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Venerable character actor Henry Stram returns to his classical roots in The School for Scandal
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
Since he trained at the Juilliard School of Drama and got his professional start in John Houseman's lauded The Acting Company in the '70s, it makes sense that Henry Stram's résumé is dotted with Shakespeare and other classics. But look more closely at his credits and you'll notice that the stalwart stage performer, who won an Obie award for Sustained Excellence in Performance in 1996, perpetually ping-pongs between the traditional and the avant-garde. And that's the way he likes it.
"I try to keep a list of all the shows I've done, and I think this is my 100th play since I graduated from Juilliard," he says. "It was a very intense, classically based and directed program. And yet when I got out, I was obsessed with working with [experimental theatre pioneer] Richard Foreman. I remember I saw an opera he directed called Hotel for Criminals, and it blew me away. I really pursued a way to work with Richard and that led me to a lot of downtown, avant-garde stuff. I think it was a reaction [to my training]; I wanted to do a different kind of theatre. I was really drawn to it. I even met my husband, Martin Moran, doing one of Anne Bogart's early shows, the musical The Making of Americans."
Stram's versatility has made him a sought-after character player for four decades by both cutting-edge and classical troupes. And Red Bull Theater -- which was founded in 2003 and named after one of London's top theatres during Shakespeare's era -- has been looking to collaborate with him for years. "I had done a couple of readings with Red Bull, but because of my schedule I had never been able to do a production," Stram explains. "I know Marc Vietor, our director, as a friend and a wonderful actor. So when he asked me to do The School for Scandal and told me the cast [which includes five-time Tony nominee Dana Ivey and stage and small-screen star Mark Linn-Baker], I thought it would be wonderful."
Though Stram had seen Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 18th century comedy of manners and almost been in a revival once, this is his first time doing the play. And while it's a true ensemble piece, his role as Sir Oliver, a wealthy man trying to find out which of his two nephews is truly worthy of his fortune and love, is a particularly rich one. Not only is he the catalyst for the plot, he also gets to go incognito as two other characters -- needy fake relative Mr. Stanley and moneylender Mr. Premium -- in order to better assess his potential heirs.
"It's such a beautiful role that has a lot of pathos and feeling," says Stram. "I especially love playing that auction scene [when his supposedly good-for-nothing nephew, Charles Surface, sells all of the family portraits, save for Sir Oliver's]. I love that he forgives his nephew. On the surface, The School for Scandal can be seen as quite cruel and brittle, but discovering the human stories in it has been the rewarding part. Nothing is ever done with the intention of it just being comical. It's a real workout mentally and physically. It takes a lot of energy to drive that language, which is sort of iridescent and dense. You can hear there's a way to say the line that’s the 'right way.' You'll hit on the music of the line and it will ring out. A lot of it is finding that in front of an audience, how exactly the line needs to land to make the point."
Now that the cast is in previews at Off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre (where the show officially opens on April 24), the actors are honing their performances based on audience reaction, not necessarily for laughs, but to make the story clear. "It's always surprising to find which things the audience finds funny and which they don't," says Stram. "In the rehearsal room, when you're in a happy experience working on a play, everyone falls in love with each other. Everyone's quirks can crack you up. Even if something doesn't get a laugh onstage, above all, we work very hard to communicate the story."
Stram, who looks exceedingly youthful at 61, perhaps because of the playful sparkle in his eyes, says he has no plans to retire. Acting on stage in New York City is what he's wanted to do since he was a child growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, where his father, Hank Stram, was a legendary NFL coach. "My father wasn't into theatre at all, but he knew I loved it, so he took me to all the NYC games so we could see shows," Stram remembers. "My first Broadway show was Fiddler on the Roof. By that point, Zero Mostel had been replaced by Harry Goz, but Better Midler was in it -- I know because I kept the program! That was such an amazing experience for me. Being an actor is such a kind of manic-depressive path where you're either working or you're not. And when I'm not, I find it so hard to navigate. But the unhappiness of not working dissipates whenever I go into a rehearsal room."
Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top image: Christian DeMarais and Henry Stram.