Actor Denis Arndt is currently starring as Prospero in “The Tempest” and playing three supporting roles in “The Great Society” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Arndt has had a long and prosperous stage, film and television career. We visited over a scrumptious brunch at the Greenleaf Restaurant in Ashland. This is the first of a two-part Backstage column.
DA: I think that almost all theater should be approached as an athletic event. I think that there’s a physicality to it. Aside from the fact that you have to have some basic chops, you have to speak clearly. You need to know how to breathe, no less than a singer has to know how to breathe, especially in Shakespeare. We used to have contests to see who could actually hold a breath and sustain meaning through seventeen lines of iambic pentameter. Not many people could do it. You start thinking of yourself as a bagpipe, this huge bag that you have to keep filled, and of course that takes a certain kind of commitment. That’s just the technical part of it. There’s also very much of a “spiritual” aspect to it. Theater is a human act, a collective human act.
People come to theater for a special thing. What they come for is the spoken word. They come to a play to participate in it. They are unrehearsed players. In many ways, they come to play with you. The successful experience in this human act of theater is when everybody “gets” that gratification of celebrating our humanity. And it is human. There’s no god in there, there’s no devil in there, it’s all us. We participate.
Why did the biosphere create consciousness? Well, there’s no place more conscious, self-conscious, in the world than us all getting together to tell a story, to share a story, to hear a story. It’s as though the biosphere grew this brain so that we could observe it, tell stories about it, and appreciate it.
EH: How do you approach a Shakespeare script?
DA: The first thing you have to understand is that people actually used to talk that way. That’s how people communicated. Otherwise, if you didn’t think that was the way people talked, what were all those groundlings doing there, paying half-a-penny to come listen to this play? It was all very clear to them, the syntax, the complexity of the language. The iambic pentameter and all of that stuff is basically inside text; these are instructions to actors. There was no such thing as a director. There were theater actor-managers. You got your role on a parchment that was rolled up, and you read it, and you didn’t know what anyone else was going to say, because you didn’t have their part. So, conversations began, just like you and I today. Not to say that it’s not absolute sublime poetry, almost all of it. Although it is literature, it’s so much more. It’s not meant to be read, it’s meant to be spoken.
And then you start thinking of the athleticism, who’s that human body speaking these things? There’s a kind of vulnerability that one allows in approaching any text. You make yourself open and vulnerable to it and then it starts to shape. It shapes you into something, that, if it’s deep enough and good enough, it will never be revealed. That’s how good the literature is. You just keep swimming deeper and deeper, and it keeps revealing itself and something happens inside the discipline. It’s the depth of the literature, the human depth of the story.
“The Great Society” plays through Nov. 1 and “The Tempest” through Nov. 2 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For tickets and information, go to http://www.osfashland.org or call 800-219-8161.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at email@example.com.