Kevin Spacey (© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
This weekend I, Katie Sims, made the best worst decision of my life. Instead of studying for my impending Monday morning midterm or washing my Mount Kilimanjaro-sized pile of dirty laundry or catching up on my negative thirteen hours of sleep I took an uncharacteristic and completely spontaneous road trip. I threw caution to the wind, jumped gleefully into my buddy DJ's jam-packed car, and drove the six hours from LA to San Francisco to see Kevin Spacey in Shakespeare's most popular history Richard III directed by Sam Mendes.
Despite my mounting levels of self-induced stress, deep down I knew that saying yes to this spur-of-the-moment trip was a no brainer because A) It's Kevin Spacey, B) before this weekend I had never actually been to San Francisco, and C) It's Kevin- freaking-Spacey, an actor whose work I've been a hopeless sucker for ever since I first saw him effortlessly connive his way out of a heinous murder charge as conman Verbal in his Oscar-winning performance in The Usual Suspects.
It also helped that some of my dearest friends and fellow actors were in on it and wouldn't take no for an answer. Plus, the actress playing Spacey's mother, Broadway veteran Maureen Anderman, is a dear friend to USC's revered theater professor Mary Joan Negro, and Anderman had generously offered to talk to all of us after the show--a rare and awesome opportunity that no one would dare pass up.
Upon arriving in San Fran, we immediately chowed down on some excellent Thai food and then strolled over to will call to collect our tickets to see the Saturday matinee of Richard III at SHN's Curran Theatre. The Curran Theatre itself was impeccable from its turquoise, velveteen seat cushions to its domineering picture windows, thus the lot of us were instantly rendered silent as we took in the space and the set.
When the lights came up on Spacey, nonchalantly slumped in front of an imaginary television screen, drink in hand, and blowing on a flaccid party horn, it was evident that we'd all be taken on quite a thrilling ride. And as he launched into the famous, "Now is the winter of our discontent…" you could already feel a palpable shift in the audience, each one of us lingering on his every word. Spacey's Richard, which he originated in June at London's Old Vic, reeked of mischief and dripped with ironic wit. Each time he triumphed in duping one of his victims you could see the pleasure emanating throughout Richard's crooked limbs. Indeed, Spacey held his viewer's rapt attention for the entirety of the performance, which lasted roughly three and half hours. And if your mind did dare to wander, Spacey had help from a carefully composed soundtrack which included a smallish army of drummers that came into play more and more frequently as the story progressed and the waging of Richard's war drew nearer. It became the pulse of the play, quickening and sharpening as each death was plotted and executed.
When all was said and done, I remained mostly doubled over in my seat with laughter and curiosity, (but also out of necessity because we were sitting so far up), and willingly partook in the unanimous standing-o. Afterwards, when the house had been emptied, Anderman warmly greeted the pack of us and then ushered us backstage and onto the set where Spacey's fake blood lay newly dried. At that moment my friends and I were - needless to say - in actor heaven.
As we listened to Anderman talk candidly about the unique rehearsal process with Mendes and list off the cities that the crazy tour schedule entailed, I lingered upstage left and took in the sheer enormity of the theater. And all I could think was, "What a challenge this must be, playing to a house this big and reaching everybody in every seat.
I think that a lot of green actors, myself included, struggle with bringing authenticity to a role while still playing to a full house. You might wonder, as I did in that moment on the set, "How can I reconcile the two?" But the good news is, both can be done. In America - where our artistic tradition is steeped in film - we often think of good acting as being scaled back, smaller, and more intimate. But do not fall into this smaller-softer-subtler trap. Spacey is a living example of being able to switch seamlessly from film acting to playing a nine-hundred-seat theater while still acting the hell out of a role. And in fact, he literally made the switch during the production. Mendes, a tenured film and theatre director, created a moment in which Spacey was filmed live from backstage. It was in this moment that the knowledge that all good acting is the same, just adjusted to fit the particular medium, was reborn in my mind. Smaller and quieter does not mean the acting is more grounded in truth necessarily, because goodness knows, if you can't hear the words of the play, then the story will not get told.
My good buddy, Tommy Flemming, gave me some clarity on the matter by voicing his own reservations about the production. He said, "When I see Shakespeare, I go to experience the language. And in this production, I lost a lot of his words." Granted we were in the nosebleed section. Fortunately, Spacey and Anderman were among those actors whose words touched every single person in that theater, myself included.
I came along expecting to take out-of-focus pictures of the Golden Gate, ride a trolley, and see Spacey, but ultimately got a master's class in what it is to really be seen and heard as an actor, no matter the medium. And as Spacey's performance demonstrated, strong choices always play - on screen and off. All in all, it was quite a trip, and ultimately, worth every mile of highway traveled by.