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Blog Less Traveled: Robert Rutland of ‘Circle Mirror Transformation’

A scene from Circle Mirror Transformation.

blog by Scott Behrend  • 

This week, I chat with Robert Rutland, a veteran Western New York actor who has appeared with the Irish Classical Theatre Company, Kavinoky Theatre, Shakespeare in Delaware Park, Geva Theatre Center and was a regular at the former Studio Arena Theatre. Robert was in a production of To Kill A Mockingbird that I directed at Studio Arena just before it closed, and I’ve looked for a project for years to work with him on again. I finally found it with Road Less Traveled Production’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which re-opens the 710 Main St. Theater (formerly Studio Arena) on Feb. 1.

Circle Mirror Transformation is the story of five very different people who come together to take an adult acting class at a community center in Vermont. Through the process of taking this class and playing hilarious theater games, each person learns a great deal about each other and, ultimately, more about themselves. Robert will be playing James, the husband of the woman who is teaching the class. For more info about Circle Mirror Transformation, visit http://www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

Robert Rutland

Blog Less Traveled: You were no stranger to the Studio Arena stage. What were some of your favorite performances there? 
Robert Rutland: That’s hard.  I rarely think in terms of favorites, because every show is different and offers something unique. Certainly, that space is a terrific space in which to work, for performers and for audiences. Favorites? Well, the whole Tennessee Williams retrospective was an intense study of that great man’s work, even though I was only in two of the five.  Picasso at the Lapin Agile was a gas every night.  City of Light was a tremendous community event.  The Mystery of Irma Vep was very hard but very rewarding.  To Kill A Mockingbird, which we did together, was a rich journey back to the South where I grew up and into the gentle heart of Harper Lee.  Lots of good experiences.

BLT: Tell us about your training, and what brought you to Buffalo. 
RR: I have often thought of myself as untrainable—not to my credit. I trained reluctantly, and I guess I was sort of the “learn as you go” school.  As a small-town southerner, exposure to theater was rare. I went to University of North Carolina at Greensboro because the student ratio was 10-to-1, females to males, so I figured I’d get a lot of stage time. I was right. I did study in London for six weeks during the summer between junior and senior years, and that was terrific.  I had stage combat with B. H. Barry himself, and voice from a slightly grumpy young actress named Judy Dench. I took classes during my internship with the Barter Theatre in Virginia, where I joined Actors’ Equity in 1974. At the Barter, I studied Uta Hagan’s book, Respect for Acting, with a teacher named Dorothy Marie Robinson, who, but the way, recently published a book on directing. 

After moving to New York City in 1976, I was accepted into Uta’s class at HB Studios, but got a job and that never happened. Later, I took class there with a different instructor. But I never really liked classes, and I do not say that proudly.  Maybe that falls into the category of “youth is wasted on the young.”  I came to Buffalo from Rochester, where my family lived for about four years.  My dear friend, Peggy Cosgrave, with whom I’ve done so many shows, and I were working together at Geva Theatre Center and she was headed straight to Studio Arena after that gig was over to do two shows.  An actor who had been cast in those shows had to bail, and she suggested me to Gavin Cameron-Webb.  So those two shows became my first Studio experiences (Three Viewings and Season’s Greetings).  While doing that commute, the position of education director came open, and after getting that job, the family moved here. And here we are. With my younger kid being a freshman in high school, we’ve got a few years to go before we consider what our next move (or not) will be.

BLT: Please tell us a little bit about James, your character in Circle Mirror Transformation
RR: It is hard to talk about James right now.  I believe that clarity will come from working on the piece with you and my brothers/sisters-in-arms.  I am getting a strong sense that James and his wife, Marty, bring the problems of their relationship into the setting of the play (a creative drama class in Vermont), but, as with so many personal issues, much of it has been relegated to the unconscious or subconscious mind. The stuff that happens in the class bring these issues to the surface. I sort of see James as an older man who needs to think of himself as young. He has never really looked at that closely and so may tend to fall into the same trap over and over, becoming infatuated with other women, younger women. He talks about being angry, of fearing and repressing the anger he feels and that he witnessed as a kid.  But a dimension of this play may be the way we can talk about things like anger and never really see deeply the affects they are having on our behavior and our choices moment to moment.  And something about the experience of that creative drama class sort of opens up that dichotomy, for better or worse.  But basically, I’m just blowing hot air.  I don’t think I will know a lot about this guy, James, until we are together and working on this unusual little piece.

Scene from RLTP's Circle Mirror Transformation

BLT:The acting exercises and theater games that the characters in Circle Mirror Transformation participate in might seem a little bizarre to the average theatergoer who has never taken an acting class. Are these exercises a realistic representation of the sorts of exercises “real” actors participate in when learning to act? Could you describe a theater game that you’ve played that’s possibly more bizarre? Have theater games helped you prepare for a role or warm you up before you go onstage? 
RR: Well, I gotta sort of chuckle here.  First, I think and hope that the “average” theatergoer will be charmed and mystified by the structure of this play, built around games and exercises all actors do at some time or another in their training. It is precisely what makes the play unique and, hopefully, fun.  Personally, I hated some theater games and enjoyed others.  As a young actor in the ‘70’s, such “touchy-feely” exercises were popular, and I particularly recall doing a lot of them while rehearsing an old classic called America Hurrah.  I’m not sure it did much for the play but it certainly got us all heated up.  I think we all felt very deep and meaningful.  I must confess, I think perhaps the same problem I had getting trained may have carried over into old age when it comes to games being a helpful prep for a show. Sort of bah, humbug!  I’ll need to take a look at that in relation to this entity called James in the play!

BLT:What projects do you have coming up after Circle Mirror Transformation? And/or is there a role and/or a play that is sort of a dream project for you? 
RR: I feel very fortunate just now.  I’m having a bit of a holiday hiatus between a pile of work (working in Geva’s Education office, Richard III in Delaware Park, teaching at Geva’s Summer Academy, and You Can’t Take It With You at Geva with Robert Vaughn as Grandpa) and the start of Circle Mirror… rehearsals.  (That Rochester commute added 22,000 miles to my car in 7 months.)  And after Circle Mirror Transformation, I’ll be doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the season closer at Geva, beginning in mid-April.  I’m happy about this because I love the play.  I’ve done the show 3.25 times before and am still excited to be doing it again. (The .25 was a show of scenes from Shakespeare in which the Bottom scenes were a through line).

Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker opens Feb. 1 at 710 Main Street Theater and runs through Feb. 17. For tickets and info, visit www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

TAGGED: blog less traveled, circle mirror transformation, road less traveled productions, robert rutland, scott behrend

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