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Where there’s a ‘Will,’ there’s a way for Mark Standriff to revel in joys of theater

In “The Book of Will,” the oft-performed and heartily cheered 2017 play by Lauren Gunderson that is closing out StageWorks Fresno’s 2019 season, we get to meet the men who saved Shakespeare.

John Heminges and Henry Condell didn’t literally rescue the Bard while he was alive. Instead, they figured out a way to save his words for posterity after he died. Without them, Shakespeare’s genius might have fizzled out of sight, forever lost to incomplete editions, counterfeit works, bad transcriptions and lost manuscripts. It might be weird to contemplate today, but if the work of the most acclaimed author in the Western canon hadn’t been properly preserved, Shakespeare could have just faded away.

Pictured above: Mark Standriff plays John Heminges, one of the men who saved Shakespeare’s legacy, in ‘The Book of Will.’ Photo: StageWorks Fresno

The veteran Fresno actor Mark Standriff plays one of the heroes, then, in this witty, moving and historically vibrant play.

And he’s loving the experience. With a stressful day job as director of communications and public affairs for the City of Fresno, Standriff loves being able to transition into this uplifting role and the all-encompassing world of the stage by night. For him, it’s a sacred experience. I got to chat with him about the production, which opens Friday, Sept. 6, at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium.

Q: You play a character named John Heminges, one of the “King’s Men” who financed, ran and acted in Shakespeare’s company. Before you got this role, how much did you know about him? What essentials have you learned about him since?

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A: I had heard the name mentioned in classroom discussions about Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but I had never understood just how prominent a role Heminges played in Shakespeare’s legacy until I read “The Book of Will” and was cast in the role. He was the very first Falstaff and a regular on stage until he became the business manager for Shakespeare’s acting company. Heminges was also an original shareholder in the Globe Theater and owned and operated the ale house next to it.

However, playwright Lauren Gunderson understood that great research doesn’t always translate into a great play, so she created a wonderful and compelling backstory for Heminges. He’s an adoring husband, father and friend who becomes obsessed with legacy and loss, and changes during the course of the play from being the voice of common sense to being the soul of its story.

Q: The upshot of “The Book of Will” is that without some very diligent friends, Shakespeare’s legacy might have been lost forever. Can you explain why?

A: It centers around the crucial fact that back in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, there were no such things as copyright laws or artistic property. Shakespeare purposely only handed out speeches and sides (shorter portions of the script that only involve a specific actor) to make it harder for other acting troupes to perform the plays.

Once Heminges and his partner, Henry Condell, realize that Shakespeare’s work is being stolen and corrupted, they vow to collect every legitimate copy of his work and put it together in one collection – despite the fact that they have no money and no experience in publishing. Their family and friends were essential in their quest, whether they were scouring pubs and privies for lost scripts or providing encouragement and the occasional rebuke (thank you, Becky!) during their inevitable struggles.


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Q: Is there any record of whether Shakespeare himself worried about (or even cared about) his legacy after he was gone? If not, what is your best guess?

A: I don’t know if there’s been much academic discussion about it, but my guess is that he was much more concerned about protecting his creative property than providing generations of scholars, directors, actors and audiences with conversation topics.

Q: One of my favorite recent TV series is “The Man in the High Castle.” (Bear with me. Shakespeare didn’t write it, unless Amazon found a way to reincarnate him.) The series is of the “alternate universe” genre in that it presents a world in which Nazi Germany won World War II, defeating the U.S. When I read about “The Book of Will,” it made me think of that genre. Can you imagine a world in which we never knew about Shakespeare? What do you think would be missing?

A: I loved “Man in the High Castle” – very Shakespearean in style and substance. And it’s a perfect example of how the world would have been dramatically different without Shakespeare’s work. We wouldn’t have a “Man in the High Castle” or “Breaking Bad” or “The Sopranos.” J.K. Rowling would have had to find different inspiration for Harry Potter. Every Shakespearean theater festival, from Woodward Park to Ashland, Oregon to Stratford, Canada, would cease to exist.

And our language? Some of our most well-known (and well-worn) phrases would disappear. All’s well wouldn’t end well and we wouldn’t wait for the ending with bated breath. Brevity wouldn’t be the soul of wit and we likely wouldn’t have knock-knock jokes. We probably wouldn’t catch a cold, refuse to budge an inch, or cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. It’s impossible to imagine and I’m grateful we don’t have to.

StageWorks Fresno

Mark Standriff, as John Heminges, performs a scene as the character of Falstaff in ‘The Book of Will.’

Q: You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare yourself, particularly in your younger days. In “The Book of Will,” at one point you get to recite Orsino’s opening lines from “Twelfth Night.” Tell us why that’s special to you. What is it like to get to speak those words now?

A: I attended an all-boys Jesuit high school in Toledo, Ohio that had an exceptional drama club with a focus on the classics and I embraced it from Day One. My junior year, I was cast as Orsino in “Twelfth Night” and was looking forward to sinking my teeth into a terrific role, especially since Orsino starts the play with his famous lines, “If music be the food of love, play on…” Unfortunately, I was having problems at home (my parents weren’t happy with my fascination with the theater) and I was forced to drop out of the production. Thankfully, our director, J. Daniel Herring, has created a mind-blowing ending that has the entire ensemble reciting Shakespeare’s words and he allowed each actor to choose his or her favorite. I chose Orsino, and I finally have closure.

Q: Playwright Lauren Gunderson manages to slip in references to nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays in “The Book of Will.” When you first read it, you were “gobsmacked” by how good it is. What’s the appeal? How do you connect to it personally?

A: There’s a reason why every theater company in America wants to produce this play. It’s not just the ease in which the playwright gracefully weaves those references and quotes into the very contemporary and accessible dialogue. Gunderson has taken a plot-heavy storyline and turned into a celebration of life and love, and along the way has penned a love letter to all the actors and directors and techies and writers who live and breathe theater. It’s a powerful affirmation for our mutual obsession.

Personally, John Heminges is already one of my all-time favorite roles because I connect with the character on a number of levels, starting with family. I hear my own wife and daughter’s words when I’m on stage with Rebecca and Alice Heminges. I gave up being a member of the resident acting company at the Sacramento Theatre Company to become its managing director. And there’s a scene where I’m talking to Becky about handling grief and it’s revealed that John processes pain and stress by spending time alone at the theater reciting speeches. I literally do the same thing, although I usually stay silent and listen for the voices from past productions that still echo in the empty spaces. Under our business-like demeanors, John and I are romantics at heart.


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Q: StageWorks Fresno is important to you. Why do you think it’s important to Fresno?

A: I think that every theater is important, but StageWorks consistently proves what’s possible. That’s crucial in a community like Fresno where there are few professional performance options. StageWorks pulls off theatrical triumphs with plays and musicals that are both artistically challenging and tough to pitch to Central Valley audiences. I mean, who sells out an entire run of a 30-year-old musical about drag queens on the French Riviera – in Fresno??? I admit that I don’t have any experience performing with other local theaters, but I’ve seen quite a number of shows in my 5 years here and I admire the risks that Joel Abels takes.

Q: You joke that you’ve tried to get out of the theater world for 40 years. Yet you tell me that “the time I feel the most alive, the most comfortable, the most clear-headed, is when I’m on stage.” Let’s play an alternate-universe game for a moment and imagine a world in which Mark Standriff never got involved in high school theater, never got bitten by the acting bug, never knew what it’s like to experience an appreciative audience in cities large and small. What would that theater-free Mark be like today?

A: So it’s an acting exercise, right? Okay, I’ll play. I’d probably be either a pilot or own my own consulting business. Play a lot more golf. Take some cooking classes. Maybe sing show tunes on my karaoke machine. All good things. Nice things. Kind of like the years when I dropped out of theater. Thank goodness there was always someone to pull me back in.

Q: Say the first thing that comes to mind: What is the best thing that Shakespeare gave the world?

A: The value of words.

Q: Anything you’d like to add?

Something from the Prologue of “Henry V” to help promote the show:

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”


Show info

‘The Book of Will,’ opens Friday, Sept. 6 and continues through Sept. 22, Bonner Auditorium, Fresno Art Museum. Tickets are $30 general, $27 students and seniors.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Paul condon

    Great interviewer!!!! Mark I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. He’s one hell of a great guy.

    reply
  • John Hayes

    We just saw the play last night. Found the subject matter very interesting.

    However we found it very hard to understand the delivery a lot of the time, especially during the quieter moments. We were in the very back I grant you but another couple we know were in the first row and had the same problem. The actors should probably be miked.
    John Hayes

    reply

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