Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 12, 2012

Interview: Actor Josh Aaron McCabe

The 39 Steps
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through November 4, 2012
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Kevin Sprauge
Josh Aaron McCabe (seated in photo at right) is one of the four actors starring in "The 39 Steps" where he portrays at least 30 roles all within 2 hours.

Q. Tell us about the rehearsal process under director Jonathan Croy?
Jon is the kind of director who believes strongly in the collaborative process. So we are all encouraged to dive in and try things - often slipping on the ice before we can skate on it. This show is technically demanding, and we spent quite a bit of rehearsal in "tech," trying to figure out how to make this machine operate smoothly with its many moving parts. There are set pieces continually rolling in and out, trunks used in different formations, over 200 sound cues, lighting effects to create all sorts of locations, racks and racks of specially designed costumes that allow us all of the quick changes. The thing about a comedy like this is that it is actually a lot of drudge work in trying to craft the humor amidst the story telling. When we add the final piece of the machine - the audience - we learn very quickly how well we've put it together and where we still need to oil the moving parts. Luckily, we have an amazing team of designers, actors, stage management, and a brilliant director.

Q. Do the actors offer direction suggestions; i.e. your fun with the stuffed cat was hilarious.
We all offer ingredients into the mix. Jon is very open and encouraging of the actors (and designers) to bring ideas. The cat was actually born in Jon's mind before we ever started rehearsals. I recall him asking me over the summer: "So, do you think you'd have fun with a cat?" Then he turned me loose to experiment and play. There were various adaptations: a stuffed animal, a custom built "cat puppet." Finally we took a stuffed animal and made a puppet out of it.

Q. How much is ad lib?
Ad-libbing is often entertaining, but can also become a slippery slope. There are different types of ad-libbing. In the rehearsal process - some ad-libs actually became a part of our script. They just worked and we kept them. The goal is to try to stick to the rehearsed script. However, in a wild show like this things are bound to go wrong and we then speak off the cuff a bit to get us back on track. This show also has veteran actors who are very adept at handling mishaps in a clever and fun way. The slippery slope comes into play, though, because we only want to go to that cow so often for the milk. The basic rule of thumb is: use the improv when necessary when we derail, but otherwise execute the show that we rehearsed.

Q. You have a voice that can handle any role: male, female, young, old. How did you learn to "do" voices?
I don't know that I ever learned anything other than to let myself "play". As a kid I would often imitate actors that I saw in movies. I also memorized most of Bill Cosby's sketches and had all of his inflections down. But, I also had a lot of vocal problems, even as an adult. I carry a lot of tension in my throat that works against having a free voice and actually can limit me quite a bit. I was blessed with an amazing voice teacher in graduate school, Susan Sweeney, who was determined to help me work through this. What I finally learned is that if I allow myself "to play," to get out of my head then my voice will naturally free up and I am fortunate enough to have a range that I can play with.

Q. You especially have a knack for portraying old women. Is that your specialty?
Shakespeare & Company really has some game when it comes to this genre of comedy. There are so many skilled actors and directors here that bring a high level of expertise (and nuttiness) to this style of storytelling. I'm just lucky enough to be surrounded by such a multi-talented Company that allows me to continue to learn and play in the sandbox, too. As far as playing old women, I plead the fifth.

Q. Any backstage anecdotes you'd like to tell us?
It's an ongoing challenge playing these multi-character roles. Not only is it about creating the characters, but then also keeping track of who appears when. The other night in performance I ran off the stage as a policeman and did my quick change into Professor Jordan. I was waiting backstage to do my entrance, when it suddenly dawned on me that I was actually supposed to be entering as the Pilot on the opposite side of the stage! That was a lovely moment of panic. I tore through the backstage hallway - clothes flying everywhere - and entered as a rather disheveled Pilot. It was a nice reminder that I can never get too laid back about the story telling.