Hundreds of years ago, English playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote the world's first theatrical version of a little German legend about a man who sells his soul to the Devil. That man was Faust, and Marlowe's version, DOCTOR FAUSTUS, will be produced by Austin's own Last Act Theatre Company from October 11th through October 27th.
I recently sat down with three key people behind this new production, Business Director and Founding Member Sara Billeaux, the production's Director Kevin Gates, and Faustus himself Ben McLemore. All three dished on what to expect from their production, those theories that Marlowe may have written some of the works attributed to Shakespeare, and what deals they'd make with the Devil…
BWW: Thank you all for coming and doing this. I'm really excited to ask you a few questions about this production and the company. Now before we get started, I'd love to hear about the background of the company. How did the Last Act Theater Company come about?
SB: Basically, it started off is a group of people who all went to college together in Corpus Christi and all ended up in Austin after graduation. We just thought "Let's do some theater together," so we started a company called the @ Theatre Project, and under that name we did a show called the GRAND-GUIGNOL which was actually two short plays from the time period of [Antonin] Artaud. We did that around Halloween of 2010 in the Artaud style, and then after that show we sort of restructured the company and changed the name to the Last Act Theatre Company.
BWW: So you're a relatively new company then.
SB: Yeah. We just celebrated our 1st Anniversary since the restructure in August.
BWW: Oh, awesome! Congratulations!
SB: Thank you.
BWW: So what made you guys decide to do DOCTOR FAUSTUS as your production for this fall?
SB: Well, we try to do one Classical piece a year, and the idea of DOCTOR FAUSTUS was actually brought up to us by a couple of people, Kevin Gates being one of them, and he was so excited about it and we were excited about working with him as a Director, so it all just worked out.
BWW: So Kevin, what about DOCTOR FAUSTUS was appealing to you as a Director?
KG: Well, Early Modern theatre is my area of special interest, and I knew that Last Act was thinking about a Halloween show, so I suggested a few things that I thought were scary or freaky or gory that I thought would be thematically appropriate for a show around Halloween. I knew they were considering several other shows but they read this one and just decided to go with it.
BWW: How would you describe DOCTOR FAUSTUS to someone who may not be familiar with it?
BM: The show is essentially about a guy who's one of the greatest scholars in all of Europe, maybe all the world. He's learned pretty much everything there is to learn about everything, and he decides that the last thing he wants to conquer is that he wants to conjure a demon and get it to do his will and he'll use its power to take over the world and satisfy every one of his heart's desires. So he does this and conjures a demon called Mephistopheles, played by Karen Alvarado in our production, and as time goes on instead of doing all these amazing things he says he's going to do, he kind of squanders his power. He plays practical jokes on the Pope and doing all of these frivolous things that seem unbefitting someone who has so much power. As it goes on, he starts to want to repent more and more and realizes that his time will be up because he made a deal with the Devil for 24 years. As we get closer and closer to the end, he becomes more conscious of, "Oh my God, I really have sold my soul." I won't spoil the ending, but in any case, that's the gist of the plot. It's really about internal struggle with power and how he uses it.
BWW: What are some of the challenges for all three of you that come with putting on this type of show and bringing a classic piece of English literature and playwriting to life?
KG: One of the main problems with a show like this is the expectations of an Early Modern audience versus the expectations of a current audience. Early Modern audiences were very comfortable with the idea of one actor playing multiple roles, and we're accustomed to TV where if a show has 200 characters in it, you see 200 actors. You don't see the same actor playing multiple parts. I tried to compensate for that by creating this chorus of devils that play the majority of all of the roles in the show. They remain on stage and observe the action a lot of the time when they're not actually participating. I think it will be clear to the audience that these devils are coming in and interacting with Faustus and then going back to their position as observers. I think the audience will be able to respond to that conceit. Also, this play contains a lot of really long speeches. Faustus has a lot of internal dialogue with himself which is, I think, less interesting for us because we have realistic acting expectations. We expect an actor to show us things in a particular way, not give these big, declamatory speeches. So in many cases, I've taken these longer speeches and broken the separate thoughts down and assigned them to the chorus, so the chorus says these words and they're thoughts in Faustus's head. But it doesn't become like an actual dialogue. It's more that his internal dialogue is manifested though different people. I think it gives the piece a lot more action and makes it a lot more interesting for the audience.