BWW Interviews: Gregory Prest Talks ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD
Gregory Prest has been a staple of Soulpepper for the past few years. His immense talent and passion shines through onstage.
To kick off their 2013 season, Soulpepper is staging Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" beginning tonight, February 7.
This comedic play follows the two leading characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as they are told by the Danish court to find out what is wrong with Hamlet (who is played by Gregory Prest). Tom Stoppard ingeniously blends a few short scenes from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet", where dramatic events of both plays coincide, with his own clever use of language.
Gregory sat down with BWW before a rehearsal to talk about his character in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead", his time at Soulpepper so far, and being an actor.
BWW: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me, Gregory. How does it feel to be a part of one of Tom Stoppard's most well-known plays "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"?
GREGORY: It's great! I've never seen or read the play before I found out that we're doing it, so it's great because rehearsals are a discovery. Some shows you go in knowing the show, and so there is a different kind of energy, so it's great because I'm discovering it as we go and I'm getting to watch Jordan Pettle and Ted Dykstra and Ken Welsh work, and sort of discovering the text is amazing. It's great - it's really smart and funny, and very difficult so it's fun to watch people figure it out.
BWW: Is this your first time tackling a Tom Stoppard play?
GREGORY: Yeah! I've seen a couple. I saw the "Travesties" they did here, and I saw "Rock 'n' Roll" they did at CanStage a few years ago. I saw those and I read "The Coast of Utopia". So it's my first time being in it [a Tom Stoppard play]. You know, mind you, the stuff that I have to do is all Hamlet - all my text is Shakespeare, not Tom Stoppard, but it's really great.
BWW: Tell us about the character you play in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead", that being Hamlet (Prince of Denmark)
GREGORY: The play is sort of the backdoor version of "Hamlet" where we follow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which is the very simplistic overview - we follow those two characters; versus Hamlet, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius they're all sort of minor characters in the bigger journey of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. So it's Hamlet! Some of the text is from Shakespeare, and some of the stage directions are descriptions of text later on in the play. Like my first entrance with Ophelia is what Ophelia comes in to describe to Polonius, where I find her in her closet and I take her and I shake her and I look at her face at arms length - so it's fun! It's Hamlet! It's a weird thing to play Hamlet, but I'm not really playing Hamlet. But I'm playing Hamlet, but it's not really Hamlet. So what's kind of great is that I've got a great resource for my moment before. But that's sort of all taken care of by Shakespeare. There's a great moment where I have my back to the audience and I'm essentially doing "To be or not to be" - I'm in that moment. But! The action of the play that the audience is watching is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trying to figure out how they're going to interrupt to talk to me. So that's fun.
BWW: What's the most exciting and the most challenging part of playing Hamlet so far?
GREGORY: I think letting go of it all and just doing this play: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead". There's only so much - I thought "oh what a great opportunity! I'll learn Hamlet at the same time." So when I'm backstage I can sort of be looking over that, which I'm sure I'll still do. And Joe [Ziegler] has played it [Hamlet], directed it twice. Ted has played it. Ken has played it. So I have people who I could talk to about it, and I was like "I'll still do that!" But I have to let all that go and try to serve this play that we're doing - the story that we're telling here to not take on too much of that.
BWW: When did you decide you wanted to be an actor? What/who inspired you?
GREGORY: I wanted to be an actor since I was a kid, since I was probably, I imagine maybe ten - I don't have that defining moment where I was like "this is what I want to do". But when I was growing up, my dad did community theatre. I'm from a small town in Nova Scotia and my dad did community theatre through the rotary club and things like that. And I was in grade five, and one day he just took me along, and I loved it. I loved the people - I think that's what it was: the event, the people - it was really really fun! As a kid growing up in a small town, [community theatre was] like a group outside of your family and outside of your school. It was really really nice. As a teenager, I really grew to love that - the community, the theatre, the people - it was a fun place to be where people were great, and people who were fun. In a way, for me growing up, it was like a safe place to be, and then I loved it. And we started going to theatre - it was always something I've been interested in. But it was in community theatre where I started liking the people. I was doing summer recreation programs and meeting great people from other towns, because it was such a small town, that I only knew very few people. That I would say was the beginning.
BWW: What is it like playing royal characters? How do you approach those roles? Louis XIV (King of France) in "The Royal Comedians" vs. Hamlet (Prince of Denmark)
GREGORY: I never thought of it with Hamlet - that's really good that you should bring that up in the middle of rehearsals! It's given in the text, that's one thing. A few years ago, a few years out of theatre school, I got a job doing Shakespeare in the Ruff, which is outside in Withrow Park. We were doing "Antony and Cleopatra" and I was playing Octavious Caesar. I did that play in theatre school so I knew the play. I learned to sort of relax into it - that sometimes there's a tendency, you know, that if you're playing someone very powerful to try to be as intense and powerful as possible. The real power comes from the ease. You're the most relaxed person in the room really and everyone around you is really tightly wound up because you've got all the power. And in my life experiencing very powerful people, the people who are around them give them their importance. I just try to relax into it and not play that because it's given in the text and up to how you interact with other people. It's a fun game to figure it out and to watch very powerful people, how they interact with not so powerful people - that's the key. I'm sure we've got all those people in our lives.
BWW: What did you do to prepare for the role of Hamlet?
GREGORY: You know, I've read the play several times, studied the play. Again, right now, it's typical for third or fourth week rehearsals where I'm sort of like "what did I prepare with before I came in? And where are we going and what's useful now?" So it's time to look at my tool box and be like "this isn't really serving me right noW. Maybe later in the run it will serve me." But right now I'm just trying to focus on the moment, and not carry the weight on. I think it would be different for someone who's played Hamlet. If you've played Hamlet you probably had that experience. I've sort of got Hamlet fever. The first time's like "I have to do this! I have to do this! Any production, I don't care. I'll make it happen!" You know, there's that kind of excitement of wanting to do it so badly, but it doesn't serve me - I can't walk on stage with all that weight in me because it doesn't serve the play. It's just me being interested in playing Hamlet, which maybe someday I'll be lucky enough to do, but right now it's about Tom Stoppard and this version.
BWW: You played Hamlet in the "Kill Shakespeare" reading at the Word Festival. Are there any similarities/differences (or anything new and exciting) between that portrayal and the Hamlet you'll be portraying in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" are Dead"?
GREGORY: I don't think so; not consciously. When I found out I was doing "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead", I joked that it was my second fake Hamlet. And I remember Rick Roberts, who was doing "Kill Shakespeare" as well, he said "that was my third fake Richard III". So I think we can make a career of playing fake versions.
BWW: The pho-versions.
BWW: Which show are you most looking forward to working on this season and why?
GREGORY: This whole season for me is very exciting - I'm very excited about everything! This is amazing. "Barber of Seville" we're doing after this, which scares me to death, so I'm really excited about that. It's a great group of people. There's a lot of music; it's very very funny - I can't imagine what it's going to be, which really really excites me and terrifies me, and I need to start taking some singing lessons soon. And then "Angels in America" is a play I've always wanted to do - the two plays - so I can't wait to get there but I'm happy that it's not right now. And then going back to "Alligator Pie" will be a lot of fun at the end of the year.
BWW: Will there be anything new for "Alligator Pie"?
GREGORY: I don't think so. We'll go back into rehearsal, but I have a feeling we may change stuff. I think we really really like doing what we're doing. Maybe other people will have suggestions on what we should change. We love doing it! So yeah, the whole year is really exciting to me and I'm very blessed and lucky to be doing it.
BWW: Speaking of "Alligator Pie", can you talk a bit about the Creation Ensemble at Soulpepper?
GREGORY: We were put together. Albert [Schultz] put us together. We all knew each other. We've worked together, and it's a really great group of people and we have a lot of fun! It's fascinating - it's so great to be a part of an ensemble that's ongoing; that's really exciting to me, and that's sort of the ideal spot right now at Soulpepper for me where I'm able to do shows in the season, but I'll still go back into the rehearsal room with an ensemble of people that I know and work with and create new material. That's really really fun and challenging, and it's a great group of people. I think we found a really healthy and fun way to work that was not too precious and allowed us to follow our bliss - that was sort of our mantra in rehearsal - follow our bliss, and we didn't feel responsible to anyone else but the group. I feel very strongly about that group of people and we really found something very fun in each other. And it was fun to do and there's never a moment, especially a creation process - those can be nightmares, you know, just personalities and their tastes; you're essentially put into a room with people that you don't know if you share the same artistic tastes or values or what you think is good or what you think is interesting or what you want to be doing, and then you have to create something. And sometimes that can make for a magical experience, sure, but it's really really tough. But this is really great because they're just great people so we have fun - we laugh a lot. We laugh a lot and make up lots of fun sports.
BWW: From all the great parts you've played so far, do you have a favourite role?
GREGORY: There are for sure roles that if you said "we're remounting it tomorrow" I would say "Yes! Let's go!" and some I'd say "errrr... I don't know..." So many things affect them, like when it happened in your life. Last time this year we were doing "Long Day's Journey into Night" and that's such an amazing play and such an amazing group of people. It's the people in the theatre that I loved at the beginning. Yes it's the work - I love it and everything, but it's also the people and so much of the experience is wrapped around the amazing group of people. Like "Ghosts" for me was an amazing experience because it was my first time working with Morris [Panych], Nancy [Palk], Joe [Ziegler], and it was so amazing. There are very few things I would not want to do again in terms of roles. But this year is really exciting, so there's lots of fun stuff to tackle!
BWW: What would be your dream role?
GREGORY: Well, now that I'm just coming out of Hamlet fever... I would love to do it in a second! Anyone, anywhere! Give me a call, I'll do it! What's so great is that there are so many fantastic roles, and as I get older, more roles become sort of available. As I'm sort of "exiting my youth", a few roles I'd love to play are: "The Seagull", [which] is a play that I love, and I don't know if I'll ever get a chance to do that; but to play Konstantin the Seagull would be amazing. That would be one that I'd feel like I'd love to do before my hair falls out, and I need a cane to walk! I've been really really lucky when I think about the roles that I've played here in the last few years. They're sort of exactly what I want to be doing. So that's nice. In a way it feels impolite to want more because it's been so amazing. But at the same time, I'll do Hamlet anywhere! "You want to do it in my living room?" "Yup, done!" Okay we'll do a living room production of "Hamlet"!
BWW: Since Soulpepper is a repertory theatre company, you could be appearing in two or three shows every week, which can be both invigorating and exhausting. How do you remember the different plays all at once; and what do you do to keep your energy up and to stay focused?
GREGORY: Remembering has never come up as an issue because they're so completely different. The worlds are different, the rehearsals are different - it is entering a whole new thing. Last year I did three plays at the same time: "Death of a Salesman", "The Crucible", "The Royal Comedians" and I was rehearsing "Alligator Pie" and "Spoon River" at the Global Cabaret Festival at the same time - that was insane! But I had very small things to do in "The Crucible", so I've never experienced where you're carrying three massive things. Energy: it's pretty tiring, but it's fun! I really like it; it's fun to be able to do both - to jump back and forth between things.
BWW: You've worked with Joseph Ziegler on many productions - what's it like having him as the director for "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"?
GREGORY: It's great! I really like Joe! He's so amazing; he's so generous and smart and it's always about the work - there's nothing else going on. It's about the work, about clarity, about getting better. The politics in the room are never confusing. It's just amazing. My first introduction to Joe - my first time in a room with him was when we were first reading for "Death of a Salesman", and every show I do, I have a huge crippling talent crush. And that's what's sort of amazing about being here is that every new production there's someone new that sort of makes me kind of lose my shit for a bit. So that first experience was insane and I love it! I really really love it and Joe and Nancy have been - maybe they would find this embarrassing - they've really been my parents here in a way. They've played my parents. They've been great mentors, great friends, great teachers. So it's complicated - if you think someone is that kind of figure, you want to impress them but you also don't want to push them. It's great! I really love it! He's amazing! And I'd work with him anytime, anything! Let's do it now!
BWW: Hamlet now!
GREGORY: Yeah! Hamlet now! Let's go!
GREGORY: I started that program maybe three years ago. It was inspired by my time here at Soulpepper because when we came to the Academy we were assigned mentors and Nancy [Palk] was my mentor. And at that time in my life I really needed someone to talk to, not about my personal problems, but I'd been working for five years professionally, and I had lots of questions. You go through theatre school and you have certain ideas of what the work is, what the community's like, and you get out there, and sometimes you have amazing experiences and sometimes they're awful; and I needed someone to ask dumb questions to and not judge me. Because I feel that questions you ask to a director in a rehearsal room would make them very nervous. You're where you shouldn't show your cards too much - be too vulnerable. And she was so valuable to talk to about so many different things - I'd ask stupid questions and have her sort of say "Gregory, I think you're being an idiot right now. That does not matter." Like just those concerns. And that transition from theatre school to "real life" is very difficult for me - it's difficult for everyone, I'm sure. So what I did is I matched up recent grads with students who are at the school and just matched them up based on nothing but they're at school and you've graduated, and when I see you, you're a nice person and you're not one of those assholes that looks the other way, and then just match them up and see what happens. And those students would have someone to talk to who've experienced, because that training's intense and I'm sure most training institutions are. But someone who can sort of say "I know how you feel". The people that I mentor there, we have coffee every once in a while and they ask questions: "so what did you do after you left the school?" Sort of offering people free tickets to shows. It's that kind of thing - to build community because NTS (National Theatre School) is such a huge community and you've got it in Montreal and it's amazing. But then you move here, and there are tons of people, but it's nice to have someone to introduce you to the city and just say "you know what? Calm down. It's alright. Breathe."
BWW: What would you say is the most challenging when working on an absurdist play like "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"?
GREGORY: I don't know. Right now that's sort of what I'm figuring out. Tone is the wrong word, but that's what I'm using for now - just figuring out the tone. What Hamlet am I playing? Am I playing the Hamlet that I would play if I were playing "Hamlet"? I don't think so, but maybe I am. I don't know. What am I serving? What's the function in the play? So just trying to figure it out. I guess that's what every play is about, but some are a bit more straightforward than others. You can't play "What's my function in this play?" and then play that function - you can't do that. I'm just trying to figure it out. You're catching an actor in the middle of the rehearsal!
BWW: What led you to audition for the Soulpepper Academy? Tell us about the audition process
GREGORY: I had been working for five years and I had some great experiences and I met a couple of people that I really liked. I needed a mentor. I needed someone to give me guidance - to ask my questions to. I tried out some stuff that I thought I knew and I needed a little bit more training. After I finished the school (NTS), I kept taking classes and doing showcases and scene study classes and monologue classes - all these things to keep active, keep at it, because when you're not working, you need to do something. And then I just really wanted to train again and ask questions and work with good people and build long term relationships. That's what I really wanted to do because it's tough! You meet someone, you hit it off two months, you have a great time, you're learning, and then boom! you're somewhere else with a New Group of people. It was not what I needed at the time. It was exactly what I needed to propel me to come here. I auditioned, callback, and they had a mini-academy which is a weekend where they bring in like the final thirty, and then you have a weekend intensive audition, and they paired it down to the group.
BWW: What is a typical show day like for you - including preparation?
GREGORY: It changes so much because usually here you're rehearsing fifteen other things while you're performing so many at night. So once we open this ["Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"], I'm doing a workshop of "The Barber of Seville" during the week after opening, so come in, do that, work with those amazing people, then grab a bite to eat, hopefully bring my stuff - bring my lunch because it's so expensive down here. I'm prepared the way I need to prepare for that show. Each show for me is a different thing, and there are different ways to prepare. I couldn't prepare for "The Crucible" - I was moving furniture in "The Crucible", like I would prepare for "Long Day's Journey into Night" - they are two different things. Each one is its own thing. Figuring out what the routine is and what I need in that moment to do the next show that's coming.
BWW: Pursuing a career in acting is a little like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What keeps you motivated?
GREGORY: I've been very blessed and lucky, and I'm aware that it's a really difficult thing and people have a really hard time. I didn't work for years and years out of theatre school. I had two years with nothing, and that's really really challenging and really really hard. I think it always changes. I have a feeling that for me right now, what motivates me is that I get the chance to work with these incredible people on these amazing plays. And also, in the little tiny bit of security that I have - like I'm here for another year - how to then fill out the rest of the things I want to be doing. I have directed before. It's something I really love so I approached Albert [Schultz]. I'm not saying "could I direct a show in 2014?", but I'm directing a little workshop of a play in February here.
BWW: What's it called?
GREGORY: It's called "Exorcism". It's one of Eugene O'Neill's one-act plays. It's a very interesting play. He destroyed it after he wrote it, in classical Eugene O'Neill fashion, in 1920. And it was discovered last year, 2012. So he destroyed all copies except for one. It was discovered last year, so there are little productions of it popping around. It's sort of in the air. So I'm going to do that. It's just a few days but it's just a chance for me to get those skills going. I have these amazing opportunities for the entire year and also within that saying "okay, yeah, but what else? What else would sort of feed me? What else would I want to do?" I know how lucky I am to be doing that.
BWW: Since joining the Soulpepper Theatre Company and rehearsing for "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead", have you learned anything new about yourself that you didn't know before?
GREGORY: Oh yeah, it's endless, we would need four hours, ten hours to talk about it! Lots of things: things that are great discoveries, things that are great disappointments. For me I'm always learning about myself, learning about the world, re-learning and re-learning - never just learning the lesson and being able to move on. Like "oh! I've learned that lesson now" and now I'm a better person. It's like I learn that lesson again and again and again, and then I forget it and I learn it again. So I'm always learning, as an actor, as a person. I'm always learning - I can't help it.
BWW: What do you want the audience to come away with - emotionally or intellectually - after seeing "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"?
GREGORY: I don't know. That's a really good question. I'm not quite sure - I haven't figured that out yet. I'm still "navel gazing" into my Hamlet role. The play's moving, it's interesting, it's really moving. This is going to sound really dumb, but it's like a tickle! It's sort of like "What?! What?! What is this?! I want to read "Hamlet" again! I want to read this play!" That's amazing how he [Stoppard] did that: how he created that, how he thought of doing this. And it sort of inspires so many other things. I think the play is moving, it's fascinating, it's interesting - it's very funny.
BWW: Do you have any advice for younger actors who want to get into professional theatre?
GREGORY: Yeah! Go to plays, go see plays, go see films of plays, look at pictures of plays, read plays. Find the things that you're drawn to and figure out how to get closer to them. You know, you find an actor that you really like - write them! Send a Facebook message! Be proactive about what it is that you want to be doing. And it's really really hard and it's really really tough, but if there is a company that you really like - for example, if you really love what's going on at the Tarragon and you're like "I would love to work there someday", then just write them a letter saying "I really love what you do. I would love to chat with you about it or shadow or audition" - like all those things. Be proactive because people are generally - there are very few people that I've met that are complete assholes who would say "I don't have time for you" - people who really want to reach out and give people good experiences. It doesn't mean that those things can always happen just because you write a company saying "I'd love to assist you in a show!" But it's that keep going, keep going, keep going [attitude], and try to figure out what it is that interests you and move towards it.
"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts from February 7th until March 2nd
Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, by phone at 416 866 8666, or online at www.soulpepper.ca
Photo Credit: Bruce Zinger and Nathan Kelly