By Evalyn Hansen: I had seen his performances as Schnabel and May in "Paradise Lost."
Brad Whitmore has been with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for 11 seasons. I had seen his performances as Schnabel and May in "Paradise Lost." Neither character resembled the youthful man that I met over coffee at Bloomsbury Books. Brad will be back next season.
EH: What roles are you going to play?
BW: I will be playing several supporting roles in "Hamlet" and Reverend Tooker in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." I've played many supporting roles over the last 11 seasons, and perhaps carved out a niche in terms of my ability to play multiple roles very distinctly and unrecognizably in shows.
EH: How do you successfully play those extremely different characters?
BW: Part of the craft is the power of observation, when it comes to physical adjustments as well as having an ear for dialects, but it's also your imagination. If I were to sum up acting, what it really comes down to is this: the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. What is the power of your imagination? How precisely can you play your emotional scale? I think we all have all these characters in us. We're never anything more or less than ourselves, as actors, but in character we are more fully realized in a specific way, based on the imaginary circumstances of the play. It's a question of whether or not you can access all of those notes on your emotional scale. I think we all have all the notes; it's just a question whether you're capable of playing them.
Actors are creatures of adaptation. Our job is to be flexible and adapt to the specifics of all the givens that are presented to us. The play has givens, the theater structure has givens, the director's and designers' visions provide us with givens. Actors have to take all of that information and somehow realize the truth of the character inside all of those parameters. Sometimes it's more difficult than others, not just in terms of what is required of the character from a textual understanding. It's the power of your creative imagination and the power of your ability to act the emotional landscape of the script, as the director's vision requires.
For example: Let's say you're performing in what you feel is a realistic — perhaps even intimate — scene, but you're in front of a set piece that is out-of-scale, enormous, not believable in any realistic way, but has a certain impression artistically. Or let's say you have to be in a very specific place on the stage because of a specific type of lighting effect. You may find it difficult to communicate the intimacy of that scene in that setting. From an audience's point of view, though, the setting may inform them in a way that enhances the intimacy of the scene, while challenging the ease through which you can act that intimacy. It doesn't mean you can't get there — that's your job, to figure out a way to do that. Every single production is a totally different reality in that respect. That's also what makes it a great deal of fun.
But ultimately, for me as an actor, being alive to what's happening outside of myself each moment on stage is fundamental. That's being present: allowing your emotional scale to instinctively reveal itself in response to what is happening on stage. That's what emotionally engages an audience, performance after performance. A big part of our work is staying alive.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2010 season opens with "Hamlet" on Feb. 26. Call 482-4331 for tickets and information.
Evalyn Hansen is a resident of Ashland. She has a bachelor's degree in dramatic arts from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master's degree from San Francisco State University. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre, and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.