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Five Minutes With Francis Guinan

by Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Art marks the third production this season featuring ensemble member Francis Guinan, fresh off his Broadway run in August: Osage County. We caught up with Fran to find out why he passed on the trip to London and set up camp on Halsted. Once Art closes, you will have been involved with a Steppenwolf production for 26 straight months, starting with The Diary of Anne Frank in April of 2007, correct? Gosh, I hadn't thought of it that way, but you're quite right. I had a couple weeks off be-tween August: Osage County and Kafka on the Shore. It's been kind of exhausting at times and I haven't seen a lot of my family, but then again it is nice having a job. I'll say this to anybody who'll stand still for twenty seconds: I'm the luckiest actor in the world. I've been as busy as an actor can be, working with really terrific people, wonderful scripts, and actually making a living at it. You're in three shows this season alone. And doing two roles in Art. How is it exactly that you landed with us instead of going to London with August: Osage County? Eight months away from home was about three months too many. And while it was a terrific gig, I was ready to come back home. While it would have been wonderful to be in London with August this time of year, and certainly with that group of people, I was looking forward to working with ensemble member Frank Galati on Kafka and ensemble member Randy Arney on The Seafarer. Ensemble members John Mahoney, Ian Barford and I did a production of The Weir with Randy some years ago in Los Angeles. (Oddly enough, Paul O'Connor, who is playing Charlie in London, was in that production of The Weir, as well). Of the three plays I'm in this season, I think Art is the most difficult one and I was looking forward to wrestling with that script. I've never worked with ensemble member Rick Snyder as a director. We've worked together as actors but he's never directed me. So, as lovely as it would have been to do London, there's a lot to do here. What is it about Art that you find "difficult," as you say? The play doesn't seem to take place on the level of the dialogue. The dialogue gives you the plot, but what's going on between the characters is deeply sub-textual. It's what you talk about instead of talking about what you're really feeling. In The Seafarer, it's clear what the characters are thinking and feeling. In Art, it's far more ambiguous, which I think is far more lifelike and really interesting. Who is your favorite playwright? Tracy Letts. God, his scripts are so much fun! And oddly enough, you don't get the sense (as you do with playwrights like Tennessee Williams) that there are major characters and minor characters. For example, in Superior Donuts everything had a direct effect on the semi-homeless character, Lady. In a very odd sort of way, the play ends up being about her, as well. And I think that's true of all of Tracy's characters. In August, the play actually is about anybody you care to pick. Everyone has a beginning, middle and an end to their story. That's one of the things I most admire about his writing, besides being heartbreakingly funny. Which ensemble member do you most enjoying watching as an audience member? Oh, God. Boy, that'd be hard to say. Wow. It's difficult to pick anybody out specifically. If you were to hold me hostage and make me pick somebody it would have to be Laurie Met-calf. We would sit in rehearsals for The Seafarer and exchange stories about Laurie for half an hour. I saw her in a production years ago of And A Nightingale Sang where she played en-semble member Joan Allen's mother. Joanie gives her the news that she's been shacking up with this British solider (played ensemble member by Tom Irwin), and, the night that I saw the show, Laurie tenuously felt her way downstage right until she could grab hold of a chair to sit down. (Tom Irwin said that they used to dare her to do things in that moment. One night they dared her to pretend like her left foot was nailed to the floor, and she spun in a circle). She is absolutely convincing. The truth of her performance is absolutely undeniable. Darlene in Balm in Gilead. That 25-minute monologue! The intricacies of her mental process would jump from subject to subject. She has that instinctive sense of what's right in a char-acter or what works in a scene, which is coupled with an innate theatricality that goes for the maximum effect. Emotions appear to creep up on her and take her by surprise. And so they take us by surprise as well. I'd have to say Laurie. But, you know, I could tell stories about every member of the company. I could watch Al Wilder, John Mahoney and Tom Irwin in The Seafarer. They tease things out of the script that are revelatory of the character's interior life and not always things the character would consciously share. It's as if it escapes. That, I would say, is a consistent trait that I find fascinating about every actor in the company: emotions seem to escape. You get a glimpse. There's this glimmer that you might see from a piece of glass shining from the sunlight and it just happens to take place in front of you. That is consistent with all the actors in the company. They're really quite wonderful.