Movement Makes THE MISER: A Conversation with Steven Epp

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Photo by Michal Daniel
Steven Epp as Harpagon in The Miser.

The Miser runs through April 30 on the Alley’s Hubbard Stage.
For ticket information, visit www.alleytheatre.org.

Alley Theatre and Theatre de la Jeune Lune join forces for Molière’s The Miser, directed by Dominique Serrand. The founders of Theatre de la Juene Lune were all trained at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, which incorporates a hefty dose of the movement arts. The Miser is a marvelous opportunity to see physical comedy of the highest order. Steven Epp, who co-conceived the production along with Serrand, plays literature’s most notorious penny-pincher, Harpagon. Epp fills us in on this wonderful production.

First off, congratulations on a magnificent performance and thank you for taking the time to speak with the Houston dance community. The Miser is a feast for movement lovers. From where I stand, the piece is as much choreographed as it is directed? Do you agree?

SE: Yes and no. Movement is an integral part of what we do and how we approach acting and theatre in general. But our pieces are never blocked or choreographed by the director. The movement develops naturally and organically through playing and improvisation during the rehearsal process until we arrive at, and agree on, a physical map. Some moments are extremely precise, others more loose and open to evolve in performance.

From a somatic perspective I am curious about the Harpagon’s posture which forms the letter “C” (for “cheap” I suppose). It seems Harpagon doesn’t even want to give his organs any room either. He would probably have them removed it he could save some money. How do you come upon that choice?

SE: It’s not an imposed choice, it’s the organic physicality of the character that gradually emerged through rehearsal and that I have honed slowly in performance.

While we are on the subject of your embodiment of Harpagon, your walk was a hoot—completely homo-lateral, which causes the body to toddle about. It’s the way the very old and the very young walk. Can you speak the process of developing this walk?

SE: When we were first working on the show I was spending a lot of time with a friend and his three year-old son and I was struck again (I have three children of my own and watching them grow has been the best acting class I could ever hope to take) at how toddlers have so much energy and agility, yet they are always on the verge of being out of control. Something about how they careen through the world, both physically and emotionally, felt like a good way into Harpagon.

Can you tell us about the physical training you do at Theatre de la Jeune Lune? How are the methods from Ecole Jacques Lecoq integrated into the actors’ daily regime? I picture tumbling in the warm-ups.

SE: Over the years we have immersed ourselves in Commedia, the clown, farce, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, the buffoon, opera, all of which are forms that require great physical engagement. We try to be very playful and open in the rehearsal process and to create theatrical spaces that support that. We try to find how the emotion comes from the body and movement, rather than the head and ideas, without denying that there is a great psychology behind any character. We’re not very interested in realistic naturalism; we are more concerned with the poetic, the profoundly human, the outrageous, the world of theatre. Each actor prepares in his or her own way for performance depending upon the particular demands of what they are doing in any given piece. You have to be physically and vocally ready, whatever that requires.

There’s a marvelous bit in the play that contains no movement. Master Jacques (David Rainey) plants himself during his rant about the exact details of what people think if Harpagon. La Flèche (Nathan Keepers) gives new meaning to becoming part of the scenery as he literally tries to blend into the wall. And you are sitting down and become increasingly tense. At some point you look as if you have stopped breathing out of pure disbelief. Can you speak to what is going on that scene?

SE: I would argue that there is in fact great movement in that scene, but in minute details, and that’s what makes the scene work so well, beyond just being hilarious. Sometimes stillness is the strongest choice.

There’s a great “go for the juggler” moment at the end when Elise, a woman of questionable judgment, seems to be having a dutiful daughter moment. Instead she flattens Harpagon. You go down pretty fast and some mighty Texas-size belly laughs ensue. Are falling lessons part of your training?

SE: I did spend a lot of time in my twenties, in my early years with the company, doing a great many pratfalls. My favorite was in our production of Scapin, another Molière play, when I slid down two flights of stairs flat out on my stomach.

How do you see Theatre de la Jeune Lune as the keepers of a much older form of theater when movement dexterity was crucial to the actor’s art?

SE: There is currently a renewed interest in physical theatre in America, which is encouraging. For us it’s just the way we work and what theatre is.

The end is quite poignant. The song and dance was tightly wound using tiny steps and clipped voices. I took it as a warning not to end up like Harpagon. Any last thoughts?

SE: I don’t know if it’s a warning exactly, I think audiences do very different things with it, which is great. It’s somewhat open ended; it’s not hitting you over the head with a big answer or moralistic statement. It’s both a funeral and a celebration.

The Alley Theatre in association with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Actors’ Theatre of Louisville and American Repertory Theatre present The Miser. Performances continue through April 30th. Call 713-228-8421 or visit http://www.alleytheatre.org/

Learn more about Theatre de la Jeune Lune at http://www.jeunelune.org/

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