The recipient of four Helen Hayes Awards, actor Holly Twyford is crossing gender barriers to take on the role of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Folger Theatre, January 26 through March 6. In this month's Art of the Actor, she shares her insights on the joys and responsibilities of her craft, and on the challenges of tackling one of Shakespeare's most beloved characters.
Tell me your origin story. How did you become an actor?
My parents brought us to theatre when we were little, so I was exposed to it from an early age. My mom and I would listen to musicals and sing along to them and so I always loved the art of theatre. I did a couple plays in elementary school and I did a bunch more in high school and then I ended up going to Boston University and studying theatre there. I don’t think I necessarily intended to become an actor; I feel like it chose me. I feel like if I had any sense, I would have chosen something different. But something happened and I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is all that I can do.” And, in fact, now it is all I can do; I have no other marketable skills!
What do you enjoy the most about acting?
What I enjoy the most is stepping in somebody else’s shoes for a while and breathing them for a while—breathing their lives and troubles and loves and losses. I think it’s fascinating; you can never stop learning about the complexities of being a human. I feel like that continues to teach me, and I love that. It’s a process by which to grow. If it stops being that, I maybe should stop. The more characters you play, the more people you meet and the more people you know. You figure out what their little foibles are, and their intentions. At the very core, of course, of acting is: What is your intention? What do you want? To step into different characters and figure out what they want really teaches you about the world and teaches you about other people. I think that’s important in life.
What do you consider the most challenging thing about acting?
Being away from my family. That’s an easy question. I guess that’s more a question about the business of it, and that is the most challenging part—to miss out on the occasional birthday and the occasional recital and various things like that. That is hard.
Tell us about playing Bottom.
I would never have said yes if it hadn’t been Aaron [Posner] asking me. I could maybe name one other director that I would have wanted to do this with, just because it’s really kind of frightening. It is such an iconic role; Midsummer has got to be one of the most – if not the most—produced Shakespeare play. Everybody’s seen it. People have studied it in school. Everybody knows Bottom. Everybody knows Bottom’s malapropisms, everybody knows how Bottom feels about himself, and also, certainly, everybody knows that he is normally played by a guy. Whenever you’re stepping into a role like that—that has such a history behind it—it’s a little daunting. For this one it’s doubly daunting. I’m not a big funny guy, and I don’t want to play it like that. So we had to figure out a way to strip away how everybody thinks this character is supposed to look and figure out what is the core to Bottom, and that’s how we approached it. I feel like have some fun ideas, so we’ll see. It’ll be really interesting to see how the audience feels.
What is “the art of the actor?”
My interpretation of that question is that, to me, it is our job to present the most simple, truthful, honest, specific picture of the human experience and put it up on stage—to breathe life into somebody that’s just on the page and to make the audience say, “Oh my gosh, that’s just like my mother,” or “Oh my gosh, that’s me.” Whatever their response is—“Oh my gosh, I know, I did exactly the same thing she did and I felt exactly the same way!”—it’s something that elicits either catharsis or a connection for the audience, so that they learn something more from the experience.
It’s an adventure right now and I’m sure it will continue to be an adventure—both the show and the acting in general. And when it stops being an adventure, then I will become a handyman.