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A Fiendish Conversation with R. Hamilton Wright

The playwright (and actor) discusses once again bringing fiction's most famed detective to the Seattle Rep stage with 'Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem.'

By Seth Sommerfeld April 19, 2016

R hamilton wright ittziz

R Hamilton Wright takes another crack at Sherlock Holmes.

There certainly value in vapid entertainment that lets you turn off your brain and decompress (hello, reality TV), but for the inquisitive mind, little can match the stimulating thrills of a heady mystery. That's why people continue to love Sherlock Holmes. Whether via Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic novels, Cumberbach, mouse, or Iron Man, there seems to always be an appetite for Holmes employing his unparalleled analytical brilliance to solve Victorian/Edwardian cases.

After delighting Seattle Rep audiences with 2012’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, England’s most famous detective is back on the case in the world premiere of Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem. Holmes’s path collides with the storied American West when gunslinger Annie Oakley crosses the pond for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee and mysterious problems soon arise. 

Penned by Baskervilles cowriter (and veteran Seattle actor) R. Hamilton Wright, Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem offers audiences a rare treat: a non-direct sequel continuation of a theatrical universe with a return of all the key players. In addition to Wright and director Allison Narver, the show features Baskervilles' Sherlock (Darragh Kennan), Dr. Watson (Andrew McGinn), and Mrs. Hudson (Marianne Owen) reprising their roles. Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem begins previews at Seattle Repertory Theatre this Friday, April 22 before officially opening next Wednesday, April 27.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Wright about the draw of Sherlock Holmes, how his writing has shaped his acting, and trying to balance accessible simplicity with the confusion of a mystery.

What do you enjoy about writing about an established character like Sherlock Holmes?

I worked with David Pichette on this adaptation we did a couple years ago on Hound of the Baskervilles, and because both of us started reading that material when we were kids, we [really enjoyed] revisiting it. I just loved delving back into the material and reading more of the stories about Holmes and Watson. Rediscovering what Conan Doyle thought of them, and how, apparently, his feelings about them changed.

After we opened that show, I sort of started yearning for more Holmes and Watson stuff. And I had written this play back in 2010, before we did the Hound of Baskervilles, but it was very different. I went back and revisited it, and I did a rewrite of it. I think more than anything else, I wanted to write a play about them because I enjoyed the potential possibilities of the dynamic, especially between those Holmes and Watson. And then I have Sherlock’s brother in this play. I was really fascinated about the possibility of this dynamic between two very similar but divergent personalities who both have a certain kind of acuity.

I’d also been writing and reading about a certain time in Victorian history in 1887, and I thought it would just be a fun coming together of possibilities.

How much of your writing this time around was influenced by knowing Darragh Kennan would be playing Holmes again?

Knowing that Darragh was going to do Holmes and then Andy was going to do Watson again, and for that matter Marianne doing Ms. Hudson, certainly assisted me greatly in writing the play because I had their voices in my head already. When we got into rehearsal their assistance and the input just by watching and hearing them do it has been invaluable, obviously. Because when you write something you think is on the money—or at least in the ballpark—and they rehearse it for a while then the things that don’t work—or don’t seem very well focused, or just don’t wash, don’t hold water—really spring out at you. I mean, it’s the way that plays get rewritten anyway, but they’re really generous actors. I think they see their prime responsibility is to say the words as well as they can. And then when those words still don’t work, you kind of know it’s time to change.

What are your favorite aspects of what the actors bring to these characters?

When David and I worked on Hound, we found ourselves finding a lot of humor especially in the dynamic between Holmes and Watson, but sort of Holmes and almost everybody. I think we were pretty successful in not importing too much comedy into the play. It’s something I think is true in life, if you’re around people who sort of have these extraordinary gifts, it means that they’re often deficit in some other ways. That provides a kind of odd dynamic and sort of mismatch in a way between people which I think can be naturally humorous, even in the middle of sort of pressurized situations.

I mean Conan Doyle doesn’t write comedies, but all of his work has a kind of humanistic voice in it. Some are genuinely funny. I think we were just following that lead in a way. Then this time around, Andy and Darragh really helped give me permission, in a sense, to sort of throw things on the table. Their personal dynamic is so much fun. I mean they as actors have developed a sort of relationship, which is a little bit like brothers. I suppose the challenge and the danger is they might make stuff work that shouldn’t work. So you have to be kind of careful that you don’t make them to overextend themselves and try to make something silly, or something that’s not appropriate, work. You can sort of fall in love with those things.

Just recently, and this happens every time you see a new play produced, I’ve cut like three separate speeches or bits of language that I’ve been hanging on desperately, for the last six months. [Laughs] And it’s true, of course, the old phrase “you have to kill your darlings.” Those things tend to be in the play because they were good at one point or maybe there’s just something that you started with that was really valuable, and because you’re loathe to give them up, they often times end of being this sort of dinosaur in the room that needs to finally go away. This is true of the entire cast, but especially those people that did Hound: they have a really good idea about the milieu. Allison and I have no problems with asking them to say things that are definitely not modern and need to have a kind of melodramatic robustness in them. But because they’re talented and they understand it, it doesn’t come off as feeling untrue. And that’s really crucial.

What’s your writing process?

My process is kind of spasmodic, frankly. My wife (Katie Forgette) is a playwright, and a much more disciplined playwright than I. When she works on a play she tends to work on it everyday until it’s done. I tend to work in sort of maybe briefer, more intense bursts. I still write long hand on pads. I fill pads up, and I essentially do a rewrite when I put it into the computer.

When I do get on a tear, I work a lot. While we’ve been in rehearsal it’s been hard for me to put it down. I try not to work on it all the time, but when I get home and finish eating dinner, I usually spend a couple hours doing rewrites or looking at it again.

Because I’m essentially an actor, I don’t really claim the title of playwright. I call myself an actor that writes occasionally, and I think that’s probably true. So in that sense, I write a little bit like I act. Working in a play is very intense for a short period of time, then it’s over. So I think when I have an idea I tend to spend a lot of time on it, then let it sit for a while.

Did becoming a playwright change how you act?

Yeah, I think it does. I think I’ve always been really respectful when we work on new plays. I always felt as an actor that my job is to just simply try to say the words. Go about it as you would an actor, not as an editor, or as a rewriter, or as a coauthor. Just simply allow my input in the process to [be acting alone] so that the playwright can hear it. I think [being a writer] has made me more aware of the value of that.

The danger, especially if a playwright has sort of opened the door by saying I want your input is that you get a chorus of people talking about why they think this scene doesn’t work and how it would be better to rewrite it. That’s usually all done tremendously with good will, but it can become cacophonous and really sort of counterproductive at some point. And then you feel like an idiot when you have to say okay stop now. I don’t want anymore input. So as an actor, I think it’s made me more aware of the value of good actors around the table in a rehearsal hall during the process of playwriting, but also the limitations of it.

How has Seattle influenced your approach to theater?

I wasn’t trained as an actor in college, I sort of kind of backed into the theater in my early 20s. So as a result of that I apprenticed at the theater. I’m not trying to be precious about it, but the great thing is that the apprenticeship can go on for as long as you want it to, and I feel it continues to this day. The lucky part is that I’ve always felt for whatever reason that there’s an awful lot of generosity between artists and crafts people in the theater in this town. And it seems like it’s been that way for a long time. And I’m not sure where that comes from. Some of it may be that there isn’t the same kind of career pressure that there might be if you were in Los Angels or New York, where if you get a job or you don’t get a job it can mean you’re maybe missing out on some step. The chances are that whether or not you get into a show in Seattle, it’s not going to mean that you’re going to miss out on a giant career step. Not that it’s not important, but I don’t feel that there’s the same kind of fatalism about your career.

When I was in my 20s, I was around a lot of actors in their 50s or 60s who I thought were generous with their time and wisdom. They just went about their work, and were role models for me as far as watching people work in the theater. I find myself now at 63 being on the other end of that dynamic, with the actors in their 20s and 30s, and trying to keep an eye out for that kind of lineage, I guess. For me that’s the legacy of working in Seattle. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had a chance to do an awful lot of kinds of different around the country, but a vast majority of my work has been done here. And it’s my hometown, and that’s kind of extraordinary.

Is there anything specific about the new show that you’re looking forward to watching for the audience reaction?

Yeah, both with some trepidation and expectation. It’s a really complex story that we have been simplifying, shall I say. I’m interested to see if people hang on. One of the things we keep talking about is what is the acceptable amount of confusion? As an audience member, I love it when I’m perplexed and a little bit behind the 8-ball if we’re talking about a narrative that is supposed to be unraveling and there’s a sort of mystery behind it. So that’s what I’m interested in. We’re trying to minimize the things in the play that might take people away from the story or perplex them so much that they get tired. One of my favorite old movies is The Big Sleep, which of course is famously convoluted, and there’s questions that have never been answered. And yet, because of the style of the piece and the forward momentum and the charm of it, you don’t really care. It just adds to the effect. Not that I’m comparing this show to that, but I’m hoping that people will have a good time on the ride and later on think to themselves now wait a minute, who did that? [Laughs]

Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem
Apr 22–May 22, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $17–$85

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