Actors on the Shakespeare stage

Tony Award-winning actress Zoe Caldwell called Mary Maher last week to say that the chapter about her in Maher's new book was "glorious." Such a reaction may not be the reason writers write, but it doesn't hurt.

Maher will talk about the book, "Actors Talk About Shakespeare," (Limelight Editions, $18.99) Tuesday, Nov. 17, at Southern Oregon University. The book features interviews with Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Sir Derek Jacobi, Stacy Keach and other American, Canadian and British actors talking about acting Shakespeare.

Playbill, the theater magazine, hailed it as a treasury of talents, tactics and tales mining the hearts and minds and experience of those who have performed Shakespeare on the stage and in film.

Why another book about Shakespeare?

In 1982, Maher made her first trip to Ashland and saw Mark Murphey play Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. At intermission, she heard a little boy say, "He isn't really crazy, is he, Daddy?"

We're fascinated by actors, Maher says. And in its simplest terms, the basic question comes down to, "How did you do that?"

Maher is fascinated by the actor's process. Especially when it comes to Shakespeare. She says the actors she talked with for the book look at acting Shakespeare as something like earning a black belt in performance art.

Actor Kevin Kline told Maher that, "If you let two or three years go without playing Shakespeare, you begin to realize it uses a different muscle group in your head."

"I seized upon that," says Maher, who taught acting and Shakespeare at the University of Arizona, worked on the BBC's "The Shakespeare Plays" series and has published more than 50 articles and book chapters in her field.

Kline may be best-known for his roles in films such as "Sophie's Choice," "The Big Chill" and "A Fish Called Wanda," but he's interspersed those roles with roles in "Richard III," "Henry V," "Hamlet," (1986 and 1990) "Much Ado About Nothing," "Measure for Measure," "King Lear," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "As You Like It."

He outlined to Maher his theory that the actor has to take authorship responsibilities for the role and not be mere meat on a director's meat hook.

"The author of the play is Shakespeare, but the character has to own the character he is playing," he said. "Olivier aptly said you marry yourself to the character."

Maher moved to Ashland in 2002 after her retirement from teaching. She lectures at OSF and gives guest classes at SOU. Her previous book, "Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies" was chosen by the Chronicle of Higher Education as an Academic Book of the Month and was featured on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." She also is the author of the biography "Nicholas Pennell: Risking Enchantment."

She says all the actors in the book sat with her for face-to-face interviews, often after she had run a gauntlet of assistants, agents and gatekeepers. Often they became quite enthusiastic, if they weren't always so in the beginning. Kenneth Branagh told her he'd give her an hour. The time passed quickly.

"I'll just go have a pee and then you can take all the time you want," he said.

Stacy Keach, who like Kline has mixed his movie work with lots of live Shakespeare over the years, gave her a poster of himself as King Lear.

"Look — no teeth!" he wrote. "Thanks for the great interview."

Certain things she discussed with each actor: training, relationships with directors, study and text preparation, dialogue, rehearsals and performances. One question she asked of each was how the process of a young actor differs from an older actor's process. She says answers were all over the map.

"There seems to be no right and wrong approach," she said. "It's a conclusion I came to once I had all the interviews in the bag."

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