Actor and pianist Hershey Felder (Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Our Great Tchaikovsky) returns to Seattle Rep this winter for not one but two special presentations: Hershey Felder: Beethoven and Hershey Felder as Monsieur Chopin. We asked Mr. Felder about portraying these characters as both a musician and actor.
Seattle Rep: Can you describe your artistic process in preparing to portray Beethoven and Chopin?
Hershey Felder: All these pieces begin with a lifelong commitment to the music and context in which the music was composed. Unlike an actor preparing for a role—which requires a lifelong commitment to the craft of acting and portrayal—there is the added step here of actually being able to play the music, so it begins with being a musician. Also, having devoted my life to portraying characters, musical and otherwise, that craft kicks in when I define the context of the story that will be told. The presentations are usually based on an actual event. In the case of Beethoven (strange as it may sound), the disinterment of his remains, 36 years after he passed. And in the case of Chopin, a piano lesson that he actually gave on a particular day when the inciting event that leads to the lesson took place. Regardless of character or music, the research is comprehensive as is the commitment to studying the music. It is lifelong and ongoing.
Seattle Rep: Was there anything that surprised you when you were learning about the lives and stories of Beethoven and Chopin?
HF: Everything is surprising in the best of ways. When it comes to the lives of these characters, I am committed to their own voices and generally study their own writings, be it letters, or commentary or articles. After that, I deal with reports one person removed and so on. Because there is a great deal of audience interaction with these pieces, many “surprising” things make it into the evening because the audience is quite curious. So I will leave those things for the performance itself.
Seattle Rep: How have you grown as a performer since you started portraying other artists?
HF: With each new character and new piece of music, I learn so much and push forward; and with each creation, I (alarmingly) make matters more complicated for myself. Friends who know me well laugh—“You couldn’t just stop there, could you?” The truth is, in investigating these characters, the depth of discovery is endless. And if one pursues, one does get better, if only because one knows more; and one is forced to continue working harder and harder. No resting on any laurels (or lack thereof) here.
Seattle Rep: What does Seattle Rep’s vision of “theater at the heart of public life” mean to you?
HF: Without thinking too much about it, I can’t help but come up with the obvious…
And what a raunchy fellow this scribe could be, but so clear-eyed and funny and, above all, true.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
- William Shakespeare, Jacques
As You Like It