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Through the actors' eyes

Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors tell behind-the-scenes stories and describe how they get to know the characters they portray in an upcoming book written by two local Shakespeare scholars.

Called "Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling the Story," by Alan Armstrong and Mary Z. Maher, the book is scheduled to be published by Wellstone Press of Ashland in July.

The authors will discuss their work at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 8, in Room 305 of the Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. It is free and open to the public.

Armstrong and Maher interviewed 13 actors who described the art and process of playing a role — from casting through rehearsals, research, development of voice and character, and how it evolves over a year of shows.

Live theater is a complex and magnificent achievement, Armstrong says, but when the final curtain comes down, actors often scatter to the wind, with scant record of how the play was put together and what they did to fashion their craft.

"It's surprising, here in the 21st century, with all this media, how little gets preserved," says Armstrong, retired director of Shakespeare Studies at SOU.

"Actors move onto the next show and there's not the opportunity to talk about their craft ... but in this book, we interviewed them over 18 months and some of them are so specific about costumes, makeup, rehearsals, all of it, that it almost could be a newbie's guide to the profession here," he says.

Sometimes productions are captured on video, says Maher, but often it's shot from far away, the sound quality is poor and Equity rules often preclude its use. This book fills the gap and is a deep narrative from the actors' own hearts, with as little of the voice of authors as possible, she says.

"The information is so detailed about how they work, how they got here (to OSF), who their mentors were, how and where they were trained ... how they work with colleagues. It's very biographical. It maps out their process, how they prepare for their roles, memorize lines, did historical research," Maher says.

Some of the actors have years of training, others got into plays in high school or college but didn't pursue a degree in acting. Some will go to great lengths to research their character, traveling to the battlefield at Agincourt for "Henry V," or reading old political speeches from Victorian times. Others, however, say, "If it's not in the script, I don't go into it," Armstrong says.

The actors say that in fight scenes they leave nothing to chance, rehearsing their moves 45 minutes before every play to make sure no one actually gets whacked, he adds.

Some like to stay in Ashland, deepening relationships with actors they've been with in many productions over the decades, while others feel it helps their skills to try another venue for a while, he says.

All say a role evolves through the long season, revealing new dimensions even in the 127th or last performance, as actors reach for the zone, called "being in the moment," Maher says.

"They talk about that phase where you get comfortable in your role, like a second skin. You hit that second gear, many said, when you are done constructing the role and you start coming from some deeper place. It never stops," she says.

The book explores how actors develop intimate relationships with one another on stage, learn their humor, when and how they laugh, how hard they can hit them in a fight — and it brings out the most zany and hilarious moments under the lights, when things can get way off track, Maher says.

"There were so many anecdotes, they had trouble choosing just one," says Maher.

Her favorite is David Kelly as Pickering in "My Fair Lady," when he's supposed to pick up the antique phone and call Scotland Yard, but the prop people forgot to put the phone on stage. As his line approaches, many scurry behind the scenes but can't find the phone. So Kelly picks up a slipper instead, announcing to all, "Yes, I'm calling from my slipper-phone."

"It was so brilliant," Maher says, laughing.

After scores of hours plumbing the depths of the thespian mind, the authors say they gained a profound new understanding and respect for the sheer dedication of OSF actors.

"There's no big money in it, but they work incredibly hard," says Armstrong. "As Danforth Comins says in the book, 'A lazy actor is an unemployed actor.' They're always at work, developing their skills, their voice — and looking, if need be, to the next job."

Other actors profiled in the book are Mark Murphey, Richard Howard, Michael Elich, Neil Geisslinger, Vilma Silva, John Tufts, Kevin Kenerly, Anthony Heald, Jonathan Haugen, Robin Goodrin Nordli and Mark Bedard.

In the book's foreword, the authors say, "We wanted to create a different kind of book made of personal interviews that captured each actor's voice, glimpsed the person behind the artist, explored each actor's particular process, and also sketched the larger collaborative process of a busy repertory company. ... We wanted actors who consistently present onstage characters who seem real to us. We wanted actors skilled in delivering their lines understandably and meaningfully. We wanted actors versatile enough to excel in new plays as well as in Shakespeare and other classical drama, actors who transport and inspire us."

Armstrong has a doctorate from Cornell in Renaissance literature. He was dramaturge for seven OSF shows and co-editor of the journal "Literature and History." He was senior scholar for the National Endowment for the Humanities national institutes for college professors at the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia and Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London.

Maher is professor emerita of University of Arizona and author of "Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies," "Actor Nicholas Pennell: Risking Enchantment," and "Actors Talk About Shakespeare." Her books include interviews with Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Stacy Keach and Ben Kingsley. She was a researcher for BBC's "The Shakespeare Plays" and has taught classes and workshops on the Bard all over Europe and the U.S.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.