Claybourne Elder
(© Andrew Parsons)
Claybourne Elder
(© Andrew Parsons)
Claybourne Elder first came to New York theatergoers' attention when he played Hollis Bessemer in the Public Theater's 2008 production of Stephen Sondheim's musical Road Show, and has since worked steadily in regional theater in such shows as Take Flight, Cabaret and Into the Woods. Now, he's gaining more notice for his superb performance as Ollie, a boxer-turned-male hustler, in the premiere of Tennessee Williams' unproduced screenplay One Arm, being presented by The New Group and Tectonic Theatre Project at Theatre Row. TheaterMania recently spoke to Elder about the role.

THEATERMANIA: How did this role come about for you?
CLAYBOURNE ELDER: I first met Moises Kaufman, our director, at a party when I was performing in Road Show. We kept in touch and then he wrote me about doing Into the Woods at Kansas City Rep, and we had a great time working together. He told me he had been working on bringing this piece to the stage for many years and he thought I'd be really right for Ollie. So he sent me the short story and screenplay of One Arm and I fell in love with it right away. We did a small reading a few months later, and a year later, here we are.

TM: What made you fall in love with the piece immediately?
CE: I am a big Tennessee Williams fan, and there really isn't a story like this one. It's like what you read in a lot of his plays, but this is perhaps his most raw work about his life. And Ollie is such a great role; he's part Blanche, he's part Brick - there's just a broad scope in one man. Tennessee wrote men in a way nobody else does. And Ollie is, sexuality aside, such a complicated person, because he has such a strict moral compass and, yet, he's also a hustler. And of course, I was taken by his redemption at the end.

TM: What was the rehearsal process for the show like?
CE: Moises is famous for saying that actors are the most underutilized artists in theater. Too often we're asked to just show up and do what we're told. Here, for the first week and half, we came in and did what we call "moment work," which means we come in and create a moment from the script without words. It can be as abstract as we want. And then we riff on other people's moments, and in that way, we create dialogue about the show without talking about it. And that's how we came up with things like creating close-ups with the use of film canisters as lights. I think we were all so lucky to be provided the time and space necessary to work like that.

Claybourne Elder and Greg Pierotti in One Arm
(© Monique Carboni)
Claybourne Elder and Greg Pierotti in One Arm
(© Monique Carboni)
TM: How did you decide to show Ollie had one arm?
CE: In the screenplay, Tennessee wrote that the actor should have two arms but hold one arm down to the side. We thought about a bunch of ideas - keeping my hand in my pocket or holding my hand behind my back. And then one day during the first reading, Moises stopped rehearsal and asked if anyone had a belt, and then he wrapped someone's belt around my arm, and that's how it's been since. Fortunately, our costume designer worked with me to come up with the right version of the belt; we wanted to find something that would be comfortable, yet would also have a violent look.

TM: Have you ever messed up and accidentally lifted your arm during a show?
CE: I used to be tempted to raise my arm during rehearsal, and then in previews, there were times I would ask myself if I had used my arm. But I never have. In fact, I think it's now possible to live with just one arm. I've learned how quickly people can adapt.

TM: What did you do to prepare for playing a boxer?
CE: Our fight director used to be a boxer, so we talked a lot about how boxers hold themselves -- there's a real confidence about Ollie in how he carries himself because of being boxer. And I watched a lot of boxing clips on YouTube and I read a book on the history of boxing. I know it all sounds very methody. But I think it's really important.

TM: Did you have to transform your body to play Ollie? Those are some big arms you have!
CE: The minute I got cast, I said to Moises that I'm going to require a lot of exercise time. It wasn't a vanity issue, but Ollie is compared so often to a piece of antique sculpture that having a specific type of body was essential to who this person was. Luckily, the production got me a gym membership close to my house. I just had moved back to New York after being out of town for a year. Once I got started, I decided to do two hours of gym work every day - I just consider it part of my rehearsal. It's true, I am up earlier than a lot of other actors, but luckily we have 7pm curtains. And I am eating a little better, but I love food. Honestly, I still have Magnolia Bakery cupcakes and ice cream most days -- it just means a few more minutes in the gym.