Joel Markowitz interviews actors Michael Brick, Nora Palka and Josh Kaufmann from the cast of Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced by Act Two.
After I named their productions of Les Miserables and Blood Brothers as two of the Best Musicals of 2006, I kidded with Act Two Executive Director Keith Tittermary, Artistic Director Kevin Kulchar and Executive Director Scott Selman that the pressure was on to keep up or surpass the quality of the past season. And walking into The Olney Theater Center’s Lab, what did I see?
A forest enchantingly designed by director Kevin Kulchar, sumptuous lighting by Scott Selman and gorgeous and eye-popping costumes by Elissa Borzillen, Alexis Bossie and Cathy Clark, ably assisted by Ginger Angers.
And then the big question was in my mind – Could these young actors pull it off? Could we understand every glorious Shakespearean line? With the help of speech and dialect expert Dan Crane of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the kids were whipped into shape and every poetic gem was enunciated clearly, with perfect diction by a talented cast of talented young thespians. Aah! It was a dreamy evening of beauty and love!
I asked three young actors to talk about their roles and how they prepared for the difficult talk of learning their lines and fine tuning their performances.
Michael Brick was named one of the year’s top musical performers his performance of Mickie Lyons in Blood Brothers. Josh Kaufmann‘s colorful Joseph lit up the stage in Act Two’s Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and I saw Nora Palka in Open Circle’s production of Songs For A New World.
Joel: Please introduce yourselves.
Michael: My name is Michael Brick, I am 17 years old, and I am a senior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac.
I played Nick Bottom, the weaver who is turned into a donkey. Bottom is an egocentric, over-the-top, good-hearted, doofus. The intelligence is present in his own mind, but not in reality.
He thinks he is smart, funny, and very attractive, but,really, he’s a real ass. All in all, he does care about others and is not so as self-centered as he first appears to be.
Nora: My name is Nora Palka. I’m 18 years old and I’m a senior at Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, Maryland.
I played Hermia. Hermia is a young independent girl who is in love with Lysander. Lysander is also in love with her, but so is Demetrius. Hernia’s father wants her to be with Demetrius over Lysander and says that if she doesn’t marry Demetrius, then she’ll be put to death. Lysander and Hermia decide to run away together to elope outside the Athenian laws, which is how the entire story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream starts.
Josh: I’m Josh Kaufmann; I’m 14 years old and I am a freshman at Winston Churchill High School.
I played Francis Flute – the Bellows Mender. Flute is an actor who is involved in a group called the Mechanicals who perform for events in Athens. In the show, Peter Quince, the leader of the Mechanicals, tells the Mechanicals that they will be performing a show for the Duke’s wedding. My character gets chosen once again to play the female role of Thisby, who has to fall in love with a young man named Pyramus. Flute is not thrilled with the role that he is assigned to at first, but later starts to enjoy it, and gets into character even when rehearsals are not going on.
Joel: Is there any Nora, Josh and Michael in the roles you played?
Michael: There is definitely some Michael in the character. Eccentric and over-the-top are part of who I am personally. However, I like to think that I am smarter than Nick Bottom. I sure hope I am a better actor too, because I like good reviews.
Nora: I think there is a lot of myself in Hermia. Hermia is a very impulsive girl who immediately decides to flee with Lysander and doesn’t give it a second thought. She does this because she doesn’t want to deal with people telling her that her relationship with Lysander is wrong, she wants to make things better for herself. I’m not saying I would run away and elope with someone, but I tend to take action on things without giving it much thought if it means making something easier for my self. I’m also like Hermia in the fight scene with Helena. When she finds Lysander and Demetrius swooning over her best friend in the woods, and then the love of her life says that he hates her, she gets really frustrated and she just freaks out. I think I’m like Hermia in the sense that if I got so much negativity and hate from someone I love, I think I would get frustrated and freak out too. But there is a lot of myself that isn’t similar to Hermia as well. For instance, Hermia is a refined young lady, whereas I’m a clumsy teenager who could trip over air.
Josh: Actually there is a little Josh in my character. Flute doesn’t seem too happy with the role that he got but then later on realizes that it could be fun. This same thing happened with me where at first I was not thrilled with playing the role of Flute but then noticed how much fun it could be. Also the comical side of myself partly gets portrayed in my character throughout the show.
Joel: Have you ever been in a Shakespeare production before, and if not, were you scared of learning your lines?
Michael: This is actually my third time performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I have also been in other Shakespeare shows. So, learning lines was not super difficult, but Bottom says some pretty stupid things.
Nora: I have been in three other Shakespearean productions before. I’ve played Olivia in Twelfth Night, Adriana in Comedy of Errors and the gentlewoman in Macbeth. But that doesn’t mean learning all those lines were easy. Even though I’ve been in three other Shakespeare productions, they have been shorter mini-versions that I’ve done with summer camps or in Shakespeare courses. I have never done a Shakespearean play like A Midsummer Nights Dream, and I’ve never had to memorize that many lines in a Shakespearean production. When I found out that I had the role of Hermia, I was terrified to learn all of those lines. I really saw it as a test to see if I could do it, and I did, and it really wasn’t that hard at all!
Josh: This is my first Shakespeare show so I was a little scared of learning my lines.. But when time came for rehearsals and memorizing them, it came to me a lot easier than I thought it would.
Joel: Tell us about rehearsing for your role and what that was like.
Michael: Rehearsing the play within a play was a blast. Acting like a really bad actor is so much fun. It finally gave me the chance to do everything I was ever told not to do as an actor. The cast was also so great, that half the time we would just sit and laugh at each other.
Nora: The rehearsal process was SUCH a blast. But I’m one to talk because I just love being in shows and going to rehearsal. In July, I spent two weeks at The Stratford Shakespeare School in Stratford , Ontario in Canada . There I learned how to read, comprehend and portray Shakespeare. It was fate that I got cast in Midsummer right after coming home from Shakespeare School because I felt like I would be able to have a great handle on the play and how to understand my lines. I knew what I was doing for the most part, but it was hard sometimes to read into my character. I saw Hermia as just a naïve young girl who was deeply in love. Truly, though, she is so much more complex than that. After I memorized all of my lines, Kevin and the other cast members really helped me grasp my character fully, and be aware that every step or action I take has to have a reason behind it.
Josh: Rehearsing my role was probably some of the most fun that I have had throughout my performance career. I love acting because you get to be somebody that you are not, and that works perfectly when you’re a guy trying to play a girl. Once I got the female voice down and was told to over act everything, the character just came naturally to me. Overall, it was really enjoyable rehearsing my role.
Joel: Your diction was so perfect – did you have a diction or Shakespearean dialect coach?
Michael: Daniel (Crane) from the Shakespeare Theater actually came to work with us at three rehearsals. Having an opportunity like that really helped to make sure the lines made sense. We also had to translate most of lines into present day English, so it was easier to know what they meant.
Nora: I personally had a TON of dialect coaching from multiple people. Kevin did have someone come in and help us with our dialect and that was Dan from The Shakespeare Theatre. He helped us get really deep into our characters in very clever and fun ways. A lot of the credit goes to Cathy Clark though, who is the mother of Alex Clark who played Lysander. She came to multiple rehearsals where the entire cast would literally sit in a circle and run the entire show while she and Kevin would break down each person’s line and help us understand the line in all aspects. A lot of the credit for my dialect help goes to my dad, Joe Palka, who is an actor in the DC area and happens to have an obsession with William Shakespeare My dad is my acting coach, and he helped me with a lot of my lines for this show and many other productions that I’ve been in.
Josh: About a little more than half way through the rehearsing process, Act Two brought in an actor from the Shakespeare Theater Company named Dan who helped us verbally and physically with improving the show. Dan spent most of his time working on our speech and the rhythm for our lines. We are very fortunate for having his help in the process.
Joel: What was the most difficult scene in the play for you and why?
Michael: The play within a play, or “Pyramus and Thisby” was definitely difficult, because I kept cracking up. Every night new things were added by the actors, so I never knew what to expect. And, Bottom is supposed to be such a serious actor, so laughing was a big, “no no.”
Nora: Honestly, the most difficult scenes for me were the scenes where I had to be completely serious. It is so hard for me to be serious in comedies. Like in the first scene where I’m supposed to be angry at Egeus, or when I’m showing my love to Lysander. This was difficult for me because I’m just not a very serious person. That’s not just it though. You’ll find from most actors and actresses that the hardest scenes are the more serious ones because they’re so complex and a lot of energy has to go into them to make it exciting for the audience. Another really hard scene was when I had to just sit still and watch the play within a play and try keeping a straight face. How could someone possibly be serious when watching Michael Brick stab himself four different times and watching Josh Kaufmann twirl around dressed as a woman?
Josh: The most difficult scene in the play for me was the last scene when the Mechanicals are performing at the Duke’s wedding and we are actually performing the play that Peter Quince has assigned to us. This is the time where we really have to over act and pretend to be bad actors. At the end of the scene I kill myself over Pyramus’ dead body. Since the whole scene is very funny not laughing was a big thing that I had to work on. Most rehearsals I would burst out laughing but by the time it was production week I could control myself from laughing onstage. So I guess I had more trouble with keeping a straight face than learning the lines.
Joel: What scene did you like the most and why?
Michael: I absolutely loved the scene where Titania falls in love with Bottom. Lily, who played Titania, and I are very good friends, but definitely not in that sense. The attraction had to be over-the-top and completely ridiculous. We also had to try to be sexy, which is pretty hard for me to do. But, in the end, the scene was hilarious and so much fun to be a part of.
Nora: I had two favorite scenes in the entire show. After Hermia wakes up and sees that Lysander isn’t there, she immediately blames Demetrius and thinks he killed him. I love the scene where Hermia yells at Demetrius. I think that was my favorite scene because it took so much energy out. It also started off as one of my least favorite scenes and it grew into my favorite one because after a while I just started having so much fun with it. That used to be one of my weakest scenes. Kevin would always hassle me tell me that it didn’t sound like I was truly angry at Demetrius for killing the love of my life. So one time, I just got really into it and, using stage combat, of course, I just started beating up Matt, who played Demetrius. That was great because he just went a long with it and it really helped build my character too! My other favorite scene in the show is with out a doubt the fight scene between the lovers. I love that scene because the four of us just had so much fun with it and it is such memorable scene
Joel: Which lines gave you the most trouble?
Michael: One of my fellow actor’s lines always gave me the most trouble. Snout played by Allie Freedman had to say, “O’ Bottom, thou art changed. What do I see on thee?” in reaction to the donkey head. Come on, tell me that does not sound like a pick-up line. I kept losing it because I personally found that line hilarious.
Nora: The line that gave me the most trouble is the line where Hermia wakes up and finds that Lysander is not there. I have just always thought that line was so awkward and I didn’t know whether to make it comedic or serious. I did my best though and hopefully it turned out okay!
Josh: The line that I had the most trouble with was during the scene where I had to be mad at Bottom because we thought he had left the Mechanicals. I have a little paragraph where the word sixpence occurs about five or six times. So getting the order of when I say sixpence and what parts come next gave me the toughest time.
Joel: Which lines or soliloquy are your favorite in the play?
Michael: My favorite lines were the death monologues of Bottom as Pyramus and Flute as Thisby. The overly exaggerated moans and funny repetition of words, like “die” and “adieu” kept me very entertained. It also allowed for Josh and me to experiment with different voices, emotions, and exaggerations.
Nora: My favorite lines in the play are in the fight scene between the lovers when Lysander is calling Hermia all of these stupid insults like “a bead” and “an acorn” and Hermia takes so much offense to it. I also love it when Hermia calls Helena a “juggler.”
Josh: My favorite monologue in the show is at the very end when Puck comes on stage and says his little speech talking about how if you didn’t enjoy the show then pretend it was just a dream. It is a very pleasant monologue to end the show with that I always looked forward to hearing throughout rehearsals and during the performances.
Joel: Which play and role in another Shakespeare work would you like to be in and why?
Michael: I would love to play Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing. The character is just plain funny. He thinks he is an amazing cop or detective, but he is such an idiot. Throughout the entire play, he uses the wrong words and screws up numerous subplots. He is definitely the comic relief, and you know I like to make people laugh.
Nora: I don’t think I can pick just one play and one role I would like to be in. As far as Shakespeare’s comedies go, I think my favorite roles are definitely the cool roles where the girls disguise themselves as men, like Viola in Twelfth Night or Portia in Merchant of Venice. For Shakespeare’s tragedies, however, the list goes on and on. I love parts like Ophelia and Lady Macbeth where the women go crazy and kill themselves. Or in King Lear, parts like Goneril and Regan, where the women are straight up evil. I would actually love to play any woman in any of Shakespeare’s tragedies, just because so much goes into those roles. I think one has to be an incredible actress in order to nail those parts, because it takes so much intensity and a ton of intelligence.
Josh: If I got the opportunity to perform in another Shakespeare show I would want to be in As You Like I” as the role of Orlando. I would like to play the role Orlando because he is a determined young man who falls in love with the beautiful Rosalind. The play is well written.
Joel: Tell our readers about your experiences at Act Two and other roles you have played?
Michael: Act Two has been my home for the past two years. I have been in almost every production and loved every minute. It was great to play Monsieur Thenardier in Les Miserables, but playing Eddie Lyons in Blood Brothers was the best, as Joel knows. I look forward to being in future Act Two performances, even after I hopefully graduate.
Nora: A Midsummer Nights Dream was actually my first show at Act Two. That makes me really sad, because I’m a senior and that means it’s one of my last. I hope that I’ll still have another chance to perform with those people and work with Kevin, but who knows. I had a remarkable experience at Act Two. Kevin, Scott and Keith are all so much fun, and you can tell they really enjoy what they do. The set and costumes were all so amazing I felt like I was in a professional production. The other cast members were outstanding. I loved working with them. They all really take theatre very seriously, but we still have a ton of fun. Not only did I gain a lot as an actress with this experience but I gained so many friendships. It isn’t like most plays where you become a family and then when it’s all over you lose touch. We are all keeping in touch and I think that’s great because I had so much fun with all of these people. For all parents reading this: HAVE YOUR KIDS AUDITION AT ACT TWO! You won’t regret it!
Josh: I have been apart of Act Two ever since it started up in 2005. I have been in four shows there including Beauty and the Beast, Cats (Bustopher Jones), Les Miserables, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat (Joseph). For me Act Two is my home away from home. It is like one big family and I always have the best times when I’m there. I am so happy that I am a part of it.
Joel: What’s next in the theatre for you?
Michael: I will be playing Billy Lawlor in Act Two’s 42nd Street. Not as much acting involved, but the dancing is so much, and I am glad I finally have the opportunity to put the ten years of tap classes to good use.
Nora: Hopefully something will be coming up soon. Right now I’m just focusing on college applications, school and college auditions. I’m hoping to go to a University with a liberal arts program and major in Musical Theatre or Drama. So, right now, I’m just taking a break for a little while, learning monologues, songs and dance routines so I’ll be perfect for my auditions. After all that is done though, I would love to do something at Act Two again.
Josh: The next Act Two performance that I will be in is 42nd Street as Andy Lee in January 2008. After that I will continue to perform with Act Two and with my school for the next four years until I graduate. But even after that I am hoping to keep on performing because after all it’s what I love to do.
Joel: See you at 42nd Street in January!