2014 Best New Work: Argos Production's "The Haberdasher! A Tale of Derring-Do" by Walt McGough

Although we have announced our 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we continue our Nominee Interview Series. 

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.

Walt McGough is a playwright to see.  Not only does he fill his plays with the enjoyable tropes of your favorite movies, TV shows, and stories, but he includes clever subtle and overt commentary and reflections on our modern society in each of his plays.  His The Haberdasher! A Tale of Derring-Do was a feast for the mind and eyes.  In his Interview, Walt explains The Haberdasher! and the new play collaborative structure, the best praise that he ever received for his work, and some of his upcoming projects.

Photo by Jonathan L. Green

Photo by Jonathan L. Green

Walt, thank you so much for joining us.  Let’s hear more about who you are, and what brings you to Boston stages.

I’m a playwright, originally from Pittsburgh, PA. I lived in Chicago for a few years, working and starting a company, and then came to Boston to get my MFA at BU. Shortly after that, I started working on staff at SpeakEasy Stage Company, which I’m still doing, and I just kind of fell in love with the city and the theatre here, so the rest is history.

Talk to us about the inspiration for The Haberdasher!  When did you start writing the play?  How did you get the idea?  What other stories inspired you?

The Haberdasher! started off with me wanting to write a big, fun, high-romance adventure, akin to Princess Bride, Three Musketeers and other stuff in that vein. At the same time, I wanted to write a small, scrappy-feeling piece where a small group of actors played a huge cast of characters, which would really let a production team and cast have a lot of fun (the audience, as well).

How would you describe the play?  Give me a sales pitch like you’re marketing for a spot on a prime-time TV network.

It’s a swashbuckling farce about a young French girl who gets embroiled in a ridiculous plot involving a Duke, a burglar, and stolen locket. It wouldn’t make good TV because part of the fun is its theatrical structure: it’s four actors playing about 14 different characters, and features moments like the final battle, in which the characters all start to intersect and actors are having swordfights with themselves.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to writing?  To seeing?  What kinds of stories have no interest for you?

I’m drawn to stories that have familiar structures and styles, but a central viewpoint/dynamic that’s new and surprising. Often, I get there by telling genre stories with female or minority protagonists, and cast a new light on their tropes. I’m very interested in creating narratives that haven’t been told on stage before, and the sad truth is that often the simplest way to accomplish that is to put a woman at the center of the story and honor her perspective.

As an audience member, I love seeing anything that has had a lot of attention and care put into it, has something to say, and takes its audience into account as a part of the experience.

If you could follow around anyone in the world for a day, who would it be?  What would you want them to do?

Do they know that I’m following them? That seems creepy. I guess an astronaut would be pretty fun, but only if there was an extra spacesuit.

What is the best thing that anyone has ever said about your writing?  What is the worst?

Last year, I did a play called Pattern of Life with New Rep about drone warfare. This past fall, we had the chance to perform a section of it at a Boston College conference on drone warfare, and a number of the audience members were current and former drone pilots. A group of them came up to the actors and I after the performance and told us that we had honestly reflected their experiences. That felt pretty great.

I’ve also been pretty lucky in that I’ve very rarely had someone be overly negative about something I wrote, so nothing really bad or juicy springs to mind.

How did The Haberdasher! change during production?  Why?

Before rehearsals, the director, Brett Marks and I, had a lot of meetings just talking about the structure of the play and different opportunities within it. It’s a farce, so a significant amount of it just comes down to the mathematics of building the machine and letting it run. Those conversations yielded some new or rejiggered scenes, as did a pre-rehearsals workshop that we did before auditions. Once we had a cast locked in and rehearsals started, there were lots of little changes throughout, mostly focused on clarifying intentions or helping the logistics of having four actors playing so many characters at one time (costume changes, fight choreography, etc.). Fortunately, all of the actors, the designers and Brett were ridiculously game to try whatever crazy stuff that I’d written into the play. Especial shout-out to Fight Director Angie Jepson, who took a bunch of vague, absurd stage directions and crafted them into whole symphonies of physical comedy.

With what kinds of theatre companies do you choose to collaborate?  What advice would you give to companies looking to engage talented playwrights?  What advice would you give to the playwrights?

I love working with any group of artists that tries to do their best work on each new project. I’m drawn to anyone that collaborates well and brings their own ideas to the table since I’m a big talker and relish the chance to dig into things around the table.

I’d say that any company working with a playwright on a new script should be sure to be as open, honest and collaborative as possible about their intentions. Don’t commit to producing a script on the assumption that it’ll change, and make sure that you love it for the same reasons that the writer does.

For a playwright, I’d say the same thing in reverse: make sure to only work with collaborators who are genuinely excited about the script, and want to help you make it more of what it is and what you want it to be. Also, join the Dramatists Guild and know your rights as a writer.

What do you eat for breakfast?  What is your morning routine?

I’m a big proponent of cereal.  I know that’s going to be a bit controversial, but deal with it, America. My morning routine is generally focused on trying to find the perfect balance between time required to get to work and time spent sleeping in.

What is one thing that you would like to change about the Greater Boston theatre scene in the next year?  What is one thing that you would like to stay the same?

More space, more space, more space. Rehearsal rooms, black boxes, the basements of bars. We need space in order to keep developing as a community, so that young companies can establish home bases in which to grow their audiences and themselves. The thing that I never want to change is how excited, passionate and supportive this whole community is, at every level.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

My play Chalk, which was produced by Fresh Ink last January, goes up into previews in Chicago at the end of this week. It’s been amazing getting to see the same script as part of two completely different processes. After that, I’m working on a Theatre for Young Audiences play called Advice for Astronauts with the Milken School in LA, and writing a few new projects that are still looking for homes.

Do you have anything else to share with our readers?

Only an acknowledgment that nothing about The Haberdasher! would have happened without the amazing cast, crew, and staff at Argos Productions. Brendan Mulhern, Hannah Husband, Kaitee Tredway, Mark Estano and Erin Eva Butcher all poured their hearts, souls and bodies into this completely ridiculous project, and Brett marshaled a true all-star team of designers to make it happen. It was a distinct honor and privilege to have so much love put into something so wacky, and I’m super indebted to all of them.

2014 Best Supporting Actor in a Play Nominee Interview: Brendan Mulhern as Actor #3 in Argos Productions' "The Haberdasher!"

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!). 

Photo by Jenny Moloney Photography

Photo by Jenny Moloney Photography

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.

Photo by Brett Marks

Photo by Brett Marks

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.