CAMBRIDGE — The rest of the company had voted him down at the “Nice Fish” rehearsal the day before, and the evidence was right there in his script: A large chunk of a page in Act 2, Scene 9, was circled in pencil, the lines firmly crossed out.
“You can see that it got cut yesterday,” Mark Rylance said good humoredly one late December morning at the Loeb Drama Center, where the American Repertory Theater production of the play begins previews Sunday. “Brutally cut,” added the English actor, who on Thursday was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role as Soviet agent Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.”
In “Nice Fish,” the three-time Tony winner plays one of two ice fishermen at the center of the show, but that’s not his only role with the piece. Directed by Claire van Kampen, his wife, “Nice Fish” is adapted by Rylance and the Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins from Jenkins’s prose poems.
For Rylance, 55, much of the task as adapter has been figuring out how to link the poetry together to tell a story, set on a Minnesota lake on the last day of ice-fishing season. Connections between one poem and the next might be as small as a single word, or far more substantial. That crossed-out block of text was meant as a transition.
“But Claire and the cast felt that this was too naturalistic,” he said, unswayed. Something, he still thought, was needed there.
Rylance had arrived behind schedule at the Loeb — a mixup — striding in briskly from snow-encrusted Brattle Street. Upstairs in a deserted rehearsal room, the quiet calm of his speaking manner was at odds with his take-charge assuredness and energetic physicality. Sitting at a battered table, he tapped a pink eraser on its surface and peeled thin strips of ancient tape from its edge.
It was 20-some degrees outside, but Rylance prefers cold to heat: a relic, maybe, of the childhood years he logged in suburban Milwaukee. The son of educators, he lived there from the time he was 9 until he finished high school in 1978, whereupon he promptly moved back to England to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
“I miss the strength of the seasons,” he said. “I miss the explosiveness of spring in Wisconsin and the depth and kind of mortal peril of the winter.”
This is the sort of person who finds himself on a frozen lake at 4 a.m., learning how to catch a fish. Rylance was in Minneapolis, starring in Robert Bly’s adaptation of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” the first time he went ice fishing, eight frigid Minnesota winters ago. He looked around, saw an unfamiliar culture — who brings a television and furniture and Christmas lights out onto the ice? — and got the seed of an idea for “Nice Fish.”
He was an admirer of Jenkins, having come across his work in an anthology called “The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.” Jenkins’s poems are funny, he said, but they’re also more than that: “He uses the outside world to describe inner states very well, in a kind of humble way.”
“Often he’ll start with some very mundane situation, and then suddenly on a word or an idea, he’ll flip, and it’ll flip into a whole different area,” explained Rylance, who spent a decade as the founding artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. “For me, they are crafted as carefully as a Shakespeare sonnet, his prose poems. But what’s miraculous is that when you speak them, they sound like you’re just talking.”
Not long after that initial foray into ice fishing, Rylance won his first Tony Award, for playing a Wisconsin naif in the 2008 Broadway farce “Boeing-Boeing.” In lieu of an acceptance speech, he recited Jenkins’s poem “The Back Country.” The startled poet, who had never met Rylance — and, not being a theater guy, hadn’t been watching the Tonys but found the clip on YouTube when he heard about it — sent him an appreciative e-mail.
Jenkins, who is 73, has a poem called “Retirement,” more than a decade old. In it, he jokes about selling his prose-poetry enterprise. “Perhaps the new owner of the business will want to diversify, go into novels or plays,” he writes. But when Rylance actually suggested a play made from Jenkins’s poems, he was skeptical.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is not gonna work,’ you know. ‘Stringing a bunch of poems together, that’s not gonna work,’” Jenkins said by phone, managing to sound at once modest, congenial, and curmudgeonly. “I just thought, ‘Well, it won’t make any sense.’ They’re individual pieces. But I said, ‘Sure.’ I thought it was worth a go.”
The play isn’t just poems strung together, though Rylance said van Kampen has encouraged him to keep his additions to a minimum. As the director described it, “Nice Fish” is about a couple of friends who go out on the ice and “start to know who they really are.”
“There’s a story going on,” Jenkins allowed. “But, you know, it has a surreal quality.”
For him, it has been a shift from a poet’s solitary toil to the highly collaborative work of theater. He has been easy about allowing small changes to his text, objecting only if the intended meaning of a poem is threatened. When Jim Lichtscheidl, who plays the other ice fisherman, suggested a tweak to a poem called “Florida,” Jenkins liked it so much that he incorporated the change into the official version.
Rylance workshopped the show’s first iteration in New York, with Jenkins in attendance, not long after they’d met by e-mail. By the time Rylance and van Kampen directed the second version, in 2013 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, he had picked up his second Tony, for playing the volatile Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem.” That time, at the awards ceremony, he recited Jenkins’s “Walking Through a Wall.”
Now Rylance has a third Tony, for playing Olivia in “Twelfth Night” (he gave a normal speech), and his career continues its upward trajectory. There’s the Oscar nomination as well as other recent lauded performances, including his turn as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC miniseries “Wolf Hall.”
A breakthrough in his reworking of “Nice Fish” came when he went back through all of Jenkins’s poems during downtime on the set of Spielberg’s upcoming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The BFG.” Rylance plays the title role, the Big Friendly Giant.
He knew he wanted to lose some of the text of “Nice Fish” that they’d done at the Guthrie; there’d been a whole section involving Norse gods he’d imported from “Das Rheingold,” which hadn’t worked the way he’d hoped. But it was only when he immersed himself anew in Jenkins’s work that he saw what he needed to add.
“One of the things I hadn’t brought into the play was the perspective of an old man,” Rylance said.
And when the actor they’d cast in the old-man role dropped out, Rylance and van Kampen — a composer and playwright who arranged the period music for “Wolf Hall” — asked Jenkins to step in.
“He’s the kind of man you’d find outdoors, somehow,” van Kampen said by phone. “He’s got a wildness about him. He’s got very beautiful eyes, and he has a kind of a — what’s the word? — a soulfulness, a patina that he’s acquired.”
It’s not quite Jenkins’s first acting gig. He’s been on “A Prairie Home Companion,” where he took part in a sketch, and he has a role in an upcoming movie that the actors Remy Auberjonois and Kate Nowlin, friends of his, shot in Minnesota. But it is his first in the theater.
And in “Nice Fish,” he plays a character whose lines are words he’s written.
“He says his poems in a way that no actor can say, because they come from him,” van Kampen said. “Now, he’s not an actor, and we’re not pretending he is. But he is the poet. Because it’s a play made out of Louis’s poems, it feels exactly right to have him there.”
He did not go along, however, when the “Nice Fish” company, during their time at the Guthrie, took an ice-fishing field trip — “for authenticity’s sake,” van Kampen said. Jenkins was Minnesota-authentic already.
“We went into the middle of the lake and we set up our tent, and we all ice fished for about four hours. And we rehearsed the scenes,” she said. “The odd thing is, every time Mark or Jim said a poem, they caught a fish.”
Is that true?
“Yes, it’s absolutely true, for that opening scene. It was brilliant! We had a brilliant day.”
Play by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins. Directed by Claire van Kampen. Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Jan. 17-Feb. 7.
Tickets start at $25. 617-547-8300, www.american
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes @gmail.com.