Back in the Burgh

by Carlyn Aquiline, City Theatre Literary Manager and Dramaturg, and Harry Bouvy, The Clockmaker cast member.

Actor Harry Bouvy is a native Pittsburgher—his family still lives here—who grew up in the South Hills, went to college at Pitt, and still has friends in the local theatre community. But, though Harry played his hometown while on tour with The Producers, he hasn’t been back to work with one of Pittsburgh’s resident theatre companies since he moved out of town in the early 90s. City Theatre is thrilled to welcome Harry, now a New Yorker, back to play the title role in The Clockmaker, playwright Stephen Massicotte’s romance/murder mystery running January 23-February 15. Harry and I talked at the start of our second week of rehearsals. 

Carlyn Aquiline: Why don’t we refer to this as your “not a blog” entry—since I did a little research (I am a dramaturg, it’s part of what I do) and found out you’re not a fan of the blogosphere. I was surprised when I found out you’ve never been back, in all the years since you moved to New York, to do a play with one of Pittsburgh’s resident companies. Welcome back! What and when was the last show you did with a Pittsburgh company?

Harry Bouvy: This question feels appropriate, since one of the themes of The Clockmaker has to do with memory. I’m going to have to wrack my brain to answer this one! I last appeared in Pittsburgh in 2005 when I was in town with the national tour of The Producers, in which I played Carmen Ghia. But as far as appearing with a Pittsburgh company… um… I believe it was in a production of The Sum of Us at the Public. Anyone who saw that wouldn’t really remember me, though, because I was essentially part of the “ensemble.” I was among four scene-changers in soccer uniforms who changed the set between scenes one and two. That’s it. Are there theatre awards in Pittsburgh? Because I would have won Best Scenic Move of the Year for that one. 🙂 

CA: “Best set changers” is one year end list Chris Rawson doesn’t compile. You’re an alum of Pitt’s theatre department, so some of your close friends still work in the Pittsburgh theatre—including Patti Kelly, City Theatre’s long-time stage manager, and CT Steele, who sometimes designs costumes for us. Looking back, what was the best thing you took away from the training you received at Pitt, and why?

HB: Hm. I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, because there are two routes a theatre student can take when he enters college: the B.A. route, where you major in theatre while being exposed to a liberal arts training (like the program at Pitt); or the B.F.A. route, a conservatory style of training where you are immersed in “all things acting”: voice, movement, scene study, etc. (like the program at CMU). For a while, I regretted not following the more conservatory style of training, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really valued my liberal arts training. It exposed me to a broader spectrum of life, and when you get right down to it, acting is about taking your life experiences and loading them into your performances. So when I entered Pitt at the tender age of eighteen—after growing up in a relatively sheltered environment in the South Hills—I was glad to be exposed to new experiences that fueled the acting training I later received in graduate school (at the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory in Sarasota).

CA: How does it feel to be in rehearsal getting ready to perform again for the hometown crowd?

HB: Really great. You mentioned Patti Kelly and CT Steele in the last question. The three of us shared a house right here on the South Side when I graduated from college—wow, twenty-one years ago—just over on Jane Street. God, we rented a three-story, three-bedroom townhouse for 525 bucks! Total! Those were the days, right? To be back here, rehearsing just blocks from where I used to live is surreal. And my entire family still lives here in the ’burgh, so I’m seeing a lot of them. My nephew Benny, who is six years old, just had me over the other night to watch an episode of The Clone Wars on the Cartoon Network! And I just had dinner at my mom and dad’s house last night. Pot roast. Delicious. So yeah, I’m loving it. …. And being back in a rehearsal hall with Patti Kelly is fantastic. More about that later…

CA: In the play, the main characters are time-travelers of a sort, the choices of a life time (and the afterlife) receive a gentle existential examination, and the tenacity of memory is a dubious gift. I’m wondering how you think being “home”—i.e., where you grew up and went to school—might affect or intensify your reflections on the play’s themes of time and memory, or vice versa.

HB: Yeah. That’s a good question. I sort of touched on this earlier, the fact that acting is loading your life experiences into your performances. Heinrich (my character in the play) starts off with what seems like a case of amnesia, and slowly remembers parts of his life as he goes along. I feel a bit of a parallel going on as well… people from my past popping up on Facebook, for example. All of a sudden, a person you hadn’t thought of in many years has materialized and wants to know how you’ve been. And I think, “How have I been? Since 1985?!” How do you answer a question like that? Suddenly, all these images start to pop into my head… and I wonder if these images are the most significant events in my life? And what made them significant? And so I’m forced, in a way, to map out my past, which takes me right into the play. I’m doing what Heinrich is doing, essentially. So it fuels the rehearsals and, hopefully, the performance.

CA: When we were doing table-work, at the end of a read-through I heard you saying just what I kept saying after I first read The Clockmaker: “I love this play, I love this play, I love this play!” What do you love about this play? Why did you want to take on this role?

HB: This past year has been a difficult one, personally. A person I love died this year. I was at his bedside when he passed. And the main question in my mind was, “Where are you going?” I kept asking that question in my mind, over and over… “Where are you going? Where are you going?” The past six months has been about answering that question. And this play presents an answer that might be true. Might. Because no one knows, right? I love this play because, for me, it’s really ABOUT something. It deals with one of the great mysteries of life: where do we go when we die? I think Stephen Massicotte (the playwright) is a genius. The language he uses, his sense of humor, the structure of the play… it feels like a real mystery, a true reflection of what’s going on in our minds when we ask big questions like “Why am I here?” or “What is the Meaning of Life?” Sort of messy, unstructured structure. And beautiful.

CA: By some twist of fate, for the past few years you’ve performed only in either musicals or one-man plays. You’ve mentioned what a joy it is to be doing a straight play again—and with other people to act with! Can you talk about the differences in each of those acting challenges and why it’s great to be in a rehearsal room with some fellow actors again?

HB: Yes, I’ve done four one-man shows and lemme tell ya: it’s a lonely row to hoe. It’s also thrilling, though. The actor is in full control of the show… it takes a skill that is unlike acting with other people on stage. And it was a skill I didn’t have before doing the first one. Or, if I did have the skill, I didn’t know I had it. In essence, the audience is your acting partner. You become very attuned to how the audience is reacting to the show… if they’re not laughing in certain spots, or they’re coughing, or shuffling around in their seats… You have to be aware of everything going on in the house while continuing to say your lines and keep the show moving forward. It’s a big responsibility because if you have a “bad show” that night, you feel like, “Well I really screwed that up tonight!” And there’s no one else to blame! … I’m so glad to be in a show with other actors. It’s just more fun, frankly. There’s a camaraderie among actors that is unlike anything else. To go through a performance with other actors creates a kinship that’s hard to beat. And this cast (Tami Dixon, Joel Ripka, and Daryll Heysham) is fantastic. We’re having a great time.

Director Tracy Brigden gives a set presentation to Harry, along with Joel and Tami (sitting on the floor in front of him), to introduce them to the world they'll be living in for the next couple of months. Playwright Stephen Massicotte watches in the background.

CA: This is a play whose world has been wholly invented by the playwright. In this case, what textual and/or character exploration did you do on your own prior to the start of rehearsals, and then what did you discover last week as a result of the readings and table work with Tracy, Stephen, and the other actors?

HB: I didn’t have to do a whole lot of outside text work for this one because of some of the reasons I mentioned earlier about the year I’ve had. Also, a few years ago, I was a confirmed atheist. Organized religion just wasn’t working for me in my life and I wanted to allow my brain to consider that there was no God and no afterlife… that if you can’t explain something with science or logic, it doesn’t exist. I read books by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and pretty much toed the atheist line. When my friend died, that all changed. Not in terms of organized religion, but in terms of accepting that there are certain mysteries in life that cannot be explained. Sitting around the table last week with Stephen and the cast was just more confirmation that so much of life simply cannot be explained. People have their beliefs and opinions about God and the afterlife. I’ve never really understood why people insist that they KNOW the answers to these questions. I just don’t know. I’m comfortable with not knowing. I’m comfortable with a little mystery in my life.

CA: You’re into the second week of rehearsals now, the play is fully blocked and you’re going back to re-work and refine each scene and the blocking. What physical and mental challenges are the most present for you at this point in the process, and what primary challenges is the play presenting to you as we exchange these thoughts?

HB: Rehearsals are really about learning how to tell the story in the clearest way possible, with our thoughts, voices, and bodies. I’m currently focusing on Heinrich’s physicality… how he presents himself to the world. He says in the play that he’s “a nervous person.” What does that mean? How does it manifest itself in his voice and body that is different from mine? Or similar to mine? I think of times in my life when I’ve been nervous and try to apply some of it to the character in the circumstances of the play. As an actor, you’re constantly seeking truth. I don’t want to just go onstage and “be nervous.” You know what I mean?… shake and jitter and stutter… I don’t want to come off as a cardboard cutout. I ask myself lots of questions: Why is Heinrich nervous? How did he get this way? In what situations is he NOT nervous? It’s all trial and error, all in service to telling the story in the clearest way possible.

CA: Upcoming on the blog, we’ll be highlighting Patti Kelly, City Theatre’s Production Stage Manager for 20+ years, and what exactly she does as a show’s stage manager. So as a prelude and a little teaser, tell us: What’s the scoop on Patti Kelly? You’ve known her for 25 years, if I’m correct in my math. Can you share a classic “PK” tale from back in the day—you know, in the pre-iconic stage manager days?

HB: Okay, Patti Kelly is one of the best in the business. The thing I’ve always loved about Patti is that she loves actors. Loves them. And enjoys the process of watching an actor develop a performance. She’s “on our side,” if that makes sense. Yet she also has this amazing ability to sit on the other side of the table and give the director and designers what they need to make the show work. People don’t understand the role of stage managers very much. Let me tell you, I have worked with a few really bad stage managers and oftentimes, the show can just fall apart. You need that person who is going to somehow be all things to all people. I think it’s the hardest job in the theatre. And Patti Kelly is one of the best.

Harry with Patti in rehearsal last week.

My classic Patti Kelly story is the one where she choreographed a striptease for me when I played a go-go boy in David Rabe’s In the Boom Boom Room, the first show I did at Pitt. I wore a tank top, a leather cap, Daisy Duke cutoff shorts, motorcycle boots, aviator glasses, and chains that hung off my belt. Five minutes after meeting Patti, she was showing me how to bump and grind and exude sexual energy. I was eighteen and she was twenty. What the heck did either of us know about being a go-go boy?! But lemme tell you: it was hot! 🙂

CA: Patti Kelly in a whole new light! I should tell those reading that it is not usually in the stage manager’s job description to teach actors to bump and grind. BUT if you’re curious to know what IS the stage manager’s job, check back in a few days when Patti will tell you herself. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if we learn something new about Harry from her.)

Getting back to Harry, we’ll be catching up with him periodically to see how The Clockmaker is going, so stay tuned. In the meantime, check out his website at www.harrybouvy.com, especially for the terrific “show gallery” of productions he’s done in the past few years. As for me, I’m puzzled as to why Carrot Top ended up in the midst of a Spamalot cast photo. But I think I won’t ask—you know what they say: what happens in Vegas…

Thanks for talking to me for the “not a blog,” Harry!

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