Spotlight interview: As Sir Thomas More in ‘A Man for all Seasons,’ Mark Standriff checks off another role on his bucket list
Would you die for your beliefs? Most of us today don’t have to make that life-or-death choice.
But being an actor means becoming another person, so to speak. And when you play someone as famous in history as Sir Thomas More — whose fervent Catholic beliefs stood between Henry VIII and the king’s desire to wed Anne Boelyn — you get a chance every performance to experience losing one’s life for a greater cause.
Pictured above: Mark Standriff as Sir Thomas More. Photos: Eric Olivera / Good Company Players
Pictured above: Mark Standriff as Sir Thomas More. Photos: Eric Olivera / Good Company Players
For veteran Fresno actor Mark Standriff, who plays More in the new Good Company Players production of “A Man for All Seasons” (opening Friday, Aug. 19, and running through Oct. 16, at the 2nd Space Theatre), the opportunity to go through that emotional ordeal is a blessing. He’s long been fascinated by the play and with More as a historical figure, and he jumped at the chance to play him.
I talked with Standriff — who is making his GCP debut — by phone and email to talk about the experience.
Q: This is a “big moment” role for you, Mark. Not only do you get to play a bucket-list character for you, but it’s your first foray into the world of Good Company Players. What has the GCP experience in “A Man For All Seasons” been like for you so far?
A: You know, I’d been talking with Dan (Pessano) about the possibility of working with GCP for years, but the timing wasn’t right, and then the pandemic hit. Now that the timing has worked out and I’m part of the family, it’s been a wonderful experience, right from the start. Everyone has been so welcoming and professional and I really appreciate that. I’m looking forward to doing more shows. Maybe a musical next, who knows?
What’s been most interesting is the challenge of rehearsing with masks. I had done several productions using theatrical masks – I directed “Lysistrata” at the Toledo Rep with full masks and it was a very freeing experience for the cast, allowing them to explore the physical aspects of their character while their emotions were fixed to their faces – but working with COVID, the masks have prevented us from seeing each other’s full expressions for weeks. BUT – what a delight to finally remove the masks this week and add a new level of discovery to the acting process right before opening night!
Q: Along with the rest of a talented cast, you get to play opposite Chris Carsten, another veteran professional actor. The two of you shared the stage together in StageWorks’ “The Book of Will.” What is it like to reunite in this production?
A: I was thrilled to learn Chris was playing Cromwell! When GCP first announced “A Man For All Seasons” for the 2020 season, we were doing “The Book of Will” and talked about the possibility of being in this show together. There’s a comfort in knowing someone you’ve worked with before and totally admire is sharing the moments on stage with you, and there’s a delight in knowing someone with Chris’ enormous talent and intelligence is ready to seize those moments with you, to challenge you to bring your best and yet be so generous, too, it’s just been a joy. I’m a big fan!
Q: For those who aren’t familiar with the movie or play, perhaps you can briefly set the scene for us as the play opens. Henry VIII is still on his first wife, right? What is the king’s strategy for divorcing Catherine of Aragon so he can marry Anne Boleyn, and why does Thomas More end up playing an important role?
A: Yes, the King wants to divorce Catharine and marry Anne, a bad habit that he kept repeating but this is the BIG split. And he needs the support of his good friend and Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, to bring the nation together and pressure the Pope to give dispensation to annul the marriage. More was a devout Catholic and was determined to stand by his principles without embarrassing his King, so he resigns his position as Chancellor of England, thinking his silence on the subject will save him. Unfortunately, Henry VIII and his loyalists aren’t satisfied by this, and they press forward with charges of high treason, further testing More’s resolve and placing his life in danger. (I’d say watch the production and see how it all turns out, but the history books have already given away the ending. Let’s just say that it’s worth the price of admission to watch the drama play out!)
Q: You attended an all-boys Catholic high school, and seeing this play early on there had a big impact on you. What do you remember about that first stage encounter with Thomas More?
A: I’ve wanted to play Sir Thomas More ever since I was 14, when I saw a production of “A Man For All Seasons” at the Jesuit high school that I just started attending. That was 50 years ago when we were still using Roman numerals, so I’ve been itching to sink my teeth into this role for a LONG time.
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I had already been introduced to Saint Thomas More through my Catholic education, but this play really packed a wallop. It was gripping AND timely, given the fact it was 1972 and they had just arrested the Watergate burglars and the world was buzzing about political conspiracy. “A Man For All Seasons” has politics, religion, sex – and men in tights! What’s not to love?
Q: Thomas More is seen literally today by the Catholic Church as a saint. Yet some recent popular-culture depictions of him, notably Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed novel “Wolf Hall,” cast him in a more negative light — as a torturer of heretics and a ruthless enforcer of doctrine. One contemporary professor of church history at Oxford University calls him a “dessicated fanatic.” Yet there was obviously a lot of depth going on with More, who was smart and funny, and who wrote the great humanist book “Utopia.” As an actor, your character exists first and foremost in the world created by the playwright, of course, but how do you deal with differing interpretations of a historical character? Or, to be even more philosophical, what matters more (no pun intended) in that several-hour interlude at the 2nd Space Theatre: Your embodiment and representation of More, or the one who really existed?
A: Yes, it was disappointing to discover that there was a dark side to Thomas, and his religious zeal was his only real weakness. But I think More would be the first to admit his weakness and remind us of his human frailty. I just finished reading a fascinating biography of Sir Thomas written by his son-in-law, William Roper (who also appears prominently in this play.) Roper quotes More: “…and yet, son Roper, I pray God that some of us, as high as we seem to sit upon the mountains, treading heretics under our feet like ants…that we gladly would wish to be at league and composition with them, to let them have their churches quietly to themselves; so that they would be content to let us have ours quietly to ourselves.”
You’re absolutely right that, as an actor, you have to approach each character from the framework presented by the playwright and my goal is to embody the man created by that framework and embrace the complexity of the human condition. There are shadows following all good people, just as there are glimmers of light peeking out around the bad ones, and I have to color in those shadows by playing Thomas in context just as much as I did in flashing glimmers of light when I played Salieri in “Amadeus.” As an actor, you can’t worry that the audience has also done extensive homework on your character and let that complicate your interpretation. We live in the moment, and the playwright provides that moment.
Q: None of Henry’s wives are on stage during the play, but there are other notable historical figures, including Thomas Cromwell and the king himself. How are these two characters portrayed?
A: Well, Henry’s wives are getting lots of attention and applause these days, with the hit musical “SIX” running on Broadway — and wouldn’t have it been interesting for GCP to have it running at Roger Rocka’s at the same time our production was playing? Of course, that’s impossible – but a man for all seasons can dream. 😊
This play is filled with historical figures, but you couldn’t tell the story of Thomas More without Henry VIII and Cromwell having a major presence. Both men were larger than life and it shows throughout the script. I mean, the King is an active part of every conversation in this play, even when he’s not on stage, and Cromwell is the perfect antagonist for Thomas More. Their characters drive the action and they’re portrayed as strong-willed men of power. Cromwell has a darker edge, coming off as a ruthless back-room operator (the King calls him a “jackal”) and is certainly more villainous than history would prove. Henry’s portrayal is somewhat bi-polar, jumping quickly between friendship and logic to a monarch demanding loyalty at all cost. They’re fascinating characters and Chris and Charis are really bringing it every night.
Q: Let’s talk a little about you. You have a fascinating theater background in earlier days as an actor and artistic director, but you’re best known in Fresno for being in the top levels of city government. What is your current position?
After almost two terms as Director of Communications and chief spokesman for the City of Fresno, Mayor Dyer asked me to take the helm of his new initiative called Beautify Fresno, a department created in 2021 to focus on making our community a cleaner, greener, more beautiful place to live. My job is to make sure trash gets picked up, graffiti is removed, trees and community gardens get planted and murals and other street art gets created. The Mayor says I have the best job in town and I can’t argue with that.
Q: How do you think “A Man for All Seasons” can be interpreted in light of our country today? Do you hope that audiences walk away thinking of parallels?
It’s still SO timely, and there are times during the play when the words could have been ripped right from today’s headlines. It’s the story of one person’s refusal to ignore their conscience and tell a convenient lie to appease ferocious social and political forces. I hope that hits a chord with everyone. It’s also a play about speaking truth to power, even at the risk of being “canceled.” And it reminds us that going along to get along is the least brave thing we can do to survive. It ought to remind us that our current state of contentiousness is nothing new — and we can learn from it.
Q: OK, here’s a tough question: Knowing all that you do about Thomas More, what would he think of Mark Standriff and how he’s lived his life?
A: Wow. That’s a rough one, especially with my experience in the political world, surrounded by palace intrigue and compromise. Let me think … I admit that I certainly would fall short of his standards but playing this role has made me sincerely want to be a better man.
I’d say that Sir Thomas would be kind and gracious but would sternly remind me that it’s never too late to be the man I always hoped I would be, and that we all should strive to deny the world and embrace our inner truth. Be a model of friendship and compassion and strive to create a place where ideas can be shared and disagreements can be accepted without anger or violence. (I might have that sewn onto a sampler.)
Q: You told me that when you’re the man in “A Man for All Seasons,” it can be an intense experience. You also told me that, in essence, the play to you is a lot about love. What do you mean by that?
A: In the play, when More’s daughter, Meg, asks him pointedly if hasn’t already done “as much as God can reasonably want?”, and Thomas says, “Well – finally – it isn’t a matter of reason, it’s a matter of love.” I find comfort in that because this play is all about love, in its merits and in its corruption: love of self, love of family and friends, love of country, love of the law, and ultimately, his love of God. That’s what drives him and the intensity of that kind of love is intimidating. I hope I’m doing it justice.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: I found this while researching Thomas More, from his own writings:
“If you notice that some silly actor was inordinately proud of wearing a gold coronet while taking the part of an Earl in a stage play, would you not laugh at his foolishness, knowing full well that when the play is finished, he must put on his own shabby clothes and walk home in them? But don’t you yourself also feel very smart and proud to wear an actor’s outfit, forgetting that when your own part is completed, you, too, will walk off the stage as poor as he? Nor do you care to note that your play may end just as soon as his.”
The Dude abides.