Interview: Gordon Clapp talks ROBERT FROST: THIS VERSE BUSINESS

One-man show plays Boston's Calderwood Pavilion April 23 - 28

By: Apr. 16, 2024
Interview: Gordon Clapp talks ROBERT FROST: THIS VERSE BUSINESS
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Interview: Gordon Clapp talks ROBERT FROST: THIS VERSE BUSINESS

Bittersweet serendipity will be in the air when actor Gordon Clapp takes the stage in the Boston premiere of “Robert Frost: This Verse Business,” being presented April 23–28 by Spring Pool Arts at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts.

April is Poetry Month, and 2024 marks the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. Frost (1874–1963) had a home on Beacon Hill and, for the last two decades of his life, lived on Brewster Street in Cambridge. Two weeks after he gave his final talk at a Ford Hall Forum event, the iconic American poet died.

Clapp – best-known for playing Detective Greg Medavoy for the entire 12-season run of ABC-TV’s “NYPD Blue,” which earned him an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 1998 – was born in North Conway, N.H., and now divides his time between homes in Norwich, Vt., and Boston, which he shares with his wife, Elisabeth Gordon.

The one-person show, written by playwright and Falmouth resident A.M. Dolan, whose late parents Muriel and Frank Dolan co-founded the Newton Summer Theater and the Playhouse at Piccadilly Square in Newton Center, and directed by Gus Kaikkonen, has Frost giving one of his legendary talks, sharing his verse from memory, along with witty “wild surmises” on art, religion, science, “radicals,” and “conservatives.”

Culled from actual recordings and Frost’s writings, the production reveals moments from both the public and private faces of an American icon, whose poems about rural New England explored deep philosophical and social ideas. Included in the play are his best-known poems such as “Birches,” “Mending Wall,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “The Road Not Taken.”

Clapp has played Frost, a four-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in regional theatres and in college towns in 10 states over the past several years. The poet is not the only real-life character he has played on Broadway and other stages around the country. On Broadway, he played J. Edgar Hoover opposite Brian Cox’s Lyndon Baines Johnson in 2019’s “The Great Society,” while at Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Playhouse he played the title role of NFL legend Tommy McDonald in “Tommy and Me” in 2023.

Clapp was also seen on Broadway in the 2005 revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and in 2018’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” That same year, Clapp appeared in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Michael Cristofer’s “Man in the Ring,” under the direction of Tony Award nominee Michael Greif, going on to win the 2019 IRNE Award for Best Featured Actor.

By telephone recently, Clapp spoke about Robert Frost and more.

When did you first become aware of Robert Frost?

When I was a sophomore in high school, I read “Out, Out,” his poem about a boy who cuts his hand off with a buzz saw. That poem really affected me. Years later, when I read Lawrance Thompson’s “Robert Frost: A Biography,” I really got to know about his life and see how much darkness he experienced, and how he expressed that in his writing.

How did you come to do this play?

I was doing a play reading on Cape Cod, not far from where Andy Dolan lives, and he sent me the script for this play. I read it and immediately called him and said, “I’m ready.”

Was it a go from the get-go?

It was 2008 when I decided to do the show and, initially, the Frost family wasn’t interested in having anyone play him. They were very protective of him, perhaps of all the sadness in his life. His sister Jeanne and one of his daughters, Irma, were institutionalized later in their lives and he outlived four of his children. He was incredibly resilient, though, and in honing this script we found a way to convey his vulnerabilities and ultimately his considerable strengths. In 2012, we finally won over the executor of his estate, who also happened to be head of Vermont Humanities at the time.

Was there a key to capturing his look?

Definitely. From the beginning, I knew I wanted the wig and had to have the eyebrows, because they have a life of their own.

Are there particular challenges that come with playing someone as well known as Frost?

As an actor, you want to get every role you play right. With this part, though, I can often feel an aura of expectation from certain audience members, hardcore Frost fans who call themselves "Frost-aceans.” They're addicted to the poetry, and they’re so moved by it. I don’t give myself a lot of credit for that. It's Frost himself right there.

Have you performed the play for any members of the Frost family?

In 2016, we did an entire performance for a gathering of “Frost-aceans” in Pennsylvania where one of his granddaughters, Lesley Lee Francis, who has written a couple of very good books about her grandfather, was in attendance. She said she enjoyed the show, but wished we could also present him at a younger, more energetic age. It’s interesting because when I first started playing him, I joked that I could play him for 30 years. Now, I’ve got maybe 15 years left.

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing this play?

That Frost is not a Hallmark-card kind of poet. His poetry is much deeper, sometimes darker really, and profound in its simple eloquence. In my opinion, his second volume of narrative poems – which includes “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” and “The Hill Wife”  – is his most profound. He called it “the sound of sense.”

Do you consider Frost’s writing to be as relevant today as it has so long been?

Absolutely. Frost’s is a voice that we need in this century. I feel like I'm bringing him into this time.

Photo captions: Gordon Clapp in a scene from “Robert Frost: The Verse Business.” Photo by Alex Woodward. Head shot of Gordon Clapp courtesy of Spring Pool Arts.


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