Randy Harrison Interview: Ibsen's Ghosts at Berkshire Theatre Festival
The Actor Talks About Renewing a Classic
By: Larry Murray - Aug 05, 2009
When Berkshire Theatre Festival Artistic Director Kate Maguire announced Ghosts for her 2009 season (August 12-29 on the Main Stage), it was clear that this was not going to be some embalmed museum version of a classic. In a year of austerity, she could have chosen to stick to a routine and traditional offering of Henrik Ibsen's 1881 play. It would find an audience because it is one of the great works that moved the theatre into realism, dealing frankly and openly with tough sexual and familial issues.
But one look at the creative team and it was clear that something special was up. This Ghosts is going to be a fresh adaptation put together by Director Anders Cato and BTF Dramaturg James Leverett. Last year they rethought Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Reunited from that earlier cast are David Adkins and Randy Harrison, together with other BTF regulars Jonathan Epstein, Mia Dillon and Tara Franklin. These names might not be household words, but for BTF regulars, the cast alone makes this Ghosts special.
To explore what was going on, we headed down to Stockbridge to talk again (2008 Interview) with actor Randy Harrison (see bio below). The rehearsal studios at BTF are very simple, even primitive. They are nestled into a wooded lot that also contains the "camp" kitchen where the actors and apprentices eat their simple meals. The sun was out at last, and with it at his back, through the battered old screen door came Harrison, making a beeline for the tape recorder and me. He was all smiles, and we chatted amiably before settling into what would be a serious discussion.
The Berkshire Theatre Festival has slowly become his regular summer home. The Festival is an artistic and spiritual resource where he retreats to try new things and challenge himself. "It is all of those things to me, plus I get a lot of new opportunities here," he said happily.
Opportunities like playing the son Oswald in Ghosts for the first time. In the play his mother, Mrs. Alving (Dillon), is keeping secrets from him, worsened by horrible advice from a puritanical preacher, Manders (Adkins), and complicated by an infatuation with the maid Regina (Franklin) and her devious father, Engstrand (Epstein). Into this household returns the more worldly Oswald, who is mortally ill. The character is a contradiction, someone who is full of life but facing a death sentence. I wondered just how Harrison was playing the son, as someone with vitality, or as a gloomy Gus.
"That's one of the interesting aspects," Harrison answers, "Oswald talks so much about the joy of life, and that's reflected in his painting. But it is this same vitality that is so much a part of him that killed his father. His dad was not able to express himself like that." In the play it is clear that Mr. Alving was a frustrated man who simply had no outlet to express his own joie de vivre in that repressive society.
"His mother says that for all his life his father was stuck in this gloomy town, one completely devoid of real passion and that there was nothing but business and social status." Back then it was all a matter of simply keeping up appearances, of conforming to the rigid strictures of the Victorian era. "Yes, and so the father self-destructed." But because Oswald had his painting, "He was also able to have a great deal of vitality and life."
We moved on to the subject to the forces assembled for the production, including director Anders Cato. Last year they had a couple of extra weeks of rehearsal time for Godot, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. With that they had the luxury of time that let them examine every line of the Beckett play.
"We got so spoiled," admitted Harrison. "That was awesome. I just love working with Anders Cato, it's so comfortable and he's such a great guide. He makes you want to work harder, to get more deeply invested in the play. Every time he speaks about some aspect of it, it just triggers your imagination." Cato is known for being able to bring out the best in an actor. "He's very clear and articulate about what he wants. Also, he's very good about talking about things that are hard to talk about. He just knows how to guide an actor in a way that doesn't just tell you what to do, but that opens it up both within the play and inside your own imagination."
The last time we spoke, Harrison pointed to Jim Leverett, the BTF Dramaturg, as one of his biggest helpmates in working out his character's role. "He always has such a wealth of knowledge, just having him in the room - especially in the beginning - is great." The work of these literary specialists is little known and appreciated outside of the theatre world, but a good one can provide the clues and pointers that raise a production from competent to transcendent. "There's a lot of brain power there to be tapped," he adds.
For all its realism and insights, most of the translations of Ghosts suffer to one degree or another from being stiff and starched. Since Cato and Leverett collaborated on a new translation, this could smooth out the problems of the older texts. It would be wonderful if the new script were less Victorian and more contemporary. "It is," said Harrison, "I am finding it more natural and easy to speak." As the actors try out the new translation, there are still more changes as the words move from written to spoken. "There's been a little of that, but it's minimal."
Working on the new show with Harrison is a cast of actors who have become, if not family, certainly good friends and colleagues. They've been on other projects together, and have come to share a common language. "That's one of the really special things about working here," he enthused, "When you get to work with people you already know, they have a shorthand and a wit that you respect and trust." Powerful stuff. "You start further ahead than you would in a more ordinary process," he noted. You also have a shared language. "Usually when I start a rehearsal process in New York when I don't know anybody, or the director, I'm like really nervous at the beginning. Even though you try not to be that way, or spend too long trying to seek approval or figuring out how you need to talk to people, and how the process works, it happens."
Getting up to speed in any new job takes time, that's to be expected, of course. But if there are only a couple of weeks to learn and put together a two hour show, the edges can be very rough. "Here we all know each other, and we can start right there. There are no nerves, no beginning worries." Of course, with any new task, there is always the worry about whether things will turn out well. "There's always fear," Harrison points out, "But there's so much less that you have to contend with. Which is really nice."
The actor worked with Mia Dillon in both Equus and Amadeus at BTF and he reports that in her role in Ghosts, as his mother, "I am starting to feel that way towards her. In the play, the son doesn't actually know his mother that well. He's been away from the house most of his life, from when he was seven to age 20. We were just staging the final scene, and I am starting to feel the mother in her. It's funny how that happens."
In the play, Ibsen recounts the years they were just following society's prescribed roles, and as it unfolds, the two are finally getting to know each other. Harrison explains: "Of course they both have ideas about the mother-son relationship, but the last time he was home was two years ago. They exchanged letters and that sort of thing, but they are still negotiating what its like to be with each other and who they are.
"Towards the end of the play he is talking about how he has no love for his father and she asks if he loves her, and he answers by saying that well, he knows her. The awesome thing about Oswald is that he knows it is over for him, that he is going to die. There's no bullshit about him, you know, he cuts everything straight to the bone. So much of the play is about her dealing with the lies and hypocrisy, and the need to fix things, or cover them up, and trying to accept the reality while he is just direct and to the point."
It is always a source of amazement that hundred year old plays can tell us so much about life today. We have more freedom, but the same repressive, spirit deadening cultural and religious forces are at work in our current society. "I find Ibsen really relevant. This play, and his Dolls House, they still speak to us. We spend so much time role playing, trying to be who we think we are supposed to be, instead of actually looking at ourselves and figuring out who and what we really are."
In the final moments of the play, Oswald is sitting in his chair repeating "The sun, the sun..." Does that have a double meaning to you? "There is a double meaning in about everything Oswald says," Harrison responds. "There are a lot of ironies, even bitter ironies, in his words. Especially so in the beginning, before he reveals what his situation is, that he is dying from syphilis.
"Another example is when he tells his mother that yes, he has come home to stay, because he hasn't made any plans to go back to Paris. I'm here for a while, and the audience doesn't know yet what he knows: he has come home to die." His fate is sealed. "Oh yes, and he's there to make arrangements."
Then in a twist in the play, he falls in love with Regina, the maid. "I don't know if they did actually fall in love," Harrison speculates. "She seems aware of what Oswald really came home for, and the great love between him and his mother. Oswald also sees that Regina is young and carefree, and doubts whether she could follow through on what is required, to be his nursemaid for the next 40 or 50 years. Yet he wants to get away from dreary Norway, and he knows if he goes back to Paris, he will never return."
So it seems their great flash of love dissipates as the play goes on, I prompt. "You know, you're asking me to give away all the secrets and endings," Harrison smiles.
That was the idea. And in the process, he's managed to raise everyone's curiosity, making this wonderful old play sound new again.
Born in Nashua, New Hampshire, Randy Harrison first set foot on stage at age seven. One of his first roles was as Peter Pan in a Pace Academy production of Peter Pan. He received his BFA in Theatre from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He went on to appear at numerous regional theatres, including the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, (Violet) St. Louis Municipal Theatre (1776) and the Forestburg Playhouse as well as productions of A Midsummer's Night Dream, The Real Inspector Hound and A Cheever Evening.
His breakthrough role came, surprisingly, in the 2000 American version of Queer as Folk, where he played Justin, a complex gay character who grows up on screen over a period of five years. He also made waves in the made-for-television movie Bang, Bang, You're Dead in 2002. Following that, he made his Broadway debut as Boq in Wicked, and appeared as Young Tom in the Guthrie's Glass Menagerie . He co-founded, with Marci Adilman, the Arts Bureau (tAB) which has produced works for both stage and film. Last summer they shot their first feature film, Return Shift Escape which is now in its final editing stage.
His long association with the Berkshire Theatre Festival began in 2005 when he played Alan Strang, the lead character in Equus. In July 2006 he played Mozart in Amadeus. In 2007 he returned to play two roles, Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Frank Gardner in Mrs. Warren's Profession. Last summer, his portrayal of Lucky in Waiting for Godot (Review Here) received particularly good notices, including a rave review from Variety.
He was most recently seen in New York City in the Public Theatre production of The Singing Forest by Craig Lucas, with Olympia Dukakis and Jonathan Groff.
His stage performances have continued to attract younger audiences, even as he has continued to develop a depth of character and increasingly mature techniques as an actor. The Berkshire Theatre scene is richer for his presence.
Ghosts begins previews on August 12, officially opens on August 15 and closes on August 29. Berkshire Theatre Festival Main Stage performances are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8pm, Wednesdays at 7pm, with 2pm matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays. The box office number is 413.298.5576 and is open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 8 pm. There are special discounts for Berkshire Residents. You can also visit their website for online ticket ordering. http://www.berkshiretheatre.org/