A playwright starts rehearsals with a simple prayer: "Please, God, make the actors say the lines the way I want them to." For the next four weeks this playwright will stroke, tease, trick, cajole, mutter line readings, and italicize words in their scripts if need be, all to get the actors to imitate the brilliant rhythms and intonations heard inside the head of a bald, middle-aged fat man. Some actors nail the lines at the first reading; others get it right via a well-timed word from the director; and there's always one who wouldn't deliver the goods if you recorded the lines, played them back six times a day, and threatened to kidnap his cat. But the ones you love, the actors you hope for (and write for) are the actors who give you what you didn't hear in your head—the eccentric line reading, the sudden shift in tone and tempo, the bizarre bit of stage business, and—yes, it's true, I will admit it—the perfect ad-lib.
I've had a lot of luck with this kind of actor, especially this past year in three Twin Cities premieres. If I could cite just one, he/she would have a name like "Phyllis June Wingdrickhoffenschiedlbirgoetzovich," and that would be leaving out about 16 others, most of them named Steve. But I would like to point out one.
Luverne Seifert. Everyone knows how funny Luverne is, how smart, how physically and emotionally fearless. But I didn't know until this past summer how democratic Luverne's talents are. We were doing my adaptation of The Government Inspector at the Guthrie, and, as any actor knows, comedy is always harder to play in a thrust, for all sorts of reasons: sightlines, acoustics, focus. Most actors will do the solid, safe thing—stand stage center and spray the orchestra with the laugh line so the firm majority of the house gets the maximum effect, a practice I always advise. What I loved about Luverne, though, was that he almost always made sure his best comic asides were delivered up, to the balconies. He always got his laughs—big ones, from the orchestra and from the balconies—so I never talked to him about it until the end of the run, when he acknowledged that he did it for the simple reason that the balcony crowd deserved to feel that the play was for them as much as for those who paid a tad bit more.
I'm sure other actors do this, and maybe I only noticed what Luverne was doing in The Government Inspector because it was my play, and I'm a laugh fascist. But what Luverne Seifert did with those asides is emblematic of his whole approach to theater—arms wide, big-hearted, full-throated, and looking upward. When I sit up in the cheap seats during one of his performances, I feel like I paid more.
Jeffrey Hatcher is a Minneapolis-based playwright and screenwriter. His most recent film was The Duchess, and his most recent local productions were The Government Inspector at the Guthrie and Tyrone and Ralph at History Theatre. His adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will premiere in January at Park Square.