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Q&A : 'People Need to Hear a Poem Being Emoted'

June 16, 1995| Recently, Stewart spoke to staff writer Jan Herman about "Venus and Adonis" and his lifelong devotion to Shakespeare

\o7 Benjamin Stewart launches Shakespeare Orange County's 1995 summer season tonight at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre in Orange with a one-man dramatization of "Venus and Adonis," the epic poem that first made Shakespeare's literary reputation.

Rarely seen on stage except as a reading, the poem tells the story of Venus' infatuation with and pursuit of the handsome Adonis, who prefers to take a rain check on the affair.

Stewart, 52, hardly seems the embodiment of either Venus or Adonis. He looks more like a puckish version of Charles Laughton, with jowls that make him seem a cherub rather than a bulldog.

Stewart, who was born and raised in Houston, first came to Southern California in 1969. Lacking any conservatory training in theater, he supported himself for four years by delivering furniture while trying to catch on as an actor by doing "Shakespeare on the side." By the mid-1970s, however, Stewart found a professional home at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles (appearing in "St. Joan" with Sarah Miles, "Macbeth" with Charlton Heston, "The Devil's Disciple" with Rex Harrison and "Night of the Iguana" with Richard Chamberlain, among others) and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

Stewart also worked for many seasons at the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove, for whom he staged "Venus and Adonis" in 1988.

By the mid-1980s, after appearing in "Jitters" and "As You Like It" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, he left Southern California for Tucson and became a member of the classical ensemble at the Arizona Theatre Company.

In 1991, he left that company and took a year off to write a novel, as yet unpublished. Since then he has been crisscrossing the country from Portland, Me., to Dallas, Hartford, Conn., to Phoenix, doing everything from his one-man Truman Capote show to "Sly Fox" to "The Merry Wives of Windsor," as well as new plays.

Recently, Stewart spoke to staff writer Jan Herman about "Venus and Adonis" and his lifelong devotion to Shakespeare.

Question: Why stage a Shakespeare poem when there are so many of his plays?

Answer: Every time I do "Venus and Adonis" for more than just one performance, I get to feeling it's my mission in life. I don't know why exactly. I think people should learn to sit and listen to poetry again. And this one is accessible because it's a simple narrative story. People need to hear a poem being emoted, not just read off the page. That can be very dull. When "Venus and Adonis" is emoted, it has all the rises and falls, the subtleties and changes of texture that make it entertaining.

Q: How do you memorize an epic poem with more than a 1,000 lines?

A: Over the past six months I've broken it down into its music, which has changed how I rehearse it. I used to not be able to do it all the way through. I used to start and get a certain way in, and then I'd stop. So the second half was under-rehearsed. Now that I've finally broke it into its musical sections, I can pick it up at any point because I've got the score in my head--and the emotion attaches to that.

Q: It's interesting that you refer to the "score" of a poem.

A: I think the most important thing in doing Shakespeare is the music. If you don't get the music, you probably won't get the meaning.

Once, when I was doing "Henry IV, Part I," I went out in the first scene, and everything was going beautifully. The timing was right. The audience seemed to be paying attention. I did my opening pantomime, sat on the throne and looked at the crowd. And then I started my first speech.

Because we didn't have enough people on stage to make a court, we addressed the audience as if it was the court. So I gazed into the audience, and, as luck would have it, I looked right into the face of a woman with the kind of expression that somebody doing Shakespeare does not want to see.

It was an expression of total incomprehension, boredom and fear. She looked like she was thinking, "Oh God! I knew it was going to be like this. I knew I wasn't going to understand it. I wonder how long this is going to be?"

I thought, "Just great." Actors face this all the time. This is why, every once in a while, I say, "I'm not going to do any more Shakespeare. They don't understand it, and I have to fool myself into thinking they do."

Well, you don't go to grand opera and expect to understand it all by not having studied the score. When you get it on a musical level, even if you don't understand the language they're singing in, certain emotions comes through. That's what makes the music of Shakespeare so important. You have to come to it . It must not lower itself to come to you .

Q: When did you connect with "Venus and Adonis?"

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