Interview: Joe Grifasi & Patrice Johnson Chevannes on the Many Facets of Samuel Beckett's ENDGAME

Funny, tragic, and filled with existential angst and the examination of human life, Endgame officially opens February 2 for a run through March 12.

By: Jan. 31, 2023
Interview: Joe Grifasi & Patrice Johnson Chevannes on the Many Facets of Samuel Beckett's ENDGAME
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Endgame, one of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett's best known plays, is now on stage at Irish Repertory Theatre! A one-act tragicomedy, Endgame tells the story of Hamm (John Douglas Thompson), a blind, chair bound man, his parents Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and Nell (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), who are legless and live in trash cans, and Hamm's servant Clov (Bill Irwin), who is unable to sit and lives at Hamm's beck and call.

Funny, tragic, and filled with existential angst and the examination of human life, Endgame, currently in previews, officially opens February 2 for a run through March 12.

Endgame, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly, features set design by Charlie Corcoran (The Butcher Boy), costume design by Orla Long (The Butcher Boy), lighting design by Michael Gottlieb (A Touch of the Poet), sound design by M. Florian Staab (The Butcher Boy), and properties by Deirdre Brennan (The Dead, 1904). Jeff Davolt (Autumn Royal) serves as Production Stage Manager with Giselle Andrea Raphaela as Assistant Stage Manager.

BroadwayWorld spoke with Joe Grifasi and Patrice Johnson Chevannes about digging into the aburdist and human elements of their characters, what it's like working with one another, and more.

Interview: Joe Grifasi & Patrice Johnson Chevannes on the Many Facets of Samuel Beckett's ENDGAME

Can you both tell me a little bit about the characters you play in Endgame?

Patrice: Joe is a beautiful Beckett aficionado, I think Joe has played his character before, but what's wonderful is the beauty of allowing discovery for the first time. We are a couple, Nell and Nagg, and we are the parents of Hamm. And Nell loves her husband, and loves her child, and they are currently in unfortunate circumstances within Hamm's house.

Joe: That's an understatement isn't it! We have no legs and he put us in garbage cans to keep us.

What has it been like working with one another?

Patrice: It's been fantastic!

Joe: A dream.

Patrice: Aw, it's been a dream, it's been fantastic. To work with, the phrase I say is "triple-A, five-star" kind of people, people who are so gifted, so talented, so hardworking, and as a bottom-line, kind and considerate, and the entire work relationship of Joe, and John, and Bill and Ciarán, and Charlotte [Moore, Artistic Director], the Irish Rep, it's kind. A beautiful relationship, and very respectful in the room, and humane, really. We work at our personal best, we're striving to attain our deepest understanding of our characters, but we're also working in tandem, we're really listening. We're offering our best, but we're listening to each other so that we can be in tandem, and in concert, with each other.

Joe: It's a really difficult challenge, because this play, it has many facets, it's like if you take a jewel and you turn it into the light, suddenly you get a whole different array of light, or spectrum. And it's funny because, I feel that-and having done the play three times before- every time it shifts slightly, you could find yourself in a whole different mode of acting, how you can express it and approach it. So, in a sense, it's wonderfully opportunity-filled, but at the same time, it's laden with a lot of little traps along the way. Because you can get very happy staying in one mode, and what I enjoy about it, and the challenge is-and every time I do it it gets harder, I think I know less about it every time I perform it-but what I like is that it keeps you really light on your feet. As a performer, and Patrice and I try to do this with our scene work, you have to be ready to shift, and go, and slightly move. Because you can't really set things in stone with this play.

Patrice: You have to be listening, and not making generalizations. It's that moment to moment work that those of us who teach, really are teaching our students, but also reminding ourselves, turn over every stone, make sure you're continuing to look at it and turning it up to the light so you don't take any moment for granted, and you can still be surprised by it. As Joe was saying, he's continually surprised. Also, one of the challenges is you really have to rely on the language here, there are little clues that Beckett has given along the way, so you have to come to it and really do this investigation and go, "What's in the words? What's in the play? What's in the scenario?" It's a puzzle.

What did the process of digging into the material and finding these characters look like in the rehearsal room?

Joe: I think it's highly personal, but I find that any kind of research I do is nice to hear about, but if you get too dramaturgical about it, I think you'll step into some potholes and get stuck. It's written for performers, and we're lucky, because everybody here is a veteran. I've worked with Bill before, I've never worked with Patrice, so this is a real thrill for me, but everybody is so grounded in the shorthand that we can get past all that. On top of which, Ciarán, our director, is an actor himself.

Patrice: He's smart, he's kind, and he's allowing this investigation of what is in front of him with these four actors, in these characters, in this body, at this time. And actually, I think that's what's making this play so current in this time. Ciarán has done a lot reading in preparation for this, so there's a lot of stuff he's done there in terms of research. But then you've got to come to the actors in the room, in the moment, in the investigation, and be surprised at what this iteration of Endgame, in this time, in this moment, with us, will be. And that, truthfully, I think is the beauty of our discovery, that we're owning this Endgame.

Joe, you've been associated with Endgame for a long time now, you've appeared in multiple productions. How does it feel to have spent so much time with this work?

Joe: Oh, I don't know, I think I'm crazy! [laughs]. I thought I knew something about it 45 years ago when I first did it, and then I just get dumber and dumber [laughs]. The good thing about becoming dumber is that you have a lot more to learn. If you feel like you know what you're doing in this, you might be in trouble. I've learned a lot. I've played two different characters and directed it once. So, looking at it from all different angles, again, I just have to say, at least for this production, what's going on is it feels like this is a safe place for the performers, and I couldn't ask for more.

Believe me, this play has been transmogrified, diluted, deconstructed over the years in so many ways, to the point where it looks like a person that's had every joint replaced in its body, by people who really want to overlay a lot of constructs and concepts, and I'm happy that we're not in that kind of a production. That's fine for some people, maybe if you're Robert Wilson, or Julie Taymor, but this is not that. This play, if you get too controlling, or one point of view with it, it kind of winks at you and says, "Not so fast, bub." You might not get away with that with this place. Sometimes, even with character lines, there are contradictory moments, and modes. I find with Nagg I say, 'I'm very kind at this moment,' or 'I'm very befuddled,' or 'I'm very furious.'

Patrice: But that's what makes it so human.

And you touched on this earlier, but how has it been for you both working on this production with Irish Rep?

Patrice: Oh, it's excellent. These are such terrific and kind human beings. And it goes top-down from the leadership to every single company member, wardrobe, they're just kind, and very caring, and very good at what they do. And so, we just have an atmosphere of respect, which is important.

Joe: I couldn't wait to get to rehearsal sometimes, just to see what Charlotte Moore has brought in the way of baked goods and put out on the table before we start! [laughs]. It's as if they believe a theater travels on its stomach!

Patrice: I can't say enough about kindness. Because we're all talented, so the alchemy, to have a jerk atmosphere can spoil things, even when you've got talented people. It makes you want to work, and there's a lot of laughter in our rehearsals! It's just really good vibes. And we all work at our personal best.

Joe: I started working with Irish Rep about three years ago, I've known Charlotte about 50 years, we were both actors in the '70s. I really always felt like the company in the middle of New York, it's a bit of an island. I've worked with a lot of regional theatres throughout the country, and some of them have a really nice feeling, but a lot of that kind of cohesion and care isn't always evident in New York theatres. Broadway is Broadway, and the Off-Broadway theatres, sadly a lot of the close company-oriented theatres have disappeared in the last 25 years. So this is really like an island. It's a theatre where I hope they remain financially supported and flush!

Patrice: I've worked at the Irish Rep once before. On a play called Banished Children of Eve, and that was my first time meeting Ciarán, and working with the Irish Rep. It's a worthy group of people. And actually, I know that Ciarán loves Beckett, but I also don't think he considers himself a Beckett aficionado, we know that Bill is.

What do you both hope that audiences take away from this production of Endgame?

Joe: The play is very funny at times, I think it was Shaw who said, "If you're going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh or they'll kill you," and I think there is something to this! I think Beckett keeps them on their toes by throwing in some very funny exchanges, very domestic and almost sitcom-y at times, and then you hear a shocking statement or comment come up next. So, I want the audience to have that ride, get on the rollercoaster and see where it goes.

Patrice: Having come to Beckett new, I hope that Beckett aficionados, Beckett students, and just a regular audience who are coming to it new, will come and be satisfied, and come back. It's a short play, so to go, "Let me bring a bring a friend." I hope it's one of those things that's, "When I watched it a second time, I saw a different thing." I hope that happens. I hope it goes down in the history books as well.

You might have a black woman who has done this in school, studying maybe, but I don't think a black woman has does Nell's part in a produced version. That's why I say this production is for this time, it's this group of actors, and me in the role, just being in it. The reasons why it came about is that I knew that we were going in a direction of diversity, and a black woman has never played Nell. And I teach as well, Joe and I teach at the New School, and we're in a place where we're teaching all cultures of students to take up room. I am not interested in color blind casting, you have to be color-aware. Therefore, you put a black woman in this relationship, you are now opening something, and saying something else about the world. You don't see people in trash cans all the time, but you do see interracial couples, expansive relationships.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

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