Five Questions for Richard Jenkins

Five Questions for Richard JenkinsI can’t pretend to be objective here. After all, I appeared in the last production Richard Jenkins directed for Trinity Rep, back when he was a man of the theater. Okay, I didn’t audition for Jenkins, and he didn’t cast me. I didn’t show up for rehearsals either.

Five Questions for Richard JenkinsStill, I played “woman in the chair,” a character you may not find in your edition of Molière‘s The Miser but who is onstage through this production. A scripted character sat on my armrest and talked to me. It was the finest performance I gave in my entire career on the professional stage.

When founder Adrian Hall ran the Trinity Repertory Company (TRC) in Providence RI, TRC reorganized its space for each show, when shows happened to be staged inside the theater. Resident designer Eugene Lee, who also designs Saturday Night Live and assorted Broadway shows, was given to salvaging props and set pieces from the streets of Providence long before Dumpster diving was a fashionable way to protect the environment. And directors often blocked spectators into the action. The TRC experience was unique and exciting. Five Questions for Richard Jenkins

Jenkins became TRC’s artistic director when it was in deep financial trouble, and his efforts kept the theater alive. I had the wonderful opportunity to do a brief interview with him for TheaterWeek before he became a ghost in Six Feet Under, before he got an Oscar nod. Unlike many Hollywood celebs who do a guest stint on Broadway, Jenkins was no visitor to the theater, and he spoke with passion and regret on leaving it.

Not too long ago, he did a bunch of interviews about The Visitor, and I kept scanning for a mention of his other life. There were none. I waited for Terry Gross to ask him. Nada. And I realized if anyone was going to ask the right questions, it was gonna have to be a member of The Miser company.

That would be me.

When we talked, Jenkins just had come from a costume fitting for Eat, Pray, Love, a film based on the Elizabeth Gilbert book that’s about to start shooting in India, also starring Julia Roberts.

DN: So what do you miss about doing theater, or have you forgotten all about it?

RJ: I miss the rehearsals. I love rehearsals. I love to see it all come together, see it change and grow. My wife still choreographs, and I watch her rehearsals and vicariously live through her. And I miss the people. All show business people are wonderful, but I was with the same group for 14 years, and you develop friendships. We spent at least eight hours a day together six days a week. A lot are gone or have moved on…

DN: What do you think of the state of the not-for-profit theater today? Has it changed much since you were immersed in it?

RJ: There’s no public funding for the arts now, and it’s hard to raise money. Then, because of the nonprofit status, you had a real obligation to do things the commercial theater wouldn’t do. Adrian Hall used to say, “It’s not ‘If the show’s a hit, we eat tonight.’” Somebody has to do Shakespeare and Moliere and Shaw and not be afraid to fail. That’s the regional theater I grew up in…The other thing is, the reason you do theater is so people will see it. It’s always more fun when it’s full and full of people who are really connected to the piece…Theater will morph and change, but it will always be around and vital.

DN: How do you develop a role for a film? Is it different from the way you would go about preparing the same role if you were going to do it on stage?

RJ: You have to give a performance immediately in film [but that's true of theater, too, because] they won’t hire you if you audition and say ‘In four weeks, I’ll be good.’ In movies, everything changes once the camera is there. Everything becomes more personal and intimate…the camera dictates where you move in the scene. You don’t block. If you do, you’re in trouble. But acting is acting. There are some technical things you learn as you do it, and sometimes you have to get there in a different way because of time.

DN: Do you plan to do any more theater? If you were to act, is there anyone you’d like to work with particularly? If you direct, is there anyone you’d like to cast, besides me?

RJ: I don’t think about it. I stopped doing theater in ’86. You have to be in theater shape to do eight shows a week. Marian Seldes, her career blossomed in the last ten years. I admire her. I love going to the theater.

DN: I’m lousy at this question thing. Please answer a question I didn’t think to ask.

RJ: You mentioned The Miser. That was the closest I came to having the theater the way I wanted it. Upstairs, we were doing Lady Day, the musical about Billie Holiday, and we turned the place into a bar. The whole building became a big environment. A place where you had to come. That’s what theater should be, a place where you have to come.

=b&w photos courtesy of Trinity Rep ( William Damkoehler (l) and Timothy Crowe ; Crowe and Ed Shea with two spectators), photo of Jenkins courtesy of the Gersh Agency.

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Davi Napoleon is a theater historian and journalist who writes widely about the arts. Schoolbiz, her column on theater training, ran for four years in TheaterWeek, and her features on design have been ...read more

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