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Interview with Actor Rosemary Harris

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Rosemary Harris about her role as Eleanor Swan.

Ted Sod: Why did you choose to do this play and the role of Eleanor Swan?

Rosemary Harris: I've always wanted to be in a play by Tom Stoppard. My daughter, Jennifer Ehle, has been in two (The Real Thing and The Coast of Utopia) and I am a little envious, as well as being a great admirer of his other plays.

TS: You spent some time in India as a young person -- correct?

RH: Yes, I did. My sister Pam and I were raised on the North West Frontier of India, on the border with Afghanistan. Our father had served there in the Royal Air Force where he won his first Distinguished Flying Cross in 1924 for "gallant and distinguished service." He won three altogether - quite a record!

TS: Were you also educated in India?

RH: Yes, there was a little garrison school for children of the men in the Service.

TS: What do you think the play Indian Ink is about?

RH: It's about so many things. Mr. Stoppard's plays always are. I think one of the themes is about change, how people and countries change. Eleanor says towards the end of the play, "One alters." A big understatement.

TS: What do you make of Eleanor, the character you are playing?

RH: At the beginning of the play, Eleanor is a typical retired "memsahib," the Indian name for European women living in India before independence, but after she meets Anish, the young Indian artist, and hears what he reveals to her, she is a different person.

TS: Because you lived in India and because you're British, there isn't much research for you to do, is there?

RH: I've got photographs of my mother and father in India in the 1920s and '30s. When Eleanor first arrives in North West India, she says, "It was early summer. The wind was blowing and I've never seen such blossoms- it blew everywhere." I remember those orchards. You can't forget them.

TS: Have you been back to India recently?

RH: Jennifer was making a film, Before the Rains, about five years ago in Southern India, in Kerala, and she invited me to visit her there.

TS: Will you talk about Mr. Stoppard's writing? Is it challenging?

RH: Yes, it's challenging! Someone said of his plays: "Words, words, words. Lots and lots of words and ideas." It's the way he puts them all together. It's magical and makes you think!

TS: How do you see the relationship between Eleanor and Flora?

RH: Eleanor was only three years old when their mother died, and so Flora was the one that took care of her. My older sister, Pam, is sixteen years older than my younger sister, Patsy (there were three of us). Our mother died when she was five and I was fourteen -- so there are many echoes.

TS: I spoke to Carey Perloff, the director, two days ago, and she's done a tremendous amount of research on this piece, and of course she's directed countless Stoppard plays.

RH: I am very much looking forward to working with her. She understands the play so well.

TS: Have you worked with many women directors?

RH: Not very many. I had a teacher/director at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where I trained for a year, named Mary Duff, who taught me practically everything I know. She gave us her phone number. My very first job, I called her up and worked with her. I worked with her as long as she lived and whenever geography permitted. One of the things she taught me was: Don't give the dictionary meanings of words. That's not theatre or acting. It's the tone you say the words in that counts. Ask any dog!

TS: It sounds like she was dealing with nuance.

RH: You can say the same phrase in many different ways and mean many different things and have many different intentions.

TS: Are you comfortable giving advice to young people who might want a career on stage?

RH: It all depends on what your goals are. If it's the theatre and the stage that really interests you, you should work on your voice, develop its range and flexibility and most important of all - projection! Audiences depend on your being audible! Good luck in all your endeavors.

Indian Ink begins previews on September 4 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Centre for Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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