Shakespeare Theatre Company shifts the tone of their season this spring with Harold Pinter’s Old Times, directed by Artistic Director Michael Kahn. Pinter’s play, first produced in 1971, explores a love triangle between Anna (Holly Twyford), Kate (Tracy Lynn Middledorf), and Deeley (Steven Culp) under the stark white focus of a living room during one extraordinary evening. Provocative and ambiguous, Old Times tells a story that can be interpreted many different ways.
DC Theatre Scene sat down with the cast of three last week at the Lansburgh Theatre to chat about the play, which the actors described at varying moments as a “war,” a “game,” and a “poem.”
Holly Twyford: There are a lot of theories surrounding this play, but the only way that I manage to approach it is to be as realistic and truthful as possible, and put it in simple context for myself — that I knew Kate 20 years ago, that I came with questionable intentions to see her, and to meet Deeley. Competition ensues. And it’s sort of as simple as that for me, really. Because that’s the only way I can approach it.
Steven Culp: I have to second Holly. The simpler the better. People ask me what the play is about, and I tell them that it’s about a couple who have been married for twenty years. And an old friend of the wife’s, that she hasn’t seen for twenty years, shows up. You do have to go at it very simply. There are shifts in reality that happen in the play, and when you get to a place where you can surrender to that, then more happens. You get into ideas about the loss of identity, about how things you thought were real aren’t real. But, I think it’s done through experiencing the play moment-to-moment.
Tracy Lynn Middledorf: My take is very similar. I don’t say a lot through most of the play. But still the trickiest part is finding out how you you feel about the other person, and what you remember. Once you figure out all of the circumstances and basic truths, then you have to go from there.
Steven: In our rehearsals, we felt almost like we were in a waking dream sometimes. In those dreams, you act, and other people do things. They’re very real when they’re happening. But I don’t think of it that way anymore. Now, it’s just what’s happening.
Holly: And that surrendering is important. Surrendering to all of those moments. That’s hard to do, and that’s key.
Tracy: Right. I wasn’t able to just read the script over and over again and figure it out. We didn’t know it until we started living it.
On the rehearsal process with director Michael Kahn
Tracy: The first few rehearsals we spent reading the play.
Steven: And asking questions.
Holly: It may be that thinking about how to approach it is the only thing the three of us agree on. Because I think our paths diverged from there. Normally, I’m the Logic Police. But here, we had to agree to disagree about what our three stories were. That’s really what the play’s about — whose memory is the right one.
Steven: Sometimes in rehearsal I would tell Michael what I thought of a section, and he would say, “If that helps you.” And he wouldn’t go any further. Many things are fluid like that. It’s very much part of this play.
Holly: It is. It’s delightfully uncomfortable.
Tracy: One character says something as fact, then the other person says it, and you don’t know whose is true. And we don’t discuss it. We make up our own mind, and the audience makes up their own mind.
Holly: We tried to discuss it at points, didn’t we? And it didn’t work.
Tracy: Right. It just didn’t matter.
Steven: Part of character work is always just physical. Finding the right physicality to touch off the right things inside. I’m in a chair a lot, so it was helpful to figure out the most effective way to sit in a chair, and how to carry yourself [while sitting] in a chair. Because my physicality would change how we rehearsed.
Tracy: With him in that chair, I had to be really careful to make sure that Kate wasn’t a victim. I’ve needed to remember that I’ve made a choice to be here in this marriage with him.
Holly: If we’re putting it all on the table here. Tracy’s got the hardest job. She has to put a lot across in her wordless responses. They can change entire parts of the show. They can change whether my seduction is working or not.
Tracy: They can throw off the dynamics of the play. The show goes a certain way based on how I react.
On doing a play by Pinter
Tracy: I haven’t done Pinter before. Usually when you do a play, everyone agrees on what the truth is, at least in terms of what happens in the play. I mean, you know what’s going on in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Steven: This is more cryptic.
Holly: I’d agree with that. I’ve never done Pinter either. Normally I’m very clear on what my part of the story is, because I know what the story is. And in this, I’m not. I mean, I’m very clear about what my own journey is. But in terms of the grander picture. Normally I open my big mouth and make suggestions to everyone else about what they’re doing, and I didn’t this time.
Tracy: Well, not as much.
Steven: Not as much.
(They all laugh.)
Steven: I should just say that we are all still very specific about our characters and our history. You make clear decisions about the specifics of this relationship, life histories, whether something’s true or made up. But then there’s a way that you can kind of let it go, and leave it floating.
Tracy: I think I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older at not having to know everything that’s going on. When I was right out of college, I wanted to know every single detail about everybody in the play. But life isn’t that way. So, over time I’ve surrendered more. And this play demands that.
Steven: And with this one, time isn’t a linear thing. It’s about past, present, and future all existing right now.
Tracy: Yes, they do all seem to have terrible memories.
Holly: Memory is used as a huge weapon in the play. What I remember about my relationship with Kate, and whatever power I had in that relationship, is used as a weapon. And we do that in life too.
Steven: That’s a recurrent Pinter theme. Somebody comes in with their particular take on things. They’re in a room, in a power position. And then an intruder comes into the room and takes over. That’s a classic Pinter pattern. And it’s a palpable thing.
Tracy: I think Michael was pretty clear about who wins when. I mean, there are specific moments where he wins, or she wins. That we all pretty much agreed on.
Holly: Yeah. We had to agree on that.
Steven: A lot of the moment-to-moment work we did have to agree on.
Holly: At certain moments, we’d feel united as actors, in sharing a sense of where we are. The pauses may be a good example of that. We’d clearly identify the pauses and what was happening for each of us. The pauses, we’ve figured out, need to be as full as the dialogue. There’s a lot going on there, and something is shifting somehow.
On having an audience
Tracy: I was particularly excited after the first night we had an audience, because I realized there was a lot more comedy in it than I knew.
Holly: Me too! It was a huge surprise to me.
Tracy: That night just felt like a great, exciting game. We all had to rise to that.
Steven: It’s much more comic than we thought it was. Which is good.
Holly: I usually know at this point whether I’m going to be bored in week three, and I’m not going to be bored with this one. I think it’s because I still have questions, and hopefully answers. And I love being on stage with these two, and playing with them. We still come off stage discovering things. And I feel like Michael’s going to come back closing night and appreciate how it’s grown.
Tracy: I hope audiences are interested. I hope it gets them thinking, but also creates real emotional responses.
Steven: It’s paradoxical, because it’s such a language play. But it’s really about the stuff that’s beyond language. It’s like a good poem. It’s trying to get at those things that you can’t verbalize and you can’t describe about being a human being. Hopefully it works, and it touches people in a place that goes beyond intellect.
Holly: On opening night, I had four people come up to me with four different theories of what it was about. They wanted me to agree or disagree with them. I couldn’t, but they were a hundred percent behind their theories.
Steven: I talked to a director friend of mine before I came out here, and he said he’d seen a production that was very clear. The plot was very clear, and it worked. I think either Deeley or Kate had murdered Anna. But looking back on that conversation now, I’m so glad we didn’t just do some theory and say, “This is what the play about.” I think it diminishes the experience of going through the play. It’s like saying that a poem means only one thing.
On how to stay true to the characters
Holly: Are there aspects of me that are Anna? Of course, I think there must be. But she’s different than anyone I’ve ever played.
Tracy: The hardest part for me was figuring out why I so often choose not to speak. It feels easier for me to have a lot to say than to have very little. But, process is always hard to describe. I mean, you have to read the play over and over again.You show up, you do it, and you try and be open with your instincts and your emotions.
Holly: One of my teachers in school used to say, “Find the love in the scene.” So over the years for me, that’s turned into, “Find the love in the character.” How do you fall in love with this character, even though they may not be likable? And that has proved quite valuable to me.
Tracy: I don’t want to give anything away, but something pretty huge happens to Kate within an evening. So, that was interesting to me. If something so big can happen to someone like Kate, where does she start from? And where has it gotten to, in one evening. where these lives can change completely? That I connected to. The magnitude of the event.
Steven: Honestly, the first time I read it, I didn’t have a clue. That’s why I wanted to do it.
Holly: I had exactly the same response. I said, What is this about? I’ve got to do this role.
Steven: For me, it’s just been a fantastic exercise of being in the present moment, and taking whatever you have in that moment, and going forward.
Tracy: When I’ve had a day off, and I’m coming back into the show, I have to remind myself of the stakes involved, how important this is. Because it’s a lot of fun, being up there, but there’s a lot of danger too. There’s a huge fight. So if I’m feeing too comfortable, I read over the play again and remind myself that this is a war, in a way.
Steven: Yeah. I have to go through the play every day. There were so many surprising and unexpected things that happened in rehearsal. I want to keep surprising myself. There are several places in this play that I can do only by jumping off the deep end and not knowing where I’m going to end up. That’s a scary thing, but it’s really fun.