For a first-time visitor to Los Angeles, Espen Skjonberg is doing little sight-seeing. Most days and nights have found the Norwegian actor at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where he'll be playing the title role in "King Lear" (opening tonight).
"I'm not used to so much rehearsals," the 63-year-old Skjonberg said wearily. "Yesterday, what was it--12 hours? In Norway, we are rehearsing only four hours a day--and for 8, 10, up to 12 weeks. So yes, it does feel a little hurried."
Hurried, and in English too.
In conversation, Skjonberg (pronounced Shern -berg) speaks the language cautiously--but on stage, Shakespeare's words require not only speed and energy, but the appropriate cadence as well.
"I had to work very hard on the language and the lines," he acknowledged. "And it (requires) a double concentration: doing my part and being in my part--and at the same time always listening, because it is not my language. I'm trying to touch the right tone, the right tempo, the right speed." He smiled. "When I'm working in Norway, it's my own language, so I can improvise. . . .
"I'm very glad to be in a Shakespeare play," he added quickly. "And it is a special experience for me to use Shakespeare's own language. In Norway we always have to translate it--and it's not the same. The difference is that what you can say in English in three words, in Norwegian you have to use five or six. Also, Shakespeare's words (often) have many different meanings."
In spite of those obstacles, Skjonberg's track record with the Bard is impressive: He's played title roles in "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Richard III" and "Othello," plus an English-language staging of "The Merchant of Venice" in England.
Of "Lear," he says: "There are so many ways to see it. Of course it's a play about children's lack of gratitude and about being old. And it's a play (about) power. Lear--he is a king; he has always gotten everything he wanted. A rather spoiled child. But during the process he learns, learns to be human, so at the end he is a greater man. He understands more, knows more about life. Lear was on top--and he ends up down there, feeling what brutal power really is. That's a great spectrum to play."
The actor is relying heavily on director/fellow Norwegian Stein Winge (whose LATC credits include "The Three Sisters," "Barabbas" and "The Glass Menagerie") for many of those emotional cues.
"Stein and I have been working together for many years, so we know each other well," Skjonberg said. "Stein is different from other directors because he (accepts) all the challenges he gets from the actors. It's a wonderful thing to go against a director and fight with him. He's a very strong man--and I've fought with him many times. About all things."
Who ultimately triumphs?
The actor grinned. "I do very often, but only when it's the right thing to do. We have to fight it out, face the problems--and if I don't agree, we find other ways to cope."
Although his parents were both actors, Skjonberg didn't pursue the family business until his 20s.
"I wanted to be an actor during the war, but it was difficult; because of the German occupation of Norway, most of the theaters had Nazi directors. If people wanted to act, they had to go to the school the Nazis had. Most of my generation are more or less self-made--we had to pick it up by doing it. You see, theater in Norway is very young, only 150 years old. We have very little tradition. That's our strength, and weakness. We can do marvelous performances (including a Jose Quintero-directed staging of "Moon for the Misbegotten," starring Skjonberg and Liv Ullmann) and also some very bad ones."
He shrugged contentedly. "I like the system we have there. All the theaters have their own staff; I have been a member of the National Theatre (in Oslo) for almost 19 years. It's ensemble playing, which theater is really based on, so it doesn't matter if I (sometimes) play a small part--next time it will be my turn. But there's no place for stars in Norway. You can't base your existence on being a star."
Consequently, don't expect this American experience to turn his head. "I'm glad to work here, be here," Skjonberg said with a resolute smile, "and live there. "