Inconceivable! An Interview with Wallace Shawn

Legend has it “It” girl Lana Turner was “discovered” at a soda counter in 1937. Outside of perhaps Hedy Lamar, who invented some heavy military tech in WWII, most of the actors in the “glory days” of Hollywood were not known for smarts but for looking glamorous. Hollywood was the way for good-looking people from the back fields of America to break free and become wealthy and “cultured.” They had to speak well, dress well, stay thin, know their lines and marks, and obey the studio.

Times have changed. While good looks are nice, there are plenty of successful actors who have never been considered heart-throbs (Steve Buscemi, Clint Howard, Vincent Schiavelli, Mike Smith, Linda Hunt, etc). Hollywood may have its mega-cash flow (A-listers make $15-20 million per film; Dwayne Johnson had 9 films 2016-2018), but many stars aren’t afraid to flaunt their smarts and get that college degree, knowing how fickle the acting business is. Jodie Foster has a degree from Yale, Natalie Portman from Harvard, Emma Watson from Brown, Mayim Balik has a PhD in Neuroscience, Gerard Butler a law degree, James Franco is finishing a PhD from Yale, and more.

Smart AND Talented

Recently, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting actor Wallace Shawn, listening to him speak and interviewing him briefly. Never heard of him? I’ll bet you have. Perhaps most famously he is known for the Inconceivable role of Vizzini in the cult classic, The Princess Bride. Currently, he plays the Professor on the TV show Young Sheldon. He’s had roles in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, Bojack Horseman, and if you had children any time in the last 20 years, he’s the voice of Rex in Toy Story. You might not know his name, but you probably do know his face and voice.

And what an interesting man he is!  Soft spoken and humble, he loves to chat, and was charmed by all the happy faces he met. Shawn graduated from no less than Harvard, with a degree in history and the hope of becoming a diplomat – so far as spending a year in India teaching English. Acting was never on his radar – in fact, he was known far more for being a playwright, with such well-received plays as Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Marie and Bruce, My Dinner with Andre, A Master Builder, and Evening at the Talk House. His acting career came about due to a friendship with play director Andre Gregory, with whom he collaborated on the semi-autobiographical My Dinner with Andre, and he’s never stopped working since.

He’s also published books of essays, including one titled simply Essays, and his 2017 collection entitled Night Thoughts, which he admits is a bit political. Although biographies will give more clues to his opinions, in person Wallace treads a neutral line, doesn’t give many clues as to his feelings, and tries to keep many of his opinions private. Originally he considered writing to be selfish and self-indulgent, but then realized it was a satisfying creative outlet.

Heavy Reader

photo: Dawn Swingle

So what does a highly educated actor and playwright like to read? What authors does he favor? Wallace preferred to side-step the question a bit, citing that he likes to keep those things private. In the past, his favorite book was The Idiot by Dostoevsky, because it contained just about everything you could ever want to know about the human condition – not the kind of answer I expected, far heavier than I would have imagined. He admitted to liking Japanese literature, including Yasunari Kawabata and Haruki Murakami. The man is far deeper, and a deeper thinker, than I ever would have imagined.

Time with Wallace Shawn is like spending time with a favorite uncle who comes to Sunday dinner. While his movie and television roles may portray him otherwise, he’s sweet, personable, and down to earth. He admires Woody Allen, spent much time with him, and does not believe the accusations against him. His environmentalism showed when asked what he would have liked to have told his younger self, and he remarked he never realized “when he was young that the most destructive animal on Earth was ourselves, that what we put into our cars would destroy everything not only locally, but globally, that butterflies and bees would be dying, and only a handful of people would even care about it.”

Wallace Shawn: actor, voice actor, playwright, author. If you can’t catch one of his plays, check out his movies and TV shows. Truly, a man who is much greater than the sum of his roles!

  

Thirty Years of Phantom of the Opera

Screen-Shot-2011-09-14-at-3.16.10-PMThis October marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera and we’re celebrating on Saturday, October 1st with a showing of the 25th anniversary production filmed on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London. This lavish performance stars Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess. (Can’t wait for October 1st? Download the 25th anniversary performance from hoopla.)

Phantom originated as a novel by Gaston Leroux that takes place in the Paris Opera House. Nearly everyone connected with the opera house has felt the phantom’s vague, troubling presence. But only Christine Daae will  learn the secret of why the man who has made the tunnels beneath Paris his private domain must forever hide his face behind a mask. Part horror story, part historical romance, and part detective thriller, the tale of a masked, disfigured musical genius is familiar to millions of readers, as well as to movie and theater-goers. Leroux’s phantom is darker and, yes, crazier than the phantom of stage and screen and a comparison of the original story to the play and movie adaptations is a must for all Phantom fans.

So read the book, listen to an audio version, watch the movies and then join us at the library on October 1st to see the ultimate stage production of the longest running musical of all time.

Phantom2And don’t forget! The elusive Phantom himself will be on hand to pose for pictures before and after the show!

 

 

 

Jacket1The Phantom of the Opera downloadable audiobook

 

 

 

Jacket2The Phantom of the Opera DVD.

The  2005 movie starring Gerard Butler.

 

 

jacket3The Phantom of the Opera downloadable movie.

The original version starring Lon Chaney!

 

Jacket4The Phantom of the Opera

The original novel.

All’s Faire in Fall

bristol-Renaissance-FaireFall is here again, and with it comes Fair season – Church Fairs, Grange Fairs, State Fairs, Harvest Festivals, and perhaps the most fun of all – The Renaissance Faire.
Renaissance Faires are  newer than you think. The first official “Renaissance Faire” traces back to Los Angeles in 1963, when a school teacher named Phyllis Patterson put one on for a weekend fundraiser for radio station KPFK, and more than 8,000 people showed up. A fall staple was born (because, let’s face it, NO ONE wants to be buried under that many yards of wool, satin, and leather in the middle of July).

Why the Renaissance? Why not Roman Bacchanalias with chariot races? Why not the 1363839072Dark Ages? Why not Pompeiian pageants? Celebrating the gruesome deaths of a city of people might be just a tad morbid. The Dark Ages were – well, Dark. We don’t know much about them, because following the fall of Rome civilization was illiterate, spread out, and little was going on beyond warfare and survival. And Rome? Rome certainly had a lot going for it, but not many speak Latin anymore, and togas, while simple and fun for frat parties, just don’t have the suave flair of swashbuckling boots, rapiers, and villains’ pointed beards and mustaches. The Renaissance has far more possibilities.

Robin-Hood-Men-In-Tights-dracula-and-robin-hood-in-tights-and-loving-it-22205932-320-240Rising up out of the depths of the Black Plague, the Renaissance means, literally, a rebirth. Disenchanted with a church that did not save them from the plague, men turned to science to keep them safe, resulting in great advancements in learning, science, art, music, and warfare. Stretching from 1300 to 1600, the Renaissance saw the rise of DaVinci, of Galileo, Columbus, Martin Luther, the printing press, Magellan, Henry VIII, William Harvey,  the advent of gunpowder, muskets, and the waning of armor and swords. Most Renaissance Faires throw in the likes of Robin Hood (earliest tales date to 1377), and sometimes evejeffpiraten King Arthur, who, although Malory’s history of Le Morte D’Artur is published in 1470, the story from which The Once and Future King is taken,  is believed to have lived, if he’s not merely legend, sometime between 600 and 800. Herein lie the tales of valor, not long before the Three Musketeers, the tales of actual pirates Barbossa and William Kyd, of Dutch corsairs and privateers, and let’s not forget Shakespeare (though Shakespeare’s plays, though written and performed around 1600, were often taken from history much older: King MacBeth actually lived in the 1000’s). That’s a lot of romanticized history to be able to play with, a lot of possibilities for actors to delve into. Hence Renaissance Faires are full of LARPers (live-action role players) and SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism, hard-core medieval recreationists) members running about. Your inner Dragon Master can run amok, and no one will ever know.

unspecifiedSo pull on your hose, strap on your broadsword, lace your corset, and get ready for an imaginative adventure back in time, and if you’re not careful, you just might learn something. Faires can offer a diversity of activities such as Birds of Prey shows, sword forging, glass blowing, theater, jousting, live chess tournaments, musicians, and more, as well as authentic foods, drink, clothing, crafts, and entertainments.  Check out the Connecticut Renaissance Faire, or if you like a drive, try the larger ones like King Richard’s Faire in Massachusetts, or my favorite, The New York Renaissance Faire in Tuxedo, New York. They’re worth the trip!  For a more in-depth experience, check these great books out as well:

They’re Not What They Seem…

Can you figure out what these women have in common?

AlanaAlanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce “I did this because I wanted to become a knight.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxShadowbridge by Gregory Frost “I did this because I needed to protect myself.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxThe Education of Bet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted “I did this because I wanted an education.”

 

 

jacketA Soldier’s Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss “I did this because I wanted to escape from my previous life and fight for a cause.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxTwelfth Night by William Shakespeare “I did this because I needed a way to live.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxDisney’s Mulan “I did this because I needed to protect my family.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxBloody Jack by L.A. Meyer. “I did this because I wanted to sail around the world.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxSelf-Made Man by Norah Vincent “I did this because I wanted to learn about how men live.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxRowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest by Nancy Springer “I did this because I was searching for my father.”

 

Ouran

Ouran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori “I did this because I was in debt.”

 

 

Did you guess? Women disguised as men. They were disguised so they could fight for themselves or their families, protect themselves when they were all alone in a man’s world, and earn an education, which they would have been denied otherwise. Each and every one of these is absolutely fascinating. Do yourself a favor and work your way through this list!

Do you have any favorite books/movies/plays with this subject that did not make this list?

Front Row Seating

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”     – Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2

Back in the 80’s, when we still had a Shakespeare Theater down in Stratford, CT, there was a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was put on for all the high schools to come and see. Of all the plays, Macbeth seemed like it would be the most interesting, with witches and murder and blood, and big velvety Elizabethan costumes. I was excited – anything for a field trip and a day out of class. Until we got there. Some idiot had decided the best way for 1,500 rowdy high school kids to understand Shakespeare was to imagine it, with a play that had no scenery and no costumes – the entire set was draped in billowing soft blue nylon fabric, like the green-screens of modern movie-making, and the actors all wore tight-fitting outfits of the same blue, as if they’d just escaped from some monochromatic ballet. That was it. It was a total disaster. The audience was so bored and riled you couldn’t hear the dialogue for the catcalls. That is NOT the way to introduce children to Shakespeare.

The good thing is, you don’t have to be a Shakespeare scholar to enjoy a good play. Whether you’ve had to suffer through drudging high school productions of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or been dazzled on Broadway by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan performing Waiting for Godot, a play is not a bad thing. Perhaps your only exposure to waiting-for-godot-ian-mckellen-patrick-stewarttheater has been dragging yourself through Oedipus or Antigone in school, not caring a flying duck about the role of the Chorus in Greek tragedy, just glad you scraped by and passed the test. The real tragedy of teaching plays as literature is that they are meant to be performed, not just read in a monotone like a stumbling seventh-grader who has no idea how to pronounce 15th century British comedies, let alone understand them. When performed, they come alive, like listening to a good movie on the television from the next room over. Even my five year old, with occasional explanations, could follow the movie version of Romeo and Juliet.

drama-collection_FRONT_349x349-300x300So if you’re a theater lover, or just a student struggling to understand Ibsen, Cheshire Library is ready to help! Our newest precious addition is a 25-volume audiobook collection of 250 plays and dramatic adaptions by L.A. Theaterworks. You won’t just hear the play, you’ll feel it, as you were meant to. The plays aren’t just read to you, but fully performed by an all-star cast of more than 1,000 actors you are probably familiar with – George Clooney, Calista Flockhart, Dan Castellaneta, Mark Ruffalo, Richard Dreyfus, Jean Stapleton, John de Lancie (who also wrote one of the Doyle adaptions), and so many, many more. Leonard Nimoy performing War of the Worlds with fellow Star Trek actors? Yeah, that’s in there too. Neil Simon, Chekhov, O’Neill, Miller, Shakespeare, Sophocles – they’re all here, ready to keep you entertained for a solid year of performances. Listen to one or listen to them all – you’ll be glad you did.

quote-it-does-not-follow-that-the-right-to-criticize-shakespeare-involves-the-power-of-writing-better-george-bernard-shaw-333385