It was wunderbar having an opportunity to schmooze with Douglas Sills, who is having a blast appearing in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s fabulously entertaining production of Kiss Me Kate.
Joel: Why did you want to be part of this production of Kiss Me Kate at Shakespeare Theatre Company? When were you first contacted about playing Fred Graham/Petrucio?
Douglas: They offered it to me when they contacted me, and it was probably six months ago. I wanted to do it because it’s one of the great roles in musical theater. I have been told by other people that it’s a role I should do. I saw the revival (with Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell) in New York, and I was asked to be a part of that. They weren’t going back into rehearsals and I didn’t feel that a ‘put-in’ from another actor in that role was a good scenario for me.
Can you explain what a ‘put-in’ is?
A ‘put-in’ is really a replacement where they are not ready to change anything based on your instincts. You need to do pretty much of what the other person has been doing. They are not going to change lights or change blocking. They are not going to change props. And the other actors are not going to change what they have been doing. You are going to be put into his ‘tracks’ so to speak, as opposed to going back into rehearsals and rethinking it with the new actor, according to his instincts.
And given that it wasn’t going to happen, I chose not to do it and Brian [Stokes Mitchell] was just fantastic, and I had the same aspiration of being equally realized in my own vision of it. It’s like a mountain climber-there are certain peaks you want to get to before you can’t climb anymore. This is a role I have always wanted to do.
Have you ever performed this role before?
No. I have done probably ten Shakespeare roles in my life, and I have done a lot of musical theater roles, but I have never done this one. It’s a big show; it calls for great talent, and experience, in the other roles, including director, production design, etc., so you want to do it in a situation where they have the resources to do it well.
How do you think they have done here at Shakespeare Theatre Company?
They did great! It’s an A+ production all around. They aspire even further beyond what their resources are and it’s amazing they were able to do it. They don’t have the kind of crew you have in NYC – they just don’t have that many people. But their other areas are very well-populated like the costume shop, whch is extravagant and beautiful. So when the opportunity came along, I just said, Yes!’ This is my shot and I need to do it now. I am 28 now [Joel laughs loudly!] so I needed to get it under my belt.
I am looking for new fresh challenges and I am in a new period in my life.
Have you ever performed in DC before?
I did the National Tour of Into the Woods here and the National Tour of The Secret Garden here, the Sondheim Festival here – I played Carl Magnus in A Little Night Music for Mark Brokaw, whose musical Cinderella is in town now at The National Theatre and I am seeing it today. And I toured as Gomez in The Addams Family here. I have spent a lot of time here actually. I like it very much. I talked to Ken Ludwig about doing his play here, but I don’t think our schedules meshed, so I couldn’t do it.
What is Shakespeare in Hollywood? You would have been great in that!
So this is a coming home – in some ways. I just did a show with Renee Fleming on Broadway – Living on Love – and this is her home, and we used to talk about Washington a lot, so it’s nice it came up so quickly. We just texted today and she is excited about coming to see Kiss Me Kate.
I loved the show. It’s the best time I have had in the theater in a long time. You show so much joy in this role, and you look like you are just having a great time. So what has been the most fun you have had so far?
Finding the best, warmest, fuzziest, coziest fit for Christine [Sherrill] and I is always going to be the most gratifying because it pays the most dividends – it resonates the furthest in the show – not unlike Gomez and Morticia. They are the center and the richer that relationship is the more deeply-rooted the rest of the musical is. So that probably has been the most satisfying.
Let’s talk about Christine’s performance. What do you admire most about performance Lilli Vanessi and Kate?
Her sense of play, the power of her singing voice, and her instincts when we were creating our characters. And her intelligence.
She has a beautiful voice.
She has a very powerful voice and she said it’s been a blessing that she has had very little trouble with it.
What was the biggest challenge for you preparing for this role?
For me the big challenge was finding the right comedic recipe for me, as it related to the other parts of the character. Inside I am more of a clown. I have the spirit of Woody Allen and Danny Kaye.
You are looking more and more like Danny Kaye.
I’ll take it! I’ll take that in a heartbeat. And finding that comedic spirit and I have had the fortune of working twice with Jerry Zaks and his instincts have definitely brought out something in me and working with Alan Paul on that and finding the ‘stillness’ and having the courage to be more and more economical and still.
Give me an example in a scene where that is happening.
When the gangsters come in and I meet them for the first time, I pretty much sit still at desk at my dressing table. I let them do the work and I just react and I try to react very simply, and recognize that very little is needed, because the circumstances are so clear for the audience, and the stakes are so high.
Another example is the reprise of “So in Love.” I recognize what’s needed and so I am absolutely still for most of that song – and to me that is success. Real success.
That’s the real actor in you and it shows. There are very few musical stars that can act and sing and you are one.
Thanks so much!
That’s why your performance is so special.
Well, thank you! That’s a great compliment. I have had so much classical theater work in my life. That’s how I trained in graduate school, and so much so, that I actually hid the fact that I could sing, so that I would be taken seriously [that says more about me than anyone else]. Obviously, all that acting training helps during the Shakespeare part of the show. The singing is something where I have been blessed to have abilities. I have sacrificed, I think, success to some degree, or notoriety in either field, by not staying in one or the other. I think the nature of the business maybe would have likely to have propelled me further as a straight theater actor or as a musical actor if I had chosen to do one or the other. My desire was to have a more varied professional life. I think I sacrificed momentum and reputation in one field or the other – because it’s easier to pinhole someone: “That’s what he does.” “That’s what Kevin Spacey does.” That’s what so and so does.” That’s not what I wanted a more varied and dynamic and interesting professional life – so this is a nice payoff for that. I wanted to stretch my wings here to see if there was something here that wasn’t done before by people who hadn’t had my experience.
You have done more than most actors have done and it sounds like a wonderful life.
I am very lucky. It is more common now than when I was in my twenties. There are actors now we know have done both well like Norbert, Raul, Michael Cerveris, Kevin Klein, Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, and Audra. I think it is more acceptable now than when I was younger. We allow our actors now more opportunities to explore.
Kelsey [Grammer] is doing a musical now [Neverland]. You have Hugh Jackman, so I think when I was coming up, and because I was coming up as a gay man, and I was never closeted about it, there were challenges that I had put in front of myself that if I not had – perhaps the results would have been different. But I am very content with how things are. And being in Kiss Me Kate is a thrill.
Let’s talk about your director Alan Paul. What has impressed you most about him and working with him?
He is so grounded for a person who has achieved so much as a young man. That surprised me the most. He is very regular and very silly and very playful. Alan has this wonderful career ahead of him. He’s not a kid – he’s 31…
Compared to me he’s a kid.
I am so impressed about his breadth of the arts and theater and television – his knowledge of the past. I can make reference to Joan Blondell or Natasha from Three Sisters, or Vivian Vance, he will ‘get it,’ where most people wouldn’t. Most people can’t cross the boundaries of mediums. His breadth of knowledge is really impressive. I think the greatest strength that he brings, beside his intellect and musicianship, is, frankly, his love of the form. He really, truly loves it. He loves theater and loves the career that’s out in front of him, and the choices that he has, and working in Washington, and the audiences here that he regards and talks about. That’s what’s special about him.
You have such a great voice. How would you describe it and how are you resting it between performances?
I think of my voice as – I think I have been really lucky. It’s a gift. I have tried to keep it exercised, but to be honest, it doesn’t stand outside. I would never make a recording of me, because to me it’s an instrument. My voice varies with the character that I am playing. I work on my voice and study as the role comes up – as I would choose a walk or a gait, or a dialect for the character.
When I was doing Gomez in The Addams Family, I worked differently with my voice, than I have done with this role in Kiss Me Kate. This is more challenging. It requires beauty of tone and it’s far more exposed, and more of a range than Gomez. It goes from very low to high. And the high notes are exposed, and they are held. So, it requires much more delicacy of tone, and it was a challenge for me, particularly, the ranginess, and I am pleased that the low notes are sounding as pretty as they are, and the high notes are lovely and have – knock on wood – so far have been there for me.
And for my voice, I am not doing anything that people don’t know about. I am being quiet when I am not on. I am trying to be careful how I use my voice and how my voice is supported.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with an intermission.
Kiss Me Kate plays through Sunday January 3, 2016 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall– 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122 or purchase them online.
Karim Doumar’s review of Kiss Me Kate on DCMetroTheaterArts.