Interview with Ben Curns
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Ben Curns, veteran actor at the American Shakespeare Center, has been in four of the five Actors’ Renaissance Seasons at ASC. Christine Parker, Dramaturg Intern from the Mary Baldwin College Master in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in Performance Program, interviewed Ben in the third week of the 2009 Ren Season, the day of the interview coincided with the Inauguration of President Obama.
CP: You’ve worked in Actor’s Renaissance Season before and also the [Summer/Fall Season].
BC: And the [ASC on Tour] troupe.
CP: Do you prefer anything about the ARS?
BC: My favorite is the Ren Season. It’s the [largest number] of plays in the least amount of time. It keeps you from getting bored, and as the season goes on, your work gets harder because you have to put up shows very quickly. But you wind up liking shows more because you’re always working on a new one. Even the shows like Macbeth and Q1 Hamlet that you do every week for the high school matinees. It may be because I played the leads…I didn’t get bored with them…I think that people enjoy the shows.
After doing a [Summer/Fall Season]…I’ve found that the rehearsal processes [in it] are too long. Individual actors wind up spending too much time doing nothing because someone gets your costumes for you, which may or may not work because they are not at rehearsals watching the physicality you’re using. Directors encourage you to bring your ideas in but, ultimately, your director has the say about what plays and what doesn’t, and you perform that play for 8 months. That’s part of being a professional but it’s difficult especially with the runs being as long as they are with this particular company. It’s not a single play for 8 months, because you’re in rehearsal for three, but even 5 months is a long time.
The play takes an entirely new shape once you get it in front of people. In the repetition of doing it in front of a live audience, actors get a better understanding about what’s going on. In the Ren Season, if you say “We should change this moment, we should tweak…” then, literally, right before you go on, you can. In the [Summer/Fall Season], there are all these channels you have to go through.
In my first Ren Season, people talked about it being like the lunatics taking over the asylum. I think that [ASC] wouldn’t ask you to do it unless they respected your judgment, or, at least, your capability to discuss and argue what needs to get done. The Ren Season gives you a sense of ownership over your product. I feel more equipped at talk-backs to answer “Why did you do this?” or, for instance, when nailing down the tongue came up at the [Actor/Scholar Council*] meeting, I just know that question is going to dog me but it’s mine. [In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Ben’s character Vindice says “Nail down his tongue.” This line is taken to be a stage direction by some productions. Ben and his scene partners, Alyssa Wilmoth, playing Hippolito, and Chris Seiler, playing the Duke, considered the multiple meanings “Nail” possessed in seventeenth century English and chose a different course.]
I’m not trying to dis other companies who want to do it. I’m just saying that for me, and not having a director, I would at least raise the question: how is he not going to scream when you nail his tongue down? If you and I were at opposite ends of a football field and I screamed, you could hear it. Which means that the Duchess [played by Sarah Fallon] and the Bastard [played by Greg Phelps] would have to be really far away to not hear it. “Nail down his tongue…WAAH” (miming shutting a door) the sound just cuts out while the make-out happens on the other side? [Ben refers to the moment immediately following the line in which the Duke is forced to watch his wife’s romantic overtures toward his illegitimate son—her step-son.]
CP: Would you tell me the process of making that decision, how you looked at the text, etc?
BC: You have to look at all of Vindice’s language about the Duke. You have to look at the first speech he says in that scene in Act 3.5 [paraphrased] “…in disguise I told him I was going to bring him a woman , where no one would see us, where no one would find out where we were. I picked this place specifically because it’s ‘veiled from the eyes of the court’ and because I know the bastard and the Duchess are going to meet here.” The line is: “The most afflicting sight will kill his eyes before we kill the rest of him.” [Basically,] “We’re not going to let him live past this night, but before we do him in he’ll see this.”
[Forcing him to watch that] certainly is a form of torture. The first soliloquy that Vindice opens the play with shows that his hatred for Duke is absolute and will receive no quarter. He would say the Duke deserves any form of torture. Vindice thinks that the Duke’s watching his wife make out with his bastard son or even—I should be fair and say that there’s no stage direction for them to make out either—[but] their conversation clearly indicates that they’re going to go and have relations. Vindice finds that [scene of embarrassment to the Duke] more satisfying than bodily mutilation.
I honestly think that the line “nail down his tongue” [indicates stopping his tongue] rather than physically nailing his tongue to the ground or to the floor. [Actual nailing with a peg and a hammer or, in this case, a knife] would make any victim scream in pain, unless, like Tom [Keegan] says, the pain caused him to pass out. [If he passed out] he would not see then the torture of his wife with the bastard, which would defeat the purpose. Either put the knife in his mouth or threaten him in such a way that will keep him quiet—“and I will in turn keep it at his heart”—so it’s “if he but gasp,” if he’s going to give us away, then we’re going to have to kill him.
CP: [With his tongue nailed to the ground, there would be] no way you could hold the dagger at his heart…
BC: You could, conceivably, if he was on his side or something like that. We talked a lot about how the picture is very symmetrical then you have a knife in his mouth and a knife at his heart. The knives are facing opposite directions, six inches apart on his body. Our two other hands…[the text] has told [the actor] what side [s/he would] have to be on. If [the actor] is right-handed…Vindice has to be on the stage right side of him for his hand to go across the body towards the heart.
We’re remarkably lucky that the actor playing the Duke [Chris Seiler] has very large and expressive eyes already. To make him go on the floor is a disservice to him and to us, the characters who want to see him dead, [this staging allows our characters] to torture him [in the most effective way]
The neat thing about that scene is that Vindice does not have to stab the Duke at the end of it. As if what he had been made to see caused him to just fall over dead. I really wanted to just put a hand over his mouth with a blood pack and after the bastard and the Duchess left, we would just let him go. Then he would cough up all this blood, and we would say the poison finally took its toll. There’s no reference to knife wounds when we use his body later. In performance, however, I have found that the audience seems like to see him get stabbed, [thus] my concession.
The other thing I didn’t think of until this moment is, if you nail down his tongue in 3.5, there’s never anything that graphic again. Therefore, you’ve had your nastiest bit early on. The combined masque of death and then step-brother slaughter is the coup de grace.
CP: Right, it’s great fun.
BC: My girlfriend was in town and she saw the show [and] in reference to the play and not anyone’s particular performance and certainly not mine, she said “I’m surprised this play doesn’t get done more, it’s as bloody as Macbeth, if not bloodier, but way more fun. It’s a bit more like Kill Bill.”
CP: Exactly, some kind of Quentin Tarantino thing.
BC: Particularly Kill Bill because it is a revenge tragedy. She’s killed by her lover—and her baby is taken from her and she tracks down all these nasty people and has to deal with all these nasty things along the way. Like Vindice, her revenge is absolute—she’s even in tears when she kills Bill—we’ve waited two whole films to see it happen.
That was the end of her quest—she deserves her vengeance, and we deserve whatever we get. I do feel like people are rooting for that character. I’ve found, at least in the past couple of performances, that people are rooting for Vindice, despite the fact that he isn’t totally likeable. He has moments of pathos and chauvinism.
CP: He really disparages women.
BC: He disparages the seeming, what he perceives to be the seeming, the dishonest and awful and [he disparages] the why. There are not too many heroes that rail against God, he rails against God in this play.
“Why does not heaven turn black, or with a frown undo the world.”
Why wouldn’t you just scrap this all and start over? [Vindice is really saying] you took my wife, or who [the woman who] was going to be my wife, who was a good woman, and you left many whores.
I cut the last monologue to shreds, and I stand by my choice. [Actors receive their parts in rolls, with just their cues and their characters’ lines created from the previously cut script, they can cut their lines further or retrieve lines from the cut script, with the aim being to balance cuts with additions in order to maintain a “two-hours traffic of the stage.”] What’s important about that last speech is, there’s nothing for him to live for. I think he’s very happy to go and be with Gloriana. He carries the skull, which is clearly macabre, but romantic in a sick way. In nine years he never got past it, so much so that he could not physically be with her, couldn’t give her to the ground, couldn’t give her to God. At the end, he says, there’s not one enemy left alive. In a 2003 film version, Vindice pulls a gun on Antonio and tries to run away, but I don’t see anything in lines that suggest that. In addition, he says, “our mother is turned,” [like] we taught our mom a lesson she will never forget [he goes on to say], our sister remained true through the whole thing. She doesn’t need me to protect her. She never needed me. She was always strong enough without me. He doesn’t say anything bad about his sister. It’s only a tragedy at that moment.
I love [that the second to last line is] a shared line because that’s the big difference between this and something like Kill Bill. He has a partner in his brother; his brother really gets his hands dirty, he’s not a silent partner. There’s no skip in the heartbeat’ no break in the iamb, its a perfect shared line. That line suggests a very comfortable [partnership].
CP: Like a tight partnership
BC: I even smile on the line. You reap what you sew and, if what you bring into this kingdom is vindictiveness, literally…it’ll come back. Antonio has to watch his back. Vindice is okay because he knows there’s nobody there who will go after Antonio anymore. He’s got that great line, “Your hair will make the silver age again,
When there was fewer but more honest men.” The court may be [smaller but] the ones that are here…
With the inauguration today, we got rid of one regime [let’s hope we] do better than they did.
CP: Did you even think of the parallels with King James’ court being very decadent and maybe by this time people being unhappy with him and looking back on Elizabeth with nostalgia?
BC: That came up in the talk-back when you talked about Gloriana. We hadn’t talked about it in reference to James, only in reference to the story and in reference to the court. We concentrated on [their] actions and language of the court and their clothing, the makeup idea [the members of the court dress decadently and wear heavy eye make up and fingernail polish—male and female], winds up making the court totally concerned with the outside, and people who want to destroy the court, they are all about hiding what’s outside, with disguise. “I will try to look, Piato, plated, something hidden from you” I never said to make the make up demented or freaky, just overdone, or something rich or decadent. And they took the idea and wound up looking ghastly. I think they do resemble fiends.
CP: They do, and even the brothers, who seem to be a team—
BC: They’d kill each other in a flash. Funny thing, I’m the revenger, and I’m out to kill all these people. But Vindice only kills two people himself. Hippolito helps him kill one. Three other people help him kill the court that is left.
The first soliloquy Vindice talks about killing the Duke, then he kills the new Duke. Not a lot of solo work. The Duke has to die for what he did to Gloriana.
CP: Tell me more about your decisions for the skeleton herself—in rehearsal for a while, you were hauling her out.
BC: I sort of miss it and I’m not totally opposed [to putting it back in]. One of the things about the Ren season is that I can change my mind at any moment, and it only affects me—well, it affects Alyssa [Wilmoth, as Hippolito] because she has to carry the thing out. The thing that bothers me is the noise that the plastic bones make when they hit each other—becomes very cumbersome and very distracting like a big flashing neon sign that we kind of chintzed out on this dead skeleton.
It’s three feet, this tiny little thing. We created new shoulders to keep the dress up and a lot of other stuff that we had to mess with. [All of those factors] sort of justified only bringing the head out because he only makes reference to the skull and not to the [body]. We have to have a lantern in that scene, we have the poison in that scene, that’s a lot of props for people to hold on to.
James Keegan [a veteran of ASC’s Ren Seasons in 2005, 2007, and 2008] gave a great paper on this topic a year ago [at the Blackfriars Conference], about playing darkness in this space. It’s one of the things it would be good to have a director for. 3.5 is difficult to play the darkness in because you have to establish that it’s totally dark but then you have to do a lot of stuff without carrying a lantern—[because] you need two hands for the violence. So, we ultimately came up with the blindfold idea, which we thought would help sell the idea that he doesn’t realize that he’s about to get onto a skeleton, and also because it’s sort of a kinky sexual practice.
CP: [The blindfold] works with the line he delivers.
BC: We thought we could sort of see [some justification, but there is] no direction to nail his tongue down and there is no direction for blindfold, either. We do say she has a grave look about her and then I present the blindfold, and the Duke says, “oh I like that best.” It’s interesting, in the last show I forgot to bring that ornate blindfold, so he came out with the other two, and I’m in the down corner, and I just took my tie off, I might keep that because, and I’d spoken to Alyssa about this, I like watching Hipplolito and Vindice improvise when they have to.
That stuff in act 4 with Lussurioso is great. Vindice seems to enjoying it [Hippolito is supposed to go get his disguised brother, who is actually already onstage in his regular clothing]. Lussurioso says “Go get him,” and Hippolito wonders “What am I supposed to do?” We added those lines back in because we thought they were so good. [Actors receive their parts in rolls, with just their cues and their characters’ lines created from the previously cut script.] It’s a very Ren Season little scene: How do I do this? It wasn’t my problem; Lussurioso didn’t ask me to go, he asked Hippolito, so Hippolito has to think of something. It winds up empowering Hippolito—this is why we need him in the story. The playwright helps Hippolito out by having Vindice say, “oh, it was well conveyed upon a sudden wit”—that line about look how quick, good for him, look how quickly he came up with that, I can use that. By the time Lussurioso leaves, Vindice has invented a plan about what they’re going to do, Hippolito has not. Vindice uses the drunken part and hopes it works, hopes it gives them a second. Vindice’s got that great line about “being in drink as you have published it.” What Hippolito has said is what’s going to make that work, and it does.
CP: How does all this short rehearsal time help/hinder/make it crazy to be learning all these lines—because you have some hefty parts there. Have you worked on DeFlores [Ben’s character in the upcoming The Changeling] yet?
BC: Puck [Ben’s character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream] is actually really small by comparison. Vindice was really big. He does not have the Act 4 break like Macbeth or Hamlet does. Those guys get to take off Act 4 while the rest of the plot gets filled in, they get a big rest, and then they come back out and finish. Vindice’s biggest break is between act 2.3 and 3.5, which is maybe 7 minutes. He really just goes and goes and goes. My side was 42 pages. And it’s intimidating. If you ask me about Deflores, I’ll tell you that I am terrified, terrified. I am not nearly as close as I want to be. It unfortunately means that my focus is really split while we rehearse 1 Henry VI because I can’t fully give myself to 1 Henry VI because I have to think about this part where I have a much greater responsibility. There’s no one in 1 Henry VI who has that role—Talbot has a good deal of lines, Joan has a good deal of lines but they do not carry the show. Henry doesn’t even come in until the 3rd act. That has made this rehearsal process really difficult. We’ve only had the first day but it’s made it very difficult.
CP: Which part do you play?
BC: I play Humphrey the Duke of Gloucester along with two French soldiers. I like it, it’s a great change of pace.
CP: So it’s a little bit of a break not to have the whole play depend upon you.
BC: It’s a hard dichotomy to strike. When you have the bulk of the lines, what you think you’d like to have happen is for other people to step up and take care of choices like music. But when an actor has to work that hard or be in this play as much as I am, I also want to have a say I what gets played in terms of music. It wasn’t until we blocked the opening of show that I volunteered to do the pre-show speech. You want to be able to say, somebody else take care of it but, if you think your idea’s the best, you want to fight for it.
CP: You have done a lot of Shakespeare and Middleton. What are the differences in their use of language? Who has the more modern-sounding dialogue? Who is more difficult in terms of making the audience understand what you’re saying?
BC: I said after our first preview of this play that I thought it was funny we were doing it here. I think that this will be mistaken for great art. [Someone could think] "Oh, the characters say 'thee' and 'thou' and they’re doing it at the Blackfriars, it must be great literature." This is smut. It’s full of sex, it’s full of violence. I talked earlier about it’s romantic nature, I don’t think that it’s without poetry. But if you look at that opening soliloquy, the best thing Vindice says about Gloriana is that people who have sinned 7 times, would sin 8 times if they saw you, they would have impure thoughts about you.
CP: That’s not the greatest compliment, is it?
BC: It’s nothing like what Romeo says about Juliet and Romeo’ s never even seen her before [that night]. The one speech that Vindice has that rivals something of Shakespeare is “Why does not heaven turn black, or with a frown/Undo the world? Why does not earth start up/And strike the sins that tread upon't?” That’s beautiful. Such great high drama about a man railing against the gods. And then he follows it with: “Oh,/Wert not gold and women, there would be no damnation.” What?
Actually, I often wish this play was better, I wish that it were better crafted. That whole discussion [In Actor/Scholar Council*] about whether Lussurioso and Piato have a fight. I’m not certain that that scene needs to be there. One of the hardest things about memorizing the lines in The Revenger’s Tragedy was just not commenting on what was wrong with the speech before I had to learn it. Which is not my job, I’m supposed to just to learn it and do it to the best of my ability. There’s a lot of scholarly criticism about 1 Henry VI but I’ve learned those lines so fast—and even the big speeches, Gloucester has two speeches of length. But read through them twice and you’ve got them. That was not the case with The Revenger’s Tragedy which took a long time to memorize.
CP: Does it have to do with verse and meter?
BC: I use verse as much as possible as a guide. I’ve found it difficult. John and I cut a lot of things pretty mercilessly. There’s that whole bit about the lawyers, two pages—a day’s work I spent learning that scene—and then we just cut it. There are five lines I cut in the beginning, because it’s easier to understand without them. With a director, I could have said “it isn’t it clear if we do this” and he could have said “no, because you lose this and this.” But in the interest of speed and clarity there’s that one in the beginning where Hippolito says Lussurioso has hired Vindice to find him a base coin pander. And Vindice says:
“I wonder how ill-featur'd, vild-proportion'd
That one should be, if she were made for woman,
Whom at the insurrection of his lust
He would refuse for once. Heart, I think none,
Next to a skull, tho' more unsound than one:
Each face he meets he strongly dotes upon.”
I understand what he’s saying, but I think the reference to the skull becomes very confusing. So we shortened it to: “I know his heat is such, each face he meets he strongly dotes upon.” Which I think comes across.
CP: As you looked forward to this season what part did you look forward to playing?
BC: This one. I will really enjoy playing DeFlores. He is great and a really fun part to play but in the end he’s a villain, [whereas] Vindice is a hero. Vindice is a romantic hero who has lost part of his humanity and his mind. But when Cassie Robertson [student on the Actor/Scholar Council*] opened the discussion, she asked about motives for violence. His motives are all out of the love of his sister and love of his dead wife or his betrothed. [Whereas] DeFlores’ motives are purely base. If we have this same interview in 2 months, I will tell you he is not totally base. I will tell you he is totally romantic and totally in love with Beatrice, and she just totally screws him and takes advantage of him at every moment that she can, until he finally just says, I’m not going to let you walk over me like this. I’ve let you walk over my heart too long, and I think you owe me.
CP: I will ask you in a talk back…
BC: I directed a [Young Company Theatre] Camp** production of Othello. And I told all the kids that did the show to stop telling me how angry they were. What makes for an interesting Iago, not [making him] small-minded, petty, and evil but [making him someone who is saying] you owe me, you have passed me over for people who don’t deserve it. I spoke with friend and told him he would love Iago, he’s a great character. People [started] calling me to ask if I said I loved Iago. [They said] “this guy is a son-of-a-bitch, what’s the matter with you?”
CP: But in the beginning when he’s charming, you like him, at least when he’s talking to the audience.
BC: That’s the great thing about Iago and Richard—and Vindice—is that they talk to the audience. Vindice [though] is different because he has a ton of asides which could be to Hippolito or could be to the audience but he almost never stops letting the audience in. Whereas, Richard III, in particular, once he gets the crown, he stops talking to us, and that is a great piece of playwriting because that’s all the reason we need to turn on him. That’s what I love about Macbeth, which we did last year--he also never stops talking to us. Even after he’s crowned king and even after he’s done awful, awful things, he never stops talking to us. There’s a clue in there that we should feel sad. It’s not the same as Lussurioso dying, [for that] we should cheer. I don’t feel we should cheer when Macbeth dies or when Othello kills himself. Those guys are guys that learn something along the way. Vindice doesn’t learn, he gets what he wants and then quits. Those guys wind up killing themselves or being killed because they missed out in some way.
CP: Curious if that’s another difference between the playwrights.
BC: One of the places where I feel [the similarities is] that The Revenger’s Tragedy is an honest companion piece to Hamlet. Both face their deaths graciously. Hamlet got screwed into his. And there are differences in that Hamlet is also going to die. Obviously, the poetry is not there, you don’t get a great line like I’m more an antique Roman than a Dane…take me instead. But I do like the fact that he kind of says “well, I’m ready.” And Hamlet, in the same way basically says, “I did what I needed to do, I couldn’t save my mother, but I did what my dad asked me to do. And I’ll go be with him and my mom, and we’ll figure it out from there.”
CP: Future plans—I’m glad you’re back, and I enjoy everything that you do.
BC: I’m glad that you like it—there are parts that I get for this company that I think, that is a part for me to play. And there are parts that they give to me, that make me say, I am very surprised that you offered me this part. I have conceptions about what this character should look like--Hamlet I asked for, after having done Mercutio and I heard that they were doing it. I didn’t say, I am the best person for this part, I said, please consider me, I think I’m a fringe choice to do it. They had Romeos to choose from and some great actors that I’ve worked with, and I just put my name in the hat. And they said, we’ll go with that, that sounds great. And when I heard that they were doing Macbeth, I said, well, put my name in the hat. But I never thought that was a given. René is capable of playing Macbeth or James Keegan is capable of playing Macbeth. Greg Phelps I’ve seen play Macbeth and he was great—though he also is not like a typical [type for that role]—[some] people have this conception that he has to be a big guy—he can or he cannot, it’s not a given. Certainly, I never thought I’d be playing Puck for this company. I thought that I would be playing Tom Snout. I don’t think that I have an interest in doing [Summer/Fall Seasons] or tours here. The contracts for me are too long. I have an apartment out of town, and a relationship out of town.
CP: So you’ll be back if you can be.
BC: Yeah, I like the Ren Seasons…Ironically, without directors, these are the seasons where I feel like I learn the most and the seasons where I feel like I grow the most because you have to find it out yourself.
CP: I love the energy of it.
*The Actor/Scholar Council is made up of 10 graduate students enrolled in a class covering information about Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Ren season actors and interns. The group discusses acting choices, staging choices, and dramaturgical evidence surrounding the plays in the Renaissance Season weekly. Students glean research ideas from the actors’ discoveries in rehearsal.
**Young Company Theatre Camp is a two week intensive for high school students. The Camp culminates in a performance on the Blackfriars stage.
Christine Parker recorded and transcribed this interview.
Sarah Enloe then followed these guidelines in editing it for the ASC website:
1. Maintain what the actor says in their own words but delete repetitions and incomplete digressions
2. Correct verb/noun disagreement
3. Organize words/phrases for clarity
4. Insert character names for non-specific pronouns for clarity
5. Insert explanations or connections in [brackets].
6. Note alterations with [brackets]
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Actors' Renaissance Season