As Good Company’s ‘Seasons’ closes, offering you More insight into a memorable character
I often follow the same pattern when writing about a new, upcoming local theater production: I pick an interesting actor and do an extensive question-and-answer interview before opening night, which serves as a preview. And usually that’s it – the show opens, I write a review, and on closing weekend, I offer a cheery “happy closing!” message on social media.
That was my strategy for the Good Company Players production of “A Man for All Seasons” at the 2nd Space Theatre, which features Mark Standriff in the title role. (It closes Sunday, Oct. 15, with a matinee.) I conducted a fascinating interview with Standriff, an accomplished theater veteran, and felt intellectually exhilarated afterward. (Or at least deserving of a couple of units worth of Intro to Philosophy.) Later, I saw the show, wrote a review and figured my part was done.
But In the weeks after I reviewed the show, something about the archetypal quality of the character, and the quiet, steady earnestness of this 1960 play, really stuck with me. The issues addressed are ones that seem far in the past – Protestants killing Catholics and vice versa in the England of King Henry VIII – but, viewed from a broader prism, the play resonates with a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, as Standriff puts it. In particular, I kept thinking about religious zeal. Yes, by today’s standards, Thomas More went too far in the name of religion, but everyone else at the time was doing the same thing, too. So many questions for me: Why does religion so often divide rather than unite? When does faith become sheer stubbornness? Why do we as humans privilege and celebrate those among us who are absolutely sure they are right – so sure they are willing to die for those beliefs – even if that sureness makes it harder for us all to get along?
And, from the inner-theater geek in me, I became intrigued with the wear-and-tear on an actor’s psyche when playing a role like this. What is it like each night for Standriff, at the end of the play, to act out his march to certain death? (We don’t see the act itself, but we imagine it, which is probably worse.) Is it just part of the job? Or does he – or just an infinitesimal fraction of himself – die each time, along with More? I almost asked if I could hang out backstage at a performance, just to watch what happens, but I decided that’d be too intrusive to the process.
So, in an extremely rare move for me – I honestly can’t remember if I’ve done a follow-up like this before – I asked Standriff if I could circle back on closing weekend and get an update.
I’m glad he said yes.
Q: I’ve thought a lot about your last scene when you walk offstage knowing that you (well, actually, your character) will be beheaded. If we were backstage at that time, what would we see? Do you feel the weight of that punishment each night? Or, to cope with such an emotional moment, do you immediately snap out of character to stop yourself from following through to that inevitable conclusion?
A: It’s certainly emotional, and very different from the accounts of those who witnessed More’s execution, where they said he handled those final moments with a calm dignity. I tried to replicate that in rehearsal but I found that after two hours plus in character, running the full spectrum from laughter to rage, I needed the release. I let the reality of the moment wash over me, and frankly, it’s the short prayer I say to myself before walking up the steps (which isn’t in the script, by the way) that really does me in. And that prayer is a little different every night, but it’s mostly about being grateful for the time I’ve been given to portray true humanity and grace. That’s a blessing most actors are never given, and one I certainly don’t deserve.
It’s interesting, now that you’ve asked me to think about it, that at the end, I can’t honestly tell you what happens to me backstage. I walk through the upstage door into the darkness, which I have always considered a special, magical space, filled with anticipation and transition. I step past my fellow actors waiting for the curtain call and over to the back of one of the flats where I take a deep breath and start to let More go. I guess it’s a gradual thing, if I have to describe it. And the weight you mentioned – that actually lingers for a few hours, not so much from the punishment but from the journey that takes me there.
Q: We talked a fair amount in our opening interview about what it was like to learn more about Sir Thomas More’s darker history, particularly after being such a fan of his over the years. As you finish up the run, did you gain any more insights into his motivations and character? Did you come to terms with your warts-and-all inhabitation of a very complicated man?
A: Having the luxury of a long run gave me the opportunity to continue reading and researching about More’s life – and I was surprised to discover that he was keenly aware of his faults and sought to repent and ask for forgiveness on a daily basis. He built a private chapel, which is mentioned in the play, and wore a hair shirt for most of his adult life in penance for his transgressions. (For the non-Catholics reading this, it’s a practice called “mortification”, a physical expression of faith through discomfort that was designed to resist sin and promote pious behavior.) That startled me. I always assumed that More was a penitent man, but that’s a little extreme. Thank God I’m not a Method actor! LOL
So More turned out to be even more complicated than I first understood him to be, but that didn’t deter me from embracing the good he represented. I really like the fact that he was honestly humble, genuinely supportive, remarkably witty and consistently positive. Take the scene in the second act where More’s wife, Alice, is frustrated by their sudden loss of status and income and laments having to serve “parsnips and stinking mutton…for a knight’s lady!” He tries to reassure her that, even if they were reduced to beggars, they would still be together to “keep company and be merry”.
I find that comforting, as someone who strives to live with an optimistic attitude in an increasingly caustic world. I imagine that if Sir Thomas More were practicing law today and walking the halls of government, he would greet everyone just like I do with a “Best Day Ever!” as his motto.
The playwright mentions in his notes for “A Man For All Seasons” that his intent was to create “a picture of the individual man against which to recognise ourselves and against which to measure ourselves.” That’s a high standard to try to scale in the course of an evening, so every performance, I’ve worked on scaling that standard. The script has enough demons built into it. I wanted to bring out the side of the angels.
Q: We talked about the way the show has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel in terms of parallels happening in the U.S. today. Do you think that point has stuck with audiences?
A: Yeah, that’s turning out to be a consistent reaction during post-performance discussions with my friends, but what’s really interesting is that the “OMG, it’s just like today!” response comes from both sides of the political aisle. So I guess it’s making a universal point. And apparently, it’s always been timely. I ran across this quote from the English author and philosopher G. K. Chesterton, in his 1929 essay, A Turning Point in History:
“Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years time.”
Prophetically, it’s almost 100 years since Chesterton wrote those words. As I said in our first interview about this role, “The Dude abides.”
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Q: This wasn’t a short run. How did two months playing this man change you?
A: I’ve been accustomed to 2-4 week runs, so nine weeks of performance with such a demanding role was always going to result in something new. What made it really interesting was the change in the actor playing my character’s antagonist. Christ Carsten was the original Cromwell but had to leave the show mid-run to join the national tour of “Legally Blonde,” bringing Jeff Myers in as his replacement. Talk about a difference in interpretation! – and yet, Jeff is just as terrific and his definition of Cromwell gave me the opportunity to re-examine my choices and refine my interpretation of Sir Thomas. What a wonderful opportunity! I discovered nuances that I didn’t see back in August. Chris was a mad bomber on the verge of annihilation while Jeff is like a patient spider, quietly weaving a devious web. Both actors play Cromwell beautifully and I love them both!
I’ve changed in a few other ways. Playing Sir Thomas has made me more fastidious in my personal life, and has pushed me to pursue clarity of purpose. And this role has also put a “WWSTMD” bracelet around my heart, making me more determined to do good and find good every day. Has it made me a better man? I think so.
Q: Anything else you’d like to reflect upon?
A: It’s always tough to close a great show, especially when you’ve had an experience like this one. A role I’ve coveted for 50 years isn’t going to be easy to leave. But I know that a part of Sir Thomas will always stay with me, and for that, I thank everyone involved with this production. As for the future, however tenuous it may be (DAMN – I’m even talking like Thomas now!), let me leave you with this timely advice from More’s most famous work, “Utopia”:
“You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds. What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.”