Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking blog are pleased to present the following interview with actor, director PAUL MULLINS
Paul Mullins is a consummate artist. His list of both acting and directorial credits reads like a “Who’s Who” of the Theatre Hall of Fame. He has acted and/or directed in everything from Shakespeare to The Whore and Mr. Moore. Just a sampling of his sterling credentials, Mr. Mullins played the title role to rave reviews in Shakespeare’s Richard III at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and then returned a decade later to direct a production of Richard III which was lauded as “Powerful and enthralling.”
Paul took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Pillow Talking about acting, directing, regional theatre, and his latest endeavor, directing Georges Feydeau’s farce An Absolute Turkey at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT).
PT: Thank you for granting us this interview. We are looking forward to seeing your play at CRT [Connecticut Repertory Theatre]. So let’s start with the standard type of opening question. How did you initially get involved with theatre?
PM: Wow. No one has asked me that in a long time. I’ll make it brief. I’m from Houston, Texas. From the time I was ten I knew I was going to be a doctor. I graduated high school and went to college and I was in the middle of a biology/chemistry degree. I found it unfulfilling. Someone said, “Why don’t you audition for this play they are doing here at school?” (laughs). And I said, “That would be silly since I’ve never done anything like that.” But I did. I auditioned for the play and they cast me in it and I sort of never looked back. Well, I looked back for a while and actually got the degree. But I didn’t look back much further than that. I went to drama school at SMU [Southern Methodist University] and then I went to New York and made my living as an actor for the first half of this career and still do. I fell into directing because I was working at a theatre in Florida. The artistic director said, “You’re not coming back anymore because I was getting jobs that paid me better.” I said, “I’d love to come back but maybe you would let me direct a play,” and she did. And then I started doing that. And that’s how I ended up in this spot.
PT: Do you have a preference for acting or directing? Or do you like both equally?
PM: I do like both equally I would say. As I said when I started, I did nothing but act. Then, in the middle of it, I did both. I acted and directed pretty regularly – I mean it was fairly evenly – one or the other. In these last ten years is mostly been all directing. So at the moment you are doing [directing] a lot you dream about acting in a play – I would love to act and be in a play right now. But I’m happy to have the work I have. So I really don’t prefer one over the other In the midst of one you think “Oh, it would be fun to do the other.”
PT: We know you have a great deal of experience with Shakespeare. Can you tell us about that?
PM: Well, my Shakespeare work – like so many things in this business – happened because that’s what someone hired me to do. As a young actor, some of the first jobs I got was in Shakespeare plays and I think because of that I met people and knew people and I ended up doing a lot of Shakespeare. I directed a lot of Shakespeare just because I had a knowledge of it. I think I can say I was good at it. Those things keep rolling on each other. It was not my goal – I did not set out to be a Shakespeare actor or a Shakespeare director. It just turned out that I did a lot of it and love it. I suppose the reason I continue to do it is that I’m always astonished by how much I learn, how satisfying I find the work. I just finished a production of Richard III right before this. I have been in Richard III twice – I played Richard III. But to direct it was a new experience. All kinds of things were revealed to me about the play that I hadn’t even seen when I was playing the big part. So it’s an endless mine about things about our human condition and our English language that never ceases to amaze me.
PT: You more or less answered our next question. If you acted in a play and then end up at a later point directing it, do you come at it from a different perspective?
PM: Yes, I think definitely. The wonderful thing about an actor’s job is your part in that story. I wouldn’t say you have blinders on – you are seeing the whole picture – but you are only seeing the whole picture through your eyes. As a director you are seeing it from the outside, so you are seeing it in a much different way. I didn’t want to be playing the part again when I was directing it. And when I was in it I didn’t want to direct it – I certainly had plenty to worry about on my own (laughs). So in those situations where I have acted in a play and then directed it or directed a play and then acted in it, I don’t want to do the other job, but I feel I have been enriched by having the chance to do both is the best way that I can put it. In any of these plays, but especially Shakespeare plays, you can keep going back to them because I do find that they mean something different at any moment in your life. It’s just like being an audience for them as well. They speak to you differently depending upon what’s happening to you and what experiences you have had in your life. It’s like a good book or any other piece of art. You go back and look at it again and it means something different because you’re different.
PT: Exactly. That’s a great answer. With respect to Connecticut Repertory Theatre, have you worked there before?
PM: I have. I think about five times before. I came here the first time and directed a production of The Comedy of Errors – in maybe 2009 or 2010. And then I’ve done productions of Urinetown and Hairspray. A production called I’m Connecticut and Much Ado [About Nothing] and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I think I named them all.
PT: We love CRT not only as audience members and reviewers, but because of the unique integration and collaboration of professional actors and directors and students just learning their craft. How do you find the experience of working with the students at CRT?
PM: I find it’s very satisfying. I had done some drama school directing at different drama schools, but I have never done anything quite like this where there are professional actors joining them as well. I find it terrific for me to be around this interesting combination of people collaborating on a play. It’s interesting to see where the young people are just starting off and it’s always interesting to be around that. We just started the technical rehearsals for the play last night and to be around these young designers also is a wonderful thing – to see that they’re realizing that something from their imagination suddenly appears on the stage. It’s a great thing to be around them and to collaborate.
PT: Paul, you’ve been in the business a while. What advice would you give these up-and-comers regarding both the business and their craft?
PM: (Laughs) I try not to give too much advice. When people ask me those questions, I always say, “As far as the business goes, there is no normal route anywhere.” I always tell them, “You’ll be surprised where you are in five years and you’ll be surprised again in ten. But if you love it, if it satisfies you, if it makes your life a better place, then go – say yes to anything that anyone offers you; do anything you can; work as often as you can.” And I think that’s the answer to the craft question that you asked. “You are going to get better when you do it. You’re not going to get better thinking about it. You’re going to get better by actually doing it. So do it as often as you can and see where it takes you. Lucky things will happen. Unlucky things will happen.” But I always say, “If you are here at this point in drama school, you are passionate about it and that is making your life better. That is what is making you grow as a human being. Whatever happens in the future, this beginning, this learning, this imagining, collaborating with these people instead of with your head in a book,” (laughs) “there’s nothing wrong with your head in a book – but these things will make your life richer no matter what happens to you down the road in the future.” (laughs). And that’s when their eyes glaze over and they say, “I should never have asked him.”
PT: (Laughs) Let’s talk about the play An Absolute Turkey. What attracted you to that?
PM: They called me and asked me if I would direct the play. I immediately said yes. I didn’t know anything about An Absolute Turkey, but I had never been in a Feydeau farce or directed a Feydeau farce, so I was very excited about knowing what that might be like. I have directed farces. I have directed things like Noises Off but I have never done any of these. I have done Molière plays. I have been around French plays but not the Feydeau plays which, as you know, are a building block of international theatre. I was very excited to see what it’s like. It was an unknown thing to me and then I read it. It’s a wonderfully funny, a wonderfully challenging story to tell.
PT: Feydeau has been called the master of farce. Did you think about drawing on any other influences in directing the play?
PM: Yes. You read about things and people say the Europeans do sex farces the Americans do money farces. You start looking at that and there is some truth to that. You look at the things he [Feydeau] built, even this play, we still do these farcical ideas in plays, television, and movies that we love. They have come from this tradition. So it’s wonderful to look back on it and see just how long ago he was perfecting these ideas of farce. I don’t know if he even knew that word. But we still hold on to these things; they still make us laugh.
PT: We see a lot of theatre. We see all types, traditional, revivals, new plays, etc. And we have been seeing quite a number of farces lately. We’ve seen What the Butler Saw and Unnecessary Farce just to name a few. We are wondering if it may be cyclical. Do you see a pattern where farces are coming back in vogue in regional theatre?
PM: I don’t really know. I do think they are. I think that the farce piece in the cycle comes around more often than not. I remember at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey where I have worked once a year for the past twenty-five years – one year she was putting the season together and the plays fell into a classical category – but she did do Noises Off. I remember when she asked me if I wanted to do this play and I said, “It’s Noises Off.” And she said, “Yes and I think we’ll call it a classic play. We need a funny play. We need a play that we know people love. And we need a play that will sell tickets.” So I think these plays like Noises Off, these farces, especially the ones that people know are appealing. We like to laugh. And that’s why he [Feydeau] made them up. That’s why he wrote them. He made them to entertain people. And once a season in every theatre it’s good to get something in there that people will come to and laugh.
PT: We think that’s true for sure.
PM: I think so often in any pocket of the United States or the world that we’re in, you find these kinds of plays. It’s interesting because in a Shakespeare season, you see the same plays that come up. A few years ago I saw everyone was doing Pericles. I saw Pericles three times in a year. Maybe it’s something in the air that brings these plays around at the same time.
PT: We see similar patterns with plays. We know that you want people to laugh and enjoy the play. But is there anything special you want people to take away from your version and vision of An Absolute Turkey?
PM: I don’t know what they will take away from it. I certainly hope that they will enjoy it. And what I certainly do take away from it is that in the midst of the story of these couples, I am playing at infidelity – SPOLIER ALERT: no one actually does it. But it’s this playing at it with each other – I do believe that who cares about things, who is outraged by things, who is amused by things and who is titillated by things – I think that by the end of the play – and we all said this the very first night when we read it – none of these things have changed in the hundred-odd years since the play was written. What we do, how we behave as human beings, what shocks us, what thrills us, hasn’t changed. They are still all there. We might do things a slightly different way, but human beings don’t really change.
PT: Good answer. We are going to turn some of your advice on yourself. Where do you see yourself in five years?
PM: (Laughs) That’s really good. What’s interesting for me being a person who makes their living in regional theatre – what I find is that as time goes on and the administrations in these regional theatres turn over – some of the first jobs I had was because new people had taken over a theatre who I knew and hired me. I started seeing steady jobs because people liked me and liked working with me. Those people started leaving those jobs, retiring, moving on to something else, whatever. And you go, “Oh, wait, what happened to that job?” So being reasonably secure with work, I see how it changes. I’m not answering your question, but I am going to get there. I know that in five years more of that will happen. And I think where I end up will surprise me. I hope I am still working and doing this. I really like it. And I really find it satisfying. I would hope that as the nature of the theatre changes – which it does each five year period – certainly every decade it changes. You asked, “Where will I be?” I think I’ll still be looking to tell the best story to the greatest amount of people about what it is to be alive, to be a human being. What art should be doing for us is to illuminate us and our condition. That’s why I’ve stayed with it all this time. I really do feel like it’s a satisfying thing to say at the end of the day that we told a story. It’s storytelling and I’ve always enjoyed that and I’m sure I always will.
PT: That’s such a fabulous answer. Beautiful, really. We know you’ve touched on this, but you’d agree that regional theatres have become so important as a training ground and launch pad for new plays and new playwrights.
PM: Yes, you are absolutely right. I’ve certainly seen that change in the time that I’ve been working. The idea of what the regional theatre has done or can do has certainly changed.
PT: Have you ever thought about playwriting or teaching?
PM: (Laughs) No. I’m not a writer. I’ve tried in my time a few times. I don’t think that’s where my talent lies. As far as teaching, I certainly have taught some classes and a thing here or there, but you never know. As I say, “Never say never.” I enjoyed the little bit I’ve done. I think I’m better at the larger collaboration than the student-teacher collaboration – not that I have not enjoyed it. You never know. It might find me.
PT: If you weren’t fortunate enough to be pursuing your passion for directing and acting, what do you think you’d be doing?
PM: (Laughs) I love doing this interview because you’ve asked a couple of questions that no one has ever asked me! And now that I’ve thought about it I think I have a real answer. I think looking back on it all if I hadn’t begun working and things didn’t fall into place, I think I’d probably end up running a restaurant. I know how to do it. It’s sort of like directing a play. I’ve worked in enough restaurants that I watched and knew how it worked. I knew enough about it to have gotten a job doing it. So perhaps I would have done that. I never thought that in all these years, but you asked the question and that’s probably where I would have ended up. (laughs).
PT: Well we know you are busy in rehearsals, so we just have a last, signature question to torture you with.
PM: (Laughs) Good.
PT: We asked this of everyone. If you were to sum up your life and career to date, in one word, what would it be?
PM: (dead silence)
PT: The pregnant pause. Paul, are you there (laughs)?
PM: Yeah! If I had to sum up my life and career to date, in one word, I know what I would say. Satisfying. Satisfaction comes to mind.
PT: That’s an excellent answer, Paul! Thank you so much for this great interview.