Part 2 of ‘Monty Python’s Spamalot at Toby’s: The Series of Interviews That Goes On and On’: Actor Darren McDonnell by Amanda Gunther

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This is the interview series that goes like this. In Part II, I sat down with the boldest, most courageous, most daring knight of them all: Sir Robin, the not-so-brave-as Sir Lancelot—played by Toby’s veteran Darren McDonnell— who slew the vicious chicken of Bristol and who personally wet himself at the Battle of Badon Hill! Darren kindly gives us the ins and outs of what it’s like being one of King Arthur’s knights of the round table on their quest to find the Holy Grail!

Darren MacDonnell. Photo by Amanda Gunther.
Darren McDonnell. Photo by Amanda Gunther.

Amanda: Let’s catch the readers up a bit. Before you dove headlong into this brave undertaking of a Python Knight, where would our audiences have remembered seeing you previously?

Darren: Most recently at Toby’s? I just did Shellhammer in Miracle on 34th Street back during Christmas and before that I was the male swing for Les Miserables. I actually went in about a dozen times during Mis, mostly as a student and I covered for the Factory Foreman once. I’ve done a lot of stuff in the area recently, though. Before Mis I played Victor in Private Lives over at Vagabond Players and I did the father character in their Next to Normal about a year before that. I also played Artie two summers ago in Sunset Boulevard over at Cockpit in Court.

Are you playing a lot of additional characters in Spamalot aside from your main knight, Brave Sir Robin?

Well I play Brother Maynard, one of the dead collectors, and that’s it I think. Oh, and I play the tower guy at the very beginning. The one who does the 5-pound coconut exchange with David Jennings.

That’s one of the more iconic Python jokes that I know the Python fans will be looking for, and a perfect segue into my next question, so what was your experience with Monty Python before becoming involved with this production of Spamalot?

Actually not much at all. I wasn’t a fan of the movies so I had never seen a single movie. I mean I knew of Monty Python because of the craze but I’d never seen a movie beforehand. Now I had seen Spamalot, I saw the tour a couple of years ago. But other than that, no real knowledge of it.

What made you decide that you wanted to audition for Spamalot?

Number one, I think there’s plenty of roles for guys so I thought, “If you’re good you’re bound to get something.” I love working with Mark Minnick, the director. And I love working at Toby’s, so really all of that combined together. I was away from Toby’s for a while and really glad to be back. I mean I was still very active during that time, I worked at Cockpit in Court, I worked at Vagabonds Players in Baltimore over in Fells Point.

I was doing my day job, and that kept me busy so I couldn’t really devote the time to Toby’s because that’s like two full-time jobs, and I’m too old for that! I used to do it, but I can’t anymore. But then I decided that I really wanted to pursue acting full time and see if I could make a living doing just that. So I stopped working during the day, I went back to Toby’s and they were gracious to take me back as a swing in Les Mis, and it just sort of took off from there.

It was a big decision, I was nervous, I still am nervous, I really hope I can make it as a full time actor. It hasn’t been that long since I’ve made that decision. But I figured the older I got the better roles I’d be able to do. Most guys my age have given up, so I was hoping that would help.

You mentioned you love working with Director Mark Minnick. Can you tell us what it’s like to work with someone who brings such a vast and comprehensive knowledge of this show to the table?

Working with Mark Minnick, you know that your time is not going to be wasted. He knows exactly what he wants and he knows exactly how he wants these characters played. So you just put your faith in him that he’s going to lead you in the right direction. I’ve worked with Mark before, when he directed West Side Story, I played Bernardo. I did Grease with him, I played Vince Fontaine. I did one of his Christmas shows down at West End Dinner Theatre, so I have a bit of a working history with him. And I love having someone who is as dedicated and passionate about what he does working on this show. It’s a great experience.

What was your initial reaction to being offered Brave Sir Robin? And are you anything like your not-so-brave character?

Darren MacDonnell as Brave Sir Robin. Photo by Kirstin Christiansen.
Darren McDonnell as Brave Sir Robin. Photo by Kirstin Christiansen.

I was actually surprised when I got that part because I don’t remember reading for it at the audition. I may have, I must have, but I really don’t remember so I was a little bit surprised. Whenever I asked people, they would say “Oh, you’d be perfect for Sir Robin.” And I knew the part; I knew that David Hyde Pierce did it on Broadway. I knew what it was going to be like and I thought it was a good fit for me.

To prepare for it? Honestly, I did watch little clips from the movie, and then eventually the whole movie. Just reading the script, of course, and familiarizing myself with character and then realizing that I’m sort of like him in a weird sort of way. I think it was a pretty easy fit, I just kind of delve myself into a character and this one was pretty easy.

How does Sir Robin compare to other roles you’ve played in the past?

He doesn’t compare to any of them, really. Well, maybe he compares a little bit to Shellhammer, from Miracle on 34th Street, a little bit, but not quite so much. He has a little bit of Shellhammer’s quirkiness. But with Private Lives not at all! And he’s totally, totally different from Dan from Next to Normal. I don’t think I’ve ever played anybody like him, so this is a new thing for me, but I’m really enjoying it.

You have a big song and dance number in the show, so how is that working out for you?

Oh it’s totally fine, I used to dance a lot, so I’m loving getting to do it again. It takes a little longer to learn the steps these days…getting my body back into dancing shape and of course my age, I’ll always reference back to my age, but really, the dancing is no problem, and it’s a lot of fun. Mark gives us a lot to work with there and that really helps.

I mean that number, “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway…” overall for me is hard, it’s so hard—not because of the dancing—it makes me nervous every night. There are so many words, and it’s basically a patter song. And if you go off on it—I mean I honestly have no idea what I would do. But once I get into it, it is a lot of fun, a lot of fun, can’t stress that enough. It’s very…breathtaking, let’s put it that way. By the end of the number I’m winded. And even during the number it takes my breath away. Sometimes I come off stage and I go “I’m holding my breath through that whole number,” and it feels like I’m not breathing, it’s crazy. But that number is just so much fun, even if I lose my breath.

It’s a touchy song, because you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, or upset the Jewish faith, and I hope they know it’s all in good fun. I really do love that number.

What is it like working with a large number of Toby’s veteran performers to make this ensemble-type show a success to both Python and non-Python fans?

Photo by Mark Minnick.
Photo by Mark Minnick.

I think it’s a big benefit because we know each other inside and out, pretty much. We gel very comfortably together. It took a little while getting us all back into that rhythm of working together, but I think we gelled pretty well and it’s great to know these guys. To know them onstage as well, to be able to feel them out on stage, it’s really kind of cool. So that’s good having that. It makes what happens for us a little more real, which makes it that much funnier for everyone watching.

Is there a moment in the show that gives you constant laughs and absolutely tickles your funny bone?

What cracks me up—now is I’m in the scene but I’m not really in the scene, I just happen to be on the stage—but it’s when David Jennings is the French Taunter. That scene just cracks me up; he’s really good at it. But also, now this doesn’t make me laugh, but I have to put it out there—I love listening to Priscilla. She’s our Lady of the Lake and she is amazing. I just love listening to her. Oh, and another funny one is Jeffrey, who plays our Patsy, in “I’m All Alone.” That’s just too funny. Another number I love is the gay number, that’s just the cutest number. David James and David Jennings doing “Where Are You?” and then straight into “His Name is Lancelot,” that’s just such an adorable cute number and I love it. I love the whole show; I could laugh through just about all of it.

Did you find this show and these roles to be challenging at all?

I find it to be very challenging to live up to what Mark wanted. The way he directed it was a new way for me. Well sort of, not really. Let me explain what I mean. When you “act” you don’t want to overact. And Mark was very strict about that. Like you said, he knows the show very well; he knows every nuance of that show. And you don’t want to copy somebody’s performance. You want to bring your own but at the same time you want to do what he wants you to do. And finding that fine line, it was hard. I hope I was successful, I think I am.

If you had your pick of another character track in the show, who would you pick?

Oh, wow! I think I would like to do David James’ track, the character man. You know, The Historian, Not-Dead-Fred, Prince Herbert bit. You know, it’s funny, I said to David Jennings—because I read for both the Character Man and David Jennings’ track—and I told him, “God, I’m glad I didn’t get your part…” because I have no idea how I would do it all. He plays five different roles, he’s Lancelot, Tim the Enchanter, the French Taunter, the Lead Ni-Knight, and he’s a dead collector. So I’m really glad that’s not me. I mean with this show you can pull different people to do different things, so maybe just a handful of those, but wow – all of them? I think that would just be too much for me. I really like Sir Robin, but if not him, definitely the roles David James has.

Darren NcDonald in two roles. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Darren McDonnell in two roles. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Do you eat spam? Have you ever had spam?

I do not. I don’t know if I had it as a kid or not. I can’t remember. Have you ever had it? Is it good? What does it taste like? For some reason I do think we had it when I was a kid, but I don’t remember it. I mean, I’ve eaten scrapple, and it can’t be any worse than that, actually I love scrapple, so I imagine it might not be so bad? If it tastes like bacon I’ll eat it. Maybe I should try it.

Why do you want people to come and see Spamalot at Toby’s?

I think because it’s a good ensemble piece where everybody is important to the show. Not one person is not important to it. I think it’s well done, it’s a good pace, the costumes are great, the orchestra is great, it’s just an all around good show. And it’s funny. It’s fun. In today’s day and age you hear so much bad news, so it’s just fun to go out and laugh a stupid laugh at stupid stuff and enjoy it. So that’s why I think people should come and see it. And it’s a good show! I’m proud of it.

If you’re looking for a fun time—just fun good funny stuff—come see it. And this applies to Python fans and non-Python fans. It’s like the movie, but it’s not the movie. It’s taken from the movie but it has all these musical numbers, all these big production numbers. So if you like musicals, if you like a fun time, come on out and see it.

And for the Monty Python fans? I think it’s true to the movies, I do. I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in preparing for the role, and this show sticks pretty faithfully to the movie. And it’s funny; it has all the iconic one-liners and funny things. It’s just funny. That’s really all I can say, it’s funny.

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Monty Python’s Spamalot plays through March 22, 2014 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call (301) 596-6161, or purchase them online.

LINKS

DCMetroTheaterArts’ review for Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Part 1 of The Interview Series that Goes On and On and On with Director Mark Minnick.