Timothy Edward Kane is no stranger to the stages and the classrooms at the University of Chicago. He returned to teaching this spring with a master class in acting, where he shared his experiences of performing classic roles and brought his students into the Harvey rehearsal process. Court Theatre intern and current University of Chicago student Grace Bolander had the opportunity to ask Tim how he balances the two responsibilities, as well as his understanding of his latest classic character, Elwood P. Dowd.
Throughout your career you’ve worked on a wide range of classic works, from Shakespeare to Molière to Chekhov—the list goes on! Many of these have been at Court Theatre, including An Iliad and One Man, Two Guvnors. What attracts you to working on the classics, particularly at Court?
Over the last fifteen years, Court theatre has become something of an artistic home for me. It’s at Court where I’ve felt most consistently trusted and valued as an actor and I feel I’ve been offered varied and challenging roles that have afforded me the opportunity to “grow up” as an actor. It should be noted that in those fifteen years I’ve only ever been directed by Charlie, so my experience of working on the “classics” at Court directly relates to how Charlie approaches the classics. I believe that risk is a consistent part of the equation at Court: have good material, with a good director, trust each other, and take risks. Sounds like “classics alive” to me.
Elwood P. Dowd is a pretty unconventional guy, most notably for his insistence on the existence of his friend Harvey. What is it like playing opposite a character whom no one else can see?
I had some experience in An Iliad talking to myself, so I’m familiar with the frustration. I prefer to have an actual scene partner rather than making poor choices for an imaginary one.
The play leaves the reality of Harvey’s existence ambiguous. Do you think that Elwood is delusional, or is Harvey actually real?
I don’t want to answer this question. I believe that each audience member should have the opportunity to answer the question of Harvey for themselves.
Do you perceive Elwood as a comedic character, or as tragically misunderstood?
I’m not sure it matters. Elwood sees the world from a unique perspective. He believes that all people are worth the time and attention required to be seen and heard and that unique perspective leads to comedy, misunderstanding and the potential for tragedy based on other characters’ reaction to Elwood.
You say in the Court Theatre Artist Master Class description that the course is designed to develop students’ ability to apply contemporary acting technique to the performance of classical roles. What are common challenges that actors face when tackling classical roles that they may not encounter with contemporary ones?
I believe that irony and or a “knowing, world-weary, cynicism” is a tempting default when tackling the pure-hearted ingenue/dudegenue roles often found in classical theatre. Those young characters operate on two distinct dramatic levels: character and plot. If the actors portraying those characters don’t feel deeply and honestly all that the characters profess to feel, the bottom drops out, the audience stops caring, and all of the conflict of the play that rests on those character getting or staying together, dies. I hope that our class is able to exercise the muscles of contemporary acting, based on grounded talking and listening, and apply it to those enduring roles while avoiding the pitfalls of the simpering and saccharine or, conversely, knowing and jaded.
What do you think the biggest barrier is for young actors approaching classic texts? How would you suggest combatting it?
The actor needs to be as brave as the character. Who would want to watch an actor play Romeo if he “winks” at the audience that he knows all this “love stuff” is stupid. If the audience doesn’t believe he’ll die if he doesn’t get to glimpse Juliet, is the play even worth watching? She’s the moon! Go for it.
Is there anything you hope to learn or gain from teaching this class?
I learn from students every time I teach. I’ve got a great group of bright and talented students and I’m sure their questions and roadblocks will teach me a great deal as I work to answer their questions and assist them in addressing their challenges. I always feel like I’m a better actor when I’m teaching. ■
Photo: Timothy Edward Kane, A.C. Smith, and Karen Janes Wodistch enjoying the table read at first rehearsal (Joe Mazza).