Originally published April 28, 2016 by Louis Butelli.
Hello, friend! Thank you so, so much for popping by for this, our latest dispatch from Gravedigging across the nation.
So far, my one-man show Gravedigger’s Tale has traveled to Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina. In the morning, I hop on a plane to play the show in Hawaii. There will be plenty to say about that, but, for now, I want to focus on the South Carolina gig. And even more particularly, I want to focus on my dear friend and closest collaborator, Robert Richmond.
It’s hard to know even where to begin about Robert.
I’ll start with where he’s at right now. Rob is the Associate Chair, Co-Artistic Director and Professor of Theatre at University of South Carolina in the enchanted city of Columbia, SC. He also directs plays all over the place, most notably at Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. He is Dad to two beautiful kids, both of whom I’ve had the great pleasure to know since they drew their first breaths. He is a mentor, a teacher, a friend and a confidant to a huge number of people, many of whom now dance alongside us in this ridiculous business. He is a nurturer of talent, a brilliant editor and advisor, and is the person I would call first if I was taken to prison. Admittedly, he’d probably let that call go to voicemail. But he’d be there for my court appearance in the morning, and would have acting and wardrobe notes.
We have worked side by side in a wide variety of venues since 1998, and I hear his voice in my head every time I am required to make an artistic choice: even when I’m working on a project that Rob is not working on, we are still collaborating. As an actor, I think, “what would make Rob laugh?” As a director, I think, “how would Rob solve this problem?” As a teacher, I think, “how would Rob articulate this?” To be fair, sometimes I think that and then do exactly the opposite. But, to be even more fair, most often I outright steal from him, or just do what I imagine he might do.
All of this is to say that there wouldn’t be such a thing as Gravedigger’s Tale without Robert. It was his pitch and his concept and, a year ago, Folger locked he and I in a room with instructions “not to come out” until we “had a show.” I’ve been in that kind of situation before and, believe me: there is nobody else with whom I’d rather be locked in a room – you know, like that crazy “escape puzzle” kind of room – than Robert.
Rob in a handsome suit.
If I had to put it into words, I would say that the reason for the statement is that we both sort of live for “the room.” We love the problem-solving nature of it. We love the challenge of it. We love the gallows humor that comes from it. We love the heightened emotions that come from it, and how they reflect the work, just by being there with a task at hand. I won’t presume to speak for Robert here, but I also love some of the shittier parts of the room. The too-much coffee. The tired limbs. The eye-wobbling frustration of pounding away at an expired idea. The 11th hour burst of energy, leaping to one’s middle-aged feet when a new idea seems like it just might work.
Additionally, I love how, when I make something with Robert, we find two (or more) ways to the same destination. More than that, I love how, once we’ve made the thing, it takes on a life of its own when it’s unleashed on an audience.
Which brings me to part deux of this blogggg post.
Our Gravedigger show is billed as “interactive.” Now, that means lots of different things to lots of different people. And please believe that I am just as horrified by being asked to “participate” in an evening’s entertainment as the next person. (Please disregard at this point the fact that I currently perform in the amazingly kick-ass Sleep No More. That’s fodder for a whole other post).
In this show, it’s all very gentle. I pull a female audience-member onstage to help me with Ophelia and, more pertinently to this post, I pull a male audience-member onstage to stand in for Hamlet’s father. In the bit, I explain how Hamlet’s uncle poured poison into his father’s ear, and what the effects were. I then “coach” the audience-member in the finer points of dying by poison.
At one of our shows at USC, I spotted a very rapt and eager boy, probably 8 or 9 years old, in the audience with his parents. I couldn’t help myself: I simply had to pull him up and poison him. I won’t waste too many more words on it, but this boy was…perfect. He was open, he was game, he was brave, he was funny, he gave the audience a big “thumbs up,” and he was all anybody could talk about at the reception afterwards.
I’ll close this post with a sequence of pictures of this excellent young man in action:
Placed him, produced poison!
He begins to “die…”
He “dies” simply and elegantly.
I take his example.
He does it better than I ever could.
I wish I knew that kid’s name. I wish that he could’ve been in the room with Robert and I when we created the show, because I feel like that kid every time Rob and I get to work together. I hope that kid keeps coming to the theater, regardless of where his life takes him. I just can’t thank him enough. Not to sound like an absolute sap, but I get a little bit misty thinking about our moment on-stage together.
Oh! Just by the way, all of these photos are courtesy of the most excellent Jason Ayer and the University of South Carolina’s Department of Theatre and Dance.
Thanks for reading! Next stop: HAWAII!!!!!
Come back and see us, y’all!
GRAVEDIGGER’S TALE comes to HVSF October 26 – 31, 2016 inside the Boscobel Mansion!