Welcome to the Odyssey! Is this really your first gig with us?
Yes. I’ve seen a lot of plays here. More than any other actor, I’ve seen Laurie O’Brien here a lot. She’s a really good friend of mine. I saw Norbert Weisser in Way to Heaven. Over the years I’ve come many, many times and have enjoyed myself immensely. It’s almost psychedelic to be asked to come and do something here.
What finally brings you to us?
[Director] John Flynn was a producer on a film [Criminal Behavior] that I made with Farrah Fawcett. He and I became friends during that time, and I became aware of The Rogue Machine. I hold that place in such high regard. I just happened to go see my friend, Darrell Larson, there in his new play, Paternus. John was in the audience and came up and said, “I’m about to do Othello. You wouldn’t be interested in talking about that, would you?” And within a few days, we met with Jack Stehlin and decided that if we could make it work, we would.
Othello is one of the great heroes certainly of Shakespeare’s works, if not all literature. Are you daunted at all?
When you talk to John and Jack, you see it in a way that feels reasonable to do. Jack’s stance would be that modern American actors are uniquely well-‐suited to doing this play now that is accessible and relevant.
How is that?
I think Jack is talking about the embedding of method acting; the sense of truth that has been so widely disseminated now in American acting really can serve this. It’s an interesting challenge to try to bring that sensibility into this process. I look at some of the performances that have been committed to film where actors have played Othello so vastly big and brilliantly but in a way that you never forget that you’re watching someone onstage holding forth. There’s a sense that it’s an altered reality. If you’re willing to start there, the more operatic parts that are required of you are easier to get to. When you start from the point-‐of-‐view that we’re gonna do this tight and real and then you have to get so epically emotional, it’s a longer journey you have to take, and it’s a challenge.
John has billed this production as a modern take on Othello. What’s been changed or contemporized?
I think John sees the currency in the fact that it’s an occupying power trying to control a place where they have resources that are deemed critical to the well-‐being of the empire. Othello is a guy they use to get this done. You don’t have to try too hard to see that dynamic at play currently and forever.
But the language remains intact?
There’s an extra challenge in it when you bring that language into such a modern milieu. When you have words that are so archaic that there may be only a handful of people in the room who know what you mean, if you can find another word that stays in the meter that still makes that point and is reasonably current to the time, my inclination—and I’m just trying this—is to substitute for that word so that the person who isn’t familiar with the archaic term is not dropping out at that point. As an example, in the big speech in the council, I speak of “antres vast and deserts idle.” I can say “caverns” there, and the point is made. It’s in the meter. It’s a word that is in the time. I want people to know what I’m talking about there.
Sounds like a sizeable undertaking.
I spent some time getting really invested in the scansion and the meter, seeing where that took me. I’m not a fan of singing it. When you see it done masterfully, it is both sung and legitimate. But you can easily drift into singing it before playing it legitimately if you’re not really in command of yourself. I have certain patterns like everyone else, especially at this age. I have my toolkit. I’m basically finding a way.
There are as many takes on Othello as there are actors who have played him. How do you see him and play him?
Othello has nobility. He’s a person that’s worthy of profound respect in that he’s managed to triumph for a long time in very difficult conditions. He’s someone who’s an alien in the place that he’s set up. I resonate with that in him, a sense that he’s well-‐respected and admired in a wide range but it’s not quite clear that he has anyone that he really fits in with. I get that. That’s been an operative issue in my life. Then this woman shows up and awakens something in him that had never been touched. In that grace is the problem. He knows how to do all this stuff in the world, but he doesn’t know how to do this with her. He’s so innocent about it and foolish about it, and it ends up costing him dearly.
Othello is a Moor, but actors of all races have taken on this role. Was that a concern or even a topic of conversation between you and John?
John’s point is that [Othello] is of “the other.” I don’t think the other is, on balance, as big an issue as it was in Shakespeare’s day. But the managing class certainly promotes the idea of the others as a means of organizing societies. I think that the sense of elites in the culture employing the warrior class to further their aims stays important as we go through time. One of the challenges of doing Othello now, especially when you think of the future of this art form depending on younger people buying into it—younger people for whom the world has turned into this remarkably fluid and cohesive and small thing—is how to tell this story and keep that in focus, framing it in a way that “the other” values.
Michael Herring September 30, 2014