Herringbone Interview with BD Wong and Roger Rees
Before Herringbone rehearsals began at McCarter, actor, BD Wong and director Roger Rees discussed their thoughts on the play, collaboration, and the mysteries of performing, with Literary Manager Carrie Hughes.
CH: BD, you’re very passionate about this play, and I did not know until Roger told us today, that you’d first seen it at Playwrights’ Horizons as an usher. I was wondering if you could talk about the experience of seeing this play for the first time.
BD: I was very fresh off the plane from San Francisco to New York to be an actor. I had been in one of my first shows, at the Equity Library Theater, in the chorus of a musical called Applause. The stage manager of that production took me to Playwrights Horizons to teach me how to be a volunteer usher, because that’s how you see free shows. And we saw Herringbone. I don’t know how to describe it. I just have this very strong sense that one, I felt I would never forget it, and two, that I connected to it. Also, part of my experience as a high school actor was exploring multi-character work. I did a fair amount of work with forensics, in which actors took ten-minute cuttings of plays, and the more characters you could do, the more interesting it would be and you would win. So part of my sensibility at that time was doing all these characters. I just thought it was cool, and it was very normal to me. So I saw it and took to it.
The next part of the story is probably nine or ten years later. I first met Richie Jackson, who I ended up being in a committed relationship with for fifteen years. He had just come from a producing program at NYU and way back then-this was 1989-on one of our first dates he said, “Well, what [project] do you want to do?” The first thing that came out of my mouth was, “There’s this show I saw at Playwrights; it’s called Herringbone; it’s very weird and interesting and I loved it so much. I’ve never heard anything about it since then and it must be almost ten years now. Don’t know anything about it--don’t know who wrote it, don’t know anything.” And romantically enough, the next day, in my dressing room (I was in M. Butterfly then) was a copy of the script. And that’s when I fell in love! The two of us spent a good part of our relationship looking for a home for it. I did a small production of it at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia, and then in 2007, when Roger was working at Williamstown, we made the connection and I kind of seduced Roger into doing it.
CH: And Roger, when BD brought you this piece, what made you decide to produce and direct this particular play?
RR: Well, from an economic point of view when you’re running a theater, a one-man show with a three piece orchestra, and it being a musical too, is a very, very attractive proposition. But really I thought we should see BD do it, because no one really knows that this is his other side. We see him as a very serious actor, and maybe we’ve seen him in some musicals and things, but never carrying a musical in this way. But I know he can do this stuff-this tour-de-force aspect of his abilities. It’s thrilling to see one person achieve such an extraordinary thing. Today we listened to him do a reading of it, but if you can imagine the dynamic of doing everything else the story suggests emotionally—it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. And also singing on pitch! I’m amazed.
CH: Can you describe the play a little, what you think it’s really, for lack of a better phrase, “about?”
BD: Herringbone is, for all an intents and purposes, about the possession of a little boy, with a vaudeville setting. They’re in the deep south, it’s the Depression; the story revolves around all of these things. However, the experience of seeing the show has very little do with any of those elements. The experience of seeing the show to me is an emotional experience about watching the commitment of an individual performer, and the difficulty of conveying how pain and emotion are wrapped up in a performer’s life, and how a performer often uses that pain and experience and history and difficulty with hopefully positive results. So Herringbone itself is the positive result of a person’s immense, deep, dark, and terrible pain.
This person has literally, taken his depression and made a show about this depression, which takes place in the Depression. So the Depression in the show is kind of a metaphor for his own desperate period of his life, and he’s taken those desperate elements and put them in his crazy, creative way, into a show. We’re telling a story that takes place in the 1929, but we’re watching something that’s actually happening in the moment. And it’s an emotional experience that he’s having while he’s telling the story. The relationship between the actor and the material is just as important as the [plot] itself.
That’s partly why the vaudeville comes and goes. We don’t want it to be a complete vaudeville thing, because then it feels like it’s a period piece. And for me, the period nature of the story itself is just a kind of a place he’s selected to set it in.
RR: Herringbone, in previous incarnations, embraced a more overall vaudevillian design and tone; we've chosen to use this sparingly. It feels very interesting to present the actor on the stage telling the story, undecorated at times. Tom Cone, our author, talks a lot about the struggle of an actor and the "dreadful" obligation to perform the play every night. This helps that conceit.
CH: Can you talk a little bit about the music in the piece? How do you think the music moves the story?
BD: What I like about the show is that at first glance it’s a traditional musical form. It’s a two-act musical with eighteen songs in it, and all these different characters and it’s a great tale and it has a wonderful arc, all these great emotional highs and lows, and it has this great ending. It appears to be a musical that would be performed by a cast of fourteen people, and it isn’t until you really get in there that you realize that fourteen people really couldn’t perform the material because then it wouldn’t be about what, at least, I think it’s about. One person has to perform the whole thing for it to be about the spirit of performing and theater, theatrics, and synthesizing all the different parts of yourself into a healthy whole.
At first glance, the score and the book have the feeling of being like lots of different musicals that you know, and yet somehow it’s completely twisted and turned on its head as well. Lots of the individual songs are like a lot of normal songs that further the action of regular musicals and yet there are some musical pieces in it that are extremely dark and extremely unique. The song in the middle of the second act, which is called “A Mother” which is about Herringbone singing about his mother, is probably the most traditionally engaging musical song. That is where the elements of vaudeville and showmanship and emotion and passion of the storyteller all come together. But there are lots of other songs that have their own charm and each character gets their own song, so that’s fun to see different characters singing in different voices and completely different personalities, and that makes it fun for me.
I also think the score is extremely sophisticated. A lot of people don’t recognize or notice that Skip Kennon’s orchestration for the pianist, for example, which is a role the he himself originally played at Playwrights, is written as a kind of sister role to the character of Herringbone. It is one pianist playing the role of almost every single instrument in a big orchestra, by himself, all in one performance, just like it is one actor playing many roles. And the score is extremely difficult to play. It’s always been extremely difficult for me to find someone who can really play it the way Dan [Lipton] can play it. I’ve taken it to many different pianists, and they’ve gone “Oh, my god, there’s so many notes!” This is what pianists say when there’s a lot of stuff going on. And what Skip is doing is cramming all of these different voices into it so that the effect of listening to him play is very full.
CH: It’s a one-man show, with a director, and I was wondering if both of you could talk about the dynamic between the performer and the director in a one-person show.
BD: I feel very lucky to have found Roger, because Roger is an actor who completely empathizes with almost anything that I propose or question from the actor’s point of view….It’s a somewhat vulnerable position to be putting yourself in, first of all, because I feel very close to the material, so bringing that material to a director is a bit of a crap shoot. You don’t know what the chemistry’s going to be, and our chemistry was extremely synchronized. We seemed to understand each other, particularly regarding this play. It was really important for me to collaborate with someone who understood my strong desire to express things that I felt might be included in the direction of the show and yet also would have a pretty firm idea that something might not be right or wouldn’t work or wouldn’t be right for me. And so, that combination of things is really valuable to have and it’s paid off for us.
RR: The negotiation between us has been very interesting, because sometimes when we can't quite meet on an idea but we're very close, we suddenly together see a ray of light and we understand something much, much better. That’s been really useful. There’s a third component in this: Darren Lee, the choreographer, who’s not just a brilliant choreographer, but as a man, is certainly as firmly questioning and forthright as we try to be. So it's a sort of triumverate, really, in making this thing happen, because none of us want it to be glib or cozy. And it is a difficult piece. That’s what’s fascinating about it. You have to be sure you hit all the markers; otherwise you don’t get it.
CH: What do you want the audience to think about when they sit down for this show?
BD That’s a good question for this show.Well, I want them to know… I’m not going to find the right word because it’s not theater and it’s not performing, but it’s something about the definition of theatrical. And I think that it is something that if you pick up on it in this production it will inform the way you see other performers in other plays. Because what we’re trying to do is dissect all of the magical, weird, psychological nuances of performing itself…there are very few plays that even begin to discuss this. I feel that Herringbone is one of them.