Stephenson Tales

(But I am of two minds about one role.)

As I have noted elsewhere, I began performing at a very early age. I have been at it for over eighty years—and there are some experiences which stand out in my memory as particularly joyful.

Every theater experience—either as an actor or as a director—is unique. Each has its challenges which belong to that event and to no other. Therefore one's creativity is always being challenged to find what is right THIS time. One can never simply repeat what one has done before—or one's productions would soon be all alike! It is said that Max Rinehart did A Midsummer Night's Dream over A HUNDRED TIMES and no two productions were alike. That makes sense when you think about it. Each time he was older: casts were not the same, audiences were not either; and even the scenery, props, theater itself all dictated what should be done THIS time. Sometimes when I have repeated a role or repeated a show I have already directed, I make a conscious effort to NOT repeat what I had done before. Now that is not always true, of course, I have done A Midsummer Night's Dream three times and there were some "bits" that I did use again—simply because they worked so well. I not only steal from my former self, but from other productions that I have admired. This is what is known as research!

There are some roles that I have played which gave me the most satisfaction—both in the initial creative processes and also in the way that my preparation paid off in performance. Which roles did I enjoy the most? There are several that come to mind at once:

  • George in Our Town in Italy
These at the University of Michigan:
  • Andrew Undershaft in Shaw's Major Barbara
  • Capt. Jack Absolutely in The Rivals by Sheridan
  • Tom in The Glass Menagerie
  • A very minor character in On Borrowed Time (I came in on page 47 and got fatally shot on page 52. I loved it!)
  • Chorus (with Lucy Chase) in HMS Pinafore
  • Richard Dudgeon on The Devils Disciple
  • Iago in Othello (more about this a little later)

As far as directing, I must confess that I have MOST enjoyed the productions in which our children had roles:

  • Lucky and Danny in HMS Pinafore; Lucky in The Silver Whistle
  • John in Major Barbara and in On Borrowed Time (when he was 12)
  • Evie in Rhinoceros and The Gloop in the Magic Toy Factory
  • Robin as Pop in The Gloop in the Magic Toy Factory and as Polly in The Boyfriend and as understudy for the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe
  • Toni in Aladdin and Daddy Warlock's Reluctant Daughter and The Oldest Established Permanent Academy for Fairy Godmothers in Creation—and Evie was Stage Manager
  • Robbie in You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and My Own Private Pirate

Adult shows I have most enjoyed:
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

Now about my Iago in Othello: The director told me that he wanted Iago right on the brink of laughing in scorn the whole time at the stupidity of those all around him—until the fateful last minute when his perfidy is revealed. Nafe Katter, brilliant and creative actor, was a lot of fun to play with—intense and emotional. Our scenes when Iago tempts and taunts Othello were some of the best things we EVER did. In the last moments after Iago is revealed as the villain that he is, Othello turns on him:

OTHELLO: If that thou be'st a devil I cannot kill thee.
      (wounds Iago)
LODOVICO: Wrench his sword from him.
IAGO: I bleed, Sir, but not killed.

During rehearsals Nafe had always worn very thick glasses and, without them he was nearly blind. These were the days before contact lenses were as ubiquitous as they are now and glasses on Othello would have been anachronistic, of course. So during performance when he turned to me to run me through, he could see only a blur. He lunged at me and the point of his sword, instead of going through the narrow slit between my arm and amy chest, went through my costume and into my chest about an inch just below my lowest rib on the right side. As directed, I whirled around with my back to Othello and faced the audience and clasped my hand over where he had run me through. Lucy Chase and her whole family were sitting in the front row and almost fainted to see blood spurting out from between my fingers. I finished the scene, of course, and was carried out after my last line, "I will never more speak word." Othello killed himself on cue and the play came to its dramatic and quick end. The other actors rushed around me (Mr. Windt never let anyone take curtain calls) as the curtain came shut. In half a minute Lucy Chase and her whole family were there to see how badly I was hurt. It was not bad, actually, but it bled a lot and I still have a tiny white scar as my battle wound.

Composed on 24 December, 2008, Transcribed by Robin

© Jim Bob Stephenson 2008

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