In the months leading up to our 2012 Main Stage season, we’ll be profiling the creative minds behind the season’s productions—The Tempest, Spunk, Blithe Spirit, and Hamlet—in our e-newsletters. For this season’s kick-off installment, we’re featuring actor and Oregon Shakespeare Festival favorite Michael Winters, making his Cal Shakes debut as the sorcerer Prospero in Jonathan Moscone’s season-opening production of The Tempest. What follows is the full transcript of Cal Shakes’ email interview with Mr. Winters. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.
You’ve done your share of Shakespeare at OSF, Seattle Shakespeare, and elsewhere. What have been your favorite Shakespeare roles so far, and why?
Right now my favorite Shakespeare role I’ve gotten to do is the one I’m in the middle of doing now—Falstaff. I did Part 2 of Henry IV at Ashland last summer and am on my way to PlayMakers Rep in North Carolina to do the part in a compilation of Parts I and II. It’s such an exhilarating role, rich and various, especially if you get to do the second part. It seems the character was so popular that Shakespeare expanded on him a great deal in Part II, taking him all sorts of places that he didn’t have time and space for in Part I. He just gets more and more human—sweet, sour, boisterous, clever, vulnerable, dangerous, overwhelming, and unforgivable—as the plays go on. Huge challenge, huge satisfaction. As real and inimitable as a character in a play can get. I got to play King Lear several years ago, also an immense challenge but so much more stressful, dark, and despairing. Physically much harder, but again, unlike anything else you ever get to do in a character. I also had a ball playing Lucio in Measure for Measure many years ago. Such an unregenerate slime bucket but, again, alive as can be— and very funny.
Have you done The Tempest before? Can you share some early thoughts on your role as Prospero at Cal Shakes?
Yes, I played Prospero just two year ago here at the Seattle Shakespeare Company. I loved that as well and really look forward to another crack at it. The concept of that production was, for me, very compelling, and one of the reasons I’m so excited to do it at Cal Shakes is that I know Jonathan’s production will be completely different and provocative so it’ll be like starting from scratch, but I already sort of know the words. I guess Prospero is kind of a mini-Lear, emotionally at least: a total rage-aholic, still nursing, feeding a grudge against his brother over all the years he’s been on the island, letting that hatred and resentment corrupt his mind and the ways he deals with his, what—children? subjects?—Miranda, Caliban, and Ariel. The miracle of his cure, his healing, is very moving to me, courageous, humbling. Quite beautiful. And such terrific language.
In 2000 you were awarded the Fox Fellowship by TCG, to study in Britain and then hold a workshop on the language of Shakespeare. How has that experience affected your craft, and your life?
The Fox Fellowship, which I was so lucky to get, gave me an opportunity to study with David Hammond for two weeks at University of North Carolina, followed by two months in London where I worked with Mark Wing-Davey and Michael Langham for several weeks each, and went to the theater virtually every night. The whole experience was a dense and lively mix of study, discussion, activity, and theater-going that gave me a renewed energy for my work, and new ideas about how to approach it. Perhaps the most practical outcome of the whole process was that it led to the production of King Lear that I was in, directed by Mark and produced by PlayMakers Rep, where I had worked with David. My original project proposal was to learn more about speaking Shakespeare, but the heading was so general that it left lots of leeway for all kinds of learning in many areas. I’ve always been grateful for the kick start it gave me for the next phase of my working life.
What’s the first piece of theater you ever saw? Alternately (or in addition), what was the first piece you saw that really made you think, “I want to be a part of this”?
I remember seeing a production of HMS Pinafore that the local high school did when I was 8 or 9 that is probably the first theater experience I can recall. There was also a music-tent summer theater that produced road-show musicals in Cleveland; I saw a production of West Side Story there when I was in junior high school that I remember sent chills up my spine. It simply jangled my suburban world and made me aware of other places, other lives, other possibilities that I don’t think I have ever managed to shake. I don’t recall then thinking ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what I want to do with my life,’ but subconsciously it must have had that kind of effect. It’s odd that both those memories are about musicals, since that’s not the road I eventually ended up on. My first Shakespeare memory, in fact, is from the same junior high period, when we were bused into the Cleveland Playhouse to see Macbeth and all I remember of that was the buzz on the way home that we could see Lady M’s bra through her nightgown. Not very elevated. This was the time of my life though, when I had one of those extraordinary teachers who seem to shove you into a room where you meet the rest of your life. That’s probably my first real conscious step. She directed the school plays and was passionate, fun, supportive, eager, and serious. She’s really the one to blame….
What or who inspires you right now? Any particular writers, music, current events, people, et cetera?
I’m afraid I’m so old-school. Shakespeare still inspires me the most. Endless possibilities—endless. There are plays I think I’m just tired of and then I’ll see a production, or be in one, that amazes me all over again. I love watching they way actors and directors solve all the old questions, the moment-to-moment mysteries of the plays. Never get tired of that. Also crave any chance to do Chekhov, Shaw, and Tom Stoppard, any time; they all thrill and challenge me. Like I said: retro. I am also in love with movies, can’t get enough, they inspire and move and excite me. Almost any kind, old or new, foreign or domestic. They open my mind, make me consider things I might not otherwise. I try to keep up on politics and current affairs, but I’m afraid they tend to be the opposite of inspiring for me.
And finally, if you could have appeared any play in history, what (and/or where, and/or with whom directing or sharing the stage with you) would it be?
I’m nothing if not consistent … I want to see a Shakespeare in the Globe or Blackfriars. How briskly did they speak it? Did they really do them in two hours’ time? What did they sound like? What did they consider good acting? How would their perception of ‘real’ acting compare with ours? Did Burbage rant? Did Armin speak more than was written down? How did audiences really respond? Did they understand everything? How much did they participate and how did that affect the way the plays were performed? All that stuff.