The Text —
Today was our first day around the table diving into the text of Othello. Oh and there is no bottom to this story. Othello is as deep and rich as the Mediterranean sea. We spent the entire day, as a company, reading the play and breaking it down word by word. Guiding us was the New York Shakespeare Festival Shakespeare Scholar in Residence James Shapiro, who is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Shakespeare is his speciality and boy does he know how to take folks to the furthest reaches of a text by our good friend William. We spent 2 hours on Act I Scene i going word by word, line by line, discussing meanings, context, and the differences between the Quarto and the Folio versions of the text. We discussed historical context, and the intrinsic impact that a particular word has on the arc of the story. Did you know that the word “love” appears in Othello 80 times?
It was an intellectual feast and even as we were sitting at the table in academic mode the knowledge we were gaining was informing our performances. My colleague Peter Jay Fernandez knocked be back on my heels with a particular line reading that came completely out of our discussions, and those same discussions made available to me a response, that was equally powerful. Our scene in Act I is taking shape to be exceptional not because of unexpected choices or actor trickery, but as the result of a close examination of the text.
I got big-winged butterflies that I had not felt since my early days as a young player. I was so happy to be a student again and so glad that the young people in the company got to see two old pros reveling in the tough, painstaking bookwork that serious acting demands. To all my young colleagues I can only say that talent is not substitute for hard work. Talent will get you noticed for a while, but hard work will earn you a career.
For a long time I was always the youngest person in the room. I was one of those young players who had good fortune early on and was chosen to work in wonderful and difficult productions with experienced veterans. I kept my mouth shut and watched and listened and tried to copy the behaviours of my betters. Now that I’m so much further along on the journey I can see that part of my duty as a journeyman player in the classical theatre community is to set a good example for the generation to come. I’m doing my best and trying to remember the great players of my youth. I think of Charlie Durning, who I met at the Public Theatre and who I was lucky enough to do a film with. He was a large man with a florid face stamped with the map of Ireland. He showed us what ease, and clarity looked like. Louis Zorich, showed every young player at the Public Theatre how to have fun while never losing focus. Margaret Whitton taught me the value of constantly questioning and studying and working on a performance. Nothing was “set” for her. She always wanted more. Jean Stapleton showed me that focus, intensity and devotion can go hand in hand with kindness, generosity, and love. Yes I have been a lucky player. If I can teach anything to the younger generation coming after me it would be that one must never “know” anything. “Knowing” things leads to a cessation of learning. The other thing to remember is to always check your fly before going on stage.
By 5PM we were all exhausted, and broke for the day, tired, happy and better players than when we arrived. We are back at it tomorrow and I can hardly wait.