Sunday, August 13, 2006

INTERVIEW – JONATHAN MCMURTRY

Jonathan McMurtry is one of San Diego’s most respected actors. At one point during the interview Jonathan’s head fell to a certain level, tilted sideways, and then raised itself upwards in an almost comically painful way as he spoke about other writers who almost insist upon using the word “beloved” as part of his nomenclature. Half of me felt that he’s quite complemented by the employment of such a description; the other half of me is totally convinced he wants to run as far away from such a description as possible. For purposes of this interview I shall simply call him distinguished, rare, one-of-a-kind, thoughtful, a quasi intellectual, humble, and a gentleman. Above all, he’s an individual who easily generates kindly love to and from his listeners, both on and off the stage.

Cuauhtémoc Q. Kish (CQK): I hear you were born in a trunk?

Jonathan McMurtry (JM): You might say that. I was born in Detroit, Michigan from show biz parents. They were dancers: Dad was a hoofer with a top hat and my mother became a choreographer. You might say they were “just passing through” the town when she had to make a quick visit to the Women’s Hospital. Marlo Thomas was born in that same hospital on that same day when I took my first breath.

[Jonathan lost his mother last year at the age of 87 while his father passed some 13 years ago.]

CQK: Is that why you have remained at the Old Globe for such a long time (45 years)?

JM: That very well could be the reason. I never liked traveling. We were always moving from one city to the next, while I went from one school to another. I hated that. As an adult, I once had the opportunity to travel in a show called Pajama Tops. We hit every major city in the United States and even played on Broadway at the Winter Gardens. It gave me an opportunity to find out what a “traveling show” was all about. After awhile I felt...just like a puppet.

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”

CQK: When did you meet Craig Noel?

JM: I met Craig Noel in Milwaukee where he was directing a show at the Fred Miller Theatre. He offered me a scholarship for $50 a week. This program was the predecessor for our current MFA program at the Globe. Our first three shows were Richard III, Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night. The actors did nine performances a week with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. It was really quite an exhaustive process, changing the sets constantly, and it eventually became too expensive.

[The Old Globe Theatre presented its first Shakespeare Festival in 1949 as a joint venture with San Diego State University. Jack O’Brien directed his first production, A Comedy of Errors in 1969.]

CQK: Was acting your childhood ambition?

JM: No; as a matter of fact I studied at the American Art Institute and became a commercial artist; even working at Disney Studios for awhile.

[Jonathan has been in over 170 productions since 1961. He’s received over 30 Dramalogue Awards, a Shiley Lifetime Achievement Patte Award, and an LA Drama Critics Award for the title role in Uncle Vanya.]

CQK: How did you transition from commercial artist to commercial actor?

JM: I was working in LA at the City College in the scene painting department when a professor took a liking to me and introduced me to Shakespeare. I found I liked it. I entered a contest (competitors included students from any of the colleges in the United States) that resulted in my getting a one year scholarship to the London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. After winning the West Coast finals and winning the semi-finals I tied for first place. After I finished my first year at RADA they gifted me with another year’s scholarship and I ended up a graduate of the Royal Academy.

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”

CQK: Are there many differences in studying acting in Britain as opposed to studying acting in the United States?

JM: You have to understand that in Britain Shakespeare is a part of their very culture, instilled through their entire school curriculum. It’s mandatory training. And it is steeped in technique of the text. In the US a small one per cent of the actors have an opportunity to do Shakespeare and most opportunities come with the eight or nine festivals offered during the year, mostly in the summer months. In England, on the other hand, Shakespeare is available everywhere.

CQK: So you’re saying that you don’t have to be British to be a great Shakespearean actor?

JM: Not at all. Actually, one of my professors told me that the American language is as close to the sound of the Elizabethan language as you will find.

CQK: You are now a part of the MFA program at the Globe. Can you tell us something about your contribution?

JM: The MFA program is one of the best in the entire country. You have to realize that the two-year program is limited to just 14 actors. I teach them about structure. I just finished a session with them awhile ago, teaching them about the sonnets. In the program they are taught a variety of things such as dance, yoga and fighting techniques. They are required to understudy all of the parts in the Festival as well.

CQK: What do you find is your biggest challenge with these students?

JM: To unlearn what they’ve learned academically. And to instill in them the fact that art is larger than the individual; you become humble to it. I want them to learn to relish the language. Most come to the class thinking about the character’s journey and I know they’ll get lost if they stay with that thought. This is the last thing they should be thinking about. Shakespeare’s genius is based upon jangled contradictions thru which an argument develops and without that understanding there can be no journey. When you find the argument the character will come out. And they need to pay attention to the verbs he employs as well as the irony within the text. As Hamlet says: Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”

[Jonathan takes on a very few private students and teaches a Master Class at Point Loma for actors and a few professors.]

CQK: Have you ever tried your hand at directing?

JM: I did try that...once. It was many years ago, with a production of Coriolanus. I found I was actually giving them line readings to do, every one of them. I finally realized that I simply wanted to act all the parts myself.

CQK: When did you realize that lovely Balboa Park would be your principal location for employment?
“That it should come to this!”

JM: After I had worked here for three summer seasons and “Uncle Craig Noel” asked me to stay on. He was a huge influence on my decision to remain here at the Globe. I was one of eight original associate artists at the Globe, which included other individuals like Katherine McGrath, Victor Buono, Eric Christmas and Peggy Kelner.

CQK: Obviously the pay was enough to support your lifestyle in San Diego in those early years.

JM: Not exactly; I did other jobs to support myself. I worked for a florist for a time, delivering flowers to mortuaries and even took on extra work delivering cadavers.

[Jonathan took his good old time and married for the first time at the age of 49. He and his wife, Terri, are quite proud of their 13-year old daughter, Coral, who they self taught and who speaks perfect French.]

CQK: Who was responsible for casting your latest role in Trying and did you audition for that role?

JM: At this stage of my career I seldom have to audition for any role; perhaps I’d have to audition for a Broadway show. Jack O’Brien was responsible for casting me in Trying; he asked me to do it after he saw a production of it on the East coast.

CQK: You manage to act in both television as well as cinema between stage events.

JM: I’ve had several recurring parts on shows such as Cheers and Wings and came very close to getting a few lead parts, but in the end circumstances prevented that from happening. One of the worst expressions an actor wants to hear from his agent is: “They want to go another way.”

CQK: Is money a major factor in choosing which role to accept?

JM: Money matters little to me when I’m considering a role, especially since I’ve started receiving my SAG and Equity retirement benefits.

CQK: Tell us about your career highlights if you will.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.”

JM: One would have to be my latest: Joanna McClelland Glass’ Trying, Uncle Vanya (LA Critics Circle Award), and playing the part of Iago (Othello) with Paul Winfield. The later became an almost spiritual experience. It was a reward I didn’t expect; it was a surprise, an apotheosis.

CQK: What do you think about the current crop of newer directors handling Shakespeare?

JM: Most directors today are not speech-oriented. If you remember there were no directors in Shakespeare’s day. In his time actors relied upon one another more. It was as if Shakespeare himself was directing through his writing. Afterwards, there was the actor-manager and now, today, theatre has evolved to the extent where directors maintain much of the control of the playwright’s work.

CQK: Are you saying that playwright’s are not writing like Shakespeare?

JM: I think that’s correct. There are some exceptions, like Tony Kushner. His Angels in America contains many of the elements that are found in the works of Shakespeare. But for the most part, that kind of theatre is gone. We seem to have arrived at a place where many lack a certain courage and a certain boldness to write about the heroic actions as he did. He didn’t take sides; Shakespeare makes little judgment but he does recognize that other human beings exist.



[Jonathan McMurtry has participated in the following productions: Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, Henry IV, Henry V, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Waiting for Godot, The Seagull, There’s One in Every Marriage, A Life in the Theatre, Uncle Vanya, American Buffalo, and Bus Stop, to name but a few.]

CQK: You are in a film with Annette Bening that will be released soon called Running With Scissors. How was that experience?

JM: Annette Bening rolled out the red carpet for me on the first day of the set for Running With Scissors. She greeted me warmly and announced that she was a fan of mine. That was so lovely.

CQK: Could you describe yourself in three Shakespearean words?

JM: Courageous, humble, and generous.

CQK: That seems to fit nicely. Is it possible to describe the state of San Diego theatre today for us?
“For you and I are past our dancing days.”

JM: In a word, it’s great. I’ve been around a long time and I have observed—especially with some of the newer smaller theatres like Cygnet, Diversionary and the like—that actors are indeed able to work on their craft. I am impressed that no one theatre seems to be competing against the other.

CQK: What’s a perfect day for you?

JM: Reading a good book, cooking (Jonathan’s a gourmet cook!), and spending time with my family.

CQK: At the end of the day what does the word accomplishment mean to you?

JM: It means reliving the experience in a larger sense. I always ask myself if anything was learned or if I did anything wrong.

CQK: What’s your favorite theatrical work?

JM: Anthony and Cleopatra. I love the decadence of it; a hero that was. And I love the language of that play.

CQK: What’s your favorite theatrical word?

JM: I will tell you that my least favorite word is “amazing.” It’s just so overly used.

CQK: Jonathan, if you somehow made the wrong turn and ended up facing the devil at the end of your life and career, what would you say to him?

JM: What did I do wrong?

CQK: Any parting words to your audience?

JM: Just...be yourself.

I thought it only fitting to end with words by William Shakespeare that some up how I feel—and many others--about Jonathan McMurtry:

“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty.”

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