In Underneath the Lintel - which received its UK premiere on 12 February 2007 (following previews from 7 February, See News, 21 Nov 2006) - Schiff plays a lonely librarian whose life is altered by an epic journey after he vows to track down the person who returned a library book 113 years overdue.
Directed by Maria Mileaf, this production of Glen Berger’s award-winning one-man play won critical acclaim when Schiff appeared in it at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse in early 2006. It is scheduled for a limited ten-week season in the West End, booking until 14 April.
The Q&A followed a performance in which Schiff slightly fluffed his lines at one point – much to his enjoyment! The actor gave insights into recovering from such mistakes, opening night nerves and getting into character at the post-show discussion, which was hosted by Whatsonstage.com editorial director, Terri Paddock.
Highlights from the discussion follow…
On why he wanted to do the piece:
That’s a question I ask myself every night! As The West Wing was dying down, I was putting out that I wanted to do some theatre again and had some Broadway offers, but I didn’t like those plays. One of the casting directors sent me this play that they were doing at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey and just on a whim thought that I’d like it. The play just sat on my desk for a while. I read it once and I loved it, and then I read it again and I hated it. When I read it a third time and I loved it again, I realised that it’s a different journey every time, depending on how it starts. I thought that was a really fascinating challenge to figure out how to make that work.
So I did it and it went really well in New Jersey. The reaction from the press was pretty amazing and I was asked to go around the country in the States, but I only wanted to bring it here for some reason. I didn’t want to do it in Los Angeles because it felt like an audition, and I just had a fancy to come here. These theatres are beautiful and the audiences, you guys, are quite amazing in your attention. English audiences really listen and pay attention to the journey. They did in New Jersey as well, but they were a lot more vocal, they talked back….
I love to drop names only when I really love the people whose names I’m dropping. I was having a conversation with Mike Nichols about this. I was offered another play in New York which conflicted but I took this. And he said “made the right choice because you’re an artist and sometimes when people are successful they kind of rest on their laurels but you don’t”. I thought that was very wise advice….
I’ve been trying to figure out who this character (the librarian) is. I think if I met him I wouldn’t say hello. I don’t think he’s a particularly pleasant guy. The journey along the way makes him slightly softer and more vulnerable, but I don’t want to control how he ends up.
On the loneliness of a one-man show:
It is pretty lonely being backstage alone, but it’s very much part of the journey of this character, who starts out tragically alone in one way and is kind of beautifully alone in another way. Not to get too philosophical about it but someone said you’re born alone and you die alone - there’s got to be something beautiful about it for us to face that. Part of the journey for me is that it’s been a while since I’ve been alone because I have two young kids and a wife who I’m very much in love with.
On the inspiration for the piece:
The writer, Glen Berger, says it was Jewish folk music which got him interested in this journey. I think that’s because of the nature of the music, it’s so old and has all this history. I tend to hesitate to ask writers what their journey is to write something because I don’t want their reasons for doing it to interfere with my reasons. I just wanted it to be a unique experience for me and this director, Maria Mileaf. There was another director I talked to before about doing this play. Once he started telling me about what he saw in it, I realised I didn’t want to do that, so I don’t like to talk to people about it too much.
On press night nerves:
You’d think that doing a little regional theatre in New Jersey would be okay, but it was pretty terrifying actually. Here it’s much worse, everyone constantly talks about press night, which we don’t have in the States; in the States, it’s called opening night and if the press are there, fine. But it got to my nerves a little bit, it really did. The thing about not doing theatre for all these years is that opening night becomes a dragon - I’m glad to come back and slay it now. Of course you care about what people think and how they’re going to react, but I don’t perform to order. You have to get to the point where you don’t.
On choosing work on stage or screen:
I don’t really think about the medium so much as the nature of the material. I’ve worked on movies that have been horrible, and I’ve worked on TV shows that have been great, and I’ve worked on bad plays that have been great experiences for other reasons. The material and the people I want to work with make the decisions for me more than the medium. Tonight I had a blast because I totally messed up at the beginning and it’s the most fun I ever had. I wish something like that would happen every night. Sometimes when you do a play for a long time you miss that feeling that anything can happen. It did tonight and I actually loved it. It reminded me how fun it is to mess up. There’s a real electricity in that.
- by Caroline Ansdell