In one of the Stratford Festival’s biggest all-star casts, 2nd year company member Karack Osborn completely stole the show as the irrepressible Tony Lumpkin in director Martha Henry’s take on classic comedy She Stoops to Conquer.
The Best Supporting Actor nominee joins the Nominee Interview Series to share his thoughts on the show and working with said all-star cast.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre? When did you know you wanted to become an actor?
I would love to say I was privy to some definitive theatrical event that stirred the artist inside of me, but the truth is I saw the theatrical re-release of Grease when I was 12 and thought that was basically the coolest thing ever. I used to dance around to that album before and after school and wonder at how much fun it would be to do that on stage in front of people.
However, the moment when it became less about “this would be fun” and more about “this is important, this makes me happy” was my first Shakespeare at 15. I was totally in love with the language, the text, the poetry- I didn’t really know WHY, but there was something about it that was fulfilling, and moving, and beautiful, and it really affected me, really fundamentally changed who I was. I knew I was going to pursue a life in the theatre and to make Shakespeare a predominate part of my career. I had no idea HOW to do that of course, but I knew I’d figure it out.
And that was that. Shakespeare and Kenickie. What a pair.
Tell us about your experiences in the Birmingham Conservatory. What was the most valuable thing you learned?
The Conservatory is a very special place, and I am very, very proud to be a graduate of it. There’s not anything quite like it anywhere else in the world that I am aware of. I suppose it would be easy to classify it as a “school” but it is a training program- which is a very different thing. It is our job. We work a full rehearsal week, we do two plays, and we work with company members to not only prepare for the season ahead, but to be able to play Shakespeare. Shakespeare is not a cerebral practice, it is a full body experience, so we work on our voice every morning, and we do some form of intense movement every morning, and then in the afternoon/evening we rehearse. Are we learning? All the time, constantly, but beyond that we are getting our bodies and minds into shape to take on these plays. We drill monologues, we sing, and dance, and run, and throw each other on mats. On the same day, Jamie Mac and I would share a ballet barre in the morning and then sword fight as Hamlet and Laertes all afternoon. And then we’d do a play.
What I learned could fill a book (which it has, I have a journal packed full of notes) but if I had to pick the thing to encompass my time in conservatory, I’d choose specificity. Specificity in your words, in your movement, in your thoughts, in your actions. Why does Shakespeare use THIS specific word, why not that one? Get out the dictionary- look at all the definitions, choose a specific one. Why does the line break HERE and not THERE? What’s the image? Why are you moving, where are you exactly standing? Be aware of your body. One of my favorite quotes from our morning Tai Chi was “the more ease there is, the more power there is” and I realized as I went that the more laser specific I could be, the more ease I had, and therefore power.
Just the other day I was working on a monologue for an audition and I was, you know, getting all in my head about it when I remembered something Stephen Ouimette said, “Don’t get your ideas off the floor! There’s a perfectly good pipe right up there!”. And I had a good laugh to myself and took his advice. So what happens in that Conservatory rehearsal room is in me for good and it wont ever leave. It’s just a wonderful thing
What have been some of your favourite roles you’ve ever played?
This is such a tough one because I think every role gets inside of you in such a way that, in its own way, it becomes special or significant. If I absolutely had to narrow it down, (besides Tony) I’d say the one that really hit me the most was Autolycus in The Winters Tale. David Latham directed the conservatory in that play last winter. I only got to spend the very briefest of time with it, but I know I will spend the rest of my career chasing that part.
Your MyTheatre Award nomination this year is for the role of Tony Lumpkin in the Stratford Festival’s production of She Stoops to Conquer. Tell us about taking on your first big role at the festival.
Well, when I first got the call I think I screamed in poor Bonnie Green’s ear. I had wanted the part, and I’d put my name in the hat for it, and thought if I was lucky I’d get to understudy it, so to actually have it offered to me was pretty shocking. I spent a year with Tony. I got the offer in October, got a copy of the script and immediately read it back to front. We were going back into conservatory that November, so I knew I had to focus on that, but I kept the script on my desk and would start to kind of piece it together on my downtime- start to memorize a few lines here and there. Not having done any theatre of this period before I was intent to get myself as ready as I possibly could to begin that journey. We closed this October and it just went by so quickly. Thats the thing, you know? You have this massive undertaking and you’re on a time limit. When it ends, you think “wait! what! no! I wasn’t done- there’s more there!”. I still can’t believe I got to be him, I was very lucky.
On an off day or if you’re not feeling well, was it difficult to keep up Tony’s high energy and eternal optimism?
It could be, for sure. I think we all have those days, but I think at that point, your life really has to become about the play. You have to forego everything else to rest and get ready to give 110% every single night. There were days when I was sick or not well, and spent my off stage time on a couch downstairs, or sitting quietly in my dressing room because I had to conserve every bit of energy I had for the show. I missed 90% of the opening week celebrations because I injured myself and was on ordered bedrest. I literally only left my bed to do Stoops– which was still in previews at that point – or head to an Oedipus rehearsal. But that’s what you have to do, to be able to go out every night and do the play as it’s meant to be done. It can be quite a monk-like life.
What were some of the key things you discussed with director Martha Henry about the character?
I think the first thing Martha and I agreed on from the very start was we were going to ignore what Antony Sher would call “The Gift Store version” of Tony Lumpkin- you know this “country bumpkin” this oaf, idiot, clown figure. That just isn’t supported by the text and it’s not very interesting to play- or see for that matter. It becomes very apparent early on that although Tony does not fit, nor wants to fit, into the world and society he lives in- he is an incredibly intelligent and emotionally sensitive creation. His needs are so great, his brain so lightening quick, and his contempt of polite society so strong that he’s seen as hopeless, or useless, or spoiled.. He’s none of those things, he’s just the ultimate square peg trying to find his place in the world but being stifled . That journey and that experience was much more interesting than just getting up and playing AT this kind of clown archetype.
These are discussions Martha and I had during the rehearsal process. Martha is an incredibly intuitive person, and I have no doubt she knew this is where my Tony Lumpkin would go, and thats why she let me play him. Of course, there were times when I’d start to go down the wrong path and she would quickly put me back on the right one, or she would let me take whatever time I needed to get out of my own way and get on with it. We would email frequently through the season, forever going for more detail, more specificity, “good- now try this! Don’t forget this!”. We both know that there is no “product”, there was no “end”- there was only further growth and evolution and discovery. Between conservatory and 2014’s Mother Courage and her Children, I had been fortunate to work with Martha consistently since the day I got to Stratford. I consider myself a very lucky actor.
She Stoops to Conquer had a great all-star cast. Tell us a bit about working with your co-stars.
It did, which made it a pretty incredible cast to be a part of. For a start you have Joe Ziegler and Lucy Peacock, these leading actors in the North American Theatre. Joe and I only shared two scenes together, and he’s a guy I admire and has a career I aspire to, so I spent a lot of time just watching him work- and listening to him talk. Lucy and I shared a huge amount of stage time together, and in first reading the play and seeing how Tony and Mrs. Hardcastle would go to battle every night, it was incredibly exciting. I mean, what a gift to hit the stage with an actress of Lucy’s caliber and (both on and off stage) generosity.
The rest of the show I was lucky to spend with Sara Farb- another brilliant actress and one of my closest friends whom I just adore. She was the first person I told when I was offered Tony and we had a great time developing that relationship together. We’d do our check ins every show and just have a blast beating each other up every night. On top of that, Tyrone Savage and I had a lot of fun in our scenes together- he’s so giving all the time and he’s always 100% there with you. I think the Tony/Hastings relationship is so easy to miss in the mass of other twists and turns in the show, but I think we really had a very concrete, and very important bond which is crucial.
The trick of course is that the whole show happens in the course of one night, so characters don’t always get to see each other. Maev Beaty and I were siblings and we saw each other for a few minutes in the very final scene, but we’d always check in at the top of the show, usually with a “See you in 3 hours bro!”. Brad Hodder and I had a little more stage time, but our story lines only really collided with each other at the end of Act 2. I do wish very much I was able to share the stage with them a little more, as they are both just wonderful, but maybe in the future!
I really took such great delight in our production. I’d watch Gareth Potter, Andre Morin, and Paul Rowe every night backstage and just laugh my head off. It was an amazing company. How great!
Do you try and see every play in the season? What were some of your favourites of 2015?
I did! I saw everything multiple times. I see things once for the pure enjoyment of it, and then I go back on a random Tuesday matinee and sit in the back and just watch actors I admire do their work, and try and learn from it. As far as favourites- I can’t narrow it down, I was such a fan of so many people and performances this season. What really sticks out to me are those “I was there when-“ moments. Seeing Johnny [Goad] take his opening night bow as Hamlet, check ins every show with Sara Farb, watching Laura Schutt go on as Anne Frank and seeing her give an absolutely beautiful performance, the final scene of Oedipus, seeing the first production of The Last Wife and it being such a huge (and well-deserved) success, celebrating the company at the Guthrie Awards, post-show Wednesday wing nights, and for young guys like me- sharing the stage with actors you really admire who become friends.
What have you been up to in the off-season?
I took a very long overdue vacation to Germany, Austria, and Ireland (where I visited Oliver Goldsmith’s statue in Dublin). I’ve been spending a lot of time in New York, and the holidays with my family in New England.
Do you have any dream roles?
Thats a very interesting question. I think, being a big Shakespeare nerd, the attraction to the canon is paramount. I mean, I look at actors like Bill Hutt- he played everything right? He played Lear and he played Falstaff. Brian Bedford- he was Bottom and he was Leontes. They spanned the canon, the leading men and the character parts, which I think, ultimately, is what any classical actor would like the chance to do. Right now, the ones that have been kind of haunting me are Hotspur, Mercutio, and as I said, Autolycus.
Outside of the canon, I’m finally of an age to play certain parts I’ve been waiting for a chance at. Jamie Tyrone in Long Days Journey into Night, Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman are guys I find myself very drawn too and see a lot of myself in.
What are you up to now/what’s next?
I have some things kind of percolating at the moment but I am very superstitious so for now I’ll just say ‘Stay tuned”!
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Anyone out there doing Grease?