Brandon O’Neill and Laura Griffith have just finished up a successful run as the lead couple (Billy and Julie) in Carousel at the 5th Avenue Theatre. Now, they’re stage-coupling again in another enormously well-known play, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at ACT Theatre just down the street (starring as Brick and Maggie) which opens Thursday, April 23, 2014 and runs through May 17th.
They’re going from a big musical to a big stage play, and we at SGS wondered what might be the same and what might be different about the two endeavors.
SGS: First off, what would you say are the similarities or differences in a musical pairing versus a “straight” play?
LG: I approach a play and a musical the same way. I use all the same tools to tell the story in the most honest and active way I can. Brandon and I have been lucky to have some very rich material to dive into this year. The main difference is that a brilliant musical like Carousel gives you a wonderful map about what’s happening in the scene with the music and underscoring, but you can’t play the mood of the music. You still have to figure out what is happening between the two characters and what you want from your partner and how you are going to get it.
BO’N: In both Carousel and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Laura and I are required to play characters in great crisis and feel the tensions of keeping a marriage together in that crisis. One couple has absolutely nothing in the world, and the other has everything and they are possible heirs to a massive fortune. It’s interesting to test both socioeconomic scales and to find that Love, in both cases, outweighs all.
In Carousel, the audience is given a peek into what makes Billy tick. His (song) Soliloquy is ripe with feeling and longing and leaves you with no doubt what is driving this man forward. In Cat, Brick is written as the polar opposite. An almost unmovable, unknowable, impossibly detached character. Even Tennessee Williams himself wavered and faltered when attempting to describe the center of Brick.
In a musical, the actor must try to ground that which is suspended, in a non-musical, an actor must suspend that which is grounded.
SGS: Now that you’ve had so much time working together, what have you learned about each other that helps or gets in the way?
LG: Brandon and I have built a rare trust with each other. We both want the work to come first. We can ask each other for what we need in a scene without worrying about our egos because of the implicit trust we have. I am especially grateful for his support. He knows when I am upset now, and he has been a wonderful, generous friend through some tense, difficult moments. Best of all, he makes me laugh when that’s what is needed most.
BO’N: After having to play both of these A-holes in a row, I am considering heavy drinking as a viable occupation. Aside from the trust and ease of communication that we’ve developed, Laura has learned how to push my OCD buttons and how to incorporate those things into her blocking so that I spend the play in a state of PTSD. Thanks Laura, and please pick up the goddamn napkin.
SGS: ACT’s stage will be much closer to the audience than the 5th’s. Do you feel differently being closer to or farther from the audience?
LG: It doesn’t change my preparation at all. I am happy that the audience will be closer. One of the biggest challenges at the 5th is that a lot of the subtlety of intimate scenes doesn’t read (can’t be seen by the audience) past the first ten or fifteen rows, but I approach the scene work the same way and let the director worry about how to open up those moments once we are in the space so everyone can be in on them. It’s wonderful at ACT to feel like they are right in the room with you. It’s very exciting.
BO’N: The beauty of being closer to the audience is being able to sense their pleasure or displeasure viscerally. They truly become players in the play. It’s very exciting. But it’s really just another level of acting…acting like we can’t see you, hear you, and smell you. (Which we can so, please take it easy on the Axe spray and legumes.)
SGS: If you could play any other famous couple in musicals and plays, together, which set would you like to choose?
LG: It would be really fun to do a comedy with Brandon because he has such a wonderful playfulness and a delightfully silly side. We have to be careful sometimes in rehearsal because we start to riff on a funny moment and we can have a hard time pulling ourselves together to be serious again.
BO’N: I don’t know…I’m pretty sure Laura has had enough of me. Perhaps any comedy where I don’t try to kill or otherwise maim my wife.
For more information, go to www.acttheatre.org or call 206-292-7676.
Brandon O’Neill http://brandon-oneill.com/
Laura Griffith http://lauragriffith.net/home.htm