Of Mice and Men stretches young Hilberry players
Lawrence B. Johnson / Special to The Detroit News
Acting, says the retired Wayne State University drama coach Tony Schmitt, is a team sport. Each new production in the school’s time-tested and highly successful Hilberry Theatre graduate program presents a fresh challenge to the company’s ever-changing ensemble mix.
“An opening night is a journey into the unknown, and each player knows how interdependent they all are,” says Schmitt, who retired from the Wayne State faculty in 2001 after 30 years of service but keeps his hand in the game as guest director.
Schmitt’s last two Hilberry projects pretty well define the range of classic theater that forms the training ground for this young troupe. From George Farquhar’s 18th century comedy “The Beaux’ Stratagem” last year, Schmitt has made a radical turn to John Steinbeck’s tragedy Of Mice and Men, now on the Hilberry stage.Of Mice and Men stretches the imaginations and empathies of actors still mastering their craft, says Schmitt. It’s the Depression-era story of two pals — clever visionary George and strong, simple Lennie, migrant ranch hands who follow the work even as they dream of having their own spread. But a chance incident brings that hope to a horrific turn.
“I told the actors at the beginning that I didn’t want this to look like acting,” says Schmitt. “The style needed to be in this world, inside the bunkhouse. We couldn’t have spouting going on or we’d lose the audience. We had to make it live.”
Or perhaps as Hamlet admonishes the itinerate players in the Bard’s play, “Do not saw the air.” But what insight can a director offer student actors who may approach such an intense drama with saws in hand.
“You need to be a real person going for a real thing,” says Schmitt. “The trap can be to play surfaces. You need to get under the surface, to the human being.”
If the characters in Steinbeck’s play are older than Hilberry’s post-graduate actors, that’s just one more way they stretch themselves, says Schmitt. It’s rare when these actors aren’t playing someone older, but it’s also typical that within a few minutes you forget about the discrepancy.
“It’s like non-traditional casting,” says Schmitt. “You may not expect an actor of color in a traditionally white role, but a good performance allows you to quickly adjust.”
“You can’t kid yourself about comedy,” Schmitt says. “Either they laugh or they don’t. The basic thing is to be honest. When you step out of that and start ‘performing,’ the audience catches on right away and quits laughing.”
And that, for an actor of any age, is real tragedy.
Lawrence B. Johnson is a cultural writer and critic.
The original article may be found here.
The remainder of Of Mice and Men performances are:
Saturday, December 11th at 2pm and 8pm
Thursday, January 6th at 8pm
Thursday, January 13th at 8pm
Friday, February 4th at 8pm
Saturday, February 5th at 8pm
Tickets are available at www.wsushows.com and by calling the box office at 313-577-2972