Actors strive onstage to “tell the story” laid down by the playwright and envisioned by the director. In an illuminating new book by Mary Z. Maher and Alan Armstrong, Telling the Story, twelve actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have been invited to contribute to a different narrative, one that takes place before and behind the scenes. This composite account begins with the circumstances that propelled them into acting then describes the multi-faceted, idiosyncratic processes, which, leavened with dashes of luck, have supported their onstage success. This story is not without plenty of comic relief: think David Kelly speaking into a stray slipper instead of a telephone or Brent Hinkley trying to chomp an undefrosted corndog.
But another story, hovering in the background, deserves mention first. It concerns Maher and Armstrong’s own process of gathering and telling the story of Telling the Story! For Maher’s previous three books on Shakespeare in performance, she’d interviewed a line-up of renowned actors from Stacy Keach to Kenneth Branagh then either embedded the actor’s words in commentary of her own or introduced a question-and-answer format. Armstrong, former director of Southern Oregon University’s Center for Shakespeare Studies and regular dramaturg for the OSF, suggested an alternative method, inspired by the sense that their preliminary four-hour conversations with each actor flowed so smooth and rich, it was like “uncorking ancient bottles of wine.” Why get in the way?
After Maher agreed—they would step behind the curtain altogether—neither she nor Armstrong looked back despite the two intense years of Herculean editing that followed. For they were dealing with “natural-born raconteurs,” who improvised freely on every prompt. Each interview generated between 17,000 and 30,000 words, which would have to undergo radical trimming to meet the 7,000-word cap for each chapter. Then each chapter needed to be organized to foreground its most colorful threads and its distinctive voice. Armstrong calls their process “creative non-fiction.” It presents an engrossing panorama of perspectives on acting in which surface divergence bends ultimately to consistency.
The starting points for each actor probably map a Bell curve for the profession. Nell Geisslinger is the daughter of actors, Anthony Heald grew up in “a home with a heady mix of culture,” and John Tufts attended theatre frequently from a young age. David Kelly had “found …[his] place in drama and music” by age twelve; Mark Bedard favored his prep school’s talent shows, but after being cast as Sky Masterson in its production of Guys and Dolls, he began to take acting seriously: “it was so much easier than football,” where he “got beat up all the time.” Richard Howard first acted in high school, discovering it filled a void left by the death of his father.
On the later end of the spectrum, Danforth Comins played varsity soccer in college until an injury led him to try an acting class. Kevin Kenerly planned to channel his gift for drawing into a career as a prosthetic engineer. Mark Murphey attended Baylor University planning to study medicine. Jonathan Haugen somehow rose from high school drop-out to opera singer before studying theatre. Michael Elich, born to a teen-age mother, the first of five kids in a struggling family, was guided into a drama class in junior high because he was so “withdrawn.” Although he found acting freeing, it was years before he considered it a possible vocation. Most surprising of all is Vilma Silva’s deferred professional debut: she did perform in high school and earned an undergraduate degree in acting. But then she worked as a sales person and bank teller for six years to pay off her student debt, before being lured back to the stage! (Prayer of thanks to the god of thespians.)
Once set on their theatre tracks, the actors begin to manifest certain commonalities: they are highly intelligent, dedicated to personally honed methods of script analysis and line-learning, character development, and pre-show preparation. Most subject a new role to various forms of research: Tufts, for example, traveled to England to retrace the steps of Henry V from Shrewsbury to Agincourt. They are all captivated by the challenges of Shakespeare’s poetry. They appreciate a number of the same directors for their brilliance and their willingness to listen to actors’ ideas. They admire and learn from their fellow actors and love many like family. In fact, the desire to belong to a repertory company has governed their professional choices, and chances are they had to audition more than once to be accepted into the OSF.
Telling the Story offers a bonus: brief tours through the inner workings of several of the Festival’s most imaginative productions in recent years. Haugen, Heald, and Tufts report on rehearsals for the mind-bending Equivocation, where playwright Bill Cain could only see the “flaws in his structure” if there were no flaws in the acting, and demanded relentless perfection from the cast. Silva speaks to playing Goneril opposite alternating Lears. Howard recalls the evolution of The White Snake, with playwright-director Mary Zimmerman, who began crafting the script during the first rehearsal. Elich divulges the secret of director Kate Buckley’s wonderfully successful Shrew while Haugen and Silva illuminate the amazing genius of Amanda Dehnert.
As a reviewer, familiar with almost all the productions mentioned in Telling the Story, I couldn’t put the book down. Ultimately I found its revelations humbling. How many times I’ve left a performance, especially of Shakespeare, satisfied and certain that I’d “got” what the director and actors were playing—the implicit vision, the various nips and tucks required to get all its pieces to fit together. Now they tell me they often had something quite different in mind!
Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)