Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews.
NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.
Brendan Mulhern impressed in his creative physicality and golden comedic timing, standing out in a talented cast in Argos Productions' new play by Walt McGough, The Haberdasher! A Tale of Derring-Do. From the law-abiding but girl-clueless Lucas to the silly thug Bruno, Brendan expanded upon Walt McGough's script with his own comedic touches. In his Interview, Brendan explains The Haberdasher, including the rehearsal process for the new play; his favorite distraction; and what he's doing now (in Chicago!).
Brendan, can you introduce yourself to our readers? What do you do? Where are you from? What brings you to the stage?
Hi! I am an actor, improviser, and musician originally from Boston, now living in Chicago. I’ve always enjoyed performing and telling stories. I was a pretty hyperactive child, always coming up with new characters, telling jokes, and doing impressions. I wrote and performed some sketches in high school, and I played in various bands into my 20s. However, I didn’t get into acting until I was 26 and started doing improv. I didn’t work on my first honest play until I was 30.
What is your performing background? Why do you enjoy acting?
My first love is music. I started playing guitar when I was 14, and I had dreams of being a huge rock star. Despite being a showoff in front of my family, I was pretty shy and insecure at school. The few times that I got on stage, mostly for jazz band in high school, I felt exhilaration, freedom, and a release from my shy, awkward self. I felt like a completely different person on stage, and I liked that. I pursued my rock dreams until I was 25, but my personality is not suited for a rock ‘n’ roll life. When I eventually got into acting, I could harness my attention to detail, my creativity for characters, and my love of performing in a way that is much more personally satisfying.
Talk to us about your characters in The Haberdasher! How did they fit into the story?
The Haberdsaher! is presented as a story being told by a traveling band of actors. So, officially, my role was Actor #3. Each of the four actors plays multiple roles, which allows for a lot of breathing room when coming up with the physicality and voices of the different characters. I played an actor playing four different characters, so not only could I create the characters in the story, but I could also add the personality of the actor playing them.
The characters I played were: Lucas, the honorable Constable with a crush on a thief; Bruno, the dim-witted yet lovable thug; Claudia, the castle-dwelling crone with a heart of gold; and Auguste, the annoying prat of a customer in the Haberdashery.
What was it like working on a new play? How much flexibility did you have to create these roles? What was the most challenging part? What was the most fun?
I very much enjoy working on new plays. I love the collaborative approach - working with the director and the playwright to dive deep into the minds and motivations of the characters, making discoveries together, and putting up a production that the entire team can be proud of. I have done big Broadway-style musicals and thrillers, and, while they’re also very fun, and challenging for different reasons, I always appreciate the opportunity to be the first to create the character(s).
Brett Marks (the director) and I had worked together a few times before and he gave me a lot of space to do my own thing. In fact, he gave me one the best compliments I could ever imagine when he said he wanted to cast me because he trusted me to take the script and run with it. Brett and I have a great acting nerd synergy. We took an hour here and an hour there to discuss and experiment with details, like Claudia’s physicality, or Bruno’s voice. One downside to living in Chicago now is I don’t get to work with him and I miss that.
The most challenging part and the most fun part were the same thing: the sword fights! I had never once had to wield a sword - in theatre or in life - and I was worried I would look terrible. But Angie Jepson, our fight choreographer, is an amazing stage fighter and excellent teacher. She asked me at our first rehearsal what my training was. I said: “Absolutely none.” She just smiled, said “OK!” and took it from there. Also, Hannah Husband, who played Actor #2, and two characters of her own, is also a very accomplished rapier fighter. Having the two of them coach me - one as choreographer and the other as a scene partner - was a great learning experience.
What was it like to play so many roles? How did you work to differentiate them and give them each their own “character”?
This kind of thing is right in my wheelhouse and I love it. My dream is to be an excellent character actor and anything that allows me to get better at it is a welcome challenge. In improv comedy, creating big characters is an easy way to ground yourself. Using physicality, accents, and motivations helps inform you where to go even when you have no idea where you’re going. Plus, you always have to be willing to create a brand new character on the spot, and be ready to drop it and create a new one instantly.
When I get the chance to dive into a character and really live through them for a play, I relish the opportunity. The first things I try to find are the walk and the talk. How does this person move and how do they sound? When I get that down, I can live as that character and concentrate on the words they are saying. This opens me up to making new discoveries both in rehearsal and throughout the run.
Getting there, however, requires its own research: Who are they? Where do they come from? What do they believe? What do they want? How do they see themselves? And so it becomes cyclical - you have to learn the words and study the words so you can find your character so you can live the words. It’s fun.
Why do you think that The Haberdasher! was not only a good production, but also a good play?
I still talk about this play, even now over a year later and in a different city. The most important thing about this play is that it is about strong, independent women without treating them as if that is anything out of the ordinary. They just ARE strong, smart, capable, talented women with opinions and desires who don’t need men to save them, protect them, or complete them. This is a very important theme.
We need more of this in the world, quite frankly, and, unfortunately, we artists, who like to think ourselves enlightened and in touch, need to do more to not just treat women fairly, but actively respect their experiences, promote their cause, educate society of their contributions, and demand equality. Our culture and our world will be far richer for it.
If you could have any superpower, which would you have? Why?
I would have to say teleportation. I love to travel and there are so many places I want to visit, but on a non-union actor’s budget, I don’t get very many opportunities to pick up and ship off. Being able to go somewhere instantaneously (and for free) would be great.
What is your favorite distraction?
Long walks. I love to take a walk and listen to music, usually for an hour or longer. I use it to either clear my head or let my imagination wander. Growing up in Boston, I lived near the Arnold Arboretum and would try to go there once a week during the Spring, Summer, and Fall. When I worked at the Boston Public Library, I would take my lunch breaks by the Charles or in the Public Gardens. In Chicago, I live very close to one of the beaches on Lake Michigan, so I walk around the marina and the beach with views of the city. It’s quite beautiful.
Which character did you relate with the most in The Haberdasher!?
Lucas the Constable. I didn’t have to go too far to figure him out - except for all the sword training. He believes in justice, the letter of the law, and doing the right thing, and he has a crisis when doing the right thing means breaking the law. He has a hard time comprehending anyone who doesn’t follow the rules so he’s at a complete loss with every other person in the play, especially Vivienne, a thief who eludes his capture and his heart. His difficulty interacting with the woman he likes is also, sadly, very familiar to me.
The audience really responded to Bruno, which made him tremendous fun to play. He’s a big dumb oaf, a hired thug who is scared of the dark. Comedic gold.
Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?
I just wrapped my Chicago theatre debut, another new play called The Impossible Adventures of Supernova Jones. I played Supernova Jones, a ‘50s-style space explorer who, after the Earth’s destruction, has set off to find the True Center of the Universe so he can turn back time and bring it back. However, [SPOILER] he’s actually a grieving man who fell into a psychosis after a terrible trauma. It is a very touching story and our production got good reviews. I was happy for the experience.
After that, though, I don’t have anything planned yet. I began studying Shakespeare in earnest last Fall, so if I don’t book any gigs, I will probably continue with that over the Summer.
Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?
I want to thank ArtsImpulse for the nomination. I’m very honored to share the Best Supporting Actor category with such immense talent. And thanks to everyone who saw The Haberdasher! It was a wonderful experience that I wish I could relive.
Most importantly, though, I want to stress that this play is an ensemble piece and it cannot be done unless each actor looks out for the other. I am forever grateful to have shared this experience with Kaitee Treadway, Hannah Husband, and Mark Estano. We looked out for one another, supported one another, learned from one another, and put on a really good show together. And that spirit was present in everyone involved: Brett Marks, Walt McGough, Ariana Gett, Elizabeth Ramirez, Angie Jepson, Erica Desautels, Luke Sutherland, and Ben Lieberson all brought their great talents, vast knowledge, boundless energy, and, of course, humor to this production and that, to me, is the only way to work. I also want to acknowledge Erin Eva Butcher who was originally suppose to play the title character but got injured and had to bow out. She showed immense courage and fortitude, and I have the utmost respect for her. Thank you all so much.