Teddy Ferrara, a world premiere drama playing through March 3 at Goodman Theatre, takes a controversial view of victimhood. Using the tragedy surrounding Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after his roommate shared private footage of Clementi with another man, as a starting point, playwright Christopher Shinn explores how such events spiral out of control in the confines of a politically charged public university setting.
I recently spoke with actor Patrick Clear, who plays the president of play's fictional university, on his thoughts on the play and how it's informed him as an actor and artist.
What is it about this play that you feel hits a cultural nerve, particularly with the topic of "bullying" having been such a hot topic in recent years?
The question of "bullying" and, in particular, what it means in a cyber culture, is certainly central to the play, but the way [playwright] Chris treats the whole issue is much more complex and disturbing than that term might suggest. Teddy Ferrara is no simple moralistic tale of predators and their hapless victims. Like our production of David Mamet's Race last season, I suspect very few people will be reassured by this play. With Race that was true whether you were white or black, and in this case I suspect it'll be true whether you're gay or straight. The "bullying" roommate -- the most logical "villain" -- doesn't even appear. He's only talked about. The most overt maltreatment of gay students in the play comes at the hands of other gay students. The context of university life and the way young people conduct their lives through the extensive use of cyberspace, cell phones and social media raise larger questions about how technology has accelerated a general coarsening of the culture. We are constantly being invited and encouraged to make snap judgments about other people based on 30 second YouTube videos, Facebook postings, American Idol auditions or Tweets. The play says a lot about how much we're losing our capacity for empathy. We communicate in these little sound bites that don't allow for context or nuance and we're becoming somewhat anesthetized to the feelings of other people.
You play the president of an unnamed university, and from what I've read of the play, it seems like someone who's trying to control a chaotic environment in a time where the fear of being un-PC could lead to some form of harassment charge or lawsuit. As a result, everyone's voice, regardless of how informed it is, must be treated as a valid perspective. What's your take on this character, and what is your favorite challenge in playing him, particularly in the hot-bedded environment Christopher has placed him in?
The president's background is political, not academic. He is a former United States senator considering another run for office, so his instincts are to think in terms of constituencies and balancing competing interests while desperately avoiding any hint of scandal. He is perfectly willing to listen to divergent points of view, but is very reluctant to make any specific public commitments, especially when it comes to money.
I love this guy. He's a fascinating character and a real challenge to play because his mind seems to run at warp speed. He keeps interrupting himself and constantly speaks in sentence fragments as his thoughts outrace his mouth. I have whole long paragraphs without one complete sentence. It's kind of like talking to an Impressionist painting. I have had to script for myself the rest of the sentence fragments, so I know where I was going with one thought, and then switch to another thought after just a couple of words, and, in the case of one scene, while trying to manage to eat pizza.
What lessons have you gained in working through this play and playing this character? Has it challenged any of long-standing perceptions you had on group think, the media, or how conclusions are formed?
This is a very thought-provoking play. I've given a lot of thought to the way we all carry around these little personal narratives that we use to explain the world to ourselves and to justify our own actions. For example, "My boss doesn't like me because she's threatened by me," or "You can't get ahead because the deck is stacked against you." These narratives operate both on the individual level and on group levels. They act like a prism through which you view everything that happens to you. In a larger context, these narratives become part of a culture. In this play, there's a lot of discussion about whether some characters seem to embrace a culture of victimization and choose to interpret events in a way that reinforces their sense of being oppressed. The lesson for me has been to constantly remind myself how important it is to try, like any good detective out of crime fiction, to suspend judgment and look at any situation from multiple points of view before trying to decide "what it means."
The other thing with which I've been preoccupied while working on this show is just how incredibly hard it is to ever really understand what's going on inside somebody else's head. I think this is true, not only with the Tyler Clementi incident that inspired this play, but also with the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and even the Manti Te'o story. We see these bizarre and horrible incidents and we're just desperate to put some kind of label on the perpetrator, some kind of box around the incident that contains it and keeps it away from us. The ever-ravenous 24 hour news cycle just compounds the problem and you see time and again, whatever headline emerges in the first 24 hours, continues to dominate the public perception, regardless of whatever facts come out later.
What other roles, in your distinguished career, have challenged you think about an issue in a new way, perhaps from a counter-intuitive perspective? What were these roles and what have you learned?
It's interesting that sometimes you're challenged to think in a new way by a specific role, sometimes it's the play as a whole and sometimes it's the day-to-day experience of actually rehearsing or performing the show.
I would have to say that probably my favorite experiences and the most truly eye-opening were the productions in which I, as an older, straight, white, male actor, found myself in the minority for a change.
When I played Dr. Douglas in Miss Ever's Boys at the old Goodman space, that was the first time I was the only white actor in a cast of African-Americans, being directed by Kenny Leon, an African-American. I had a great time working on that show. It was a lovely cast and we got along great but I remember so vividly the subtle and, I'm sure, unintentional sense of exclusion I experienced a couple of times just because I didn't get all the jokes. They were all privy to a whole frame of reference that was a mystery to me.
We did The Song of Jacob Zulu with LadySmith Black Mambazo at Steppenwolf years ago. This was right at the time of the referendum on apartheid in South Aftrica. Working on that production was truly a profound experience. Not only was it a racially mixed cast, but LadySmith brought such a deeply religious perspective, a totally different cultural viewpoint, a palpable sense of group identity and almost unfathomable capacity for forgiveness to the whole process that was irresistible and infectious. I left the theatre every night feeling spiritually renewed.
In Sarah Ruhl's The Clean house, directed by Jessica Thebus, I was the only guy in a cast of all women. Once again, I had a terrific time but it was really illuminating. I honestly didn't know there was that much to say about hair, clothes and shoes, but clearly those things were really important, not just to the actresses, but to the characters. I try to be much more aware now when I'm in a cast of mostly men, as is, unfortunately, still very often the case, that discussions of things like the history of military strategy or weaponry, not to mention the BCS rankings, may not have the universal appeal I used to think.
In Teddy Ferrara, this may be the first time I've been in a cast so top-heavy with much younger actors and felt such a generational difference, especially when it comes to all the electronic gadgets that the younger actors are so adept with. Much like the Great Lakes trying to fend off the Asian Carp, I've really tried to avoid letting the word "like" gain a foothold in my speech, as well as the little upward inflection at the end of sentences, that to my aging ears always denotes a question. You know in a time when it's pretty easy to self-Balkanize into groups that pretty much look and sound like us, it's incredibly refreshing to mix it up this way. I have to admit, though, that in a career that spans over 35 years, I don't think I've ever been in a cast that wasn't almost entirely college-educated and liberal-minded.
When it comes to specific roles that have challenged me to think outside my comfort zone, the two that come to mind right away were Martin in Edward Albee's The Goat; Or Who is Sylvia?, and Charles Strickland in Race by David Mamet. In The Goat, directed by Bob Falls, I played Martin, this very successful architect, seemingly happily married with a teen-aged son, who, it's revealed, has been having an affair with a goat. I found that trying to understand him and develop some compassion for him just absolutely challenged me to probe the limits of my own sense of tolerance. I was endlessly fascinated by the post show discussions we did after almost every performance of that show and pleased to see how many people in the audience did feel some empathy for him.
The character of Charles Strickland in last season's production of Race, directed by Chuck Smith, is a very wealthy white man accused of raping a young black woman in a hotel room. The play is a real Rorschach test. The topic is incendiary and the facts are sketchy, and quickly dismissed as irrelevant. How you feel about the case is absolutely dependent on your own history and life experience. We agreed very early on in rehearsal that we did not need to agree about what had happened, but the discussions we had and the exchange of personal anecdotes that informed our viewpoints, constantly forced us all to reevaluate our preconceptions. It was also absolutely fascinating to feel the difference in the response -- and the differences were loud and unmistakable -- depending on the racial makeup of the audience from night to night.
There are inevitably going to be some who categorize this as a "gay play." What are your thoughts on that?
Well I guess I'm not quite sure what that means to say it's a "gay play." Certainly most of the characters are gay and there's a lot in the play that will strike chords within the gay community in a particularly powerful way. The emotional heart of the play, though, the themes of trying to find meaningful connections with other human beings, the dangers of manipulating events for political advantage, the need for self-acceptance and raising the question of the very survival of the language, seem to me to be much more universal. I think one of the things that's so great about this play is that unlike so many plays in which you might have a gay character too often that character's sexual orientation is his or her defining characteristic. We have a lot of gay characters in this play but they are fully realized, three dimensional, sharply etched human beings.
Why should young people come see this play?
I think young people will be thrilled to see a cast of characters they can relate to so easily, who look like them, talk like them and think like them. They're full of self-doubts, make stupid self-defeating choices, agonize over relationships and yearn for some special someone to share their lives with. A lot of people, young and old, might be somewhat disquieted by the play and its refusal to tip its hand. We're all so used to film and TV where we're not so subtly instructed -- by the musical score or the way it's lit or shot -- how we're supposed to feel about the characters. Chris Shinn just lays the story out there and asks you to honestly reflect on how you feel about it.