Kat Hermes as Falstaff
I was having drinks with some of my fellow PCSC actors recently, and we confessed that we all imagine that the play we are working on is mostly about the character we are playing (however large or small our part in any given production.) Sometimes, this requires considerable effort and mental re-writing. When I played the lead in The Magical History of Thaisa (otherwise known as Pericles), I spent most of my stage time unconscious and most of the play offstage. And in our spring production of The Frat Boys of Venice, the real story was continually interrupted by all that nonsense about the pound of flesh.
This time, playing Falstaff, I am for once not alone in my opinion that the play is entirely about me. I have a great deal of scholarship and stage history on my side. In Shakespeare; The Invention of the Human, critic Harold Bloom devotes the entirety of his 43-page-long chapter on the Henry IV plays to Falstaff. Conflations of the two parts of Henry IV, such as Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, often focus on Falstaff as the central character. He has been the subject of an opera by Verdi and a novel by Robert Nye. He was so beloved by Shakespeare’s audience, and anecdotaly by Queen Elizabeth I herself, that he earned his own spin-off play, The Merry Wives of Windsor (which ended Pigeon Creek’s 2010 season).
An actor tackling one of Shakespeare’s great roles always gets asked what it is like to feel the weight of all that scholarly opinion (not to mention all of the great actors who’ve famously played the role before) on his or her shoulders. How do you prepare to inhabit one of the most beloved characters in Western literature? For me, the answer is, exactly the way I prepare for any other role. The difference being that this time it is likely that there will be people in the audience who care about the character as much as I do.
There is also the fact that this particular role is one that I’ve dreamed of playing almost as long as I’ve been acting and reading Shakespeare. Because I’ve been thinking about Falstaff for years, I came into rehearsal knowing a lot more about the character than I usually do. I’m sure seasoned theater-goers like our blog readers will not be surprised to learn that many important discoveries about character and story are made in the bar, and before the rehearsal processes even started, I’d had many long, drink-fueled conversations with the director and other actors about what my Falstaff would be.
So for me, this process as has been less about finding the character in rehearsal (though of course, there are many, many exciting discoveries still to be made there) and more about finding ways to translate the Falstaff that lives in my head onto the stage. I’ve written before, in previous actor blogs, about the challenges of playing male characters and of playing characters who are much older than I am, and I’m sure other actors in our production will have their own insights to share with you about those things. With all those physical and technical challenges in the background, my focus is on living up to all of the nuance and grandiosity of Falstaff’s language, on sharing all of the things about the character that I love in a way that helps the audience to love them, too.