“I mean, actors — it’s hard for us to judge whether we’re good in something or not, because we’re probably not a good judge of it. We go by how it feels.
“If you discover something about yourself, it’s successful for you, whether anybody buys it or not. Breakthroughs: that’s the sort of thing we’re talking about. If you learn about yourself in doing a part, that’s important, and it’s a great joy to an actor to do that. So that is how we decide whether we’re successful in a part or not. The objective (theoretically) viewer has other criteria, other ways of deciding what’s good or not so good, when we’re doing our job.”
I had asked Floyd King (who has been, for decades, one of the busiest and most acclaimed actors on the DC scene) about his favorite roles. (The roles he mentioned will appear later in this article, so keep reading.)
The occasion for our conversation was his return to his home base at The Shakespeare Theatre, where he is currently playing Pellinore in Camelot.
I had begun the chat by asking if that classic musical will speak to an audience in the century after the one in which it was written.
“I think this production will. I’m not sure the original production would. That was in 1961 or something, and I don’t think they were concerned the way people are now.
“There’s little tweaks and changes and leanings that Alan [Paul, the revival’s director] has done that have made the play, I would say, more relevant, and more palatable in terms of the politics of today; yes.
“Guinevere is more of a partner, I think, in this production. Guinevere herself is actually more a co-founder of the roundtable. I don’t know if I’m giving anything away…” King then described one of the production’s tweaks which, to ensure that it retains its surprise, I will not reveal.
“And so those are the things that are being done; that they’ve geared it toward. It’s in the playing, as well as in the script. He’s done a lot of cutting, because it was a very long production originally. So I think we’ve got it tamed, as it were.
“Two and a half, or two hours and forty minutes, with intermission, which is decent. And, certainly, for the Shakespeare Theatre audience, it’s a short show.
“So that’s, I think, the answer to that question: the point-of-view has been tweaked; that’s what it is. Though the music stays the same. It’s a really nice score. Pretty songs.”
Our talk occurred before the play opened, which it did to rave reviews. The headline of Peter Marks’ notice in The Washington Post: “Modern-day Washington giving you the blues? As a pick-me-up, try a dose of Camelot.” His text then praised King’s “valuable contribution.”
“We start tech today. I’m not called because I don’t enter until midway through the first act, so I have the day off. But tech started today. And we’ll go for a week, and then previews.” (“Tech” refers to technical rehearsals, at which sound, lights, costumes, props, etc. are fully layered into a production.)
I wondered whether this was the first time King had worked with Paul.
“No. Well, as a director from beginning to end, yes; but he’s directed me in productions where it was being re-directed.” (Each summer, Shakespeare Theatre presents an earlier production for its Free for All program, and, often, those are remounted by someone other than the original director, though the first director’s concept is retained.)
“And then, of course, I knew him. When he was a very young guy, I taught him in England at BADA — British American Drama Academy — and that’s where we met. I don’t know how long ago it was.”
So Paul is British? “No, no, not at all. He’s an American. It’s actually a school for Americans to go and study in England. I was a teacher there. I went because I was teaching at Juilliard. Other people, from Northwestern and Yale drama schools, were there teaching, as well as British teachers.”
King’s character in the musical is one that does not burst into song.
closes July 8, 2018
Details and tickets
“I kind of miss that. Although, I have to say, I thought I could sing until I heard these people. I mean, there’s just brilliant singing in this show. The voices are wonderful; wonderful. They’re real musicians.
“I wasn’t. I was just sort of a dilettante when it came to that sort of thing. I mean, I could put over a song, you know what I mean? But this score is really for singers.
About Pellinore. “It’s actually a good part, you know. It’s not like I had a song that was cut or anything; the character does not sing. He never had a song.”
I mentioned that I had seen King in a musical at Olney.
“Oh, my God, yes. That was a thousand years ago. It was a musical version of a Mollière play, I believe. Yes, that’s right! Oh, gosh, I’m trying to think of the name of it, but I can’t.” I couldn’t remember the name, either, but that’s why they invented Google: Show Me Where the Good Times Are, from The Imaginary Invalid.
“I started out, years ago — when I first started my career, I did a lot of musicals. But then, I got into Shakespeare and, you know, life took me to Washington and the Shakespeare Theatre, so — that’s all that.”
It’s been a little while since King’s last local appearance. “The last thing I did was at The Shakespeare Theatre. It was The Importance of Being Earnest in 2014. That was the last thing I did here in town.”
For an actor with as many DC credits as King has, it may surprise some to learn this: “I’ve never lived here. I’m in town, actually, January, February, March, April, two or three days a week, teaching at GW, so I do get into town.
“I always had an apartment in New York, and now I have a house in Pennsylvania, and I just sort of go back and forth between them.”
The place in Pennsylvania is “in a little village called Swiftwater, which is in the Poconos. I’m very close to the city. It’s beautiful, restful, and cold! Although it’s not now. I was out [in DC] today; I wish I was in the Poconos! It’s warm, but not this humidity we have here.”
I asked if it had been John Neville-Andrews who first brought King to DC. (Neville-Andrews preceded Michael Kahn at Folger Theater; Kahn later took the company away from the Folger and it become the current Shakespeare Theatre Company.)
“Yes, yes — I’m trying to think if it was Lewis Scheeder; it was. Lewis Scheeder [Neville-Andrews’ predecessor] was the producer at the time. It was 1980, and John Neville-Andrews was directing Shrew, which was the play I did, the first play I did, playing the Pedant and Christopher Sly. (They did the induction and I played those two parts.)
“And then they said, ‘Why don’t you stay and do Twelfth Night?’; which I did. And then I just sort of went back and forth. I was going all over the country, but coming here, like, twice a year.
“And then John Neville-Andrews formed the company. And then Michael came, and I joined his company. And then it was just on and on and on.
“And then I began to work at other theaters in town as well, which was the thing that kept me sane.” You see, being part of a classical company can involve repeating certain types of roles, and even repeating specific roles, so the chance to do a contemporary play, such as Quills at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company or The Mystery of Irma Vep at Studio Theatre, must have been a happy change of pace.
“I know it sounds — if I were a young actor getting a job and I heard somebody saying the things I’m saying, I would be, like, you ungrateful [small pause] soul…
“But I am grateful. But there’s the time when you have to remember why you got into this business. Ultimately, you want to say something, of course. But it was fun. And then, when it stops being that, then you have to sort of drop out and regroup and try to find the fun.”
Which are the plays that King has found himself doing more than once? “Well, Twelfth Night, I guess, is the play I’ve done the most. Malvolio I’ve done four times, and Feste three times. But I have not repeated too many. I mean, I repeated a bunch of them…” (But that includes remounts of successful productions.)
Favorite roles? “Well, History Boys — that’s one of my absolute favorite roles. Hector. I loved doing that. But I also like Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida. I liked playing that part because it was such a brilliant director: the great Bill Alexander, a great director.
“There’s just so many, over the years. And I came out here — I was very young when I came here. I’m not that old now; I just don’t talk about my age, because — you’d be surprised how people are.
“An example might be: ‘Oh, well, we were going to call you, but, how old are you? Thirty-five? Well, the character’s thirty-four.’ It actually gets that silly.
“And so you just don’t — actors generally — discuss that. I guess when you’re eighty, you can’t deny you’re eighty; but you reach a certain age where it can prejudice them against you, regardless of what you look like, or you’re able to do, or anything. So I never discuss that.
“But, these days, it’s amazing how people who are in a field that requires so much imagination have so little when it comes to certain things.”
Given how much work King has done in DC, there must have been some years when he didn’t see that New York apartment much. “Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I mean, there were times when it would be, like, a year. But you don’t give up an apartment in the city.”
What about roles King has yet to play and would like to? “Certain roles are past me now, you know what I mean? But, I would like to tackle, one of these days, Polonius. Never played it. And I would like to do some Beckett. I’m jealous of those guys who are doing the Beckett at the Lansburgh now from Ireland: Druid’s company.
“And there’s some musicals; like, I’d love to do Fagan in Oliver! I’d love to have done that. I could still do that, actually; yeah. Thank God I’m actually not an actor who thinks that he can still play young parts. I know people who do, and it’s sad.”
I asked King if there are theatre companies in town for whom he hasn’t yet worked but would like to. “Trick question! Well, all of them! I’d go anywhere and do anything. I mean, I wouldn’t do anything. But, if I was interested in the part, I’d do it.
“I just want it to always be my choice now. My agent finally said to me, ‘You keep finding excuses not to work.’ I’ll say I don’t like the accommodations of this place, or this place gives me the creeps, or I don’t like the play; whatever. And he’ll say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ And I say, ‘You nailed it. I don’t want to, unless it’s really interesting.’
“Or, actually, more than that: interesting, and a challenge. Somebody would say, ‘Come do this. You’ve never done it before, but I think you can do it.’ I’d be more interested in that than in repeating something I’ve already done before.”
King is one of those actors based in New York who seems mostly to work outside of New York. “I’ve done some Off-Broadway. It’s just, I haven’t done it in years; years and years and years. It’s just something that I didn’t — I don’t know. The idea of doing something for a very long time…
“I’ve toured for a long time, which is different, because every time you change cities, you’re changing. It’s how I saw the country, ultimately.
“But, actually, if I walk from my apartment on 43rd Street to the theatre district, it would be like going to work for Dupont. I’d have my little lunch basket with me, you know what I mean?
“After a while, it would be like — because I know: I have a friend. She’s retired now, and living very well, and she was in Phantom; I mean, it paid for her life. She was in it something like twenty-five years. (She moved around. She played lots of stuff.)
“But she was lucky, is what she was, because a lot of people just don’t make it. And by that, I mean, can’t make a living in the business. At the same time — I want to say this — you can do that. You can. America thinks that you’re either a star or starving, and that’s not true. You can make a living in the theatre. I have, and so have a lot of other people.”
And, since that first Folger show, King has seen Washington change from a town with two indigenous Equity theaters into an theatrical destination. “People come here. My students, say, at GW; they come from all over the country. But, I would say, forty percent of them stay here after they get their degree. People leave New York and come here now, which is a good thing. There’s great opportunity. It’s great.
“The city has changed so much; I mean, theatre aside, the city itself. When I first came here, sections of it — I’m actually looking right out my window now at what used to be dilapidated; and now it’s, like, gorgeous. It was dangerous; no more.
“I’m glad that I came here when I came here, because it was at the beginning of The Shakespeare Theatre, and I loved that feeling of being in on the ground floor of something wonderful.”
I asked if King, working at the new Harman Hall, was nostalgic for other STC spaces: the Lansburgh and, even, the Folger. “Well, the Lansburgh, yes. The Folger, no.”
King reconsidered the notoriously difficult Folger: “I guess a little bit. But it’s just cramped. But I was also a lot younger, so, when you’re young, nothing bothers you. Or, if it does, you just think, ‘Oh, this is only temporary.’ And it turns out, it was.
“The Lansburgh I really love. Actually, I like the Harman. It just depends on the show. Camelot certainly belongs in the Harman, but The Importance of Being Earnest belonged in the Lansburgh. It was perfect for it.
“I love playing in that theatre. It’s the perfect size. It just doesn’t have the — well, you can’t do as much, scenic-wise. There are no traps. You can’t fly stuff, really. There’s no wings. But the size of it is perfect. It’s like a nice Off-Broadway house. And the Harman’s like a Broadway theatre.”
Time for another trick question. “Who have I worked with more? Oh, hmm. I guess, at this point, Ted [van Griethuysen,] but there was a time when it was Philip [Goodwin.]” Van Griethuysen, last paired with King in Much Ado About Nothing in 2011, is also part of the Camelot company, in the role of Merlin.
“Philip hasn’t been here for a while. He goes other places and does other things. He doesn’t live that far from me. He has a house fairly near me. He lives in New York [state,] but, you know, those three states are really close there; New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania are all stuck together there. So he’s about an hour away. I see him socially and, in the city, he has an apartment there, too, so I see him. He’ll come down and see this.
“But, I think, it used to be — I would have said Philip. But now I think it’s Ted.”
It didn’t come as news to me that King and Goodwin are friends offstage. When I saw Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in New York shortly after its Broadway premiere, I recognized the two in the audience.
“When you started saying that, I thought you were going to say you saw us in The Lisbon Traviata. [Well, I did.] That’s my first memory.
We did Twelfth Night. I don’t remember the order of things. I’d have to look it up, or something, to see, because I can’t remember which came first. Oh, no. I think — yes, right. Twelfth Night came first, then we did Lisbon Traviata together at Studio.”
Back to Camelot, King extolled the virtues of the ten piece orchestra, having just been to a rehearsal “on Sunday night, where we first sang with the orchestra. I’m in a number — I don’t sing; I speak in a number — so I was there. I speak in the finale. So you’re speaking on cue, on a musical cue, so you had to be there for that.
“So they sang with the orchestra and it was gorgeous; lovely; a good sound; good, good sound. I’m excited about it. I think everyone will be. I think the cast is brilliant, actually. I don’t often say that. But these are all, I mean, so young and talented…”
I asked King to speculate on the audience that will enjoy the show. “Well, I think that, if you already like Camelot, you’ll love this. And if you have no feeling about it whatsoever, you’ll like it, or love it. And, if you think you don’t like it, I think you should come anyway, because I think you’ll like this.
“I think it’s a new look at it. I think it will interest people for that new point of view it holds up. But, I think, also, if you like good singing — well, brilliant singing, actually — it’s sort of anti-Sondheim, anti-Cole Porter. Those are brilliant things; I love them; I’m just saying that it’s really melodious, and you can really wallow in that kind of thing, if that’s your wont.
“I would say, ‘Come.’ It’s going to be the antithesis of Hamilton, just in the sense that Hamilton is hip-hop. And this is melodies. It’s where musicals were, not where they are, as a comparison. It’s lush — really lush — and well-acted.
“And it’s actually (I have to say this) it is — in the acting, in the point-of-view, in the director’s touch — it is an adult musical. It’s about adults. The story is adult. I mean, I know, it’s in a magical land; it’s a fairy tale; but, ultimately, it’s about three people who love each other; and betrayal; and forgiveness.”
“Oh, definitely, idealism, yes. It’s about what [King Arthur]’s trying to do, what all three are trying to do — Lancelot and Guinevere — and then they make a mistake. And it’s about his forgiveness of them.”
Being a gentleman, King, before ringing off, asked me what I was up to, and I told him that I was about to open as Prospero in The Tempest at WSC Avant Bard.
“Oh, that’s exciting! It’s the hardest play in the world, I think. I think Prospero is a great part. But the play is difficult. Difficult, but some great poetry.
“Well, that’s exciting that you’re doing that, I think! Oh, God, we’re — isn’t that funny? I remember when we were all playing kids. And now, we’re playing old men.
“Well, that’s life; isn’t it?”