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A CurtainUp Interview
Freud’s Last Session: An Interview with Actors Martin Rayner and Mark H. Dold

Actors Martin Rayner and Mark H. Dold are delighted to discover that New York theatergoers are cueing up in large numbers at the box office at New World Stages to get tickets to Freud’s Last Session. Rayner and Dold originated the roles of the 83 year-old Sigmund Freud and 40 year-old C. S. Lewis, respectively, in this long-running show, which began its life at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in June 2009. (Curtainup's review of that premiere). Its recent migration from the West Side YMCA at 63rd Street (Review of the Transfer Production) to the New World Stages in midtown is the latest wrinkle in its theatrical history. During its 450-plus performances, this “think” show has become a favorite of A-list celebrities, and lots of other people who like to think. Both actors seem to have all the hoopla in perspective, however, and their feet on the ground. Even so, there’s no doubt that they are thoroughly enjoying the buzz swirling around their little-big hit.

Rayner and Dold agreed to take time out of their very busy schedules to respond to some questions from CurtainUp via email. We thank both for taking the time to answer these questions!  May the good ghosts of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis inspire you throughout your run at New World Stages! 

Responses from each (MR=Martin Rayner; MHD=Mark H. Dold; CU=Curtainup
1.CU. How does it feel to be in your new theatrical digs in the Times Square neighborhood?  

MR. Love the new digs!! Love the space, the theatre complex and the atmosphere there. It's fun to mingle with actors from the other shows. Our houses are full and our audiences are very responsive.

MHD. Being a part of NWS is lovely. There is a real sense of theatricality about the building, reflected in a great communal energy shared between the actors, crew, NWS staff and audience. The feeling is similar to the one you get with the cluster of Broadway houses on West 44th and 45th streets. Actors and musicians rushing to their half hour calls. Audience heading to pick-up tickets or waiting for their dates. Restaurants buzzing with pre-show activity. It feels very vital, connected.  

2) CU. You have been with the show from its original production in June 2009 at the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. How do you explain the phenomenal success of the play?  

MR. In two words: seriously funny. Big serious ideas being discussed, with a lot of wit and humor. 80% of our sales are word of mouth: People tell us it's hard to find theater with sustenance these days. That there is nothing else in NY like this. No hype or special effects, just fascinating moments as though you were actually in Freud's study with him.

MHD. If someone can explain the success of the play I'd love to hear their thoughts. I have a couple of ideas but I don't believe they could fully answer the question. I think part of what helped our success was the freedom gifted to us by the original job description. We first gathered to tackle this fascinating new play in the fertile environment of Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA. It was a 6 week gig in a gorgeous setting. A working vacation if you will; or retreat. No one was thinking about New York City and an open-ended commercial Off-Broadway run. We were artists gathering to do what we loved most; make great theatre. That's at the core of everything Barrington Stage stands for; have great fun doing the best work you can, QUICKLY.

We only had 2 1/2 weeks of rehearsal so there was a lot of instinct following going on, which actually fits my training at Yale Drama perfectly. Am I saying that commercial theatre gets bogged down and derailed by pressure we didn't feel? Quite possibly. We put our heads down and worked hard on what originally appeared to be a complicated script. We supported one another and hopefully inspired one another. We kept digging, collaborating, questioning until we thought we had something. What that "something" was, we didn't really know. Then we added the audience. Once they joined the process the reality of what we were doing hit me. It was funny! That was the first thing that hit me. Then people kept coming and coming. We added seats, we added performances. Something was happening!

What hadn't occurred to me during rehearsal was that there is a drought of plays that make people think, consider or reconsider themselves and how they lead their lives. I think I was too caught up in research, lines memorization and rehearsal to consider what anyone was actually going to think about the play; that the hour and 15 minutes spent with these two men might actually change their lives. Mark St. Germain had struck a nerve that I had initially felt when I read the script 6 months earlier but then forgot as the work set in. I'll mention more about that while answering the next question.

3) CU. How did you come on board Freud’s Last Session?

  MR. Just a cold audition. I knew nobody involved, they didn't know me. Now we're family.

MHD. My story involves a simple twist of fate. I've had the great fortune of having spent 7 consecutive summers working for Barrington Stage Co. In the fall of 2008 I received a 911 phone call from Artistic Director, Julianne Boyd. A reading of the play was happening at The Cosmopolitan Club on East 66th the next night. The actor who was going to read Lewis wasn't feeling well. I was asked to "pinch hit." I quickly read the script that night. The next afternoon we met for a quick rehearsal then that night we were in front of hundreds of people. By that point I was hooked. There was something about the play and Lewis' perspective that was so generous, and joyous. I began reflecting on my own perspective and even debating its strength. I started doing exactly what an actor should never do, which is want a job. Thankfully my phone rang a while later. It was Julianne Boyd calling to tell me that they had green lighted the show for the Barrington Stage 2009 summer season and would I continue in the role. I was thrilled and said yes without any thinking about it.  

4) CU. Were there a lot of actors considered for your role?

  MR. Dunno!

MHD. Hopefully not!

  5) CU. How would you sum up your character?  

MR. I see Freud as a wonderful, flawed genius with rye humor and bad posture.

MHD. Lewis is a gentle man and a gentleman. He's bright without ego. He's lived a complicated, diverse life. Through his experiences, research and reflection he's achieved a great joyfulness. His faith is powerful but in no way has it closed his mind.

6) CU. When you began to develop your performance, did you feel restricted, or intimidated, by playing historical figures?

  MR. Strangely not. History is a lot of smoke and mirrors to my mind. Famous/historical people I have met rarely live up to their image. Freud was a very gifted human being who was turned into an icon. I tried to turn him back by looking for his foibles, his humanity.

MHD. I had a great fear of playing someone who is so intellectually superior to me. Lewis' knowledge is vast. With the limited amount of time we had to get the show on its feet I knew there was no way I could wrestle that giant. Still I tried. I started by reading everything that's mentioned in the context of our play. If I couldn't know it all at least I would have a knowledge of what's discussed in context of the play. Then it hit me that I may not have the "head smarts" of Lewis but I did have the " heart smarts." If I couldn't uncover Lewis' brain I could uncover his heart and spirit. Through that I began to discover our similarities as opposed to our differences. I began to understand his mind. His thinking became clearer to me. He is still far brighter and knowledgeable than I will ever be but his heart is a heart I can understand.  

7) CU. What kind of research did you do for your character?  

MR. I watched a lot of footage of Freud on YouTube. I was interested in clues about him revealed by his body language. I saw arrogance and shyness competing. I saw an attempt to assume the icon for the cameras, but also the insecurity. And of course I read and read around him.

MHD. I mentioned above reading everything that is discussed in the play. Beyond that I made the very conscious decision not to re-read or research any part of Lewis' biography or work that occurs after Sept 3, 1939; the day our play takes place. I'm familiar with a lot of Lewis' writing beyond that point. His famous work all comes after the play. I found it important to focus on who the man WAS not who he was going to be. After all, none of us knows who we are going to be. Especially with war knocking at the door in 1939. Lewis had lived through the horrors of battle in WWI. He knew that he may not live to see the sun rise again. I also find it fascinating that this is a younger Lewis. A Lewis whose opinions are still being formed. He's a man with great faith and belief but he is not afraid to admit that he still doesn't completely understand the many mysteries surrounding the idea of God or Christianity.

8) CU. The play is a battle of brains and wits, with the 83-year-old Freud -- 3 weeks from his death -- facing off against a 40-year-old C. S. Lewis. In what way did you find this strenuous for YOUR brain, energy and acting resources?

MR. There is no doubt this play is a gym for any actor. There is nowhere to hide, a twitch of the eyebrow can be seen in our intimate space, so truthfulness is essential every second of the performance. That requires immense concentration and 8 shows a week requires great stamina. To get inside the thinking of a brilliant mind also is a challenge.  

9) CU. How has it been for each of you playing opposite each other?  

MR. I truly love playing opposite Mark. He is all you could ask for in an acting partner. I like each performance to be fresh and a little different from the previous, and so does Mark. We have a special bond because we rely on each other to keep riding this little train that can.

MHD. I have great respect for Martin Rayner. Fortunately we get on really well on and off stage. On stage we both come from the school of keeping things fluid. Nothing is set. Of course there is a framework that we completely respect but if new things creep in, more power to us. We thrive off of the unexpected.

  10) CU. How do you keep your role fresh after 450-plus performances?  

MR. Just by being in the moment fully and allowing each performance to reveal new insights by being free and open to play. If I do something new that comes to me in the moment, Mark responds with something new. And vice versa.

MHD. The material is so captivating it's hard to be tired of it. Every performance something new hits me. It's never the same thing twice. We're also gifted by having such and intimate space. The audience is practically in the room with us. Nothing keeps you more focused than that. They make a very powerful fourth wall for us.

 11) CU. How do you explain that this show with just 2 characters, lots of talk and no real special effects has attracted such a huge number of theatergoers, including A-list celebrities?  

MR. I think it is that Mark St. Germain has written a wonderful and true play that we can mine for riches. It may be a speculation that these men met, but what they say is what they actually believed in life, without exception. I think audiences are able to feel that they are actually a fly on the wall to a meeting that is very, very realistic. People tell me that they felt they were with Freud for a while and they were thrilled to be there. Then these people send friends or come again with friends or family. We sign scripts after the show and get a chance to hear these things.  

12)  CU. Over the show’s long run, has there been anything that has been especially memorable? For example, has an audience been particularly responsive? Or has something terribly annoying happened—like getting stuck in traffic and almost not making the show and how did this impact upon your performance?  

MR. There have been many incidents! Sometimes people come up in tears and hug us and that stays with you. We had a woman faint at a gory bit of the play, so I told the audience jokes while she was being revived. We once had too aggressive flies on stage that attacked us both, especially me and my white hair and glasses! In the end we had to acknowledge them. I had a hissy fit at them, which the audience enjoyed. I was once very annoyed by a young couple on the front row who were being very silly with each other and distracting us mightily. When they finally stuck their fingers up each others noses, Freud did a brief intervention.

13) CU. The play was inspired by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi’s ‘The Question of God.’ Has your view of religion or God changed in any way since undertaking this role?  

MR. No.

MHD. My view of religion/God hasn't necessarily changed but it has been heightened. You can play someone like C.S. Lewis day after day and not see the world in a slightly different way. I find myself consciously making kinder, gentler choices during the day. If someone angers me I think about their needs or their perspective before getting all flustered. I guess you could say I've been seeing what happens if you actually "turn the other cheek." It's interesting. I find leading with this empathy actually makes my day happier.  

14) CU. Is there any particular scene in the play that you consider transcendent in importance?  

MR. Perhaps when each man confesses his own fears and humanity in a quiet moment after much arguing. It is almost a father son bonding between them that I find very true and touching.  

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