Laughing at Death

An Interview with A.R.T./MXAT Institute actors Cheryl Turski and Neil Patrick Stewart

With graduation just a few weeks away, the Class of 2007 is currently in rehearsals for Eugene Ionesco’s The Killing Game, a comic tale of a plague-ridden town. This production will be the final hurrah for Katia Asche, Caroline Barad, Jackie Brechner, Emmy Lou Diaz, Phillip Dunbridge, Brian Farish, Kristen Frazier, Aaron Ganz, Adi Hanash, Merritt Janson, Jorge Montenegro, Nicole Muller, Natalie Saibel, Sarah Scanlon, Neil Patrick Stewart, Cheryl Turski, Tim Wynn, and Matt Young. Under the direction of A.R.T. Institute Director Scott Zigler, the cast is hard at work creating a variety show of comic sketches and musical numbers that examine dying and death.

In the midst of his slapstick farce, Ionesco wrote a touching scene between an old man and an old woman, philosophizing about the world and human existence. Institute actors Neil Patrick Stewart, last seen as “Onion Boy” in The Onion Cellar, and Cheryl Turski, actress and choreographer for Zoya’s Apartment, share their thoughts on how to approach these characters.

CHERYL TURSKI: This rehearsal process is similar to the work we did in Russia because it’s actor-driven. Most of the creative conceptual ideas are springing from the ensemble. However, the characters of the old man and the old woman that Neil and I are playing are written in a straightforward, realistic manner. There’s a reason why the old man and old woman enter at such an important moment in Ionesco’s comic send-up of the plague. If you are as ancient as these characters, you could drop dead at any minute. The old woman knows the plague is devastating the town. But for her, the plague is just one of the many things that could possibly kill her. So why worry about it more than anything else?

NEIL PATRICK STEWART: In the past I would have immediately latched on to character and worked broadly “outside-in”. That is, I would start physically and comically. I would do my comic impression of an old man: start moving around like an old man and immediately find an “old man voice” and then I would slowly draw it in to something “realistic” in my mind. But for this project, my first step has been to memorize the lines. I’m not rushing to find a particular style or voice. I’m letting it develop out of what I’ve learned from repetition with Cheryl. I think in the end what happens physically with the characters will be more genuine and probably more creative because of that.

CHERYL TURSKI: When we first read through the scene in rehearsal, it was clear that the old woman had a very optimistic view of the world while the old man was militantly pessimistic. I think what she believes is that if you spend all your time living in fear of death, then you are missing out on how great life is, right?

NEIL PATRICK STEWART: Sure. The message from the old man’s point of view is very simple and clear. I’ve been thinking a lot about selflessness in relationships. When we were out in L.A. for the Institute Showcase, I was telling Cheryl how I spent some time playing with my new baby niece. It can be very tiring to spend direct time playing with a baby, and even though I was excited, I found myself getting restless. Cheryl reminded me that it’s a very selfless thing to spend time with a baby. A lot of times negativity can be a very selfish thing. When you can learn to stop focusing on yourself and look at what’s right in front of you- the old man has every reason to be happy right next to him- I think it’s a very beautiful thing.

-Heather Helinsky

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