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Conversations – Peter Scolari
by Sherri Rase     |      Bookmark and Share
photo courtesy of Starpulse.com
Peter Scolari
Denizen of stage and both large and small screens, Peter Scolari has been a force in entertainment. Known for zany portrayals of very tightly-wrapped individuals and lots of physical comedy, most recently some very physical comedy in the George Street Playhouse production of Ken Ludwig’s “Fox on the Fairway,” Scolari is a risk taker—and the greater the risk, the greater the reward. Mr. Scolari took a few minutes after a long day of rehearsal for the brand new musical “Nutcracker and I,” a world premiere, opening at George Street Playhouse (GSP), to speak with QonStage:
Q on Stage: Do you prefer to work with brand new shows, like this one, or to provide new perspectives on more familiar work?
Peter Scolari: It’s a great excitement to originate a role and if I had my “druthers,” I’d rather do that, though there’s some ego in it. They are two different animals though. Revivals, you need to step up into the realm of the person who originated the role and then distinguish yourself from there.

QoS: When you’re working on a new show, what is the most difficult aspect of finding the kernel of it, the meaning?
PS: I’ll answer that cross-ways. My experience has been, and with David Saint [director of “Nutcracker and I” and artistic director of GSP] in particular, when you originate a role, you’re actually developing a piece. I started my career at a theatre that was a developmental theatre and the script would change almost completely between the first reading at the first meeting and when the show went up six weeks later. Peter Brash [book of “Nutcracker and I”] has tailored some material and rewritten some songs, start to finish, to make the four roles I play more unified. It’s lovely to have things custom-built for me and to have things written for me. Of the roles I’ve originated, this is as exciting as it’s been developing a new piece in decades. And when you can say that, it’s a good day.
What’s difficult is that we know, looking at the page, that the page is just a springboard. You go home realizing “we need to rework this” and, with David, it’s been my experience that though we’re walking in blind, we’ll work it out. Whenever there is something that doesn’t work, we’ll find it or we’ll fix it or we’ll figure it out.
David spends his time around actors whom he likes to spend time with, actors who are willing to take chances and try something and fail. Some kinds of choices, the really fantastic discoveries you wouldn’t have seen head on, you take the chance and, “now that I’m humiliated,” you see what might work.

QoS: Is there a part of yourself you’ve discovered, or uncovered, that is a surprise for you in the course of preparing for your performance?
PS: This is a very challenging piece. For the “real” singers, the singing is difficult. I’ve sung on Broadway, and I tend not to embarrass myself or others. My songs in the show are really driven by character comedy and I’m made safe, musically safe, by that. I guess the answer to your question is, I have been trained from the time I was a very young actor to keep moving forward. How do you keep moving forward in your 37th year of your career? And I could allow myself to be inconsiderate of the answer. Comedically, it’s like being a shark–move forward or die. You go to the well and, if you’ve come up with water, you go back. When I work with young actors, I talk about taking the chance to fall on your face. I could be safe in every performance, every rehearsal … get my laughs and never make any mistakes. I would be the less for it. A great director like David Saint creates that safe environment, where you can make those mistakes. I ask of myself to be vulnerable in the experience, and if a director says something, makes a suggestion, I’ll say “yes” to it before I agree. In my 30s, I’d need to agree intellectually first. In my 40s, I began to question how I approached things. Now I’m braver, in this decade of my growth as an actor, and feel comfortable taking the risks. This is a template I’ll lay down for the rest of my career. At the end of the day, no matter how silly I am in a role, I act for somebody who may or may not be out in the audience. This person can do some of what I can do, some things I can’t, but appreciates the risk I take. I can go to a play, a comedy, and not laugh. It’s safe and it’s just not funny. Some great comedic actors get on the stage and do that work, but don’t take risks. All comedic actors have a savvy “would my friend, who’s really good at this, laugh at this?” We’re shooting for the long ball. Audiences have a visceral reaction to a company of actors who are in it to win it and are silly and walk that fine line between a sort of delicious embarrassment and mortification. If you’re not willing to lean into the line of mortification, you’re not going to tear the house down. And that’s what I want to do – I want to go in there and tear the house down!

QoS: What regimen do you follow that supports the highly physical comedy you do, like the sofa scene, in “Fox on the Fairway?”
PS: When I was younger, and you might say sturdier, I got hurt more. I do maintain a level of fitness, and that varies. I’m in so-so shape now, and that’s a lot more fit than most men of my age. I wasn’t in great shape for “Fox on the Fairway,” but rhythm protects you. There’s a natural rhythm where shock reactions occur, and I’m accustomed to those. As long as I breathe correctly, I tend not to get hurt. I’m telling you, the magic trick of it is, to make it look impossible. It’s to get yourself in the right position, for the right reason, at the right time. When the “accident” occurs, it appears to have happened “to” you … really the steps and turns of it, the position. The timing creates the illusion so the audience doesn’t realize you’re operating the machinery, but feel that you’re caught up in it. I was trained in my early 20s, by older seasoned gifted physical actors. I took everything they had, and it was difficult! I’ve been polishing and tuning and improving since I was 19 years old.

QoS: What is your dream project?
PS: <sigh> I’ve written it and David would like to do it. It needs to be developed. It’s a one-man show that occurs in the mind of a man who ought to–it happens to Buster Keaton, on the last night of his life. Where he lived, in the room where he lived and worked and smoked. He was planning to work with a young lady on some comedy, and didn’t know he was dying. It’s a nightmare, a dream, a flashback. At times it’s a variety show, it becomes vaudeville. I developed it a couple of years ago. David wants to do it, but I’m not fit enough to do it. When I think about it, I’m plenty young to do what’s there, so maybe we’ll develop that.

QoS: Do you ever see you applying your wit and humor to political humor like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert?
PS: I do see myself, and my friends see me there, more than I. It’s a transition for someone who WANTS to cross over. I’ve always fancied myself going the other way—the way Greg Kinnear made the transition from talk show host to film actor. I have yet to have a significant full scale assault in film—and to originate some roles yet on Broadway. Doing what Bill or Stewart or Colbert does is possible, and I wouldn’t feel out of my element managing that kind of opining and irreverence, as someone who is still a timing-based and a political comedian. Jon Stewart became really, really funny when he began to touch on more serious points of order. I hear Jon deny his eminence as a political commentator. He will say he’s just a comedian, but he’s just being coy. Bill would not be coy. Bill has remained true to his comedic roots, but this is a social satirist. I’d have to be lassoed into that. I feel I still have some things to prove as an actor. I want to PLAY that talk show host.
If you’re like me and you want more, you’re in luck!

Tickets are available right now for “Nutcracker and I” at George Street Playhouse for your own teddy bears and sugar plum fairies through December 31. Tickets are available online at www.georgestreetplayhouse.org or call the box office at 732/246.7717.


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