In 2006, Pete Pryor won the Barrymore Award for Leading Actor in a Play for his stellar portrayal of the titular character in Richard III at Lantern Theater Company. Now a decade later, he is reprising his signature role at People’s Light, with a critically acclaimed performance in an updated take on Shakespeare’s shockingly violent and sardonic history play.
I caught up with Pete on a busy day, after a 10:00 matinee of the show, followed by teaching at the Pathway School (where he’s been a resident artist and drama instructor since 2005), to discuss the production, his characterization of the King, and the relevance of the theme for today’s audiences.
Deb: Why did you decide to return to the role of Richard III ten years later?
Pete: I became full-time Associate Artistic Director and company member at People’s Light in 2010, and they wanted me to do it; I really didn’t want to! It seemed like a risk after we did so well at the Lantern and it was such a great experience for me personally. I wasn’t sure if it would be a good idea to do another production that could be compared to that huge success, but Sam [Director/Choreographer Samantha Reading] talked me into it. Sam really pushes everyone to their limits, and I have full faith in her–as I did in Charles [McMahon, who directed the Lantern production].
Did you have any strong memories of the lines or approach from the Lantern’s production, or were you essentially starting from scratch this time?
I had a lot; there was so much from that show that worked and it was so much fun to do. But Sam did a lot of cutting for the new script and also doubling up of the characters—there’s a cast of nine, but I’m the only one who plays just one role, as Richard—so this was all her brainchild and it was a very different version of Shakespeare’s play. We did the rehearsals in sections, chronologically, and every day I thought there was no way I would be ready, but I tried, and back in the recesses of my mind, it was there to pull out.
How does this portrayal differ from the Lantern’s?
Sam worked with Jorge [Cousineau, who served as the show’s sound, set, and video designer]. One of the great things about their collaboration is that it’s the director’s vision that moves the piece, but the videos also help to move the story further along; it’s not just Shakespeare’s written word, but there are very strong visual elements as well. It’s an important experiment for Sam, and for everyone.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that it’s scary how topical the play is at this time. It probably also was in 2006, but with the election going on now, it’s obvious in the play how easily people are won over by spectacle, which Richard is really good at–as are some of our current candidates. And we’ve also got all the allusions to violence in the production, with bags over the characters’ heads and off-stage beheadings, just like we see around the world every day in the news, so it seems even more relevant now.
Plus I’m older now, and that changes things! I was probably a bigger pain in the ass to Charlie at the Lantern than I’ve been with Sam (though you’d have to ask her about that!), but, in general, you settle into things more when you’re older. Wisdom comes with age, so I felt a little more security going into it now, though I’m more tired after doing a performance than I was ten years ago!
Whose idea was it to set the history piece in the present?
Jorge and Sam came up with the concept; I was in on one meeting with them over a year ago. Jorge was intrigued by dilapidated buildings like the old Tastykake factory in Philadelphia, so he wanted to create a bombed out feeling for the set, of things being decrepit and in ruins, as a mirror of Richard’s body and psyche. He was giddy about going to junkyards and then building a junk sculpture for our space, he really took delight in it! But they were both careful not to go too far out; they wanted to have a feeling of the past and how it relates to now, without going too Mad Max. Rosemarie McKelvey did the same with the costumes; they’re a combination of history and the present.
What is it about the character that you find so compelling? Is there anything at all in his psychology or emotions with which you can empathize or identify, since you capture them so well?
I absolutely love him! It’s his trait of self-actualizing that wills him to power, and he’s as amazed as the audience that he could actually make it happen. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all do that—set goals and achieve them, through resolve and determination? Even though he was a monster, I admire his ambition and that drive to succeed.
How difficult were the physical demands in portraying a character with disabilities and performing with braces?
It was just like getting used to anything else. The armature was made by Jorge, so it was carefully fitted to me, but the ankle bracelet was the only thing that was holding me up. The crutch was a real one, though I used it in fighting, so it got battered and worn. Because of that, it had to be adjusted with a new cap on the end, and after it was, it felt slightly off from what it was originally, and it threw me. I had to get used to it again, as I did with working the video camera attached to it.
How closely did you work with the design team, and how long did you rehearse, to ensure that you were safe and comfortable with moving around the multi-level set and with Richard’s situation in the stunning opening and closing scenes?
Sam, who did the choreography as well as the direction, wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything that she couldn’t do, and she tried out everything before I did it, so it was all fine; I totally trust her. We had the regular process of a four-week rehearsal, no additional time, and we weren’t in the actual space till tech week, when the set was completed. So we just jumped in and did it!
Were there any moments during the process, or were there any mishaps, that made you think, “Do I really need to do this?”
There’s been only one, and it was just due to exhaustion on my part, being foolish and miscalculating. We just came off of doing a lot of shows, and in this one performance I jumped off the platform and hit the floor too quickly, and fell on my face. But for cases like this, the company has a set protocol posted on a call board, so they’re really very responsible and concerned about our safety. And I was fine, I just got up and went on with the show.
Has this been your favorite role to date?
Yeah, Richard is my favorite, though I don’t think I’ll do it again! But it’s a great play to do, and playing bad guys is definitely one of my favorites. I started out doing mostly comedy [as the co-founder of 1812 Productions], and 1812 had no characters like Richard! Another aspect that I love about the play is that there’s a nod and a wink in the script; Shakespeare put dark comedy in with the drama, and the audiences are really responding to the humor.
What other roles or plays are on your things-to-do list for the future? What’s up next for you?
Nothing specific—I think my Hamlet days have passed!–but I’d just love to do whatever is ‘good work’ and is fun and challenging, whether it’s drama or comedy. My next show is The Harassment of Iris Malloy at People’s Light, a new play by our Producing Director Zak Berkman. I play a sleazy underbelly kind of guy in Atlantic City, who makes money off of other people’s misfortunes—another bad guy!
Thank you, Pete, for sharing your inside perspective and personal insights on Richard III, and congratulations again on another brilliant performance!
Richard III plays through Sunday, April 24, 2016, at People’s Light’s Steinbright Stage – 39 Conestoga Road, in Malvern, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (610) 644-3500, or purchase them online.
Deb Miller reviews ‘Richard III’ at People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern, PA on DCMetroTheaterArts.