“It’s a story that is largely about a character who is trying to steal a baby. We’re not shying away from how disturbing that can be.” Matthew Pauli was talking about playing the title role in Rumpelstiltskin. More particularly, he was talking about how important it is, when performing theatre for children, to be aware of the audience, to let the material on any given day be “as scary or not scary as the audience requires.” The piece is “very interactive in that way. I love that.”
Rumpelstiltskin is running at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. Pauli and I talked the day before they went into technical rehearsals for the show, which Imagination Stage is recommending for audiences five to ten years old. The piece, directed by Janet Stanford, includes five actors and one on-stage musician, a fiddler. The actors play multiple characters, “fairies, magical pixie characters, of whom Rumpelstiltskin is one.” There is “a lot of abstract movement, quick costume changes. An actor changes character by turning around.” It’s a “very stylized physical piece,” which is “fun to do.”
Pauli pointed out that, if you “listen to stories that children tell each other,” they can be quite disturbing, although child story-tellers are able to present in a “safe way” content that might freak out an over-protective adult listener. Taking a cue from that observation, the Imagination Stage story-tellers are “talking to the audience a lot…constantly checking in with them. Most of the real, day-to-day differences are fairly subtle, but we dial the volume, the intensity, up or down as various audiences give information about what they want the play to be. It’s theatre as conversation.”
According to Pauli, ”anyone who wants to be an actor should be required to do children’s theatre. Children demand complete honesty of your performance. They have to believe that it’s true or they lose interest, they will literally walk away. You must be very focused and truthful. Children will be very punishing if you are lazy, but very rewarding if you do the work.”
Pauli has “spent many years doing children’s theatre.” His previous gig, also at Imagination Stage, employed one of his other skills. He designed and built the puppet that represented the title dinosaur in Lulu and the Brontosaurus. (Vaughn Irving performed the character, both voicing and operating the puppet.) Yes, he does puppetry as well as acting. And he went to clown college and toured for six years with the Big Apple Circus. And he is a recent graduate of the Academy of Classical Acting (ACA), the MFA program administered by George Washington University and affiliated with the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
“It’s all physical story-telling, in one way or another,” Pauli told me, about his varied background. As he spoke about his decision to add classical training to his “bag of theatrical resources,” he made the point that his previous experiences were “highly pertinent. Shakespearean and classical texts involve heightened circumstances. That’s true of children’s theatre.” Regarding whether experience clowning, as opposed to experience in classical theatre, was an impediment at ACA, he told me that “to my great delight, it was never an impediment but a great advantage.” Several weeks of study at ACA focused on clowning. That shouldn’t be too surprising, since the word “clown” can be found in the list of characters in more than one of the plays in the Shakespearean canon, and a number of those plays are comedies.
Drawing the concept of aptness even further, Pauli said that “the heart of a clown is completely vulnerable and open” and consequently creates an open relationship with an audience, with whom it is easy for the clown to “connect. Clowns feel emotions in a very clear way,” he continued, as he cited Lear and Cordelia as Shakespearean characters to whom that skill could apply. He also mentioned Shylock as a character who “devised a very specific contract, morally reprehensible but legally sound — that’s not far from a clown’s way of thinking.” As an example of the universality of the clown, he continued, “We all know what it’s like to slip and fall and be embarrassed.”
Of course, it wasn’t at all surprising to learn what contemporary performer inspires Pauli. Bill Irwin, he pointed out, has been doing “brilliant work in theatre with a clown background.” He told me about his reaction, while in high school, to seeing Irwin in The Regard of Flight at Arena Stage. “At that point, I thought, ‘I don’t know what this is but I want to do that.’” He has subsequently seen almost everything Irwin has done on stage, even participating as an audience volunteer, and finally taking a workshop with his idol. “He’s a terribly nice man, really generous.”
Pauli is also an Associated Artist with Faction of Fools, and he spoke about how he has learned more about the history of Commedia dell-Arte through his work there. He said that that tradition goes back to the Greeks and that “everyone recognizes certain types of characters.” It doesn’t matter what the language of the performance is, you can “follow the story and relate to the characters.” Sometimes archetypal characters are dismissed as “stock,” he continued, and accused of lacking depth. However, he looks at the term as “the same usage as soup stock.” Teasing out the point, he said, “you begin by finding the simplest, clearest story everyone can understand, then layer on the details that make the character unique.”
Does Pauli have a dream project? Well, that can “change dramatically from day to day.” He spoke, though, about a desire to take things from his own imagination and “find a way to put them on stage.” He enjoys “any performance that allows him to interact directly with an audience,” and added that “I would love to play Cyrano someday.” Pauli said that, as a clown, he has to work a lot by himself, so he “really enjoys the collaborative work” afforded by theatrical experiences. He finds it challenging. “When I work with people who are better than me, I create better things.”
Pauli has lived in the Washington area “almost his entire life.” He grew up in Silver Spring and now owns a townhouse in Laurel, so, at present, he has “no plans to go anywhere” beyond DC. Any final words? “I’m really excited to be working at Imagination Stage again and about what we are creating here.”
What they have created with Rumpelstiltskin will run through March 16.