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Present Mirth

The cast of Twelfth Night’s “B plot” share their thoughts on playing the clowns

by Hannah Hessel Ratner, Audience Enrichment Manager

Photo of Derek Smith and Hannah Yelland by Tony Powell.


“What is love? ’Tis not hereafter.

Present mirth hath present laughter.

What’s to come is still unsure.”

– Feste

(act 2, scene 3)





Feste’s song is a reminder that nothing, particularly happiness, is made to last. This philosophy creeps in the edges of Twelfth Night. It’s very clear in the side-rooms of Olivia’s lodging, where a secondary plot unfolds. This production features a jolly and thoughtful group of actors playing this band of merry and miserable individuals. Sitting down together after the first rehearsal, they shared some of their thoughts on approaching these memorable characters.

Jim Lichtscheidl (Sir Andrew Aguecheek): My favorite is when the audience comes up and says “You’re so funny on stage…oh, but you’re not like that in person.”

Emily Townley (Maria): You’re not charming or humorous at all in real life.

Jim: Well, I’m not a humorless person, but yeah…A lot of comedy is tragic too. They are tragic clowns and that’s what makes people laugh when they see them in a situation.

Emily: And, you must play those characters deadly serious. The funnier they are the more serious your intent and purpose needs to be.

Derek Smith (Malvolio): All comedy comes out of intention. For an actor it’s the same as being a serious character in a tragedy. It’s all based on the same level of intention. It’s all serious intention. I really see it fail when people are playing it as a comedy. It’s funny when an audience knows more about the character than the character knows about themselves. When I came down here to do Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing I never thought of him as a funny character. What attracted me to that play was the level of denial, and how Beatrice and Benedick almost miss each other. And it turned out to be wonderfully funny and it was a big relief not to have to play the humor because if you’re strong enough in the intention you don’t have to worry about it.

And a laugh is just a noise—they are easy to get seduced by. But what you really want is just recognition. I think these characters are beautiful. I think this little comic plot is much more profound than the serious plot.

Emily: The arbitrariness of love is so painful in the play. And all these characters struggle for identity. And it gets mean-spirited.

Jim: It’s tragic. And for Sir Andrew, Sir Toby is probably his only friend. And he sincerely believes he’s found a kindred soul.

Emily: …and now we’re not funny at all.

Jim: Is that what allows the comedy then?

Emily: The humanity?

Derek: It’s all recognition. I’d much rather have an “aww” than a laugh. I’m just thinking about what comedy is and what clowning is. Clowning happens when there’s no other place to take the intention.

Jim: For most of Shakespeare’s clowns, the language is really antiquated and it’s hard to achieve the same effect that it had 400 years ago. A lot of directors and theatres will cut that, but I find it a challenge to make it work.

Derek: I think Shakespeare’s comic characters are some of the most gratifying. They are layered, three-dimensional characters—as opposed to some other of his contemporaries where you don’t have anything to fall back on expect the comedy. I don’t think that’s true of Shakespeare’s funny roles.

Emily: I’m relatively new to Shakespeare. I’ve only done four shows, including last season’s Romeo & Juliet. I thought I was going to be a serious actress when I started, but it turns out I’m not, I’m a comic. The grotesque is my stock and trade. Brassy loudmouths: yeah, I’ll take that. And so the language is new to me but the words feel like golden pearls in my mouth. I love it so much. Since it is new to me, as soon as I understand what I’m saying I approach it the same way I approach a contemporary play: what is my intention and where do I hurt?

Derek: Yeah!

Emily: And what am I trying to hide?

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