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Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 6

The following article was published on DC Theatre Scene, April 16, 2014.

Stacy catches us up on the show’s progress, as he prepares for opening nights on Tuesday, April 15 and Friday, April 18. He also opens up about secrets of the actor’s trade, and some of his superstitions. You might be shocked. – DL

We have spent the last three weeks in previews. It’s been a little different than the usual method in a repertory, where you alternate shows on different nights. Instead, we have been alternating shows on different weeks. The idea is to hit our stride on one show, and then get the engines revving on the other.

The first week of previews, March 25-30, we built up a head of steam on Part 1. We then spent the next week getting up to speed on Part 2. We’ve been back in the Part 1 world this past week and we’re ramping up to opening night on Tuesday. I have to admit, it’s been a little disorienting, but I think we’re finally getting the hang of it. It’s under our belts, so to speak.

As always happens, each show has a little small thing that goes differently. Of course, the audiences are different. Some nights they will pick up on the humor right away, which is especially helpful in the early parts of Part 2. I got an applause break following my “Sack” speech in Part 2 one night, which was particularly gratifying.

Sometimes you can pick out the laughers – the chucklers, the snickerers, the belly laughers. None of them sound the same. You need to be careful, though, that you don’t start pitching your performance toward them. We can be a shameful lot, us actors.

Matthew Amendt, our Hal, likes to use a promiscuous metaphor for the effect of a crowd on an actor. He calls it “getting slutty.” Usually a cast will get very amorous their first week in front of a crowd before pulling back and finding the show as it was in the rehearsal room.

Some nights, they [the audience] will sit quiet but attentive and then burst into loud cheers as soon as we take our curtain calls. Some nights in Part 1 Hotspur gets the loudest cheers, sometimes they start cheering for Hal, sometimes they wait for me to take my bows. Sometimes they’ll wait for Matt, Ed, and I to take our bows and give us a standing ovation. As it should be. It’s a very fine cast, and I’m proud to be a member of the ensemble.

Stacy Keach as Falstaff in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part 1 (Photo: Scott Suchman)

We’ve also had interruptions, a modern plague. One night, a service dog started yelping right away. That was a long night. We’ve had a duck quack cell phone go off during the “Rumor” scene at the beginning of Part 2, and another during the funeral scene. Bastard cell phones.

Onstage, every show is different as well. Sometimes a knuckle will get scratched during a swordfight, or the fire alarm will go off in the dressing rooms before the show. You ought to see the sight: a bunch of actors huddled out on 7th Street, across from the Chinatown Fire Department. Then there are the actors who need to sneak out for a quick smoke break (always out of costume!) to calm their nerves. I think you can hear it in our voices.

I’m very superstitious when it comes to the theatre. I don’t look at the audience before a show, though I know a lot of actors who do. I honor those superstitions. It’s just the way I am.

I have one special ritual that I like to do with the entire cast. I began doing it when I was filming the sitcom Titus, on Fox, as a matter of fact. Any time we’d shoot an episode, Christopher Titus would have us all gather hands. We would put our hands in a circle, like in a sports event, and he’d say, “One, two, three … **** ’EM!” So I’ve incorporated that into my preshow superstitions. I did it for Other Desert Cities, and I believe we did it for King Lear. We’ll probably do it here too. It’s an enormous cast to try and get them all backstage yelling “**** ’em!” The audience might hear it.

I’m not sure exactly why it feels so good to do it, but it does. It’s a sort of bonding experience, like what athletes will do before a game or an event. We’re not literally trying to seduce or have sex with the audience, or to go out and “kill,” like stand-up comedians do. It’s more like we’re saying to ourselves, “don’t worry.” Don’t worry about the audience. Or the critics. Don’t be preoccupied with what the audience thinks or feels. Worry about what you’re doing onstage. Be true to the moment, be true to the story, be true to yourself. That’s exactly what it’s about. And it does release those nerves and butterflies if you have them. It’s almost like stomping on the glass after a Jewish wedding. It’s an outburst, a primal yawp, to paraphrase Walt Whitman.

Tonight is opening night. I’m sure there are going to be butterflies in our stomachs, but I know what we will do to make them go away. All we have to do is worry about ourselves and our own truth and have faith that the audience will follow us on that journey.

Thanks for listening to me, bub! Talk to you next week.

Stacy Keach

Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.

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