Tales of unrequited love are timeless, gripping stories that rarely fail to bring audiences of all kinds to the theater. Austin Shakespeare’s latest production is just that – a play exploring the secret, longtime love of the great poet A.E. Housman. Written by British playwright, Tom Stoppard, The Invention of Love centers on a young Housman and an older Housman and his memories at the end of his life. Featuring historical figures such as a young, exuberant Oscar Wilde, The Invention of Love includes many classical allusions and has been highly praised for its exceptionally crafted monologues and its compelling, defining moments.
The well-received play has finally made its way to Austin and the cast and crew have been hard at work, bringing Stoppard’s vision to life on the Rollins Theatre’s stage at the Long Center. Director Ann Ciccolella and actors Phillip Goodwin, who stars as the older Housman, and Brian Coughlin starring as Oscar Wilde, share how they’ve prepared for the play, what audiences can look forward to and what the play means to the LGBT community.
Director Ann Ciccolella on ‘The Invention of Love’
How did you first get involved in the play and what initially drew you to this production?
I saw the play at Lincoln Center in its first run and really enjoyed it. When Austin Shakespeare’s board president, Boyce Cabaniss, brought up the idea of us doing it for Austin audiences I was delighted but I knew the actor to play the lead for us was Philip Goodwin. About 18 months ago, we asked Philip to return to Austin to play the lead, “A.E. Housman;” he had played George in a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that I directed at ZACH.
What are some ideas or visions as a director that you were about to bring to Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love?
Our motto at Austin Shakespeare is “to celebrate the best within us” and that theme is deep within The Invention of Love. With designers, we aimed at creating the dream world of the play in the intimate Rollins Theater at the Long Center. We have cast a fabulous group of 13 actors and one actress. We have 2 guest artists to play the older and younger A.E. Housman: one is Andre Martin from L.A. who will play the younger Housman and the other is Philip Goodwin from New York who has played on Broadway and all over the U.S. They are amazing together, particularly in a brilliant Stoppard scene when they MEET each other! As a director, my goal to bring the best out of each actor and we have some of our very best actors in this ensemble. Can’t wait to share this production with audiences!
This play was originally written in 1997 and since then views on the LGBT community have evolved – why bring this play to the stage and why now?
Like any great play, The Invention of Love is about its own time and for all time. Even though marriage equality is much more accepted now, this play’s unrequited love is a timeless story of ideal love, poetry and the journey of life.
How has this play been received over the years and do you expect it to bring more visibility to the LGBT community in theater?
Audiences all over the country have responded to the clever wit and deep desire in The Invention of Love, but there has never been a production of it in Austin. We have used this occasion to honor three Austin theater lovers whose lives have supported the causes of LGBT – Bettie Naylor, Charles Gentry and Karen Kuykendall. Austin Shakespeare has initiated The BCK Fund to support our LGBT outreach in their memory.
Brian Coughlin, playing Oscar Wilde and Philip Goodwin, playing A.E. Housman on ‘The Invention of Love’
What has it been like stepping into the role of a historic figure or roles surrounded around real historic figures?
Brian Coughlin – Stepping into the role of an historic figure, as opposed to a fictional character, is exciting but it can also be somewhat intimidating. In researching Oscar Wilde, I was not surprised to find that there is an almost overwhelming amount of historical and biographical information. Not to mention the enormous amount of literary criticism and analysis that has been written. Given that Wilde died in 1900, he certainly made no appearances on television or in film. There are no radio interviews, no guest appearances on talk shows, and no film or newsreel footage, so, needless to say, spending hours on YouTube was not an option. The only resources I had were the written word, both by Wilde and about Wilde, still photographs, and my imagination. Because there was no “media” to influence me, it eliminated the possibility of simply mimicking or impersonating, which is often a trap for an actor when playing a real person.
Phillip Goodwin – I was a history major in college. I like reading it. It’s a tricky business in theatre though, where dramatic license is a playwright’s necessity. Look at Shakespeare. I played Lord Byron in a Tennessee Williams play once, and I spent a lot of time reading up on the poet. Whereas, in that case I should have spent more time reading about Williams. The character was more Tennessee than Byron. But I will say that our playwright, Tom Stoppard, is a scrupulous researcher. And has obviously followed historical fact closely, much of it is included in the play. And I think he has read Housman’s poetry and criticism closely, for he has captured those voices well. So I’ve enjoyed trying to capture in turn those double voices of Housman. Then again, as the Housman character says in the play, his dream, and it is a dream play, is not short on fact….or fiction.
Can you relate the characters in any way and if so, how do you identify with the characters in the play?
BC – Yes, I very much relate to Wilde. In fact, the more I research and the more I rehearse the play, the more I think I’m beginning to understand him. It’s been and continues to be an ongoing process of discovery. I relate to him both as an artist and as a gay man. Most profoundly, I relate to his belief that art, of any kind, is what elevates the human experience to something above the conventional and the ordinary.
PG – I’m from Maine where, as John Irving wrote, “It’s better to know something than to say it.” I think I can recognize Housman’s crankiness and taciturnity. Like Housman, who pursued the classical Greek and Roman authors and their writing, I’ve spent much of my professional career pursuing the plays of classical writers–Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, the Jacobean authors, Moliere. One of the reasons I wanted to do this play was to discover why – why, like Housman, such a dogged pursuit of the seemingly obscure, the distant, the remote.
What’s been some of your proudest moments preparing for your role and also, some of the more challenging moments?
BC – My proudest moments have been in rehearsal when I realize that all of the research and preparation are making a difference. As actors, we are taught to stop listening to ourselves, but instead to listen to the other characters in the scene, to always be “in the moment”. We are also taught that if you do your “homework,” at some point you just have to trust it and let it go. Some of my proudest moments are when, either in rehearsal or performance, I realize that I’ve stopped trying so hard. I just allow the character to live and breathe.
The challenge with this role in particular is that the character of Wilde enters the play very late in his life. But to effectively portray him at this stage, I needed to understand his journey up to the point when he enters the story. As part of my process, it’s crucial for me to experience that journey in my mind before I set foot on stage.
One of the most important things our director, Ann Ciccolella, said to the actors early on in the rehearsal process was that, “this play is about moments”. That really stuck with me because one of the greatest challenges with a play such as this is defining those moments. The writing is quite dense, but that is part of the genius of Tom Stoppard, the playwright. It is our job as actors to create those moments with as much specificity, truth, and clarity of intention as possible. Much of the play is comprised of finely crafted monologues and speeches which require, in my opinion, a higher degree of attention, engagement and listening on the part of the audience. But it’s our job as actors to make it worth listening to in the first place.
PG – The play presents a very extended dialogue between the older Housman and his younger self, played by Andre Martin. It comes at the end of the first act, a challenging placement for the scene, a challenging scene. Talking to “yourself”, as it were, is not easy, in any circumstance. But I am very proud of the connection Andre and I have made, and feel privileged to have him as a scene partner. I’m also quite chuffed to be able to say a line of Greek with confidence.
What can audiences expect from this play?
PG – A challenging play. A very sharp discussion of many topics and ideas and perhaps a discovery that a play of “ideas” can also be a play of feeling.
BC – First and foremost, I think the audience can expect some truly beautiful performances, especially from the two wonderful actors, Andre’ Martin and Philip Goodwin, who play the younger and older Housman, respectively. The rest of the cast is just terrific – both on and off stage. This play is extremely unique in so many ways. The language of the piece is as lyrical as it is intellectual. The world of the play, as seen through the eyes of the protagonist, the older Housman, is beautifully complex. If the audience is willing to enter this world with us and take the journey, I think they will leave the theatre with a great many things on which to reflect.
Much has been written concerning what the play is “about”. From my perspective, I see the play as an homage to the artist. Housman and Wilde lived life very differently. Housman played it safe, in “quiet desperation” but his life did not end tragically. Wilde lived life on his own terms and, sadly, it destroyed him. For the artist, life are not interdependent. But, in the final analysis, an artist’s life inevitably comes to an end. But, for a truly great artist, the art that was created lives on. In the play, Wilde sums it up beautifully when he says to Housman:
“You didn’t mention your poems.
How can you be unhappy when you know you wrote them?
They are all that will still matter.”
Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, Austin Texas
02/18/2015 – 03/8/2015 | Purchase tickets
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