BWW Interview: Michael Rudko's One Lucky Actor, From Crowning Helen Mirren to Sparring With Dianne Wiest
Samuel Beckett's masterpiece HAPPY DAYS has already begun previews May 15, 2019 at the Mark Taper Forum, with Dianne Wiest taking center stage as Winnie, partially buried in the sand. Providing a foil for her non-stop, almost-soliloquy, Michael Rudko portrays Willie, Winnie's mostly unseen husband. Michael found some time to answer a few of my inquisitive queries.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Michael!
What initially got you involved with this production of HAPPY DAYS?
I got a call to come in and talk with Dianne and James. I did that. Then was thrilled a week later when they asked me to be part of the production!
Did you have the opportunity to see the Yale Repertory production of HAPPY DAYS in 2016 that your co-star Dianne Wiest starred in?
Unfortunately, I didn't see the production at Yale or TFANA (Theatre for a New Audience).
You've worked at the Mark Taper before back in 2007 in the American premiere of iWITNESS with Katrina Lenk. What were some of your fond memories of that experience?
My memories of iWITNESS are mainly of the brilliance of the cast and particularly of the director, Barry Edelstein, who now runs the Globe in San Diego. It was just so exciting to be working on a new play in Los Angeles with actors like Katrina Lenk!
You have a long history with James Bundy. Did he first know of you as a student in one of the departments he oversaw? Or as an actor in one of the shows he directed?
James and I met when he was running Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland. I was there doing a production of TWELFTH NIGHT for Daniel Fish, and James asked me to stay on and be in his production of TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and a particularly enriching artistic association for me.
HAPPY DAYS will be at least the fourth time you've been directed by James. How many shows actually?
You got the count right. This is my fourth time being directed by James. And two other times when I was working with another director (both times Daniel Fish) at James' theatres (Great Lakes and Yale Rep).
Have you and James developed a short-hand in communicating stage directions?
James has always been extremely concise in his direction. I don't think that's particular to me. The actor is given the space to explore and discover, but when the time comes, James can clearly communicate his own ideas and translate those into actable terms. This is important in a process like this one where I am the only person in the room who hasn't rehearsed or performed the play. James and Dianne and stage management allow me room to make my own way, and at the same time, share information that only they have about how this thing works.
Can you share some good reminiscences of working with Helen Mirren in THE AUDIENCE?
I crowned Helen Mirren at the end of Act I every night on Broadway. It was my biggest responsibility in the show. It was nerve-wracking because I wanted to get it just right. I checked in with her during the intermission every night to make sure my work was satisfactory, and she was unfailingly positive and supportive. Helen Mirren gave me the only reviews that really mattered.
You've acted in London, on Broadway and in various venues in the U.S. How would you compare audiences in London with New Yorkers, and to other U.S. cities' theatre-goers?
I can't say that I've found the audiences that different in London and NYC, with the exception of the Globe in London. Because the audience is such a big part of the actual performance there, things get a little more raucous, but that's more a function of the space than the place. I think audiences would respond similarly if there were a reproduction of the Globe in New York.
In an alternate universe, what setting would you find the theatrical characters you've inhabited (Willie, Jellaby (in ARCADIA) and Aunt Augusta (in A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE)) interacting? A neighborhood bar? Browsing at a newspaper stand? Taking a night class?
Trapped in a Pirandello play, trying to fight their way back to their respective authors!
What do you remember about your debut on Broadway in SERIOUS MONEY in 1988?
That production started at the Public with an amazing cast from the Royal Court. Then, it went to Broadway with an amazing American cast that included Kate Nelligan, Alec Baldwin, John Panko, Michael Wincott, Melinda Mullins, Greg Jbara, Alan Corduner (from the original production), etc. I was an understudy and playing small parts in the ensemble. I remember Caryl Churchill taking the time to compliment me on the way I crossed my legs and arms at one point in the play! I thought, "Good God, the kindness of this amazing writer!"
As one who's very familiar with Samuel Beckett's avant-garde work, what would you suggest to a Beckett novice to better appreciate HAPPY DAYS? Any prep to better understand Beckett, or any specifics to concentrate on for more clarity?
I can't say I'm at all familiar with Beckett. That description would apply to Dianne who began her career doing premieres of Beckett plays with Alan Schneider! This is my first Beckett play. I'm learning as I go along. I don't think prep is really necessary. Just come to play and open yourself to the experience of the story. Beckett's world is absurd, because our own world is absurd. When you understand that, the plays make perfect sense. Or at least as much sense as an essentially senseless world can make. That and they're hilarious and disturbing.
Aside from the applause, what audience reactions would be most satisfying for you after the HAPPY DAYS curtain call?
An awareness of both our heartbreaking fragility and our almost unimaginable strength in confronting life. Or maybe that's just my own response. A laugh and a tear, either or both, from the audience would be "paradise enow" to borrow a line from the play.
Thank you again, Michael! I look forward to seeing you and Dianne sparring.
For ticket availability and show schedule through June 30, 2019; log onto www.centertheatregroup.org