Spotlight On
Douglas Sills

by Nancy Rosati


(At this point, Douglas was called away to do the practice run of the duel that they do every night. He invited me along, so I got to stand in the wings while Douglas fenced with Rex Smith and Rachel York. They run the fight very much as it is in the finale of the show, although with less intensity and on the bare stage. They simulate the runs up the stairs of the guillotine without actually climbing the steps. Douglas went through the routine as "Percy," although with less intensity than he uses for a performance. They discussed a few fine points about one crucial moment in the duel, and then they were finished. Douglas introduced me quickly to Rex and Rachel and then we ran (literally) back to his dressing room to continue the interview and allow him to do his hair and makeup. We were joined by his dresser, Jennifer Griggs, and his hairdresser, Alyce Banny. Later in the interview Douglas directed some of my questions to the two of them.)

NR: Let's talk about the ad libs from the first show. I assume you didn't start the show in November with ad libs. Am I wrong?

DS: Yeah.

NR: You did?

DS: Oh yeah.

NR: Oh, OK. I'm trying to picture how this worked. You're the "new kid on the block" and here's Terrence Mann, "Broadway legend", and suddenly you're throwing him surprise lines that make him laugh.



DS: They weren't surprised because Terry and I work the same way. We knew that we both came from the same school of training. We both came from a formalized acting training program which shows you how to delineate your givens, who are you, in the most simplistic fashion to delineate. Who are you? What do you want? Where are you coming from? Where are you going? And who are you in relation to the other people on stage? Once you have those things settled then you should be free to move through that space. Now, rehearsals were very free. I don't remember them, you'd have to talk to some other people because I'm not good on that kind of stuff. If I'm doing my work I'm not going to remember it from my mental scrapbook. And I don't, so that's a good sign.

NR: But, when did you think of them? On stage, in the shower in the morning, while you were frozen on the pedestal during "When I Look at You?"

DS: Nothing was ever, ever thought of before the moment occurred.

NR: Really?

DS: Never. Everything that you hear happened in the moment, on stage.

NR: Isn't that dangerous? Couldn't you suddenly say something you didn't mean to say?

DS: What else is there? What are you buying a ticket to see? Danger. That's what you people that are coming back more than once want to see. Is Douglas going to fall on his face? Why do we want to hear the tenor sing those high notes. 'Cause you want to know if he's going to crack. It's inhuman - those notes don't come out of ... So you want to know. It's a high wire. What's he going to do? How is he going to navigate that? Yeah, it's dangerous. I think that's the whole point. I think that's why I'm doing it and I think that's why people came to see it. Yeah, it's dangerous, but you can't do it without the implicit or at least spoken understanding of the other players. And Terry was amenable. That tonality was established in rehearsals. And then we cut it back. And then I'd keep playing, and they said, "Oh, yeah, you should do that." And then, no one said anything probably ... I think they said, "OK, you can ad lib here and here." I think he (Peter Hunt) told me before the first performances, "Here's your two spots. You can do what you want here." Because they didn't know exactly what they wanted. That's the point. They didn't know "what is this about?" So, he literally came up to me and said, "Do something like this. Here, here's a half page."

NR: Wow, that's wonderful because most shows won't let you do that.

DS: Well, you're trying out a new show and there's no out of town tryout. So, he would say to me, "You know, do something like this." I said, "I need a little time." He said, "It doesn't matter. Just make it kind of like this." So that's carte blanche to me. That means he needs the information issued forth but he also needs to be entertained. And then he'd come back to me and he'd say, "That's not what I meant," or "That's great, but just do two less ad libs."

NR: Plus, you'd see the audience reaction ...

DS: Yeah, but sometimes there are places now I can get a laugh and I've chosen specifically not to for the sake of a later moment that's coming right up against it and it doesn't associate itself well with that laughter line. So, you know, you have to be judicious about it. So, that's what happened with ad libs, and they're so much fun. It's so exciting. I can't do it anymore.

NR: We know.

DS: So, that's life. It's a different esthetic now.

NR: How do you compare the two versions and how has Percy changed?

DS: Let's do the second part of it. Percy is much more human, much more flawed, more angry, more pouty, more of a child-man that grows into a man. He's meaner, he's a meaner spirit. He's less air-brushed, he's the guy next door. He's pissy sometimes and wakes up ugly and yells at his friends and is mean when he's hurt. He's more emotional - well not more emotional - I didn't mean to say that. He's more "watery" in Zodiac terms. (Uh, oh, I'm letting my California side out.)

NR: How has the tone of the show changed?

DS: I can't answer that. I mean really, you're asking about a performance piece that I've never seen. You're saying, "How does this plane fly?" and all I am is the mechanic that's never even seen the plane from the outside.

NR: How does the script feel from one to the other? - The overall atmosphere?

DS: Well, those are all very different questions. The script is probably clearer and more spare. The esthetic coming down from the director is more clear. There's a very specific thumbprint style-wise on the show. It has a style. That means the dancing - and there IS dancing, and the dancing has a certain sensation to it. It looks like a certain person's work, not unlike a person's handwriting looks like a person's handwriting. It has a much stronger cage on top of it so the form will look exactly the same. So, it looks like a bundt cake. It was designed to look like a bundt cake, and every night it looks like a bundt cake, as opposed to this free flowing thing that could look like a bundt cake, or it could be a pineapple vanilla cake, or it could be brownies. Bobby (Longbottom) was very clear, "I want this show to look EXACTLY the same, and feel EXACTLY the same without variation EVERY NIGHT of the week."

NR: But, you know what? It doesn't.

DS: It doesn't?

NR: Well, you don't.

DS: Well, then that's my fault. Well that's what he wants. And so I'm trying to do that and trying to remain true to my esthetic which is, the bare minimum of my esthetic, which is have it look fresh and new as if the character is going through it every day.

NR: That's what I'm seeing. I see a slightly different interpretation at times, within those boundaries. Obviously they are much stricter boundaries.

DS: Much stricter. So, I'm glad that there's a strong hand on top that is welcomed at the theater. And that is really comforting for an actor. The feel is that there's the normal geometry - that there's the director on top watching you very, very closely, and he has a style of his own. You know, we have a lot of new people that came in in a situation where we didn't really get a chance to grow together. So that means that when the show comes to performance it probably has a looser knit feel within the cast. I mean, we're crazy about each other and it's a great "get-along" cast. We get along great. But, we didn't all go through the fire of opening together, which like a piece of pottery, when it's fired, it hardens and tightens and it glazes together as a whole. And we didn't have that experience, because some people had been here, some people came on, some people came on later, they didn't like the show, they didn't create the show, so, it's probably a looser knit feel backstage. There's nothing like the sensation of being well-reviewed from the New York Times - nothing like that to give you a kick in the butt. That feels great.

NR: You talked before about not being sure you wanted to do this. Here's a quote from you ...

DS: Well, thanks a lot for throwing these back at me.

NR: (grinning) You're welcome. From Newsday - "If I'd known how difficult it was going to be, I might not have done it. But this sort of thing had never been tried before and it was like a piece of cheese in a mousetrap to me. I couldn't resist." I want to know what you couldn't resist.

DS: A dare. Somebody was daring me. They were saying, "Do you think you could do this again? Could you recreate something, but have to go back with a new director and re-fire it?" Especially since 99% I had nowhere to go but down. 'Cause I had had these once-in-a-lifetime career-making reviews and response from the community here. There was nowhere to go but down. You couldn't get any better response than I was blessed with. So, it was a dare, it was a big dare. "I dare you. You know, is it the reviews you're in love with, or is it the work? I dare you to go and do it for the work's sake." That's what I was saying to myself. And to stay on Broadway.

NR: It's so exhausting now - what you're doing ...

DS: It's less exhausting than it was when I was trying to create it and perform the old one.

NR: That's true. I guess it's a little bit easier now. How do you keep up the energy? And how do you do it when you're having a bad day, and you're tired?

DS: My dresser Jen puts up with it. She's sort of my buffer between me and the world. And my hair lady, Alyce. Um, how do I keep up my energy? I don't always, but when you're out there you just make it work. The character is malleable - it will accept different levels of energy in different places I think. It's exhausting, because you know ... I think, because you know it's finite. I know it's going to come to an end. You know what I mean? And I want to be able to say "I gave 175% EVERY day, as many days as was humanly possible until this was over." And then I'll collapse. You just want to live it. It's like being plopped down in Rome and they say, "OK, you have 36 hours - GO. And then it's over. And you'll never be here again. Or, you might never be here again." Look, are you going to walk? No, you run. No matter how tired you are. You know you pick something up and throw something in your mouth. So, I try to take care of myself - I mean I do the obvious things - sleep and eat, have quiet time, have therapy, try to work out, voice lessons. You know I have to be responsible. I can't go out, I can't drink, I can't eat a lot at night, I can't play, I can't smoke, you know there's a lot of things that you can't do. These are the responsibilities when you're trying to do something Olympian in size and scale.