John Harrell interview
This interview, conducted in the first week of the new Actor’s Renaissance Season (find more information about this season at http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/v.php?pg=282) at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia features John Harrell, a veteran member of the ASC TroupeS at the Blackfriars playhouse and interviewer Christine Parker, Dramaturg Intern for the season in partnership with Mary Baldwin College’s Masters in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in Performance Program. In the first production of the season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, John plays Nick Bottom, the weaver who is turned into an ass by trickster fairy, Puck, played by Benjamin Curns.
CP: You have worked in the ARS before—what do you find most exciting about working in the ARS?
JH: Well, there are two things.
One that we tend to do titles that we wouldn’t otherwise do, which is fun, that is: performing new and unfamiliar plays.
The other is that I tend to be skeptical about the directorial enterprise as a whole, or at least part of me is. I see the purpose, in some cases, of having directors, but this season gives me the chance to do what I want.
It has its downsides, too, in that other people don’t always do what I want. The most interesting thing is that I can be wholly responsible for my own performance. If I have an idea that might help it, then I can just do it without asking anyone else’s permission. The flip side is that you have to have control your own ideas and not get too carried away and, too, you have to recognize when some idea is hurting the process instead of helping it.
CP: Tell me more about the first rehearsal scene with mechanicals [A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act I, Scene 2], when you were working with Aaron [Hochhalter] who plays Peter Quince on the power struggle between Bottom and Quince.
JH: I came in [to the scene] with a clear idea, mostly [because I have] played Quince, about what kinds of guys Bottom and Quince are. I was ready to play Bottom in a particular way—but it was not fitting Aaron’s [ideas] about playing Quince. One thing about Ren season is [that] you have take what you are given and fit your performance around what other people are doing. It also can be very frustrating when you cannot do what you wanted to do.
I’m glad that graduate students are here to observe this, as there is, surely,
a lot to learn. The people [ASC] really should really get in are psychologists to study the way people control or fail to control what goes onstage. [As this is] the fifth Ren season, I kind of know how certain [actors] deal with situations. I kind of have an idea of how to work with them to get them to do what I want to do. Or, I know which areas I don’t have to worry about because [the actors have] got it covered.
CP: Your Bottom is more of an intellectual type.
JH: There is something interesting in playing Bottom as a character who has to learn something. The more traditional Bottom is that he is sort of a wonderful sweet and open spirit who is ignorant about the way plays work but is still able to be the heart of theater…because of this generosity or this openness or naiveté…and that somehow the Titania love affair is a sort of gift to a sweet soul.
I’m kind of playing as a sort of a douche-bag “art student,” I’m playing him as an ass. I know we have different cultural ideas about what the working class is after the nineteenth century than Shakespeare did about people who worked with their hands but maybe it’s not completely off the mark to play it with Bottom as a jerk, and then have him, sort of, be saved by this experience that he has in the forest.
CP: Which character are you most looking forward to performing?
JH: The character am I most interested in is the Blind Beggar [George Chapman’s The Blind Beggar of Alexandria opens 13 March], and I’m really looking forward to Lussurioso in Revenger’s Tragedy [Thomas Middleton]. I don’t play parts like that very often. He’s a bad guy, dumb, not even evil exactly, he’s just stupid and a slave to his senses.
CP: Are you worried about the number of lines you will have as the lead character in Blind Beggar as opposed the number you have as Bottom?
JH: Bottom, who has about 330 lines, is only in five or six scenes, maybe close to what Lurrioso [in Revenger’s Tragedy] who has about 390. That’s one of the things that makes so good for the Ren season. It’s sort of modular taking place in three different worlds—so no one has a huge number of lines. Do you know who has the most lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Theseus has the most lines, and he’s only in about three scenes, then Helena, then Bottom. That play is very spread out.
The Blind Beggar of Alexandria is going to be short, it will run about an hour and a half [or, at 20 lines per minute, about 1800 lines]—I’m guessing. In this play, though, the scariest thing is not the line burden, the hardest part is the quick changes. I walk offstage and walk right back onstage in a different disguise. I could certainly do that with different hats, but that seems like a cop-out to me. I want to do more thorough quick changes. But it’s the fifth play, which is a long way down the road.
CP: How was the shortened rehearsal time [The Ren Season troupe mounted Midsummer with only two days of rehearsal time] for your memorization process?
JH: It was ok, I know those lines pretty well somewhere—they’re jangling around in my brain. I played Peter Quince a few years ago and Titania a few years before that, and those characters hear everything that Bottom says except for the wake-up speech, which is a speech that I just like, so I [already] know it. I’m sure I’m screwing up lines right and left as I kind of settle into them, but I didn’t have much trouble.
The mechanics of that play make the audience forget that Bottom is there. And it’s such a great joke to have him not only wake up, but to wake up not having heard the cue.
CP: Tell me about the textual clues that help your choices Act V, Scene 1. [In this scene, Bottom and his colleagues perform a play for the Duke and other characters. The moment to which Christine refers includes characters playing A Wall and two lovers. The lovers must find a way to communicate through the wall. The ASC interpretation involves some suggestive use of the text.]
JH: Those textual clues came from one comment that Paul Menzer [Director, Mary Baldwin College’s Masters in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature and Performance Program] made to me. We were talking about that scene and he suggested that “I kiss the wall’s hole and not your lips at all” that there could be something more to that, because you’re usually kissing the hand…basically, I reverse engineered it. I kind of went back to figure out what had happened to get to a kind of fellatio. It’s nasty, but funny. I think it is not only funny but that it really works with the lines. For one thing, the names [Shakespeare uses in the lines] Bottom, when [we do it] is talking into someone’s crotch, and [Flute] is talking to their butt. So when one says “Not Shafalus to Procrus was so true” those names suddenly sound really different. Also, the line that Wall has when he’s done, “Thus have I my part discharged so” just fits. Bawdy. Double meanings. In order to make it work, you have to set that up, and the play works really well to set it up. You have to set up that Bottom is expecting the hole in a certain place, and it’s not there. I think it’s totally legit.
The wall stuff was kind of in the bag when we started and is all about trying to get stuff out of the text. For the other parts of the play within the play, I’m trying to do bad acting stuff—over-enunciate lines, indicate things in advance, telegraph moves—if I’m going to move to the wall, I want everyone in the room to see that I’m about to cross to the wall, [which I indicate by] doing all the things that you’re not supposed to do.
CP: Which playwright writes dialogue that seems most like exchanges in modern plays?
JH: There’s some really modern stuff in the Revenger’s Tragedy, really Stoppard-ian. Some of the exchanges that Lussurioso has with Vindici [Benjamin Curns] and Hippolyto [Alyssa Wilmoth] contain really short lines where we’re kind of half-listening to each other, or Lussurioso will be talking and Hippolyto will be saying nasty sorts of things, or Lussurioso is kind of half listening, in a quick back and forth comic dialogue, and they work Lurrurioso into a frenzy really fast. It’s very farcical, Stoppard-like, wacky. Ben pointed out that, except for Antonio’s line at the end, “oh you killed these people, you have to die,” it would have to be Revenger’s Comedy.
CP: How does the language in Richard II [John played Richard II in the 2008 summer/fall season at ASC] compare to what you have as Bottom in Midsummer?
JH: Bottom is written in prose except for Pyramus and Thisby, so it doesn’t really compare. Revenger’s Tragedy is mostly verse, but it is not as formally structured as Richard II. Lussurioso is nuts and his sentence structures get out of his control. That is not about verse, exactly. The thing is Richard is mostly in control of everything that happens, and certainly in control of his reaction to everything that happens so when he’s obviously not in control the text shows it. Lussurioso is in control of nothing—not only over what happens, but over his reaction to what happens and doesn’t even stop for one second to think about the consequences. He’s being hoodwinked by people left and right…Vindici dupes him again and again. Richard II cannot do anything without thinking about the consequences of the action. Richard II is just a more elegant play.
CP: Do you see that [contrast in elegance] in general [when comparing] Shakespeare and Middleton?
JH: I haven’t really done that much Middleton—we did The Witch [ARS 2008]. Middleton is a little less “high faluting” than Shakespeare. He doesn’t focus so much on poetry but is more focused on with getting on with plot which is sometimes a relief.
CP: Is it more difficult to make Shakespeare understandable because he is so “high-falutin”?
JH: I wouldn’t look at it as an issue of making it understandable per se. There are probably the same number of lines in Revenger’s Tragedy that people won’t understand, and that just happens. It’s mostly that the scenes happen, and continue to happen, and dramatic action unfolds. While in Shakespeare’s plays, the pursuit of dramatic action waits on a speech or two.
I’m interested in asides in these plays. There are some really strange asides in Revenger’s Tragedy. For instance, two people are onstage and one of them has an aside in which he says three or four lines to the audience, and then turns back to the person they were just talking to. The strange thing is, the person they were just talking to doesn’t realize they are there and seems startled at their “reappearance.” It happens to my character a lot.
CP: What do you think of your character’s last line “My tongue is out of office”? I noticed “tongue” is mentioned about 30 times in the play.
JH: It follows a heroic death couplet : “Farewell to all. He who climbs highest has the greatest fall.” He is saying “This is my own folly.” It is one those sententious death lines in which the character seems to say “Now I’ve said my death couplet and I don’t have anything else to say.”
Christine Parker recorded and transcribed this interview.
Sarah Enloe then followed these guidelines in editing it for the ASC website:
1. Maintain what the actor says in their own words but delete repetitions and incomplete digressions
2. Correct verb/noun disagreement
3. Organize words/phrases for clarity
4. Insert character names for non-specific pronouns for clarity
5. Insert explanations or connections in [brackets].
6. Note alterations with [brackets]
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Actors' Renaissance Season