Monday, October 20, 2014

A Great Play Provokes Discussion: Alan Smyth Talks About Theatre, Acting and "Zealot"

Demosthenes Chrysan, Charlayne Woodard and Alan Smyth in Zealot. Photo by Ben Horak.

Irish actor Alan Smyth has an acting resume that spans the ocean—from Ireland to the United States. South Coast Repertory first encountered him as Geoffrey, the architect, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular. He brings stage, film and television experience to the role of Edgar in the world premiere of Zealot by Theresa Rebeck. We caught up with him after a show to dig deeper into his life and work and his approach to this world premiere work.

What originally brought you to the stage and acting?
Being a fan brought me to acting; being affected by performers. I have always adored movies and, as a kid, I would obsessively watch the same ones again and again. I remember saving my money and when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out; I went to see it 13 nights in a row! I always wanted to be in those worlds. Then, as a teenager, I would go watch local amateur and school productions and want to be up there doing it. My uncle was an English teacher at an all-girls school and he brought his class to see a production of The Plough and the Stars by Seán O'Casey in Dublin; I was allowed to tag along. That was it! I was in!

Alan Smyth
Who has been your mentor?
Without question a guy named Alan Stanford is responsible for me having a career. He is one of Ireland's leading actor/directors. He was my main tutor in drama school and he took me under his wing: he introduced me to his agent (who became mine) and gave me my first jobs in the business. He certainly nurtured me and truly helped me develop as an actor, directing me in many of my favorite roles to date. Our relationship progressed through the years and we became as much collaborators as colleagues, acting together, writing together and working on almost 20 productions together. Nobody has done more for me than Alan has. I am eternally grateful.

What three words describe you?
Confident. I used to think it was the thing to be self-deprecating and humble about what you do and how you do it, but now I know that’s inhibiting and prohibitive when it comes to creativity. But just trust in yourself, your abilities; to be confident in your own potential is something I feel blessed to have. Passionate: I give a shit! I really do. [About] my job, my family, my friends, my joys, my woes ... all if it! Nothing is worth doing without passion. Curious: I'm interested in so many things—in people, the world, possibilities ... all of it. I don't know a lot, but I love finding it out, whatever it is.

What drew you to Zealot?
Zealot was one of the most affecting scripts I had read in a long time. It covers so much in such a short space of time; it is funny and tragic; It is both optimistic and, not pessimistic as such but...realistic. I performed a staged reading of it back in April here at SCR and I liked it so much I gave up the last four days of my parents visit here to participate (which is precious time for me) because that’s how much I like this play. Some plays you have to do. With a play like this, you change your plans.

What’s the quick synopsis of the play from your perspective?
An innocent girl willingly involves herself in something that ends with people losing their life. She feels like she was doing the right thing and should only be answerable to God. Then, the political system takes over and it is a race against the clock to see whether or not she can survive the consequences of her actions. This play exposes the consequences of our choices, and the positive and negative influence that politics and religion can bring to bear. It also explores how the definition of civil rights can differ vastly depending upon your belief system/geographical location.

What have been some of the delights and challenges of creating the character of Edgar? 
Theresa [Rebeck] writes characters every actor wants to play; they are a gift. The challenge is to mine those characters for everything they are worth. You do not want to leave anything unexplored because these characters are rich, complicated and terribly flawed. And you are seeing them in a much-heightened state of operation, so you must fully understand them in order to know how they will behave in these circumstances. This is both a joy and a challenge. Oh, and the lines! There are a million lines to learn. But, because they are this well written, it makes that process much, much easier. The particular challenge for me in playing Edgar is not being afraid of him. I mean that at times he behaves seemingly awful toward his 'guests', he can be unlikeable, but I cannot shy away from that. I cannot want nor need the audience to like “me” at all times, I have to allow myself to be the mess that this guy is sometimes. What's delightful about Theresa's writing is that there is always a reason for people behaving in the way that they do. Also that people cannot simply be characterized as “good guys'/'bad guys.” People are people.

What do you hope audiences will take away from their experience at Zealot?
I really feel like everyone who sees this play will think about it for some time to come. It could not be more topical. It's a “debate” play as much for the audience as for the characters. I want people to be challenged by what they see, question their own opinions on things and ask "what would I do in that particular situation?" The strength of a great play is the power to provoke discussion and a revisiting of ideas or ideologies that we maybe too embedded in. The power to open ones mind and use ones imagination. That's the purpose of the artistic endeavor. And, honestly, Zealot provides it in spades.

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