New to CSC: 3 Local Actors Take on Shakespeare Times 2
Heat, humidity, and not a few summer storms might keep a lesser group down for the season, but not the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Every summer, they produce one of the most anticipated theatre events of the season, Shakespeare in the Ruins. For several years now, this company of local, professional-grade classics lovers gathers every summer to present William's best (and sometimes under-produced) works at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City, Maryland. Hallmarks of these productions include the fact that, like the Elizabethans, we audience members get to enjoy the theatre outdoors, the plays are opposites - this year's As You Like It is a comedy, while Henry V is a history, and the plays are done in true repertory, with the same cast performing roles in both plays. This season, CSC has really upped the ante. They are presenting these plays under the auspices of the internationally renowned Shakespeare in Washington Festival.
Several of the area's best actors are CSC regulars, including Patrick Kilpatrick, Ashly Ruth Fishell and Wayne Willinger. But, CSC regularly brings in the best of local talents that are new to the area or perform in the DC area exclusively. It is always exciting to see these new faces. This season, three of those standout actors, Colby Codding, Vince Eisenson and Lindsay Kitt Wiebe are delighting audiences with their own exciting brands of theatricality and broad scope of talent. All three excel, whether in major supporting roles or blending into the ensemble, whether being broadly comic or heartbreakingly serious, or whether displaying fine physical acting or sublimely detailed and nuanced speeches. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask this talented trio a few questions.
James Howard (JH): Each of you plays a variety of characters in As You Like It and Henry V, more than one, in each play. How did you prepare each character, and how do you keep them all straight in your head during each individual show and between the two shows all together?
Lindsay Kitt Wiebe (LW): I always let the text inform me of who each character is and what's going on. First of all, As You Like It and Henry V are vastly different plays examining vastly different worlds and themes. I look at the relationships between the role(s) I am portraying on a given evening and the other characters in the play. Each character has a very separate set of objectives - of wants and needs - to be met. Each character has a very different energy and thought pattern. Each character uses the language in a case specific way. Luckily in Shakespeare, all the clues an actor needs are in fact buried somewhere in the text. So, I like to reacquaint myself with the text of each play before stepping onto the stage as a nice reminder of the specifics for each show and character.
Vince Eisenson (VE): Luckily the directors have helped us create two different moods for the shows, and that helps me focus on the different characters. (Director) Ian Gallanar really wanted As You Like It to be about the joy of life. While rehearsing that show, I tried to find what makes both characters (Le Beau and Amiens) happy so I could find ways for them to pursue joy in their lives. For Le Beau, the script gives some great clues. Celia introduces him to the audience by saying, "Here comes Monsieur Le Beau, with his mouth full of news." Le Beau only appears in the beginning of the show, but he says a heck of a lot in his short stage life. So he loves to gossip and entertain people, especially the ladies of his court. I made the choice that this flamboyant, gossipy guy wanted to use his story-telling prowess to help and entertain people.
Henry requires a different kind of energy. (Director) James Ricks made it clear that we needed to drive the show by making scene transitions seamless, picking up cues, and finding high stakes for our characters in every scene. The script provides plenty of those stakes - we're at war, after all. There's some comedy in the play, and I tried to find a sense of humor for both characters I play, but the truth is that they usually get shoved in situations where what's happening is deathly serious. As Scroop, I come on for one scene and am quickly pleading for my life. For Captain Gower, I realized I was the straight man surrounded by comic relief. Gower is constantly dealing with Fluellen's eccentricities, and just trying to keep up with Steve Beall gives me plenty to focus on. I got the sense from the script that Gower really wanted to keep his fellow captains together and put people in their places when they weren't acting in the English army's best interest. Gower laces into the lying, thieving Pistol at the end of the play. I try to focus on those goals before going on as Gower, and that helps me differentiate him from the other characters I play.
Colby Codding (CC): Keeping a bunch of characters straight in your head is actually easier than you would think, because you learn them on different tracks, if you get my meaning. In this case, the four of the characters are completely different from one another as written - one is a simple shepherd, one is a drunken rapscallion, one is a prince, etc. I've doubled up in the past (as did actors from Shakespeare's own company) and the only time it came close to derailing was when I ran on stage as a Messenger at the beginning of Macbeth to breathlessly give some important news and almost delivered another Messenger speech from Comedy of Errors that started out in identical fashion as the Macbeth messenger. Sleep helps, too.
JH: Is this your first experience with repertory theatre?
LW: Actually, my first experience with repertory theatre was last year in my summer semester of graduate school at The Shakespeare Theatre Academy for Classical Acting. As luck would have it, we did As You Like It and James Shirley's The Cardinal. I love doing two shows in repertory! I think, especially during the rehearsal process, it really keeps you focused and on your toes jumping between two worlds. I find that it helps an actor's capacity for versatility and range.
VE: I did two historical dramas in rep for a summer. The shows took place in the same time period and had many overlapping characters, so it felt more like performing two parts of an epic.
JH: Is it a largely positive thing? How so and/or how not?
CC: Doing two, or even several, shows at the same time is a joy for an actor. It is like being in a candy store. "I think I'll bite into this Twix bar. Oh, I can munch away on a Mars bar, too? Where do I sign?" There are no negatives - unless you feel like you've overextended yourself, in which case you shouldn't have taken on two gigs at once in the first place.
JH: How does learning two completely different plays with the same cast of actors work?
VE: Doing these two plays in rep with the same actors keeps the performances exciting. One night I'm chuckling with Pat Kilpatrick by a bed of flowers, the next he's throwing me against a wall, spitting in my face and pronouncing my death. I love seeing actors in such different situations each night, and building a rapport with them. I think we all use the connections we make with each other in one show to strengthen relationships in the other.
JH: What is it like working with two different directors?
CC: As far as working with two directors at once - again, you are operating on two tracks. So when I am in rehearsing As You Like It with Ian, I am engaged with Ian and his suggestions and such. The next night when I am rehearsing Henry with James, I am engaged with James and not thinking a whit about As You Like It. Sort of like entering two separate rooms at a really cool party.
LW: Working with two different directors is like working with two different plays. Each director has his own style of working with Shakespeare, his own set of theatrical philosophies and visions for what each play should become when taken off the page and put into motion. I think it's really interesting to have the opportunity as an actor to observe and experience various different ways of working.
JH: Explain your training/acting background. How has it helped you get to this point in your acting career? How do you continue learning/training?
CC: I guess the most pivotal training experience I had was being a founding member of Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, now the American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars in Staunton, VA. I did about ten productions with them and we were at the advent of the whole "original practices" (i.e. doing it the way Shakespeare's company did it - focusing on the text, audience interaction, etc.) that has resurfaced since the late 80's. You learn a lot doing ten shows and thirty characters in four years on the road in front of high schools and colleges. I try to stay current by going to stage combat classes every so often, watching other actors perform, and doing geeky things like reading the prefaces to Shakespeare's First Folio and learning as much as I can retain about the Elizabethans and how they performed and interpreted Shakespeare's text.
LW: I would not trade my educational experience(s) for the world! My undergraduate, graduate certificate and graduate degree have most certainly opened my eyes to entire landscapes of various genres of theatre. Of course, the more you know the more you are capable of…and the more you know, the more you realize you have yet to learn! I have always believed that if I am going to devote my life and career to theatre, I might as well go the distance. I constantly strive to challenge and stretch myself as an actor, sometimes beyond the bounds of what I think is possible, regardless of the outcome. As with any risk or leap of faith, there is always a great chance of failure. However, one will never truly succeed if one never takes a risk to begin with.
VE: I acted in community and school theatre productions since age 11 in my hometown of Durham, NC. I went to a high school, Durham School of the Arts, which had a great theatre program. We got to do Measure for Measure and Antony and Cleopatra as teenagers. From there I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Drama Department is connected to PlayMakers Repertory Company, so I was able to get equity points and act with professionals as an undergraduate. I also did many student shows. One of my professors, David Hammond, is renowned for his text coaching and directing of Shakespeare, and I was lucky to have several classes with him and act in three of his shows.
I also spent a summer at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford. I was able to get more movement training there and yet more text coaching with Shakespeare. That summer, and my work as an upperclassman in college really turned me on to classic texts and the possibilities in them for developing characters. Shakespeare constantly challenges you as an actor, because you can't throw his language away and settle into a safe, "naturalistic" performance. You have to find ways to express the complex thoughts he's giving you through voice and clear action. It's very hard, but very rewarding when you find ways to do it effectively.
I've been very lucky to get cast in shows so quickly since moving here, so that's keeping me busy. I want to take more classes at some of the top-notch theatres in D.C./Baltimore and train with their actors and directors. Grad school in performance may be on the horizon as well. Right now I'm teaching at a theatre and outdoor adventure camp for middle and high schoolers, and I know I'll learn by watching and helping them. Some of the other teachers have lots of Shakespeare and Commedia Dell'Arte training, so I'll be gleaning wisdom from them all summer.
JH: Vince, in As You Like It, you play a somewhat comic character, and you even sing. How is it singing in the middle of the show? Do you have experience with music and/or musicals? Which type of character is your favorite to play?
VE: I was a little surprised when Ian cast me as Amiens, because the character mainly sings. I never sang for Ian or told him I was a singer. I've sung in musicals before, but consider myself a "character singer." The last musical I did I played an autistic young man with an obsession for blues music. All my singing was in a deep bass register, mainly for comic effect. The script has Amiens telling Jacques, "my voice is ragged." I've heard some actors play that as false modesty, but I kind of ran with it. What if this guy isn't the greatest singer, but the other lords in the forest make him belt out melodies for their amusement? I like the idea that he's surprised whenever someone asks him to sing, but gamely belts out a tune. It's fun, and the lyrics to "Blow, blow thou winter wind" are clever. It keeps me entertained, and hopefully the audience. Ian and Dave Gamble, who plays a fellow Lord o' the woods, helped me come up with something that falls somewhere between Pavarotti and William Hung. Dave and I have fun with it every night, which follows the "joy of life" philosophy.
JH: Colby, in Henry V, you play a somewhat comic character, Nym, and a somewhat nasty character, The Dauphin. Which was your favorite?
CC: I love them both, equally. Comedy seems to be my mealticket, so I always relish the opportunity to play a fella with a little more depth. I did play The Dauphin ten years ago in Cincinnati. He was a little more spry back then.
JH: And Lindsay, In As You Like It, you play a hugely comic character, and it looks like you are having a lot of fun. In Henry V, you have the unenviable task of playing The Chorus. Which type of character is your favorite to play?
LW: I think I do love them both equally. There is something quite magical about Audrey. She is so full of life and free-spirited! Audrey looks at life from such a happy positive viewpoint. I cannot help but have tons of fun playing her! With Chorus, I feel so incredibly lucky and blessed to have the opportunity to say some of the most amazing speeches every night! It's a huge and exhilarating challenge to tackle the likes of "O for a Muse of fire…" and "Now entertain conjecture of a time…". I mean it really doesn't get any better than that!
JH: All three of you have pretty varied credits! What draws you to Shakespearean and other similar classic plays? What draws you to musicals? What has been your most successful role? Is there a role you are hoping to play soon? Is there a type of show you are interested in trying?
VE: I played "Adam" in The Shape of Things at a theatre in North Carolina. The director of that show had worked with me years before and pushed me relentlessly during rehearsals. He wanted me to bring a character to the stage who would undergo a complete transformation from the first to last scene. It was very gratifying to start and end each show as a different person. I still look for ways to do that with any character I play - ways for the character to take a significant journey and be a changed person at the end.
Lately I've been on such a Shakespeare kick - I keep wanting to do more. I love Henry IV. Can't wait to play Hotspur or Prince Hal. I also think the Henry VI cycle, though long, has some of the most exciting scenes of any of the history plays. Henry and Richard (before he becomes Richard III) are on my wishlist. I also hope more of Martin McDonough's plays come to the area. I'll definitely be auditioning for them.
CC: Shakespeare is rock n' roll. It's like what Louis Armstrong said about jazz music: "If you don't get it, then I can't explain it to you." I mean is there anything more fun than spitting rhetorical devices into another actor's face, while audiences laugh and spiders repel across the stage? I don't think so. I can't say what my most "successful role" has been, but I sure felt good about Mercutio, Dromio, Grumio, and various other dudes in the "-io" contingency. Antipholus of Syracuse was great, too, because he got the girl in the end. A welcome rarity for this actor. As to your last question, I would push my identical twin brother out of a moving train to play either Bottom, Benedick, or Richard III. And he knows that.
LW: Classical text, specifically Shakespeare, has such an interesting and beautiful poetic structure. I love analyzing the rhythms and sounds within the text, and figuring out how to activate these incredible rhetorical structures. And in my humble opinion, most of Shakespeare's cannon is storytelling at its best. I suppose classical textual structure seems rather musical to me in its use of rhythm, etc. I do think the similarities between the format of classical text and music are what led me from the world of music to the world of Shakespeare. As for my most successful role, I hope that every time I approach a new project, that new role becomes my most successful role to date. I hope to always be learning and growing as an artist. I don't really have a preference as to what I would like to do next. Just as long as I am lucky enough to be on a stage, I'll be happy.
JH: Vince, You mention briefly appearing in the upcoming Nicholas Cage film, National Treasure 2. What was that experience like? How is film acting different from stage acting? Would you like to do more film?
VE: I got called to do background work on NT2, and must have stood in the right place at the right time. I got bumped up to being a dinner guest who is chatting with a lady as Nicholas Cage tries to make his way toward the President. We get in his way and he has to brush through us. It started raining during that shoot, so who knows if the director will keep that little scene in the final version.
I would like to do more film. I've only lived in the area for 8 months and I've mainly focused on theatre, but I was able to be in one of the D.C. 48-hour films last month, between rehearsals. We won "Best Use of Character" at the final screening for the part I played. It was such a compressed weekend and we worked very quickly, but I enjoyed the spontaneity of building a character and shooting scenes in such a short time. It was fun riding my impulses and taking wild risks - which can be easier to do on film when you know a bad take won't be used. It's much more challenging to take big risks with characters on stage, because there's no editing once you've done something.
JH: How does working with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company compare to others you have worked with?
CC: CSC has been great to work for - the talent pool is healthy, the productions have been fun to work on, management has been patient and easygoing, and you really cannot beat performing at that venue in the ruins.
LW: I am having a great time working with this immensely enthusiastic, talented, and kind group of people. It is evident this company is passionately devoted to the exploration of Shakespeare's material, and the quest to present classical theatre to audiences of all ages in a real, vibrant, exciting manner.
VE: I have never felt so quickly welcomed into an ensemble. The actors at Chesapeake are constantly complementing each other, sharing ideas, and bringing a great mix of cheer and focus to rehearsals and performances. I've been in shows where the actors treat each other like competitors and snipe at one another backstage. The success of a show depends on the relationships between the characters, and having everyone focused on nurturing and encouraging each other helps us build those connections on stage. Actors in the company aren't afraid to make risky choices because they know their company members only want them to succeed.
JH: What do you hope audiences get from As You Like It and Henry V?
VE: An acting teacher once told me As You Like It is about confronting the things you fear the most and realizing they're actually quite wonderful. (He was British, so it sounded better when he said it.) That goes along with Ian's "joie de vivre" idea, and that's the feeling I want audiences to take from this. The characters are banished to a forest and give up their lives of wealth and happiness, but find that simplicity and camaraderie provide endless happiness.
Our promotional materials describe Henry as a "rousing history." I'd love for audiences to get excited about the journey the characters take on stage - from outmatched, underprepared soldiers to victors. I'm not too concerned with what political message they take from the play; people will disagree about that. As long as we present the history (plus Shakespeare's inventions) with vigor, I think audiences will enjoy the ride, be inspired to learn more about the time period and people depicted, and ask themselves what being a great leader should entail.
LW: I hope audiences enjoy the shows! I hope our younger audience members leave feeling excited about learning more about Shakespeare, and I hope everyone in the audience has as much fun watching the shows as we as a company do performing them.
CC: I would hope that they would want to come back next year and see more Shakespeare.
Thank you to Colby, Vince and Lindsay, and to Lesley Malin and CSC for arranging this interview.
As You Like It and Henry V continue at the Ruins through July 8.
PHOTOS: TOP: Lindsay Kitt Wiebe (far right) in As You Like It; CENTER: Vince Eisenson; BOTTOM: Colby Codding in Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Maryland Shakespeare Festival. Courtesy of Mr. Eisenson, Mr. Codding and Ms. Kitt Wiebe and the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.