Scott Wentworth is the man who saved The Stratford Festival’s 2013 season. A veteran of great roles like Sky Masterson, Claudius, and the Earl of Gloucester, Scott initially began the season with the admirably full plate of the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof and the supporting but vital role of Lord Capulet in Romeo & Juliet. He was sensational in both- his sympathetic, heartbreaking and wildly funny Tevye was the backbone of the season’s best production while his towering Capulet was a rare highlight in the worst. But when Brian Bedford fell ill, one of the season’s key productions- the late opening Merchant of Venice– was in jeopardy… until Scott Wentworth stepped in at the last minute to take over the role of Shylock. The move gave him the uncommon task of performing two important lead roles in a single season while the quality of his Shylock gave him the even more uncommon distinction of performing two very different lead roles incredibly well in a single season.
Scott phoned into our Nominee Interview Series as he prepared to return to the role of Gloucester for Stratford’s 2014 Lear. We were dying to ask him about the last minute Merchant change-ups, interpreting three wildly different characters, and the strong thread of father-daughter dissension that ran through his tremendous 2013 season at Stratford.
My first question is always ‘do you remember your first formative experience with theater’?
My first formative experience with theater; it was quite a long time ago [Laughs]. I got interested in theater kind of through music. When I was in junior high school, seventh or eighth grade, I was in the boy’s chorus at school and we were all drafted to be in a production of Bye Bye Birdie and I ended up kind of volunteering. They said, ‘okay we need somebody to be this guy’ and I was like, ‘oh I’ll do that’ [Laughs]. By the time we opened I think I was on stage more than the people who were playing the leads. I felt like I was kind of home, that that was where I belonged. So ever since then, I’ve been pursuing it. But it was that. It was because of the show, this one teacher. Which is the way I think a lot of people start out, you know. Teachers are very crucial to getting people to do things when they’re 14, 15 years old.
What’s your favorite role you’ve ever played?
Boy, you know it’s funny, it changes almost all the time. When I was younger, there were certain parts, and now that I’m getting older there’s other parts that I’ve enjoyed. Usually it’s the stuff I’ve done the most recently. I had such a great time last season doing Tevye and Shylock that it’s tempting to say that that was my favorite recent experience of acting. I’ve done Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls several times so I always enjoy that play.
Is there one you haven’t tackled yet that you’d like to try your and at?
Oh there are a bunch. I think every actor has a list of roles that they’d like to do. There’s certainly Shakespeare roles that I’d like- Prospero, Lear, a bunch of stuff coming up- Titus Andronicus is a personal favorite of mine. But also Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, plays like that, that when you were younger you played the younger generation. I’m getting older, I’m looking at the dads. To be an actor, doors are constantly closing and opening at the same time leading you to different things.
Would you say that you’re more comfortable in classical plays or musicals?
It’s funny, John Hirsch, the great Canadian director, I worked with him many, many years ago, we happened to be working on a musical. He said in his opinion, musical theater and classical theater, especially Shakespearean theater, were very similar compared to you know, modern plays. That both Shakespeare and musicals have certain technical demands on the actors, their voices, their bodies in a way that a lot of more modern kinds of theater don’t. So I’ve actually found the transition between musicals and classical theater to be relatively easy and kind of close to each other. I like both those kinds of theater, both Shakespearean theater and musical theater because they’re very performance oriented, they’re very actor oriented. They demand a kind of virtuosity for lack of a better word that I think that is very germane to those kinds of forms. And so I just find them very exciting to work in. They’re very challenging.
Tevye’s an iconic musical theater role. What did you bring to the part in terms of making him unique?
Well, I guess the main thing that I tried to concentrate on- and Donna Feore our director was very interested in this as well- the play has become so popular and familiar, you know, ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ is sung at everyone’s wedding and bar mitzvah and everything else, it’s become part of who we are, and I was very adamant that the play and my performance in it not be cozy and not be comfortable. I imagined that when the play premiered in 1964- only 20 years after the Holocaust- that it was probably a very disturbing play and something that wasn’t necessarily cozy and comfortable, something that was rougher and edgier. I wanted to make sure we honored that in our production, that the journey that Tevye went on is a real one and it costs him a lot and it’s not cozy and it’s not comfortable and it’s not whimsical, that there is genuine loss and the events are jagged and real and important to him. So that was my main consideration when I was working on the part.
The role requires such a careful balance of comedy and tragedy. Did either of those come a little more easily than the other?
The actual writing of Fiddler is so good, it’s so economical, everything is so distilled. Part of my journey with the character was making the simplest clearest choice I could. The way I thought about it was get out of the way of the writing. The audience really wants to hear this story, and it’s perfectly extracted. The jokes are still funny after 50 years because they’re human. They’re not gags, they’re based on human experiences, and the same thing with the tragedy, especially with that play. The music is so evocative. It’s so perfectly put together that all you really have to do is kind of open yourself to the experience and you’re in that world. I guess they both feed off of each other, they both communicate with each other, the tragedy and the comedy.
Tell us a little bit about working with Donna Feore.
Well, it’s great. Donna is a really old friend of mine. We met when she was still dancing back in 1990 and we’ve been really close friends ever since. This is the first time I got to work with her as director so I was just thrilled that she asked me to do it. We had a great working relationship. She’s a wonderful director. Nobody works harder than she does. She’s so prepared, so on top of it. And yet at the same time, it’s a fun room. It’s a room where work needs to get done but there’s a wit and a life in the room that just made it a pleasure to come to work and because she is so prepared and because she is so confident, she can be very empowering to actors. She was very empowering to me. She really wanted this to be my Tevye and really make me a collaborator in her whole process, which I really appreciated.
You also played Lord Capulet last season in Romeo and Juliet. What was it like working on an “Original Practices” production?
You know, it gets tagged as “Original Practices”. I’m not sure that that’s really a real thing. It’s a way to explore a play. At Stratford and elsewhere there’s always been elements of so-called original practices that have informed our work over the years. The very festival theater itself is, in a sense, a kind of attempt by Tyrone Guthrie and Tanya Moiseiwitsch to return to the kind of theater that Shakespeare was writing the plays for. So I think there’s always been a very strong understanding and appreciation of the notion that the more you know about the world of Shakespeare the more informed your choices can be. I worry when it becomes a kind of label because we have to use it as another tool to explore the play. We’re still doing the play in the year that we’re in; people who are coming to the theater, they’ve just gotten out of their cars, they come in, and have babysitters and have just gone out to eat or whatever it is, they come in and they sit down and they want to encounter the story, so anything you can do to open more of the story for them is a good thing. I didn’t find it as revolutionary as the press kind of made it out to be. I think Original Practices became a kind of label to talk about certain aspects of the work just because we like to label things. But if it’s a tool for exploring the play and opening up meaning and more understanding, then it’s a valuable tool. If it’s just an intellectual exercise then it’s kind of not worth it.
You stepped in to replace Brian Bedford as Shylock when he fell ill. How did that all come about?
I’d just opened Fiddler. Brian had just finished directing Blithe Spirit. They were originally set to go into rehearsal, and Brian got sick and couldn’t be at the first day of rehearsal, but it turned into the first week of rehearsal and in the end it looked like it was a serious enough thing that it had to be dealt with. So, Antoni Cimolino, our director, called me up and said would I mind coming in to rehearsal? Initially, it was to kind of babysit the role and do Shylock until Brian felt he was able to come back. That way at least the other actors had somebody to talk to in those scenes. And I said yes, I’d certainly be willing to do that. And then I went out to dinner with Antoni and we talked a little bit about the play and he said, ‘you know, we’re all hoping that Brian will be able to do this, but there is a real possibility that he won’t be able to take this on, that he would have to deal with this now as opposed to waiting until the end of the season’, which is indeed what it turned out to be. So, although I did technically replace Brian, what was helpful about it for me was that he hadn’t started rehearsing it yet, so the company didn’t have to get used to a new Shylock. I didn’t have a lot of prep time, but at least we were all able to start from the same place. They didn’t have to rethink things because a replacement came in halfway through the process.
Especially with such little prep time and two substantial roles already on your plate, were you concerned about taking on a third?
Well, no, not really. I had been in a production of Merchant of Venice a few years ago in Stratford. I played Antonio and became very interested in the play and in the role of Shylock. Like we were talking about earlier, there are certain roles that sometime in your life you become attracted to and I was very interested in Shylock. So it was kind of in my body somewhere, an approach to him was in my consciousness. And although it’s a great role, and a very demanding role, he’s only in five scenes. It’s not like stepping in last minute to play Hamlet, where you’re on stage for 90% of the time. I don’t mean to diminish the challenge of playing a great role like Shylock, [but] I felt like it was doable. And, during the rehearsal period, I was relieved of playing about half of the Romeo and Juliet performances so I could put in a little more time to rehearse. And then, once we got Merchant open and running, I left Romeo and Juliet altogether. So I was still only doing the same workload that I planned to do, so it wasn’t as physically taxing as it would have been had I had to do all three.
How did the modernization of Merchant of Venice affect your interpretation of Shylock?
I really liked it. Partly because, playing Tevye, I didn’t want to- both for my own sanity and for the sake of the audience as an actor- I didn’t want to put on another beard and the accoutrements of historical Judaism. I was very grateful that it was in the twentieth century when the possibility of Jewish assimilation was more accepted. So, just on a simple level, I looked different for Tevye, I wasn’t kind of pushing the same kinds of buttons. I appreciated that. I think it allowed me to explore Shylock from a different tactic and not be encouraged to let the two roles bleed together. Because, you know, a beard is pretty much a beard: ‘there he is again, looking like he does’. So I thought it was great for our audiences to come and see two very different kinds of performances.
Playing both Shylock and Tevye, you’re portraying the two most famous Jewish characters in English language theater. Was that on your mind a lot when you were preparing for the roles?
It was very much on my mind. I mean, Tevye is probably the most beloved character in Jewish literature and Shylock is arguably the most troublesome. And I was thinking about that even before I was going to play Shylock, when I knew that we were doing Fiddler in rep with Merchant. I actually became convinced that Sholem Aleichem, when he created Tevye, was consciously creating a kind of alternative Shylock. In the nineteenth century, when Aleichem was writing, Merchant of Venice was the second most popular Shakespeare play in Europe after Hamlet. So for most people, that’s the only stage Jew they saw. And so I think that Sholem Aleichem was purposefully creating a more realistic character as a kind of antidote to Shylock. In many ways, similar things happen to them. They have issues with their daughters marrying out of the faith. There’s all sorts of parallels between the two stories, but the two human beings are completely different. That also kind of freed me up and allowed me to approach Shylock, not as a representative of his race, but as a damaged individual, as a tragic hero. Shylock’s aloneness, he thinks he’s ostracized from everyone. Not only Christians in Venice, but he also feels like he’s locked himself away from his own people, his own daughter. He’s very isolated. Whereas Tevye exists in a society. He’s so connected to his town and to his family and to his people. And so he’s more psychologically sound, even when horrible things happen to him, he can survive, whereas Shylock’s damaged and part of that damage is because of his otherness. Of his Jewishness in a Christian culture. I think part of it is what Hamlet calls the mole in nature, that thing that kind of burrows into our subconscious and creates the possibility for tragedy. That’s alive in Shylock. So it was very important for me to not say he was a representative of any particular group of people. I didn’t want to make him a monster and I didn’t want to make him a victim. I think he’s kind of both, depending on where you are in the story. He’s certainly victimized and he’s certainly planning on doing monstrous things, and does monstrous things. He’s a very complicated character and I felt like, in a strange way, playing Tevye at the same time kind of liberated Shylock for me.
What would you say is the most interesting or important conversation you had with Antoni Cimolino in tackling the character of Shylock?
I really felt that one of the nice things about Antoni is he’s a very gentle director. He’ll watch a scene, he’ll make a couple of suggestions. He’ll watch it again, he’ll ask for feedback. So, my feeling with Antoni was that the whole rehearsal process was kind of one long conversation about this character and about how he would function. Subconsciously all of the choices that we made for what was the best way to tell that story were subtle and made in the moment of rehearsal solving particular problems. The main conversation that we had was very early in it because he felt he needed to bring me up to speed on what he had already decided about his approach to the play and the setting and putting it in the 30’s and his research on what was going on in Italy in the 30’s. I talked to him about my theories on Shylock being a kind of early sketch of the later tragedies. But once we had shared and gone, ‘oh I can use what you’re giving me’ and vice versa, then the rest of it was very, like I said, very subtle. It felt like one kind of long, easy conversation. There were never any sort of moments when we sat down like ‘what in the world are we going to do here?’ We just trusted the play and made the best choices for telling the clearer story and when he had a suggestion about something that I was doing that he wanted different, or if I felt that I wanted to kind of give something different in rehearsal that I hadn’t brought before, we both felt very free to do that. So it was a very healthy experience for me.
You touched on this earlier, commenting on the similarities between Shylock and Tevye’s relationships with their daughters, but even stretching into Romeo and Juliet, there was a very complicated thread of patriarchy throughout your entire season. How did you juggle five daughters in one season? Did you put much thought into make each of those relationships unique?
Oh yeah. And, you know, the writing gives you that, or at least a jumping off place for that. But yeah, it seemed that every girl I bumped into at the theater was my daughter last year. Kind of crazy. It really made me realize how often in literature there are these relationships, these difficult relationships between fathers and daughters. People will be seeing it this year in King Lear- there seems to be a natural possibility for drama in that relationship, which I think is interesting. I have a son, but I don’t have any daughters, so I can only imagine what that’s like. There’s obviously a closeness and vicinity that daughters have with fathers. I see it with my wife dealing with her father. That, like I said, is unique and seems to be rife with the possibilities for drama.
This coming season, you’re playing Gloucester again.
Yeah, I get to be the father of sons, which I have a little more information about [Laughs] so I’m looking forward to that.
Tell us a bit about this upcoming season.
[We’ve started rehearsals] for Lear. I’m very excited about it. It’s such a great play that you almost feel stupid complimenting it, saying how good it is, because it is so extraordinary. So I’m looking forward to that. It’s a fantastic cast and I think it’s going to be really fun to explore. [I’m also in] A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Chris Abraham’s directing and I’m very much looking forward to that. He’s got a lot of interesting ideas about it. I think that it’s going to be a real crowd pleaser for our audiences. And then, late in the season, I’m doing a late opener, a little part in Stratagem, which I’m looking forward to. I haven’t done a Restoration play since, gosh, I think the last one we did here was the Country Wife in 1995 and I was in that, so that was 20 years. I think it’s going to be fun. It will not be as taxing a physical season as last season, but that’s okay. [Laughs].
What have you been doing in the offseason?
This year, I didn’t do all that much. I didn’t have any big projects. I did several kind of small projects. I took some time off. I spent a week in New York and saw some plays and had a little vacation. I did some recording. I did a couple of voice over commercials. I did a gig with the London Symphony where I read some Shakespeare. I was a keynote speaker at a Shakespeare conference down in the States. Little things like that. Nothing major. I was in need of rest by the end of the season. It was pretty taxing by the time we ended. And of course we extended Fiddler so I didn’t get done until you know the end of October.