"Find a few things to latch onto and use that as your guidepost as you move through the story."
In a new musical, Matt Bogart embodies the literary lion
Playing a famous person means accepting a lot of responsibility. Audiences come into the theatre with either intimate knowledge or vague awareness of the person, so any choices made by the actor will enhance, contradict, or jibe with those public perceptions. How can a performer truthfully portray such a known entity while also giving the role a unique spin?
If nothing else, Matt Bogart can begin with an enormous amount of available research material. Himself and Nora, a new Jonathan Brielle-penned musical directed by Michael Bush at the Minetta Lane Theatre, stars Bogart as Irish poet and novelist James Joyce. When he first auditioned for the role about a decade ago, Bogart read Joyce's words for clues on the man behind them, starting with his debut novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
"I love learning about different periods of time, and how to incorporate a character into that period of time -- like finding a physical trait that's appropriate for that time period, or a kind of different voice for that character that might be appropriate," Bogart says.
Although the actor doesn't consider himself "a well-versed Joycean," and in fact struggled with much of Joyce's writing, he worked to adapt a literary voice into a theatrical one. "I'm not a professor of English writing or anything, so it's very difficult for me to dissect and figure out exactly all of what Joyce was trying to say, especially considering a lot of his [colloquialisms] in regards to Ireland and Dublin specifically," he says. "I enjoyed listening to the sounds of it all. I enjoyed figuring out what he was saying."
Matt Bogart and Whitney Bashor
But when playing a celebrity, says Bogart, an actor's real job is to "figure out how that character fits into this story you're telling." Himself and Nora may feature a famous man, but it's ultimately a love story; Brielle doesn't incorporate the writer's text into his lyrics, instead painting an intimate portrait of Joyce and the passionate, tumultuous relationship he had with Nora Barnacle, his partner and eventual wife.
"It's not necessarily about his writing or his work, but it is about his life," Bogart explains. "It is an impression of his life. What I have to convey is the script that we're working with, and the story Jonathan has decided to write about the man." Research can help that process, he adds, but actors should use historical accuracy as a tool rather than as a focal point. "Find a few things to latch onto and use that as your guidepost as you move through the story."
Bogart took the same approach to Nick Massi of the Four Seasons, a part he played in Broadway's Jersey Boys for seven years. The real Massi had passed away before the musical's development, so the writers didn't have a chance to interview him. "There's not much written about him; he escapes a lot of people," says Bogart. "I went with the script and played off the other guys and made some decisions of my own, and I came up with a kind of interesting character which lived in the world of that New Jersey enclave and participated in that band."
For Bogart, crafting a portrayal that is tonally consistent with the world of the play takes precedence over both historical research and an audience's perceptions. "I always defer to the author and the script whenever I'm playing a famous character like this," he says. "If you try to play it historically, every detail, it may not coincide exactly with the story we're trying to convey." Theatre is a collective storytelling effort, after all, and actors must do their part.
In fact, Bogart adds, a famous quote from Joyce sums up the process nicely: "In the particular is contained the universal."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Himself and Nora. Click here to browse our current offers.
Follow Jack Smart at @JackSmartWrites. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Matt Murphy. Top photo: Matt Bogart as James Joyce.