Actor G. Valmont Thomas plays Sir John Falstaff in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Henry IV, Part One” and in “Henry IV, Part Two.” Thomas also played Falstaff in OSF’s 2006 production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” This is the second of a two-part column. The first was published on June 12, 2017.
EH: What makes great comedy?
GVT: Comedy should illuminate something about the human condition — in a joyously hilarious way. Nowadays humor has gotten very cruel, actually mean. Some stand-up comedians just vent. If you look at the writing on TV situation comedies that are really popular, there are a lot of mean things said between characters. We are supposed to treat them like they are funny. Some of them are; but most often, they’re not.
EH: Do you prepare for comedy and tragedy differently?
GVT: In comedy, you need less restraint. You have to explore a lot of different ways of doing things to find out what is going to work with the group of people on stage. In tragedy, we’re all going in the same direction. The thing about comedy is that nobody is going in the same direction. The diversity of objectives on stage is clashing. That’s what’s funny — people careening off of one another.
In Shakespearean tragedy we all know that the play reaches — this pitch at this point — so we’re all pulling together to get to that pitch at that point. And we all help the actors, who are playing the leads, to give them what they need, to make that jump to the next level. You still have to explore how to do things, but there are a certain amount of things (like fart noises) that are not needed in tragedy.
EH: What makes a great actor?
GVT: Good observational skills, empathy, drive, intellectual curiosity. Actors are some of the smartest people I know. Because we’re learning all of the time, we have to be open to learning. There is a certain amount of humility that an actor has to have. We’re not all crazy, ego-driven, mad people who are narcissists. Most of us do have narcissistic streaks in us. You can’t be an actor if you’re not somewhat self-involved. But being self-involved makes you particularly self-aware. In being self-aware, you know the difference between you and what’s outside of you. You know your boundaries.
Most actors will err on the side of giving other people a wide birth. That’s how we work. We each have to give each other the room that we need to do what we do. So that’s a muscle that we exercise quite a bit.
We’re a pretty accepting group because you know everybody’s got a heart, from paupers to kings. Being a human being is not easy. We’re not easy people to be. Loving other human beings is not easy. Hating is very easy. Especially these days, a lot people are not respecting themselves enough to respect others. If you’re going to be a quality human being, you’ve got to have some kind of care for your fellow citizens.
Being in professional theater is like being in school for the rest of your life, because in every different play you do, you’ve got to learn something. And most of the time, it’s something that you really didn’t know.
William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part One,” directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, runs through Oct. 28. “Henry IV, Part Two,” directed by Carl Cofield, opens July 8 and runs through Oct. 29; both in the Thomas Theatre of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For tickets and information, call 800-219-8161, or visit osfashland.org.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding cast member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at email@example.com.