Backstage with Evalyn Hansen: You may have seen Don Matthews as Lancelot in "Camelot" or as Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha" at the Camelot Theatre.
You may have seen Don Matthews as Lancelot in "Camelot" or as Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha" at the Camelot Theatre. You may have heard him on the radio — he's the classical music director for Jefferson Public Radio. Matthews sings with the Siskiyou Singers, the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers and the Rogue Opera. He teaches in the Music Department at Southern Oregon University. Over opulent omelets at the Morning Glory in Ashland, Matthews and I talked about how performing can be both terrifying and liberating.
DM: There's nothing more personal than singing or acting. You are your instrument. You can't hide. As a singer, when you're standing there singing a recital or a concert, you're a little more exposed because you don't have a character to play. When you're playing a character, you can let yourself be in that character. It's still you, but you don't actually own it in the same way. You get to be somebody else. You can be all these things that you can't be offstage. It goes back to your ability to allow yourself to feel and experience things which would just not be acceptable in our society.
When I got into theater, I found that in order to be good at it you had to be exposed. You had to bare yourself in a way that, if I knew that when I got into it, I never would have done it. But now that I have, I recognize that it was an important part of why I do it, because I want to be open to those kinds of emotional experiences in a place that's safe and in a place where you can trust your colleagues.
EH: What about stage fright?
DM: Most actors would agree that nothing motivates like fear. We do all kinds of things to avoid experiences because we have the fear of them. But there has to be a little element of fear that adds to the energy of a performance. Sometimes it's more than you can handle, and you end up not being able to do it. When you get into a situation where you're thinking to yourself, "Oh gosh, can I do this? Oh, here it is: Boom." Just allow yourself to let it go.
Now, part of it is that you also have to be trained; you have to know what you're capable of. Your body has to know what it's capable of; because it isn't mental, it has to be physical. And if you're thinking about it, you're in the wrong place. You need to be able to let yourself go, whether it's a part in a play, or whether it's music. It's the author or the composer who is working here; and you're just channeling it through you, through your understanding of the notes, of the text, or of the character. If you're up there thinking about what's happening with you, you're not doing your job, which is to: not be there.
EH: Why do folks get together to do theater?
DM: The people are usually warm and giving. You develop a bond with people when you are in a stressful situation, when you work for weeks and months at a time refining this piece of art. You have good days and bad days. You start to trust each other; and if you develop a trust between the actors, you can really make quite good theater.
Don Matthews will play the ghost of John Barrymore in Camelot Theatre's upcoming production of "I Hate Hamlet," which plays Aug. 11 through Sept. 12. Call 541-535-5250 for information and reservations.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at email@example.com.