After seeing Robin Downward’s extraordinary performance as Sherlock Holmes in Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s “Holmes & Watson Save the Empire,” I decided to check in with Downward and learn a little about his acting technique. We met at his own Randall Theatre in Medford as he was preparing for the opening of “Scots on the Rocks.” After a tour of the theater, we settled in his spacious and comfortable office.
EH: What is your vision for the Randall Theatre?
RD: The community of Medford needs a good, solid, community-based theater that serves the community through its outreach, not just within its doors. There is theater here; it’s just not accessible to the general public. One of my ideas is called “exterior theater,” theater that happens outside, in the parks or out in the streets. Theater has the opportunity to change people’s lives for the better, but it’s not going to do it if all that is happening is within the walls and the confines of the theater. It has to go into the community to be effective.
EH: Are you going to teach acting?
RD: In the fall I will be teaching a class for new actors called “Acting is the Art of Not Acting.” It will cover basic character analysis, finding believable characters and where they come from, using the text of a production as a textbook showing you where to find the character within the lines, to look into the subtext and find those nuggets, rather than coming up with a character first, and then learning the lines.
That was something that I had so much fun with when I was doing “Masked” at Oregon Stage Works with Peter Alzado. I love that technique. And it’s not really done in community theater, especially if it’s a show that people know. Actors already have a preconceived notion of a character. They create that character, and then they memorize their lines. I prefer to teach people in the opposite direction. You let the author’s lines determine the character. There are so many people who “act” when they’re acting. New actors have the most difficulty with letting go, and finding that character, and having that character be believable.
I taught an acting class here last month. What I told them first was that they needed to let go of their ego before I could work with them, that what we do here is in a no-ego zone. Anybody working here has to know and understand that what they’re doing is not for them, it’s for the betterment of the people who are coming to see theater. It’s not for the actor. If it makes them feel good, and it makes them feel happy, that’s one thing. But the ego will kill them. So people have to understand that when they come and do theater here, the meaning and purpose of why we’re here is far deeper than any of their own self-serving issues.
We haven’t made it easy. But theater isn’t supposed to be comfortable. I always tell my actors that they always need to be on that edge of that uncomfortable space. If they’re comfortable, there’s a problem. You’ve always got to try to push yourself to the edge of that uncomfortable place and be willing to fall off. And that’s where some of our actors are right now, they’re on that edge.