Recently RoseAnne Shansky, one of our regular contributors to the Actors’ newsletter, sat down with Topdog/Underdog director Fred Subulske and actors Sammy A. Publes and Marcus Woodswelch to talk about the show.
RoseAnne: I have so many questions for all of you I hardly know where to begin–but I guess I’ll start with the play. What do you like about it? What do you think you bring to it? Don’t all answer at once.
Fred: The main thing I love about this play is the language. As a culture, we are so inhibited as to what is proper language, which language is superior to another, why “the king’s English” trumps the idiom of the street, etc. Trained as I was as an English teacher, I came to theatre with all those same attitudes. I remember being a bit of a prig about usage when I came shiny and new out of graduate school. Theatre opened my ears to the glory of individual expression, to the eloquence of the Cockney flower girl in Shaw’s Pygmalion, the eschatalogical rhythms of Mamet, the spare and “bleached bones” poetry of Beckett.
Suzan-Lori Parks has written what I think is a work that captures the poetic expression of the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the fringe dwellers in all of our cities. She embraces eloquence and vulgarity and mixes them. These brothers are uneducated, even uncivilized in ways we care about, and yet their vulgar profane-ridden speech sings at times. They are eloquent – just not in any way of which the dominant culture would approve. And yet, I find her writing thrilling. I remember attending Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway with my good friend, Jean Bahle. At intermission, after an hour in the company of those vulgar, misogynistic and craven salesmen, we turned to each other and began to talk about the strange beauty and power of the language Mamet had put into their mouths, when the two men sitting in front of us looked at one another and said, “We could go out on the street and hear people talk like that and have saved our money.” Different strokes for different folks. Jean and I were exhilarated, they were appalled. Same play – same performance.
Sammy: What I like about the play? So many things!– mainly the opportunity to work with Fred again. Working with Marcus has also always been a dream of mine. We’ve known each other for many years, but this is the first opportunity we’ve had to actually be onstage together. This project has also been a passion of mine since before I was in Jesus Hopped the A Train. I love Suzan’s writing and the style and grittiness she brings to her work.
Marcus: The play is an example of wonderful, thought provoking and current theatre written about and by persons of color. I think there’s room for more variety in theatre across the board, especially works that explore the imagination of gifted playwrights such as Ms. Parks.
I hope I bring truth to the piece. It’s been a journey and is far from over. I think when it’s all said and done, I’ll better be able to assess my contribution to it. Perhaps what I’ll gain will dwarf what I’ve given. And that’s ok with me.
RoseAnne: Fred, what are the greatest directorial challenges of this play?
Fred: Honoring the playwright is the first challenge. Suzan-Lori Parks deserves all of our skills to bring these two men -Booth and Lincoln- to life. She has captured a week in the lives of these two men – hustlers, brothers, rivals in many ways (as only two brothers can be). They are dependent on one another in a rather complete and total way, unlike other adult brothers who usually carve out separate lives. Other people in each of their lives are mentioned but one sees clearly that they are each the most important person in the other’s life. The play reminds me greatly of Waiting for Godot in so many ways (I was fortunate to act in that play very early in my theatre career and it has stayed with me ever since). There is something so powerful in the relationship of Estragon and Vladimir and I find so many echoes in Booth and Lincoln.
The other directorial challenge is to keep it interesting. It is just two actors, no one else is coming on to do a dance or sing a song. One room, no set change. No fancy costumes, no chandeliers falling from the ceiling. We three have to do our jobs and tell the story as dynamically and compellingly as possible. Parks has given us the raw material. We could not ask for better. But the task is daunting – which is why we all wanted to work on this piece. I have directed more than 100 plays already. I look for challenges now to keep me interested.
RoseAnne: Sammy, Marcus, what are your greatest challenges as actors?
Sammy: The greatest challenge is to maintain and do justice to the language that she’s written so beautifully. It’s written as a Jazz song or a hip hop song, with great rhythm and street vernacular that you don’t see on stage nowadays. Although a lot of her work has been abstract, this piece is one of her more realistic pieces. It’s Hip-Hop Shakespeare.
Marcus: Telling this story as honestly as possible. The sheer volume of script, the dialogue and such, for myself has been a hell of a challenge as well. But Fred, if we don’t give him a heart attack first, has been, if anything, brutally clear about our need as actors to get the words so that the soul and creativity of this piece can live and be shared.
RoseAnne: Fred, you’ve known Marcus and Sammy for a long time. What is your earliest memory of each of them? In what ways have their dramatic talents changed or developed over the years?
Fred: I knew both of them as students at GRCC – they were there at different times. My earliest memories of both are almost the same memory. Marcus came to meet me in my office at the old Spectrum when he was considering enrolling and his mom came along, because she wanted to make sure he was going to get his money’s worth of a good education. So I was interviewed by Marcus with his mom auditing the conversation as we talked about his career goals and his interest in theatre. I remember thinking this young man was going to be damn successful with that kind of a parent behind him.
With Sammy, the meeting was because of a high school teacher (Mrs. Friend, an appropriate name if there ever was one) who saw the exuberant personality and energy that needed challenging in the young man in her high school class and wrote my name on a piece of paper, telling Sammy to look me up at GRCC. He did – and his unbelievable enthusiasm and talent made the next few years some of my most exciting as a teacher.
They both brought boundless energy, intelligence and great spirits to the work. I never worked with Marcus out of class until after he had left the community college. Then we did several shows together at Actors’ (Our Country’s Good, Angels in America, Violet and Songs for a New World). Sammy and I did college plays (including a memorable production of Anna Deveare Smith’s brilliant Fires in the Mirror), Actors’ plays (Side Man, Well, and Jesus Hopped the A Train). Both of them really love the work of acting on stage. I feel lucky to have them both back for this project.
RoseAnne: Marcus, Sammy, What are the things you learned from Fred that you’ve found most valuable in your professional careers? Can you give any specific examples?
Sammy: Pretty much the way I approach every project, I learned from Fred- from the way I examine the text, to being aware of the character’s journey during the play. Fred’s teachings are integral to everything I do. One of the things that actually came up during rehearsals was “Beats,” that is, the beats within the script. Fred taught me a long time ago how to break the script down and think of the moments as Beats. Each beat has an objective, action, purpose, etc.,and this show perfectly lends itself to it because of the topdog underdog moments in the play.
Marcus: Fred is passionate. Bottom line. He wants the closest thing to perfection in story telling and expects the same of his actors. He pushes and gives everything he can to his actors. He listens and is such a smart man. I love the old guy tons.
RoseAnne: (I’m sure “the old guy” will appreciate your comments). Finally, what has this rehearsal period been like? I imagine Marcus doing backflips and dangling off the ceiling pipes, Sammy wisecracking every 3 seconds and Fred trying desperately to keep order. How far off am I?
Fred: You are dead on!!! The other day in a burst of exuberance Marcus leapt over the back of the recliner (about a four foot vertical jump from a standing start). And Sammy’s jokes (most of which cannot be repeated in any environment except the rehearsal room) start from the moment he hits the second floor of the theatre. You can hear his mouth running before he ever enters the room. His goal is to make either Malinda (Peterson, the Stage Manager) or I blush, I am sure. So far, we have withstood the attack. But the truth is that, in retirement, I have settled into a more sedate and tranquil life. Hanging with these guys is like being shot out of a cannon every day.
More seriously, rehearsals are more demanding than any others in recent memory. Because of the shortened time we have all been together, we have been doing 4 and 5 hour rehearsals (instead of the normal three) every night. These are two complex and contradictory characters that Ms. Parks has created. The demands on both of the actors are great. And the need to clarify intentions of the characters and explore options for each moment of the piece make the work tougher, albeit more rewarding, than most material one gets to work with. There is something about having been given in trust a Pulitzer prize winner to work on that makes me humble as I begin each rehearsal.
Sammy: Pretty accurate! hahaha. It’s been challenging due to the time constraints -an unbelievable journey that I would not undertake without any of the players involved. Marcus’s willingness to explore and play has been one of my favorite things during the show. Working with Fred is always and forever a learning experience. A lot of times in rehearsal I feel like we speak the same language; I know what he’s going to say before he says it because we see the show in a lot of the same ways! It also helps that we’ve worked together so many times that our connection is pretty incredible. He’s obviously the best director I’ve ever worked with, and the fact that he’s known me for so many years makes it super easy for him to get the best performance out of me.
Marcus: Yeah RoseAnne! I’m hanging on anything I can and bouncing around like Tigger the Tiger. Glad you remembered.
RoseAnne: Thank you all for your time and thoughtful responses. I should have asked Sammy and Marcus to outline their professional experience! Look for it in the program!