Friday, June 12, 2009
20 Questions with Tom Heppler (continued)
(Thomas Heppler, right, as Marcus Lycus, with Jerry Sciarrio as Pseudolus, in Diana Trotter's production at Spokane Civic Theater of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, May-June 2009)
Bobo: You get to take a semester course in one of the following: voice, set design, choreography, costume design or lighting design. Which do you choose, and why? What would you expect to learn?
Tom Heppler: Well, I can't dance 'cause I'm too white. Set design, I used to do. Voice, I don't really know. I mean, I took choir and that kind of thing. But I don't have an ear for it -- I just work really hard instead. God help me, singing is the hardest thing for me to master.
Bobo: Tell me a little about Harding in Cuckoo’s Nest. Your performance is wonderful. What discoveries about him have you made in rehearsal? How much has the part been cut for the one-hour competition version?
Tom Heppler: … and you have to come up with character choices that still work. But Harding was one of those great parts that I really wanted to do.
In Lonely Planet, the first time I walked out onstage and met Troy’s character — that was living the moment. That was really nice.
about not making it to regionals with Cuckoo’s Nest:
“You know, in the past, it was always, ‘Oh, Spokane wins all the time.’ So there was a lot of, ‘Oh, Spokane’s coming, so we’re not coming.’ But there you go, that’s the way it is.”
When we went to nationals with Assassins — to be totally objective [smiles], we should’ve been first. Crowns won, and it was a nice musical revue of gospel tunes. But there are about 10 criteria that the judges are supposed to evaluate you on, and whether or not the cuts are suitable is one of them. And we were the only one who made any cuts. Other productions were just of a single act, or scenes.”
What do you think to yourself just before you go onstage?
On opening nights, I always get very emotional, for I wish my parents were still around to see how I developed, how I ... [gets teary-eyed] ... completed stuff.
But talking about these things gets me all verklempt.
On other nights, I have my script, I look at my notes -- every night. I look at my script for I KNOW.
And I need my downtime. On show nights, I take a nap from 5:30-6:30 pm. Everyone at the Civic knows that I have to do that. They even have a special blanket for me.
You take a nap in the green room?
It's much nicer since they remodeled down there.
But failing that, I have to find a hole to hide in, a corner to stand in. People come up and want to talk, but I'm all, "Bye-bye, I need to focus here."
I’ve gathered half a dozen passages from reviews in which I’ve mentioned Tom Heppler. (This can be a scary process, for both of us. Frankly, I’d forgotten you were in, or directed, a couple of these shows. Also frankly: I cringe when I think of how kind and gracious you are in person, and how I’ve criticized you in print. We all love theater, and love to talk about it. Here’s a chance, admittedly rather awkward, years later, for you to tell off that damn critic and let him know what you really think. Or not.)
I Do! I Do! at the Civic, May ’04
As Michael, the husband in this two-character show, Thomas Heppler was unburdening himself of his complaints against his middle-aged wife Agnes (played by Jan Neumann). He had just announced his opinion that women, when they approach their “matron station / Begin a certain process of deterioration.”
The audience – the women mostly, but not entirely – hollered and booed, discombobulating poor Heppler, who had to find his bearings and soldier on.
The show had just admitted, in effect, how stale, sexist and out of touch it is.
Rocket Man at CenterStage, Feb. 2005:
As Donny, the focal character, Heppler is just wacky enough to be the guy who tosses out every last one of his possessions -- but we miss the desperation of a man who just ... might ... do anything to rid himself of disappointment.
as director of Spinning Into Butter by Rebecca Gilman, at the Civic’s Studio:
Still, during a hopeful phone call that concludes the play, director Thomas Heppler has chosen wisely: Even as she engages in some peacemaking, Utter stands awkwardly, ensnared by the telephone cord that coils around her.
My Fair Lady at the Civic, Sept. ’05:
(after a long opening section about how wonderful Kendra Kimball and David Gigler were as Eliza Doolittle and her father, I included the following near the end)
… this Lady's second act sometimes fell flat. Heppler's portrayal of Higgins doesn't help. He has the fussiness, the devil-may-care single-mindedness of a British academic, but problems crop up in the first act in "I'm an Ordinary Man," when both the vocal and instrumental attacks on the chorus ("but put a woman in your life") were weak. On exit lines like "damn you!" and "let the hellcat freeze!" (both aimed at Eliza), Heppler wasn't convincing or irate enough.
Heppler doesn't quite catch the ambiguity of the medley of tunes (and emotions) that his character is supposed to express in among snippets of "You Did It" and "Without You" and the famous "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." The wavering -- will he surmount his own selfishness and grow in much the same way Eliza transformed herself? -- isn't quite there yet. But Heppler does achieve real pathos -- in his finest moment of the entire evening -- when, caught in that same spotlight, he makes the final refrain of "Accustomed to Her Face" feel like a breakthrough moment: At last, the confirmed bachelor isn't quite sure of just how confirmed he is.
Assassins, Civic Studio, Feb. ’07:
(in the midst of a near-rave, I singled you out for criticism)
Thomas Heppler’s Proprietor, like [Andrew] Ware-Lewis at times, isn’t projecting nearly enough vocally. A couple of dramatic ring-the-carnival-bell moments don’t register because Heppler seems hesitant.
Laughing Stock, Jan. 2008 at the Civic:
Some portions of the evening, however, are slower and flatter. As the artistic director, Thomas Heppler has some cell-phone conversations with the theater's patroness that don't underline or time the jokes well.
Oklahoma! at the Civic, Oct. ’08:
Thomas Heppler’s Persian peddler does delightful slow burns and comic double-takes.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jan. ’09 at the Civic:
As Harding, the leader of the wacked-out inmates, Thomas Heppler shines, showing off with his hands and his vocabulary (but ineffectually). In one sequence, Heppler makes the transition from trying to laugh off his sexual neurosis to angrily denouncing the woman who worsened it. (The audience simply laughed. But the pain was real.)
Tom Heppler: Sometimes I feel in your reviews, when you mention ARt or even Interplayers, you treat them as if they are of a different caliber. But all three, at least now, are community theaters. They don't offer Equity contracts, or only seldom. I've seen stuff at Interplayers or Actors Rep, and there seemed to be some more credibility given to them that is not justified in many ways. They're not LORT or regional theaters.
It's interesting to see what you say. But sometimes I'll go, "Oh, yeah, that's what he said. Well, screw it. It's what one guy thinks." But it's always interesting to see your comments vs. Jim's comments.
Civilians will always look at it from a pure entertainment point of view. I try not to see it from an actor's point of view.
I know from Troy's experience with Spokane Theatrical Group that theaters are hard to run. Because you're on your own, trying to get people on the board, to fund-raise. Everybody just wants to perform. The business of show business is a lot of work.
I rememember when Troy did Peter Pan at the Met, he couldn't get anybody to build the sets. So I said, "I'll do it." I built 'em in my backyard. And he came out and looked at 'em and said, "Son of a bitch, you did it."
When I'm directing, I always bring in non-theater people, just to get an opinion -- and it's always useful.
I've learned something new on every new show. Once you think you're good ...
But when I'm at an audition, and I see a reading that's a brilliant idea, I steal it, sure.
On My Fair Lady, Carol Miyamoto taught me that I didn't know what theater was. She said, "You will learn it and sing it as it was written. And then I will let you play with it." Well, that scared the hell out of me. But I learned it, note-perfect.
On "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," he grows to care for her, realizes that it's been more of a father-daughter relationship. He realizes that he's been an asshole. So I wanted it to be more heartfelt at the end.
Do you ever just watch a show (or a movie)? Or, as an actor, do you often think to yourself, “Oh, I would have done that scene in an entirely different way”?
It takes 10 years to be an actor. It's not until you really start to listen -- it's all in the way you say it back [to the other actor].
So it's a craft that can take a long time to learn.
But some people come to it naturally. I asked Amanda Plummer once, for example, "Why are you still in school?" She was just 17, but she was brilliant.
I worked with an actor once who complained, "Every night, you do it differently." But I haven't really changed anything consciously. It how the line comes out. If I'm listening to my fellow actors, I don't change it purposefully. I just say it differently or interpret it differently according to what I've just heard.
In your experience, are the best actors the ones who are all intense backstage, or the ones who fool around?
Commitment to the project is important. The people who I see in this area who are very good are the ones who focus. The ones who are always bouncing around are not as good.
I had a teacher in college who said, "You're not a very talented actor. Let me rephrase that: You're going to have to work your butt off to get what other people get naturally."
So that's what you do.
After getting 10 years' experience, I realized that it depends on the character. If you yell at me, I may laugh at you. Someone told me once, If you're in a drama, look for the comedy. If you're angry, look for the humor. If you have to cry, dont' cry.
If I see people fake-crying onstage, I get really mad.
Not screaming can be more scary than if somebody screams. Besides, it hurts your ears and becomes annoying.
Who do you admire around here?
Troy [Nickerson], as far as being a director. He takes stuff like the musical Christmas Carol that with Kelsey Grammer was just absolute dreck and makes it gorgeous. And Melody [Deatherage] and Kathie [Doyle-Lipe] and George Green, Paul Villabrille, Damon Mentzer, Patrick McHenry-Kroetch -- with all of them, I don't know how they do what they do, but they're all amazing.
I'm 52. That means I've been doing this for 32 years. And I plan to keep doing it as long as my memory holds up.
I'll tell you one thing about middle age: It takes longer to memorize your lines. But you have your tricks...
When Michael Muzatko brought his high school kids here, I was working on my lines, and he wanted them to see what I do.
I write out all my lines -- no punctuation, no spacing, just in one big block of text. And I learn 'em that way. I trained that way, so that there'd be no inflection on a line.
The kids were very good -- they ask the best questions.
It's not theater unless ...
Unless you have an audience.
But do you actually enjoy applause at the end of a show -- really enjoy it? Because it always makes me feel a little self-conscious.
Yeah, I do. I enjoy the applause. But these people who see theater seldom, or at the Fox -- they stand up at the end of every show. A standing ovation should be a very rare experience -- though it's lovely when it happens spontaneously. With Godspell, with Assassins, you can tell -- they jump to their feet before the last note is played.
Sometimes actors will say, “Oh, but we didn’t get a standing ovation tonight. And I go, ‘Yeah, so?”
I saw that play about the three couples grieving — this was on Broadway — what’s it called?
The Shadow Box?
Yes, and at the end, the people just sat there. The actors came out, and each couple bowed, and it was silent. And it wasn’t until they took their group bows that the audience started applauding.
Just stunned silence ...
And when I saw that, I just went, ‘Whoa, that is cool.’”
When I saw Angels in America in L.A., it was like that. So I was very glad when they did the Reading Stage version of that at the Civic, because I really wanted to play that role.
“You know when they should be standing up, and you know when you don’t deserve it. You know when it rips.”
In a lot of the productions at Spokane Civic Theater that Tom Heppler has been in, it has ripped. He's a class act, and he's one of the pillars of the local theater community.