Archive | October, 2014

Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 1


Longtime stage and screen star Stacy Keach is no stranger to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, having appeared at STC (and won three Helen Hayes awards) as Richard III, Macbeth, and King Lear. He has never before, however, had a blog.

Currently in town to play the massive role of Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Stacy is going to be in conversation with me, STC’s Literary Associate, reporting on his process from inside the rehearsal room. There may be some old theatre stories as well. Stay tuned every Wednesday for the next 8 weeks as we follow Stacy’s journey from page to stage. – Drew Lichtenberg


In this installment, Stacy reports back on his experience on the red carpet for the Oscars and invites us into the rehearsal hall at STC.


Stacy Keach and Malgosia Tomassi at the Oscars (Photo: Frazer Harrison, GETTY Images)

To be honest with you, they wanted me to write an entry to this last week, but I had too much going on. I had to fly to Los Angeles for the Oscars last weekend [Stacy is writing these entries the week before they post] to be with the cast and crew of Nebraska.

It was wonderful. It’s been a few years since I’ve been able to go, and the film being nominated for six Oscars sort of felt like a victory in and of itself. It was great to be at the ceremony with my wife, Malgosia. We got to walk down the red carpet together and her relatives in Poland got a chance to see her.

The red carpet is an unusual place. The security theatre there has to be seen to be believed. If the country were to run with the same efficiency that the Academy Awards do, I think we’d be in great shape.

The show was just ok. There were some off-color remarks that I didn’t appreciate. There was one remark made about Liza Minnelli. It was a bit – It wasn’t well received. It got a big “Oooo” from the audience.

It’s always bittersweet to be at an awards show and to come away empty-handed. I knew once Bob Nelson didn’t win for Best Screenplay for Nebraska that it would be an uphill climb for Alexander Payne to win for Best Director. I think the writing was on the wall for Bruce [Dern] as well. We were all very optimistic and hopeful that he would win Best Actor, but McCounaghey’s performance was just so extraordinary. It was sort of a slam dunk, I think, that he was going to win.

Sometimes it seems like momentum builds for someone’s performance and the narrative gets written and that’s that. Anyway, everything went smoothly, and I was grateful that I could go and not miss too much rehearsal.


Stacy Keach rehearsing the role of Falstaff (Photo: Elayna Speight)

Speaking of rehearsal, we have been putting the show together. We began in mid-January, spent a week or so around the table, and then got to work on both plays (Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2). It’s a marathon task, rehearsing two plays together – about six hours of Shakespeare – and I’ve had to pace myself. It took us about a month before our first runthrough in the room. Most shows go into tech and open after four weeks! It’s been almost two months now since that first rehearsal. We’ve moved into the theatre and started spacing the show for the stage in Sidney Harman Hall.

We had our open rehearsal this weekend, which was a great success. 1,000 people came over two days. I saw one 18-year-old girl walk up to Michael Kahn, our director, and start giving him notes! I don’t often see Michael look scared, but he was terrified.

I did this play with Joe Papp back in the 1960s, and I think this production is going to be just as big a success. I’ve always loved this part. I was thrilled when Michael approached me and asked me to play Falstaff again. I didn’t miss a beat or hesitate. I said yes! The next question I had for him was whether he wanted to do a traditional production or a modern one. I feel that these plays work best in the context of Shakespeare’s setting.

I think the historical aspects are fascinating, with the civil wars, and the rebellion. Michael really knows these plays. He’s done them before, and so have I.

Thanks for listening to me, bud. Talk to you next week!

Stacy Keach

Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.


Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 2


Welcome back to the latest installment of Stacy Keach’s blog, as he reports from the rehearsal room of HENRY IV, PARTS 1 and 2 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. In this installment, Stacy begins to delve into the role of the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff. It’s a role which, as you’ll see, brings up many memories for the longtime star of stage and screen. –DL

I first played Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, many years ago. Forty-seven, in fact. I was twenty-seven years old. It was the summer of 1968, at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Gerald Freedman and Joe Papp, the artistic directors of the Public Theater, had offered me the role the previous fall, and I had spent the entire year prepping.


Stacy as Falstaff, 1968 and as Richard III, 1990. (Photo courtesy of

That fall, you see, I was teaching a Shakespeare course at Yale School of Drama (a school I had once attended and dropped out of, but that’s another, longer story). My students included a young Henry Winkler, later to be known as “the Fonz,” already a profoundly gifted comic actor, as well as my younger brother, James. James and I actually roomed together that year, in downtown New Haven! It was a pigsty.

That year at the Yale Rep, I starred in We Bombed in New Haven by Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22. I also appeared in Pirandello’s delightfully twisted history play, Enrico IV (which I’m glad to see Michael Kahn has picked out for next season) as well as the title role in Coriolanus. As if that wasn’t enough I played the Baron Tuzenbach in The Three Sisters at the Long Wharf Theatre. In between it all, I studied the role of Falstaff with my students and in my scant free hours. No rest for the wicked.

I also remember watching Orson Welles’s masterful film Chimes at Midnight, which had just been released in the United States in 1967. Orson approached Falstaff not as a braggart or a drunk, which was the convention at the time, but as a kind of self-portrait. His Falstaff was a flawed, impulsive person, with an entire lifetime’s worth of regret. I saw how Falstaff actually reacted to his own self-destructive behavior, reflecting on something that he has just blurted out. It was still a comic performance, but one with a profound tragic dimension.

In the summer of 1968, as I got ready to play Falstaff in the Park, I had the good fortune to get cast in my first film, End of the Road. The bad news was that the shoot was also that summer, in an abandoned button factory in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I did what every young and invincible actor does: I improvised. I remember, every day, hurtling down the Taconic Parkway in the passenger seat of a wood-paneled station wagon, applying my makeup and false nose, which wiggled loose every time we hit a bump. The car would pull directly into Central Park, and out I would come, having transformed into the swaggering fat knight Falstaff, ready to spar with Sam Waterston’s Prince Hal.

That summer, as a result, is a blur. I mostly recall the joys of performing in Central Park, and I also remember the incredible heat of performing in a fat suit and leather costume. I lost a lot of weight that summer. I also remember sleeping a lot of hours on that mattress in the station wagon, on my way back up to Great Barrington.

The truth is, I was much too young to play the role back then.


Stacy Keach and Max Jackson in rehearsal for Henry IV, Part I (Photo: Elayna Speight)

We had the Invited Dress Rehearsal for Part 1 last night [Stacy means Sunday, the 16th] and I hope that people see how much weight I’m bringing to the role – figuratively as well as literally.


Stacy Keach as Falstaff, Shakespeare Theatre Company production 2014 (Photo: Scott Suchman)

The show is looking fantastic, and it was great to hear it play in front of an audience. There were some bits that got huge roars of laughter. And some bits that are profoundly moving.

Michael [Kahn] has built a very striking moment toward the end of the first act when we hear Glendower’s daughter sing a song of lamentation. The words are by the Welsh poet Hedd Wynn, and it’s actually a World War I poem. As I said last week, the play works much better in its original period. Shakespeare is showing the ways in which the mythic, older England is slowly dying out.

One of the reasons it’s a privilege to play Shakespeare at the beginning of your career and then many years later, is that you discover things in the plays that you’ve encountered in your life. One of the reasons I love Falstaff is that – despite being old, and fat, and a drunk, and a liar, and having a whole host of other faults – he never seems to feelold. It reminds me of the proverb, “Child is the father of the man.” There is no other character in Shakespeare who so gloriously enjoys being alive as Falstaff does. “I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath,” he says toward the end of Part 1. “Give me life!”

That’s why I love him. And I think Shakespeare did too.

Thanks for talking to me, bub. I’ll see you next week.

Stacy Keach

Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.


Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 3


In this installment, Stacy expounds on the actor’s craft. Specifically, his thoughts and intentions on playing the role of Falstaff. -DL

Falstaff, like Richard III or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is great fun to play. When performed in both Henrys together, however, the role is a heavy load. Part 2, in particular, is filled with long speeches – Falstaff tends to go on, he does – and it’s crucial to be as off-book as possible before rehearsals even begin.


Stacy Keach (Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company)

I remember when Michael Kahn sent me his first cut of the two plays, back in September, I had already started memorizing lines. Of course, I wanted to put many lines back in. Falstaff has so many delicious ones, more than any other character in Shakespeare, by my reckoning.

Take, for example, this little riposte to Hal, from his first scene in Part 1. Falstaff has just been woken from a drunken snooze by a puppyish young prince eager to banter with him:

“How now, mad wag? What, in thy quips and thy quiddities? What a plague have I to do with a buff jerkin?”

The line has nothing to do with the plot. It doesn’t establish the scene or tell us where we are. It’s rightly cut in most performances. But it contains the indefinable essence of the character, in three breaths. In breath one, the insatiable, almost romantic affection for the prince, his dear “mad wag.” Breath two: the witty wordplay on “quips and quiddities,” which just sounds plain great as you turn it over in your mouth. The third and final breath tops it with bawdy wordplay on a “buff jerkin;” Falstaff and Hal have just been talking about their hostess, Mistress Quickly – played to perfection in this production by Kate Skinner – and some kind of dirty joke is clearly hanging thickly in the air.

I’ve always thought of Falstaff as a potent mixture of comedy and tragedy. He most reminds me of Ernest Hemingway, another role I’ve played. Hemingway was the first American author to awaken my sense of the power of prose in our times, and Falstaff is Shakespeare’s master of prose. Both figures remain fascinating to me for their combination of glory and sadness.

In Falstaff’s case, his character’s tragedy lies in his desperate need for the love and the attention of the young Prince Hal. Some of that is genuine, and some is driven by what can only be described as petty corruption: Falstaff has a dream of being a privileged member of the future king’s court. Some scholars say that Falstaff is a merry reveler of mythic proportions, an “apostle of permanent festivity” who dreams of turning the Boar’s Head Tavern into the center of a new Land of Cockaigne, a land of eternal Cakes and Ale. But I think he’s a human type that is often found these days around politicians. An enabler, a corrupter, a parasite. A friend who is great fun and one who also poses great danger.

The showmanship of Falstaff’s character comes easily to most actors, but finding that emotional state hidden beneath the bravado – that’s the challenge! I try delivering Falstaff’s bluster with a touch of self-awareness. He knows he is full of it, that he is always embellishing when he shouldn’t be. Yet being aware of his own flaws doesn’t change the nature of Falstaff’s behavior.

We see this clearly in Part 1, when he tells the story of the Gad’s Hill robbery. Back in the tavern, safe and sound, Falstaff expands and exaggerates his own danger from the night before, never looking back even as each false step is exposed. The telling always earns big laughs, which is a challenge for an actor trying to maintain his rhythm and pace. It’s also a challenge to not lose sight of the pathos beneath the humor in Shakespeare’s writing. Falstaff’s refusal to look back is the character’s downfall.


Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 cast with director Michael Kahn at STC’s Meet the Cast event (Photo: Elayna Speight)

For this production, I want to explore a side of Falstaff that I didn’t see clearly my first time around. I want to capture the sense that Falstaff subconsciously knows what is coming: Shakespeare presages the moment, brilliantly, later in that same tavern scene in Part 1. Falstaff and Hal are staging a “play extempore.” Falstaff acts as Hal and Hal plays his father, King Henry. Falstaff naturally plays this for laughs, saying:

“No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

It’s a tricky scene. Falstaff is making a comic plea to Hal, but he is unwilling to believe that this is what fate holds in store for him. Falstaff always believes he will charm the audience, get the laughs, but the actor must reveal how he is clinging to his delusional belief. Falstaff must really buy into the idea that this is all a game, that none of this will come to pass. But the only way of showing this is to show him having doubts and banishing them, believing his own lie.

I may now be the only Shakespearean actor who has played this role twice with a gap of more than forty-five years in between. Obviously I was an exceedingly young Falstaff the first time around [see last week’s installment for the full story!]. I am older and wiser now. I’ve suffered more of life’s indignities. I don’t have to play at being an old man, I just have to be myself. The other change, of course, is that I no longer need quite so much padding.

It was a pleasure talking to you, bub, and I’ll see you next week.

Stacy Keach

Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.


Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 4


In this installment, Stacy reports on the Invited Dress Rehearsal from Sunday night, and his thoughts on the underrated, powerful Henry IV, Part 2. – DL

We had our invited dress rehearsal of Part 2 last Sunday. For those of you who don’t know, putting on a repertory is a long and complicated process. First, you have to have a tech period and dress rehearsal of one show – we did that with Part 1 two weeks ago. Then you tech and build up to the dress rehearsal for Part 2. Now we go back to previews of Part 1, and we’ll open that show on April 15. That will run for three nights as we work out the kinks and then open Part 2 on April 18. Confused? So am I. I just show up and hit my mark. It’s one of the good things about being an actor.


Stacy Keach (Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company)

The first day we moved into the Harman, a few weeks back, we did the marathon run-through of both plays to give us an indication of where we were in terms of stamina. I’m 47 years older than I was when I did it before. I really have to modulate my physical energy so I don’t run out of breath. Thank God there are enough breaks. Unlike Lear or Hamlet, Shakespeare gives Falstaff a chance to rest.

Part 1 of course is great fun, and rightly one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays. I suspect, though, that Michael’s heart lies in Part 2, which is in every way a more mature and deeply felt work. It’s amazing to me that these plays were written barely a year apart. They feel like they were written forty years apart, and Falstaff seems to have aged forty years in between them.

In building this production, Michael really has been concerned about stressing the differences between the two plays. Part 2 is permeated with lots of allusion to disease and sickness. Falstaff is sick in the second play. In his first scene, he’s got the gout. He’s having his water checked by the doctor, and the question is to what degree he has the pox. Everyone is sick, in fact, of some lingering physical or mental disease. Shakespeare is preoccupied with it. It’s unmistakable.

The recruiting scene in Part 2 is one of my favorite scenes in Shakespeare. We hear in Part 1 that Falstaff has rounded up a bunch of hopeless cannon fodder, what he calls “food for powder.” But in Part 2 we actually meet them, and see Falstaff pocketing the money from the king’s commission so he can get drunk with Bardolph.

He even takes a bribe from the two most capable soldiers. It’s an amazing scene, very funny but also in some senses the last straw for the character in a moral sense. He’s simply incorrigible. He doesn’t care about sending these innocent people off to their deaths in war while he uses their money to get drunk.

It’s a scene that Farquhar rips off for The Recruiting Officer, and Brecht steals for Mother Courage. And the names of the characters! Ralph Mouldy, Francis Feeble. The one that always sticks out to me is Wart. He’s a diseased man too, in a way.


Stacy Keach (Falstaff) and Maggie Kettering (Doll Tearsheet) in rehearsal for Henry IV, Part 2. (Photo: Elayna Speight)

Part of that disease surely is drunkenness. It’s always fascinating to look at the joy Falstaff takes in what we would now call addictive behavior, something with which I have my own relationship. As an actor, you have to play that joy – you can’t undermine it – but you have to also find a way of showing the destructive toll it takes on a personality. We were in rehearsal when news came that Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the great actors, in my opinion, had died. I was so upset that Michael had to call for a break, in the middle of us staging a scene. I went into a corner and cried, in front of the entire company. I felt like I had been punched in the gut.

There’s one speech in Part 2, toward the end, that consists of nothing more than Falstaff standing onstage, alone, discussing the virtues of sherry sack: the way it feels when you drink it, how it operates on your body. It’s the greatest tribute to alcohol in Shakespeare. If you modernized the language, it wouldn’t be out of place in an O’Neill play. Definitely not a speech for Alcoholics Anonymous! His conclusion illustrates why he would make such a disastrous friend when Hal becomes king: “If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.”

In terms of where it comes in the play, it’s the final version of the old Falstaff we see before he finds out that Hal has becomes king. It’s placed toward the end of the play, and I’ve always thought it was very significant that it comes there.

Throughout Part 2, we hear Falstaff and friends wax poetic about his glorious past, in stark contrast to the diseased present. In the tavern scene in the middle of the play, the swaggering Pistol tells him, “We have seen the seven stars!” A few lines later, Falstaff is telling Doll Tearsheet not to mention the present times: “Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death’s head, do not bid me remember mine end.” Later in the play, when Falstaff is reminiscing with his old friend Justice Shallow, he says the famous lines, the source for the title of this blog and the name of Orson Welles’s movie: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”

Much like Hal’s line in Part 1 when he promises to banish Falstaff – “I do. I will.” – there is not a word wasted, and the briefness of the expression is perfect to the expression of the sentiment. As an actor, you can easily over-emote in these moments, but restraint is key. If you simply say the words, and don’t play the meaning behind the words, the audience will do the rest. Lines like that have an endless amount of emotional content. Only a foolish actor would stand in their way.

Thanks for talking to me, bub! I’ll see you next week.

Stacy Keach

Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.


Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 5


In this installment, Stacy shares some memories about his performance as King Lear, and on the differences – as well as one big similarity – between Lear and Falstaff. The answers might surprise you. – DL

People have often asked me, how does Falstaff compare to Lear? Well, Lear is a wonderful part, there’s no question about it. Every stage actor dreams of two roles: Hamlet when you’re young and King Lear when you’re old. I’m glad I played Lear when I did. The role is exhausting to play, particularly up through the storm scene on the heath. When we did the play here in 2009, in the production directed by Robert Falls, the pace made it feel like literally climbing a mountain. There is no doubt about it, the role requires real physical stamina. The play runs over three hours, if you only take one intermission, nearly two hours into the show. These big Shakespearean roles are athletic events. You have to be in athletic shape to do them because they’re so physically demanding.

The production started at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2008, and I swore I would never do anything like it again … until Michael Kahn called me and said he wanted to restage it in Washington at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. And now here I am, 5 years older, and doing six hours of Shakespeare over two nights for this amazing man. Crazy. I can think of a few other words, but it’s a testament to what Michael and this company means to me.

Sir John Gielgud was once asked the key to a great King Lear. “Make sure you have a light Cordelia,” he deadpanned.


Michael Kahn, Stacy Keach, and Robert Falls in rehearsal for King Lear.

I don’t think he was joking, at least not entirely. Much of theatre is about executing blocking in a way that seems effortless and natural, which isn’t easy when you’re trying to carry Cordelia’s limp body around onstage. Anyone who has ever carried a dead body knows that those things are no joke. (My Cordelia, Laura Odeh, is a marvelous actress and she was eminently carryable, if that were a word.) I was able to repay the favor later in that production when I fell back dead in Kent’s arms. Fortunately for me, my Kent, Steve Pickering (who’s also acting in this show, playing Worcester in Part 1 and Pistol in Part 2), caught me every time.

The role and the play are extremely complex, but I believe that Lear doesn’t have quite the variety and the levels that Falstaff has. Lear gets very upset very early on in the play because he’s been betrayed by his daughters. It thrusts him into a terrifying, childlike madness, and he lives in that world for most of the play.

I remember I gave some variety to the role in the way I played the opening scene. I came out exuberant, dancing, whooping. My Lear was no aged feeble leader. He also wasn’t mad yet. I hate the idea that Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear are completely daft from the beginning. It has to be a journey for the character. I wanted to create an arc so that Lear has farther to fall. You have to see the years of his egocentric, self-absorbed behavior, all of which convinces him that Cordelia has betrayed him.

I did add some premonitions of frailty and madness to the role. I remember, in that first scene, adding an “Oh” and clutching my heart, as if to say, “I’m okay, but I need to sit now, for a moment, to catch my breath.” Later, when Lear is screaming at Goneril and Regan, his two older daughters who have betrayed him, he again had a minor heart incident. Later in the play, after Cordelia has died, he no longer has any reason for his heart to continue beating. It was a very personal performance for me. I had a minor heart condition myself in between Chicago and Washington, and the theme of mortality – of the ways in which our body and mind slowly betray us as we grow old – resonated powerfully with me.


Stacy Keach as King Lear, Joaquin Torres as Edgar, and Steve Pickering as Kent in King Lear, directed by Robert Falls, at Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2009. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Lear goes mad, he suffers from delusions, and his body betrays him. He’s a very different character in some ways from Falstaff, but there are deeper connections between the two. There’s nothing mad about Falstaff, nothing irrational. He isn’t betrayed by his body or mind, but he suffers from some of the same delusions, born of his own insatiable self-belief. Like Lear, Falstaff is a monster of ego, and he pays for it.

Falstaff is also similar to Lear in his surprising childishness. Falstaff can be very calculating, like a clever child, but he also gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar. As I’ve said previously, what Falstaff wants more than anything in the world is to climb one notch up on the political ladder. He really believes that when Hal becomes a member of the court, he’ll be his right hand man. It’s painfully naïve and wonderfully vulnerable, this belief.

There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of Part 1 where we see that inner child emerge. It’s just before the big battle of Shrewsbury, where Falstaff says to Hal, “I would ’twere bedtime.” He’s like a child talking to his parent, wanting to be tucked into bed, safe and sound. People often say that Falstaff is a surrogate father figure to Hal, but I think it’s the other way around. Hal has more maturity. When push comes to shove, it’s Hal who makes the tough decision, and Falstaff who has the uncomprehending eyes of a child in a big cruel world. And of course we see that tremendous vulnerability again at the end of Part 2 when Falstaff is banished, which I think is one of the saddest moments in all of Shakespeare.

Thanks for listening to me, bub! Talk to you next week.

Stacy Keach


Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 6


Stacy catches us up on the show’s progress, as he prepares for opening nights on Tuesday, April 15 and Friday, April 18. He also opens up about secrets of the actor’s trade, and some of his superstitions. You might be shocked. – DL

We have spent the last three weeks in previews. It’s been a little different than the usual method in a repertory, where you alternate shows on different nights. Instead, we have been alternating shows on different weeks. The idea is to hit our stride on one show, and then get the engines revving on the other.

The first week of previews, March 25-30, we built up a head of steam on Part 1. We then spent the next week getting up to speed on Part 2. We’ve been back in the Part 1 world this past week and we’re ramping up to opening night on Tuesday. I have to admit, it’s been a little disorienting, but I think we’re finally getting the hang of it. It’s under our belts, so to speak.

As always happens, each show has a little small thing that goes differently. Of course, the audiences are different. Some nights they will pick up on the humor right away, which is especially helpful in the early parts of Part 2. I got an applause break following my “Sack” speech in Part 2 one night, which was particularly gratifying.

Sometimes you can pick out the laughers – the chucklers, the snickerers, the belly laughers. None of them sound the same. You need to be careful, though, that you don’t start pitching your performance toward them. We can be a shameful lot, us actors.

Matthew Amendt, our Hal, likes to use a promiscuous metaphor for the effect of a crowd on an actor. He calls it “getting slutty.” Usually a cast will get very amorous their first week in front of a crowd before pulling back and finding the show as it was in the rehearsal room.

Some nights, they [the audience] will sit quiet but attentive and then burst into loud cheers as soon as we take our curtain calls. Some nights in Part 1 Hotspur gets the loudest cheers, sometimes they start cheering for Hal, sometimes they wait for me to take my bows. Sometimes they’ll wait for Matt, Ed, and I to take our bows and give us a standing ovation. As it should be. It’s a very fine cast, and I’m proud to be a member of the ensemble.


Stacy Keach as Falstaff in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part 1 (Photo: Scott Suchman)

We’ve also had interruptions, a modern plague. One night, a service dog started yelping right away. That was a long night. We’ve had a duck quack cell phone go off during the “Rumor” scene at the beginning of Part 2, and another during the funeral scene. Bastard cell phones.

Onstage, every show is different as well. Sometimes a knuckle will get scratched during a swordfight, or the fire alarm will go off in the dressing rooms before the show. You ought to see the sight: a bunch of actors huddled out on 7th Street, across from the Chinatown Fire Department. Then there are the actors who need to sneak out for a quick smoke break (always out of costume!) to calm their nerves. I think you can hear it in our voices.

I’m very superstitious when it comes to the theatre. I don’t look at the audience before a show, though I know a lot of actors who do. I honor those superstitions. It’s just the way I am.

I have one special ritual that I like to do with the entire cast. I began doing it when I was filming the sitcom Titus, on Fox, as a matter of fact. Any time we’d shoot an episode, Christopher Titus would have us all gather hands. We would put our hands in a circle, like in a sports event, and he’d say, “One, two, three … **** ’EM!” So I’ve incorporated that into my preshow superstitions. I did it for Other Desert Cities, and I believe we did it for King Lear. We’ll probably do it here too. It’s an enormous cast to try and get them all backstage yelling “**** ’em!” The audience might hear it.

I’m not sure exactly why it feels so good to do it, but it does. It’s a sort of bonding experience, like what athletes will do before a game or an event. We’re not literally trying to seduce or have sex with the audience, or to go out and “kill,” like stand-up comedians do. It’s more like we’re saying to ourselves, “don’t worry.” Don’t worry about the audience. Or the critics. Don’t be preoccupied with what the audience thinks or feels. Worry about what you’re doing onstage. Be true to the moment, be true to the story, be true to yourself. That’s exactly what it’s about. And it does release those nerves and butterflies if you have them. It’s almost like stomping on the glass after a Jewish wedding. It’s an outburst, a primal yawp, to paraphrase Walt Whitman.

Tonight is opening night. I’m sure there are going to be butterflies in our stomachs, but I know what we will do to make them go away. All we have to do is worry about ourselves and our own truth and have faith that the audience will follow us on that journey.

Thanks for listening to me, bub! Talk to you next week.

Stacy Keach

Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.


Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 7


In this second-to-last installment of “Chimes at Midnight,” Stacy reflects on a busy week which saw the opening of the two shows in the Henry IV repertory, as well as the city and industry-wide party known as the Helen Hayes Awards. – DL

Well, the reviews have been written. The previews have all previewed. The notes have been given, the talkbacks have talked back, and we’ve opened both shows after more than three months of work.

There have been more highlights, of course, as we’ve continued to play the shows. One night during previews my good friend Hal Holbrook came to see the show. It was the same night the string broke on the bottle I pretend to pee in at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap. That was a particularly good show.

Another night we recorded the show for preservation in the Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive (WAPAVA). Not many people may know this, but every time a theatre performance is videotaped, the stage manager has to go around and get a signature from everyone in the cast. If even one person says no, because of union rules, it doesn’t happen. Not that I’ve ever known that to occur. Actors love to preserve things, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.


Stacy Keach at the 30th Annual Helen Hayes Awards (Photo: Ryan Maxwell)

We also had the Helen Hayes Awards on Monday night. My dear and longtime friend Ed Gero presented the first “act” of awards, and he was gracious enough to invite me up onstage to give one of them away. We both wore our signature berets. I’ve been trying since the 60s, but I still think they’re going to catch on. They just have a wonderful continental flavor to them, I think.

Who knows? I don’t want to jinx it, but I’d love to come back to Washington and the awards next year, if all goes right. Maybe I have jinxed it, just by saying that.

If I sound wistful, well, maybe I am a little bit. I first played Falstaff when I was 27 years old, and now I’m 72. In a real sense, he’s bookended my career. Back then, I was young and thin and full of energy, and I remember trying very hard to look old and fat and tired. Now, of course, I try my hardest to look young and thin and full of energy. Certain roles tell you a great deal about yourself at a certain point in your life, but it’s the great ones that keep on revealing themselves to you throughout your life. You can keep on coming back to them. Falstaff is one of those.

I love him. He’s a hedonist. He loves everything about life, more than any other character I’ve ever played. And yet he’s a coward too. In the honor speech, which comes at the end of Part 1 before the Battle of Shrewsbury, and God knows it’s one of the greatest pieces of writing in all of the canon, he’s talking about his fear. It’s nakedly vulnerable. Some would say he has disdain for war, or that he’s critiquing the war machine of the King, but that’s all hogwash. He’s afraid. It’s really all there in that line he tells Hal, right before the battle: “I would ’twere bedtime, Hal, and all well.” As so often happens in the play, he’s not the surrogate father. He’s the child. All of a sudden, Hal has to take care of this much older, much more irresponsible person about whom he cares so much. He needs to tuck him in and turn off the light, and he just can’t afford to take care of him in that way any more. That realization comes at the worst possible time. It’s such a subtle, private moment in the midst of this big, crazy, whirling scene. There’s something profoundly human in that exchange. It reminds me vividly of people I’ve known who had trouble with substances.


(l-r) Stacy Keach as Falstaff, Ted van Griethuysen as Justice Shallow, Brad Bellamy as Bardolph, and Bev Appleton as Justice Silence in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part 2. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

I really am so thrilled and privileged to be doing this. I never thought I’d get a chance to revisit Shakespeare and this role. If Michael hadn’t asked me to come and do it, I never would have sought it out. It would have seemed crazy. But in this context, with this wonderful production, I would be crazy if I had said no. You couldn’t ask for a better production of this play on any level, whether it’s—no matter where. I can’t imagine it being done anywhere with the same degree of quality as Michael has given this.

It’s funny. I’ve had a renaissance in my movie career over the past couple of years, with the Bourne movies, and Nebraska, and so on. I’m going to be in the new Sin City movie in August, and back in January, I flew down to Atlanta to film Stephen King’s The Cell with John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. My agents are all telling me I’m crazy to be doing this. Why would I want to go do a Shakespeare play for 6 months, for relatively no money at all? But it’s my priority. Nothing provides me with fulfillment like acting in Shakespeare, in one of the great roles, and doing it here with Michael. It is a great experience in every way.

This whole process takes me back to my early days doing repertory at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I was playing Henry V and I remember listening in the wings to Mistress Quickly’s speech about the death of Falstaff. A terribly powerful speech. I remember thinking, “I’ll play that role some day.” Falstaff, that is. Not Mistress Quickly.

I’ve never had any inclination or desire to play Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s a different character altogether. He’s the butt of jokes, and none of his wit and insight are preserved. I believe that Shakespeare wrote that play for Queen Elizabeth. It feels like he wrote it in two nights. He just sort of scribbled it. The only time I’ve seen that play work is when Michael Kahn directed it with Pat Carroll as Falstaff. She was one of the greatest Falstaffs I’ve ever seen. Her performance was so extraordinary that she made the play work.

But I’ve never liked that play very much. As Pistol remarks to Falstaff in that play, “The world’s mine oyster.” Well, unfortunately, not every oyster contains a pearl. Sometimes all you find is a mucky mollusk. These plays, this repertory, however – it’s a pearl.

Thanks for listening to me, bub! Talk to you next week.

Stacy Keach

Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.
He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.


The Final Chimes at Midnight by Stacy Keach


In this final installment of Stacy Keach’s blog, he talks about working with Michael Kahn as a younger actor, and shares some favorite Washington theatre memories. – DL


Stacy Keach as Falstaff in “Henry IV, Part 2” (Photo: Scott Suchman)

And so we come to the end. I’ve talked about many things over the past eight weeks – Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, climbing the mountain of Falstaff and the other great Shakespeare roles, and, of course, my superstitious preshow rituals. But now I’d like to talk about a subject – a person – who has meant so much to my career: Michael Kahn.

When Michael Kahn first approached me about doing these plays, it was natural to think that we were getting the band back together one last time with Ed Gero, Ted van Griethuysen, and the whole bunch. And it has been a tremendous experience to share the stage with Ted as Justice Shallow, to trade scenes with Ed as King Henry, as well as working with younger actors such as the brilliant and very smart Matthew Amendt as Prince Hal.


Michael Kahn (Photo: Scott Suchman)

But Michael is like me. He has plans sketched out for projects for years from now, as do I. Michael and I both share a passion for work, for being creative. I wouldn’t still be doing this – with a Charley Horse for the last week! – if I didn’t share his passion. His creative juices are still very much intact. Michael is one of a kind. I don’t know many other directors who can match him when it comes to Shakespeare, in this country or in England, actually. He’s at the top of the heap. He’s the best of the best. I met Michael at the Public Theater in New York, when it was the New York Shakespeare Festival. It was sometime in the 1960s.

We both started under Joe Papp. I think he was doing Measure for Measure. We were both kids. We had talked about working while he was at the Stratford Festival in Connecticut. I was in New York at the time, and I would go up and see his plays. I had friends in that company. But it wasn’t until Richard III that we worked together.

Richard III was one of those productions that you remember for the rest of your career. I hear that it’s been remembered in Washington as well. It certainly was a highlight of my career. Richard was a character that I had always wanted to play. I always felt a certain kinship with him, having been born with a cleft lip myself. I always related to this character who had such a twisted self-image. I loved him. I still do love him. Michael’s production was stunning. The thing I remember best was the opening soliloquy –


Stacy Keach as Richard III and Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Queen Elizabeth. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York”

– Michael’s idea was for me to come down speaking this, out of the “gods,” onto the stage at the Folger. Ooh, it was spectacular.

I remember Ted van Griethuysen played Buckingham. Ed Gero was Clarence. And Floyd King played King Edward. The set was metallic with many vertical platforms. The Folger is a very small stage, and we constantly had to march up and down. Thank God I did it when I did it. I couldn’t do it now, that’s for sure.

The trick for me with Richard lay in figuring out his body – in many ways his deformity is still a mystery. I remember I got letters for years from some society, all these people saying Richard was not the way Shakespeare wrote him. They said he was handsome, that he didn’t murder the princes in the tower … They just discovered his body this past year. Under some parking lot, in England. The skeleton was twisted into an S-shape. Shakespeare was right. He was deformed.

I remember, Michael and I approached the character treating Shakespeare’s text at face value. We wanted to indicate that the character was deformed, and show audiences how it had affected him. I wore this large metal brace on my right leg. It was Richard’s crutch throughout the show. When he became king, climbing up the throne, he abandoned it. Later, when the news of Richmond’s threat came, his leg collapsed. He needed the brace.

In the final Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard was disarmed and he was forced to take off his brace and use it as a weapon. That really worked. We were able to tell a whole other story in the theatre about Richard’s dependency. I have another story about Shakespeare’s battle scenes, and perhaps it explains why I’m so superstitious.

I came back to Washington in 1995 to do Macbeth at the Lansburgh Theatre. Joe Dowling directed, and Helen Carey played Lady Mac.


Stacy Keach as Macbeth and cast. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

We used to keep these wax manifestations of the witches in my dressing room, these little candles. And you know the whole thing with the superstition.Macbeth is believed to be a cursed play, because it staged black magic. Olivier hated it. I’d heard about this for many years. It’s all about the witches, respect for the witches.

We didn’t have any accidents at all until the final performance. I remember talking to the cast and telling them not to take anything for granted because we had these intense battle scenes at the very end of the play.

Well sure enough, during the final battle, the actor playing Macduff sliced me right under the eye with his broadsword. I had this huge gash on my cheek and I was bleeding like a stuck pig. I couldn’t believe it. I did not get away, those witches wouldn’t let me off the hook. I thought I’d avoided the curse, but I didn’t. I got cut and I was very lucky I didn’t have my eye put out.

There hasn’t been anything like that for these Henry plays, thank God. It’s been a relief during the big battle scene at the end of Part 1 when Falstaff gets to play dead and all the younger actors to run around with swords. Better them than me.


The cast and crew of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Center is Stacy Keach, directly behind, Michael Kahn (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Well, this has been a great trip down memory road. It was fun talking to you all and sharing my theatre experiences. Many of them have come in Washington, at the Shakespeare Theatre, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Till next time,

Stacy Keach