The Glories of Playing Falstaff by John Ahlin
Chasing the Whale of a Man
BLOG # 1 Hello!
I begin this blog with a tribute to the granddaddy of electronic communications; the phone call. These days a phone call is way down the list of ways to communicate, after text and blog and Twitter and Facebook and whatever else has been invented in the time it took me to type this sentence (I hear even emails are old fashioned now), but once upon a time the phone call was it. Mail, you know, the postman slogging through the sleet and dead of night thing, was how you got bills and letters (please refer to the history books to find out what a letter is), but to a years-ago young actor, pounding pavement in New York, the phone call presented infinite possibilities. And you had to be by your phone, or have an answering service. We didn’t realize we were inconvenienced by not having our phone in our back pocket. Having the phone attached to the wall of our very immobile apartment building was just fine. The sardonic wit Dorothy Parker used to sneer upon hearing the phone ring; “What fresh Hell is this?”, but to an actor, the moments from the first ring until you answered was fantasy land. “What career-changing for the better opportunity is this?” Surely it’s the offer for a movie role long dreamed of, or some voice-over booking that will lead to riches, or an audition at a first class regional theater. In those days phones just rang and didn’t display who or what was calling, so you truly did think big thoughts as you crossed the room, not knowing who was calling until they identified themselves. And conversely if you were expecting a call about a callback, or an offer, a quiet phone was a ringing condemnation of your career. Acting is the profession where you find out you didn’t get the job by silence…forever. So an actor loves a phone call out of the blue. And my fancy new Samsung Droid ringing (actually playing some tune called Meadow Sunrise), while sitting on a bench in St. Augustine, Florida, America’s oldest city, in mid-March of this year, filled me with that same “What fresh Heaven is this?” hope. I was driving home from doing Shakespeare in Orlando, contemplating the fact that I was, at the moment unemployed for the entire rest of my life (ironically, an actor losing his job a lot means he’s working a lot) when it was Brian Vaughn, co-artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, calling with the opportunity to ascend the Shakespeare mountain again, this time in the heavenly state of Utah. These are the phone calls that keep actors going.
I live 36 floors above the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, so named because back over a century ago one particular block was so dangerous and hot that a rookie cop supposedly likened it to Hell, when a veteran cop corrected, saying it was hotter than Hell: it was Hell’s Kitchen. It’s not so hellish anymore, but coming from there to Cedar City,Utah is what we used to call on the wrestling team a ‘reversal’. I had been prepared for the heavenliness of Utah and the kindliness of Utahans (Utahns? Tahn Tahns?), having worked at the Pioneer Theater in Salt Lake City a year and a half ago; but, if possible, Cedar City is even more beautiful and the people even nicer. Lovelier than Heaven, Cedar City is Heaven’s Back Porch. And to be here for the first time, working on Shakespeare, with a company whose reputation I have long heard of, is, for this very veteran actor, a “pinch me” moment.
With all the breathtaking vistas of flying over the Rockies and the scenic drive from the diminutive St. George airport (where we arrived at Gate One), and the breathtaking thinness of the Cedar City fresh air, the thing that amazed me the most in my first days was to see how big and bustling the Utah Shakespeare Festival Company is. I never cease marveling at how many people love to do Theatre, and how out of a group of hundreds I can never have met but one person (Brian Vaughn) and yet we all share the same passion and speak the same language. I was immediately awash with the feeling of wanting to do my best, for the sake of this group, and help in any way I can.
Hence this blog. This first is just hello, so “hello”, but over the Summer I hope to share some of the insights and discoveries on being with the Festival and putting on the shows, from my point of view. I work as a playwright as well as an actor, and the beauty part of playwriting is you are not shackled by grammar and sentence construction; you simply write as people speak. Consequently, my prose here might be snaky, and my narrative meandering, but this is the benefit of living in the Blog Age. You can post anything, whereas in the old days you had to get past editors and publishers, who insisted on higher quality. So I hope not to abuse this freedom, and come up with something of modest interest.
And foremost I hope to give some thoughts on playing what some might call Shakespeare’s greatest clown, Falstaff. But I would disagree with that. Doesn’t Falstaff belong alongside Shakespeare’s greatest characters; Othello, Rosalind, Macbeth, Lear and Hamlet? That is the question. I hope to address that idea and also explore a mystery, that’s right a Shakespearean mystery involving Falstaff and Shakespeare, and what really happened way back then. I may not find the answer but I want to play detective. And by way of confession this will be my 11th Falstaff, but since there are 3 different plays in which he appears, I’ve mathematically only done each play three and a third times, so I am not at the point of dragging out the same old tired performance. On the contrary, playing Sir John Falstaff only gives me the glimpse of what a Universe this Globe of a Man is, spinning magnificently in the larger Universe of Shakespeare. There is so much more and so much new to playing Falstaff, that, being here, now and exploring him anew, I can say I am as excited as any time in my long career.
Stay tuned for my next blog - # 2: Rehearsing.