In Taking Steps, Matt Wilson plays Roland, the man of the house and it’s potential buyer, and husband to Elizabeth. We got a chance to talk with him in the final days of this hilarious romp up and down the staircase!
For all of Roland’s pompousness he seems like a pretty nice guy. What have you enjoyed most about his character?
Matt: I think Roland is used to getting what he wants and is not quick to notice other people’s feelings. This makes him a bit of a bulldozer, and it is fun to ride over people the way he always interrupts Tristram or puts Leslie on the spot. Matt and Doug and I have had a ball with those scenes. However, I also enjoy Roland’s softer side and the way Lizzie actually has him wrapped around her little finger. He says some awful things about here, but I have really grown to love the moment when he first sees her the next morning, when I grab Tia in my arms and say, “Oh, my god, it’s Lizzie.” It’s a rare moment of redemption in the show. Then, of course, it’s right back to sleep and comic shenanigans!
Playing drunk can be a slippery slope but you do it so well! Any tips for the would-be drunk actor?
As with any emotion or state, the key is to play the objective and not the obstacle. People often try to play drunk by staggering and slurring, but a drunk person usually is trying not to seem drunk. So I flatten out my tongue to get the swollen-tongue drunk sound, but then I work all the more to have solid diction and to be understood. Drunk people always think they have important things to say! I also try to calibrate the highs and lows of each performance—when is he more lucid, when is he less in control? One of my favorite moments is when he is first starting to lose it but is trying to look confident and cover up the fact that he is running into things in the living room. Nothing makes you look drunker than the insistence, “I have everything under control”!
What are your favorite moments of the play?
I spend a lot of time sleeping in Act 2, and it is so hard to keep a straight (“asleep”) face when the doorbell rings to signal Leslie’s arrival while Lizzie & Roland are passed out in the living room. I can hear the people around me giggling, and I want to join in and say, “You are right—something funny is about to happen!!!” It is a fun moment of anticipation, and then it pays off in Tia & Doug’s ludicrous fight scene.
What do you hope the future holds for Roland and Elizabeth?
I am convinced that she does not leave, although I assume Tia would have another answer. Ultimately, the audience gets to make the call, which is the fun of theatre. What strikes me as authentic and sad about their relationship is that they are almost always in incompatible states. We see moments of tenderness from both of them, but rarely do they link up in those moments. We see the crossed wires where one of them is angry and wants to fight but the other is cooling and wants to reconcile. They never stay on the same page for very long, so they grow apart through miscommunication and missed opportunities. I am afraid that is how it often is in relationships. With apologies for showing my age, I think Dire Straits summed up emotional distance best: “You’ve been in the sun, and I’ve been in the rain. / And you’re so far away from me.”
Can you talk a little about your Commedia work and how it informs ‘straight’ acting.
Bill Irwin was asked a similar question about clown when he started doing Edward Albee plays on Broadway. He said the hardest thing was not to reach for a handkerchief when someone in the balcony sneezed. I think he put his finger on the biggest difference. In clown or Commedia (like what we do at Faction of Fools) there is no fourth wall, and we work to develop an awareness and complicity with the audience. In naturalistic theatre, then, it can be hard to resist acknowledging a particularly funny laugh or responding to an off-stage noise—because people from my camp have trained to develop an awareness of those things and to respond to them rather than ignore them. On the other hand, this awareness is still a huge asset in comedy because it helps to read where the audience is and to time jokes and moments so that they land for this particular crowd. Every audience laughs differently—and sometimes even in different places, and we have to be conscious of their involvement and how to let them participate in the show. Sometimes that means pausing longer, sometimes it means picking up the pace. Each audience is different, and I am obsessed with how to meet each audience for the show they want to see.
Faction of Fools also has a strong ensemble aesthetic, and we usually have multiple stories staged right on top of each other. For example, when we did “To be or not to be” and the nunnery scene in Hamlecchino, we actually had Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius onstage spying on Hamlet and Ophelia. That is how Shakespeare wrote the scene, but you usually see Hamlet all alone philosophizing. We tried to juxtapose that scene of beautiful poetry with other actions of very physical silliness. That takes a lot of sculpting and awareness on the part of the actors so that everyone is playing their own story but in concert with the other stories. Allison has done a great job mining Taking Steps for similar moments and crafting these layers of storytelling. So, as actors in the show, that kind of ensemble awareness has been important because we so often have multiple scenes going on at the same time and need to work to make sure that the audience gets the whole picture and that our individual stories all fit together into Allison’s crafted whole.
As soon as we close Taking Steps, I go into rehearsals for Faction of Fool’s A Commedia Christmas Carol, which I am adapting and directing. That runs in Nov & Dec at Gallaudet University. I am also doing fight choreography for No Rules’ The Fantasticks this fall. Next year, I will be directing the area premiere of Jordan Harrison’s Act a Lady at HUB Theatre. All that plus lots of teaching!