Santa Maria Sun / Art
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 24
Exploring CyranoDerrick Lee Weeden stars in the PCPA production of Cyrano de Bergerac
BY JOE PAYNE
PCPA Theaterfest is enjoying an astounding season, presenting a range from such iconic classics as Fiddler on the Roof to the romping hilarity of Spamalot. The company has definitely been flexing its muscles.
For the latest production, the poetic Cyrano de Bergerac, PCPA has called in a new face to the theater company. Derrick Lee Weeden has performed with the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C.; with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater; with the Berkley Repertory Theatre, and has 20 seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The Sun had a chance to chat with Weeden about PCPA, the long-nosed character he’s tackling, and the actor’s creative process.
Sun: So, this is your first time collaborating with PCPA, is that right?
Weeden: That’s right. This is the first time I’ve been down here on the I-5 circuit—which is what we call it in the business from Seattle and all the way down. But many colleagues and friends over the years are PCPA alumni and either trained here or did a lot of work here. So, I’ve always felt like I’ve been a part of it because I’ve been influenced by so many people over the years that spent time here. It is my first time, and I am very excited and looking to seeing how it all plays.
Sun: How has your experience been with PCPA so far? I know you had a 12-hour tech day recently.
Weeden: Yeah, when tech week hits—of course we have the normal days, and then we have the 10 out of 12 days, which is just trying to do the spacing, which is putting the show physically itself onto the stage. We go from rehearsal, having everything mapped out with tape on the floor, to then going to the stage where everything is in three dimensions where you have the steps, the ladders, and then of course put clothes on it, put lights on it, and put sound on it. The whole cast and crew has to get ready for what it is going to be. We had 10 out of 12 days of just doing that to see how it all fits on the stage.
Sun: You are no stranger to this play; you have done Cyrano de Bergerac before, right?
Weeden: I have. I was in a production that was directed by an alumnus, or someone who worked here a lot in the past, Laird Williamson. He directed a Cyrano de Bergerac I was in, in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I played the villain de Guiche in the production a few years ago. So that is my only experience with the play, though I have seen it a number of times, including the films. There have been so many wonderful productions and movies through the years. It seems that in every generation this play comes up again and gets rediscovered again.
Sun: What is it like switching sides? You’ve played the villain, and now you are the good guy.
Weeden: Well, you know, when I played de Guiche before, mostly what I would think about was “what does the lead need in order to tell his story? What do I need to fulfill in this production in order for the lead story to be properly told?” De Guiche was a certain thing because of what the lead needed, so I tried to fill in the places of my function in that piece. In this, playing the lead, it’s mostly about the text, the music in the text—the language and where does that go, what do people need to hear in the plot? It’s a lot easier for me because the story is all about me. I just get to do what I need to do in order to tell this story the best way I know how, so in a sense it’s easier. It led me to understanding some of the functions of the other characters in relation to Cyrano from when I played it before. This time, playing Cyrano, it’s also about discovering everything I can about him. He is kind of like Hamlet in that many, many terrific actors have played it, all bringing their own thing to it, and yet this part will hold all these different kind of actors and interpretations, because the part is so great and because the part is bigger than everybody. It’s such a great everyman; it holds so much, it holds all of us.
Sun: He sounds like a mythic figure. What kind of character is Cyrano?
Weeden: He is a genius. He is a genius in this sense to me: There is one definition of genius, and that is to be uniquely and utterly yourself; that is one form of genius. And I think that is who he is. He is obviously intellectually brilliant. He’s a poet, he’s a duelist, he’s a scientist, he’s a musician, he’s a philosopher, and a great warrior, so those are all the givens about him, but then, of course, because of his nose, he has this great desire and longing about the world. He has a longing for love and things he has forgot in his life. But really, it is a longing for his soul, his soul to be fulfilled. There is so much to him. What we see is his soul expressing himself, wanting to be as full as he can be. I think we all—or many of us—are seeking to be uniquely ourselves and be fulfilled in our passion, in our intellect, and in our souls. To me, that’s who he is, as well as a great wit. Now, he’s living in a society and culture that has all kinds of customs that are very structured, and he is trying to be himself among all that. I am reminded of—you get so many influences when you are doing characters like this, whether it be music or other characters in other plays—I’m reminded in a strange way, it seems unconnected, but he reminds in that particular way of Jack Johnson, the boxer. Jack Johnson lived in the turn of the last century. In 1910 he became the first black heavyweight champion. Jack Johnson wasn’t concerned with being the black heavyweight champion or a black man; Jack Johnson was interested in being uniquely himself. And he was vilified because he wouldn’t stay within the structures of that society. He bought beautiful nice cars, he listened to opera music, he simply wouldn’t conform to that society because he wanted to be uniquely himself. He wanted to be a man, and that society wouldn’t let him be a man. It’s like that, these guys with these great spirits and great souls living inside of societies and cultures that are very constraining, and we identify with Cyrano because there is much of that in ourselves. We see that and think, “Man, if I could just be freer than what this is, freedom and identity.”
Sun: Well, that is the unique position of the genius. To me, a genius is a very fluid thing with a lot of momentum attached to it, and society by definition is static. So they are caught in this thing and become almost a vortex and pull everyone along.
Weeden: That’s right, absolutely. Now you are reminding me of Vincent van Gogh. I know in the artist world, if you are not talking simply entertainment, and you are talking about art, I have often heard that you want to be speaking five or 10 years ahead, not right now. You want to be on that wave. It’s that momentum—you want to be in that momentum that is going into the future. That is what we try to do. It’s very hard to do, but that’s what you try to do.
Sun: In the case of this play, it’s an older play and it’s very verbose. It’s very technical, I would think. I’m sure you have a lot of words you have to get right. How do you make the art that people know and have been enjoying for more than a century, how do we make that new in the moment?
Weeden: I feel you make it new and in the moment because this moment right now has never existed before. And we are products of our past, and by being ourselves and speaking, you bring something new to it. Rostan, now he is writing in the late 1800s about a character that lived centuries before in French society. And this play is being done in the western part of America in 2013 in American culture with all its different influences. It’s going to be uniquely American in itself right now, yet have all of that French influence from the 1800s, speaking about a society that had happened a century even before that. All those influences from all that time will be there in that play. That’s how I think of it; we can’t help having our unique American sensibilities. And yes, there are many things about the play, technically, with the text, I call it the music. It is technically demanding.
Sun: It’s poetry, right?
Weeden: Absolutely. It’s rhymed couplets, and this is a new translation, this one is from 2010. It’s pretty modern in some ways. It’s a little more streamlined, a little more direct. It’s a newer adaptation, so there you get the more modern feel on it as well.
Sun: So language is a big theme. Is Cyrano a smooth talker?
Weeden: He is a wit. He is a poet and a wit, so his use of language is very large. This is a society that loves language, all of them, whether Cyrano or Roxanne, and of course that is Christian’s problem. When in the presence of his love, Christian can’t speak, and that’s a major problem in this culture.
Sun: Just talking to you, from our first words, I hear that you have a very rich timbre to your voice, and it’s very cool that you call the dialogue “the music.” So how do you use your voice to interpret the poetry?
Weeden: Well, of course there are technical demands to it, but I’ve had a long career already on stages. So you develop through training and experience, you develop your instrument. Like any actor, you attempt to use your imagination and your experience to live inside of it. You find what works for you in the text, and your voice is a reflection of your experiences and of what is happening to you in the moment and you hope that comes out. Yes, I have a baritone. I was just blessed with that. My father’s voice was bigger than mine, so that is just a gift from the DNA gods.
Sun: So how is this play similar to Shakespeare? I know you are very versed in Shakespeare—no pun intended.
Weeden: Well, … one thing about this play that one doesn’t see often in new plays is that this play is similar to Shakespeare in that it is the classic five-act structure, the classic well-made play. So that is very Shakespearean and very Shakespearean in language—rhymed couplets and much larger dictionary words being used than what is normal. What makes it classical, of course, is that it has very long arcs of ideas and character as opposed to short little sound bites. Sound bites are very modern. But this is long lengths of ideas, long development of themes, and I love that. Another thing that is really astonishing on the part of Rostan, the author: He has great command of his stage craft. The five acts occur in five separate places that are all unique. Act one is in a theater, act two is in a pastry shop, act three is on the street under a woman’s balcony, act four is a battlefield, and act five is in a monastery. Each of those places are unique, they have a unique atmosphere, mood, and dictate a certain feeling that dominates those scenes. So you have the classic Aristotle unity of time, space, location, etc. That is the well-made play, and that is why these plays last so long: because people naturally feel satisfied by those unities in stage craft.
Sun: When you are doing this kind of classical style of theater, this structured form of theater, what is fun about it?
Weeden: In the structure is great freedom. There is more freedom in the structure than there is to having no structure, because in the structure you know where you can play. To me, it’s a freeing part of this. This is what is great fun to me … : the teamwork, the ensemble, the collaboration with the other actors. Looking into somebody else’s eyes and you are sharing text together and you are making it happen with other people, that to me is what’s the sport of doing this. It’s great fun to play together and share music together and share the text together. That’s part of what drew me to the theater in the first place, and that’s the thing that sustains you. It’s being able to work with a great director and other amazing actors; it’s all of us making something together. I’m not up there alone. The only reason why I get to be Cyrano de Bergerac is because everybody else in that world says I’m Cyrano de Bergerac and acts like I’m Cyrano de Bergerac. You only get to be king when everyone else is kneeling. That’s why it is such a thrill to come to PCPA and work in a place that so many colleagues of mine have worked for and have so much respect for. To come here and feel like a part of it, it is very thrilling.
Arts Editor Joe Payne enjoys many activities, but dueling is not one of them. Contact him at email@example.com.