Thursday, March 22, 2012

Better Know an Actor: Greg Phelps

Gregory Jon Phelps in The Tempest, 2011. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Welcome to the second installment of “Better Know an Actor,” a series of interviews with cast members of the American Shakespeare Center. This time, we talk to Greg Phelps, currently a member of the 2012 Actors’ Renaissance Season.

What’s your name, how long have you been with the ASC, and who are you playing this season?
Greg Phelps: My name is Greg Phelps. I’ve been with the company on and off since 2003. I’ve done a total of six Actors’ Renaissance Seasons (ARS) and four Summer and Fall seasons. I don’t know how many shows that is - it’s upwards of 50, I think. In Much Ado about Nothing, I play Don Pedro. In Richard III, I play Rivers, the dead body of Henry VI –

Your finest work, by the way.
GP: This isn’t a joke: it’s difficult to do that. For me, anyway. I’m sure other people would be like, “Yeah, I’m just laying there dead.” But it’s one of the hardest things for me to do to lay there dead and be present at the same time. Anyway, I’m also the Earl of Richmond and the Lord Mayor. In Philaster, I play Philaster; in A Mad World, my Masters, I play Captain Dick Follywit; and in Dido, Queen of Carthage, I play Ganymede and Cupid.

What was the first show you did here?
GP: 1 Henry IV.

Who were you?
GP: Prince Hal.

Wow, that must have been awesome.
GP: It was awesome. Can I swear? It was f-ing awesome. The first time that I worked here, I was terrified. We did three shows: 1 Henry IV, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Importance of Being Earnest. I was cast as Prince Hal, Valentine, and John Worthing: three pretty big parts in three plays. I was relatively familiar with the company before that, and I knew that they would generally spread it out, so that you would have maybe one big part and two smaller parts in the two other shows; but I was coming in with that - and I had to be paraphrased and off-book and all that [by the first rehearsal]. So I was highly terrified. As soon as I got here, I started meeting people, and everyone was really excited, we started working, and we did our first run-through for 1 Henry IV. The guy playing Hostpur [J.C. Long] and I put together an awesome fight that I don’t think we used at all except for that run-through. I just felt right at home; I felt like I was playing; I felt like I was focused. People were listening to one another.

If you can choose – I’m sure you find it difficult – what’s your favorite part you’ve played here?
GP: Ever?

GP: You know, someone asked us that in a Talk Back recently. I don’t have an answer… Allison Glenzer actually made an excellent point during that Talk Back. She said, “It’s our job to fall in love with all of these characters. To give them a reason, to give them something to do. If you have one word to say, that’s your favorite part in the whole show, because you get to just hang back and listen and enjoy watching all these other people, these people that you are not only friends with but you’re also sort of fans of: you’re watching them work the same as everyone else around you is watching them work.” So sometimes the smaller parts are the best.... In terms of a favorite, I don’t know that I have one. I could probably list a top ten. Prince Hal. Henry V was awesome, just because I got to revisit Hal again after that first tour, and my Falstaff was Pistol. [In I Henry IV, Ben Curns played Falstaff to Greg Phelps’ Prince Hal; in Henry V Ben Curns played Pistol to Greg Phelps’ Henry.] The only time that Henry and Pistol meet is on the battlefield, and Pistol starts talking about how much he loves the king, and it reminds me so much of when Ben played my Falstaff and it was heart breaking ev-e-ry time. And you can spell it just like that.

I’ve noticed a bit of typecasting with some members of the current ARS. You tend to play the hero, Rene Thornton, Jr. plays the king, Sarah Fallon plays the damsel, and Allison Glenzer plays the liberated woman. Does this ever carry over to real life? Have you ever rescued Sarah from a burning building?
GP: Hmm… no. I think once or twice I’ve relit the pilot on their stove. I may have rushed and helped her out with a curtain page once or twice when I wasn’t supposed to be there.

Do you ever get frustrated always playing the hero? Do you ever think, “This is boring, I want to play the villain”?
GP: I’ve played a couple villains here, and it’s a lot of fun. I think the first real villain that I played here was Angelo in Measure for Measure. Not here, but elsewhere I’ve played Edmund [from King Lear], who was tons of fun. I have just as much fun playing the villains as I do with the heroes. [After] my first season here playing Prince Hal and Valentine, and then going on to play Claudio and Richmond and people like that, I was told, “Yes, we cast you as this type. We like you because you’re not this two-dimensional person, you’re not just a Dudley Do-Right who comes in with the cleft chin and the Superman symbol on his chest and just rescues everything.” As much as it sometimes looks like that on paper, the great thing about not only Shakespeare but also generally Early Modern writing is you get to fall in love with these characters. You get to make them three-dimensional. You get to make them flawed a little bit. You can give them some sort of emotion, you know, round them out. I’ve had a lot of fun with that and I think that’s something that they like to see, and it’s something I like to see. I’ve seen people here and other places get the hero role and put on the smile and go, “I will save the day!” and run around the stage like that and I think, “Yeah… I’m bored already. I don’t care about this person. I want the bad guy to win all of a sudden because he’s way more charismatic.” Which is generally the case, I suppose. That’s been a challenge I’ve accepted since I first started working here: to make the good guys as well rounded as possible.

You played Laertes twice in the past few years. In the 2007 ARS, Ben Curns was Hamlet in a wonderful and unique performance of the First Quarto (Q1). In the 2011 Summer/Fall season, John Harrell took on the role of the Prince of Denmark. Tell me about the experience of playing the same part in two very different productions, only a few years apart, with some of the same cast.
GP: I found it quite helpful to come back to it with a lot of the same cast. In fact, James Keegan played Claudius in Q1 and in [the 2011 production], so we actually found that in putting some of those scenes together we just ended up doing the same thing. The language is a little bit different between the two versions; it’s mostly Claudius who puts all the bad stuff together in Q1: he comes up with the plan and the evil poison and whatnot. So that was a little bit different. But for the most part it was just remembering what you did five years ago, as in, “Right, weren’t we down here, and we had this same thing… I guess it just works. It works with the two of us, it works with the scene, it works with the storytelling. Let’s just keep it.”

For the 2007 production, you worked without a director, whereas Jim Warren directed the 2011 production. Hamlet is a big play, and the differences between the Q1 text and the Folio text certainly don’t account for all the various differences between the two productions. What were the major differences for you during rehearsals with having a director vs. no director for this particular play?
GP: It wasn’t like it was a huge change, because it was Jim Warren [...]* I think he really understands the spirit of collaboration. So he’s not going to sit down and go, “Okay, you cross here on this line and you cross here on this line.” He’s not going to orchestrate it. He trusts us as not only human beings but also as competent actors, who have also done multiple Actors' Renaissance Seasons together, to be able to come up with something we can do on stage. I think he more guides and shapes than constructs from the ground up. So having a “director” for one and none for the other was not really all that much different. I would ask him a couple of questions now and then, but I would also ask James [Keegan] the same questions: “What would you like to do in this scene?” “Oh, well I’d like to do this.” “Okay, great.” So we would talk, and if we had any stumped questions we couldn’t figure out by ourselves, that’s when we would turn to Jim and ask him. That was really the only difference, for me anyway.

How about for other plays, generally: having a director vs. not having one – does it change your process drastically?
GP: Well, I don’t know if it’s just that we have a director but that we have more time, generally. And by more time, I mean like one more week. So, you’re not necessarily required to be there all the time. We still are, oftentimes, but a director will come in and… there will be a schedule set up for us. So I can say, “Well, I don’t have to be back until 3:00, so I can take an extra hour for my lunch. Or I can maybe work on this song.” Also, we don’t have to pull our costumes ourselves. We have costumers, so it takes away that responsibility for us. We can just sort of come in and do what we do and then leave[...]*
You’ve lived in Staunton for a while now. Have you thought of a zombie contingency plan?
GP: You know, I was dreading this question since I saw it in your other interview.

Well, it’s an important question.
GP: No, I haven’t. I think once upon a time I thought about it, because I was reading World War Z (I never actually made it to the end of that book, it gave me nightmares) and I watched the latest Dawn of the Dead movie –

The one in the mall?
GP: Yeah.

That’s a good one.
GP: Yeah, it was not bad.Gregory Jon Phelps as Richmond in Richard III. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

They all die in the end.
GP: Of course they do. Spoiler!

I mean, we’re all going to die in the zombie apocalypse.
GP: Exactly! That’s the one thing that I keep coming up with. I don’t picture myself as the hero.

But you’re the hero! [Points to stage]
GP: But no, that’s not me! That’s a part written for me, for the stage. Me, myself? I feel like I would be that random guy that nobody knew. “Oh, guy #4 died, now we’ll move on with the main story!” That was me, random guy #4. I feel like I’m a relatively okay, fit guy. I think I have a moderate amount of survival skills, but I’ve never really been hunting, I’ve never actually sunk a machete into flesh before, I’ve never shot a gun at anyone or anything, really, except maybe a target, I’ve never really used a bow and arrow except for when I was in 7th grade. So in terms of weaponry… eh, I could probably figure it out, but it’s not like I’m an expert. I don’t hunt, as a person. I’m more of a gatherer type, I suppose... you know, the first and most important thing is to find water and shelter. Water and shelter are the two biggest things. From there you can sort of figure things out. I guess this is something I’ve given some thought to.

Well, one should.
GP: You don’t have to reload a machete, and they’re quiet, but you have to get close to your opponent, which means they’re close to you. Also, it depends on the kind of zombie. Are they fast or slow? Do you need to get bitten or can it be passed through blood?

I like to leave that up to you. I err towards slower, bite-contingent zombies, because if they’re fast, blood-born pathogen zombies, we’re all just going to die immediately.
GP: In terms of surviving, I think I would make it a couple of days depending on the kind of zombie and what my starting point was.

Your starting point is here.
GP: Here, as in the Blackfriars Upper Lobby?

GP: Yeah, I could definitely make it a couple of days with the weapons that I have. I could maybe break some tables, that headpiece over there I could use to bash their faces in, I could make use of some broken glass. There are weapons all around, there are places to hide, it’s pretty well secured, and you’re up a few stories – though if they’re climbing zombies then you’re out of luck. The source of food is three levels down, though. How long can you live on packets of tea and maintain physical and mental fitness, before you get dehydrated and start seeing things? There are a lot of things you have to think about in that way. My point is this: that’s all the thought I’ve given to it.

That’s a lot of thought.
GP: …yeah.

Moving on. When did you first discover Shakespeare?
GP: High school, I’m pretty sure. I mean, maybe somebody spouted out some lines of Shakespeare before that and I was like, “I don’t know what that means, blah blah blah videogames!” It was an assignment in 10th grade with Mrs. Churchill. She was an amazing teacher, but it was an assignment, and I hated it. It was a book I had to read.

Which one?
GP: I know we did Romeo and Juliet. That was the one that really stuck out. I think we did Julius Caesar. Her class was just so very cool, though; she set up social experiments and things like that. There would be days when she would come in and say, “My voice is tired, I’m not going to talk. You don’t get to talk either. How do we communicate?” We’d write on the board, use hand signals, etc… it was a really great experiment, a really great way to learn. And she got us up on our feet when we were talking about Shakespeare. It being an assignment, I of course did not do it. I was a terrible, terrible student. I didn’t really understand Shakespeare because it was an assignment; it was something I was forced to have to understand. The language didn’t really trip me up too much. I was raised reading the King James Bible, and it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s the same King James Shakespeare was writing for. So the “thees” and the “thous” and the “begots” were fine. But I just didn’t like it until she got us up on our feet. She explained the whole, “I was hurt under your arm,” thing [from the duel in 3.1 of Romeo and Juliet]. She said, “Okay, you’re Mercutio, you’re Romeo, you’re Tybalt. The line says, ‘I was hurt under your arm.’ What does that mean?” And she left it up to us to figure it out. Somebody said, “What if Romeo’s in between them, trying to split them up, and [Tybalt] stabs [Mercutio] during that?” Well, that makes it look like he hurt him under his arm, doesn’t it? A light bulb went off. I thought, oh, that makes sense, I can get that answer right on the test. I probably failed that test except for that one answer. But it wasn’t until a few years later, the summer before my senior year of high school, that I had the very great fortune of going to a theater camp at Boston University. It changed my life. We saw a production of Much Ado about Nothing. That was the biggest light bulb for me: actually seeing a live production. I realized: I understand what’s going on! I’m laughing, and it turns out everyone else is laughing at the same things, so maybe I’m laughing at the right things! That was really the first light bulb of getting it, of understanding it, after years of thinking I could not understand.

Being in Much Ado now, is it close to your heart, since it was your light bulb moment?
GP: Kind of, yeah. This is the second production of Much Ado I’ve been in. The first time I played Claudio, on tour here. Yeah, [that first production I saw] is always in the back of my mind.

Hypothetically, if Steven Spielberg came and said, “I want to put you in a terrible movie, and I’ll pay you a million dollars, but you have to give up the stage forever,” would you do it?
GP: Only a million?

GP: [Uncomfortably long pause] You can do a lot with a million dollars. But I don’t really know what else to do. I’ve been down this road before, where I think, “I could make money doing other things, but I could also pull my teeth out with pliers and that would be just as fun.”

Okay, how about 10 million?

GP: Oh, Jesus… [shakes head].

Okay, how about all the money?
GP: There’s no such thing.

$100 billion.
GP: $100 billion? Hell yes. I would relocate.

Okay, then what if you were really famous and well-respected. Like you were Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart and Barack Obama all rolled together.
GP: Can they do that? That would be awesome. I want that guy to be president.

Okay, so you’re really well-respected and everybody takes your word for everything. And “they” (whomever “they” are) come to you and offer you all the money in exchange for you to say, decisively, that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him. Would you do it?
GP: And people believed me?

Yes. It would settle the question. No matter what the evidence is or what you believe, your word would be definitive.
GP: I don’t think I could. I mean, I could, but I don’t think I could live with the guilt of destroying history. That’s a very tentative time in history already, where things can just disappear. History is tentative anyway because it’s always written by the winners, so the truth gets obscured, and if there’s a huge fire that destroys the whole city [like the London fire of 1666] and all these paper documents disappear, you get to kind of make up what happened. You can fill in the blanks, and say, “Maybe Shakespeare meant this word instead,” and here we are hundreds of years later with that word thinking it’s what Shakespeare wrote. Things get twisted. Things get skewed. While all the money would be great, to go down in history as the guy who changed history to something that it wasn’t, to bend the truth… no, I couldn’t do it.

What’s a play that you don’t think gets performed enough?
GP: 1 Henry IV. It’s fantastic. It has comedy, tragedy, drama, family, love, music… something that everyone can recognize.

What play are you bored of?
GP: Julius Caesar. I’ve never been in a production of it. We’re doing it next ARS (it’s the first show) and hopefully, if they want me to stick around, I’ll be a part of that cast and it will be the first Caesar that I do. It’s like golf: it’s not a spectator sport, it’s a player sport. There are great speeches, there are amazing roles, there’s that tent scene, there’s a lot of politics involved, but any time I watch it I’m just bored. Like, “Yeah, this is fascinating, or it was in Act 2 things were going on, and then Caesar died and now you’re all, ‘Oh I shouldn’t have killed Caesar!’ Well then, you shouldn’t have killed Caesar!” It just drags on a little bit, for my taste. There are other plays that are much worse-written and worse-constructed, but in terms of plays that I don’t need to see anymore, Caesar is one of them.

Do you think that if you’re in the play, your perspective might change?
GP: Yes, I’m fairly certain. Depending on who I’m cast as. If I’m a spear carrier that stands in the back of the tent scene for the whole scene, I will not like that play.

There’s some really great music being performed this ARS – during pre-shows, intermission, and in the plays. Could you walk me through the process of choosing songs and deciding who sings what, who plays what, and how you go about a music rehearsal.
GP: For me, it starts with the text – I’m noticing we should have put together “Sweet Child of Mine” for Dido, because of how many times the phrase “sweet child” gets used, but that’s in hindsight. We already have eight songs. Benjamin Curns as Ensign Hoboy, Gregory Jon Phelps as Dick Follywit, and Chris Johnston as Lieutenant Mawworm in A Mad World, My Masters.  Photo by Lauren D. Rogers.I also look at theme: is it a love story, is it a war story, or is it a little of both? If I only have my [cues] to look at, I take my clues from them. There’s a whiteboard downstairs in the Tyson Center, where we keep lists of songs. The title [of the play] is at the top, and if you have a suggestion you just write down the name of the song. All of them are usually really good suggestions, but it’s not until somebody puts together at least a small amount of the song – does a little bit of research, like figuring out the chords or coming up with ideas for who could play what – that the song gets put together. If you lead just a little bit, people will follow. Much like with casting, if you put the right people in the right place, it comes together. Like, Chris Johnston is really good at the banjo, and he also plays the trumpet – that’s good to know. Ben Curns is really good at the guitar and singing and also plays the drums very well – that’s good to know. John Harrell happens to play the trombone a little bit – that’s very interesting to know. He also sings and plays the guitar. You know, there are different things different people can do, and we all work to expand our repertoire. Miriam plays the clarinet!

Yeah, she has been for a couple of seasons. She sort of hides behind the curtain.

That’s awesome!
It is! So I can sort of piece things together from there. We mix and match and put people in the places where they’re the strongest. And if, say, John Harrell says, “Can I just play the drums because this drum part seems pretty easy?” Sure. Try something new. That’s why we do this. Maybe the person who knows three chords on the guitar shouldn’t be playing the prominent part on the guitar, but if they want to hang back with other people, if they want to support: absolutely, by all means, please do. We want to encourage people to try new things and experiment, but we also want to sound good, too.

I know three chords on the guitar. Can I play in your band?
Yes! Most likely a lot of the songs that we do are three, maybe four chords.

Have you seen Cass Morris’ March Madness-esque Battle of the Shakespeareans on the education blog?
Ah, yes, that comes up every once in a while.

Okay, so the bear is winning.

Yup. And then the Bear beat Antony.


I just wanted to make sure you thought that was ridiculous as I did.
Yeah. Bear vs. Juliet? Bear wins. Juliet would probably put up a fight, but I’ll give it to the bear. But Margaret?

You’ve called this current company an “all star cast.” What is it about you guys that make you work so well together?
It’s a combination of everything, I think. Every single one of us has worked for this company before. Several of us have toured. Some of us have toured together, and you learn a lot on the road. A lot of the people who work in the ARS haven’t toured. Like Sarah Fallon: never toured for this company, but perhaps has for others. James Keegan: not for this company, perhaps for others. Rene: not for this company, perhaps for others. They’ve also done over 50, 60 productions here. They know the space. They know what goes on backstage. They know what it takes to put a show together. I think that’s something that we all know. We all have a sense of story. Gregory Jon Phelps as Dick Follywit in A Mad World, My Masters.  Photo by Lauren D. Rogers.

One of the things that I think didn’t work about the first ARS was that they had individuals working in that season who were thinking only of themselves, and not thinking of the story. I think it’s really about building a team. Not only does it make your job easier to get along with people, it’s just easier to get along with people than to make enemies. There’s no competition. We all know there are five shows: you get a big part in this show; I get a big part in that one. We all pull together. We all pull our own weight. We bring it, because we know the other person in the scene is going to be bringing exactly everything they’ve got, too. All your hate, all your love, all your strength, everything. Blood, sweat, tears, earth, wind, fire, and heart. There are two cast members who I’ve never worked with before, Aidan O’Reilly and Brandi Rhome, and they just fell right in. They started working right from day one. If you know your lines, if you have ideas, if you’re willing to express your ideas and then concede if somebody else has better ones, go with the flow, do what you know how to do, bring it when it’s your turn to bring it, show up, have a positive attitude, work hard – that’s it. Commonsense stuff, but it’s rare, especially in this business.

I’ve worked with people who, depending on where they are and especially in NYC, make [acting] a very individual thing. It’s a very lonely thing. It’s very isolated. You show up to a new company and it’s like, “Look at me! Look at what I can do!” not “Look at what we can do.” It’s not about making the other person look better; it’s about, “How good can I look? Because if an agent sees me then I can succeed and I can do this and this and me me me!” Then you go home and it’s all about you: you work on monologues and you’re talking to yourself, and then you go to auditions and you’re talking to yourself or a spot on the wall. It’s very isolated and closed-off. One of the things that we learn here is that if you make the other person look good, you in turn make yourself look good. If they look good, then the production looks good, and if the production looks good, then you look good, and then things just get on a higher level, than if you’re just out for yourself. Teamwork! That’s what it boils down to; in much the same as teamwork is the best way to survive the zombie apocalypse.

--Lia Razak

*Additional comments redacted

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