The Actor's Perspective on Will Eno

By Simon Hodgson and Shannon Stockwell

New York Times critic Charles Isherwood describes Will Eno as having “a voice almost like no other in contemporary American theater.” That’s an honor, to be sure, but the truth of that statement is a challenge for anyone cast in an Eno play. When a playwright cannot be compared to anyone else currently working, it’s difficult for performers to figure out where the language stands, what other artists to draw from, where to find other examples. The contradictory adjectives used to describe Eno’s work aren’t much help either: poetic yet accessible, elaborate yet simple, lofty yet colloquial, deadpan yet emotional. “It’s a pocket of tone that is so peculiar,” says Loretta Greco, who is directing A.C.T.’s production of The Realistic Joneses, opening March 16.“With Will, an actor walks in the room and they either get it or they don’t.” 

Left to right: Director Loretta Greco, actor Rebecca Watson, assistant to the director Lily Sorenson, 
and actor James Wagner at the first rehearsal for A.C.T.’s 2016 production of The Realistic Joneses
Photo by Shannon Stockwell.

Eno has a very specific style that is not quite lyricism but not quite naturalism. “His writing is deeply poetic, but it’s also very humane and soulful,” says actor James Urbaniak, who played the titular character in the world premiere of Thom Pain (based on nothing). “As an actor, the trick is to make that heightened poetic writing come from a real place.”

To make the poetry come from a real place, an actor has to discover certain things within the text to make it ring true. Actor Rebecca Watson, who plays Jennifer in A.C.T.’s production of The Realistic Joneses, found it difficult to discover her truth behind the text in Eno’s play. “Regarding Jennifer—her logic is not my logic. I’m having to dig a little bit more to make connections.” The dialogue, she notes, isn’t always clear. “My biggest challenge is embracing her logic, embracing the way she speaks, and making them my words. I suppose that’s the case with any play, but with Eno, it’s less obvious.”

Actor Thomas Jay Ryan, who appeared in Eno’s Tragedy, a tragedy and The Bully Composition, says, “The challenges for the actor are very much based in rhythm and cadence and linguistic choice.” Eno’s plays explore big ideas—do actors treat these ideas with a casual, offhand approach, or do they approach them with a sense of their depth and magnitude? For Ryan, the answer to this problem lay within the words themselves.

“My preparation for Tragedy, a tragedy was to learn the text by heart, every pause and comma and hesitation,” he says. “The gold always lay in the actual text as set down on the page.” Through doing this close examination of the text, Ryan was able to find the moments that required a sense of depth and the moments that could withstand a more casual approach. “Honoring the language never feels restrictive to me with Will. It is always liberating, because the language is so well considered. The only way an actor can go wrong, in my experience, is to use or manipulate the language in a tortured or cute way.”

The fact that both Ryan and Urbaniak have appeared in multiple Eno productions suggests that they get the playwright’s work and are comfortable with the complex and contradictory elements. But for many actors, the balance between revealing the depth of the lyricism and committing to the casual colloquialism is difficult. And it’s not necessarily something that can be learned. “The actors that don’t get the tone, it doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the emotional construction or the psychological beats,” says Greco. “It just means that they’re living in a slightly different pocket of existence.”

Eno's The Realistic Joneses is now in previews at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater and opens March 16. Click here to buy tickets.

*To learn more about the world of Will Eno, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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