John Douglas Thompson on Ira Aldridge and Audra MacDonald

Twenty Years in the Berkshires with Shakespeare & Company

By: - Aug 23, 2015



Since Othello at Shakespeare & Company, in 2006, there have been a number of meetings with John Douglas Thompson. We have discussed the development of his roles in classical as well as contemporary theatre.

When a career in business resulted in being laid off at the age of 30, some 20 years ago, he pursued acting. He has now won awards and is widely regarded by leading theatre critics as an elite classical stage actor.

Thompson is back in the Berkshires this summer to portray Ira Aldridge in the play Red Velvet. In 1833 the American born actor was the first person of color to perform as Othello on a major British stage. That performance was embraced by the audience but torched by critics in stridently racist reviews.

Aldridge was fired after two performances and spent the rest of a long and productive career appearing mostly in Eastern Europe and Russia.

We discussed Aldridge and his impact on the tradition of theatre that he initiated. On a day off he saw Audra MacDonald in the leading role of Josie in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of the Eugene O’Neill play Moon for the Misbegotten. It was directed by Gordon Edelstein who directed Thompson in Satchmo at the Waldorf, the Terry Teachout play. It has toured since it premiered for S&Co. two summers ago.

I asked Thompson about the sharp comments on the O’Neill production in the New York Times review by Ben Brantley.

Charles Giuliano Because of your schedule I assume we will see less of you in the Berkshires unless there is a special project like Red Velvet this summer.

John Douglas Thompson I have tried to make the Berkshires a part of my projects. If I’m not here every year, then perhaps every other year. So I certainly hope to come back. I never look at the Berkshires as a one stop thing for me. With plays like Red Velvet you want to choose something that you’re really interested in.

I started coming here first for the summer intensives at Shakespeare & Company in 1994. So I have had a relationship with the company for over 20 years. There have been times I’ve been away for three or four years at a clip, but I’ve always made it a point to come back to the Berkshires. That’s important to me.

CG How long have you been on the board of S&Co.?

JDT Roughly four years.

CG Usually board members are recruited to give money. That doesn’t appear to be the case so what assets do you bring?

JDT Because I’m a company member I am part of the artistic process, so I’m a part of how the artists are experiencing the company. I bridge the gap between the actors and the productions, so the board  can get a sense of the artistic process and the actors perception.

CG You’ve been on the board through a time of transition and change.

JDT Since Tina (Packer) left (as artistic director), Tony (Simotes), then to Rick (Dildine) and now a triumvirate with John Croy, Ariel Block and Steve Ball.

CG After a year of turmoil with the departure first of Tony, then Rick, what is the current state of the company?

JDT I think they landed on their feet. There is a lot more to do and it’s definitely in a state of transition. Given all that’s happened the company is doing very well. The next step is to find an artistic director and an executive director. That takes time. We’re doing a lot better than I thought we would.

CG You have said to me that you thought that Dildine was a good choice and you were sorry to see him go.

JDT I meant that, I wasn’t joking, I think he was. It simply didn’t work out. It wasn’t the right fit for him.

CG There is a dichotomy between a commitment to Shakespeare and an effort to present a diversity of contemporary work. Even the contemporary, however, often has a Shakespeare twist, like Red Velvet this season. Of the contemporary plays last year the one not oriented to Shakespeare instead related to Chekhov. Last summer Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was a hit. It was the kind of programming that audiences are looking for.

It was important that Tony and S&Co. developed Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf. With director Gordon Edelstein that proved to be a great vehicle for you and for the company. It put a new work on the road enhancing the national reputation of the company. Tony, as he told me after leaving the company, wanted to do more of that kind of programming.

JDT This year there’s Unexpected Man which doesn’t have a Shakespeare focus. Mother of the Maid is about Joan of Arc. I learned about her through the history plays of Shakespeare. The company is still striving to have a balance of new contemporary plays and Shakespeare plays. This season we have Henry V, Comedy of Errors, Hamlet at The Mount. That’s the three Shakespeare plays and in addition The How and the Why, Mother of the Maid, and Red Velvet. They’re seeking a combination but our main thrust will always be Shakespeare.

We also want to look at new works, particularly ones that fit our company members. This season is a good example of that. The Shakespeare has been good this season as well.

CG Red Velvet started with Tony.

JDT Yeah. It was an idea that Daniela Varon and I came up with. It fits our ethos. It’s right in our wheelhouse, we have the people, it’s an important play. It has a historical aspect but also a very entertaining one as well.

CG Is it true that you and Daniela saw it together for the very last performance in New York?

JDT It was totally by coincidence. We both attended that performance and met in the lobby. When we saw each other at intermission we knew that it was something we wanted to do. I spoke with Daniela and we wanted to pitch it. We knew that Tony had talked with Rick but we didn’t know what he wanted to do. When Tony was leaving I assumed it wasn’t going to happen at S&Co, I’m thankful to Rick for sticking with it.

CG Is there any chance you will perform it again?

JDT I don’t know. It was performed in New York and not too long ago. Since it’s been in New York I don’t know if it’s something we can bring back there. Does it have potential to play at other places? I’m sure it does but I don’t know of anything right now though it does seem like it can play somewhere else.

CG If it was done in another city and you were asked what then?

JDT It would depend on where and when. I have other commitments. So it’s a timing thing for me.

CG You also do Satchmo. Recently you did it in LA and now it’s going to San Francisco.

JDT I did it in Beverly Hills at the Performing Arts Center. I’m doing it at the ACT, in San Francisco, the biggest theatre we’ve done it in with 800 seats. San Francisco is a big jazz town so we’re hoping for a big turnout. Then we’re going to do it at Colorado Springs. After that I come back to New York to do The Father and The Doll’s House in rotating rep at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. I play The Captain in Strindberg’s The Father and Torvald in Ibsen’s The Doll’s House. As far as I know this repertory has never been done before, certainly not in this country or internationally. Strindberg and Ibsen were not the best of friends. These plays seem to be in dialogue with one another.

My roles in both plays are similar in that I'm playing a husband and father but differ in their approaches to the male dynamic in what would seem to be good marriages somehow gone sour.

I’ve done some Ibsen in the past, I did Hedda Gabler at New York Theatre Workshop. I played Judge Brack directed by Ivo von Hove, but I’ve never done any Strindberg.

CG That evokes the issue of color blind casting. We have discussed this before and you expressed strong views. We have just seen Audra MacDonald in O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten at Williamstown Theatre Festival. The majority of critics responded positively to seeing her in that role. O’Neill says that “the map of Ireland is written on her face” which was widely quoted by reviewers. Have you read the Ben Brantley review in the New York Times? He raised issues about the casting.

(“And if she sometimes seems out of her element, it’s not because Josie is described by O’Neill as having 'the map of Ireland stamped on her face,' and Ms. McDonald is African-American (as are Howard W. Overshown and Glynn Turman, the actors who play Josie’s brother and rascally father).” Brantley.

Considering that you are about to play Ibsen I am interested in your response to that kind of commentary in the Times.

JDT My God what is he (Brantley) going to think when I play Hickey (Them Iceman Cometh)? Or James Tyrone (Long Days Journey into Night) and all those other roles I want to play?

I haven’t read the review so I can’t speak to it. But I certainly understand what you’re saying. I’ll take a look at it.

CG Clearly that’s not my position but it is an attitude that persists in the field even at the highest levels. Here it crops up in the Times in 2015.

JDT I think it’s a norm. It’s really not something that I deal with. It may have been an issue when I started out as an actor. But now I get to play the roles that I want to play. It’s never an issue of color. I’m not able to discuss this because it has not been my experience in decades. So I don’t have a comment.

CG You saw the production. Did you think it worked?

JDT She will probably go down as one of the all time greats ever to play the role. So there you go. That’s what I think.

They put that production together in what, two and a half weeks? Give me a break. And that’s what she was able to accomplish in that short period of time? Give her another month and then what? If she did it on Broadway she would win another Tony for that performance. So, as far as I’m concerned, in my opinion, she is giving one of the defining interpretations of that role. No matter what color she is.

CG In your opinion it worked.

JDT Like a charm.

CG Brantley was also dismissive of the direction of Gordon Edelstein.

(“…within the opening minutes of Gordon Edelstein’s industrious if unconvincing revival of O’Neill’s elegiac comic drama from the 1940s,” Also “Mr. Edelstein’s production isn’t close to that caliber. (Masterpiece) But sometimes an imperfect interpretation of a great play can be more informative than a flawless one. Watching this “Moon,” in which you often sense a self-conscious distance between the cast members and their roles, you become aware of how much the work (as is often true of O’Neill) is about people playing parts that don’t fit them.) Brantley.

JDT Reviewers are just one person. If I had to depend on them for a living it would be really tough man.

I think these roles should go to the most talented person in the room. I do this business because I understand that there is a meritocracy involved. If you merit something you get it.

Someone like Audra MacDonald should be able to play whatever she damn well pleases. She’s proved it. We don’t even have another person like her in the world. She’s won like seven Tonys! (Actually eight from 1994 to 2014). She can do whatever the hell she wants. Period. That’s my feeling about it. She’s earned it.

CG In the classical musical world musicians audition behind a curtain. The people making evaluations are only listening to the music.

JDT Because of cultural and racial bias.

CG In theatre you can’t audition behind a curtain.

JDT It’s not like we are transitioning to non traditional casting. It’s here and it’s alive and well. It’s happening. Now it’s a non issue.

CG Did you go back stage to meet with her?

JDT No. We were going to meet up with Gordon the director and go out for drinks but we had rehearsal for Red Velvet early the next morning.

CG Have you met her?

JDT We met at the Outer Critic Circle awards. I received an award for best solo performance for Satchmo and she was receiving an award for her Lady Day at Emerson Bar and Grill.

I met her then. I find her to be an incredible person. We don’t have artists like that. We really don’t. I watched her as Josie and I thought she was amazing. Knowing the constraints they were working under and this being her first O’Neill? What can’t she do? That’s the question. Can we find something this woman can’t be superlative in?

So, regardless of what anyone, what any critic has said, from an audience perspective she nails it. She can do whatever she damn well pleases. If she wants to play Queen Elizabeth let her do it. She brings tones and subtleties and revelations and reflections to that which are just going to be wonderful. She’s an artist.

There was an article in the New York Times about both of us, because we were doing renditions of jazz icons. Our shows were right down the street from each other.

CG Are critics idiots?

JDT Critics are necessary to what we do in the sense that they provide some understanding or a context and reflection on a particular piece of work. It’s very helpful to readers. I think critics are a vital part and a good part of that process.

There are times when you have to take it with a grain of salt. OK that’s one person’s opinion and still go see for yourself. You can get hooked up with a critic you like and you like the way they write. You like how they shed context on a particular piece of work. You find yourself making decisions based on what they say. I think that’s good like people reading editorials in the New York Times. I read certain authors in the New Yorker because I like the way they write. If they have something to say I’m apt to listen to it.

In that sense critics, or journalists critiquing theatre play a vital role.

CG I’m a member of the executive committee of the American Theatre Critics Association. There have been discussions about wanting to recruit qualified members and in particular younger critics. There have been dialogues about the fact that there appear to be few if any African American critics. The discussion has included trying to identify and reach out to persons of color writing criticism.

A notable exception, of course, is Hilton Als for the New Yorker. I recall previously that you have never been reviewed by a person of color.

JDT Hilton Als has reviewed me in Iceman Cometh. He came out to Chicago (Goodman Theatre) to review that play. In the same issue that had that review was the profile of me written by Alec Wilkinson (May 21, 2012).

“John Douglas Thompson, who is forty-eight and regarded by some people as the best classical actor in America, has been acting for twenty years, following an epiphany he had as a traveling salesman of computers, A.T.M.s, and check-sorting machines. Thompson is known for Othello and Macbeth and for Brutus Jones, in “The Emperor Jones,” by Eugene O’Neill. His admirers include Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood, the theatre critics for the Times, and James Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar at Columbia who frequently consults for directors in London and New York, and who describes Thompson as 'the best American actor in Shakespeare, hands down.' " (Wilkinson, The New Yorker)

CG Do you think he brings a particular sensitivity to that?

JDT I do. He’s a wonderful writer. I like reading his reviews. He has a deep sense of theatrical history and relevance. He seems to be able to put these plays in a context that allows a wider group of people to access them. Some critics write in a narrow way. Still good but in a narrow way. Only a particular audience is going to appreciate that.

I find that with Hilton Als he is appreciated in a very wide cultural swath: African Americans, whites, old, young, male, female.

CG Would you agree that we need more such voices?

JDT Absolutely. There should be more black critics period. I’m sure there are in some of the major media places on different levels that we don’t know about. It would be a good thing to find out who they are. You and your organization, American Theatre Critics Association, should find out. You should be able to tell me right now Charles who they are.

CG I don’t know.

JDT Your organization should compile a list and see how they can help and see how they can move this to the next level.

CG We might start by asking the members to survey their own areas and compile that information. I do not know of any such individuals working in our region.

JDT You might compile a list of black critics and see what they’re writing. Find out the ones who are good and see how their careers can be assisted.

CG This summer the bookends of most outstanding performances have been you in Red Velvet and Audra MacDonald in Moon for the Misbegotten. Add to that Blair Underwood in Paradise Blue at Williamstown.

JDT I saw that and liked it.

CG Notably we have seen a lot of black actors out and about in the Berkshires as well as their friends and visitors making an effort to see their productions. It has given a different flavor to the Berkshires which has been most welcome.

JDT Williamstown is known for presenting works by black playwrights, directors and actors. I enjoyed seeing Paradise Blue and knew several of the cast members. In Moon I know Audra, not personally, but I have met her. I know Glynn Turman who played the father. I know him very well, we did Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (August Wilson) in LA at Mark Taper Forum. I know Howard W. Overshown who played Audra’s brother because we were in Julius Caesar on Broadway with Denzel Washington.

In Paradise Blue I know Ruben Santiago-Hudson who directed it. I also know Andre Holland who was fantastic, as was Keith Randolph Smith, who I call KRS 1 after the famous hip hop rapper. Keith was with me in Tamburlaine the Great (Christopher Marlowe). He was my sideman.

I don’t know Blair Underwood but I respect his acting. I didn’t meet him but just about everybody else. And the woman (De’Adre Aziza). She was wonderful. So transformative. Meeting her I said “Are you who I saw on stage? Wow, you are some transformative actress.” She could have walked right by me and I wouldn’t notice her. She’s an attractive woman but as far as me saying oh, you are someone I saw on stage? She’s wonderful.

CG We seem to be reaching a critical mass.

JDT What do you mean?

CG An African American presence for theatre in the Berkshires.

JDT It’s wonderful to have that level of diversity here in this cultural hotbed of the country. You come here and it’s such an amazing place to be. It’s full of culture and you can see something every night. From Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow to theatres and museums there is so much to see.

CG And you performed at Tanglewood.

JDT There you go. Yes on July 3 to start the season. They asked me last minute to do it for Jesse Norman ( who was unable to perform). I was the narrator for Aaron Coplan’s "Lincoln Portrait." I was terrified. I don’t read music. I bonded with the conductor (Jacques Lacombe) because we were both from Montreal. Then it was great because I knew he would support me.

CG We were thrilled to see you. It was great to see you on that stage as it brought you to an audience that may not have been familiar with you. It created an awareness for your work here at S&Co.

JDT It was scary but nice to do. You have to focus because I wanted to be ready when the conductor cued me. The worst thing would be to fall out of sync with the orchestra. You just don’t want to do that. These are important words and it’s an important night. It’s about Lincoln. It has lots of resonance about what we are dealing with in the country right now today. If anything I will err on the side of sticking right to the script. I’m not going to embellish. I’m going to say Lincoln’s words and let them do the work. As opposed to me trying to do the work.

There was a moment when I looked out at the audience and said how amazing is this that I’m standing on the stage with the BSO reading for Aaron Coplan’s "Lincoln Portrait?" I’m reading for some 6,000 people in the Berkshires which I call a summer home. Isn’t that something?

CG I would say about you that you’re reflecting history and also making history. You’re an advocate for looking at cultural changes as well as in the thick of it. You are a part of creating new paradigms. That’s particularly significant now with going back to the origins with the story of Ira Aldridge. You’re embedded into a continuum. You are a point on the curve as a part of a trajectory. You’re not off the map. There’s a logic to who you are and your development within the historical context.

JDT That’s an interesting way of putting it. I would not look at it that way. There is serendipity involved. Based on your statement which was wonderfully articulate and very interesting to think about, but I will boil that down and say I’m just trying to do what’s in front of me. And hope that resonates with the community I’m working in.

As I told you before I had that book "Shakespeare in Sable" by the professor Errol Hill a Dartmouth College professor who has passed away in 2003. It’s about 250 pages and tracks the history of black actors performing Shakespere from the 19th century up to the late 1970s. It even includes actors who worked at Shakespeare & Company. But it starts with Ira Aldridge. He’s the beginning. His picture is on the cover of the book. I read another book on Aldridge by Stanley Wells, called "Great Shakespearian Actors," Ira Aldridge is in that book and considered to be the first great American Shakespearian actor.

I was hoping to do this play to reclaim Ira Aldridge as a great American icon. Which he certainly is to me. To help people who don’t know about him to understand who he was, and to know what his contributions are. Not just that he was one of the first black actors to play Othello in London but one of the first great actors period. It’s because of the innovations that he brought to the craft that I can call myself a classical actor.

He brought realism before Stanislavsky. Because Ira performed a lot in Russia I would like to think that Stanislavsky saw him. It’s possible but he might have known of him. The way he (Aldridge) was talked about in Russia he was considered a god. Stanislavsky might have said let me go see this actor who is changing people’s minds.

CG You’re anything but a method actor. You’re a classically trained actor.

JDT Right, but I draw from many styles. As Ira says in the play, "I like that school, yes, but I try not to be tied to the one style."

CG In the play there was a discussion of the various styles. Much of it is lost on the audience. It’s a rather academic discourse. Like the Teapot style.

JDT The Teapot style is with one arm extended like the spout and the other arm on the hip like a handle. A lot of people do know of it as a 19th century acting style. Sometimes you see pictures of Booth, Ellen Tree, Edmund Kean, these great actors of the 19th century, American and British, you’ll see them in poses that are reflective of the Teapot style of acting. Ira obliterated that and brought in a style of natural movement and emotional truth.

CG You talk about Ira as though you’re on a first name basis with him. What happens when you inhabit these characters?

JDT I’m just an actor and interpreter.

CG But you inhabit them. You live them.

JDT Yeah. You ask how would Ira look at this? I’m just responding to good writing. If you look at Audra in Moon for the Misbegotten what you appreciate is how she develops that character. But then you go beyond that and say O’Neill’s a damn good writer. He knows how to write a character. He knows his subject matter.  As an actor I try to inhabit the writing of the playwright.

CG What I found most interesting watching her is what she doesn’t say. What is she doing with body language when not delivering a line. Her every movement is conveying the character and that’s not in the script.

JDT That’s all a part of the character isn’t it? She doesn’t say anything and yet is conveying to you reams of information. That’s character.

There was a New Yorker article about stage fright and they were talking about the pianist Vladimir Horowitz and he said the music is behind the notes. The performance is the struggle to find that. I thought that was beautiful. So the play is behind the text. The performance is the struggle to find that. That’s what performance is. That’s one of my ways of looking at performance. You have the text which gives you a guideline but the play and character is behind that. The text is just do this, do that, do this. Your journey as an artist is to find what’s behind the text. That’s your performance.

So when I watch Audra and as you were saying all that she conveys without words it ties right into that statement I just said. Her performance is finding what’s behind the text. What’s behind the text is sometimes silence, gestures, or nothingness. And sometimes text. Text is behind the text.