Things are looking up here in Duloc! And it is certainly a long look up for actor Jeffrey Shankle playing the antagonizing villain in Shrek the Musical at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, after all characters like these are in short supply on Shankle’s long list of accomplishments over the years. Sit back and enjoy the third installment of “Story of My Life: The Freak Flag Chronicles” as we interview Jeffrey and find out just what it’s like playing the fabulous villain in a fairytale musical loaded with freaky characters.
Amanda: Let’s remind the readers exactly where they’ve seen you last, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: So for any new readers or in case anyone has forgotten, most recently I played Patsy and Guard Number One in Spamalot, before that I was Fred Gailey over the holidays in Miracle on 34th Street, Marius in Les Miserables and Fietka in Fiddler on the Roof. That backs us up a full year in my performing history all at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. And now I finally get to play a villain! I love getting to be the bad guy!
What was the interest to go out and audition for Shrek?
Well, I had seen it on Broadway in New York. Chris Sieber is a friend of mine so I had gone up to see him do it. I thought it would be something fun to do, it’s a fun show. I wasn’t doing anything else so I threw my hat in the ring. When I went into the auditions I knew that Lord Farquaad was really the only principle that I could play. I’m not really suited, vocally or otherwise for Fiona or Shrek. I would have been happy with playing in the ensemble as well, or wherever they wanted to put me, but I went in thinking about Farquaad.
How is this different from other roles you have previously played throughout your career?
This is actually very different from anything I’ve ever done. And it’s actually very fun. I never play the bad guy. Who knew playing the bad guy could be so much fun? I actually really enjoy getting to play someone that isn’t all lovey-dovey, not the ingénue. I absolutely love it. I can’t say enough how much fun this is. And while it is so much fun, there is really a hard part to playing him as well— and I’m not just talking about the physical stuff. I had to find a balance to really make him work. It’s very easy to come off as this arrogant jerk who might be too mean or even too scary for the kids in the audience. It’s very easy for him to be not very likeable. And in order for Farquaad to work with the humor of the show he has to at least be likeable despite being selfish and self-centered. He has to be funny.
I get to improv so much stuff. It’s mostly scripted but that’s where a lot of the fun for me comes in. He has lines and songs of course, but for the most part the directors gave me free reign with him and I was just coming up with all sorts of stuff that make him really fun, not only for me to play but hopefully for the audience to enjoy. I think they love to laugh with and at him and that makes it even more fun for me. I just do the improv stuff. I’ll be driving on my way to rehearsal or even now on the way to the show and something will pop into my head and I say “oh, that might be funny.” And I’ll try it out and if it works I keep it and if it doesn’t, I scrap it and find something else. It’s been a fantastic process getting to try it out and really work out what works. Nothing too big, just little things here and there to keep it fresh and exciting.
I don’t think I’ve ever had this much freedom to really develop a character before and I’m loving every minute of being able to make him my own hilarious creation. He really seems to get a lot of laughs every night from audience members of all ages and it’s a lot of fun getting to play with them a little bit. Not too much, of course, because it’s only sort of that kind of show, but like when I shoot my finger-guns at the audience I always try to make sure I’m aiming at someone.
You mentioned the physicality being different from anything you’ve ever done before, what has that experience been like for you?
For those of you that do not know the show— by the way, a great way to familiarize yourself with it would be to come and see it— the character of Farquaad has traditionally always been done entirely on his knees. I knew that this character was going to have to be on his knees because that’s how it’s always been done. For a moment I thought they might take a different approach and do one of the munchkin stools like they used in The Wizard of Oz, but they never brought it up. Even in the audition I did it all on my knees. I figured I had to do something, I’m short but I’m not that short. Of course when I’m on my knees I become that much shorter. I’m beyond midget short which is sort of perfect because it really plays into all the sight gags that are referenced throughout the show.
Now I do have bad knees. I know in one of these previous interviews— probably during Spamalot— we talked about my tour-ending knee injury. So it was a little bit of a concern going into it, but as it turns out, surprisingly? It does not bother me at all, not even a little bit. Unless it’s humid in the theatre and the floor is sticky because then it pulls my knee pads down. I’ve actually got two pairs of knee pads going on. I have one pair underneath the legging/tights and then another bigger pair that goes overtop the costume.
What’s it like dancing on your knees?
You know, I never stopped to think about it? I just sort of do it. I shuffle around and to the audience it looks like Farquaad is dancing. Now I’ve played with it a little bit to see what works and what doesn’t. And once I got the cape it was a whole different ballgame. When you move the cape gets under you, your feet show. And that spoils the illusion of this very tiny wannabe king because then you can see I’m just a guy on my knees. So I was constantly having to flip the cape and fling it open so that it keeps my feet hidden. Every time Larry or Kevin would say “cross here” I would make a mental note that it would be another fling of the cape. I didn’t really realize that until we were in tech just how important that cape would be.
My understudy, Matthew Greenfield, had to go on for me when I caught that horrible new strain of flu and I remember the main piece of advice I had to give him was, “Remember to fling the cape every time you move so that you can keep your feet hidden.” The cape is crucial every moment of that show! Except for when I’m in the horse.
When I’m in the horse I’m just standing up. They built the horse around me, which is why I don’t ever get off the horse. Getting off the horse would be a whole process that we’d have to get really creative with. So there’s a hole cut into the top of it and I just climb up into it and walk the horse on. Illusion is still there and it’s the one part of the show where I’m not on my knees and not worrying about whether or not I’m flinging my cape wide enough to cover my feet. It’s my exercise for the night, I jump up into it. That horse is tried and true, it made an appearance in The Wizard of Oz, so we know it’s good to go.
You don’t have all the crazy costume changes that all the other fairytale creatures are having, so do you like having just the one costume?
As if Lord Farquaad would only have one costume. I have two costumes, thank you very much. The wedding costume, which I just call the golden version of my regular costume, is the secondary costume. I only wear it for the last scene, though, that’s the only time I wear that one. They’re simple costumes they zip up the back, well actually one of them ties shut, the other we had to put a zipper into because it was not closing correctly. And then I have the capes. The wig and the hats and the gloves and the headband. All those little accessories. He gets this crazy jewel encrusted headband because he’s working out in that scene that leads up to “Ballad of Farquaad.” I actually wish we were doing that bit in the tub. It was done in a tub in the original production. But it’s not in this version of the script! I guess when it went on tour they cut it, which makes me a little sad because one of the funniest things I remember from the Broadway production was Farquaad being in the tub. I just remember thinking that was so funny.
You know, now that I think about it, after I was talking all about the cape and how important it is, I guess that’s the one big complication of my costumes. It makes me nervous when people get too close to me. The cape is literally just snapped onto me, and I’m afraid that if someone gets too close they’re going to step on it and whoops there goes the show! I’m pretty sure I’d be a little up the creek for that one. Oh! And you know how you sometimes feel like you’re starting to tip over? And you’re going to tip over, like a cow? Or a Weeble? Have you ever been on your knees and feel like “Whoa— I’m starting tip here!” well I’m afraid of that. Maybe I should think of a recovery plan in case I tip over, I think at this point I’m just thinking “please don’t tip over” and hoping that I don’t. I guess Farquaad would make a big to-do out of it, as a man of his importance would never simply just tip over.
Are you a fairytale fan? Farquaad is clearly not…do you have a favorite fairytale?
Of course! I mean, I love all the Disney movies. And I’ve seen all the Shrek movies. But you know, when we started getting all of our cast in costumes, I’ll admit there were definitely a few of them that I had no idea which fairytale they came from. Amanda Kaplan, she plays the little shoemaker’s elf, and when she came out on stage I remember saying “Who are you supposed to be?” because I had no idea. She told me and I just shook my head. I remember telling her that I had no idea what that was, and I think I said she looked a little like one of the Elves from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
So obviously there are a few fairytales that have slipped my notice over the years, the shoemaking elves are one of them. And Tina DeSimone was similar, I had no idea who she was supposed to be. She told me she was The Fairy Godmother. I think because I was raised and schooled on Disney and when I think Fairy Godmother I think little old lady in a blue moo-moo, I didn’t recognize her in this really elaborate Marie Antoinette style ball gown. Her costume reminds me of one of those cupcake dolls from the 80’s, so I thought we had all sorts of fantasy creatures going on in this story, clearly not just fairytales if we were pulling from Christmas stories and 80’s toys. I get it all now, though, I do!
Oh my God, my favorite fairytale? Well, I guess the first one I ever saw was Snow White, so I guess that one. I have no idea why I like it; I just remember liking it when I was little. The dwarves. I think it was the dwarves that I liked about it. I actually can’t wait to go ride on the new Dwarf Mine Train rollercoaster that they’ve just built in Disney World.
Do you have a favorite part in the show?
That I do? For my character? I really like doing the gingerbread scene. The very first scene where I’m torturing the gingerbread man. That’s my favorite bit. The first couple of times that we did it, Larry had told me to take the spatula and bang it on the table top. Now, Heather Beck— who plays Gingy— is inside that box without being able to see anything that’s going on outside, and I think Heather probably jumped— well two inches because that’s all the space she has in there but when she came out of that box after we first ran that scene she told me I’d scared the crap out of her banging that spatula around.
So I bang things, and I steal the gingerbread legs. That’s actually my favorite scene. I just think it’s funny. I get to be super mean in a really fun way. There’s something about that scene that makes me like it the best, I’ve no idea why to be completely honest. I mean I love the whole show, but that’s just my favorite part.
Is it a challenge to take this miniscule character and truly make him larger than life?
That’s the thing, when I was first at the audition I was trying to think more of the movie, like John Lithgow. I was trying to make him dark and channel that original character. And then they told me to make him more of a fop, be more foppish. So I went more in that direction. It’s a musical so you have to make it fun, you can’t just be super mean and evil or you’ll scare the kids. And we don’t want to scare the little children. Well, maybe a little. But you have to make fun of this villainy that he has. And that’s how he becomes larger than life. I make fun him by exaggerating his foppish tendencies and by making him funny without being too scary.
You don’t actually have a whole lot of singing, just the two songs.
Hey now, those two songs are pretty big numbers. There’s “What’s Up, Duloc?” and “The Ballad of Farquaad.” I think of the two I like the ballad better. I get to solo on the stage. But it’s also that Duloc is a list song whereas the ballad is telling a story. Although I do get a really cool moment at the end of Duloc— it’s a nod to Elphaba in Wicked. They actually lift me up, I don’t just stand up. I try to tuck my legs under so that you can’t see my real feet. It’s cute and fun. But I still prefer the ballad number.
Why should people come and see Shrek at Toby’s?
If you want a fun, family evening filled with fairytale characters come see Shrek. It’s fun, it really is a lot of fun. Families and kids love it. Lots of student groups are getting to see this show. A lot of them are older students so they are getting to enjoy some of Farquaad’s humor a bit more. There’s something for everyone, on top of all the fairytale fun. And there are some really great voices in this production. Ashley Johnson who is playing the Dragon, I know you’ve interviewed her in this show series, and I hope you’ll be interviewing our very talented lead trio, Coby Kay Callahan, Calvin McCullough, and Russell Sunday, who play Fiona, Donkey, and Shrek respectively. The ensemble is filled with great people, there’s a lot of really great things happening here. So I’m just going to repeat what I said first— fun, family filled evening for everyone with a lot of great talent to experience. What more could you want?
Review for Shrek on DCMetroTheaterArts.