Monday, December 28, 2009

Monday Night in Tempe: Mary Z. Maher and "Actors Talk About Shakespeare" at Changing Hands Bookstore

On a cool, pleasant evening, we drove over from Apache Junction to our favorite bookstore of all time, Changing Hands in Tempe, for a fascinating talk by Mary Z. Maher on her new book, Actors Talk About Shakespeare.

The book features interviews with Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Zoe Caldwell, Derek Jacobi, Stacy Keach, Nicholas Pennell, Geoff Hutchings and other American, Canadian and British actors talking about acting Shakespearean roles. Maher, who taught acting and Shakespeare at the University of Arizona, worked on BBC's The Shakespeare Plays series and has published over 50 articles and book chapters in her field, and her earlier book Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies is a classic in performance studies.

Maher now lives in Ashland, Oregon, home of the famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she lectures on the art of performing Shakespeare. We felt lucky to hear her talk over a wide range of issues related to the subject tonight.

She began by decrying the lack of documentation of acting performances and stage productions in the United States, saying that "when the curtain is struck, not a rack is left behind." Actors' unions make difficult the videotaping of theatrical performances, which with today's technology, wouldn't be that expensive. As a scholar, this lack has made her work difficult and frustrating; there really is no way we can compare Shakespearean acting styles of, say, the 1920s, 1950s and today.

There are some wonderful video resources, Maher said, at a few places, like the Billy Rose Performing Arts Library (near the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University, where we teach), but it's limited to one-time screenings by scholars, and Maher complained that there were no decent video performances of, say, the Lears of Stacy Keach or Kevin Kline.

So Maher began interviewing actors for her Hamlet soliloquies book and this one as a way of providing a record of some sort of these ephemeral but often historic performances. She began shyly, but actors, Maher said, taught her how to do interviews, and she told a charming story about Ben Kingsley, who'd suggested they do a Saturday morning interview at the Lyric Hammersmith Theater, unaware that a hundred noisy kids would be there for a drama group. The old pro Kingsley showed her how to muffle the sound so her tape recorder would work and proved generous with his time and insights.

Clearly, Maher is smitten with her subjects, some of whom are happy to go over the limited time periods they originally scheduled (Kenneth Branagh offered her only an hour but then said he'd come back for a much longer session once he'd "had a pee") and some of whom, like Kevin Kline, seem to have become her friends.

Aided by photos of some of the actors in their classic Shakespeare roles, Maher told some wonderful stories (and withheld others, like the theatrical gossip about co-stars and directors told to her by the legendary Zoe Caldwell). It's easy to get swept up in Maher's enthusiasm for her subject, and she tells nice stories on herself too, like the time Tom Stoppard startled her at Waterstone's in Stratford-Upon-Avon by coming behind her and putting his hand on her shoulder and praising her theater scholarship.

She called Kenneth Branagh "the king of networking" and described him going into "his little professor persona" as he talked about his work with such precision. Zoe Caldwell explained in painstaking deal how she prepares for a role like Cleopatra. And Derek Jacobi (who we saw in the wonderful Royal Shakespeare production of Much Ado a quarter-century ago) was frank about the shortcomings of some of his directors.

Kevin Kline seems to be Maher's favorite, inviting her to rehearsals of both theatrical productions and his work as a director for TV's PBS version of Hamlet. But it's obvious that Maher loves all the actors who's given her interviews, and she's got a treasure trove of stories about them; during the enlightening Q&A period, Maher proved just as interesting in her opinions of various Shakespeare productions.

Her favorite play? A Midsummer Night's Dream, which "unfolds like magic." She's naturally a partisan of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but she seems open to all kinds of productions of the Bard's plays, including Henry VIII and perhaps even Two Noble Kinsmen. Her books sound fascinating and we look forward to reading them.

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