|Guy Masterson in Fern Hill|
20 Questions With...Guy Masterson
Date: 22 July 2002
Theatrical polymath Guy Masterson, aka "Mr Edinburgh", is presenting ten shows at this year's festival, including a tenth anniversary Oleanna, which he stars in. He offers Thomas quotes & advice for festivalgoers.
Guy Masterson is a true theatrical polymath - a writer, director, actor and producer. Not to mention a stalwart of the Edinburgh Fringe, where he's become a major fixture since first attending, as a visitor, in 1993.
Born Guy Mastroianni to a Welsh mother and Italian/American father, Masterson emigrated to the US in 1982 and worked as a carpenter to pay for his acting lessons. He performed in over 20 plays in Los Angeles before returning to the UK where, in 1991, he formed his own production company, the eponymous Guy Masterson Productions.
Having appeared in Cyrano de Bergerac alongside Robert Lindsay at the Theatre Royal in 1993, Masterson began to produce and perform solo versions of Animal Farm, A Soldier's Song and Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood. His recent work, Fern Hill & Other Dylan Thomas, won him the Best Actor award at last year's Edinburgh 2001.
This summer, Masterson will present no fewer than ten shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, the world's largest arts festival, which runs this year from 4 to 26 August. They include: the tenth anniversary production of David Mamet's Oleanna (which he stars in); a stage version of Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy (which he adapted); world premieres of Goering's Defence and A Slight Tilt to the Left(both of which he is directing); and a reprisal of Fern Hill & Other Dylan Thomas (which he again performs).
Date & place of birth
I was born in Hampstead 1961, though it should have been born in Wales. I consider myself Welsh, and Welsh born.
Lives now in...
Northolt, north London
University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and LAMDA
First big break
There are several different strands of my career, but primarily the solo performance of Under Milk Wood.
Career highlights to date
All of them are related to the Edinburgh Festival, but Under Milk Wood and Animal Farm both of which have since toured the world. Directing gives me huge amounts of pleasure; the two most memorable were Bye Bye Blackbird and Playing Burton. Richard Burton was my uncle so that one was particularly meaningful.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
As an actor, Under Milk Wood, Animal Farm, Solider Song and Fern Hill. Fern Hill has Dylan Thomas' beautiful language and making it come to light is a huge rush every time I do it. Soldier Song brought conflict to the stage and made people feel the power of war and theatre. Animal Farm because it was a political satire that really caught the zeitgeist and made people reconsider the work and see how important it was after 50 years. All of those shows realised a physical style of performance I didn't know I had in me.
Beth Fitzgerald is an undiscovered star; she won the Edinburgh Best Actress award in 1996 for her first show. I vowed we'd work together again - and she was nominated again the next year for Bye Bye Blackbird. This year we're working on Oleanna it's great to work together as she makes me look good and she's beautiful! She has all these attributes waiting to be discovered. I don't know why she's not been, perhaps because she hasn't been seen by enough people. We'll get there, Oleanna could do that. Also Linda Marlowe. Michael Jackson in Moonwalker - that was amazing, so long ago. James Woods on Salvador, who doesn't really count as we were in the same room, I saw him close up!
Tony Boncza. He and I have this fundamental understanding and he is able to bring the best out of me, I trust him implicitly. He's mainly an actor and I think he should do more directing. I'd love to work with Steven Berkoff - he's a big inspiration to me, we're quite good mates.
Harold Pinter and David Mamet. As for comedies Alan Ayckbourn, and then politically David Hare. Pinter and Mamet have a heightened sense of language that really makes theatre powerful and in-your-face. They use theatre for what it is and what it can be.
Do you prefer acting, directing, producing or writing?
When I'm doing one, I love that the best, and when I'm doing the other, I love that the best. As a producer I love making things happen from scratch. As a writer I love the fact you can sit down with a blank screen and make an award-winning play on the stage. With directing, you work so tightly with an actor to make a performance that blows the audience away which is an incredible experience. I like all of them, though acting the least... acting has become a means to an end, to pay the bills. I don't like that fact at all.
What was the last stage production you saw that you really enjoyed?
Madge in Up for Grabs - I really loved the performance, she was fantastic. I was in fourth row and I could hear her really well. The play was crap but she was lovely. Incredibly vulnerable. I love Madonna anyway she has a huge personality and is a force for good. I get bowled over by the quality of her work.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
They should understand what theatre is and what it can be, in terms of a communication tool. If we took communication away, we'd be left with only musicals, comedies, revivals, rehashes. What makes theatre great is that it puts stuff in front of an audience that they wouldn't normally have to face. Television you can turn off and cinema you can leave, but you have to be very brave to walk out of a theatre. By the very convention of theatre, you can't leave. If the play you're seeing is any good you can't walk out, you have to go through it. Funding theatrical communication would bring about a hotbed of genius. The government shouldn't just be funding diversionary comedy and entertainments. There is a place for those things, they make money and get bums on seats. But shows tools like Adolf need to be supported communication tools, as educational and moral tools. What's more, they are not always going to be supported and attended by audience.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Jodie Foster. I know she's a woman and I'm a man! But she has a remarkable ability to produce powerful and challenging films and she has really used that. She is in control of her own destiny. I do not want to be under the control of money people. I'd like to be able to make a movie taking the themes of my plays to a huge audience.
Favourite holiday destination
I haven't taken any holidays since God knows when, I suppose I'd like to go back to California because I had a great life there. There or the Caribbean, all those white sands!
The self-help book Emotional Intelligence because it gives an understanding of the human psyche and shows that the human mind is a great place. It gives an insight into the way the brain and body works and good reasons for the way we think. It goes some way to explaining why we are here.
If you hadn't become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?
I'd have stayed in LA and continued to be a jobbing film and TV actor and wondered if the magic was going to happen to me. I've discovered that solo performance has taken me away from the need to be a star. If it happened now I don't think it would change me. Twenty years ago it would because that's what I wanted to be. I'd use stardom for good, though not for myself, I'd use it to keep producing new actors.
How do you decide which shows to put on? What inspired your choices for this year's festival?
I go with what excites me and shows that take audiences to places they wouldn't otherwise go. That and working with real talent. Michael Mears (the writer) said that he wanted to work with me, and I said, "I want to work with you, you're a genius." Working with Beth on Oleanna is something we've been talking about for years.
Why do you think Oleanna is so provocative ten years on?
We're now living the nightmare he was describing ten years ago. The political correctness and the divisive nature of education in this country. What is education? Some people think that everyone should go to university and some think that it should just be for people who want to use what they study afterwards. My degree is in biochemistry and I'm an actor! Only five or ten percent of what I learnt at university has contributed to my life as an actor, I wish I'd waited and gone for a more vocational degree. Universities are also responsible for the hip democratisation of language. Speaking simple English means we are bastardising a language that is incredibly rich, and teaching students not to think.
What draws you to the work of Dylan Thomas? What's your favourite Thomas quote?
I'm a Welshman too, so the words resonate within me - they capture the spirit of Wales. Thomas had a remarkable understanding of the country and of human spirit. He has his own language, when it's listened to, the words make people feel fab - which is a wonderful thing. We are moving away from the spoken word in twentieth century ...the beauty of language is further away from our everyday lives. My relationship with Dylan Thomas is a rebellion against that. My favourite quote of his is "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light." You only life once, it's not a rehearsal.
When did you first attend the Edinburgh Fringe? How, if at all, do you think the festival has changed since then?
The first time was in 1993 as a visitor. I went up for four days and didn't sleep. I vowed I would come back but only to play at the top venues, so I came to the Assembly Rooms and my shows sold out. Now I always produce at the Assembly Rooms and at the Traverse. Edinburgh is the worlds greatest arts market and festival. The City Council and dwellers are reaping and raping the rewards. Market forces are raping the festival by pushing up the cost of accommodation and publicity. Its impossible to come up to Edinburgh and do it on a shoestring anymore everyone needs a publicist now.
What advice would you give to a theatregoer attending Edinburgh for the first time?
To make a conscious decision to see stuff outside of the big four venues, don't worry about wasting money. The joy of the festival is in being quirky... obviously you want to see some good stuff but set aside money to see four or five small shows outside that. And don't completely rely on reviews unless they have my name on them and five stars!
What are you plans for the future?
I want to create a worldwide touring company which will celebrates like for like theatre across the globe. There would be an agency in each English-speaking country that would bring work into Britain and out - an international theatre exchange.
- Guy Masterson was speaking to Sarah Beaumont