By Stacey Gillard and Mieke Trudeau
With a career spanning almost 40 years, Jim Beaver has portrayed a wide range of television characters, including recent fan-favorites Shelby Parlow on Justified and Bobby Singer on Supernatural. He has also been involved in theatre for many years, being a prominent member of the internationally acclaimed non-profit arts organization Theatre West in Los Angeles.
In April of 1985 Mr. Beaver wrote and produced a play called Verdigris as part of a Theatre West production workshop. A tale of a wheelchair bound woman, Margaret Fielding, and her interactions with and manipulations of the people surrounding her, the play balanced comedy and drama as the lead character took command of her own life and the lives of her neighbors. With the name, Verdigris, being a metaphorical representation for the crusty exterior hiding the true Margaret, much as the green patina hides bronze, its limited run received much critical acclaim, even winning several awards and being chosen for a workshop at the Berkshire Film Festival later that year. Mr. Beaver recently announced a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for pre-production and running costs when Verdigris returns to the stage at Theatre West early next year.
We were afforded the opportunity to ask a few questions of Mr. Beaver about his career and the upcoming production of Verdigris.
At Stake Magazine: Your characters on television have been well-loved and you have recently finished filming Crimson Peak, a movie with Tom Hiddlestone and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. How would you describe the differences between acting in blockbusters, fan favorite TV shows and the more intimate experience of theatre?
Jim Beaver: The biggest differences are technical. On a TV show like Supernatural, one might shoot 2, 3, even 4 scenes in a day. On a big picture like Crimson Peak, ‘a single scene might take several days to shoot. A movie schedule allows (usually) for much more attention to detail, to repetition, to fine-tuning both the visuals and the performances. TV is generally more rushed, and it’s to the credit of TV producers that so much of the work looks and plays so brilliantly. The acting, in both, of course, is piecemeal. Scenes are shot out-of-order, days, weeks, even months apart from the scenes they abut. One’s first day on a film can be a nude love scene with someone you’ve only just met, and the last day of filming can be of the first scene in the picture, so there’s the constant need to maintain the story and the degrees of intensity of every stage of it in one’s head. There’s also the knowledge that mistakes are [not] critical, generally, because there’s always another take. That’s where the stage has the first of its big differences. A mistake during a stage performance can’t be corrected by going back and doing it again. It has to be accommodated and incorporated into the performance somehow, and there’s no break to rethink or regroup. The great pleasure (and terror) of the stage is that it all happens in one night. One’s entire performance happens all in one night, rather than in bits and pieces scattered over a couple of weeks or months. The story occurs in order and all in one evening. The audience sees it precisely at the moment it is performed, and the audience tells you whether they like it or not right at that moment. The audience then gets to say thanks all at the same time on the same evening, and the cast gets to hear (or not hear!) the audience’s appreciation in the same beat of time. Add to that the necessity of playing in such a way as to be believable and audible to all parts of the auditorium at the same time, and theater is a much different experience from film and TV. In some ways, it is more rewarding. But it is also infinitely more ephemeral. It only plays back in one’s memory.
ASM: Verdigris was very well received critically on its original run in 1985 and you had great success along with Verdigris director Mark Travis, producer Charlie Mount, and set designer Jeff G. Rack with your Theatre West production of The Lion In Winter. You have also written for episodic television. Would you focus on writing one or the other or is there enough difference in technique between writing for television and theatre that you would be happy to do both?
JB: I much prefer writing for the theatre to writing for TV. I very much enjoyed my brief success as a TV writer, but it was nerve-wracking and never as rewarding as my work for the stage. TV writing generally involves creating story lines for someone else’s characters and sagas. The restrictions of time and the fact that one is rarely in charge of the show itself make it a less inviting arena for me. Much of my angst as a TV writer was in trying to fit a 72-minute story into a 48-minute time slot. The theatre has no such restrictions, and, generally speaking, one is writing for oneself, foremost, creating characters and stories that express one’s own feelings and attitudes, instead of always bending one’s writing to fit the pre-established mold of existing characters and situations. There’s a lot of freedom in TV these days, but still not as much as is available to the playwright, and the playwright has a much better chance of seeing his work produced. I loved both media, but for the reasons I’ve described and because I’m much more interested in how characters talk and express themselves and their stories than in visuals, it’s for the stage I’m most comfortable and happy writing.
ASM: How important is it to involve community when it comes to productions such as Verdigris?
JB: The arts are, at their core, about community, about finding the bonds among us and strengthening and illuminating them. Nowhere in the arts is this more important than in the theatre, which depends on an audience to exist. A gorgeous melody is a gorgeous melody, no matter how many people hear it. A painting’s beauty is the same whether one person sees it or a thousand. But a play with no one, or almost no one, in the audience is a vastly different thing than one performed before a full house. But beyond the audience for any given performance, there is impact of theatre on the community, on the social collection. Various arts have varying purposes. Theatre, more than any of the arts, throws light upon the path to a better humanity. Theatre helps us understand who we are as a race of people, what the mistakes we make can cost, how our excellences can elevate us, and how to avoid pitfalls and achieve glories. Theatre is the mirror art, the one that shows us not only who we are but who we can be. As such, it is irreplaceable in society, and society, whether it realizes it or not, thrives more in a community which supports theatre than in one which doesn’t. So while any given example of theatre may seem trivially comedic or comparatively meaningless, in aggregate the theatre helps lift mankind, whether by example or merely by lightening its load for a short time. And because it is an expensive art to produce, far more expensive than most forms of artistic endeavor, it seems important that its value to the community be recognized and supported by the community. I don’t know that Verdigris will change the world. I hope it does its small part to make the world better or happier or less tedious. But it gratifies me to know that there are many in the community at large who share my belief in theatre and want to help it in its never-ending quest to survive. A painter without a community may still paint. A composer may still write and play his music. But a theatre without a community engaging with it and supporting it ceases to exist as either art or an example and ends up nothing more than a big empty room.
We would like to thank Mr. Beaver for his honest and insightful responses to our questions. The Kickstarter campaign for Verdigris runs until November 25th with a wide range of rewards depending on pledge level. You can find information on the campaign here, as well as a fascinating video interview with Jim Beaver detailing the campaign.