BACK STAGE WEST
June 10, 1999
ACTORS' DIALOGUE: David Dukes & Anna Gunn
Reporting by Rob Kendt
Anna Gunn and David Dukes have worked together several times at L.A.'s unique Matrix Theatre--a safe haven created by producer Joe Stern for some of L.A.'s best theatre-trained actors, where last year Gunn and Dukes starred in the world premiere of Larry Atlas' troubling Yield of Long Bond. Other Matrix highlights have included Dukes' turn in The Homecoming and Gunn's in The Tavern and The Seagull.
Gunn came up out of Northwestern into Chicago's hot theatre scene, while Dukes built his craft in the American Conservatory Theater's halcyon repertory days. Each has a film and TV resume (including memorable appearances on the ABC drama The Practice, Gunn in a recurring role), but have continued to do theatre not only in New York but in Los Angeles. Currently they're appearing in the Ahmanson Theatre's repertory run of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Measure for Measure, directed by Peter Hall--Gunn as Measure's Isabella, and Dukes as Measure's comic Lucio and Midsummer's Theseus. They met on a rehearsal break at the Hollywood Hills Coffeeshop to talk about the Matrix's unique double casting process and Peter Hall's well-versed ear.
David Dukes: The funny thing that happens with commercial theatre in New York is that if you want to make a living at it, you can't just star; you can't just be good. You've gotta make the play work. If I come out and I get great reviews but the play closes in one night, what's the point? But if I come out and the whole thing adds up so the whole evening is great, then I'm employed for a year. It's a whole other focus.
In L.A., I know of productions that have come together for the most bizarre reasons--"Grandma left me some money so I could get my play done." It's not always the best reason to do it. But I've done some great theatre here.
Anna Gunn: One of my favorite comments was years ago, I ran into an actress I'd worked with on a TV show when I was first out here. And she said, "Oh, you're doing a play now," and I said, "Yeah," and she said, "I wish I could take time off to do a play." And I thought, What? Time off to do a play? As if it's not real employment, like it's a vacation: "Oh, you're going to lay out in the sun."
David: Right--I go to Hawaii or I do a play.
Anna: I feel lucky, because I started doing plays in Chicago after Northwestern, and you can be a non-Equity actor working at Equity theatres and making a living there--enough to live in your little brownstone near Wrigley Field, as I did. Coming out to L.A., it was so massive and overwhelming, and I really was sad and missed doing theatre. So I felt very lucky when I got involved with the Matrix, because it gave me a place to continue to work.
And because of Joe Stern, that theatre runs so well, so we don't have to worry like a lot of--I mean, it always astounds me how many small theatres there are around this town, and how people produce, and do sets, and do costumes. But Joe runs the Matrix so well that he really gives us a place to concentrate on the work. It's one of the most professional places I've worked in terms of that: You're there to do the work.
Anna: I've done six plays at the Matrix, and it took me a while to get into the fact that you can learn so much by being able to sit back and watch someone else do the role. When you're the only one playing the role, you're so in it that sometimes the hardest thing to do is say, "Why isn't this scene working? I don't understand what the key is." But when you get to sit down and watch somebody else go through something, you can often unlock something that would have been so difficult otherwise. It's a strange process, because as actors we want to possess the role, so it's an incredible thing to have the chance to sit back and watch a great actor do the role.
David: When two people have to share a part, it refocuses everything: the character becomes the focus. Because we're gonna share it, I can't just do my performance; our dialogue has to be about the character, his action, and what he has to do in the play. When we did Larry Atlas' play, Yield of the Long Bond, I thought: We're perfect for a new play. Because it isn't about showcasing ourselves; we have to focus on the character and the play.
Anna: Also, I find, in a way you get to be the director a little bit. As you're sitting out there, you begin to see in a more directorial way than if you were just completely involved in it.
David: It allows you to see the forest, not just the trees.
David: English and American actors don't work any differently. We sit around the table and we figure out the text. I think they're better at it 'cause there's a better tradition of really working on the text. The tradition is, you sit around and you work on it until you know exactly what you're saying; there's no point in staging it until you know what you're saying.
The way Peter Hall works, though, is very different. He has a better ear than I will ever have for the text, and for listening to how an argument is formed; the antithesis you use to make a point: "If this is true, then this." And just which words to stress to make your argument. Our typical thing is "I think. . ." Your character will use pronoun stress, and Peter says, "No, no: "I think.' Go to the verb." And suddenly it all makes sense, and it's eminently actable.
Anna: And that's astonishing--that you get to the action through the text. The characters are as they speak in Shakespeare. If you sit around waiting for some inspiration to strike you, it's just not going to--but if you let the language carry you, you find your way through the wave of the verse that takes you.
David: In Shakespeare, if you don't act on the word, you're messin' it up. You're just losing it. He creates all the pictures and all the sights--you don't really need a set in Shakespeare, because he paints it all, he says it all in the words.
Anna: Also, as we've gone along in rehearsals, I'm struck more and more--and Peter points it out all the time--the sound of the speech sometimes tells you more than the words. One of my first speeches is, "There is a vice that most I do abhor/And most desire should meet the blow of justice." It's very hard and clipped. The very sound of the consonants--you can tell what's going on with the choice of words that the person is using.
David: The music of it.
David: The costumes will take over soon.
Anna: Yeah, all that freedom is sort of gone. I'm wearing a wimple. . .
David: A starched wimple?
Anna: No, it's not starched, but they made up a real authentic wimple, and I put it on the other day and almost had a fit. It's like my own cloister that I'm carrying around with me. But it's something I'll get used to; it's like putting on a corset.
David: With guys, we tend to have these high, stiff collars, and it just changes everything. Once you get that in there, you're not a contemporary American anymore; you've got to stand. Your whole attitude changes; your sense of language, how you project.
Anna: In doing research for this role, I happened upon a videotape in the library about nuns, and one woman was talking about the day she took her final vows, and she was put into the full habit and wimple. She said she just wept the entire first night--it hurt her ears, she felt like she had echoes in her head. So there's something about certain pieces like that; it will certainly be extremely good for me, but for the first couple of days that you're dealing with them, you're thinking, I just wanna wear my jeans!
David: I've had productions where I'll work it and work it and then this costume will arrive, and I say, "Have you watched any of our rehearsals? I fall backwards down a ladder! Look at this costume!" I've had big fights with designers--but now I tend to fight those battles earlier in rehearsals.