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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Still in Residence at Actors Theatre: Interview with William McNulty

William McNulty as Van Helsing in Fifth
Third Bank's Dracula. Photo - Bill Brymer.

By Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2013 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Keith Waits:  What was your first show at Actors Theatre? Were you a member of the Resident Company then?
William McNulty:  My first show at ATL was the great Gore Vidal play The Best Man.  It starred Victor Jory, who had done the role on tour for an extended period of time.  Victor was an extraordinary stage actor and an extraordinary person. I had never been on stage with anything like him. Stylistically, he was like something out of the nineteenth century; I don't think he gave a damn about Stanislavsky or Lee Strasberg, or any particular theory of acting. He was simply a star, big and bold and about as subtle as a tornado, and audiences adored him. Working with him and a cast made up of seasoned repertory actors was a somewhat intimidating but mostly thrilling initiation to the world of regional theatre and to my career at ATL.
KW:  Who else was in the Resident Company at that time?
WM:  Ray Fry and Adale O'Brien, each of whom, by virtue of stellar performances, significantly contributed to the theatre's rapid growth during the early years of Jon Jory's tenure.  Michael Kevin, John Fields and Bob Burrus had not been there as long as Adale and Ray, but they were each in their own way remarkable performers.  Ken Jenkins and Susan Kingsley would come in for two or three shows a season, and it was always a great honor to share the stage with them. Ken has gone on to well deserved commercial success and Susan is still sorely missed by all of us who knew and worked with her. (Susan Kingsley was killed in a traffic accident in 1984)
KW:  Do you miss that kind of regular ensemble relationship? Would you like to see it come back to ATL?
WM:  I have always been an advocate of the resident company concept for this and other regional theatres. In many cases resident companies contributed significantly to the initial success and subsequent growth of these theatres.  I believe that is true of Actors Theatre. Of course I enjoyed working with the actors in the ensemble when there was one, but there were innumerable freelancers who came in for specific shows who were also gifted artists and wonderful people. So it is not acting with the company that I particularly miss but rather the bond that such a company inevitably creates with the community. For many people, the opportunity to watch a core company of actors move from show to show throughout an entire season and, indeed over a period of years was as much a source of entertainment and an incentive to attend as were the shows themselves. 
People naturally had their favorite actors, but I don't think any of us were regarded as stars or celebrities; I don't remember any of us being mobbed for autographs or getting invited to swanky Derby parties. Instead we were regarded as respected members of the community, providing a well appreciated service. As the only remaining resident actor I am still greeted on an almost daily basis by Louisvillians in stores, restaurants, bars, etc. and thanked for my work. Usually these folks talk about shows they've enjoyed over the years and about the current season. But often they express regret at the loss of the resident company. 
So, yes, I would like to see the return of the resident company, but I think the chances of that are slim to none. The reasons for this are both economic and logistical.  If you've attended theatre over the past twenty years you've probably noticed that more and more small cast plays are getting produced. Theatres all over the country are tightening their belts, and reducing cast sizes is one way of doing it.  Also, if you hire a group of actors for an entire season you have to select a series of plays in which those actors can be appropriately used. Most artistic directors feel this is far too limiting an imposition. So, even though resident companies were extremely helpful in building audiences and assuring continued attendance, I think the modern perception is that they have outlived their usefulness.This is regrettable especially for young actors just entering the business, since these companies once provided a safe haven for performing artists to learn and grow and play  a broad range of characters in plays of all styles and periods.
KW:  You have played in so many classic and iconic plays while here, what are some of your favorites?
WM:  As far as favorites are concerned, I hardly know where to begin or end.  The first significant lead I played was Norman in the great Alan Ayckborn trilogy, The Norman Conquests. They are very funny plays and the town went wild over them so I felt that they were my introduction to this audience. Playing Charlie in The Foreigner was another comedic high point. Playing Barnett in the world premier of Crimes of the Heart with Kathy Bates and Susan Kingsley, was unbelievable. Working in a Jon Jory production was always amazing.  I particularly remember Alceste in The Misanthrope, Father in  Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Turay in The Play's the Thing. Others that come to mind are Johnny in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Quartermaine in Quartermaine's Terms, Jamie in A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Hanrahan in Below the Belt. I could go on and on; suffice it to say that my ATL career has been blessed.
KW:  You have worked under Jon Jory, Marc Masterson, and now Les Waters as Artistic Director. How have the changes in leadership worked out?
WM:  I think it's fair to say that Actors Theatre would not have risen to the national prominence  it now enjoys were it not for the visionary leadership of Jon Jory. He is a uniquely gifted individual with a multiplicity of skills. His genius was evident in his directing, his writing, his administrative skills and his ability to connect with this community. He was a person of boundless energy and expected a great deal from the people around him. He drove  us all a little crazy but the resultant work was excellent and well worth the effort. When Marc took over the theatre had grown about as much as was possible, and, due to a series of economic setbacks, the company was in financial trouble. 
As a leader, Marc had a remarkably steady hand, and thanks to him and Jennifer Bielstein, we have survived some pretty rough times. His play selection was smart and tasteful and his direction was excellent. He was very good to me, nominating me for a Fox Foundation Distinguished Artist grant, which I subsequently won, and encouraging me to write my own adaptation of Dracula, which is now produced annually by ATL.
Les has only been here a year, but has already endeared himself to the entire staff.  He is a charming and gracious man and an extraordinarily creative director with an impressive track record behind him. I think we can count on Mr. Waters to give us productions of the highest quality and to take the theatre in surprising and delightful new directions.
KW:  What do you think the future holds? How do you expect it to change and grow?
WM:  Unlike Mr. Jory, I'm not much of a visionary, but I think with Les as AD the opportunity for the theatre to advance it's already estimable reputation is to be expected. I would guess that we will see more ATL productions finding their way to New York. Some might be works featured in the Humana Festival, but it's also quite possible that Les will collaborate with a talented playwright and create a "homegrown" piece that will attract national attention. Mind you, this is pure speculation. I have not heard him express ambitions along those lines, but from what I know of the way he works and the connections he has made in the American theatre I think it's a strong possibility. What I know for sure about Les is that he loves the city of Louisville and intends to create pieces specific to this community.
 My hope is that we will find more strategies for rebuilding our audience. Attendance has slipped in recent years. As I've said, Marc and Jennifer did a fabulous job of getting the theatre through a period of great economic crisis, but the economy is currently recovering and we need to seize the opportunity to lure former theatre goers back and to entice younger folks and people new to the theatre to give us a try. The challenges are far greater than they were when I first arrived here in the seventies. There are many more live entertainment options available around town and cable TV, Netflix, etc. have greatly contributed to the couch potatoing of America.  But the work done at ATL is so consistently good I firmly believe if we can just get folks in to see a few of our productions we can hook them.
KW:  You have been involved with Dracula for many years, and after Marc Masterson asked you to forge your own adaptation, you have really "owned" this production. What do you see as the next evolution of this show?
WM:  When I readapted Dracula six years ago, a good deal of money was spent on rebuilding the set and adding new effects and props. I am happy to tell you that since then the show has grown exponentially in popularity. Because so much was spent on the rebuild, my production budget has been pretty much frozen since then. Nevertheless, every year fresh ideas occur to me and usually they cost little or nothing to incorporate. People who see it on regular basis always comment on how different it seems from year to year. This is partially due to new special effects that I manage to sneak in on the cheap, but I think it may have more to do with interpretive changes. 
William McNulty and Lindsay Noel-Whiting in
Fifth Third Banks' Dracula. Photo - Bill Brymer.
Coming back to this piece annually has made me aware that we are different people from one year to the next. Every year, even though I'm now dealing with my own writing, I seem to see the play from a different perspective. Also, even though we do have some people returning who have done the show before, there are always new cast members, and their presence creates a new and invigorating chemistry. Our rehearsals are not so much about restating what has been done before but about rediscovering the material so that it's almost like working on a totally new piece. So, whereas I don't know when I might be able to create major new special effects, I think the show is in a constant state of evolution. Even within a given season I am always encouraging the actors to continue their exploration. I think,  then, that even folks who have seen it before, should they choose to come again, can count on a new experience. The truth is, at least for the near future, I don't anticipate any major overhaul in text or concept. 
Readapting the play enabled me to retain everything I liked about the production and add a whole new set of ideas, while eliminating those aspects of the original text which I felt were holding us back. While there are still structural similarities virtually all of the language has changed, the characters are given new dimensions and their relationships are now, I feel, far more dramatically effective. It is enormously gratifying to me that the show attracts people who have rarely or never set foot in a theatre and that it is far and away the most requested student matinee production in ATL history. At the same time it has drawn regular theatre goers and garnered praise from other theatre professionals, and, rigorous though it is to perform, every actor who has been in it has had a ball. So, I feel that what we've made here is a piece of populist art, and although I am happy for it to evolve, I am reluctant to tear it down and start all over again.
KW:  Of course, you are also famous for your repeated appearances in A Christmas Carol, mostly, but not always as Scrooge. I can even remember you as Charles Dickens himself many years ago, but recently you have been playing Scrooge. What similarities, if any, do you find in Van Helsing and Scrooge?
William McNulty and Dara Jade Miller in the 2008 production
of A Christmas Carol. Photo - Harlan Taylor.
WM:  Both Van Helsing and Scrooge are characters of great intensity and passion. Van Helsing is on a mission to hunt down and destroy a creature of overwhelming evil.  Although Scrooge is often regarded as a quintessential miser who is unwillingly manipulated and transformed by a series of ghostly visitations, it seems to me that he recognizes early on that due to his profound dread of poverty, he has made some horrible decisions, and he becomes a willing and courageous student, anxious to learn the lessons the ghosts have to offer, however painful those lessons might be. His pursuit of redemption is as relentless as Van Helsing's pursuit of Dracula, but Scrooge's journey is more engaging because it is so transformative and the lessons he learns are lessons from which we all can benefit. Both characters are challenging and gratifying to play because they both go through hell, and, for some reason, actors enjoy highly emotional roles.  It's strange that situations that we strive to avoid in life are the ones we are most drawn to in make-believe.
KW:   You have worked and continue to work outside of Louisville, but you make this community your home. Why is that?
WM:   Although I no longer work through entire seasons as I did when ATL had a resident company, this is still where I do the majority of my work, so, from a practical perspective,  it still makes sense to make Louisville my home base. But the truth is I have, over the years, developed a great fondness for this city and for the people that live here. I've worked at a fair number of theatres in other cities around this country, and I am always happy to return to Louisville.  I can honestly say that I have not been to another city where the people were as genuinely kind and unaffected and welcoming as they are in these parts. And, for a town this size, the support for the arts is awesome. Stage actors must go where the work is, and the time may come when my career demands that my wife and I pull up our roots and relocate, but it would be emotionally wrenching to leave this lovely community behind.
Dracula runs through October 31
A Christmas Carol
November 26 - December 23, 2013
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 584-1205


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