Jim Butz, Actor, Prince Hal in Henry IV and King Henry V in Henry V, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
Interviewed by David Mount
As rehearsals were beginning to be conducted in April, I had the opportunity to speak with Shakespeare Festival lead, Jim Butz, one of 16 native St. Louisans in this year's double-bill. Not surprisingly, Jim is not the only stage talent in the Butz family... his brother, Leo Norbert Butz, is a veteran Broadway and Hollywood actor, and his inspiration may have been his brother Tony in a high-school production of South Pacific. Unlike his character in Henry V, Jim is soft-spoken, but he seems in person as genuine a human being as the king he portrays on-stage.
Here is our very frank and personal conversation about the provocation for his passion for an art that has played a role in his life for nearly two-thirds of his 37 years.
I wanted to ask you point-blank: When did you first realize that you were interested in acting? I understand that there are a few actors in your family, right?
JB: Yes, there are. I was very young. I’m the tenth of eleven children, born to Norbert and Elaine Butz. When you’re that young in a brood that size, you get dragged to a lot of events: a Scouting event or a musical concert or someone’s graduation… I noticed at a very young age, my very favorite thing to be dragged to was when they were going to a play, a high school play. I was caught up in the theater, it captured my imagination. I was very young. I remember seeing a Bishop Duborg production of South Pacific, where my brother Tony played the guy who dies on his reconnaissance mission. I was so caught up in it that I felt as though he really died and I wept.
All of my siblings to a greater or lesser degree were involved in high school [theater]. One of my brothers, Norbert, who is a fairly-well known theater actor and actor in general, is on Broadway and television [Dan in Real Life (2007 as Clay), CSI, and others (TV series), and Smash, Hell on Earth (Broadway)]. He had a clear talent and went on to study at Webster Conservatory. That opened up a whole new world to my family. We were a pretty solidly middle class, Catholic, South City family, not aristocratic, not very artsy, or anything like that. And then we got to see productions at a whole new level and were introduced to playwrights like Sam Sheppard and more Shakespeare, so that was another stage. When I went to high school I went to CBC (Christian Brothers’ College) High School, looking for a place to land in the social strata, auditioned for a play, got the part, found community, found I liked it and graduated to more challenging roles and just have loved it actually.
DM: It’s great to find something you love at that age. I’m not trying to nail you down, but how long has it been since your first performance?
JB: I did some plays in grade school, so maybe when I was 10 years old… and I’m 37 now, so something like 27 years…
DM: You’ve had a career when most people are just in the middle of theirs… I also understand that you teach at a local school, is that right?
JB: Yes, Westminster Christian Academy where I am both a Bible teacher and a drama teacher.
DM: It must be awesome for your drama students to have a teacher who is actively doing what they teach… To be a mentor who is PRACTICING the subject they teach adds great believability and relevance to class.
JB: It’s been fun. It’s challenging trying to do both but it’s good.
DM: I agree. I think we find the best in ourselves when we are challenged.
DM: Shakespeare or not, what has been your most challenging role?
JB: Hmmm… you know, each thing has it’s own unique challenges to it, each sort of style, each sort of genre, whatever you want to call it… The most challenging though, I would put Hamlet way up there, in terms of the scope and scale of the role. It feels like in most roles, even big roles… I’ve played Romeo a couple of times, I’ve played Mozart in Amadeus, that’s another big role… in most roles you can expect it to crescendo maybe once, maybe twice to a heightened pitch, and it feels like Hamlet hits you with a wave, and then here comes another tidal wave, and yet a third, a fourth, and then a fifth and then in the final scene you have to do this long, grueling swordfight and you’re never so relieved to die… you’re just panting on stage because it literally… it feels like, you know, here’s a peak and truly it’s not going to go any higher, but, oh no, then there’s an even higher peak. So it’s one of those roles, it just kind of relentless in what it demands of you. And to do that outside, night after night, is physically, emotionally, vocally, every bit demanding of you.
DM: That brings me to this question pretty perfectly: Many Shakespearean roles are pretty emotionally intense. How do you personally prepare yourself mentally for this particularly when you have to do this night after night? On long runs, could it become passé?
JB: Yes. Unfortunately, literally it does sometimes. It’s like going to work because sometimes you don’t feel like doing it. You know, it’s like: “I don’t want to unzip my soul before a thousand people tonight…” I’m a pretty internal actor. I internalize, I personalize, and I have to because I’m not a master technician. I wish I was; I really envy actors who are, but you know for Hamlet, a couple of unfortunate events in my life really informed a lot in that performance… it really did. The breathing, the concept of murder in the play looms large, so there was some of that going on. With these plays right now, I have thought a lot about my dad, because this is a father-son play, but this one seems particularly ripe for father-son drama so I’m just going to pull some things from my own life. On performance days I’m pretty ritualized. I do a certain kind of exercise, a certain kind of diet, and then the putting-on of the costume is a pretty big deal. I find a piece of music that takes me into a certain kind of Pavlovian-dog kind of call and response, it elicits something.
DM: Do your parents get a chance to see you perform?
JB: Yes, they do.
DM: Whom do you admire most for their portrayals of Shakespearean roles?
JB: I haven’t been able to see “the greats,” not to say my contemporaries aren’t very, very good, but I guess, on-screen, the usual suspects: Judi Dench, and Sir Derek Jacobi… I sort of envy some of those Brits, especially of the Gielgudian [ilk]. I think the language is sort of operatic and wants to be spoken that way… or hypercasual and realistic… In our style of acting now, we think of stuff as being very fakey and not really true but I actually appreciate that style. Shakespeare has a lot of works with just the letter “O”… you know someone like Gielgud is gonna “ooooooooo” [varies pitch dramatically, drawing out for effect]… a big thing like that? And in America we’d go like “that’s too arch”… and Americans would go like “oh” [short, flat, and nearly void of any emotional content], you know? You know, underplay it. We like casual, we like realism. And I’m not so married to that. I wish I could do that old style… I can’t really do it but I like watching it.
DM: I thought that was pretty good! Jim, I appreciate your time and your candor. We’re looking forward to seeing you on-stage. Thanks so much for this opportunity to get to know you just a little bit more than what the audience knows from watching you perform.For more background on the context of my interviews, please read the introduction to my interview with Rick Dildine, below.
On a chilly, gusty April day, seeming more like winter than spring, even for St. Louis, I met Mary McHugh, PR executive for Shakespeare Festival Saint Louis, at the door of one of St. Louis’ downtown buildings. I had arranged this with Mary at last year’s Festival after having a rushed, three-and-a-half minute conversation with Rick Dildine, the Executive and Creative Director of the festival. Having attended the festival since 2009 (I only arrived in St. Louis in 2007), I have become increasingly impressed with the quality of this annual event in Forest Park.
In the short conversation with Mr. Dildine on press night last year before the Twelfth Night presentation, I found myself impressed with the energy and enthusiasm of this unimposing and seemingly non-egotistical transplant and wanted to know more about what brought him to Saint Louis to lead an annual, free, outdoor month-long celebration of Shakespeare’s legacy.
On this day, about a month before opening night, I found myself going to a rehearsal in a building being renovated for a new purpose, the open, unfinished spaces perfect for conducting what were essentially, practices for both the condensed version of Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V. Once I was led through a labyrinth of passages akin to either a 12th century dungeon or a CIA black site, there was a large space with temporary lighting to supplement the floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of this multi-storey office building.
I had also asked if I could photograph the rehearsal, not having had the experience before. Surrounded by some 4x8 tables and folding chairs, a few desklamps and gym bags, perhaps 10 people sat watching, taking notes and listening to the street-clothed men in the middle of the room. A few line cues (although not many in this early point in rehearsal, surprisingly to me), and some interruptions by the gentleman seated by himself to the side of the gathering (Henry V director, Bruce Longworth) were all that gave meaning to this unfamiliar sight. No props, save a box being held by the youngest person in the room, an undistinguished chair serving as throne for King Henry V (Jim Butz).
Here is the conversation that Rick and I had that afternoon:
DM: What experience in your life, personal or professional, prompted you to consider a Shakespeare-focused opportunity like Shakespeare Festival Saint Louis?
RD: The first time I ever did a Shakespeare play was in 8th grade and I was not getting an A in English. I went to my English teacher and I said “Let’s make a deal: How can I get an A in your class?” She gave me a copy of Midsummer Night’s Dream and said “if you will organize the class, and direct Midsummer Night’s Dream with the English class, you’ll get your grade.” This was the first time I’d ever been given something like that and the way that it just sang to me… the words just sang… and the humor... That was my first time ever doing a Shakespeare play and it just stuck with me my whole life.
Since then, this is the third theater I’ve been able to lead, and every time I go back to that core work. So, when I had the opportunity to come here to Saint Louis and run a Shakespeare institution, it all seemed to line up with the things that I am passionate about.
DM: And you feel like all time you’ve spent between 8th grade and 2009 when you came to Saint Louis has been in preparation for that?
RD: Oh, totally. Yes, the first theater I ever ran was a large outdoor theater in Kentucky: big venue, 50-person cast, outdoors, and so to have that experience and my love for Shakespeare, to have it all come together, it was a really unique opportunity. There are not a lot of big venues like this in the country. I love big events and the idea that we can do something that draws such a diverse cross-section of Saint Louis… that’s very, very important to me. That we have this venue, this event, that draws rich, poor, black, white, north, south, east, west… and they all mix together and you don’t know who bought the expensive ticket because there are no expensive tickets. There’s no forced segregation that happens and I really love that. I love that it’s theatrical in scope. But I also talk to our Board a lot and say what we do is civic in scope, isn’t it?
DM: Well, we see that with your outreach with Shake38 and Shakespeare in the Streets… that says a lot for what you’ve expressed implicitly in that your mission is to bring more people to the experience.
You’ve been in Chicago, and in Kentucky… where else before Saint Louis?
RD: Providence, Rhode Island; Memphis, Greenville, South Carolina; I was on-tour over the Midwest and the South… so I’ve lived in a lot of places.
DM: So, what about Saint Louis’ performing arts community strikes you as different, or maybe it’s the same no matter where you go?
RD: That’s a good question… It’s very… it’s very intimate… and you feel like a family with these people and that’s very unique in that you work in such a small area on a lot of projects together… it does feel like family and you start learning each others’ strengths and how to put all those strengths together to do good things.
This show, for instance, there are 22 actors in this production, 16 are from Saint Louis… and that was really important to me and the directors, that doing this really special project, we wanted to give that special gift to all those Saint Louisans who have done so much to make this happen. So it was really important to us to build a core Saint Louis continency for this show.
DM: The feeling that Saint Louis is a “small big town” seems to have served your purpose well in what you’ve accomplished so far.
If you could never do another Shakespeare work, from which playwright’s folio would you choose to work?
RD: Well, two immediately come to mind: Tennessee Williams…
DM: Good choice for Saint Louis… [he moved to St. Louis when he was 8 years old, attending Soldan High School and University City High School]
RD: Well, there is that, too! But Tennessee Williams because I connect to a lot of his stories and his experiences as a human being… but my favorite play of all time is “Long Day’s Journey into Night” by Eugene O’Neill… both men have incredible bodies of work, so it’s hard, but I would probably go with Tennessee Williams if I had to go through the rest of my life working through someone’s body of work… probably Tennessee… yeah. But, Eugene O’Neill… you know Muddy Waters Theater Company used to be around town, you know they’d pick a playwright every year and they’d do their works and I always enjoyed that. I always enjoyed seeing who they were gonna pick… ‘cause most times we get to see Shakespeare’s work all put together but it’s rare that you see an American playwright to see their works right up next to each other… I would really enjoy that…
DM: So, you came to St. Louis from Chicago in 2009, and since that time you’ve accomplished some significant measures of success… one of those was the creation of Shake38. What inspired that?
RD: That came from two things. I wanted to do something that was a gesture reminding people that Shakespeare isn’t owned by anyone… we don’t pay rights for him, he’s in the public domain. And I wanted to showcase the diversity of talent in Saint Louis, and so I said “How do we do that?” So, one day in the office I said “What if we gave away the canon?” I purposely kept saying “We’re going to give it away.” That then led to the idea of what if we went after people, not just theater people, but all sorts of artists from all other types of disciplines to interpret this, do whatever they want with this.
I honestly thought that this would last one year… that it would be a big, fun marketing tool. And then we had about 200 people do it… perform the shows. And as time got closer [to the next year’s Shakespeare Festival], somebody said “We’re going to do this [Shake38] again, right?” So, I said “Okay” and for two years we did it, just me and an intern and a budget of zero… And now it’s grown to an event that’s 5 days and 1500 people doing it. We’re launching shake38.com which is our attempt to take all this creativity and all these ideas and put it on a platform that people around the world can engage with, and not just on Shakespeare’s birthday…
DM: What birthday is he celebrating this year?
RD: It’s his 450th birthday. He was born and died on the same day, April 23rd, 49 years apart. He was born in 1564 and died in 1616.
DM: Shake38 is interesting because most theater groups invite people in, the audience, to come see Shakespeare, but in my awareness, it isn’t something that happens often, that a theater group goes out TO the public where they are, and say “Here we are, in your face! We have something to show you!” That’s an accurate description of what Shakespeare in the Streets is, right?
RD: In Shakespeare in the Streets, it really is going out and talking to residents and say “You’re the expert. Help us tell your story!” That started from my driving around the city and and finding all the blocked-off streets… I’m not talking about the gated communities, but I’m talking about where chunks of concrete have been dropped off, creating a barricade at the end of the street. I thought “What a terrible image for the city!” to chop up all your streets. There are 262 streets where this has happened. There’s a movement to open up these barricaded streets, and what those opened avenues would do for communication, crime, safety… No other city has this. It was originally done with the idea to reduce crime, but what it has done is to create these dead-end blockades that cops stay away from because they get stuck in them, public transportation doesn’t go down there… You reduce crime by adding people. That’s what makes it safe.
So, I went to my board and said “This is about accessibility. We are about accessiblity. We are about diversity. We are about open access. Let’s take this thing we do in the park, take that same message and put it on the street. If they’re not coming to the park, let’s go to them. Can you tell I get passionate about this thing?”
DM: Passion is what it takes. If the passion wasn’t in you, you wouldn’t be here, right?
DM: I have one further question for you: What further goals do you have while you are in Saint Louis?
RD: The things were working on right now is to fully realize the word “festival” in “Shakespeare Fesitival Saint Louis.” I told the board that a fesitval is more than one thing. Most people know us as “the free Shakespeare play in the park.” That’s the thing we’re working on right now: to fully realize the word “festival” so that it is a “destination”… it’s more than one show. So, you see our attempt this year, adding these two shows. And you’ll see over the next few years, we’ll be layering on some other events that will be very exciting. We are lining up a series of artists whom we are asking to take Shakespeare’s work and reimagine it in new locations and in new ways and it will supplement the big park show. So, the thing I’m most looking forward to seeing that word “festival” is fully realized so that if someone comes to Saint Louis, they think “I could stay here for a week and see the Shakespeare plays, the Muny, the Opera and get this full cultural artistic experience.”
Frankly, we hope Rick will stay for much longer, long enough to see his "Festival" vision realized, his goals of bringing St. Louis together by the universal message of William Shakespeare's plays, and to have the chance of presenting all of them at least once! Thanks, Rick!
at the 92nd Street Y, NYC
By Deirdre Donovan
What’s Cherry Jones up to nowadays? Well, in two words: A lot! Those venturing out to the 92nd Street Y on October 27th soon learned that the stage, film, and TV actress is finessing a fresh theatrical turn at the Booth Theatre, where she is playing Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie).
Joined on stage by Jordan Roth, the President of Jujamcyn Theaters, Jones shared with Roth and audience members some backstage anecdotes as well as how she summons up inspiration for her Amanda (Jones performs the histrionic matron eight times a week at the Booth) before stepping out on the boards (hint: a Williams’ portrait is not far from her dressing room door).
During the 90-minute conversation, Jones gave us a whirlwind tour of her career. She started out with her acting roots at American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), where she cut her theatrical teeth. Then she swept on to tell us about her most memorable shows, actresses who have influenced her (Laurette Taylor, the actress who first played Amanda on Broadway in 1945 tops her list!), and life-defining moments as an artist. Although she loves history and does use it to research her roles at times, Jones admitted that she is a stickler for the text. In addition, Jones stressed that her career has embraced, not only Broadway and prestigious regional theaters, but working in less-known theaters from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.
Jones has no affectations and consistently steers clear of showbiz glam. The attractive and down-to-earth Jones refers, in fact, to theater as a “sacred” place, where she has witnessed lives changed by a sensitive performance on stage. She added that theater tends to give us new perspectives on life and can put us more deeply in touch with our “humanity.”
If Jones likes to emphasize the life-affirming aspects about theater, others are pointing out the bustling crowds near the Booth Theater ever since The Glass Menagerie tucked in the first week of September. The reviews for Jones’ performance have been a whirlwind of raves! And while her predecessors have placed their signatures on Tennessee’s Amanda, it is clear that Jones is adding her own stripe to the part. Indeed it isn’t the first time that she has brought something else to a character. Who can forget her granite-faced Sister Aloysius in Doubt? Or her poignantly-shy Catherine in The Heiress?
“Nobody could be more surprised by my career than I,” said Jones in her characteristically unaffected manner. Jones, who has won a raft of theater awards (including two Tony Awards), attributes much of her success to finding a “good script and good director.” Jones cited that she has been fortunate to find a number of major roles that have allowed her to work steadily at her chosen profession, taking her from her salad days to mature years as an actress.
The talk concluded with Jones responding to questions fielded from audience members online and at the 92nd Street Y’s auditorium. After the very last question was answered, and Jones and Roth departed the stage, the audience slowly flowed to Lexington Avenue. No doubt changed by the evening’s conversation.
The 92nd Street Y
For more information on 92 Street Y Talks, phone (212) 415-5500 or visit online www.92y.org
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Interview with Cary Hoffman on his new musical play, My Sinatra
Interviewed by Deirdre Donovan
So much of our lives has been lived to the soundtrack of Sinatra music, it’s hard to tell where our actual experiences end and those we’ve felt vicariously through Sinatra lyrics begin. – A quote from Will Friedwald’s Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer’s Art.
Though Will Friedwald, in his documentary bookSinatra! The Song is You: A Singer’s Art might not have had Cary Hoffman specifically in mind when he penned the above words, Hoffman gives them new meaning in his one-man musical play My Sinatra. Hoffman turns his celebrated PBS special into an homage of Sinatra, weaving over 20 classic songs with personal anecdotes about his longtime obsession with Sinatra. Currently running at the Midtown Theatre, his 90-minute presentation is alternately whimsical, funny, poignant, and very entertaining. Hoffman’s song selections are virtually leitmotifs of Sinatra’s career, including The Voice’s early career, his forays onto the big screen, and his major-league celebrity. Hoffman doesn’t look like Sinatra, but when he croons a Sinatra tune, you will swear that Ol’ Blue Eyes himself is in the room.
I recently spoke with Cary Hoffman about his new solo show in a phone interview on July 12th. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.
DD: What was the impetus for My Sinatra?
CH: I got the idea really after my PBS Special [on Sinatra] when I was doing concerts all over the country and in Switzerland, and Athens, Greece—
DD: When you were globe-trotting with your Sinatra show, does any performance stand out?
CH: Yes. When I performed for the President of Singapore, at the end of the show I was told that I should stay onstage. And I saw a military guard in the wings of the stage. And I thought, did I say something wrong in the show? Am I going to be shot? The next thing I know, the military guard takes me off the stage, and everybody in the audience is standing. And he takes me to the President’s table and his wife flings herself at me. ‘Oh, we loved you. We want to have you back, we want to have you back soon.’ I don’t know if he is still in power, but it was just a great show.
DD: You sing some great Sinatra songs during your show, but it’s your personal stories that add the real texture to the evening. Early in the show you describe being raised in Long Island by your mother and a “mad symphony of uncles” who had ties to Sinatra. Were they all studio musicians who recorded with Sinatra?
CH: Yes. And with everyone else who you can think of. My mother had six brothers. We went to live with just the musicians, because the musicians were the younger ones. And they were all single. And that sound of Sinatra brass, that filled my head as a kid. It was all over the house. They were practicing in different rooms, in different keys. Maybe if they had practiced in the same key, my life would have been less chaotic.
DD: You share some of your tough times as an artist in the show. You tell a real-life story of when you were in your early twenties and your mother tried her best to snap you out of your Sinatra obsession. You describe how she shook you one day and told you, ‘Listen to me! You’re not Frank Sinatra!’ How did you react to this?
CH: I hated it. But she was just trying to protect me. She had tried to be a singer herself. She had a beautiful voice. But she wound up a housewife. And she saw how difficult it was for her brothers to get work. Her brothers were really the best musicians there were. But two out of three brothers were ultimately put out of work by rock and roll.
DD: The most poignant story of the evening is about your father’s sudden death when you were only seven years old. Why did you decide to put this painful memory in the show?
CH: I put it in the show because that planted the seeds for the kid searching for a father, for the big hole in my life. And because I was musical, somehow all that feeling went toward the music.
DD: Pete Hamill wrote a fascinating book about Sinatra called Why Sinatra Matters. As a Sinatra maven and premier interpreter of his songs, why do you think Sinatra matters today?
CH: Sinatra matters because he was about when music and art were human.
For more information about Cary Hoffman and his solo musical play My Sinatra, visit www.mysinatra.com.