, which just extended its run, and now Much Ado.
What made you want to go out and audition for Benedick or did you just go out for the production and end up landing the role?
Well I love the role. I always wanted to do it but I was always too young. But with Sally casting everyone really young it worked out. I went in and I said that I wanted it and then I got to do three weeks of callbacks. And then I finally landed it. It was taking forever and I wasn’t sure, I was so hopeful and then I was really lucky when I found out that I’d landed it. I was super excited!
What is your favorite thing about the 50s’ adaptation?
I always say that if I were born in any other decade it would have been the 50s. I love the outfits and the style. It’s great! The ability to fake smoke and then fake drink on the stage because that’s what they did back then is great. I love the 50s in general so it was really nice to be on stage and just use it to my advantage, it was great!
What is the most challenging moment existing as Benedick?
I think it’s 1/6 (Act I Scene VI) because I talk so much during it and half because it’s such a quick and interesting change of character. It’s all in the character’s subconscious there, but how it all came up so quickly on top of the physical mechanics of that scene, getting it right; being behind the bar, getting my hair all wet and the accoutrements all over myself— the lime wedges, the little paper umbrella, the celery, the olives— and then still staying totally still and enveloped in what’s going on while listening to the guys. All of that while still making sure that the bar itself stays still, making the little moment with stacking the boxes, making sure that happens correctly. It’s insane.
They give me what I need to react and I give them what they need to react while everyone is still present. That’s what I love about being in the bar because I’m able to sit and just listen to all of Don Pedro’s (played by Devion McArthur) and Claudio’s (played by Michael Ryan Neely) lines and then honestly respond to them.
Sorry, I have to hydrate— which is a tie in to a question you asked earlier and also this question. Staying hydrated is a challenge and it’s also why I love the 50s— I talk sooooo much! Like on stage during the opening scene— but because of the classic style of drinking in the 50s I hit 3 martinis in like 2 minutes – and it’s so refreshing because it’s just water – but it makes me look like Benedick is getting drunk while I get to be hydrating. Stuff about stuff. Everybody wins.
What sort of physical preparation are you doing to get into Benedick?
I’m actually not. I usually go to the gym in real life as a part of my routine but with all these rehearsals there’s no time. So it’s actually less physical prep than I do normally. I do so many physical things in the show that it’s a workout all its own. Plus when we ran that fall—the one that I do from the balcony during 1/6— we ran that thing like 20 times in rehearsal during tech on the Monday before we opened, so that was another workout this show has given me.
Originally, I think they were thinking that I could just do a staircase fall— like tumble down from the top of the balcony to the ground floor but that was just way too painful and also a little dangerous, so we found a way to just roll me over off the balcony. I’m so open to Paul E. Hope when it came to the fight choreography and what he helped me to transform this moment into.
For the record, a certain person (cough – CHANDISH -cough) may have said that my movement is very Grotowski-based, and I would like it known that I tend to favor the Laban-technique when it comes to my movement work. Anyway…Sally and I talked a lot about where Benedick focuses his body. I’m a very physical actor, I first want to find the physicality.
I’m physical. I’ve studied Grotowski and Laban, so finding the character’s physicality really just develops the character for me. Finding how he moved, how he held himself as an officer, how he walked, all of that helped me understand where his intentions were. He’s very centered, more on the chest. So finding that center, well the character just came on top of that. Physicality just lets the emotions of a character stem from there.
How do you keep up the energy of that witty repartee with Beatrice?
Haha! You ask as she stares at me…(stares back at Chandish) Really it just stems from —especially in the 50s—the underlying sexual tension and that really gets played up. Chandy and I have become good friends—as mentioned we’re living together—so it’s been kind of nice because we realize that we do that witty repartee with each other and that we are just so easily able to put all of that from our home lives right into the lines.
Beatrice and Benedick both just want to talk so much and character wise they find in each other people who can match that. They fight back with each other and get substance out of it so it’s great!
What is the process of the whole Benedick Gulling scene like for you?
You asked the right question, Madam. It’s my favorite and the hardest and my favorite. But also the hardest. We talked about all what we could do, bouncing ideas back and forth, we got to rehearsal and I would just make things up. It was so hard and tiring because we’d do it 20 times in a row and I would be so exhausted! But it was so great to be a part of creating it so that I could find the reality in it.
It was really nice for me as an actor because instead of something saying do this, do this, do this—and then me have to find why I was doing it. I got to be like “Ooh, can I do this? Or oh well this works!” So having that process was awesome. That was a lot of talking, right? Hold onto your pen, here I go.
It’s really perfect, especially with those three in the scene-Ry and Dev and Rob (playing Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato respectively). They would give me a lot to play off of and hide from. In terms of the show – their characters “play” with Benedick so much because they know he’s trying to hide and they know he’s messing up and crashing into the bar.
For me it was forgetting that I’m supposed to hide and then have to hurry up and run and do something. It was crazy. Setting it up as an actor when we first started I wouldn’t be in the scene I would just watch them four times. Just to see what they did and that would give me an idea of how to function and would work in the scene and what wouldn’t. The hardest part was not having the actual bar during rehearsals. The furniture piece just wasn’t there during rehearsal so I was using a bench as a substitute. So a lot of it wasn’t developed until tech week. I was trying to imagine and be aware of what I could use and what I could do. And it was really challenging but luckily everything that I thought would be there was actually there and then it all worked out.
How are you like Benedick and how are you different from him?
I actually feel very similar to Benedick in terms of the character itself, he’s talking all the time and he’s completely against love and marriage. They way he talks and the way he just is, and how I imagine him physically – that’s all me. Whenever I read through Much Ado I relate to Benedick so much because I would be him and say those things in those situations.
Physicality wise there are differences in creating the characters. I mean there are similarities with me and Chandish and me and Ryan’s relationships. Like Ryan and I are very much Benedick and Claudio where I just always make fun of him. I would find my relationships to the various cast people being very similar to the way Benedick relates to them in the show. I don’t know if that’s an actor thing or just me, I think it’s just me.
Finding the differences…it’s about making his own back story and ideas so that it’s more than just me on stage as Grayson trying to do Shakespeare. Bringing those small differences forward, it’s nice for me to have a character that is so easily understandable and that I can relate to, to then say what can I do to make him more Benedick and less me.
Also after Bingley (from Pride and Prejudice) to be able to do a part that is so completely different and more complex is great. Bingley was in love with Jane and either staring at Jane or thinking about Jane and that was it. But being someone with so many layers with such deep subconscious moments — that as an actor you have to know about these moments and these things while as a character not being able to know about them — it’s intense. Really accessing those lower levels— the goodness that he hides with the wall of his wit— to be able to see that all fall down…it crumbles every night, and it’s very interesting to me because it’s always new, and this big realization to me. He is good and he challenges Claudio when he’s trying to defend Hero and Leonato on behalf of Beatrice. That desire to actually be in love deep down, those discoveries are what really make it for me.
How are you making the emotional connection of Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship?
Finding it in the character, it’s really that easy. If he’s in love then it’s there – and I’m in love. I’m not recollecting what being in love feels like, or digging into past relationships. It’s just there. It stems from all the layers he feels about Beatrice and my friendship with Chandish really guides that. For Benedick, doing it personally becomes easier, he can say it to himself, but to be open about it in public he realizes that everyone will make fun of him. The wall is down if he admits to it, because all he’s talked about for years is gone. And he will be the “fool” that he’s talked about when he talks about people in love. Everything will fall apart of if he lets people know that he loves her.
It’s not so much a self-centered moment as a moment of self-preservation? In terms of finding the emotional connection it’s really just character building and then building the relationship with the characters and with Beatrice it’s just organically there.
Everyone has talked about 1/6 and AST does this amazingly individual approach by throwing in a 50’s crooner song. What is going through Benedick’s head during that moment?
It’s the same as what’s going through Grayson’s head because I refused to listen to the song when they were first rehearsing it because I wanted it to be new. All reactions in that scene are completely honest and they go like this:
What?!? Why?!? NO!!!
Haha! Every night it’s just watching the ridiculousness of it and then reacting to it. Add on top of that Benedick being all ant-love song, and being mad at Claudio, and then suddenly he’s like— “WHY IS DON PEDRO DANCING?!?” And it’s definitely different facial reactions every night depending on what I see – because Don Pedro does something different in that dance every night.
Ryan starts punching the air and I’m like, “What in the hell is going through your head to make you punch the air?” And I love it because the audience starts clapping and I get to have—
Hold on you’ve talked so much you’ve run my pen dry.
Hahaha! That’s excellent! I’ll wait. Okay. Where was I? Right! So it’s this great moment for the audience and they really love it, and then I get to be like “NO! Do not encourage them!” And then right after that I fall off the balcony.
If you weren’t Benedick, who would you want to be?
Well, Don John. Yeah. I always love the villains. I’m a big fan of villains and finding the humanity and the multi-layered personalities of villains. It’s a favorite past time of mine. A few years ago I was in a production of Assassins and I was The Proprietor—it’s a favorite role of mine especially with a an existential character like him because it vocally gives you a good deep exploration of existing as a villain.
Don John has so many layers that can be found and played around with. If I did it again I’d love to take a crack at Don John. I know you’ve said that you think Borachio is more of the villain but I think I disagree. Borachio has more insight but I don’t relate to him as much as I do to Don John. Borachio is sleazier while Don John is a bit slinkier. Yes I said it. Sleazier and slinkier. All in one sentence. And yeah, Borachio is the instigator but Don John, there’s a depth— you want to know what makes him tick. It’s his hatred and his revenge. Borachio likes to be the villain, I think, but Don John is a villain at his core. It’s the revenge that goes through Don John’s mind— and finding the humanity in that— it’s just so interesting. And besides, anyone can do it better than Keanu Reeves. BOOM.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share with potential audiences?
This show has been an experience; even with all the trials, it’s all come out so well. Getting to do a dream role for me it’s just wonderful. Even with smaller audiences the energy is just there, that cast is still so excited, we’re finding it new every night. Going in and feeling like you’re living it new every night—it’s great. Come see this show because it’s new every night. And that is my conclusion. Because I have talked myself to death.
‘Much To Learn About’ Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Part 1: Choreographer Ken Skrzesz by Joel Markowitz.
‘Much To Learn About’ Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Part 2: Alyssa Bouma (Hero) by Amanda Gunther.
‘Much To Learn About’ Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Part 3: Michael Ryan Neely (Claudio) by Amanda Gunther.
Much To Learn About’ Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Part 4: Alex Foley (Dogberry) by Amanda Gunther.
‘Much To Learn About’ Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Part 5: Chandish Nester (Beatrice) by Amanda Gunther.
Amanda Gunther’s review of Much Ado About Nothing.
Much Ado About Nothing plays through August 18, 2013 at Annapolis Shakespeare Company performing at The Bowie Playhouse —16500 White Marsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 415-3513, or purchase them online.