Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 4, 2015

Q & A with the Actors of Shakespeare & Company’s “The Unexpected Man”

by Shera Cohen

Photo by Enrico Spada
In a sense, “The Unexpected Man” by Yasmina Reza might be subtitled “strangers on a train.” John Woodson portrays “Man” (who the audience learns is a world-famous author named Parsky), and Corinna May is “Woman” aka Martha, an avid reader and Parsky fan. They are middle-aged strangers seated opposite each other in a small train compartment. What ensues is a somewhat soft comedic look at serendipity and the dilemma of what to do next.

Director Seth Gordon is new to Shakespeare & Co. but not to this play. Gordon revels in presenting “The Unexpected Man” as a challenge. Perhaps more importantly, he said, “In fact, it allows for as rich a dimensional portrait of two  people as you may see in a theatre.”

Spotlight: Why did you want to take on this role? Tell me about your character.

CM: Martha is facing her "twilight" years. She's a reader! A lively, cultured, intelligent, whimsical, woman, a widow with grown children, freshly in grief for a longtime dear friend. She is dealing with these personal losses, as well as all that a woman faces in the way of loss as she ages. I love her for how she handles all of this. Martha is not a woman to collapse into cynicism or dwindle into a sad shadow of her youthful self. She "loves life"; I love her continuing curiosity and wonder, her feistiness. 

JW: I find this role challenging and enigmatic -- a mountain any actor would welcome. Having reached a certain age as a working actor, the writing is very human and I find a sincere identification with where Parsky is in his life.

Spotlight: How much input do you feel you have in defining your character?

JW: I have great input. The director an point out things, request clarity, emotional life and it is in my hands to deliver, if you will, those requests (direction) through my unique lens as an actor and human being.

CM: I expect to have a great deal of input. I expect that the director, et al, have hired me precisely because they have confidence in my ability to do the work and bring the artistry to create this character.  I consider it my job to advocate for my character, to be responsible for her, to know more about her than anyone else . 

Spotlight: Tell me about your rehearsal process.

JM: We explored each segment thoroughly and, not unlike peeling an onion, kept extracting more and more information, details, and connections.

CM: We collaborate. I come in with my ideas and instincts about this character; I am open to the director, who has his own vision of each role as it fits into the whole of the story. I am open to be influenced and affected by what the other actor(s) bring to the table, by how their roles come to life. In rehearsal, she evolves and develops. In private time I ask myself questions, puzzling, questioning, researching. She is also created in my dream time and in my unconscious.

Spotlight: What do you hope the audience will "get" from the play? 

JW: As Paul (my character) says, “to add to the world is to experience the magic of possibility.”

CM: I hope they leave lighter than they came in, having laughed and been moved, and feeling more connected to what they love and cherish -- and perhaps a bit more excited about the possible role of "chance, wonderful chance" in their own lives.

Spotlight: What does the play's title mean to you?

JM: To me, it is self-discovery.

CM: In French, “L'homme du hasard” means the man by chance -- the chance moment that happens whether we will or will not. Is it fate, magic, or happenstance? Does it make a difference in how we live our lives if we see an unexpected event as a simple coincidence -- or as an inevitable event to which our whole lives, up until that precise moment, have been leading?  

Spotlight: To the director - how do you make the play performance-ready?

SG: We rehearsed the individual pieces one at a time, with the other actor always present, even though they had nothing to say. Seeing them opposite was always a help to the actor speaking, and so John and Corinna were always there for each other. We slowly began adding pieces -- doing two at a time, then four, then eight, until we began running through the entire play. Then we added the technical elements: lights, sound, costumes, and the turntable.

The final element was the audience; that’s what previews are for. We’ve continued to hone and perfect individual moments, making sure that the audience gets the overall story while also not missing minute nuances. 

“The Unexpected Man” runs through September 6, 2015 at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA. For information check