Production photos from Richard III by Kevin Sprague, courtesy Shakespeare & Co.
“It is evident to Berkshire audiences that Thompson has the talent to be one of the most renowned actors of his generation.” Charles Giuliano in Berkshire Fine Arts 7/11/09
“One of the most compelling classical stage actors of his generation.” Ben Brantley in the NY Times 12/20/09
“There may be no better classical actor working in the New York theater right now.” Charles Isherwood in the NY TImes 12/20/09
Most recently, Thompson has taken the role of Macbeth in Arin Arbus’s production in New York:
“As Mr. Thompson plays him, Macbeth becomes so vulnerably, embarrassingly human that it’s almost impossible not to identify with — and yes, even pity — him.” Ben Brantley, NY Times 3/25/11
John Douglas Thompson has been declared the greatest actor of his generation, not once but three times, and counting. This week, when he dons the role of Richard III in a new production at Shakespeare & Company, you will have yet another chance to witness this great talent at work. My colleague Charles Giuliano first gave him the title for his work in Othello in his ground-breaking interview with Thompson a year ago. This is an actor who knows how to build on success.
Sitting down with Thompson – who has done numerous interviews – I wanted to explore his beginnings as an actor, his time in the Berkshires with Shakespeare & Company and to ferret out his approach to the upcoming role as Richard III. Herewith the highlights of our conversation.
Are you ready to set down roots in the Berkshires?
It’s the best place to be in the summer, and as much as I love being here, I am still using the artist’s housing. My home is in New York, in Brooklyn, but this place is so green, so spacious, so idyllic that it is like heaven for me. This summer I am not commuting back to my place in New York, that way I won’t have to wrench myself and make the urban-rural adjustment.
Once Richard III is up and running, Ill take advantage of some of the Berkshires special attractions again, like Kripalu and Canyon Ranch. And I manage to get to Tanglewood, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Williamstown, all the other theatre companies. Jacob’s Pillow is a favorite place of mine, so when I am not performing I take care of my health and well being.
It’s all good for the head.
And for the soul.
I am one of the few that thinks your earlier career in sales and marketing was actually great training to become an actor.
(laughing) It’s all about getting to yes, to get them to sign on the dotted line. You know, my parents always wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor, so I thought being a sales person was the next best thing. In sales, it’s all about building rapport with the client, understanding who they are, what they think, and what they need to achieve. With this information, I was able to help them find the products to get there.
A process that enables you to hone and refine your presentation.
To perfect the end result. That’s very much what you do in the rehearsal process.
But with you it seems to go further, like your Othello for example. You first did it at Trinity, then again with American Repertory Theatre, and then with Shakespeare & Company, and finally New York where you really got their attention. Each iteration seemed to develop and deepen the role as you worked towards perfection.
It all starts in my head, and then it happens in my body. I started off each new Othello where I left off with the last. So I wasn’t doing things for the sake of novelty, that it came from a place of real development. Perfection wasn’t the goal – I don’t think you can achieve that – but rather to deepen the meaning of the words, the text, to help them deepen my character and the story.
It’s all there, Shakespeare leaves it to the actor to mine the text and together the players find the relationships of the actors to the text, and to each other. The characters began to blossom as a result, and some of that mining was done in New York, but it couldn’t have happened without the growth I had here in the Berkshires at Shakespeare & Company first.
What do you think of being called the greatest actor of a generation?
I am happy for that response, but take such compliments as being about the work, not me. It is also about the organization and the play as well. Those positive reviews help the audience to have a better understanding of Shakespeare and his plays, and that’s important. So I am glad that information is out there, it is what can inspire people to come see the show and back into classical theatre.
So you don’t want audiences to worship you at some sort of actor’s shrine?
I just want them to come to the theatre.
Which brings us to the greatest villain of all time, Richard III.
That’s what they say, but Shakespeare gives us lots of villains to choose from, from Iago and Titus to Edmund and King Lear. Although I have been in two other productions of Richard, this is the first time I will be doing the title role.
He fascinates me, of course, and I am trying to get at the psychological underpinnings of his villainy – why he does what he does. So I am looking at a few things, like his relationship to his deformity and what that has done to him, how it makes him feel. Is it something he is used to, grown past, or still really upset about it. Then, how that deformity effects the people around him, and the outside world. With a humpback, and a malfunctioning leg and arm, it’s not something that can be ignored. That’s one thing.
Another aspect is Richard’s relationship to his mother, a troubled one, not a nurturing one. Then whether it affects those he has with other women, like Anne and Elizabeth. It has to impact his outlook on the world. If you are denied love, it has to influence how you see others. It makes it easier to not care. It makes it possible to become a psychopath. So that’s another thing.
Then there’s the fact that he is a warrior and there are no more wars to fight. With nobody to fight, where do you redirect that energy. How does Richard feel about what is happening with the monarchy? With his brother on the throne and the Queen’s family being a new influence, how does that play on his mind. Things are changing fast, and I wonder if Richard feels he must save the realm. He may feel the end justifies the means.
It is a given that he is an extremely intelligent man, very witty, and powerful. On that I am trying to layer those three psychological underpinnings to make him more real. I want to know why he does what he does, and it’s all there in the language, and I know I will find it.
Knocking on the door of these words has been my approach in rehearsal, and that’s the approach that has been successful thus far. It’s a little like an excavation, only we mix it with our own feelings about what we find…
Which is why no two performers ever do it the same way. Jonathan Croy is directing, and building on a concept first outlined by Tony Simotes. Are we going to see anything radical or is this a classic production?
Actually it is set in the 16th Century, with period costumes which is something I am very happy about. I think it makes it easier for a contemporary audience to understand it that way. When it is set in modern times it can actually make the play harder to comprehend. I did once see it in Arabic, with Sheiks and Royal families fighting their way to the top and it was fascinating, but it wasn’t Richard III. So you can take a play like this and move it, but there is also something that gets lost. Not understanding the culture, it fell short for me.
Is working with the current cast a bit like a reunion?
Most of them are old friends, since I have been with Shakespeare & Company for ten years now. Some of them I’ve worked with in other plays, others have been my teacher, vocal coach, etc. and over the years all of us have built a common language. We have all been through the same basic training and share much of the same approach to his work.
Eight years ago, or so, I was playing a minor role in another Richard III where Jonathan Epstein played the lead. And though I was there as a character, he had the bulk of the dialog and scenes, and naturally you watch and react as the play progresses. You are witnessing Richard much the same as an audience would, except you are in the story. And as much as I stayed in character, Epstein’s Richard was captivating and there are moments where you just say “wow” to yourself.
Speaking of “wow” moments, tell me how you came to acting, it wasn’t a bug that bit you early on was it?
No it was later, when I was working in sales for Unisys and living in New Haven, around the corner from Yale Rep. I had a date with a girl to go to the August Wilson play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. I’d only seen one play before that time while on a class trip, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But she stood me up, and somehow I decided I would go anyway.
Well, I saw the play and was absolutely transformed watching Delroy Lindo. That was the moment, the play, the character, the acting. I think the language of August Wilson is the next best thing to Shakespeare and the Greeks. So I said to myself, “God if you’re here, this is what I want to do.” I continued to work in computer sales for another 3-4 years until one day the company consolidated and I got laid off.
It might have been the best thing that ever happened to me in my life because I got a severance package that gave me an income for over 18 months. The thought of being an actor came rushing back into my head. I auditioned for some parts, got them, and began working as an actor. Shortly after that I applied for training at Trinity Rep (in Providence), auditioned and was accepted. I was 29 going on 30 when I had my first formal training.
And the rest is history.
Not quite, I went into this while still having that executive-marketing mindset we spoke about earlier. I had a business mind, while all my fellow students had an arts mind. And most were much younger. I had some thoughts of dropping out, but stuck with it. The teachers at Trinity helped pull me back into it. Then Ricardo Pitts-Wiley told me about the Shakespeare Intensive here at Shakespeare & Company and I met with Tina (Packer) and took the course, then stayed the summer.
So perhaps that evening in New Haven with the broken date was actually your date with destiny.
My life has not been the same since.
Nor have the lives of those who have lucky enough to see you perform. Thank you for your time.
Ticket and performance information
Richard III runs in repertory from July 2 through September 5, 2010. A wide range of ticket prices from $15 to $85 are available along with the Company’s many discounts including special Student, Senior, Military, Teacher, Rush, and Group rates. The popular Berkshire Resident 40% off discount also applies. Check out the website for specific show dates, further information, and to book tickets. Visit: www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353.