Dallas — What happens when you take three talented Texas guys, airlift them to the rarified theatrical boot camp known as the Yale School of Drama—and then (well, eventually) return them home to the land of cowboys and culture?
Well, what would you expect? A lot of good theater happens, that’s what.
The Dallas Theater Center is having tons of fun with its new production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, done up in beach-blanket style with real sand to kick, drinks in coconuts, and a musical trio with an island vibe—letting us know that however tangled the romantic complications onstage may seem, ev’ryting’s gonna be all right.
In Shakespeare’s goofy, intricate, and deeply romantic comedy, Houston-based David Matranga plays the lovelorn Duke Orsino—who only thinks he knows what lady he wants. DTC Brierly Resident Acting Company member Alex Organ plays pompous steward Malvolio, whose big plans for himself (and his noble employer Olivia) make him a tempting target for pranksters in the house. Among them is Blake Hackler’s frenetic, feisty (and somewhat dim) Andrew Aguecheek, a poor knight (no armor, only beachwear) who hangs around Olivia’s ocean-view estate (Anna Louizos’ set is an eye-popper) hoping she’ll look his way.
Matranga was seen recently in DTC’s The Great Society, and is a regular with Houston’s Alley Theatre and Stages Repertory Company. (His voice work is known in the animé world too, with a recent popular role in My Hero Academia.) Both Organ and Hackler have played roles on a number of North Texas stages, and at one time or another, each has directed the other. Hackler is a company member with Undermain Theatre (where he recently directed Ibsen’s Lady From the Sea), and worked with the Trinity Shakespeare Festival for several years. Both have a considerable history with Second Thought Theatre, where Organ is artistic director and Hackler one of the company’s most prolific playwrights. STT has produced two of his plays (The Necessities, Enemies/People), and a third, What We Were (winner of the Ashland New Play Festival and a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Conference), is scheduled for the 2019 season. Hackler teaches both at SMU and at Yale. (As a fun side note, he also created the role of Moritz Stiegel in the original New York workshop of Spring Awakening.)
TheaterJones caught the trio together before a morning rehearsal (Twelfth Night would have its “press opening” that night) in the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre.
The interesting thing about our getting together isn’t just that you all went to Yale for the same MFA (master of fine arts) program—but that you were there at the same time. And now you’re all back in Texas, working, living, thriving in theater.
Alex Organ: We were not just there together, we were there all day in classes together, Monday through Saturday. David and I lived together at one point.
Blake Hackler: And we all were in a production of Twelfth Night there too. David and Alex were playing the same roles (Orsino and Malvolio) they’re playing in this current production. And I played [wise fool] Feste, who doesn’t exist in this version.
But at least his wonderful song comes in (“And the rain it raineth every day”) at the very last moment, which made me happy. So, were you friends or competitors—or both—at Yale?
David Matranga: We were all friends at Yale, in fact. The program isn’t structured to produce competition; it’s all about furthering your learning. We didn’t even audition for roles when we were there.
Blake: They post a list on a call board with the parts, and who’s playing them. The professors decide, choosing maybe what they think you need to work on, what would add to what you’ve been doing in class.
Alex: In every class, they try to create a sense of ensemble. We were taught to work with each other.
Tell me about the Twelfth Night you did together at Yale. What was the style, what do you remember about it?
Blake: Maria [one of the “plotting” characters] was a puppet, I remember. And it took place in an abandoned theater.
Alex: I remember having to ride one of those giant bicycles with the huge front wheel. The whole thing had a kind of Victorian—maybe Edwardian—feel.
David: At some point I wore a tuxedo, and I remember I had to play the piano. In that production, Orsino was kind of making his own music.
Alex: Our director was a second-year student, and it was cast from all three classes [of the MFA program]. We did it in April or May of our final year, so that’s maybe why we don’t remember too many specifics. By then, we had one foot out the door!
Blake, you directed Twelfth Night for Trinity Shakespeare last year—and stepped in to play the countess Olivia at the last minute! Is it a favorite with all of you? [All three nod a strong ‘yes.’] What moves you most, or gets you going, about this particular Shakespeare play?
David: It’s definitely a favorite of mine: the structure, how tight it is, the differences in the clowns and lovers. It works so well, and I’m excited to come back to the same role 13 years later.
Though it’s uppity of me to say, sometimes there are dead spots in Shakespeare’s comedy; it doesn’t all still work. But Twelfth Night works.
Alex: In Twelfth Night the comedy is baked in, and you just channel what’s already there. You don’t have to work very hard to make this play funny.
Blake: And the comedy runs the whole thing. Even in the scenes between Orsino and Viola, and Viola and Olivia, there’s so much comedy there if you choose to highlight it. And it functions in all the ways it should: there’s the pure comedy of the clowns, but with the lovers it’s something that makes you laugh first—and then turns on a dime and becomes quite beautiful.
Alex: One of the things that makes it work is that so much of the comedy comes from character. With the lovers, for instance, the comedy is about the situation they’re in. And [it’s funny that] they’re not necessarily clued in to the situation—the audience knows stuff they don’t know.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the many threads of gender fluidity written into this play handled better than they are in this production—it’s not a two-way street, it’s like a six-way intersection. So touching, funny, beautiful, sad—all those things put together. And the audience seemed very involved, very open to everything happening onstage.
Alex: I’ve been here for about nine years, and I think Kevin [Moriarty], to his credit, has done a lot to develop our dynamic with the audience. And with this Twelfth Night, part of the enjoyment is that it’s so open and accessible. The storytelling is strong and active…
Blake: And honest. And it’s short—isn’t that nice? One forty [an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission], that’s great!
David: I know—I thought at some point, wow, we’re already in Act Five…let’s go!
Nothing feels rushed—but you all, somehow, must be moving along at a tremendous pace. It has a bit of the feel of the DTC’s public works shows: lots of music, lots of lines and talk aimed at the audience, even the quirky seating around the theater.
Blake: The audience contact thing, for me, is the only way to do it. Directors who shut the audience out, almost pretend they aren’t there, that’s absolutely the wrong choice.
Alex: The fourth wall is a modern construct anyway, invented in the late 19th century.
Blake: In our training at Yale, one of the most revolutionary things ever said to us was so simple: “They are there.”
Meaning the audience is there and the actors know it?
Blake: Yes, whether the characters [acknowledge] it or not. In the Scottish Play [Macbeth], Lady M and her husband are both aware that they are having this fight in front of us.
David: And that adds such complexity to everything.
Blake: Whether you choose to engage with it or not. And really, in Shakespeare there are great chunks where some of the stuff doesn’t really work unless you are involved with the audience.
Alex: The opening of this production is sort of a prologue; we’re all there [audience and actors, moving in the theater, singing with the audience], so it sets them up to understand that the rules of this show are ‘you are with us in this.’
Blake: The band is already playing, and the audience gets a strong sense that the borders are very fluid.
They won’t be surprised, then, if an actor climbs over them to get to the stage—or they’re hit with a little spritz from a water gun fight?
Blake: It’s only a little!
David, is this hunky-beach-guy Orsino you’re playing in this production very different from the one you played at Yale?
David: From what I remember, the Yale Orsino was more of the angst-ridden, melancholy guy, drooping over his piano. But that’s in the text, and it’s still there in our version. I remember some shots of me at the piano with a glass of Scotch, looking longingly. Definitely different. When I saw the costume renderings for this Orsino [very après-surfing beach togs], I went ‘Okay, wow.’ But it really works.
And Blake and Alex, your characters own a lot of the physical comedy. Sir Andrew can’t stay still for a moment, and Malvolio runs up and down the spectrum [from super dignified to silly ass to screaming wreck]. Malvolio’s many voices—and how well you pull them off—got me thinking about your Yale training again. Now that you have a few years to look back on, what’s stuck with you, been most useful, that you learned at Yale?
Blake: Definitely the vocal and physical training have continued to stick with all of us. It’s been a pleasure to be onstage with these two again, to see how we’ve all changed and grown in these years. We spent so much time there doing the classics, and you leave a place like Yale feeling equipped.
Alex: I’ve been surprised by how the voice work followed me. I wasn’t aware at the time, as we did these vocal exercises every day for three years, that it was building something in me. And today, I rely on that particular part of the training more than anything else. The Fitzmaurice work [a precise and intensive voice technique intended to “free” the voice and breath; sometimes called a kind of ‘vocal yoga’] unlocked quite a bit of stuff for me.
Blake: There’s this preconception about Yale actors—but in no way were we coddled. We were the lowest men on the totem pole. We were worked to within an inch of our lives. The training was eminently practical: it was about making things work. There was no time to be precious about something, there was no time to indulge your personal drama. We were always in three different plays at once, three different rehearsals
Alex: Three different classes….
Blake: Yes, and it was really about producing the most common-sense, get-down-to-brass-tacks-and-just-do-it kind of work.
David: I brought what I already had from my undergrad work, and what I was looking for at Yale was a tool box of things I could apply to this craft. I got that and more. We worked on voice and speech and tech stuff every day. Now it’s second nature to us, I think, but when you work on Shakespeare and the classics and truly want to tell the stories, I believe the physical elements all have to be operating, the voice and speech have to be operating, your ability to break open and understand a piece of text….
Blake: Otherwise the plays don’t really come alive. They don’t function.
David: I remember being so shocked when we got into our first text class—okay, we’re going to look at a text—and seeing immediately how much it was a continuation of our acting class. We learned about differences between vowels and consonants—it sounds so simple—and what that might mean for a character. Acting and text—the two really couldn’t be separated, and all our classes seemed to work together that way. One of our Yale professors was in the audience last night, in fact.
Alex: Another thing about our training was that Yale never tried to impose a particular school of thought. It isn’t a Meisner or Stanislavski school. And we had a series of acting teachers who came from different training themselves.
It was the ‘whatever works’ school of thought.
Blake: That’s it.
David: One of our Shakespeare teachers, Peter Francis James, was the one who said ‘you should leave here not with a bag of tricks, but with a tool box.’ I feel Yale gave me an abundance of tools. We got to try them all out, and pick the ones that worked for us. Before Yale, I was reaching randomly. Now I have more of a methodology in looking for what I need.
Blake: The first day of class, James gave us a list and said these 10 things were all we’d be talking about. And they were. And they’re what I think about with each play, especially when I do Shakespeare: They are there. Don’t ignore the obvious. Change with the changes… [All three chime in to repeat the last phrase. It’s important to them.]
Meaning, if Juliet is weeping in this moment and the next instant she’s making a joke, change exactly when that change happens. Don’t try to find some sort of psychological unity for these people. Do the thing that’s right in front of you when it asks you to do it. Lean into it. Do it fully—and see what happens.
It’s scary, but the moment you do it, amazing things start to happen. In a lot of Shakespeare, what I see is this generalized emotional wash over things, and that’s where it can all go bad.
David: And Shakespeare does it for you. It’s there in his text. But in an American approach to acting, there’s often a sense of wanting [the audience] to ‘watch me change from this feeling to that feeling.’ Sure, there’s a place for that—it can be very compelling to see that done on film, which is a visual medium. Onstage, though, there’s no time for transitions—and when you think about it, there’s no time for transitions in real life anyway. You change with the changes.
Alex: We have an instinct to want to smooth those rough edges, to make the turns curved rather than hard. But it’s exactly those hard turns in Shakespeare’s text that bring a play to life. We try too much to make things feel ‘natural’…
Blake: It isn’t natural, though—these characters are at the height of their experience.
David: They speak the way they speak because of the situation they’re in. It’s big, it’s huge, it’s life and death. And even if you make the setting of the play more contemporary, you can’t ‘comtemporize’ the language—is that a word?—because it weakens it, doesn’t get it to the audience.
Blake: So we go back again and again to the 10 simple things. That teacher, by the way, is currently playing Barack Obama on Broadway in Hillary and Clinton [Lucas Hnath’s play, now in previews; Second Thought produced the play in 2018].
Was coming back to Texas always a part of the plan after you left Yale? You were all born here, right?
Blake: I’m from Amarillo, Alex and David are from Houston.
David: I didn’t necessarily think I knew I’d be back in Texas, but I had strong ties here. I grew up watching regional companies like Dallas Theater Center and the Alley [Theatre in Houston]; that was where I fell in love with theater. I worked in New York and kicked around a bit, but actually returning here to stay surprised me. I wanted a break from New York and came home to see family, planning to head for the West Coast to see what could happen. But then I booked an audition for a show in Houston, and just kept on working.
Now it’s nine years later, and over time what I realized is that what I really craved was the opportunity to work: different roles, different people, different plays. I wasn’t getting that the way I wanted to in New York—and here I’ve been able to work consistently on stage, in film, and in voice work.
Alex: I always assumed I wanted to be in this size market. But just like these guys, I moved to New York first—I was in my 20s, and wanted to see what that was like. It never felt like home to me, though. I wanted to try someplace else, and my wife [actor/director Jenny Ledel] is from here. Like David, I was getting work in New York, but longed to work constantly—and here, right away I had the chance to work with so many different theaters; that was great.
Blake: No, this wasn’t the plan. I lived in New York prior to Yale, and afterwards. Really, what I’d always wanted to do was teach. The moment I left Yale I started teaching and writing, got a job teaching in Chicago [at Roosevelt University], and then SMU called. They said they were looking for an acting faculty member and would you apply? I hadn’t been in Dallas for 17 years, but when I came down as a finalist—and then was offered the job—I’d realized I liked it here. And it’s been fabulous; I’ve loved it.
And you and Alex have been going strong together at Second Thought Theatre—you writing the plays, him directing.
Blake: That’s been one of the great joys of my life here, being able to collaborate so much and so deeply.
North Texas theater has grown so much in the past generation. What do you see that encourages you in the proliferation—and the maturing—of smaller companies?
Alex: I’m very encouraged to see companies with a strong commitment to producing local playwrights’ work develop over the last few years. That’s been a huge missing element in the past.
Blake: And there’s Second Thought, Stage West, Undermain, companies with seasons that are challenging, pushing the boat out. I don’t always think quantity equals quality, but I think the theaters I just named, and others, are trying to look at a diverse group of stories from multiple voices, and that’s great. Not just the same old same old.
David: When I was growing up in Houston, there were three companies there…for 30 years. And now, maybe because it’s just too expensive to live in New York or Los Angeles, [theater] people are staying in their communities—or are coming back wanting to create and collaborate.
Blake: Like Cry Havoc [Theater Company], which is doing such interesting work with a really specific POV. It’s really exciting stuff with a very clear mission.
Alex: And all that has increased our talent pool. It’s not just the influx of people who move here, but the fact that graduates from SMU and other programs can look around at the landscape and think, ‘oh, maybe I can work right here, build a résumé, start a theater company.’
Before you head for rehearsal, give me your 10-second pitch for Twelfth Night….
Blake [He’s got this.]: There’s music…
Alex: Lots of laughs….
Blake: Sand, and beach balls, and fruity drinks. In coconuts!
David: And it’s like 100 minutes straight through, no intermission, quick and fast.
Blake: If you come, you’re gonna have fun!