A Fiendish Conversation with Timothy McCuen Piggee
Since transforming from a traditional theater company to a summer festival in 2012, Intiman Theatre has offered up a diverse palate of boundary-pushing theatrical works each year. The plays have ranged from classics like Romeo and Juliet to Stu for Silverton's tale of the country's first transgender mayor. This year the Intiman Theatre Festival sharpens its focus and goes all-in on Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Angels in America. Intiman presents the full play, which was adapted into a Golden Globes and Emmy-winning television miniseries in 2003, in its two distinct parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestrioka. While the scare of the AIDS epidemic isn't a prevalent currently as it was when the play premiered in 1991, there's still plenty relevant about the societal issues Kushner's explores in this epic.
Millenium Approaches, the Angels in America's first segment, begins previews tonight and officially opens this Thursday, August 14 at Seattle Center's Cornish Playhouse. The play's second section—Perestroika—opens on Thursday, September 5. There will also be five "marathon" performances, where both parts of Angels in America will be performed in a single day; providing a seven-hour test of endurance for both the actors and the audience.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Timothy McCuen Piggee—the actor playing Belize, Angels in America's nurse and ex-drag queen—about preparing for the marathon performances, acting as to not get in a playwright's way, and his nonstarting jazz career.
As an actor what do you love about Angels in America?
I think it’s the breadth—the scope of the piece.
When was the first time that you saw Angels?
I saw the original Broadway production, and then I saw the original Intiman production 20 years ago.
When it was mounted here in Seattle originally, I was considered for the role of Belize then—20 years ago—but that didn’t go my way. So here I am 20 years later and (director) Andrew (Russell) asked me to do it. And I said, “Andrew, I think we’re 20 years too late for it,” and he said, “No, I don’t think so.“ He said in regards to the roles that I’m playing, he doesn’t think that that would be an issue. And so far, it hasn’t.
What do you think are some of the keys to unlocking the character of Belize?
The brilliance of what Tony Kushner has written is that he writes each character so distinctively. They each have their own rhythm and cadence. So discovering and figuring out what that puzzle is, is really kind of interesting and fun and challenging.
And what have you found to be the rhythm and cadence of this character?
Well, I think that’s the lesson that every actor learns; every good playwright writes in a particular rhythm, or every play has its own unique music. And so part of the actor’s job is to be mindful of it, but to get out of the playwright’s way. If you’re working with a really good playwright then you let the playwright do the work. And so that’s the challenge. If I’m forcing too much of my own will on the piece, that’s going to be counterproductive. But somehow that’s where intuition leads you first, until you really become familiar with the piece. But then when you sort of allow the work to happen, you allow the language to flow, I’m finding that to be beneficial because the scope of Kushner’s writing. He writes these huge arias for characters to sort of reveal themselves. To navigate your way through those? That’s the minefield.
Is there anything you do as an actor to prepare for the seven-hour marathon performances of the show?
Well, I’m hoping I’m putting money in the bank by making sure that I’m consistent with my exercise. I’m consistent with trying to get my rest. But then I also have to be a real person too, so trying to create space for the other aspects of living: my social life and my other professional endeavors while keeping the show going. But I would be absolutely bullshitifying if I didn’t tell you it’s a terrifying prospect. (Laughs) I really don’t know until I’m in it.
Do you have any sort of pre- or post-show routines around a performance?
I think I’m a creature of habit, so once I establish—let’s say a flow chart—in terms of getting to the theater: What’s the first thing I do? The second thing I do? The third thing I do? And I tend to be systematic in doing everything in the same order. So there’s a sort of reverence about it. And then when the show is over—I guess it’s called an exit strategy, where you sort of put the performance behind you—I’ll take an inventory, in terms of how did tonight go versus yesterday? But, you know, I can never have yesterday’s performance back. The only thing I can do is what’s in front of me in the moment. But when I go home, I’m going to treat myself well. I’m going to give my brain a chance to sort of reshuffle and reorganize and rest, because, mentally, it’s exhausting.
Does that “flow chart” vary from show to show?
Yes. Every show is going to be different. Some shows require a lot of makeup, or some shows the costume is very intricate and it takes time to get into it, or some shows have physical demands versus vocal demands. I do know that the moment I open my eyes every day, this play has to be living in the back of my mind. I can’t not be thinking about it in some form or fashion. The majority of what I do during the course of the day is going to have to be in service of what I’m going to do on stage that night.
If you weren’t doing theater professionally is there another line of work you think you might have wanted to pursue?
I always thought I wanted to be a jazz artist, but if not a jazz artist I’ve always thought I wanted to be a teacher or something that allowed me to be of service; something that would allow other people to reveal better aspects of themselves or improve themselves.
Did you play any jazz instruments?
No. (Laughs) I did not get very far with that pursuit.
Do you have a favorite role that you’ve had a chance to play on a Seattle stage?
It’s an embarrassment of riches, you know? I’ve been really, really lucky that this town has afforded me to play a variety of roles. So I think everything from Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha to Billy Flynn in Chicago to Angelo in Measure for Measure, it’s just been great. I don’t know if I can pick just one, but I just think the variety of what this town has permitted me to do is what I’m very appreciative of.
How do you feel Seattle has impacted your art?
It has impacted me in that I have not been limited or typed. That I have had the ability to grow and expand and struggle and succeed and fail, and be cast in things that other cities would say, “Oh, he’s completely inappropriate for.” Whether I was successful or not successful in the endeavor, I at least had the opportunity to try.
Beyond your own role, what are you looking forward to in regards to this Angels in America production?
I am really looking forward to a new audience being exposed to this piece live and in person, and having that conversation with the audience. Because it’s 2014 and I think that the issues that the play brings up... yes, a lot of things haven’t changed, but some things might have shifted slightly. That’s the hallmark of a good piece of art—that it reveals itself subsequently to each new generation. So I’m really excited about this generation having a chance to experience it.
Angels in America
Aug 12–Sept 21, Cornish Playhouse, $35–$56; Festival pass $69–$114