Part 3 of 3 – Fact As Flavor
– For the last layer in Hideous Progeny’s complicated relationship with history and poetry, fact and fiction, dramaturge Benno Nelson sat down to talk with two actors playing characters based especially loosely on real people. Pat King plays Dr. John Polidori, and Madeline Long plays Elise Foggi, the Swiss Maid. –
BN: So unlike some of the other characters, your real-life inspirations are used much more loosely. How did you research for your roles?
PK: I read Wikipedia.
BN: Oh my god, you’re kidding, right?
PK: (laughing) Yeah, but even if you read a lot, you have to take what’s useful and forget what isn’t. We know a lot of anecdotal stuff about Polidori, and we know that he was trying to impress Mary [Shelley]. We know he was proud of some story about a women’s skull [for the story competition depicted in the play]. But I really see him as the guy who was trying to join the frat, you know? But there’s also some information that really exists about him that wouldn’t be helpful to me to play the character Emily [Dendinger] wrote.
BN: For instance?
PK: Well, Polidori killed himself in real life. And in terms of what Emily’s written that’s not useful. He’s a comic character. And really anything that happens after the time depicted in the show I was actively not interested in. You don’t want to build the show about things that haven’t happened. That’s not useful for what is happening in the moment.
BN: What about you, Madeline? Although you’re character is based on a real person there’s so little known about her. Was that hard?
ML: Yeah, there just isn’t much about Elise. There’s a line here and there in the biggest biographies. I liked that she was more ambiguous in terms of her backstory so that I had more to play with. She’s probably more included in this play than she would have really been in this world.
BN: What was your process like for figuring out the character of Polidori? Did the truth give you a shape? What was the key?
PK: For me so much of acting is, what are the words on the page? and how do you get to where they all connect to each other? Emily used what’s really interesting in the context of the show. My own research…it’s not that it would be redundant, it’s just that it’s filling in the gaps. It’s helpful that he’s not Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So I don’t have to do an impersonation or anything. But even then, I was reading an interview about impressions, and the comic – I think maybe it was Darrel Hammond talking about Gore or Will Ferrel about Bush – he said, “You don’t try to really do the guy, you find the one thing you find amusing about him and hammer into that.” So you find the things that are interesting and use them. Find the thing that makes [your character] tick. The biggest one for me is wanting to be part of the club. That’s certainly true in this play, and I think that was true in his life as well.
BN: Madeline, as arguably the most embellished of any of the characters, and the least able to do research on the realities of your character’s life, how was it working with all these actors who could just pop open books both by and about their characters?
ML: At first I felt kind of left out, but then it was exciting to me to be able to fill in those gaps myself and get drawn into that world. Forget all the research and decide things as an actor. I don’t care what a nursemaid would necessarily be in that era. I’m trying to tell Emily’s story.