Guest Post: “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People:” The Wit of Earnest

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

The Importance of Being Earnest is a show from the Dangerous Dreams Tour and the 2016 Spring Season. Interviewer Alex Clark is an ASC Education Artist and will be beginning the MBC Shakespeare and Performance Master’s program this fall.


“A Trivial Comedy for Serious People:” The Wit of Earnest 
Interview conducted by Alex Clark, featuring Andrew Goldwasser and Zoe Speas

Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest.  There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.  – Gwendolyn Fairfax, Act 1, Part 2

On Saturday, December 5, 2015, I sat down with Andrew Goldwasser and Zoe Speas, two actors from the 2015/16 Dangerous Dreams Tour.  Andrew, a veteran touring troupe member, and Zoe, a new kid on the block, talked with me about their production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

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Zoe Speas as Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Tommy Thompson

ME: What is it like to be a part of the touring troupe?   The good, the bad, and the ugly.

ZOE: That’s like the name of an article.  It’s good, it’s bad, and it’s ugly.

ANDREW: Me, Ross, Zoe in that order.

ZOE: *laughing* Ow, great, I see what he did there.  It’s a lot of that.  You get used to pretty quickly finding ways to control the time that is yours, you know.  And that might be even in a van on the way to a place, and you have an eight-hour drive.  A lot of it is making sure even with all the travelling you have a way to occupy your time with stuff that’s just for you, so that there is a separation.

ANDREW: I focus on the non-touring part of it; I try to make life as much like I’m not on tour as possible.  I try to make that feel like I’m in any old town being an actor.  I have my free time during the day, then go to the theatre at night and get ready for the show.  Obviously, not seeing people — I have a fiancé at home — that part is frustrating.

ZOE: The first half of the tour, we have been up in a lot of New England, and I’ve never been to Vermont and Maine or anything like that.  So, the schedule is hectic, but it’s important to look out the van window and see all the incredible foliage that Maine has to offer.  Although, I did not see a single moose.

ANDREW: No meese.  Seeing different places, different parts of the country, is definitely part of the good.  And also getting to bring theatre to people you know don’t get to see it very often.  We’re bringing [theatre] to people who — this is their one opportunity in the year when they get to see a professional show.

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ME: What is that like for you having the two Shakespeare shows, Julius Caesar and Henry V, with The Importance of Being Earnest, which is so different?

ZOE: It’s such a relief to have Earnest.  I wish we did it so much more than we do, because doing two war plays — Henry is a war play, and Caesar is kind of a screwy political war play — and then having tea cake and wit and just the “Wildean” way of speaking and those characters and the costumes and not having to run around, it’s such a relief.  I think that’s why when we do that show we all are just having so much fun with it because not only is it a fun play but it’s a break for us.

ANDREW: I just don’t think there are that many plays that are so far removed from Shakespeare that don’t take a step down from Shakespeare in language, and so it is such a joy to do a play that is every bit as well-written, as well-structured, as well-put-together as a Shakespeare play, but that is so completely of a different world.  There’s a different kind of feeling in the room.

ZOE: Also as somebody whose job for Earnest is lacing Andrew into a corset, it’s nice to kind of have a physical way of getting out any frustration that an actor might have caused you by just cinching him as hard and as tight as you possibly can and knowing that there’s nothing he can do about it.

ANDREW: It’s true.

ZOE: It’s really pleasant.  Although then he gets me back on stage, because he’s my mom.  Damn fine woman, Andrew.

ANDREW: I’ve been saying it for years.

ME: In Earnest, because you have a twelve person troupe, nobody has to double, and in Caesar and Henry V, you have people doubling, tripling.  What is it like to have such a drastic difference in the number of characters?

ZOE: What was great about having Aleca [Piper] and [Patrick] Poole is that they were able to do a jumpstart for us on the music element of Earnest, which is more music than Henry or Caesar, because we have two interludes plus the preshow.  While we were working on blocking, they were working the same hours and same intensity as we were with getting the platform set for what we were going to be doing musically.  And it’s funny because, at first being a new person, you know what your bigger roles are, what your bigger tracks are, and you know where you have a smaller part, and so it’s inevitable, you go into it and you’re like, “Oh, okay, I’m just a supporting person,” but very quickly you learn that line count and stuff really has nothing to do with it.

ANDREW:  Earnest for me doesn’t have a backstage drama.  If you watch backstage of Henry, particularly, but also Caesar to some extent, there’s a better show going on backstage than onstage.  I mean, people just running back there and immediately just dropping everything they’re wearing onto the floor and having a team assemble them into a new costume and run right back out onstage.  One of the reasons Earnest is such a joy and so relaxing and light and airy is, when you’re backstage, you can actually sit down and listen to the play for a little bit.  Some of our venues have video monitors so you can actually watch the play.  You actually get to sit and see a scene you’ll never get to see the whole year other than that one time I don’t listen for cues in Henry; I just know when I’m done getting dressed I have to enter.  That’s it.

ZOE: Oh my gosh, playing one character [in Earnest] versus like seven in [Henry] alone.

ANDREW: No one plays more in the season than Zoe.

ZOE: Yeah, I do have the largest number in total.

ANDREW: What is the number?

ZOE:  Sixteen.

ME: Wow, that’s impressive!

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ME: Because the language of The Importance of Being Earnest is a more “modern” English, does that change the way you approach the play?  Does it make it easier to learn your lines, or is there no difference?

ANDREW: I think — tiny little ASC soapbox moment for me — I think one super important distinction to draw for anyone that is going to see Shakespeare is that Shakespeare wrote in modern English, just as Wilde wrote in modern English, just like David Mamet writes in modern English. We have that whole thing that 98% of the words are the same, and all that is true, and maybe experience does play a role in this.  I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, and so I don’t notice a huge difference.  The difference is in syntax; there’s a little syntactical complication with Shakespeare.  Depending on who you are playing and what the show is, it can be more than ‘little,’ so for me, syntax is what determines memorization.  [I play] Fluellen in Henry V, whose syntax is absolutely bonkers on purpose.  He doesn’t speak like any human being has spoken in any time period at all, conjunctions sprinkled into the middle of sentences and subjects in the middle of predicates.  Anything where the thoughts are clear and well structured, for me, is really easy to remember.  Lady Bracknell’s thoughts are just super clear.  It was much easier to memorize Earnest for me, not because it’s more modern, but because it’s much more straightforward.

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ME: Earnest is full of social commentary.  Does that affect the way you approach your characters and the way you approach the play as a whole?

ZOE: Yeah, one of the challenges for me with memorizing and then getting the hang of Earnest was the quality of the humor and the comedy kind of affects the structure of Wilde’s sentences.  Jokes don’t happen in one sentence for him, or at least for my character, they are usually strings of three.  If you obey your punctuation and let sentences end, then take a breath for the next one, you’ll lose the joke.  The biggest thing for me was learning how to let things not effect you as emotionally and deeply as you would as a wife trying to convince her husband not to go out because she’s seeing his death in her mind [as in Julius Caesar].  We go from doing that show to something very light, and then all these kind of sad things happen but if you play them emotionally you kill the humor.

ANDREW:  I think a big part of the humor and a big part of the point of what Wilde was saying was that this class of people, this non-working class of “born rich, die rich, don’t have to work a day in your life” people — that their problems are not really problems.  They manufacture problems because it’s what they have to do to keep their lives interesting.  They have to make up drama.  Not worrying about having to feed your family or where are you going to get work the next day.  You just had to worry about, “I just want to marry someone who is specifically named Earnest; that is my concern.”  The fun is that you have to see on some level they understand these are manufactured problems.

ZOE: Otherwise they would be horribly unlikeable characters, and I don’t think, despite all the crappy things they do to one another, any audience member walks away thinking, “I really didn’t like Algy or Jack or Gwen or Cecily.”  Because what makes them likeable is everything Andrew was just saying.

ANDREW: The real winner is Lady Bracknell.

ZOE: Always.

ANDREW: Everyone comes away loving Lady Bracknell.  She’s the voice of reason.

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ME: Andrew, you’ve played Algernon before.  What is it like for you having played Alegernon first, and then to now be playing Lady Bracknell, with the cross-gender casting?

ANDREW: I’m grateful for the part because I think it’s one of the greatest parts ever written.  Just a gem of a part.  It’s my favorite thing that I’m doing this year.  But it is tricky, being a dude playing a woman in an industry where there are already so many men’s roles and so few great women’s roles.  To have to actually be a guy and have female colleagues and have this one great part that could have been one of their parts, instead it’s one of my parts.  I’m torn about feeling like, “Yeah, I totally deserve this part because I’m awesome and this is a great part and I should have it!” with also the idea of “Should men be playing women’s roles?”  I know we cross-gender cast as part of the Shakespearean staging conditions, but then there’s that weird sort of gender argument, it’s one thing to give women men’s roles, but in this industry is it still kosher to give men women’s roles?  And I don’t know.  So there’s that, and I’m a little torn about it — but not during the show I’m not because it’s so fun.  It’s my favorite kind of part!  I played Dogberry last year and it’s the same kind of part.  These parts where when you walk onstage…

ZOE: Applause!

ANDREW: You’re sort of the centerpiece for what’s happening when you’re out there.  Every line you say is intended to be a laugh line or a gem of wisdom and the minute that the line ends, you walk off stage.  There’s not a lot of standing around, not a lot of exposition or incidental conversation.  It’s just, “Boom!  I’m here.”  I love everything about it aside from the actual process of putting on the make-up, which I don’t like.  I have very sensitive skin; it makes my face feel terrible.  But other than that, I love once it’s on because it’s such a gorgeous costume.  When you look at yourself in the mirror, it’s like, “Oh my gosh!  I’m beautiful!”  The cross-gendering, when you are onstage, it couldn’t matter less.  During the show there’s not a single thought in my mind that, “I’m playing a woman!”  That doesn’t even dawn on me.  I’m just a person that has thoughts and ideas, and this is how they’re being expressed.

ZOE: It’s great to watch, too, because at first we started with Andrew in heels.  He had heels to rehearse in but he still had his shorts and his t-shirt on but the heels changed him.  And then he had a petticoat that he put on, and that changed him a little more.  The first day he rehearsed in his corset with the petticoat and his cane and his heels, it was like the voice started to change, and the mannerisms started to change.  Then by the time we really opened it with the full dress, full costume, hair, make-up, the giant hat, and the gloves, especially.  It’s amazing how ladies’ gloves really affect your whole body.

ANDREW: It’s a good cover-up, because there’s not much you can do for a man’s hands; they don’t look like a woman’s hands.  I remember a month in Susie saw me backstage without my gloves on and was like, “Wow, you have really manly hands.  How come I never noticed that onstage?”  I said because I wear gloves, and she was like, “Oh wow I never noticed.”

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Andrew Goldwasser as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

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ME: You mentioned playing Dogberry, and I think Dogberry’s lines and Lady Bracknell’s lines are both onstage very serious and confident in themselves, but a lot of what they say comes off as very humorous.  How do you approach playing that?

ANDREW: I think it’s awesome when in life you are confronted with this rigid ridiculousness.  When someone says something, and they mean it from their gut, but you think it’s the most absurd thing in the world.  Earnest is so wonderful is because you get to actually laugh at those people onstage.  Lady Bracknell has the most absurdly rigid and conservative ideas about life and society and how every single person should live and should be married and should work.  Her way is the only way she knows exists.  When you hear someone in life talk like that, and people do, you can’t just bust out laughing at them, because it’s just rude.  But when you go to the theatre and you watch Lady Bracknell do it, you can bust out laughing.  That’s what’s just so fun, and that’s what Wilde understood.  Lady Bracknell is a real person, there are real people, even today, that say things every bit as close-minded and rigid and strict.  As Bracknell-y as she is, there are people who are just that Bracknell-y in the world today, and it’s great to get to come out and laugh right in her face.  A lady actually flipped me off.

ZOE: Oh my gosh, it was great!

ANDREW: A gallant flipped me off.  I have a line I take to the audience — toward the end, so you’ve already gotten to know Bracknell — and I say, “Algernon, never talk badly of society; only people who can’t get into it do that.”  And I take that line to a gallant and I point to her as the person who can’t get into it and she just went, *throws up his middle finger*

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ME:  Is there anything about The Importance of Being Earnest that you would want audiences to know going into it?

ANDREW: I think knowing a little about Wilde would be cool, because I do think it could take awhile for your brain and your ears to hear, like Shakespeare, to hear the Wilde dialogue and make sense of it.  You’re hearing people say things in a way that maybe are not conversational, and also the thing we’ve been talking about where people are being very nonchalant about seemingly very serious things.  It can throw people off.  “Is this real?  Is this fake?  They’re not acting like it’s real.”  I think that knowing the basic tone, if they could see like a two-minute clip of our show before coming to see the show, I think that would be very beneficial.

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ME: At the Blackfriars Playhouse, audience interaction is a huge part of the experience and the shows.  How do you guys find that audience interaction works with the different venues?  Is it received well on the road?

ANDREW: I think people love it.  It’s one of those things, when I first came here and had never seen a show here, read about it, heard about it, thought it was weird.  But right away, just like here, once people experience it, it’s always delightful.  The issue on the road is really lighting.  We have it set up to try to get as close to the Playhouse as we can, we have all the house lights up, but some theatres are just not built to do that, so their house lights even at max are extremely dim.  It does sometimes feel your playing at a regular proscenium theatre when you look out.

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Zoe Speas (Gwendolen) in rehearsal for The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Jay McClure.

ZOE: Yeah, as the lighting person — we all have production jobs, [and] my job is to try and recreate the Playhouse, and that never happens.

ANDREW: A lot of people’s house lights are fluorescents.   Everyone looks bad under fluorescents.  But what can you do?  You can’t require all of your theatres to have chandeliers.  So we do our best.  I’m a big fan of the Blackfriars Playhouse lighting.  A lot of people think it’s too dim.  I do not.  I think it’s awesome and romantic and beautiful, and I wish we could do that more on the road.

ZOE: Are you saying we look better when there is less light on us?

ANDREW: I do.

ZOE: Great.

ANDREW: I think in general people look better in the dark.  *laugh*

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ME: What is it like to open shows here at the Blackfriars Playhouse, perform them at so many different places, and then come back and perform at the Playhouse again?

ZOE: It’s crazy.  It’s like tour is hectic and it’s hard but, a lot of the times it’s really intense spurts of work you know like for getting the set put up, and then you have breather time and then the show and striking it and then you have hours to kill whether that’s driving or at home.  Coming back here feels like, “Oh, great, I’m back at home, and I’ll have time of my own again, and my car is here,” but this is so much crazier than any of the schedules we have on the road.  Rehearsing for two or three shows and getting used to that schedule is tricky, but it’s also got its own sense of thrill and ownership.  I’m looking forward to being back in the spring with these shows that we will have lived with for a year and being able to treat them the way we are treating Christmas Carol.

ANDREW: I think it’s different for different ones of us.  I’m in a different group because my family is here, this is really my home.  It’s not just a place I happen to be staying because I’m working here.  My fiancé is here, my cats are here, and my life is here, and I’m getting married at the end of this month, so being home is a very different feeling than being out on the road.  I’m much more relaxed here and much happier at home, but, you know, there’s nothing I’d rather be stressed out doing than acting.

ZOE:  Yeah, I like what Andrew just said about it.   It’s true, it’s a very stressful thing, but what else could you ask to be stressed out about than something you wouldn’t be doing unless you really loved it.  Just remembering that it’s supposed to be fun and you’re supposed to be bringing something fun to people who are going to see you, it’s important to remember that.

ANDREW: Patrick Earl, by the way, superstar celebrity, he used to say, “We’re not saving lives here.”  And it’s totally true; you completely lose sight of that.  I think in life, your issues and your concerns become the issues and the concerns, and you end up realizing just how stupid it is [worrying about] whether you can get eight or ten gallants on a stage in a road house.  You just have to take a minute and go, “Wow, that doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things.  You have those moments of clarity where you realize oh this is just fun and you know the work part is kind of all in your head really.

ZOE: One thing about being back in Staunton and being able to perform here is that the stage never changes.  The width of the stage it what it is; the depth of the stage is what it is; the backstage is what it is; we are used to the house entrances and exits; we know what the balcony is like; we know what our dressing rooms are like.

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ME: Performing at different venues all of the time, do you guys run into staging hiccups with the way the stage is set up?

ANDREW: The biggest issue is with fights.  We make the choice — which I think is an admirable choice — to not plan things any differently for the road shows than we do for the home shows.  We do whatever we would do at the Playhouse.  We have a big fight in Caesar, quarterstaff fights, Cassius fights with a flag pole, so it requires a ton of distance.  When you don’t have the room, or when you have a stage that ends with a sharp thirty foot pit, and there’s no railing or anything, it’s risky.  Thankfully, Patrick Poole is our on-the-road fight captain, and he does a great job of making sure we have enough time for fights calls in spaces that are unique so that we can adjust.

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ME: With the tour gaining a wider audience is there anywhere you wish the tour would go to that it hasn’t been to?

ANDREW: Um, Greece…

ME: That would be nice!

ANDREW:  Or Northern Italy….

ZOE: I think if we went to every Shakespearean location that is in Shakespeare.

ANDREW: In all honesty, I would love to arrange a scenario where we could get to do some sort of sister program where we get to go to London.  I would love to do the shows in England, or at the Globe, just somewhere where we could share same commitment to trying to do Shakespeare’s staging conditions.  Sometimes people think American Shakespeare just doesn’t have that focus on the words, and I think we do, and I’m proud of it, and I would love to do it in England.  But as far as America, my family is west, so let’s keep pushing west.  Let’s get over to the Rockies, Oregon-Trail-style.  Let’s ford the river.

ZOE: I’m fairly certain than anyone who has a family somewhere would love to be able to go back to their hometown.  I was lucky in that our second tour stop in Farmville, VA is the town next to where I grew up.  I would love to be able to go farther with what Andrew was saying, about being able to perform places that don’t get a lot of access to Shakespeare, especially with the teaching element of what we do.  My mom is a high school teacher in inner city Cleveland, and when I show up to a collegiate school and all these students are asking questions, and they already knew about rhetoric so we can have a dialogue about it, and isn’t that exciting?  But in the back of my mind I feel spoiled, because I wish I could go to her classroom and be able to perform in some of these places that wouldn’t ordinarily bring our company to them.