Anderson Matthews | Bringing the ’Night to the Lou

prof anderson-matthews_smThis is why we do what we do. To see the audience bobbing in the house. I love it all.

 

 

 

Anderson Matthews is well known to St. Louis theater audiences, especially for his 26 roles at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (The Rep). His career has taken him to Broadway, Off Broadway, and many regional theaters. He currently lives in Connecticut with his wife, actress Carolyn Swift, who Rep audiences should remember from her numerous appearances, including playing opposite Matthews in several productions. Twelfth Night, Or What You Will is his second appearance at the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, having played Polonius in Hamlet in 2010. We chatted about a variety of topics when he arrived in town to begin rehearsals.

We started by talking about his work in The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia, one of Edward Albee’s most controversial plays involving a married man who becomes involved in a love affair with a goat. The Rep presented the show in its Off-Ramp series several years ago. You’ll see below why we began there.

 

prof anderson-matthews_268I heard you spoke to a group of older adults today.

Yes, and it was great. They had all read the play and had a lot of questions for us. But when I mentioned that I had appeared frequently at the Rep, the first response was from one of the ladies who asked, “Were you in The Goat? I said I was, and she replied, “I saw that, and it was…interesting.” [Laughs]

And that’s one of the shows you did with your wife.

That’s right.

Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. Where are you from?

I’m originally from Springfield, Ohio. I went to school at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh and got my degree in drama there, and then moved right to New York. I lived there for 22 years, until I realized I didn’t have to live in the city anymore and moved to Connecticut, which is where I now live.

So that’s your home base?

Yep. My “home base” is a rambling little old house that is dire need of repair. We just had the whole side ripped off today. Every time I turn around, something else needs to be done. But that wasn’t a surprise.

What have you been working on recently?

Most recently, I did an Off Broadway show with a theatre company called TACT [The Actors Company Theatre], and it was the first time I got a job in New York in almost 20 years. I had to re-acclimate myself to the city. It was Happy Birthday by Anita Loos [originally produced in 1946 on Broadway]. People don’t remember it, though it ran for almost two years, and Helen Hayes won the first Tony Award for the role she originated. So, they revived it, and I was lucky enough to be in it. It was full of wonderful actors, including Darrie Lawrence [who has also worked several times at the Rep]. It holds up, but it is a peculiar play. In fact, Helen Hayes had been complaining to her friend Anita Loos that she was tired of playing all these classical parts, and she wanted to just kick off her shoes and have some fun. So, Loos says, “Oh, okay,” and wrote a play for her in which she plays a prim librarian who walks into a bar one night, all disapproving, but by the end is drunk on her ass throwing this huge party.

The funny thing is that all the people she doesn’t like when the show starts become her best friends, and every time she looks at the bar, a bottle is talking to her. It’s really like Alice down the rabbit hole. There’s a wonderful scene in which she’s under a table, and the cloth is rigged to fly off and cover the audience, so they’re “under the table” with them. [Karen Ziemba, in St. Louis last summer for The Opera Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd was the lead in this incarnation of Happy Birthday and Matthews played her disapproving father.] The audiences loved it, but I’m not sure about the critics.

Do you read your own notices?

No. Oh, I might once a production is over, but never during it. I’m a firm believer that if [reviews] are good, they’re not good enough, and if they’re bad, they’re painful. In fact, the only thing worse than reading a bad review is reading a good one and changing your performance in any way.

When you were coming up, did you have any particular influences in theater?

I know it’s going to sound weird, but yeah, I do. When I was in drama school, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to be as an actor—that is, the kind of theater I wanted to do. And I went to England one summer [during college] and spent it going to theater, especially the Royal Shakespeare Company [RSC]. It was 1969, and the RSC had an incredible season: Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Ian Richardson—all these people were in that particular company at the time, and I just sat there show after show after show, and I [thought], “That’s what I want to be.” Not an English actor, of course, but a transformative actor. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve loved my relationship with the Rep. Sometimes I did the same kinds of parts, but often I didn’t. And I loved being able to inhabit [all kinds of people], or at least try to.

Do you have a favorite format?

Sometimes comedy is harder, but when a script is funny and you can just say the words and get the laughs—there’s something about making an audience convulse [with laughter] that is actually deeply satisfying. Years ago, I did an old sex farce in Detroit—I can’t even remember the name of it now—and I was thinking, “Why am I doing this?” And then we went out and I could see the audience just bobbing in their seats. That’s the last time I was ever a snob about anything. This is why we do what we do. To see that in the house. I love it all.

Do you have any actors you particularly enjoy watching?

I always loved Peter O’Toole, though I’ve never seen him onstage. And growing up, the actors I gravitated to on film were actors like Claude Rains and James Mason—actors who didn’t always necessarily carry a film, but that I couldn’t take my eyes off when I was watching them, Claude Rains in particular. I never get tired of watching him. The character actors are generally the most interesting.

Have you ever worked outside the theater?

No. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve never waited on a table. There are dry periods, but I’ve reached a point where I feel like if you get old enough, and last long enough, theaters ask you to do shows. [Laughs] And I’ve been very lucky.

That’s another reason to be a character actor, too.

Yes, it is.

How is Twelfth Night going?

Very well! It’s going to be an interesting production. I think it’s going to surprise people. When you say “Twelfth Night” to an audience, they think, “Oh, it’s one of the great lighter comedies. It’s going to be fun,” and it is going to be that. There are a lot of antics, but it’s got a dark underbelly. I’m very happy that we are not going to pretend that isn’t there. Yes, Malvolio is an officious, obnoxious S.O.B., and all these things, but hopefully, the audience will not find what happened [to him] very funny. His punishment doesn’t really fit the “crime.”

Are you playing Malvolio as pitiable?

Certainly all those things that you expect Malvolio to be are there: the ridiculous yellow stockings [for example]. Dottie Englis’s costumes are fantastic in that regard. But the scene where he is imprisoned is not going to be very pleasant. I don’t want to give too much away, though. He’s not a bad man. He doesn’t actively try to go out and do damage to anyone—he’s not like Iago—but he’s a prig and full of himself even though he’s a servant, and so willing to believe the ruse [that’s pulled on him]. He doesn’t see any of the signs, because he wants what’s in the letter [that he believes to be a declaration of love from his mistress] to be true so badly. But what Feste and Sir Toby do to him after that is intriguing. Why do they do it? Maybe it’s a lot of pent-up anger that people have had toward him, and it just goes too far. And we are playing the guilt the perpetrators feel as real.

[He gives a shoutout to Kimiye Corwin who plays Viola, calling her “wonderful.” She played Ophelia in the 2010 Hamlet, so the two have worked together before.] One thing that I do love that Rick is doing with the set design that I’ve never seen is that they built this long, rectangular walkway that goes across the stage and back right into the audience. It’s wonderful because a lot of my letter scene will be played out in the house from the platform. It’s so much fun to think that we’re actually going to be on the stage but still “in the audience.” I love that.

Do you enjoy the Festival particularly? Swallowing bugs and so on—there must be some downsides.

Oh, sure. The thing is that this time of year, you never know about the weather. During Hamlet, these big rolling thunderstorms would come through, and we’d think, “Well, there’s not going to be any show tonight,” but around 7 o’clock, it was done. And then, it’s all steamy and muggy and you think the audience won’t come, but you look out, and they’re all there.

St. Louis doesn’t fear heat. We all grew up going to the Muny.

And the bugs are drawn to the light. When it gets dark, you see all the Junebugs come out. I remember Jim Butz [as Hamlet] did swallow one during one of the long speeches. We were backstage watching him gag his way through. [Laughs] But it’s wonderful—you look out and see people with their candelabras on picnic blankets. You feel that the audience wants to be there, and you get some very good actors here, both local and from out of town. And you never know where you’re going to be rehearsing. This year, we’re right downtown and visible from the street.

Is the show set in its era?

No, it’s not set in any specific period or country. Illyria is a “world.” The costumes are somewhat classical and somewhat modern, somewhere in between. The set is going to reflect a time of decline, in a way. The house is sinking, showing Illyria in a kind of disrepair. And there’s going to be a huge full moon on the stage the whole time. It’s the size of the house.

Are you a Shakespeare purist or do you support other interpretations?

I have no problem with any interpretation as long as it’s serving the story. I have problems sometimes when a show is set in some kind of baroque world and the lines don’t really fit, or that the text has been distorted to fit the concept, but overall, as long as the actors are committed to the story and are flesh and blood people, then I don’t mind.

Have you been in Twelfth Night before?

No, this is my first foray.

Hamlet?

Nope. When you’ve been acting for a while, you always think you’re going to do Hamlet someday, but I didn’t honestly think that my first production would be as Polonius! [Laughs]

When will you be back at the Rep? We miss you.

It has been a few years, but I’m sure I’ll be back when schedules permit.

Favorite roles?

I loved doing Copenhagen, and The Pillowman. I was not ready for [the latter] show to close. I could have done it a long time; I just did not want to leave that guy. I loved doing Blue/Orange, Betrayal; there are a lot of them. I recently did As You Like It [for the third time] and that was wonderful. I’ve done quite a bit of Shakespeare, but oddly, never one of the histories.

What do you not like to do in theater? Are you ever uncomfortable on stage?

I’m sure there are shows in which I haven’t been very good, but I guess I don’t like doing shows that are blatantly confrontational with the audience. I always find the audience is perfectly capable of making up their own minds. I don’t like didactic theater, and I’m not comfortable with that.

Have you directed at all?

I never have. I’m not sure I’m suited for it. I admire directors so much because of the patience they show. They just have to sit there for so long, and how they hold their tongues is beyond me. Then finally, it all clicks. The ones I most admire are nurturing directors who are supportive and can gently steer you toward something but give you enough leeway to explore.

Have you ever been in a show that was just a real dog, and if so, how do you get through it?

I probably have. It may be a situation where someone else says it’s bad and then the audience follows along. I did a show years and years ago in New York. We had toured it first; the audience loved it. One night before the critics came, we got a standing ovation. Then The New York Times review came out, and it was like an early frost. We came out, thinking, “My, it’s cold in here.” We closed in a few weeks, but it was painful to do. The audience members weren’t allowing themselves to enjoy the same show.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just come out and see the show! I love St. Louis, and I’m so glad to be back. | Andrea Braun

Anderson Matthews will be playing the role of Malvolio in the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis’s production of Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, starting with preview performances on May 22 and running through June 16. The show will play nightly at 8 p.m., and the “green show” begins at 6:30 with various entertainments for the crowd, including an abridged version of the play itself. Admission is free. For more information, visit https://www.sfstl.com/whats-on/twelfth-night-2013/.

 

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