Hello again from your pal Louis Butelli, currently playing Bardolph (and others) in Henry V at the Folger Theatre. I do hope you’ve already booked your tickets, because there don’t seem to be many left to book. We’ve had a big, record-breaking audience, and we’re having an excellent time, which is very, very cool indeed. As such, Henry V has extended its run through March 10th. We’d love for you to come see us, so please click here for tickets!
Which brings me to the topic of today’s post. The incredible Richard Sheridan Willis, currently playing the role of “Chorus,” had another theatrical engagement lined up when he accepted Henry V, the dates of which conflict with our extension. Terrifyingly enough, this means that Richard is leaving us next week, and that another actor from within the company will need to shift and put on the very big shoes Richard leaves behind.
Richard’s performance has been uniformly praised in the press (he “haunts the stage like a mournful ghost,” reads one evocative quote from the Washingtonian) and serves as a narrative linch-pin for our story. I ask you now to imagine the nervousness that might strike that poor actor’s heart that has to take on the task of stepping in for that guy. I ask you this because the job has fallen…to me.
Yup! Beginning March 5th, I will be playing the role of the Chorus, and the very cool Dylan Myers will be taking over for me as Bardolph (and others) in Henry V.
I just have to take a second here to say what huge respect I have for the understudies of Henry V: Carol Spring, Doug Krehbel, Emily Joshi-Powell, Eva Wilhelm, Will Cooke, Ed Christian, and Chris Genebach – but most particularly for the heroics of Andrew Schwartz, Pomme Koch, and Dylan Myers, and stage management team Che Wernsman, Alicia Sells, and Jimmie Kramer, who all hit it out of the park during a particularly crazy week. Y’all are incredible.
I can’t help but be a little nervous about taking on a different role in the show. We’ve been running since January 22 and Tuesday, 2/26 is our 40th show. The performances have all deepened, the relationships have been more fully fleshed out, and the show is truly a well-oiled machine. For a superstitious and ritualistic actor like myself (see here), even a small change in routine can leave me in something of a tizzy. For me, what is about to happen is a total seismic shift. New lines, new costume, new blocking, famous speeches, not to mention the deep sadness of leaving my own track, and the difficulty of missing Richard in the company – everything that could possibly change is about to change.
As such, Richard and I have been having a conversation (or, rather, I emailed him several pushy questions, for which I apologize, Richard) about the role and his approach. To conclude, then, here’s just a little bit of that conversation:
LB: You spend so much of the evening in a sort of one-sided conversation with the audience. What is it like to talk to them? Do you find that you establish “relationships” with any of them?
RSW: It’s always interesting to talk to each audience, because each audience is different. I try to gauge the mood of the audience as they come in, when I have those 10 minutes on stage before the show begins. Then, I try to focus their attention and bring them into the world of our play. I see that as my job to be a friendly conduit into the play and to guide them along in the story. As for establishing relationships, there have been times where I have sought out a person – usually a child – to say lines to. There have been times where I have tried to say a line to a person and they won’t look at me… and there have been those moments when I have talked directly to someone and they have smiled and nodded back to me. On the whole, I try and keep my relationship with the energy of the audience as a whole entity. I come in and out of the action with various speeches, but being on stage for a lot of the action, I feel that I can take the play forward in a way that suits that particular night’s audience.
LB: What is the most difficult part of taking on a speech that Shakespeare fans believe to be famous?
RSW: I don’t think about the speeches being famous, to be honest. I know that some people…maybe more than “some”…know them, but I say them believing that most of them have never heard the words before. I think that it’s like that for other famous Shakespeare soliloquies or speeches, too – as an actor you’re so wrapped up in the act of ‘being,’ of ‘creating’ that moment on the stage, that you have no time to fart around thinking about what the audience might be thinking about. Dinner, probably. Or, “will my date sleep with me?”
LB: You and I have wondered about Shakespeare’s use of a “Chorus,” which is a rare thing. Romeo & Juliet has one, I think. Why do you think there is a Chorus in this play?
RSW: Yes, R&J also uses the Chorus. Henry VIII and Troilus and Cressida both have prologues. I don’t know why he used it in this play and not in others. He almost sounds like he’s making excuses for the fact that the play has to present what may have been the greatest battle in English history up to that point, with limited resources. I think that, maybe, there was such a mystique and legend around the battle of Agincourt in the Elizabethan psyche, and that Henry V was such a hero, that Shakespeare was covering his a**, so to speak, by saying: look, we can only do so much, you have to do most of the work here. You need to use your imaginations. Chorus says it all the way through the play. “Use your imagination.” “Suppose this, suppose that.” “Use your thoughts.”
LB: The Chorus is a major and fundamental part of the evolution of Western Drama (the Greeks, etc). How do you take such an iconographic part of theater history and turn it, like you do!, into a living, breathing person?
RSW: As I said before, I use a large part of me and I transfer over to the audience. I open myself up to them. I try to convey the excitement of theatre to them, and I really try to communicate with them on a universal human level. I trust that I’m interesting enough in the way I look at them and appeal to them for them to listen. As you’ve said in terms of comedy, it’s all about making yourself vulnerable. That’s more interesting to an audience than being shouted at…although I certainly do that, too!!!
And there you have it. Some words of wisdom from one Chorus to another.
In any event, come along and see us. Richard plays the Chorus through March the 3rd, and then Dylan and I shift over on March the 5th. Come and see if I am able to process any of Richard’s excellent advice…and if I’m able to remember all of his lines.
“O, for a muse of…line?” “Think, when we talk of horses that you…line?” “Now entertain conjecture of a…line?” Haha! I kid.
On a serious note, on behalf of the entire company of Henry V, we’re going to miss you, Richard. Thank you for everything.
Until next time!