My Theatre

12 January 2011

My Theatre Nominees- Q&A with Nicanor Campos

By // Theatre

Before we announce the winners of the 2010 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.

Nicanor Campos, a nominee for Best Actor in a student production for his performance in Richard III, appeared in no fewer than 4 Shakespeare productions in 2010, playing 6 different parts: Aaron (Titus Andronicus), Richard (Richard III), Silvius (As You Like It), Gregory (Romeo and Juliet), Mercutio (“) and Friar Lawrence (“).

Read on to see what he had to say:

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?

The first time I ever really experienced theatre as an event was when I was eight and saw Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in Toronto. I was thrilled by it, starting with the transformation of the old woman to the enchantress, which actually scared me. I saw it like a circus. No boundaries.


What actors and actresses have always inspired you? Are they the same today?

I only started acting relatively recently, so I’m constantly discovering actors and their perspectives. I’d always been aware of actors in Hollywood (like Kevin Spacey or Johnny Depp) but had never been very interested in their “technique” or “process.” Classically speaking, I’ve come to admire everyone from Laurence Olivier to Derek Jacobi to Kenneth Branagh to Mark Rylance and David Tennant. I find the evolution of classical acting endlessly fascinating.  I’ve been a little obsessed with Christopher Plummer since seeing his Prospero. He’s very much an actor who embodies old tradition and modern sensibility.

If you could perform on any stage in the world, which would you choose?

I’d love to perform on the Festival stage at Stratford. Or at the Globe. But having spent more than half of my acting career thus far in student plays, I love the spontaneity and heart that goes into transforming an unlikely space for a performance, especially if that space is an intimate one. So I guess there are too many (potential) stages to choose from.


Where did you study/develop as an actor?

As I said, I haven’t been acting for very long and, to tell the truth, I don’t have very much formal training at all. Certainly not in Shakespeare. I took acting and theatre classes during high school in Manila, including ones considered “higher level,” and performed in school plays all four years. My last two years of high school I went abroad for cultural conventions as part of the drama team. Then I arrived at BU and refused to stop acting. Still do. It’s all been learning through doing.


Do you have any dream roles you think are perfectly suited to you or something completely against type you’d love to try as a big challenge one day?

I’m not sure I’d want to play anything I’m “perfectly” suited to. I would like a crack at playing Romeo. I’ve observed that he can be one of the most difficult Shakespearean parts because he’s often underestimated or not given enough credit. And at the risk of sounding sappy, the love he shares with Juliet isn’t something you get to experience every day. Making that work is its own challenge. Hal and Hotspur from Henry IV have also appealed to me lately. I love Hal’s arc as much as I love Hotspur’s barefaced pride and honesty. I’ve also wanted to play a clown or fool for a while now, Twelfth Night’s Feste tops that list.


Which directors and actors have had a major influence on you throughout your career?

In Manila I feel greatly indebted to my first play director and later theatre teacher, Tami Monsod. She taught me not to over-act (but also when it was necessary) and how to be part of a cast. In Boston, I feel indebted to several directors. Jarman Day-Bohn was the first college director to ever cast me, and the first ever who saw me as a natural for Shakespeare. Sarah Gazdowicz will teach you things as a fellow actor and as a director. She and I have played opposite each other several times and she has directed me twice. She brings brilliance, passion, leadership and a ludicrous sense of humor to all her projects. The directing duo that was Jessi McCarthy and Alexa Ray Corriea bestowed upon me some of my mightiest acting challenges and great technical insight in approaching them. A final director, who I suspect prefers to remain anonymous, reminded me, quite simply, how to stay grounded. For that I also thank her.

What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played or production you’ve ever been in?

This one’s hard. I don’t think I’ve ever not enjoyed a part or a production. I think the best work I’ve done thus far was in The Independent Drama Society’s punk rock Romeo and Juliet directed by Sarah [Gazdowicz]. It was my last gig in Boston before coming back to Manila. To me, eight punk players putting on R and J, in a space with virtually no boundaries was an ingenious idea. I played Gregory, Mercutio and Friar Lawrence. We performed in the Factory Theater, which put us practically in the laps of the audience. The experience allowed me to completely re-work my Shakespeare acting style. Up to that point, I sometimes found myself a little too grand in gesture or affected in voice. Luckily, the punk rock aesthetic didn’t accommodate that. And you could not avoid talking to the audience. Now, I mean conversing, not declaiming at them. I’d done some conversing in Richard III but still had to compensate for distance. I think the intimacy also made us somewhat irreverent (without, hopefully, being disrespectful to the author.)You had to be very comfortable with the audience, as well as your text and character(s), in order for the concept to work. Comfortable enough to even ad lib lines not written by Shakespeare. That level of comfort was especially useful in a speech like “Queen Mab,” in which there are so many images that almost beg to be used as audience interaction. So Sarah created a framework that encouraged, demanded, that we be brave and inventive.

Describe the rehearsal process for Richard III.

Laura Hubbard and Hilary Wartinger were a tireless pair of directors. They were enthusiastic, hands-on, patient, fun-loving and very collaborative. They had an obvious love of the text and their conception of it. I think one of the greatest signs of this was how they streamlined the script. They conflated minor characters (murderers, servants, citizens) into some of the more major ones, making sure everyone had a name.  The cast started with several workshop days where we all sat in groups to discuss how our characters were connected and how we felt about one another. Everyone, from the royal family to Richard’s henchman to the Scrivener. I think it helped, in a strange way, that they did without too many of the threads left over from the Henry VIs. The world of the play and the story became more defined, more manageable. I got to share at least one scene with every single person in the cast, which I absolutely loved. 

It goes without saying then that my rehearsal schedule was intense. The directors spent a lot of extra time with me to develop the soliloquies. Then we three would spend extra time with characters like Buckingham, Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, decidedly the three most important relationships in Richard’s life (and in our production, all of them women). Those evenings were some of the most uncomfortable and rewarding. Owen Schmitt was very disciplined as our fight director, which meant you had to be too. Mo Kamaly (who played Richmond) and I ran our final duel incessantly, quick though it was.


I thought balancing the play with school (considering it was senior year) was going to be hell, and sometimes it felt like it. But surprisingly, they ended up complimenting one another. When you’re insanely busy you don’t have time to over-think. You just have to focus.  And when you focus, there’s no reason you shouldn’t do well at something.

Tell me about Richard. How did you approach the role? Did you do anything specific to prepare? Are there any key components that a great Richard should have?

Despite Richard’s frequent claims that he is hopelessly evil, I find him painfully human. He is a victim who loses that label once he begins victimizing others indiscriminately. He lashes out at the world in small ways but then lashes out at too much of the world at once. I’d seen bits of Olivier’s Richard and Ian McKellen’s, which are great, but knew I generally wanted to work my way away from them. You know how I said I’ve always wanted to play a clown? A friend of mine, Ashlie Anctil, who had nothing to do with the production, was listening to me muse about having two villainous roles in one semester. I told her it felt like I’d run out of time to play the clown, at least at college. She presented a very simple solution: “Why don’t you play one of these villains as a clown?” In a roundabout way, I ended up doing just that. I’m sorry she didn’t get to see the production. Her advice was more brilliant than she ever realized. 

I wouldn’t presume to know what makes a great Richard. I think, as with playing Hamlet, a pronounced sense of humor can be a welcome release for the actor and relief for the audience. That same humor can help you creep into their sympathies. I think a common goal of many actors playing Richard is to make the audience feel complicit in what he’s doing and guilty that they like him so much. And I’d encourage anyone doing it to take time being creative with the deformity. Experiment. Play around with it.

What were some of the biggest challenges working on this production?

First of all, coming off of Titus Andronicus, in which I’d played Aaron (another “pure-bred” villain) I was apprehensive about my ability to make them totally separate; which turned out to be fairly straightforward. Then, of course, there was memorization. I think I memorize lines quickly but it was tough learning Richard while performing in Titus because it felt like two texts competing in my head. I set a personal record for how long it took me to get my lines down. I was particular about keeping the deformity consistent and real, so I practiced my movements as often as I could. And I suppose the biggest of big challenges was Richard himself. Finding a take on him and sticking to it.


Richard’s trademark is his deformity. How did you approach that?

Never having been particularly athletic, I find it easier to play physical weakness than strength. Laurence Olivier had a secret for actors, which was to “aspire to your strengths, use your weaknesses.” And that’s what Richard does, the second part certainly. He constantly exploits his deformity as justification for his actions and accusations. But I initially treated the deformity like a handicap. One arm and the opposite leg were like blocks of wood – inflexible, practically useless. And while that was a welcome challenge to maintain, it didn’t make for very dynamic blocking or gestures the first few rehearsals. With some professional guidance, my left arm and right leg became shriveled rather than wooden. The fingers were still very active and took on a creepy life of their own The added flexibility and expressiveness worked much better. Richard actually became funnier, not to mention more mobile.

The character has a lot more life experience than you. He’s also more than mildly evil. Did you struggle relating to the character?

I tried to see Richard not so much as evil but as a black sheep. An extreme one. I think I’ve had sufficient experience with family disapproval, whether real or imagined, to relate to someone who feels he’s on the outside. But I needed some help figuring out the kinds of defense mechanisms such a person would have. I was tempted early on to use the privacy of the soliloquies to play the evil, to put Richard’s issues on display. In the end though, our acting coach, Stephen Benson, discouraged me from trying to scare or unnerve the audience and suggested I amuse and charm them instead. “If you’re the first one to make fun of your deformity, then no one else can.  You’ve beaten them to it.” That way, you got a much larger pay off when the audience finally realized the darkness of Richard’s intentions. I also hooked on to his natural theatricality. Richard is the out of work actor (a profession his family never approved of) who decides to become a politician. In the wooing of Lady Anne, for instance, Stephen told me not to be harsh or rough with her, but to be (of all people) Romeo. “Love her”, he said. It was an idea that fit squarely into the concept of Richard the Actor. He says himself in the opening soliloquy “I cannot prove a lover…” I pretended that was the mantra of theatre critics during his acting career. Wooing Lady Anne was his answer to that, even though he degrades his own performance immediately afterward. That kind of repeated self-degradation and disbelief is important as well. Richard can’t come on stage knowing he’s going to win. And not knowing helped me, since it matched my own doubts whether I could really make the part my own.

Do you have a favourite moment in the production?

Also hard to choose. But I think my favorites actually came just before intermission and at the end of the play. Richard has just been pronounced king and his final line of the scene is, “Farewell, good cousin [Buckingham]. Farewell, gentle friends.” I don’t remember whose idea it was (probably Laura’s and Hilary’s) and many directors have surely had it before us, but I loved saving that very last line just for the audience, after all the citizens had left. As I was about to mount the throne, I turned back and gave them a cheeky wink. I could always feel this nervous reaction of, “Oh God, what happens now? Where are we going now?” Everything changes very quickly for Richard once the play starts up again.

And the final battle at Bosworth Field was just too cool for words. Granted, I couldn’t do very much fighting, but the atmosphere created by lights, music and actors’ energy just transported us. I love the wild desperation of the ending. The play should exhaust you and then the duel with Richmond should exhaust you even more. It’s the last breath both for Richard and the actor playing him.


If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?

Nearly drying in the middle of the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy. During an opening night performance of Hamlet I realized my mom had made a surprise appearance at the show all the way from Manila when I’d only been expecting my dad.

What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?

I’m trying to break into the professional English-speaking theatre scene here in Manila, which is small but quite established. Musicals are the dominant beast around here, always have been. As far as the classics go, it’s more common to find stagings of local translations and adaptations. So it seems I have two options – brush up my singing (and dance steps) or my Tagalog [the national language of the Philippines]. But both would be good for me, so maybe it’s timely that I’m back. I have been hearing about a resurgence of classics performed in English through a rising company called Word of Mouth, starting with a corporate Macbeth and a Bollywood-inspired Twelfth Night. I also recently auditioned for an English-language independent film.  A horror film called Darkest Night. I hope to be hearing back about that soon.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?

Thank you for taking this time with me. I love sharing about this stuff. And hats off to all the other nominees.

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