Our home sweet home

By PHILIP EIL  |  February 26, 2014

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A LIFE'S WORK [Clockwise from top] Jenkins with Dan Butler in Trinity Rep's 'Awake and Sing' [1979]; with Julia Roberts in 'Eat Pray Love'; the 'Oliver!' cast; and in 'Six Feet Under.'

THESE DAYS, OUR LIVES ARE COMPLETELY OVERRUN BY SCREENS: SMARTPHONES, LAPTOPS, TABLETS. WHAT ROLE DOES THE THEATER PLAY IN THIS WORLD?

RICHARD: The technology in theaters is really changing. And you can do a lot of stuff — because of that world that you talk about — in the theater that you couldn’t do before.

But for me I like to get away from it as much as I can. Because I think it can provide something that the world you’re talking about can’t. And that’s a communal experience, a live experience with others. As an actor, it’s always been amazing that something you feel and you do onstage — or onscreen, even — [you can] have 600 people understand it together. It’s very hopeful. Because it tells you that we are more alike than we think.

RICHARD, THE WORD THAT COMES UP AGAIN AND AGAIN IN ARTICLES ABOUT YOU IS “EVERYMAN.” WHAT DOES THAT WORD MEAN TO YOU? AND, SHARON, WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE MARRIED TO AN “EVERYMAN”?

RICHARD: It means I’m not very good-looking. That’s what it means. [Laughs.] You don’t call Brad Pitt an “everyman.”

SHARON: It means that there are people who can identify [with him] and understand. A lot of people can connect to him. And that’s a pretty special thing to be, I’d say.

GETTING BACK TO RHODE ISLAND, I READ AN INTERVIEW WITH THE DIRECTOR OFSTEP BROTHERS, ADAM MCKAY, IN WHICH HE SAYS: “RICHARD HAS THESE GREAT DARK EMOTIONAL POCKETS IN HIM FROM RHODE ISLAND. IT’S THE DEADLY WINTERS OF PROVIDENCE THAT KEEP COMING OUT ON SET.”

[Lots of laughter.]

DO I TAKE THAT TO MEAN YOU DERIVE ARTISTIC INSPIRATION FROM THE WEATHER HERE IN RHODE ISLAND?

RICHARD: That’s Adam McKay being Adam McKay.

Well, you know, you are formed by your environment. [Laughing.] I can’t deny it. That’s so funny he said that. No, I mean, I never heard that. I don’t know. I guess. . . it sounds like Rhode Island has made me crazy. No, it hasn’t.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY THE HARDSCRABBLE, VICTORIAN BRITISH WORLD OFOLIVER! HAS TO DO WITH PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND IN 2014?

RICHARD: Well, you know the quote on the screen? [A large white screen on the second level of the Oliver! set reads: “THE ONE WHO IS UNWILLING TO WORK SHALL NOT EAT.”] That’s a quote from the Bible, but it was said by a Congressman in 2013 [during a debate about food stamp funding]. So that hasn’t changed at all. It’s how we view people that have less than we do.

I NOTICED THAT DESPITE THE HAPPY ENDING WHERE OLIVER GOES HOME, THE LAST THING WE HEAR AND SEE IN THE PLAY IS THE SCRAPE OF THE SPOONS ON THE BOWLS AND THE SILHOUETTES OF THE KIDS WHO ARE LEFT BEHIND.

RICHARD: One lucky kid got out.

SHARON: One lucky kid won the lottery and there’s a million more who are still stuck in poverty.

RICHARD: That image came to us about three days before we had our first performance. We’re sitting here talking about the play and these kids. “What happens to these other eight kids that are here? Or eight million kids? What happens to them?” And the image came to us and we put it up as the final image: Oliver is going home, but he’s the only one.

The way we approached the musical kind of came from Oliver Twist, the novel. We went back and looked at the novel and, what the musical Oliver! showed us and brought us was, you look at the lives of these people in this world who are struggling to survive daily. Whether it’s the kids in the work house who are constantly hungry and alone or whether it’s Nancy and that world of people clawing just to get by, stealing and doing whatever they can — born and bred in that world, live in that world, drink a lot, live moment to moment, don’t have any future. And that informed how we approached the play.

I THINK FOLKS IN RHODE ISLAND PERHAPS TAKE TRINITY REP FOR GRANTED AS THIS PLACE THAT’S BEEN AROUND — AND RENOWNED — FOR A WHILE. CAN YOU DEFAMILIARIZE US? WHAT DOES THIS PLACE MEAN TO RHODE ISLAND? WHAT DOES IT MEAN NATIONALLY?

RICHARD: Wow. How about, “a lot”?

It is a theater that, as I always say, does belong to Rhode Islanders. It is their theater. And it’s had the same mission for the last 50 years. This is an audience’s theater. This theater is always concerned with their audience, which means Rhode Islanders.

I know Adrian always did plays about Rhode Island, with Rhode Island in mind. We always conceptualized things thinking about Rhode Island. It is truly a local theater in that sense, with a national reputation.

DOES RHODE ISLAND MAKE ITS WAY INTOOLIVER! IN ANY WAY?

RICHARD: Yes. In a sense, it does. Because the conception that you saw on the stage last night comes from us, which comes from our tenure at Trinity Rep.

We learned what we did on the stage last night from being members of this theater, on and off, for 50 years. Eugene Lee, one of the great set designers in the world, really honed his aesthetic here at Trinity. He also worked with Peter Brook and people like that, but he figured out what he liked in the theater, how he saw the theater, and he really made it come alive here.

IT’S A TRIBUTE TO BOTH LEE AND TRINITY THAT, IN THE SAME WEEK HE’S MAKING HEADLINES FOR DESIGNING JIMMY FALLON’S NEWTONIGHT SHOW SET, HE’S HERE DOING HIS THING WITHOLIVER!

SHARON: He’s been incredibly loyal to Trinity. And he continues to live in Rhode Island.

RICHARD: You look at that set, that gorgeous [Tonight Show] set — and it is so different from what he did here. And yet, it’s still the way he thinks about things. It’s still Eugene. You look at it and you go, “Yah, that is Eugene.” He’s an extraordinary talent. Amazing problem solver. And most of the plays I’ve directed here, he’s been the scene designer. And I learn from him as an actor.

There’s no vanity in Eugene. He understands the most important thing is the performance, and [asking], “How do we me make this play come alive?” One day we were doing Troilus and Cressida — Shakespeare, and Adrian was directing it — and he had a truck on the stage with a big cab. It was really cool. It looked like an abandoned truck, in a war, that had been blown up.

And Adrian said, “You know, Eugene, I’m losing actors behind the cab of that truck.” And during the break I came back and Eugene was on the stage with a blowtorch, cutting the top of the truck off. He’d gone to all that work to get the truck there, he’d put it on the stage, and then if it got it in the way of the performance, he’d take a blowtorch [to it]. That’s Eugene. What was more important was that the play makes sense, be clear. That we not hurt the play, we help the play.

SHARON: And that’s sort of true with every element that goes into it [at Trinity]. The costume designer might design this fabulous costume that just doesn’t work in the scene. It’s either too gaudy, too much. And so you have to say, “As beautiful as that is. . . we need something else.” For every element, whether it’s music, the dance — the dance isn’t right — you have to change it.

RICHARD: And I don’t know if it’s rare, but I’ve been in theaters where that isn’t true. It’s like, “Those are my costumes! This is what you’re wearing.” “That’s the scenery. Don’t do that.” “This is the lighting. Take it or leave it.”

Not here. And it’s because this has been going on for 50 years. And it’s because Adrian Hall and Eugene Lee began it.

Look at the talent up there [onstage]! Look at that talent. These are people who are living and working in Providence, Rhode Island. The talent is extraordinary.

Philip Eil can be reached atpeil@phx.com. Follow him on Twitter @phileil.

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