C. King Photography
Imagine this: You’re a Yale-trained New York actor making the usual rounds of auditions. Score! You’re cast as Hamlet, and a little over a month later, you’re touring the country — Virginia to California, eight venues in all, including a three-week sojourn in Boston at ArtsEmerson — as part of a four-person troupe performing Bedlam company cofounder Eric Tucker’s radically reimagined, interactive gloss on the challenging classic. Oh, and on your off nights, you’re to play “and others” in Tucker’s rendering of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan”: eight others, to be exact, including the Inquisitor, who has a three-page, 800-word monologue. And as if tackling these meaty multiple roles wasn’t daunting enough, you’re being directed by Tucker himself, who originated them way off-Broadway (in a Soho loft) in 2013, going on to garner thunderous national acclaim. Aubie Merrylees, 30, leaped onboard.
Q. Is it awkward, being directed by the actor who first shaped and embodied these roles?
A. I’ve seen some clips of Eric in “Saint Joan” and he’s terrific, so sometimes that’s intimidating. But also he has given me incredibly free rein. With “Hamlet” he has allowed me to discover my own take on that guy. From his experience of doing it however many times, he can say, like, “This may be a joke — that you’re missing.” But he’s not holding my hand. For the most part he has really trusted me, and that’s very empowering.
Q. I have to ask a question which, if posed after a performance, could be perceived as a grievous insult. How on earth did you learn all those lines?
A. Actors certainly joke about how that’s the classic question. But in this process, it’s actually worthwhile, because it’s two epic three-hour plays where I have a ton of text in both. So it is hard! We all tried to be as memorized as possible for the first day of rehearsal, so that we would be just free to play. All the time we were rehearsing, I was pretty much either on the subway or at home, reading the script over and over again. I asked a lot of friends to run lines with me and tell me when I got a word wrong.
Q. Do you consider that the best approach, not only for you but in general?
A. Learning anything in your head is difficult. I like to be moving around and do it with someone so that it becomes collaborative and personal, as opposed to private and in your head. I spent five to eight hours a day working on “Hamlet,” because that’s how long it takes for me to get Shakespeare into my body and not feel like I’m speaking another language.
Q. The “Saint Joan” text is of course more contemporary.
A. That text has provided a variety of different challenges. With Shakespeare, I was looking at the meter and at what everything meant and consulting a variety of sources: what scholars think, the lexicons. And then with Shaw, he just sometimes puts words in funny places, where you wouldn’t expect.
Q. You play at least eight roles in “Saint Joan,” and sometimes more than one role in any given scene. How does that work?
A. The Bedlam style is to have those changes be as seamless and simple as possible. Eric is really interested in exposing the theatricality, and using that to make it a unique experience. Only in the theater can you watch an actor take his hat off and put it on somebody else, and then that person is the character. That doesn’t happen in a movie.
Q. A literal hat?
A. Sometimes! And other times it’s a chair; it’s a position that you’re sitting in. And there are characters who sit in the chair differently and have a different voice. So I’ll sit in the chair one way, and I’ll jump up and now I’ll be standing on the chair, and the other guy will sit on the chair the way I was, and you’ll get a sense: Oh, they just switched people. It demands that the audience lean in — and think. It’s not always important that they know who’s who at each moment, although ideally they will. But they’re getting the text; they’re understanding.
Q. So it becomes almost participatory. The audience has to do their part, in keeping track.
A. Yes! But also it requires us to be incredibly precise. We have to be extra sharp with our movements and extra clear: “OK, when I’m holding the hat in my hand, that means Horatio is next to me, even if there’s not a person next to me.” I just hold the hat, and the guy playing Horatio goes and plays Laertes.
Q. Even in a normal production, you become so interdependent with the other actors. This approach must ramp that connection up incredibly. It’s a high-wire act.
A. Absolutely! It’s easy to depend on your fellow actor when you’re each just playing one person, but it becomes exponentially more important — and more difficult — when parts are constantly changing. Your imagination has to be engaged.
Q. I’m sure you know the old joke: “Blah-blah-blah, my line.”
A. Right — that doesn’t fly. If you do that, you miss it. The ship will sail without you.
Q. With all hands scrambling, it must be very demanding, physically.
A. I definitely have weird bruises in strange places. But it’s also very emotionally demanding and mentally taxing. My brain is tired in a way that I don’t remember experiencing.
Produced by Bedlam. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through March 25. Tickets: $20-$80, 617-824-8400., www.artsemerson.org
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