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What's New on the Rialto

Out of the Fire!

I interviewed Douglas Sills last December and we talked about his past and the transition between the two versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel. This month, we did a follow-up to give him a chance to share his thoughts before he closed out this remarkable chapter in his life.

Nancy Rosati: You told me in December that you stayed for the new version because of a dare. You wanted to see if you could re-create the character with a new director. First of all, do you think you did that?

Douglas Sills: Yeah, I do.

NR: Are you glad you did it?

DS: Yeah, very.

NR: Why?

DS: I had fun. It was a great challenge. It was a tremendous challenge given that the parameters were almost reversed about freedom and liberties and what the nature of that new director's aesthetic is. So, it was a great challenge. That was really fun to try and do it repeatedly with that boundary, so I'm glad I stayed.

NR: Have you grown as a performer in the past year and a half?

DS: Oh God, yes. Sure.

NR: How?

DS: I don't know. You'd have to ask people I worked with or people I lived with. That's going to come out over the long term. How have I grown as a performer? I suspect I understand my limitations a lot better and I'm comfortable being bounded by them. I understand how narrow the scope is of the actor's job and how much you can attribute to other people in terms of making yourself a victim and not being able to do the job you want to do. I suspect I'm more aware, more courageous as a performer to do less on stage. I hope I'm more loving and caring as a person and giving as a performer, more tolerant of other people's foibles, vicissitudes that they encounter in their lives and how it affects their journey as artists.

NR: You kind of touched on this. I was going to ask how you've grown personally.

DS: Well, they're kind of linked. When you're a performer, that's all sort of one I think. I think I've grown more devoted in my family life. I know what's important, what's secondary and tertiary, and how much work it takes to keep relationships afloat, give them the nourishment that they're due. Those are some of the ways I guess.

NR: If you were going to talk to someone who wanted to become an actor, what would you tell them now that you probably wouldn't have thought to tell them two years ago?

DS: How important acting training is. I probably would have told them but I wouldn't have stressed it. I don't mean to be contentious, but it would depend on what the person's goals were. If the person's goals are to be in a Broadway chorus for as long as they can, then my advice to them would be very different than if they wanted to do the classics, if they wanted to play the entire Shakespearean canon and it didn't matter where they wanted to do it. My advice would be completely different, so it really depends on what they wanted to do. Can you be more specific about what you were saying?

NR: I was thinking that two years ago, you probably thought you knew what this experience was going to be like. I have a feeling that it was probably different in many ways.

DS: That the biggest contribution ultimately that you make, if what you want to do is play a large role in a Broadway show, is what you bring to the part. So, live a very full life coming here. You'd better explore who you are so that the performance is grounded. You need to be as grounded as you can as an actor... I think. Again though, it depends on your aesthetic. Let's go for the sake of discussion that what you're talking about is a person who's devoted to the same aesthetic as I am, and that's a huge leap of faith, but let's assume that that's what we're talking about. Then, yeah, what I would say is you have to have a great awareness of yourself. You really better know who you are. That's the biggest favor you can do for yourself. Now, that has many tentacles to it. You should travel, there should be a lot of self-exploration without self-absorption, there should be intense study of your craft, continuous study. You never know enough. You're always changing. Since the instrument's always changing, then how you play it is going to be changing. It's a mountainous thing, not in ways you would suspect. The task itself is not insurmountable. It's the ancillary tasks that become insurmountable - leading the cast, keeping the cast together and unified in their spirit, doing all the publicity engagements and still having energy for your role, handling the demands put on you by the fan base, keeping your family intact. Things that you would be less suspect of as the challenge are actually the challenge.

NR: You originated this role on Broadway which gives you a unique perspective. Is there anything you could offer someone who's going to play it a couple of years from now?

DS: No. Oh God, no. Just the opposite. Don't look at a tape. Don't watch the old movies. Read the book and that's all. Do your research and go out and make the play your own. No, just the opposite. Bring yourself to it, rather than try to meet whatever you thought it was or who it was. No, I think there are a thousand Percys out there yet to be played. I don't mean actors, I mean versions of the role. I think it's multi-dimensional enough where it can be a thousand people. That doesn't mean to say that you don't need your craft to do that. So, I would say absolutely the opposite. Don't listen to anybody except your director.

NR: Now that you've been so closely linked to this part, how do you feel about that?

DS: Fine! I'm proud of it. I'm very proud of it.

NR: Are you worried about being typecast?

DS: No, not particularly. If I find that that's the case in the course of the next half decade, like if they won't see me for other roles, then obviously I'll start to get worried, but that hasn't been my experience to date. I think I tend to project myself more as Douglas and Percy's my work. I don't know. I'm not on the outside perceiving, so I don't know. But, I'm not worried yet. It hasn't occurred to me.

NR: Really? Even after this long?

DS: As a passing thought I suppose, but I haven't really been out there job hunting so it wouldn't have occurred to me yet.

NR: You finally got a chance to watch the show. Were you able to see it as a whole, or were you looking at details?

DS: Both.

NR: Were you able to enjoy it?

DS: Yeah, to a degree. To more of a degree than I anticipated that I would be able to.

NR: I was wondering if you were thinking "That should be two inches to the right."

DS: No, none of that business. I came in late and I had to leave at odd times so that I wouldn't be seen, so I didn't get to see everything I'd like to see, but absolutely I enjoyed it. Very much. I wasn't sitting new to it, obviously. It's an odd perspective. I was inside it. My frame of reference is always acting, so that's what I'm looking at when I look at a piece.

NR: What's the most embarrassing thing that's happened to you in the show?

DS: Really embarrassing you mean, or just "fun embarrassing?"

NR: (laughing) Well, if it's TOO embarrassing you don't have to tell me. I guess "fun embarrassing" that you want to share.

DS: Oh, "fun embarrassing." OK, that's different. The most embarrassing thing was probably falling in front of Terry Mann - falling on my face in front of Terry. That was a lot of fun. That was pretty intense embarrassment. But that wasn't something I was ashamed of. You know, things happen. I have things that I have shame about.

NR: Well, you don't look like you want to share it.

DS: No, I'm happy to share it. I have an embarrassing memory of being on stage when I was not able to do the role vocally at a threshold minimum that I thought was absolute. But I was already out there and I had no way of knowing. I suspected that I was OK and then I got out there and I was sort of surprised by what was going on vocally. So, that was a pretty injurious, difficult performance.

NR: That must have been horrible. How did you get yourself through that - in case somebody else is in the same situation, and I'm sure somebody else will be. How did you get through that? You have a lot of singing to do.

DS: I summoned up what technique I knew. I realized it was a performance about technique and I tried not to injure myself. I tried to do things gently and create a different kind of a performance. It was hard because you're very tense and you're worried all the time about what's coming out. You can't even speak in the way you want to speak. I don't know that I have any wisdom to share. Anyone who's in that place probably has more wisdom about their own body than I do to get themselves through it.

NR: Well, you didn't walk off and say, "I'm not doing it."

DS: No, I didn't.

NR: That's a plus.

DS: I don't know. In some people's minds maybe it would have been a plus if I had let somebody else do it that time. But, you get through it. There are tough times. It's like fighting a war. Sometimes you're in the trenches and sometimes you're on shore leave and it's fun.

NR: What's your favorite memory?

DS: I have so many favorite memories. The sensation on Sunday after I stop sweating - when you know that you've got a full week behind you and you've completed a job and you feel like you've done the best you can for a week and you have 24 hours to yourself. That's an incredible sensation. When you ache to work and you finally get the work and are then able to put in a good work week. That's a wonderful sense of fulfillment.

Kissing those beautiful women who played my wife...gales of laughter coming from the audience...standing center stage opening night and weeping with joy about what was about to happen...walking into theater restaurants and having people know your name...having someone stop you on the street and say "What a great show" when you weren't even wearing your show jacket...having your parents be able to come to the Tonys, both alive and see you have that moment...having money in the bank...standing before the cast the day after the reviews came out in the first session and feeling that I could help them as I complete the circle that was the cast and get through a difficult period...feeling like you're appreciated by your management and owners.

Probably the most important feeling - and the best memory - is feeling several times (and I've had it throughout the run), the absolute certainty that I had 100% of this cast's support and no one had any negative feelings about, "He's not a nice person" or "He never treated us well" or "He doesn't deserve this." I felt like they wanted it for me as much as they wanted it for themselves. That's probably the best feeling of all.

NR: I don't know if you can answer this, but how do you think you're going to feel while doing the show on May 30th? Do you have any idea?

DS: Scared...nervous...wondering if I'm doing it justice for the last time...probably weepy... accomplished...all those things I guess.

NR: There are all these stories, and they're legendary now, of people who've met you at the stage door and claim that you changed their lives. Do you feel like you've been a role model?

DS: No! (incredulous look) A role model?

NR: What do you hear when someone says, "You talked to me for five minutes and you changed my life?" What do you think when you hear that? I know you hear that a lot.

DS: I don't dwell on it. It's a wonderful thing. If they're there saying it, I try to accept it with grace and make a connection with the person so that they understand that I heard them and that I accept it and I cherish it. I hope they understand that that's what I'm doing. It's a tremendous thing to say. If I'm reading it, it's easier for me to sort of take a little more lightly. That's an enormous thing to take seriously. If I really thought that was true, I don't know what I would think. I guess I would think that they were ready for some change. They've created a situation in their lives, consciously or not, which primes them for a sea change. A shift of significant proportions was inevitable and I was simply in the "right place at the right time" to "cut the tape" and "let the games begin" so to speak. But, any number of focused experiences might have been that catalyst. They wanted me to. There was a sense of desire for me to create that epiphany or that catharsis.

NR: I think they're reacting to the fact that you're actually listening to what they have to say, and a lot of people don't do that.

DS: I hope so. I assume that their life was at that place and anything would have done it, and they were eager for me to do it because it was a positive experience. Sometimes you see a movie, and you have this glorious sensation, and you want to go out and behave in a different way as a result of seeing the movie. Is it that performer's fault? No. In my mind, it's where I was in my life when I saw that movie because another person will see the movie and they won't feel the same way. So, that's what I attribute it to, that they're in that vulnerable place, that place of kinetic potential for action. Something happens to release that energy. It was simply synchronistic that it was the experience of watching this play that began this "change." It is flattering, however, let there be no mistake about that.

NR: What's the most ridiculous rumor you've heard about your next project?

DS: I don't know. I haven't really heard any big rumors.

NR: Oh, come on. You didn't hear about the Tony Awards?

DS: That I was hosting the Tony Awards? I heard that.

NR: And Kiss Me Kate.

DS: Well, that wasn't ridiculous.

NR: Then there was the "30 city concert tour," but I started that one as a joke.

DS: (laughing) I didn't hear that.

NR: How about Harold Hill?

DS: That's not ridiculous. That's certainly within the realm of possibility. I would say nothing I've heard seemed outrageous to me.

NR: How about hosting the Tony Awards?

DS: THAT was outrageous. That was silly.

NR: You never know.

DS: Would I WANT to do it? Sure, I would probably want to do it.

NR: Would they want you to do it?

DS: No, they can't. You have to think logically. You don't hire an auto mechanic to run a Fortune 500 company. They need a person of profile.

NR: So, not yet... What do you really want to do next?

DS: Rest.

NR: I know you're going to rest. But after you rest?

DS: Well, how the rest evolves will inform what the next project is. For example, if in ten days, I'm eager to work again and I feel a burning desire to do a specific project, then that project will make itself known to me. If it's going to take six months, and I can't even see opening my mouth again to speak words, then I need to go work in some charity situation to feel like I can create something again. Then that thing that gets created will probably be very earthbound and something that's a very loving, giving thing as opposed to a musical. So, I think the rest and how the rest evolves will inform what the next piece is. What I don't want to do is get into a piece because it's there. I want to get into a piece because I have something that attracts me to it. My inclination is to do a play with another director who really motivates me to be better than I am. That's all I care about really once I feel that the well from which I draw has been replenished, because right now it feels pretty empty.

NR: When you started this career, (and this is true of most people who've been doing this more than a couple of years), it probably didn't occur to you that there would be something called the Internet on which hundreds of people would be dissecting your every movement, your every comment, your every mood. I'm assuming that was a surprise. I'm sure you thought you would have to deal with critics and some fan mail, but you didn't think that you would go home and have the ability to read fifty people commenting on what you did that night, whether positively or negatively.

DS: That's probably true.

NR: You seem to have handled it well...

DS: (shakes his head)

NR: No? So, there's been a cost to that.

DS: None of us live in a vacuum. I'm not a Zen Buddhist who can assume that everything around me has no value. (I'm paraphrasing the philosophy as I know it on a most shallow level.) But, anything that occurs is going to have an effect on me. I assume you're asking what effect it's had on me. Well, it's overwhelming. It's taxing because you want a person to feel responded to, first of all, in terms of mail. So, that was an extremely heavy burden to carry.

NR: Well, you would have gotten fan mail anyway. You know that. But, you wouldn't have had that much of an immediate, tremendously large response. You come out here in a bad mood one night, and there are fifty posts within an hour and a half saying, "Douglas was in a bad mood" or "He was tired" or "He cracked on this note" or "He did an ad lib." What is that like?

DS: It's daunting so I stopped reading it. I don't know that I would do that. It's hard for me to imagine that I could be one of the writers. Now, I think that all experiences are universal on some elemental level, that you should be able to image yourself as an actor in any situation, but that was hard for me to see myself as a poster, so it was hard for me to relate to that. I quickly had to say, "This is not something which informs me in a healthy way, or adds to my work or my life." So, I stopped reading it and I stopped going there. Then somebody would say, "Oh, so and so did a really nice job on this website. Could you go there and post something?" so I would do that. In general, I didn't feel like there was something to be had there for me, that would make my work stronger, or make me a better person. So, I didn't go.

NR: Does it bother you that it exists?

DS: No, I think it's pretty harmless. The only thing that bothers me is when the advent of the Internet creates a group dynamic, or what I should say, is a sub-group dynamic, within the event of the play occurring on a given night. So, more specifically, or in lay terms, there are people laughing before the cue happens, or laughing in anticipation of something happening, or laughing just a hair's breath, a split second ahead, or starting the applause too soon. I'm talking about a shade too soon, because I don't think they're people who are ill behaved, but it throws off my connection with the other 1500 people in the house. That is weary. It makes you weary, and without the Internet, that wouldn't occur, because they come in groups. They sit in groups and enjoy it en masse. Even a group of ten can change the audience dynamic. That is difficult sometimes because you know you're not making the same connection with the rest of the audience as a result of it. Otherwise, no, it doesn't bother me that it's out there. It seems pretty harmless as an offshoot of what is now our modern media empire.

NR: That's my point. You wandered into something not knowing this was ahead.

DS: Right.

NR: So, three years from now, if a high profile role came along that you really wanted to do, would you think twice because you knew that in addition to that role, all of this would come with it?

DS: No, I would just go about it differently. If I felt I wasn't in a position by tackling that role, to also accommodate THAT, I would approach THAT differently and the boundaries would be much tighter. I would not be able to encourage the growth of that venue, of that occurrence, of that Internet grouping. I would just handle it differently. I don't think it would keep me from taking a part. I'll tell you what's daunting - I would think twice before I'd sign on for a year doing something, or long term. You know, doing a high profile piece for a month or two, you can handle just about anything. You can create a boundary, you can protect yourself, you could live in the building, you could have a massage every day. Over a year, or two years, it's taxing, so I would think twice before I would do that.

NR: Well, you kind of created your own monster.

DS: Um hmm. Absolutely. Completely. It's not a monster, and I absolutely fed it. I completely created it and absolutely consciously. I made a commitment to that as a part of my journey in the piece, to doing that, to cultivating that.

NR: Did it grow bigger than you expected?

DS: No. I just ended up doing the part longer than I thought. Who knows, in terms of "drug effect," who knows what long term effects are? Who knows how you're going to feel, twenty months down the line, dealing with that every night? And, the truth is, most people are very understanding outside the stage door. People want to know how long I spend out there. It can vary from six or seven minutes to fifty minutes, but usually no more, and usually somewhere in between. It's not the time, it's the energy. It takes a lot of energy to be present and be the jocular person that people are eager to see after the play because they had a nice time, and they want to see somebody who also had a nice time. They want to have a cap on that. They want MORE, actually, is what they want I assume. If you have a good experience in the theater, you want it to go on. It's like when a movie ends or a great book ends, you want it to continue. So, that takes a lot of energy. But, I know I absolutely created it. I fed it. Somebody said, metaphorically, "Would you have dinner with me?" and I said, "Have dinner with you? I'll MAKE dinner!" So, I take complete responsibility for that.

NR: One last thing. I received questions from 52 people for this interview, and the NUMBER ONE QUESTION is - How can they reach you after May 30th?

DS: I don't know how. My instinct is to drop out of sight for awhile. It's a tremendous responsibility to receive mail from people who are "work friends." Or, to be completely frank, "work acquaintances with whom I'm very friendly" because it's not a friendship per se. It's an acquaintance, and we're very friendly in that acquaintance. That's a tremendous responsibility. When I get a piece of mail or a letter, I feel obligated to respond - to listen, to hear what the person is saying, and answer, and I don't want that responsibility for awhile. I'm willing to accept that responsibility while I'm in this chair, and after that, I feel like I want to reclaim my time. I also want to leave behind what is that adulation and that praise, and part of that praise is people who are interested in my life who are not particularly family or friends. I don't mean that to sound cold at all, but we're not friends, we're acquainted, on an intimate level in some ways because you've seen intimacy on stage. My heart has been put out there, over and over. So, I'm going to be out of touch for an indefinite period of time. It's important for me to touch base, touch the earth, to understand exactly who I am without all the icing. "What is that cake anyway? What's under there? Is there even any cake in there? What's left?" Because it is icing. It's wonderful but you can't live on that. It's not nourishing. It's not substantial. It's dessert. It's a side dish. It can't be the stuff that life is made of, otherwise you become one of those caricatures like Norma Desmond. So, I'm going to be out of touch for awhile. I'm grateful for the impulse to communicate and I'm sure that people will understand that if I'm going to make another beautiful plant (to use a metaphor), then it has to spring from the soil, from earth, and I have to put my hands in that earth again. Right now my head's in the clouds still from this ethereal experience of taking a bow before 2000 people every night in the center of all these talented people. It's completely unreal. It's an unreal experience and I need some real experience to reacquaint myself with life.

NR: If you do something else, will you let us know?

DS: Oh, sure. Sure. Absolutely, you guys will know. I'm scared to leave it. Don't misunderstand. It's very nerve wracking to say I'm going to leave this behind voluntarily, but better voluntarily, than have it ripped away from me, or fade away, or drop away, which is heart-breaking. So, I just think that whatever good came out of my work came out of something grounded.

NR: Are you really convinced that people are going to be saying "Douglas who?" in a year?

DS: No... I don't know. The industry to some degree is already saying "Douglas who?" because we're in the new spring of "Tony fever." I don't want that sense of...that's why I wanted to leave March 7th because I wanted to leave when the project was strong and I could walk away. As the project comes to a close, there's a sadness that's very hard to endure, and I wanted specifically to avoid that. That's why I wanted to leave March 7th. You want to leave while things are on a high note.

NR: There's still going to be a lot of focus on you, but it will probably be less now that a lot of people are leaving on May 30th. Not only are a lot of people leaving, THE SHOW is leaving.

DS: Yeah, but having that focus on you as you leave is kind of a wonderful sendoff.

NR: Well, yeah, but you didn't want it. You kept saying, "Don't do anything special."

DS: Oh, but it would have been there in spirit. Not an event, but in spirit. So, I think that's the best thing for me... I think. I'm very convinced it could be "Douglas who?"

NR: (laughing) We're taking bets on how long it will be before you pop up and say, "Hi. You're not talking about me anymore."

DS: You know, the couple of times I went to the Internet, and I would see that nobody had posted on one of the boards for a couple of days, I thought, "Oh, nobody really cares." That's what makes me think I have to find out what the core is. The fact that I was looking at that and that even occurred to me means, "OK, you're in the wrong place. You need to be back here." But, it's a place that anyone who had been subject to what I've been subject to would be inclined to be interested in.

NR: That makes sense. Douglas, thank you so much.

DS: You're welcome.

There's not much more that can be said about Douglas Sills that hasn't already been said. To have his Broadway debut be so incredibly successful is really quite a testament to his talent and his spirit. It will be very interesting to see where he goes from here.

To Douglas - God speed and don't stay away too long. I've enjoyed being one of your "friendly acquaintances" and I very much look forward to your next project.

- Nancy Rosati

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