BWW Interview: Guthrie Theater's Cyrano Jay O. Sanders Speaks for Himself
Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joseph Haj, who directed and adapted the version of the show the Guthrie is presenting on the proscenium stage, noted in program notes that Edmond Rostand wrote CYRANO DE BERGERAC at a time that society was split and theatre goers were used to seeing plays about the social ills of the day. What goes around comes around and find ourselves in yet another period of unrest politically and socially. Timing productions to the topics of the day is a theme we see often at the Guthrie and other theaters. Haj's new production, while hitting some of these themes, also is delightful, touching and a strong statement about true beauty and love. It's truly one of the better versions of this oft-done classic this writer has experienced.
What about CYRANO do you think audiences respond to time and again?
I think society has often been split and experiencing periods of unrest. It is an ongoing mission of the theater and all art to reflect on the questions of their time through direct confrontation or metaphorical stories. But I'm not sure CYRANO DE BERGERAC has a specific message to address a split society, though those themes are included. It is a timeless exploration of the nature of love, beauty, and honor, woven through with poetry, swordplay, humor, romance, music and period costumes. Ultimately, it is human which is what matters most. Since it first appeared, it has been regarded a French national treasure, ranked up there with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and it has inspired several modern reworkings and fresh translations on film and stage, and I believe ours is a strong addition to that list.
What brought you to the Guthrie to debut as Cyrano de Bergerac?
Joe Haj offered me this opportunity, and I jumped at it.
Is this a role you've ever played before or was it one that you've always wanted to do?
I have always wanted to play Cyrano but have never had the opportunity, and had become rather doubtful I might ever get the chance, as it is not produced all that often -- and even more rarely on the scale we are doing it here at the Guthrie. It is a rare mountain of a challenge for an experienced actor which many of us dream of scaling.
Is there anything about this character that you find in yourself? Where do you draw inspiration from?
A stubbornness, a playfulness, a deep love of language and poetry, and an appetite to embrace everything life has to offer.
You mentioned this part demands you talk for two hours; there is a lot to it. How do you gear up for performances and how do you keep up with all you have to say and do in this show?
I work out regularly to keep my stamina up and try to be smart about sleeping, eating and hydrating. I review the whole script daily, constantly looking for missed opportunities for depth and clarity. My passion, obsession and curiosity keep me tuned and sharp each night.
How long does it take to learn all the lines in a show like this? When do they become second nature?
There's no set time -- it happens gradually as it happens. I started working on this script two months before we went into rehearsal, but I could have still made use of another month or two for a role of this size. The lines become second nature gradually, through repetition and playing, muscle memory, personalization, and the aliveness of the ongoing interaction with the other actors. I do my best to reach that state of second-nature playing through constant review and staying relaxed.
At a talk back, you mentioned your favorite line a couple times -- can you talk about that now and why it's your favorite?
I have so many in this play, but I think you may be referring to the moment of euphoria in the balcony scene in which, after saying:
"Know you what such a moment holds for me? If ever I were eloquent..."
(Roxane: "You are.")
"Yet never 'til this moment has my speech surged Directly from my heart as now it does ...in the tender sheltering dusk, I dare to be myself for once...at last!"
"Too fair this night! Too fair. Too fair this moment! That I should speak thus, and that you should hear! Too fair! In moments when my hopes rose proudest I never hoped such glory. Naught is left me But to die now!"
Epic, heartfelt, unapologetic, and vulnerable feelings. I love risking it every night.
Cyrano pours his heart out via his pen but as you said at the talk back, you are speaking his deeply personal words to the audience, as well. With much of the show in monologue, do you focus on a single character, person or someone in the audience as you pour your heart out in his words?
No one specific. It's more of a conversation of the soul with all the willing participants of the audience. I invite them to ride with me through my fears of rejection and yearnings to be loved. I make myself vulnerable to them in a way I can't with most of the characters around me in the play, which leads to all sorts of unexpected moments of humor and pathos. It's great fun and very alive, and I can feel their presence and eager participation.
What's your favorite moment of the show that is yours and what is your favorite that is not yours?
I have a moment near the very end of the show where I had an idea to do a strange, breathless, slow-motion dance of death -- a sort of farewell to arms -- and Joe immediately embraced it and helped me find a way to make it work.
Joe had an idea of his own to which I immediately took. During my swordfight in Act One, having thrown my opponent momentarily out of the way, I spear a bouquet of flowers with my sword, then turn and flip them up to the platform ten feet above, landing them in Roxane's hand. Then I return to the fight. I love it.
This production of Cyrano felt a bit faster and lighter in a way, but still held a lot of weight. Is Joseph Haj's adaptation very different than others you've seen? How so?
Joe has done a beautiful job of keeping the feel of Rostand's poetry without letting it rest back to admire itself. We move directly ahead in telling the story. It is lean and direct, but still full of color, wit and clever language. It's hard to compare it to other productions I've seen over the years except to say that it maintains the best aspects of all of them and plays with the deeper values of the Roxane/Christian/Cyrano relationship more seriously than usual, unearthing more depth and personal growth over the course of the play than is usually addressed in other productions.
While it's not called out in the production, there's an age gap between Cyrano and his beloved Roxane. Is that something that came up during your exploration of the characters in the rehearsal process? (not to mention they're cousins!)
We discussed it in the casting, of course, but it's not something we discovered in rehearsal. I am certainly playing much younger than I am, which is still notably older than both Roxane and Christian. But it has not been central to the issue of lovability.
How long does it take to don the makeup and the nose each night? Does the nose change your speech or movements?
I do it all in about 45 minutes. The nose is a character unto itself, and I have been incredibly grateful at the quality of the piece which was designed and created by a group of us consulting and experimenting together, then ultimately trying it out in the theater space to see how it would read. Ultimately, Laura Stearns Adams (who also did our wigs) and her old friend and make-up wizard Crist Ballas created a 21st century prosthetic of silicone which I attach with a carefully mixed combination of active agents to create a silicone bond with my nose which lasts easily through the show; two swordfights, jumping on and off tables, costume changes and all my sweating along the way. I have a freshly-made nose to work with each night, and the quality has made my life much easier!
What is your background as an actor -- how did you get your start, and how have you balanced your stage work with film and television?
I started in Cleveland, Ohio, when I was 10 years old at a theater called Karamu House, an interracial community center which included two theaters where my father was executive director in the early 60s during the heart of the Civil Rights movement. I acted through school and attended SUNY at Purchase in their first-ever drama class. Right out of school I was cast by Joe Papp in his production of HENRY V in Shakespeare in the Park, then went on to be cast in MEASURE FOR MEASURE that same summer. I have continued my connection with Shakespeare, the Delacorte, and The Public Theater (producer of Shakespeare in the Park) my entire career.I performed at various regional theaters, beginning with the companies at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C., and American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco, Hartford Stage, Williamstown Theater and even the Royal Court in London. But most of my work has been Off-Broadway with occasional work on Broadway. I have premiered new plays by Sam Shepard (BURIED CHILD), Michael Weller (LOOSE ENDS), Richard Nelson (SCOOPING), David Hare (STUFF HAPPENS), John Guare (LANDSCAPE OF THE BODY), and most recently, an entire series of groundbreaking plays (THE APPLE FAMILY PLAYS and THE GABRIELS - seven new plays in all, which began at the Public and went on to tour the world) all with my wife, Maryann Plunkett, and written and directed by my old friend Richard Nelson. (I have just this year self-published a book of my tour diaries called, "A World In Common; an actor's diary.")
Television, film, and voiceover work have provided a financial balance throughout my career to make theater affordable to do. And I have done a lot of all of it. Feature films ("JFK," "The Day After Tomorrow," "Tumbleweeds," "Angels in the Outfield" - just a varied few of a long list), television ("True Detective/Season One," "Sneaky Pete," "The Sinner/Season Two," "The Good Wife," etc.), and a long list of audiobooks and documentary narration.
What is next for you after CYRANO?
I'm not sure exactly what is next, but I do have plans to do another pair of Richard Nelson family plays to continue that series with my wife Maryann at the Public, which we think will also tour around the world! But that doesn't begin until next September, so we'll see.
Are there any bucket-list roles you plan or hope to play next?
King Lear, Falstaff in HENRY IV, parts I & II, MacBeth -- but there are various others I am curious about -- DEATH OF A SALESMAN, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, THE DRESSER, various Beckett roles.
With a long and illustrious career, it's surprising you have not before acted at the Guthrie. What do you think of the Guthrie, and Minneapolis?
I've had a brilliant time here at the Guthrie so far -- with the people, the organization and the space itself. A lot of talent working together under one roof, all in support of each other! As for Minneapolis, I've spent most of my time in a narrow alley between my apartment and the theater because of the focus and energy needed to mount and run this role, but I've ventured out a bit and am starting to smell the Spring. The next month promises to be a new time of discovering and enjoying this city and whole area.
Have you worked with Joseph Haj before?
I have not, but certainly would again! I had met him at his opening night of his production of PERICLES (where I also met Jennie Greenberry -- my Roxane -- who was fantastic in that, too!) when they opened it at the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. I'd been invited along by my talented old friend, Jack Herrick, who composed the music for that production and now, for Cyrano, as well! Joe is smart, actor-friendly, and a good listener as well as a guider with many ideas of his own. I've been very impressed throughout this process of working and playing together. I also loved our fight director, Kara Wooten, who was new to me, but who I hope get a chance to work with again soon!
Is there anything I have not asked that you want to share?
Just that I am excited and grateful to be playing this role -- and in this production at this theater. It is a real milestone in my life as an actor. I'm pleased to hear you say you enjoyed it so much, because I am extremely proud of my own work and what we've been able to accomplish together as a group! This is why we do it.
More information: CYRANO plays through May 5. For tickets and more, visit https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2018-2019-season/cyrano-de-bergerac/
Photos: Jay O. Sanders (Cyrano). Headshot by Joe Goldman; production photo by T Charles Erickson courtesy of Guthrie Theater.