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André Holland
All's Well That Ends Well and Measure For Measure

by Beth Herstein


André Holland and Danai Gurira in Measure for Measure, directed by David Esbjornson
Not even five years out of the graduate program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, André Holland's been lighting up the New York stage. His recent credits include the acclaimed 2009 revival of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which Michelle and Barack Obama famously attended; The Brother/Sister Plays, an ambitious and beautiful trilogy penned by Holland's fellow NYU alum Tarell Alvin McCraney, which the Chicago Tribune called "the greatest piece of writing by an American playwright under 30 in a generation or more"; and Manhattan Theatre Club's recent production of The Whipping Man, written by Matthew Lopez, another rising young playwright, and co-starring Jay Wilkison and Andre Braugher. Not only that, but Holland has fit in some television and film work as well, including a regular role on the NBC comedy "Friends with Benefits" (which premieres on NBC on August 5) This summer, he tackles a formidable challenge, performing All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure in repertory at the Delacorte this summer. Around a week ago—after rehearsal and before that night's preview performance—Holland and I chatted briefly about his summer in Central Park.

Beth Herstein:  You have pretty prominent roles in both All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. What is that like, and what are the challenges of performing the shows in repertory?

André Holland:  It's really been amazing for me. First, because I have done Shakespeare in the Park twice before, in the ensemble. So, for me to be back in the Park for the third time is a treat. And the fact that I have these great roles to play makes it unbelievable. I've had a wonderful time. As far as the challenge, it's definitely difficult to keep two plays, and two different worlds, in your head at the same time. For example, last night, we rehearsed for Measure for Measure all day and did a performance of it last night. Just when we get to the part where we think, "Ok, we're ready to do it again," we're changing back over to All's Well. You have to stay on your toes the whole time.

BH:  What is your schedule like?

AH:  We've been rehearsing since March. Right now we're in previews, which means we rehearse pretty much from 12:30 to 5:30 in the afternoons. Then we take an hour-and-a-half to a two-hour dinner break, and then we do the show at 8:00. It's pretty much six nights a week. However, because of the Central Park schedule, with concerts and other events, we may work seven days straight one week and take an off day on a Wednesday or a Thursday. The fact that it's a bit sporadic makes it an extra challenge to keep in your head what's coming next. After the shows open [All's Well opened on June 25 and Measure opens on June 30], we'll be doing the show at night without rehearsal in the afternoon.

BH:  You're working with a wonderful cast, including John Cullum, Michael Hayden, Tonya Pinkins and Annie Parisse. What is that like, and how has the ensemble started to gel?

AH:  The fact that we've been working so much and in such an intense way has forced us to gel quite quickly. As far as working with this ensemble of actors, it's been a learning experience. For me, it's like a class every single day. To see someone like John Cullum, who is so alive and so relaxed with what he's doing ... It almost seems effortless, what he does, which is what all actors aspire to. With John, Michael Hayden, Annie and Tonya, you have actors who are so different in their approaches but who all get to that place we need to get to. There is so much to be learned from each person in the cast.

BH:  What is the biggest challenge for you in developing your characters?


André Holland and Annie Parisse in All's Well That Ends Well, directed by Daniel Sullivan
AH:  The biggest challenge has been working on Bertram [in All's Well]. In the history of actors who have played this part, he sort of gets a bad rap. He comes off as this jerk who turns down this beautiful loving woman who's clearly in love with him. And there's no good reason why he turns his back on her. For me, the thing that I really attach to it is that both he and Helena are young people without fathers. At the very opening of the play they talk about the fact that my father has just died and her father has just died. They're just two young people, adolescents really, who are in the world kind of alone, without any good examples of how to be adults. They are both quite stubborn and emotional and tempestuous. Trying to access that part of myself, to remember what it was like to be at that stage in my life, and also trying to imagine being in the world without a whole lot of guidance—all of that has been a challenge and also really rewarding. It's helped me understand why he does what he does. It gives me the courage to go out there every night and not feel too worried about people hating me.

BH:  You've done several shows—The Brother/Sister Plays, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and The Whipping Man, for example—which are not musicals but which have a distinct musicality to them. Shakespeare's works are like that as well. Can you talk about the language and rhythm of Shakespeare's prose?

AH:  There is an inherent rhythm to the verse. I don't think anyone wants to come in and hear a sing-song version of the plays. You want to hear people talking to each other. When the verse is done well, I think that's how it comes across. If you play close attention to the verse, sometimes it will reveal things that really help tell the story. For example there is one scene [in All's Well] that Bertram has with Diana. First she asks for my ring, and then she says why I don't deserve it. At the end of the scene I say, "Here take my ring." That line is written on the page in a way so that rhythmically it interrupts the line that she says right before it. If you take a pause there, the line really doesn't work. But if you do it the way Shakespeare wrote it, which is coming right in almost on top of her [line], it really lands in a great way. Little things like that, rhythmically if you can find them, help you tell the story better.

BH:  People also have talked a lot about how wonderful it is to perform in Central Park before the Delacorte audiences.

AH:  On our very first preview for All's Well That Ends Well, it rained almost throughout the entire show. I thought—I think all of us thought—that at any minute people were going to get up and start walking out, or else they were going to call the show. On the contrary, everyone who had them put on their ponchos, and those who didn't just sat there in the rain, and stayed until the very end of the show. Not only did they stay and watch it but they were actually more engaged in the story than any audience we've had since. At the end of the play, they leapt out of their seats, applauding. Part of it was because they enjoyed the play, but another part was their way of saying, "Thank you for doing this for us in the rain." We also felt this overwhelming gratitude toward them for taking this journey with us in the rain. Something like that can only happen in the Park.

BH:  I saw and really enjoyed you in The Whipping Man, which had a strong three-person cast led by Andre Braugher. What was that experience like for you?

AH:  It was great. The best part of getting to work on The Whipping Man was getting to work with Andre Braugher. One of the things that I've always wanted as an actor was a person that I could have as a mentor, someone to whom I could talk to about things that were happening and ask advice. Although he's not officially my mentor, I feel like working with him taught me so much. He's such an open and generous guy. He was willing to share a whole lot of things with me. Tricks, ways to enhance my performance, but not in a way that was patronizing or pedantic.

BH:  What is coming up for you next?

AH:  Last year I did a television series, which we're hoping will get picked up for a second year. At this point we're not sure. If that happens, I'll go back to L.A. and work on that. If not, right after the show closes I'm going to take a nice long break. Maybe take a vacation and go and see my family. I've been doing things back to back for a little while now, and I need to give myself a chance to recharge and refocus before diving into something else.

BH:  Whatever your profession, it helps to clear your head from time to time.

AH:  I think so. It just makes you better. It gives you more to bring to the work. Rather than move onto the next project just because it's there, I want to hold onto that desire to act, the thing that's in my heart that made me decide to do it in the first place. I want to make sure that stays alive.


For more information about these Shakespeare in the Park productions, please visit www.shakespeareinthepark.org.


Photos: Joan Marcus

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