Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Better Know an Actor: Ben Curns

 Note: due to adult themes and language, this interview is intended for mature readers.

When did you first know that you would be playing Richard?
Ben Curns: Back in 2008, the Artistic Director, Jim Warren, and the Associate Artistic Director/Casting Director, Jay McClure, were talking about starting the Henry VI trilogy. Obviously they’re going to start with Part One, and generally they send an email out [to the regular resident actors] saying, “Are you interested in this season? If you are, which parts are you interested in?” The part that I liked the most was York, which was also the part that René [Thornton, Jr.] was interested in. So essentially the casting director was like, “You guys need to sort of figure out what you want to do.” I said I didn’t really mind, because I also really wanted to play [Vindice] in The Revenger’s Tragedy. So he got [York] and I got Humphrey, Duke of Gloucestor, and I really enjoyed playing him. René was really excited because he thought that maybe after I died playing Gloucester I could play Jack Cade. The casting director was like, “He’s not going to play Jack Cade.” So I feel like he had the idea: “He’s going to play York’s son, Richard.” So from then on, I remember telling my mother, “If I get this part, it could mean that they want me for the next two winters, and ultimately in 2012 I’m going to play Richard III.”

Benjamin Curns in 3 Henry VI. Photo by Tommy Thompson.
So you had Richard in mind, certainly by the time you reached 3 Henry VI?
We sign contract to contract so nothing is ever set in stone, but when they brought me back to play Richard in 3 Henry VI I felt like it was sort of… likely. It was likely. But, you know, I didn’t count anything as definite. What I liked about that and what I still like about that is it says, “Nobody’s going to hand you anything. If you want to play that part you better be great in the first two parts that he appears in.” Make a statement. Make them realize that they’ve done a good thing and they’ve made good choices and they can trust you with a part not only of this size but of this responsibility. Especially in 3 Henry VI, he’s going to be one of the characters that the press writes about. He and Margaret are going to be the face of 3 Henry VI. So you want to do right by the company and by your cast and then also as an artist, you want to be great. The part is so wonderful – he has so much more to do in 3 Henry VI than he does in 2 Henry VI. You figure out so much stuff about him. You know that speech he does in the middle of Part Three? He’s saying, “You want to come back next year and see me do a lot more of this.”

One of the biggest decisions when playing Richard is figuring out his physicality. How did you go about shaping his deformity? In the production, you have a hump, a withered arm, and a leg brace, which causes you to walk with a pronounced limp.
Even in 2 Henry VI, people talk about his hunchback. I don’t know if there’s much about a limp, but in Part Two the Cliffords are like, “He’s ugly and he’s bunchbacked.” So when we did Part Two, which was much more of an early modern dress production, for me the whole thing was: can I find something that I can fit a hump over and still fit into? So I kept going through all of René’s clothes. In [Part Two] we really just did the hump and I wore gloves on both hands, since he’s on the battlefield anyway, so we didn’t make much out of the hand. My personal choice in Part Two was to not make anything out of the leg, but to have a wound that Somerset gives him in the play be the impetus behind his leg injury.

So that’s where the limp came from?
That was my take on it. I don’t know how other people do it, but we thought it would be a cool way to do it. Certainly once you get into 3 Henry VI and Richard III there’s a lot more talk about how he was born like that, but given the information I had in 2 Henry VI, I thought it was sort of cool. And I think it’s interesting, especially in fight situations, to try and empower both people, to give both of them status. I felt like for Somerset to get a wound in says something about him. He’s smaller than [Richard] but he’s still a lord, he’s still got years of military training.

You cut Richard III to make the performance script. How did you start that process, and what does the process entail?
I did the cut for 3 Henry VI as well, and Jay [McClure], our associate artistic director, seemed to like it. So moving into Richard III, which is so much more Richard’s play, my feeling is that they thought, “You should probably be the one to decide what you say and what you don’t. We want to try and keep it to two hours. Do what you can.” For me, I feel like I can always cut it down to two hours. The hardest thing is to do it with so few people. Especially in these early Shakespeare plays; I think there’s a lot of evidence to say they had closer to 20 people in their cast. There’s a moment in 4.4 where Richard enters, and in our production he comes out alone, but the stage direction says he comes out with trumpeters and drummers and soldiers. He comes out with a whole battalion, which means that that poor battalion has to stand there through that scene, which is 30 minutes long. So I’m sure the cast is very happy to not have to do that. For me that’s the challenge.

The cutting was fun. The first act was the hardest to cut, given that’s when you meet so many characters, so you want to hear who these people are and endow them with some sort of information, but you always want to keep it clipped. Once I got past the first act, it was much easier. Just slashing and burning. I bet the next time I see a full length Richard III I’ll say, “Oh, that’s a great line, I can’t believe I cut that line!” I’ve been pretty fortunate that most of the feedback about the cut has been positive, in saying it’s streamlined but it’s not any more Richard-centric than the play already is. It’s not as if I said, “We’re just going to get rid of this stuff so I have more time to talk.”

How much is cut for practical reasons and how much for artistic? For example, it’s often said that the scrivener’s scene in Act Three is there to give the illusion of time passing between the two big Richard/Buckingham scenes that bookend it, so it often gets cut, but your production kept it in. What was the thought behind that?
In the case of the scrivener, I don’t think it’s just to separate those Richard/Buckingham scenes. I feel like that’s how most people look at it, but what I think is important about the scrivener is that he’s talking about this legal document to justify the state-sponsored execution of Hastings as a traitor. That says something about Richard and Buckingham: at this point they are still ostensibly trying to operate within the confines of the law. They’re not just murdering people in their sleep. They’re saying, “We have evidence to say this guy is a traitor!” It’s all trumped up, of course, it’s all BS, but when people come asking questions, they’ve got this document. You see tyrants in history do this all the time: they try to rig elections and stuff to make themselves really look legitimate. I feel like Buckingham needs that. Buckingham is sort of [Richard’s] spokesman; he says, “I’m the one who’s going to be out there talking to the people, and when they ask me about this I want to have an answer.” He’s on Richard’s side, you know, but it has to have some sort of legal façade. That’s what I like about the scrivener.

There are some personnel things that our cast size just forbids us from doing. I got a lot of heat when we did 3 Henry VI about cutting this character Montgomery. He’s a Yorkist supporter who essentially comes to offer Edward military assistance to take the crown. Edward says, “I’m not quite ready to go for the crown yet,” and Montgomery says, “Okay, then I’m going to take my soldiers away.” And then Richard says, “You should just take the crown now; we should take this help while we’ve got it.” But I’m thinking, “We don’t have a guy to play Montgomery, and we certainly don’t have seven more guys to come on with Montgomery to suggest the army that he has.” It’s tough. We don’t want a four hour production. In the past we’ve generally had an intern from Mary Baldwin in the cast, and this year we didn’t. Jay even said, “Do you want another person?” And I said, “No, I want to see if we can do it.” If we’d had that other person, we would have had more ghosts, certainly. But you know, we make do.

There are some interesting changes in exits and entrances – there’s that moment when Tyrell is accepting your orders to murder the princes in the tower, and in the Folio, Buckingham enters after he exits. But René enters as you’re finishing the order, and thus overhears everything. Was that in the cut or was it his decision?
I didn’t even know he was there. So I would say that was René’s decision. It’s a big scene for their relationship. I have that great line: “hath he so long held out with me untired / and stops he now for breath?” Where did this conscience of yours come from, Buckingham? All of a sudden? And René, as a good actor, says, “No, he has to draw a line somewhere. [Richard] has no line.” “Oh, so it’s okay to throw around the head of Hastings, it was okay to kill Rivers and Grey, all that was fine?” “They weren’t kids!”

One of my favorite books is Year of the King, by Anthony Sher. It talks about his journey getting ready to play Richard at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tell me about your “year of the king.” How did you get ready for this part?
Having worked here for so long, I can draw on all these things I’ve learned from other parts that I’ve played. Going into Richard, not only did I have the advantage of playing Richard in 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI, but also of having played Iago [in Othello] and Face in The Alchemist – which is a comedy but which is entirely about deceiving people and playing characters and trying to manipulate people into doing what you want them to do – playing Mephistopheles in Dr. Faustus; characters who sort of show people one thing while they’re holding something else behind their back. And I played Caliban [in The Tempest], who is something other than human and has confidence issues in himself, and misses his mother. You have all these things, and they kind of serve as a training ground.

To get more specific, I learned a lot with Caliban about actor movement and physicality and telling stories with something other than normal movement. I’m not a movement guy – there are people who have lots of training in that sort of stuff and I really don’t have much. It’s sort of an area that I’m uncomfortable with, so I just threw some stuff out there to see what sticks. But it’s sort of better with Richard having had six months doing Caliban. And Face is such a huge part. The side was 63 pages. So I was taught a lot about endurance, you know, just sort of “go, go, go, go!” And Iago obviously is the big one because it taught me a lot about “villains” being justified in their actions if you can look at the situation through their eyes then you can be the hero of your own story.

So that was my big thing about going in to play Richard. He’s been, in my opinion – I feel like it has to be in my opinion – all those things he says, he says it starts with God or heaven. He even says that in 3 Henry VI. He says “You duped me from the start. You gave everybody in the race a head start except me. You brought me into this amazing family, and I look like a freak, and nobody likes me, and I can’t run as fast, and I can’t speak as well, and I can’t chase girls.” He dedicates himself to his father’s cause, only to have his father and his little brother taken away from him in the course of the battle – for which I think he feels partly responsible since he convinced his father to fight that battle – just to be working his ass off for halfwits and people he doesn’t think are as deserving as he is. Like his brother, [Edward]. He looks at everyone else in the play and thinks, “You’ve had all these amazing gifts given to you. What have you done with them? You’ve squandered them. I had none of those gifts; I had to work much harder to get all of these things, so I deserve them more. I had to work; they were just handed to you.”

That’s why I love that line: “Ere you were queen, yea, or your husband king / I was a packhorse in his great affairs.” [Richard is saying]: Don’t ever forget how you got the stuff that you have. You did it with my blood and my sweat. You lifted not a finger to have all of your fancy clothes and live in this fancy house. I had to kill a lot of people for you to get that, and now you’re just going to invite your family in and give them land I fought for? I don’t think so. I learned that from playing Iago: [the other characters] all deserve what they get. How much have I had to take over my life? It’s time to dish it out. Let [the others] be miserable for a while.

My “year of the king” was more like three months of the king, because we rehearsed the show so fast. I feel like with a longer rehearsal process, I would have more time to play and more time to figure out exactly what it is I want to do. We opened with, “Here’s a thought of what I think I want to do.” I was very fortunate to get some feedback from some very smart people in my cast about some of the things I was doing. I always try to take that to heart and try to incorporate that into what I was doing. The longer you do it, and particularly in our playhouse, the more you learn about what you’re doing and how you feel about it.

I read a lot of books. I guess that falls under the whole “year of the king” banner as well, this research I was doing, I couldn’t stop once we opened. I didn’t feel like I was done. I just wanted to keep reading stuff. And the more stuff I read I was just like, “This is usable.” It’s not extra-textual; it only proves how insightful and smart Shakespeare was. He’s profiling killers, and he’s in the minds of some really awful people long before the idea of psychology came around and people started diagnosing other people’s problems. He knows what [the problems] are, he knows what causes them, and he writes them into his characters.

What books did you read?
The first thing I read was a Brecht play that René gave me called The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, which is a story about a gangster, but it’s a parable for the rise of fascism in Germany. He gave it to me for my birthday and said, “Anyone who’s going to play Richard III should know this play.” And the prologue even says, “Here’s the main character. Doesn’t he look like Richard III?” I really enjoyed that play because it had some of that stuff I was talking about with the scrivener: this guy trying to make things look legitimate. He doesn’t want to come down too heavy. There’s this great scene where he hires an actor to come in to instruct him on how to speak and how to move in front of large groups of people. I thought that was great because Richard is such an actor, such a consummate performer at all times.

In 3 Henry VI he says, “I’ll set the murderous Machivel to school,” so I went back and read The Prince by Machiavelli. I read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Then I read this volume on serial killers by Peter Vronsky [Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monster]. When I finished that I read The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, which is a book about Ted Bundy. I guess I was interested in that guy because most of the accounts of him are that he was really charming. He didn’t look like a derelict or some kind of freak. He was very handsome and well spoken and reputed to be pretty funny, but he had this hidden dark side. I thought, “Well that reminds me of this guy that I’m playing.” He’s able to convince some people that he’s a normal guy. And then Dan Kennedy saw me reading that, and he brought me a book called The Anatomy of Motive written by a former FBI agent, John Douglas, who essentially started the FBI profiling program. That was incredibly cool, and incredibly helpful, especially because he’s able to make some generalizations – he says the cases are all different, but some of the generalizations that he made, I was kind of like, “Richard might not fall into this category like a cookie cutter but he shares some of these things.” This idea of manipulation, domination and control.

Allison Glenzer and Benjamin Curns in Richard III. Photo by Tommy Thompson.
He’s obsessed with it. He wants to be the one in charge, and he wants to dictate the terms. It’s when he doesn’t have those things that he gets so angry. It’s this idea of fantasy, a fantasy world, and my take on it is that it’s not just about the crown but this fantasy of being normal, of being liked. He sees the throne and the crown as a means to that end, to finally be respected and to finally be appreciated for all his efforts. This guy talks about when Bundy was serving as his own attorney, he had the investigating police officers on the stand, and he asked them to describe the crime scenes in detail. And it totally backfired on him, because everyone on the jury was like, “You’re sick, and you really just want to live through this again. You want to hear about it because you can’t see it for yourself.” In the second scene of Richard III, when Lady Anne says, “Behold this pattern of thy butcheries,” and shows him the dead body of Henry VI, I feel like he gets off, you know what I mean? It must so turn him on.  She’s like, “You made these holes,” and he’s like, “You’re goddamn right I did.” That connects to what he says in his first soliloquy: “I am not made for sportive tricks.” I cannot insert my penis into something, but I can insert steel and make orifices if I must. That is my substitution. That is a scary place for him to be, but I feel like he wears that as a badge of honor. You know, looking at dead Henry VI when the blood comes out again: he must just love it. And then the whole rest of the scene he’s a lothario, he’s Casanova, he’s Romeo. About the line, “Teach not thy lips such scorn, for they were made / for kissing, lady, not for such contempt,” Lois Potter said to me, “I think it’s funny that the actor playing Richard is also playing Benedick, because that sounds like a line Benedick would say, not something that Richard would say.”

Playing Richard – not only playing Richard in 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI, but playing Humphrey [Duke of Gloucester] in 1 Henry VI and 2 Henry VI was very helpful.

But they’re the opposite, it seems like.
Yes! But that’s the lesson: playing by the rules will get you killed. Trying to do things by the book, trying to show respect for your elders? No one cares about those rules, Humphrey. It starts with Humphrey and Beaufort, who hate each other, but my take is that Humphrey just loves that kid [Henry VI]. He loves that kid, it’s his brother’s kid and if his brother asked him to do anything, it was to make sure the kid is safe, to take care of him. Humphrey says he’ll do his best, but there are so many cooks in that kitchen. Once Margaret comes in and teams up with Beaufort and Buckingham and Suffolk, it’s over for him. They’re thinking: “As Lord Protector, Humphrey is the most powerful man. He needs to disappear. Then we can make some moves.” Humphrey’s own wife is like, “These people are all out to get you. What you should do is destroy all of them. Take the throne from your nephew and rule yourself.” And he says, “Don’t you ever say that to me again. What you’re talking about is treasonous. You’re talking about my nephew and yours. Don’t you ever bring that up again.” Then she gets into the whole witchcraft thing, and gets caught, and to Humphrey’s credit, when she asks if he has anything to say at her trial he says, “No. You did those things. That was your choice, and I told you not to go down that road. I implored you not to go down that road. There is nothing I can do for you.”

Then they arrest Gloucester and King Henry is like, “I wouldn’t worry about it, we’ll have the trial and then everything will turn out fine.” But Gloucester knows he will never see that child again. He tells him, “Thus is the shepherd beaten from thy side / and wolves are gnarling who shall gnaw thee first.” He tried, you know.

I think that’s why 2 Henry VI is my favorite of the Henry VI plays. 3 Henry VI has so much stuff, but I like Part Two for that moment right in the middle of the play. Once Beaufort and Gloucester die, it’s like gangster’s paradise. The old guard is gone; get in there and make your moves. Everyone’s got moves to make. Then when York comes back from Ireland with his army and his sons, what Richard has learned is: look what happened to the last Duke of Gloucester. Look where playing by the rules got him. It’s like that line in Spaceballs: “Evil will always triumph over good, because good is dumb.” That’s where Sarah [Fallon, who played Margaret in the tetralogy] and I always butt heads about Richard and Margaret, because she’s like, “Richard’s such an asshole,” and I’m like, “Well, I had a good teacher. You came in from France, England had to give up land to your dad just so you could come in here, no dowry, totally embarrassed us, you slept with Suffolk and when they killed him you carried his head around.” What’s the point of trying to be a good guy? Make your moves. It’s what everybody else is doing. Richard’s just so much better at it.

Margaret is pretty awful to… well, everybody, but especially Richard. Doesn’t she call him “Dicky” in 3 Henry VI?
Yeah, and her son calls him “misshapen Dick.” And then we kill him. Oh, how we kill him. Talk about some spitting in the face. Sarah Fallon did not ask for my permission when she spit in my face in 3 Henry VI. I kind of asked for it, I did stab her son in the belly right in front of her. Normally I do a little twist of the blade. One performance, right before I did the twist, I was like, “I just want to make sure you’re looking at this. Are you ready for this?” I made eye contact with her before twisting the blade and she spit in my face. I hope that was worth it, Margaret! Your son is still dead.

They are all terrible people. They just keep killing children.
Oh, come on. Margaret’s son knew what he was getting into. He was on the battlefield.

The princes in the tower? Rutland?
Yeah… yeah we killed some kids.

Let’s talk about that final soliloquy. Do you find that your Richard is redeemable?
No. No, he’s gone far too far. He even admits it when he says that line about, “I’m so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin,” you know? There’s no going back. Though I don’t think he’s redeemable, I do think he’s pitiable in a weird way, but that’s because I’m so close to it. That speech is very weird in terms of the verse – there are half lines and mid line stops, he’s all scattered, he’s so scattered. And you really see the cracks at the end of 4.4, when Shakespeare does that great thing with all those messengers coming in, and they all have something to say, and he can’t come up with an answer quite fast enough so he just punches the guy. He goes back to that beast from the Henry VI plays. A politician would know how to respond, but he sucks at that. All he knows how to do is mess people up, so he goes back to what he knows. Then there’s that part where he says, “Away towards Salisbury / while we reason here, a royal battle may be won and lost.” It’s a waste of time to try and reason these things out; let’s just go butt heads. Let’s get to the end of this. But that last speech, when all those ghosts visit him… that is why he doesn’t fall into the categories of the other serial killers we were talking about: he admits to the audience that he has a conscience. He feels bad about it.

Has he felt bad at all up until then or is it an all of a sudden thing?
I feel like once he gets that crown, it’s like trying to tread water with a weight on your ankle. He’s keeping his head above water and he’s probably smiling like everything’s fine, but underneath there’s this flurry of activity. It all culminates in that moment when he tries to sleep but realizes that Margaret’s curse has come true. Sarah [Fallon, who plays Margaret] has pointed out that whereas everyone else says that the curse has come true, Richard won’t give Margaret the credit. She says he’ll never sleep again, and “the worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul.” What I like about that word “still” is there’s an Elizabethan definition of it being “always.” I think he’s deceived himself into thinking all these crimes are justified, and it’s not till he wakes up in that scene that he realizes: “You have done some awful things, and you have had a good time doing them, but what has it got you?” That’s what I think is so sad about it. “I have my crown, but I have no friends, I have no wife.” Blunt even says he has no friends, just the people he threatens to kill if they leave him. That’s not a family. That’s not friends. His father’s dead, his mother kicked him out and essentially walked away from him, his brothers are all dead. He’s all alone. Someone asked in the Talk Back what Richard thinks is going to happen in the final battle, and my thought is, he knows he ain’t gonna win. But what is running going to get him? You can live another day, but what’s that? Another day of being miserable and having people come in and report that Richmond’s getting closer. You may as well just do this. Let’s do this. If you’re the better man then prove it. Let’s go. The FBI guy, in his book he talks about guys who hole up in a tower and shoot a bunch of people, or the post office guys who go nuts with guns, and he uses this phrase “suicide by cop.” I feel like that’s what Richard does. He’s like, “I won’t put a gun to my head, but I will make you kill me.”

Why is Richard like that?
That’s the most important thing about playing a villain like that: to find where it comes from. If you look at someone and they’re angry, it’s probably because somewhere they’re really hurt. Where did that hurt come from? At least that’s the way I look at parts; that’s what I wanted to do with Iago. If you’re going to be a bad guy with a soliloquy I feel like your job is to say, “I know on paper this is a terrible thing to do, but try to see it from my point of view.” That’s what Iago does, and Mephistopheles, and he got turned out by God. God himself says, “You are no longer welcome here. Never again.” What more is there to lose? They’re all connected in some way. I feel like that’s what’s fun about playing the “bad guy.” That’s what other people call them. I call them the heroes.

I feel like a lot of the characters in Othello think Iago is weak, so he plays that character for them. What he does is he makes everyone in the play think they’re all smarter than he is. Hamlet does the same thing. He’s so much more brilliant than anyone else on the stage, but everyone is convinced they’re a step ahead of him. He’s like, “You’ve got to be kidding me, Polonius. Come on. Really?”

How do you move on from Richard? (Editor’s note: this interview took place the day after Richard III’s final performance on April 5.)
I don’t know, you know. It was just last night.

I know. I want to do this while the wound is fresh.
I honestly cannot think of a part that’s going to be as challenging and as gratifying to do as Richard. I just can’t think of another part that’s going to be as gratifying artistically. I can’t even fathom it.

Does having done the tetralogy make the experience more intense?
That has something to do with it, but I feel like in this play Richard gets to do so much. He gets to woo the girl, he gets to play the clown, he gets to be the monster, he gets to be very sad, and he gets to have a colossal sword fight. Jeremy West, our cast member and fight choreographer, deserves a lot of kudos for that one. We did the read-through of Richard III on a Sunday night after putting up Much Ado in like, four days. We did the read-through from 6-8, and then we sent everybody home and I was said to Jeremy, “I think what we should do is start blueprinting the fight. I don’t want to wait until the end of the process.” This is the fight that ends the tetralogy, for God’s sake, so let’s do something cool.

That whole thing with me versus the three people was put together that night, and it was really funny to watch Jeremy play all three people. We put weapons around the stage and we’d do a little fight, he’d put the weapon down and run across the stage, pick up another weapon and we’d continue the fight. He did the second half of the fight later that week, during a rehearsal where he had a chunk of time where he wasn’t in any scenes and I said, “It would be great if you just finished it, and then we’ll find another time where you can teach it to us.” I had some ideas about what I wanted to do, and he took those ideas and blended them with his own. What he was most interested in is how Greg [Phelps, who played Richmond] and I are different physically. Richmond’s leaner, he’s faster, and maybe he’s smarter, even, whereas Richard is a tank who will just bash opponents. You’ll see there’s a lot of hitting with the shield. I’m the biggest dude out there and I’ve got all this muscle, so [the shield] is really a weapon, not just a defensive tool.

There’s a great moment where you bash down on Richmond’s shield over and over.
I love that moment because it’s just like, “I. Hate. You. Stay. Down. Stay. Down.” But Richmond’s not going to stay down.

It was cool having Jeremy in 3 Henry VI because there was so much fighting in that. Everybody got to talk about what they wanted to do. At one point we’re asking, “Who does Greg [playing Henry VI] have [for his fight against Edward]? Well, he’s got John [Harrell] and Allison [Glenzer]. That’s who it will be.” To their credit, both of them were like, “I’m down. Whatever you need.” The same with the ghosts. I told Jeremy I thought it would be really great to have the ghosts come in at the end of the fight – and I don’t want to make a big thing out of it, I don’t want it to be the sixth act of the play, but just a little reminder that they all said, “We will be at the battle tomorrow. We’ll be rooting for the other guy.” I just like that moment. It’s kind of like this is why you lose. You can’t have this much blood on you and still expect to get away. One of these days God’ll cut you down.

Having the ghosts come out seems like a logistical nightmare. How did you handle it?
That’s why I give the other actors all the credit, because they were all game. I was so timid that day. I was like, “I don’t know, this is just an idea.” I feel like they could have all been like, “What are you doing, I just want to get this blood off my face and be done.” But I was a fool to think they would be that way, I was a fool to doubt that they would be supportive. All I wanted to do that day is see if it was worth it. Let’s just try it and see a) if it’s possible and b) if it is possible, is it something we should do, is it something we feel good about doing? They were all like, “I think it’s cool.” We did go through a bunch of different ideas. There was talk of Richard getting tossed into their arms, all different kinds of stuff. The other problem was getting the curtains open and drums being played… I can’t even imagine what it must look like backstage during that moment. But I was really happy how everyone got behind it. Instead of them moving around and being demon-y, they just stand there like it’s a family portrait. They are all related. “We’re all members of your family, Richard, and we’ve got a space for you.” It’s one of those great ARS moments where there’s a germ of an idea, and a bunch of other smart people around who say why don’t we do this, why don’t we add that, why don’t we use the same clock chime we had going during the nightmare?

Benjamin Curns in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Tommy Thompson.
How does getting ready for Benedick compare to getting ready for Richard?
It’s easier. There’s way less. I memorized Richard first, and then started work on Benedick, and it’s one of those things: I always really wanted to play Benedick, but I never thought I would get to do them both in the same season. Artistic management was like, “If we did want to go that way, would you say no?” Um, hell no. I’ll sprint for the first 21 days and then I’ll relax for a bit. So that’s what they went with.

When I first started looking at Benedick I was like, “What do I have to do to make this funny?” because people expect Benedick to be funny. Then I realized that’s not the way to go about it. Figure out what you think about this guy, and make some opinions about his character and his word choices and his relationships with others, and then I bet it will be funny. Shakespeare will do that work for you. Then it was good. These plays that we put up in two days… there’s not a lot of conversation between you and the other actors. Even with Richard III, where we had more time, there was more discussion but certainly not tons and tons. I could talk forever about Richard and the Duchess of York. But you know, we just kind of went and did those scenes. Miriam [Donald Burrows, who plays the Duchess of York and Beatrice] gets it; we don’t have to keep talking about it.

Benedick is a huge part, but compared to Richard, it’s a much lighter night at the theater. It’s one of those great Shakespearean parts, Benedick is, that is not that big. It’s a ton of fun, it’s so much fun to do, audiences really get into it. I particularly like working with Chris [Johnston, who plays Claudio], and I like having Chris in bigger parts, because I like for us to figure out how to play scenes. And it’s fun to play with Miriam again. After we did The Importance of Being Earnest together, I said to her, “I really want to play Benedick and Beatrice with you.” I wasn’t sure that it would happen, but I’m sure glad that it did. That’s two of the big ones off the checklist in one season.

What’s left on the checklist?
Coriolanus. Coriolanus and Aufidius with René. René and I have done a lot of things together, but what we’ve never gotten to do is fight. I feel like the Blackfriars audience would love it. We’re the two biggest dogs in the yard, so let’s throw down. I like that play, I feel like those Roman plays speak particularly to Americans. Or they should. Coriolanus is a soldier who’s trying to make a transition to politics, like Richard, and he hates it. He hates it; he hates the people, the same way Richard and Iago do. They’re saying, “I have done so much work, and all you do is complain. It’s never good enough for you. Why don’t you pick up a sword and go out and see how freakin’ easy it is?”

I love how your performances change slightly with every show– doing a different melody for the song Benedick tries to write Beatrice in Much Ado, for example. What’s the thinking behind that?
I use this metaphor: You build a play like a skeleton, and the bone structure must remain the same. You don’t get to change the bones. The muscles, how fast the things move up and down, what you put on the skeleton can vary. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it can. I think the kinds of variations you’re talking about are the kind I’m comfortable doing – things like the song in Much Ado – because it affects nobody. Or at least, in the immediate moment it affects nobody. Once you’re out there with somebody else you have to be more careful.

You really like wrestling. What are the connections you draw between Wrestlemania and what you do at the ASC? Also, why is James Keegan the Undertaker?
He’s the General. He’s the elder of the locker room. All the guys he works with think he’s the man, and if I get to be in scenes with him, with any luck he’s going to make me look really good, and I’ll do my best to make him look really good. In the wrestling business they call it “putting someone over” when you want them to look good in front of the crowd, so you do what you can. I think that’s why even as an adult – I really should not still have an interest in this very juvenile show – I love it. It’s in front of a live audience, and so much of it is based on honest reactions from the audience. What can we do to help get the audience to go crazy for it? My brother came down to see Richard III and Much Ado, and that was one of the things he said, “It really does remind me of wrestling. You guys talk and gesture to the audience, you try to get them to boo and hiss and cheer. When you came out as king in [Richard III] you came out to music.” The night he saw it, when I finally fell over, the audience applauded, and Greg just kind of looked out to the audience. My brother said, “[Wrestling] was all I could think about, and that’s exactly what [Greg] should have done in that moment.”

My job is so all-encompassing that when I’m doing something outside of work, like watching TV, I really strive to keep it separate. I have so few things outside of work, and I try to keep them pure. Not to say that I don’t really enjoy what I do. But we are directly connected to wrestling in that we talk to the audience in the same way. We just have much better lines. And pants, which is nice.

For real: parting thoughts on Richard?
I’ll miss him. It’ll be sad. Not only is it sad to not do it, it’s sad not to have it to look forward to. It’s not waiting in the wings anymore. René said at a Talk Back that now that we’ve finished the history cycle, we just want to start over. Just do it again. That’d be great – if you want to do Richard II in the fall, I’m in. I want to play Bolingbroke.

-- Lia Razak

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