A new play on Orson Welles, PEARLS BEFORE SWINE to open in Sydney, Australia
Citizen Kane has a reputation as being the "best film ever made," but less well known is its reputation for inspiring more people to become filmmakers than perhaps any other movie. Interestingly enough, Welles career as stage actor never seemed to provide the same kind of inspiration for younger actors as it did to directors, probably because of the great influence Elia Kazan and the Actor's Studio had on the stage shortly after Welles left Broadway in the forties for Hollywood. However, many incidents in Welles's own life have provided fertile material for many films and plays. Among the plays are Richard France’s Obediently Yours, Orson Welles, Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow and Mark Jenkins's Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, with Christian McKay. Now comes the latest play on Orson Welles, Blake Erickson's Pearls Before Swine, an Evening with Orson Welles, which will open in Sydney, Australia on September 12, 2010. (See pictures at the Wellesnet Facebook page HERE.)
After seeing a promotional clip for the show, I was intrigued enough to ask Blake Erickson to tell me a bit more about the production and how it all came about:
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you first become interested in Orson Welles and did seeing Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles have any influence on your doing the show?
BLAKE ERICKSON: Me And Orson Welles opening at about the same time as this show was quite a twist of fate. I was well into the process of writing the script before I even knew of the film. Having seen it, clearly Christian McKay is an actor of immense talent and I have huge respect for his portrayal; similarly I enjoyed Zac Efron's performance, as well. McKay certainly nailed it. But his portrayal was set in a specific time and place, whereas mine is set much later, and at a different stage of his career. The Welles in the film is filled with bravado and potential, and is yet to fully explore the consequences of his talent and ability. The Welles I play has experienced Hollywood, has been beaten around a lot more, and perhaps is a little more philosophical about his art and his own abilities.
You mentioned that you were asked to do the show, but was the idea of doing a one-man show on Orson Welles something you were already interested in before you were asked?
Orson Welles has always loomed large as a figure in my life, and as an actor I felt the reasons why I went into theatre were the same as his. Not to draw any great similarities, as Welles was a genius, but this desire to create something that can inspire people was definitely common ground. When I first saw Citizen Kane as a teenager it was a revelation. Here was something so ahead of its time, and like Welles himself, it is, in word: prodigious. However the idea that perhaps one day I would play Welles had seemed so incredibly distant. How can you reproduce what he did? How can anyone? It turns out, only with a great deal of research and a certain level of ignorance -- the very things to which Welles credited the success of Citizen Kane! So the show was an idea that was bubbling inside my head, until finally I was commissioned by the Sydney Fringe Festival to write and perform it.
What is the actual time frame of Welles's career that you cover in the show?
The play is set after the end of war; he has completed Citizen Kane and has had The Magnificent Ambersons taken away from him, so he's become for a time this tragic character. He goes out on the lecture circuit to make some money to fund future projects, and in his lecture he reflects on his life.
Are you also directing the play?
No, it's a complicated endeavor, certainly, and directing this would be too difficult for an actor flying solo. I've been extremely fortunate to be able to work with a director like Sarah Blackstone, who is one of those immensely talented people you have the fortune of working with from time to time. She's a huge admirer of Welles's work, as well, so we've been kindred spirits throughout.
Since Welles's career has been very well documented was there a particular area you wanted to show in the play that you felt may not have been that well known or written about?
Welles is internationally famous for his work, without question. So when you come to explore his life, that seems a logical starting point. But I set the piece essentially in his 'lost years', immediately post-war, when he was out of Hollywood, and dabbling in various projects but essentially just trying to find his place in the world. Which is very typical of someone slightly younger, but Welles' childhood and teenage years were so action-packed it had to be pushed to his late-twenties and early-thirties. Looking at those years, when he was rejected by a great many of his peers, when he found it difficult to work satisfactorily--I thought it would be fascinating to use that as a prism through which to look back on his career. It is very much 'Welles on Welles', but an almost vulnerable Welles looking back on his fearless youth. That's not to say that I'm one of those people who believe he's a tragic figure, I think he created some extraordinary work in his later life. But at this stage of his career, when he was 29 going on 30, it was a difficult time for him.
As a stage actor, was Welles career in the Mercury Theatre inspiring to you?
His 'declaration of principles' for the Mercury Theatre is one of those things that has an almost sacred and emotional resonance! When I came across what he'd written, it was a summation of everything. And not just for me as an actor, but for actors everywhere. We all sometimes have to make huge sacrifices to say what we want to say, and write what we want to write, and do what we want to do. Fortunately the stars can align and you can combine work with a great love, as has happened with this show. His philosophy, perhaps tempered with a slightly more conciliatory and democratic flavor remains in the modern theatre. He definitely continues to inspire the way theatre works.
If the play is a compilation of Welles's written and spoken words, have you attempted to keep it mostly accurate, rather than trying to make a fictional re-creation of events in Welles’s life, as was the case with much of Me and Orson Welles?
One of the things that people tend to forget about Orson Welles is how young he was during his most celebrated era. It's striking to watch the press conference he gave immediately after the War of the Worlds broadcast - he looks like he's about 16. The way that Welles was established in the recent film was obviously older than he really was, and I felt that was a shame. I find it incredibly engaging that at the time the film is set he was just 22 years old. He was a kid. As impossible as it is to imagine Orson Welles as a 'kid'. He was a human being with doubts and flaws, and not just a looming yet brilliant figure. So with that in mind, I wanted to stick as strictly to the truth as possible. Now, some anecdotes were too delicious to sacrifice for the sake of historical accuracy, so fans of his 'Frozen Peas' tirade in particular will enjoy the imagining of a script editing session at CBS. Also for the purposes of establishing a cohesive narrative I've written certain sections to act as bridges between his words, but his own words comprise 85% to 90% of the entire piece. And I think that's exactly the way he would have wanted it.
And final thoughts you'd care to make about Orson Welles?
I really hope at the end of this, that the public knows Orson Welles a little better as a person and not just a caricature. He was a man who constructed his own myth through hard work and the occasional exaggeration, so it's sometimes difficult to see the woods for the trees. I also hope that those people who know the work and the man may experience what it might be like if we still had him with us. I was born the year of his death, and I'll never have an opportunity to see him live. As he says in my show, the desire to create art is equivalent to being able to 'touch creation'. I hope I've done him proud.