When you watch Alan Waserman in California Shakespeare Theater’s current production of Othello, you’d think that he’s been performing works of the Bard all of his life. Not so, says Waserman, in our recent interview with the actor after seeing a performance of the show at Playhouse 101 last Friday night. Playhouse 101 is the Conejo Valley’s newest theater, of the black box variety, which makes Shakespearean tragedies such as Othello even more dramatic and hard-hitting. When you talk to Waserman, he doesn’t seem like a Shakespearean actor in the traditional sense. He is soft-spoken, very approachable, and not in the least egotistical. You won’t see him exiting a room with a sweep of a cape with his nose in the air like the proverbial self-involved actor. He speaks in plain language, self-effacing, but confident in his abilities.
VCOS: So how’s the show going so far?
ALAN: It’s going really well, getting better and better every time we do it. The other actors and I are getting very comfortable with it.
VCOS: How much Shakespeare have you done in your career? You look very much at home in the part.
ALAN: To be perfectly honest with you, this is only my third Shakespeare play.
VCOS: Really? You could have fooled me.
ALAN: Well, thank you. I’ve done theater for about 40 years but I’ve only had the chance to do Shakespeare two other times, and one of those was back in college. When I did The Tempest a year-and-a-half ago, it was only my first Shakespeare play since then.
VCOS: Wow. How come it avoided you for forty years?
ALAN: It’s interesting. I’m not quite sure. I guess the theaters I became involved with didn’t do Shakespeare and I never really thought about it until I ran into Bill Fisher when I was doing The Lion In Winter at the Elite, and he asked me if I was interested so that’s what started the whole thing.
VCOS: Were you familiar with Shakespeare’s plays?
ALAN: Somewhat. Some actors, like Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, and of course Peter O’Toole, who has always been one of my favorites, I’ve watched perform straight plays or Shakespeare and I’ve always been a big fan of theirs, but I never thought about doing it myself or had the chance to do anything like this for quite a while.
VCOS: Is there a difference between playing a Shakespearean character as opposed to those of other playwrights?
ALAN: I think the one major difference is the language. I approach the acting process very simply. It has to be organic, it has to be something that comes from my gut and my heart, and the rest is all pretty much technique that stems from just making sure the audience understands what I’m saying, whether I’m speaking in Shakespearean language or any other.
VCOS: What do you say to a potential audience member when they tell you, “I don’t like Shakespeare because I can’t make any sense out of the language?”
ALAN: I tell them I understand what they’re saying (laughs). But at the same time, what I do is to just try to, either with my speech or with my body language, tell a story, and I think Shakespeare is primarily very universal. His stories are very simple and concern love, greed, hatred, politics…but it’s all pretty much the same. If people have had any kind of life experiences like those of the characters in his plays, I think they’ll catch on.
VCOS: The themes in Othello are frighteningly relevant today. I’m talking about concepts like treachery, marital discord, deceit, invasion of a foreign power, racism, spousal abuse, all stuff that’s going on today in Washington. How daring was Shakespeare in his time to include these very frankly presented themes?
ALAN: I think that’s what made him so original and why his works have lasted so long. I’m not a real expert but I can honestly say that he was someone that wanted to write about real people and what was really going on in those days, whether it was in politics or relationships, things that he might have seen during those times. I just think he was very, very interested in the human condition.
VCOS: It’s been said that Iago, who you are portraying, is Shakespeare’s most villainous character. How did you assess his motives and can you rationalize his behavior in the play?
ALAN: He’s a very interesting character. I think he’s just been very hurt by Othello over the years. They had a long history of fighting, side by side, and he felt that they had established a very strong relationship, and when he’s overlooked and Cassio becomes Othello’s lieutenant, he basically becomes very angry. And then after that, he hears rumors that Othello had also had his wife and that just feeds into his thirst for revenge. So he literally begins to create chaos just for the sake of chaos because of his anger. He’s very charming and I think he needs to be very likable. And because he is trusted by everyone and is very sharp and quick on his feet, he finds it really easy to manipulate anyone into believing anything he says, even the audience. And I think that’s kind of cool because when I’m out there, I’m even attempting to charm the audience. So it’s a lot of fun to play him. It’s really kind of funny. What I try to do when I play this character is get the audience to the point where they enjoy him, but when they find out what he’s really all about, they feel guilty themselves for falling into his trap.
VCOS: I noticed that during your soliloquies, you often made direct eye contact with members of the audience, breaking the fourth wall, something that is not generally done. How do you select who to look at and what kinds of reactions have you gotten from them?
ALAN: Well, when my friends are out there I try to pick one of them, but there are many times when I’ll just use my gut feeling about a person who might be listening intently. It’s kind of random. When I look at a person, whether or not I go back to them depends on how they react to what I’m saying. It’s really interesting that the last three out of four plays I’ve been in, I’ve talked directly to the audience. So I’ve become fairly comfortable doing that. The reactions I’ve gotten are very interesting. I get smiles, I get people looking at me inquisitively. One time when I was turning away from the audience, I think it was last night, I heard a hiss as I was walking off stage. And I loved that. That’s one of the best things you can hear when you’re playing a villain.
VCOS: Why do you think Shakespeare made Othello a Moor? Is he trying to make a comment about racism? Brabantio’s racism is fairly overt in the play, but you’re not quite sure how much of Iago’s hatred of Othello is based on their racial differences.
ALAN: Iago uses the fact that he’s different to help with his jealousy and revenge. I think when they fought side by side, I honestly don’t think Iago saw him as being that much different than he was. I don’t think things like that matter to him. I think he just used it as a tool to get his revenge.
VCOS: How do you like working in a black box theater format, with no furniture, no set pieces, and all there is is you and the audience and the other characters?
ALAN: I think it creates a wonderful intimacy and I think it also helps you focus on the things that are actually most important, which are relationships, listening to the other actors, and reacting to what they’re saying and doing. There aren’t any outside sources to distract you. I really enjoy the fact that it’s just me and whoever else is on stage.
VCOS: Does the immediacy of the audience being inches away from you make a difference as well?
ALAN: Oh yes. Huge. To me, the smaller the theater, the better. I think it’s of utmost importance when you’re doing theater. Audiences pay good money to be entertained and what better way to be entertained than to be right on top of the action?
VCOS: At the beginning of the interview, you mentioned that your performance and those of your fellow actors are getting better and better every day. Can you elaborate on that?
ALAN: I think, as an actor, the more you understand what you’re saying, the better. Memorization is very, very tough for me. It takes a long time. And when you get to a point where you’ve memorized the lines well enough where you can actually forget about it when you go on stage, and focus on other things like relationships, it makes you a much freer actor. And I think that, as a group, we’ve gotten to that point where we know the script well enough that we can be fearless. In that way, we’ve gotten stronger as a cast. The thing about live theater that is great is that you’re finding different ways of how to attack a role or a line or a phrase and if the other actor is as present as you are, they’ll pick up on that and react to it. So it’s all about listening and reacting at that point. Every night, a certain scene will change because of the way actors say certain lines.
VCOS: So with one more weekend worth of shows, anyone who comes will be seeing you at your best, right?
ALAN: I hope so! (laughs) Knock on wood! Thursdays are always interesting because it’s four days since we were last on stage on Sunday and it’s always a little tougher to come back after a break, but I think we’re in a place right now where we’re feeling comfortable with the script and each other enough where we can just go for it.
Othello concludes its run February 24 at Playhouse 101, 28720 Canwood St. in Agoura Hills. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.