When he’s not busy playing the Green Goblin, out to destroy the world, in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, Patrick Page is very much in demand as a Shakespearean actor, a playwright, director, and acting teacher. The multi-talented Patrick Page, well known to DC audiences, tells us what it’s like being in a show that has become a national obsession, and talks about his career and his new musical.
Joel: How did you get involved in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark?
Patrick: I worked with Julie Taymor on The Lion King and they were doing the first workshop some years ago. They asked me if I would come in and read for her, and at the time I wasn’t able to do it. And so there were a couple of times where they had readings that I wasn’t part of because I was doing some other work. And then it was in 2009 – around February or March – they were gearing up to do the actual show, and they asked me to come in and meet Julie and at that time I told them that I would like to – so I came in a did a 10 minute reading of one of the scenes of the play or two of the scenes – I can’t remember – and I sang a song.
One wasn’t allowed to see the script beforehand, so it was the easiest audition in the world – I just went in cold, so you didn’t have that stress to prepare something.
And a little after that they called me and told me that Alan Cumming was cast. So I said, “Great!” So I was about to go to The Old Globe to do play George III in The Madness of King George, and as I was packing my suitcases and getting ready to go on the plane – they called me and said that because of other commitments – because the show had been delayed so many times – for financial reasons, Alan is now engaged on a television show and they asked me to do Spider-Man.
I had to call The Old Globe and say, “I am so sorry, I was not going to be at rehearsal and they had to work that out – which they did – and Miles Anderson – who won every award in the world – came in, and Adrian Noble was directing it – and they worked together at the RSC. So that all worked out well for them and there were no hard feelings on anyone’s part.
I was also going to do some plays in Washington, DC including The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare Theatre Company, and I had to talk to Michael Kahn and work things out, and he and Louis Spisto, who runs the Old Globe and Michael are going to be my guests on opening night of Spider-Man. So that was a situation that had to be worked out very quickly, and then it was the next week or following week that I went into a recording studio with Bono and the Edge. It was very fast and very exciting.
- Tell me about Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin, your characters in the show.
Well of course – they are the same person. Norman is well-meaning, and is trying to save the world. The Goblin, the flip-side of that coin, is destructive and wants to destroy the world.
How much of your own personality and life experiences did you bring in shaping your performance?
Of course your own passions and experiences are brought in to every part. I think one of the first things an actors does – or at least I do – is to look for those areas where I feel a real kinship and connection with the character. And then I look for those areas where he is very different and approaches the world in a different way. I need to find a correlation and adjustment where I can get behind and put my shoulder into. So I guess that Norman’s goal is to be ‘Number 1’- the best!
When I was a kid I was similar in that way and I felt the pressure of it. No one put it on me – I put it on myself. If you weren’t ‘Number 1’, if you weren’t the best – then you might as well stay home. And I think that that’s how Norman feels. So when his research is preempted by someone else’s research –someone who has created a genetically viable Spider-Man – that pushes him into doing things that he probably shouldn’t do.
How long does it take to transform you into the Green Goblin?
The first time we did the transformation into the Goblin which involves a costume and obviously facial prosthetics and makeup – it took about three-and-a-half hours. I had read the script and Julie knew it had to happen in under three minutes at the most, and in fact at the first performance it had to happen in under 30 seconds. So that was a real process, and one of the great learning experiences for me working with Julie was to not to say that something can’t be done, or assume it can’t be done – keep working toward it while more and more steps are being taken, until you find what this vision is.
So here I am going to the machine without my shirt on as Norman and I am going to walk out of it as the Green Goblin. And most people would say that it’s impossible – that you need to use two actors, or you need to completely rethink the situation. And I said, “There is no way that I am going to be that person who is going in and coming out of this machine.” The wonderful thing of course is that really one of the greatest scenes for Norman and the Goblin is when he comes out of the machine, so it would be a real shame to let another actor do it.
Just having someone there who had the insistence that “This is going to work – I don’t know how this is going to work – we don’t know what the details are” and we kept keep working towards the details over a period of six months – and by golly – I am the one who walked out of that machine being in full transformation as the Goblin.
Let me ask you – how many other people are in that machine?
In the machine there is only one more person, and in order to complete the transformation – because I come out sorta embryonic – in order to complete the transformation into a super-villain – having gone shopping on 5th Avenue or whatever super–villains do – then it takes about six people and another three minutes.
And it took way more than six people to figure it out, to design it and build it. There are major prosthetics involved both of my face and my body – a lot of lying under gelatinous material.
The press has been unkind to the show – and have reviewed the show before the official press night – yet audiences are buying tickets like crazy. Why do you think the houses are full despite the critical trashing, and what are you hearing from the audiences?
When I was doing Julius Caesar on Broadway with Denzel Washington – we asked him why he wanted to do it, he said it was because he wanted to meet his fans. He would go out after every show, including matinees, and stand outside the stagedoor and the people would be lined up all the way down 42nd Street. So you saw the lines all the way down the block and police would close off the two exits between Broadway and Sixth, and it was really an amazing event.
I imagined what it was like at The Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles driving in and out in an ambulance from the radio station. It was really wonderful.
So what’s nice about doing a show on Broadway is that you do get to meet the people who come see your show. There is a nice group of people who want you to sign their programs and they tell you what they think about the show, and they love it, and they are just having a marvelous time!
We are making changes in the show – and if you look at the grosses we have been the top grossing show or the 2nd top grossing show this month, trading spots with Wicked. It’s not a question of how it’s selling but rather it’s truly a question that the artists involved – Julie and Bono and The Edge and the producers and everyone working on the show are saying, “Here’s what we think. Here’s what we’d like to keep working on”.
We had this unfortunate situation a month ago where some of the critics decided they wanted to come in and review the show before the opening. I felt that that was too bad because I knew what was on our checklist. I know that next week we’ll be working on the sound and the show is going to sound much better, and the next week we are going to put in the new draft of “Boy falls from the sky”, and the next week we are going to be taking out a scene in the Second Act and that’s going to help make the Second Act move better, etc. All these things that were scheduled and we are in the process of doing they didn’t see. It’s a shame someone would want to come in and review it before those things have a chance to be implemented.
Why not let the press and blogs and potential ticket buyers know this?
I can understand why the critics wanted to come and see the show – being two blocks away – and them saying, “This is my beat and everyone is covering it but me”. I just felt like I wish they were able to see the work that’s being done now. There’s no sense in arguing with any of that. The Internet now is what it is. People render their opinions. What we can try to do is to make it the best we can, and to make it so it pleases us. And if it happens to please the critics – then that’s great, because the artists have to be pleased with what they are doing, and hopefully it will please the audience. And if it doesn’t please the audience they will stop coming, and the show closes.
Despite the unfortunate injury to a cast member on December 21, 2010, that received national attention, I keep reading that Spider-Man is ‘the safest show on Broadway’. Do you agree?
All I can tell you is I have been in many big technically complex Broadway shows and in every one of them there have been injuries, and in this particular show it has a spotlight on it, which is different from the show I have been in. The media environment with Twitter and Facebook is different now.
And frankly this property is different than other properties because many people are passionate about their opinions on how this should be done –whether or not it should be done – in context of a Broadway show, and as I said from the beginning, this show is different in so many ways. It’s attempting to do things that other shows on Broadway have not attempted in the past. It’s a bigger budget than other shows, so I know we can’t be surprised at the attention we’ve received in critical and negative ways as well as in positive ways.
I think of it as I think about the weather. You can go outside or complain about it. You can go on with your life and take an umbrella. I think things like that are just facts of life.
- Now on to happier things. Do you enjoy playing the characters that audiences boo and dislike like the Grinch and Scar in The Lion King?
I absolutely adore it! When I was a kid I used to watch a couple of different things on television – and my father – he was an acting teacher – was a fanatic about new technology. So when I was a little, little boy when I was 9 years old, I used to listen to reel-to-reels and LPs of Shakespeare and Broadway musicals. I used to listen to Ethel Merman doing Annie Get Your Gun and John Gielgud reading The Ages of Man. I never could sleep well and always needed to listen to something, to listen to an album like Olivier’s Richard III. I would listen to these as I was going to sleep.
The other one I loved, which was first released on audio tape and later in the 70’s on reel-to-reel, was Mary Martin’s Peter Pan with Cyril Ritchard. One of my favorite television shows when I was 7 to 9 years old – I had a couple – was “Batman”. I loved the villains: Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), Caesar Romero (The Joker) and Julie Newmar (Catwoman). They always looked like they were having the most fun! In Peter Pan, Cyril Ritchard was looking like he was having the most fun of anybody.
Those are all my favorites too. I even brought the Batman 45 RPM to Show & Tell and lead my classmates in the Batman dance.
I have this huge library of things that people say to me, “I can’t believe you have that!” I am so lucky that I grew up in a life like this – doing Shakespeare part of the year and over-the-top villains for the rest of the year like Scar and The Grinch and the Green Goblin.
There really is no more fun than that! You can feel the audience’s appetite for it. When the Goblin finally appears fully-formed you can just feel the appetite coming from the audience – “This guy’s going to bring danger into the show. I always felt that with Scar and certainly felt that with The Grinch. It’s just a dream come true for me.
You also played some endearing characters on the stage: Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast again in the First National Tour. Enlighten me on how you landed up with the role of Lumiere?
I was actually auditioning for the National Tour of Angels in America, also run by Jay Binder, the casting director of Beauty and the Beast. I was going in to audition for Louis and Prior, but I wasn’t right for either of them, and Jay asked me if I would be the reader for The First National Tour of Beauty and the Beast the next day, so I agreed. When I was being the reader for that show – not auditioning but reading the sides for those who were auditioning for it – Jay said “I’d like for you to give this a try”. He really helped me through the audition and helped convince me that it would be a fun thing to do, and although it was not the career path that I was making for myself at that time, I said, “OK, I’ll give this a try”. I’m really glad I did, because that’s where I met my wife and that’s when I started doing musicals in NYC, which opened up a whole new area for me and lead to a lot of fun, and I got to see a lot of the country I hadn’t seen before.
How long were you on the road playing Lumiere?
I think it was for two-and-a-half years.
I saw you go on as Scrooge in Lynn Ahrens and Alan Menken’s musical version of A Christmas Carol. You were terrific! You were a ‘standby’ for that role. Tell our readers what a standby is and how it’s different from being an understudy or a swing.
With the standby position, you are usually covering a main star- not always but usually. For instances in Spider-Man the standby has two performances a week. That doesn’t always happen but in The Phantom of the Opera that happens with Christine. The standby is not in the show while the understudy is normally part of the ensemble of the show and put into the lead part if the lead were to become ill or unavailable.
You talked briefly before about your father, Robert Page, who was an actor and appeared in as many Shakespearean roles as you have. Tell us about growing up in a ‘theatre’ family.
I saw him at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is the largest regional repertory theatre in the country, and I was literally two or three years old, when he was first there. They have this 1,200 seat outdoor replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, so the plays were performed outdoors in the mountains in southern Oregon, and it was magical. I have real sensory memories of it. I don’t have any fixed or narrative memories of it, but I remember how the air felt and the way the trees smelled and the fact that my Dad and these people were up there in this kind of golden light – all the rest of us would turn toward them when he was doing Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, and they were running around having a marvelous time and there was music and color and I said, “Well, that’s where the fun is happening up there”, so I never really had any serious desire to do anything else but to be up there.
And when I was in my early teens I started doing a magic act because I grew up in a very small town in Monmouth, Oregon – there were limited opportunities to do theatre even though there were more opportunities there than in most towns. And I wanted more, so I put together my own magic show because I didn’t need a director or producer. All I needed was a TV tray and my magic kit, and I could go around and perform which I did then well up to college. I made all my money doing this and paid for my college mostly as a magician, while I did act in plays as well.
That was a big part of my life and it really taught me a lot of things that have served me real well in musical theatre – in all kinds of theatre frankly: the ability to hold a stage, the ability to project your voice, the ability to improvise when something goes wrong, as it always does when you are dependent on props, or when you are dependent on an audience volunteer. So all of those things are very useful to me.
Did you ever perform with your father?
I directed my Dad in a production of A Christmas Carol, which I adapted for the stage, and which is still doing well every year in the Pacific Northwest. The first year I did it he played Scrooge, and for a decade after that it was an annual event of him playing Scrooge. He directed me in many shows, and I directed him in that show, but I don’t think we ever acted together in a show, which I would love to do.
My dad is 86 and he doesn’t want to act anymore because he believes he can no longer memorize the lines.
What’s harder – performing in a musical or a play?
I don’t think you can make that kind of distinction. They are hard in each of their own way. I think to do anything well takes a lot of skill and a lot of commitment. To be the doorman in my building takes a lot of skill. To serve in a restaurant takes a lot of skill and commitment. To do a musical or a plays does too. They’re all slightly different skills. There’s a great book on style in the theatre where John Gielgud says, “Style depends on what play you are in”. You don’t do Rodgers and Hammerstein like you would do Harold Pinter. But there are a lot of overlap skills too. And the basic function is telling the story to the audience truthfully, believing in what you are saying, and trying to get what you want from your acting partner on the stage, making sure that it can be heard, and understood and seen by the audience at the same time. All those skills are the same.
You won a Helen Hayes Award in 2006 for playing Iago in Michael Kahn’s production of Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. There, you also played Macbeth (opposite Kelly McGillis) and Claudius in Hamlet. What was it like working with Michael Kahn?
I just think Washington, DC is a marvelous theatre town, and is extraordinarily lucky that Michael wanted to spend a good portion of his life there, because I firmly believe that Michael is one of the greatest Shakespearean directors in the world, and the fact that he virtually does all of it in Washington – as opposed to London and New York – is just a tremendous gift to the city.
Whenever I am ready to play a Shakespeare part – the person I would call is Michael because I know two things: (1) I know he has exceptional taste that he recognizes good acting from bad acting, and therefore he will not let me be bad. I can act really well or I can act egregiously bad, getting carried away, or I might back off too much, and, thinking I was being extraordinarily subtle, be flat and lifeless. Michael can fine-tune the instrument so it reaches the audience where it’s truthful and not overdone. And (2) the other thing that is unique about him is that he is also a tremendous acting teacher. Therefore, if you don’t know how to get somewhere he can help you get there. There are really great directors and there are really great acting teachers, but it’s very, very seldom that they come in the same package. Michael has great depth of knowledge of the verse and the workings of the language.
You have written two one-man shows: Passion’s Slaves and Love Will, and the co-authored Nothing Like the Sun, and we talked about earlier, you adapted A Christmas Carol for the stage. Will we see any of these works on the stage this year?
I am doing a new one actually about ‘evil’, but I don’t have a title for it yet. I have also written one about my relationship with Shakespeare and my relationship with my Dad, which I will do sometime in the future. And I have written a musical about a magician.
Yes. The Illusion of Chung Ling Soo. What’s happening with it?
We are going to have a reading when Spider-Man opens. I just heard about it right before you called me. The other play is called Swansong, which we did at The Kennedy Center a few years ago that David Muse directed, that starred Andrew Long, and we did it Off-Broadway in the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row as part of the New York Summer Play Festival, which David also directed. There are a lot of writing projects I’m working on.
What roles would you like to play?
I would like to do Coriolanus before I’m too old. I’d like to play Rover in Wild Oats, which I am directing a reading at the Red Bull Theatre in NYC, but I’m not acting in it – Reg Rogers is playing Rover. I’m really torn because I really want to direct it and play that part. I want to play Prospero in The Tempest, and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, and Vincentio (The Duke) in Measure for Measure
In the roles that I did play, I recently did Cyrano at The Old Globe in translation by Anthony Burgess. That particular translation of the text felt bottomless. Even though I played it for four months I felt great about the production but I felt there was more to do, so I’d like to do that again.
I know you taught at NYU’s Tisch graduate school of the arts, and now teach at The Old Globe’s MFA Program, among others. What is the best advice do you give to these students?
They should continue to do things they love. If you love making costumes, you should continue making costumes, if you love to act – keep acting. If you love to act and they won’t let you act –then keep making costumes until they let you act, or vice versa.
Theatre will find you. And your talents and skills will emerge the more you do. It’s really about staying in the game. I play Blackjack and the thing about Blackjack is it’s not whether you win or lose – it all depends on how long you stay at the table. If you happen to leave the table when you are ‘up’ then you win; if you leave the table when you are ‘down’, you lose. You have to know when to leave so that you don’t lose too much, so if you want to win eventually – you have to stay in the game.
I watch “American Idol” and I watch young kids who are 15 or 16 having their hearts broken because they didn’t make the finals. You have to start over and keep auditioning.
Keep learning. I am constantly trying to learn, constantly going to class. I go to a voice teacher every week. My wife who studied dance at SMU and is an extraordinary dancer goes to dance class several times a week. I read every book I can read. You keep training and keep doing and you’ll get better, and as you do, people will find you. And then when you know you are good enough you start beating down doors, because when the doors open, you’ll have something to give. Don’t beat them down too much before you know you are ready.
Let’s talk about meditation, which is an important part of your daily life.
I used to have a process where I would very much gear up for a show, and it just took me forever. The first time I played Richard III was in 1987, and I had it in my mind that I had to say every line in the show before I went out. You know that Richard has ¾ of the lines in a 3 ½ hour show, so it would take two hours to do that- a vocal warm-up, but a big part of that was sleeping for twenty minutes to empty the mind. So whatever happens on the stage I am available for.
Before I learned meditation, I couldn’t sit for five minutes and empty my mind. It was absolute torture. It was like a war. Now I can sit comfortably for an hour when I am meditating and empty my mind, and it’s a fabulous time.
I used to absolutely love it when I was doing The Lion King because it required being in the makeup chair for an hour, so meditation was scheduled into that time. When I get lazy and don’t schedule it and put it off until tomorrow – I really miss it.
Why should my readers and DC area theatergoers come up to NYC to see Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark?
You have a world renowned talent Julie Taymor who you might have to travel to Paris or London or LA to see her work and you have a chance to see set designer George Tsypin‘s work, which is rarely seen in NYC, and a chance to hear new songs by Bono and The Edge, and to see a new kind of theatre that has not been seen before on a Broadway stage – this kind of live circus theatre.
I think people who make theatre really have to ask themselves, “Why would someone leave their home, pass by the movie house, where they can buy a ticket for less than $20.00 to something they think is going to be pretty good because it won an Academy Award and/or it has a famous actor in it – and walk into a building with a bunch of other people for $120.00, or $60 or whatever it’s going to cost – why would they do that?
One of the answers is that you will see something that you won’t see in any other environment – and in this particular case – people are really flying through the air. It’s circus. It’s for real. One of the things in the press that’s happened is when someone missed a landing in our show and the safety net mechanism clicks in and that person has to be repositioned, people see that as a mistake. In fact that kind of mistake happens in the circus and that’s why there’s a net. When a trapeze artist misses and flies over the audience, he falls into the net and puts his hands over his head. The audience applauds and he gets back on the trapeze and does it again. And that’s why the circus will never die out.
And that’s what’s true about Spider-Man. He really is flying through the air. You won’t see it anywhere else in the world. Never before has circus and theatre been combined in this way. And the final reason to come and see the show is for people to become part of the conversation of a show everyone is talking about. Come see it for yourself. What I hear when I come out of the door at night is, “Boy, I am so glad I came! Because that’s not what I read in the newspaper.”
NOTE: Today, March 10th, it was announced that Julie Taymor’s busy schedule will prohibit her from continuing her role in the show and she will be replaced by Phil McKinley, known best for directing The Boy From Oz and working with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.. Other creative team members were also announced.
From lead producers Michael Cohl and Jeremiah J. Harris: “Julie Taymor is not leaving the creative team. Her vision has been at the heart of this production since its inception and will continue to be so. Julie’s previous commitments mean that past March 15th, she cannot work the 24/7 necessary to make the changes in the production in order to be ready for our opening. We cannot exaggerate how technically difficult it is to make such changes to a show of this complexity, so it’s with great pride that we announce that Phil McKinley is joining the creative team. Phil is hugely experienced with productions of this scale and is exactly what Spider-Man Turn off the Dark needs right now.”
Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark is playing at The Foxwoods Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street, in New York City.
Watch the “60 Minutes” feature on the creation of Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark.