Australian actor Dan Kennedy plays roles with lots of laughs in the three Shakespeare plays of the ASC’s Spring Season, now showing at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton. He’s a blustering but cowardly war profiteer in Henry V and a cheeky servant who impersonates his master in The Taming of the Shrew. But it’s Kennedy’s role in The Merchant of Venice that really gets him thinking. Kennedy talks to ASC’s Marketing Director Erik Curren about why Shakespeare’s tale of pride and prejudice deserves to be performed today more than ever.
Curren: Why should people come to see the three productions showing this spring at the Blackfriars?
Kennedy: Because they’re three of Shakespeare’s best titles. When I read The Taming of the Shrew for the first time, as I did when I auditioned for this production, I was buckled over laughing just from the first page. It’s hysterically funny and ASC Artistic Director Jim Warren has lifted the humor directly from the page to the stage.
You play the servant Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice and doing this role has convinced you that the play is more complex than people might initially think.
The Merchant of Venice is the most incredibly subtle piece of theatre. It’s so easy to take it on the surface of things, as with all of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s particularly subtle in that the subject matter it deals with is so tricky to navigate. Many people ask why we are still doing that play, they say it’s irrelevant and inflammatory and they ask why we insist on perpetuating the play’s archaic and immoral perspectives.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to see the play many times this season and really think about it. In the ASC’s production, when they’re not in a scene, the actors remain seated on stage, in the background, which means that I can see the whole show up close in a way that an actor usually doesn’t get to see the show that he’s performing in. So I’ve come to some conclusions about this play.
First, it never ceases to amaze me that Shakespeare puts so many hot-button social topics right in your face -- racism, wealth, class.
Then, Shakespeare also throws in what I see as an intriguing clue on how to read the play. I’m not aware of another play where Shakespeare repeats the same scene three times, but he does so here, with the casket scene, where the rich heiress’s Portia’s suitors have to open the right box to win her hand. It turns out that the simplest, plainest box is the correct one. So, the scene has a very clear message: don’t judge a book by its cover, or, looks can be deceiving. In the many times I’ve watched this play, I’ve seen it as a wonderfully timeless message to be taking home.
Finally, when you think of how Shakespeare's audience 400 years ago had a lot of illiterate, essentially racist Christians of Renaissance England, it’s mind blowing that Shakespeare would even write a play with a Jewish character as a very recognizable human being, who says “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?” instead of a creature with horns from racist folklore. This was actually a widely held stereotype at the time, given and that many people in Shakespeare's audience had probably never met a Jewish person.
You also play Pistol in Henry V.
In this play, you have one of England’s greatest triumphs, one of its great propaganda pieces, the British defeat of the French. Shakespeare ties in the history with issues that are still extremely relevant in today’s society, for example, going to war on dubious grounds or the glory of war versus the suffering that the common soldiers experience.
The play even gives a lesson in the pitfalls of bureaucracy, as its final chorus basically says that despite the glorious victory won by Henry, six years later England lost what it had gained in France because there were too many cooks in the kitchen: “Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King of France and England, did this king succeed; Whose state so many had the managing that they lost France and made his England bleed.”
You’re from Australia. How did you wind up at the ASC?
I moved to the States in 2004. My wife Alex and I came over together – she’s a doctor of biology and came to do a postdoctoral fellowship in Massachusetts. We arrived originally for what I considered to be a two-year paid holiday. It then expanded to three and a half until her boss ran out of funding. But fortunately, the stars aligned for us just then: I auditioned for the ASC in New York City. I didn’t get into the resident troupe but then I auditioned for the touring troupe in 2007 and did get in. An even bigger miracle is that Alex got a position at James Madison University in Harrisonburg just by cold emailing around, which almost never happens. So I keep telling everybody that this place chose me rather than me choosing it; something aligned for both of us to be here in jobs that we love.
You’ll coming back to the ASC to join our 2008/09 Stark Raving Sane Tour.
Yes, the stars keep aligning for me. The great thing about the ASC is that you’re not just a hired gun. Instead, you’re a colleague and a student working with Mary Baldwin College and the Shakespeare and Renaissance drama graduate program there run by ASC Founding Executive Director Ralph Cohen. ASC actors get to hear Ralph lecture on Shakespeare and also join in graduate seminars. A month or two ago we had a series of two or three workshops. One was about audience contact -- how much is good, what lifts the show, what risks becoming self-indulgent, where’s the justification in the text. You can play anything to the house if you want to, but as in pretty much everything in Shakespeare, he gives you clues about when he wants you to do that.
We did another seminar on text stage directions. It reminds me of how, in The Taming of the Shrew, when I play the servant Tranio and I switch clothes with my master Lucentio so he can woo Bianca without arousing the suspicions of her father. Lucentio asks for my hat and cloak, so we both strip down on the stage and throw in a nice cheap underpants gag. I can’t but think that Shakespeare would’ve probably indulged in a little underpants gag there, a little tomfoolery for the groundlings.
What makes you most excited about next season?
Getting to do the combination of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Hamlet. I’m not sure how many actors get to do those in repertory, but simply pairing the two has given me a whole different perspective on Shakespeare’s play. In Stoppard’s play, that character is a whole lot more fleshed out. Many a struggling actor will resonate with the arc of the Player character. To impose that on Shakespeare’s Player is going to be a lot of fun.
I’m also quite happy with how the dice have fallen to be working with guest director Giles Block from Shakespeare's Globe in London again, this time on The Comedy of Errors. It’s kind of bittersweet to be working on the smallest characters with Giles – I’ll play Dr. Pinch and Duke Solinus – but they’re fun. A light workload with very silly characters will be something to look forward to.
Finally, I’m excited about getting back to some of the places we visited this year and especially where we were able to spend a few days. This gives us time to get to know people, which is rare on the road, where we’re mostly unloading and then quickly loading up again. Canton, New York, was a lot of fun, and the Florida Keys were a dream come true in February. I had a great time in Indianapolis and I hope we get to spend another couple weeks again there. There are many people I met along the way whom I’d really like to see again.
How do you enjoy living in the United States?
I really, really like it. It’s very different from Australia. I was talking to my wife the other day about how I sort of took for granted the communication because we’re both English-speaking countries, but it’s taken me four years to recognize that there’s a level of conversation that Americans speak on that I don’t really understand. That’s a fascinating idea to me. It’s really run home because I spoke to my mom the other day when she was passing through DC. It reminded me that there’s a rhythm to Australian conversation that goes beyond being laconic or taciturn; it’s a way of speaking that you don’t find in the States.
And at the beginning, it was a surprise for me to come to America at all. I was always more interested in Europe or Southeast Asia. But when Alex got the job I came along. That was four years ago. Now, we have no intention of leaving. The arts community here is just so huge. The private sponsorship of the arts is enormous. There just seems to be so much private interest, which goes into how America is different from Australia. When you have 300 million people living in one place, at least east of the Mississippi everybody lives no more than a few hours drive from a major cultural capital, and that’s why there are big theatres not only in New York and Washington, DC, but also in places like Chicago and Louisville. In Australia, there are only important theatres in two cities, they’re supported heavily by the government, and as an actor it’s very hard to get into them.
What’s in your future?
I intend to live in Staunton for another four years during which time I would love to work with the ASC again. But my primary focus will be the graduate program in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama at Mary Baldwin College. I’m hoping to do an MFA.
And in the past I had a very long career in street theatre. I then got sick of it and hated it and wanted to do “proper” theatre. Now I’m doing this proper kind of theatre, which is awesome. And the cool thing about the ASC is that we do it with the lights on, with minimal sets, and minimal lighting. This has inspired me to return to the streets with a new vigor. My goal would be to start a new street theatre company. A lot of companies have an education wing which helps keep them solvent and I think there’s a lot of potential for summer street theatre, as in Europe, where people have a big appreciation. Australia has a great reputation in Europe for producing quality street theatre, and I might try to visit festivals in Europe to perform street theatre shows while continuing to be based in the States.
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