Mary Z. Maher once lived upstairs in the home of Jocelyn Herbert, the English set and costume designer. Herbert was a seminal exponent of spare, nonliteral design, working with Beckett, Ionesco, Osborne, Olivier, Gielgud.

Mary Z. Maher once lived upstairs in the home of Jocelyn Herbert, the English set and costume designer. Herbert was a seminal exponent of spare, nonliteral design, working with Beckett, Ionesco, Osborne, Olivier, Gielgud.

Maher, who now lives in Ashland, once asked Albert Finney, who was in one of Herbert's shows, to talk about playing Hamlet.

"He said, 'I cannot do that. If I do I have to stop and think about Hamlet,' " she says.

Finney must be one of the few who turned Maher down (she's not naming names). For her new book, "Actors Talk About Shakespeare," (Limelight Editions, $18.99) she talked with Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi and others. She plans a talk at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Southern Oregon University's Hannon Library.

Maher taught acting and Shakespeare at the University of Arizona and has published widely. When she came to Ashland in 1982 and saw Mark Murphey play Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she overheard a little boy ask his father, "He isn't really crazy, is he, Daddy?"

Maher is fascinated by the actor's process, especially when it comes to Shakespeare, the Everest of acting, and her passion is to document stage work.

Here is Kevin Kline, for instance, on why Hamlet is the hardest role: "Because it draws on everything. You need every bit of spiritual, psychic, emotional, and physical reserve to play it."

Kline's theory is that the actor "takes authorship" and creates his role. This is at loggerheads with the Svengali-type director who has a big "idea" of the character and a "concept" for the play.

"He (Kline) says if the director comes in and says he has a whole vision, he says, 'Why? Where's the discovery?' " Maher says.

Like Kline, Stacy Keach is devoted to Shakespeare.

"Who would have thought that in the foothills of Hollywood ... would sit a badass sheriff, cowboy desperado, private dick, and tough-guy warden once again brushing up his Shakespeare?" Maher writes.

In 1962, Keach took a break from his studies at Berkeley to act at the OSF. He remembers Gertrude Bowmer introducing 40 actors to each other without notes. He played Antipholus and a couple smaller parts. In 1963 he returned in the title role in a "Henry V" directed by Jerry Turner. He was later told by an agent to forget about Shakespeare.

"Most classical actors in the United States have encountered this dilemma," he told Maher.

Among those who ignored such advice he lists Christopher Walken, Kevin Spacy, F. Murray Abraham.

Maher went to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, to interview William Hutt, whose career took him all over the world for 50 years, but who remained committed to Stratford until his death in 2007 at 87. One of his last roles was as the dying actor playing Lear one last time in Canadian TV's "Slings and Arrows."

"His house was full of glass," Maher says. "He was a huge collector. Not much modern stuff, Chihuli, but stained-glass windows, old pieces. He drove a gold Cadillac and held court at The Church (a tony Stratford restaurant)."

"The secret of great acting is Truth," Hutt deadpanned, "and once you've learned how to fake that, you've made it."

Hutt lamented, with Maher, the fact that plays, even the great ones, are seldom filmed for archives. They just disappear forever.

"Why can't the money be found when it is available for other popular events?" he asked.

Maher's sentiments too.

"There's a tiny clip of Gielgud on film from 'Julius Caesar,' " she says. "But it's so little. We have so little of Olivier, of Richardson. So little."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.