Part 2 of 3 – The Great Inheritance
–For the second part of this series on the ins and outs of making a play based on real people and events, dramaturg Benno Nelson speaks with four of the actors who played characters based heavily on their historical counterparts. Hilary Williams plays Mary Shelley, Tom McGrath plays Percy Shelley, Danielle O’Farrell plays Claire Clairmont (Mary’s half-sister), and John Taflan plays George Gordon, Lord Byron.–
BN: What was it like playing a real person?
DO’F: It’s fantastic! It’s a little terrifying and a little wonderful. You feel a great responsibility to get it right while still telling the story that the play is telling.
HW: Well, I’ve never played a real person before. You want to be true to the text you’re given, but it’s really easy to over research. There’s a difference between enhancing the beauty of the text and enhancing the beauty of the person.
JT: It was great because the play itself was so well researched. I kept finding things in my own research that Emily [Dendinger] had already snuck into the play, and that made the whole thing feel so much more real and important
TM: The characters that Emily has created are so rich in of themselves that there’s a lot to be gained from coloring the character from real life rather than thinking of Emily’s characterizations as mere color on the historical truth. These people really lived and had lives and everything, but as far as the story goes that’s all just really good color.
BN: How did you prepare for these roles and was that different than your preparation for a character that’s entirely fictitious?
HW: I had specific things to do, specific things to read to get into character because Mary would have read them. She would have read Byron’s Childe Harold. Knowing that was useful to be able to get that specificity of understanding.
JT: The pleasure of portraying a real person who’s artistically inclined is that we have records of their achievements and context with biography, but we also have poetry, which gives us their feelings. That’s a real privilege to be able to take advantage of.
BN: So is it more or less fun than a fictional character?
JT: The great thing is with a real person there’s so many contradictions. If you’re creating a character out of whole cloth you might not necessarily come up with the kind of contradictions that exist in reality, so that’s nice. And it’s helpful in a certain way because you have a ground floor, but it’s unhelpful in that it’s hard to decide sometimes what to keep what to discard.
HW: I just feel so lucky to be portraying this woman, because she’s so interesting, and this is a fabulous way for people to be seeing her.
DO’F: There’s an intimacy you get for the character that’s really special. You just love them more than anyone ever could.