BWW Interviews: Philip Lehl and Matt Lents Talk Stark Naked Theatre Company's THE WINTER'S TALE
Stark Naked Theatre Company is closing their 2013-2014 season with a production of William Shakespeare's THE WINTER'S TALE. As a company that emphasizes text over staging, it is always a treat to see Stark Naked bring works to life on the stage, and with eight cast members playing dozens of roles, this production seems to be no exception. While it has been dubbed one of Shakespeare's most misunderstood plays, THE WINTER'S TALE is sure to have something for everyone, as it is wrought with elements of tragedy, comedy, and romance. Taking time out of their busy schedule, Philip Lehl, who is directing this production as well as stepping into the role of Leontes, and cast member Matt Lents sat down with us to talk about programming Shakespeare for modern audiences and what Houston can expect from Stark Naked Theatre Company's THE WINTER'S TALE.
BWW: Considered one of Shakespeare's most "misunderstood" or "problem" plays, how did you decide to program THE WINTER'S TALE?
Philip Lehl: Well, I think that those words, "problem plays" are words that mostly scholars give to Shakespeare's plays, and I think that people who work in the theatre just think of them as plays. I think that THE WINTER'S TALE might not get done as much as some of Shakespeare's other plays because it is kind of an odd plot. It starts with the first half of the play being a tragedy and the second third quarter of the play is kind of a comedy mixed with almost tragedy. Then, the last part of the play is this amazing confluence of both things. So, scholars don't know what to call that, and again, I call that a really good play. (Laughs) I was attracted to it because, like all of Shakespeare's plays, it has amazing parts for people. It's a bit of a fairy tale, and I knew that I would have to use a smaller amount of actors to play the twenty-something parts in the play. We have eight. So, I wanted something that was more fairy tale-esque, something more outlandish, so that the character changes wouldn't feel jarring to an audience.
BWW: I guess it's not fair to ask you what role you play Matt, since all of the actors play multiple roles? (Laughs)
Matt Lents: We are playing multiple roles, but I'd consider the question fair. (Laughs) I'm playing Florizel, the shepherd's son, a lord, a servant, and Dion.
Philip Lehl: Indeed, five roles for Matt Lents.
BWW: So, what was the most challenging thing about preparing for five roles in one production?
Matt Lents: I think trying to give each of them their own arc is hard. Sometimes, some sort of experience or emotion starts building up, and right as it's peaking, I'll switch characters. The other character has to be coming in from a different place, with different goals, and it's hard to make that change in a genuine, honest way where I am not just generating and imitating emotions, but actually experiencing them.
BWW: How are you applying Stark Naked's aesthetic of acting to THE WINTER'S TALE?
Philip Lehl: Well, I think that Shakespeare's plays demand a certain technical expertise having to do mostly with speaking the words the way that they need to be spoken so that they can be understood. I think that this was true in Shakespeare's day, and I think it's true now. I don't actually think that the words are that antiquated. I would also say that I am not above changing an antiquated word if I need to; I've done that several times in this play. But, once that technical threshold has been reached, the play then is no different from any other play. Shakespeare wrote about real people in real situations, and Stark Naked's acting aesthetic is about truthfulness in acting. So, it warms my heart to hear Matt Lents say that that's the thing that he is most interested in solving in playing different characters. And, I think it's the thing that maybe we care about more than anything else at Stark Naked. So, if it doesn't feel like real people talking to real people in real situations, we have failed.
BWW: What has been the greatest challenge in preparing THE WINTER'S TALE for modern audiences?
Matt Lents: You know, I think that Philip made some really good cuts honestly. That's not to say that the complete text couldn't be performed for a modern audience. For example, puns. When you're punning on a word that is no longer used or recognized, you can play it because if the interaction is honest it will still be engaging, even if the audience doesn't understand the words. But, I think that Philip has really had an eye towards that which is essential to telling the story while letting some of the text which could be distracting, almost, especially to an audience member who is less familiar with Shakespeare. He just let it go. So, I think that negotiating what works to keep and what works to let go might have been something you definitely had on your mind? (Looks at Philip Lehl)
Philip Lehl: Yeah, I think that almost all of Shakespeare's plays are done because they speak to a modern audience. There's not much need to change the basic story or most of the words. I cut first, just for clarity. What I mean is that there are things like what Matt's talking about, they don't stand a hope of being understood by a modern audience, and I would rather cut them than try to make the actors try to make it relevant. It's certainly possible. I've seen full productions of this play where you can tell what's going on, but I didn't believe that our audience was ready for that. Nor do I believe that our audience was ready to sit for three and a half hours which is what this play would be if you didn't cut it.
Matt Lents: Yeah, and we are also only rehearsing for three or four weeks.
Philip Lehl: And that's the biggest challenge. We have a three and a half week rehearsal period. It's crazy to try and do a Shakespeare play, especially one that has even two hours and forty five minutes of material, which is where I think we're going to come in. It's almost impossible. In fact, we're talking about doing a Shakespeare play next season and I think that we won't do it unless we can convince our board to pay for another week of rehearsal. I think the actors and I, now as we are all looking down the double barrel shot gun of opening, we all think gosh, we're going to make it, but just by the hair on our chiny-chin-chins.
BWW: What has been the biggest reward in preparing for THE WINTER'S TALE?
Philip Lehl: I love so much the way that this play moves, looks, and has been designed. I love how the play has coalesced between the actors and designers, and I guess me as the director. I just think it's so beautiful. I still have questions about some moments in the play, and how they're going to work. Any director would in this stage of the rehearsal process, but I believe if we can focus those things that aren't quite working right now in, it could be just a really moving experience in the theatre. And, that's what I want out of any play.
Matt Lents: The most rewarding part of it, I admit, has been unspecific to THE WINTER'S TALE. On a personal level, I have sort been floating, deciding what part of the country I want to live in. I happened to have landed in a cast of people, most of them who I haven't worked with before, but of course Philip and Kim are around who I love very much. The best part of this experience has just been how kind and cool everybody is.
Something specific to THE WINTER'S TALE, since working on this play, I have had on my mind, even when not in rehearsal, sort of the idea of rebirth and resurgence. After having come out of what seems to have been an insanely cold winter, literally, I am here in the U.S. having things warm up. I've been thinking about that idea, "the night is darkest before the dawn," all that Shakespeare has to say about the possibilities given through art and the imagination in this play. Even after, you know, Leontes has done some of the worst of things that he could've done. The sort of mercy of his plotting is a comfort to me, so that's been rewarding.
BWW: What are you hoping that audiences take away from this production of THE WINTER'S TALE?
Philip Lehl: That Shakespeare is relevant and entertaining.
Matt Lents: I would say the same thing, and add that the human experience was the same. It should feel totally pertinent to your life.
Philip Lehl: And I'll add to that, that Shakespeare in an intimate venue works as well or better than any other possible venue.
BWW: What advice do you offer to others bringing Shakespearean works to modern audiences?
Philip Lehl: Hire really good actors and really good designers. And, make sure that you have enough time to rehearse the play. (Laughs) Also, trust Shakespeare, he knew what he was doing and he still does.
Matt Lents: Yeah. I think that the number one mistake that I see is that people believe that there is something which needs be compensated for. So, they do all of this stuff, all of this costuming and these strange or counterintuitive acting choices, almost to cover up or make better, as if there is some sort of mistake in the text. But, I think, actually, that the humanity of it comes out when you simply let it be what it is. It is already so much. If you just get those words out and trust them, a lot will happen because he was a poet.
Philip Lehl: I think that goes to another entity that you need to trust, which is your audience. I think that audiences are often underestimated by people who make theatre and film. Billy Wilder, the great film director who made Some Like It Hot and dozens of movies said, "Individually, the audience may be an idiot, but collectively they're a genius."
BWW: You guys have already brought up several great points, but my last question is why should Houston audiences be excited to see Stark Naked's production of THE WINTER'S TALE?
Philip Lehl: Twenty dollar tickets! Where can you get a deal like that?
Matt Lents: Also, the opportunity to see THE WINTER'S TALE staged at all is sort of special. You don't know when the next one will come up.
Philip Lehl: It's rare. There was a production at Houston Shakespeare Festival about eight or nine years ago, and that's the last one that I know of in Houston. Yeah, that's true. You're not going to see THE WINTER'S TALE more than once a decade, probably.
Matt Lents: Also, I think that there is something really special about being able to see what I hope is some strong acting in such an intimate venue. Often times, people will see Shakespeare in the back of a large house or some outdoor venue and watch the little people cross the stage. That is also fun, and there is something really cool about that, but there is something special to be able to be four feet away from someone who is immersed in this experience that you can share with them. So, that's another reason to come.
Philip Lehl: Absolutely. And, did we mention that you can get a beer and drink it during the show? (Laughs) You can print that.
Make sure you don't miss Stark Naked Theatre Company's production of THE WINTER'S TALE. Tickets are available now! Due to re-casting issues, the opening date of this production has been postponed to Thursday, May 8, 2014. THE WINTER'S TALE will be performed at Studio 101 in Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street, Houston, 77007. The production will now run from May 8 to May 16, 2014. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.starknakedtheatre.com or call (832) 866-6514.