Hadestown star Patrick Page: ‘I learned how to speak verse by listening to Olivier and Gielgud’
One of Broadway’s leading men, with a CV ranging from Shakespeare to The Lion King, Patrick Page is making his UK stage debut at the National Theatre in Hadestown. He tells Mark Shenton why it’s crucial that actors are proactive in finding work and how addressing mental health has made him a better performer
As a well-established Broadway, classical and screen actor who has run his own acting studio in New York for the past three years, Patrick Page is used to advising his students to be prepared for auditions and to actively seek out work. It has been following his own advice on both those fronts that has brought him to London to appear on a UK stage for the first time.
Sitting in a backstage office at the National Theatre during a break in rehearsals for US-originated musical Hadestown, he explains: “Because I teach acting, I’m always reading the trades to look for jobs for my students. Luckily I have an agent, so I don’t have to read them so much for myself, but as I was reading them, I saw there was a [development] lab for a musical that had a breakdown for the character of Hades – and I thought the idea of Hades and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was a splendid idea for a musical, but in addition to that it said they were looking for a true bass. That’s not something that ever gets specified – and I rarely get to use my bottom notes in a show.”
Page, who even speaks in a rumbling bass, continues: “So I googled it, and what came up was Anais Mitchell’s [original concept] album. I downloaded it and listened to Hades’ songs. The music was immediately so interesting and so unlike anything I’d ever heard in a musical before that I knew I had to do it. So I wrote to my agent and said: ‘This is a lab and you probably don’t want me to do this, as you’d prefer me to do a television show, but could you get them to see me?’ I then went to meet Anais and we sang Hey, Little Songbird together.” In this song, Hades calls to Eurydice and lures her on a train to his domain – the underworld.
The director Rachel Chavkin was also in the room. He says of her work: “I had recently seen her production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 in a tent [before it subsequently moved to Broadway’s Imperial Theatre] and I was blown away, particularly with the direction. I remember thinking: ‘Who is this woman? She’s a genius!’
Jumping on board with Hadestown was the best decision I’ve ever made
So the combination of the music and the director attracted me – my rule of thumb has always been to choose projects based on who you get to work with, what you get to do and how much you want to do it, not only how it might advance you. If you put yourself in the room with good people, it usually turns out well. And this was the best decision I’ve ever made to jump on board. Along the way, of course, you may have to shove another project to the side to stay with it for the long haul – but now here I am sitting at the National. And working on the Olivier stage, too.”
That’s significant, he amplifies, because he cites Laurence Olivier as his biggest influence.
“My father, who was also a classical actor, was really into recordings, both audio and film. So, long before people had video in their homes, we had reel-to-reel films and I saw Olivier’s Richard III, Othello, Hamlet, Henry V and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I learned how to speak verse by listening to Olivier and Gielgud and trying to find something in-between. Olivier was all consonants and Gielgud was all vowels.” He proceeds to treat me to a spot-on impersonation of both.
His father’s legacy and inspiration, he says, only half-jokingly, “prepared me for a job that didn’t exist – a classical actor in North America”. But by dint of sheer determination, he followed the same path – without formal acting training, beyond a preparatory programme at a theatre in California that “basically prepared you to go to Juilliard [performing arts school in New York] or Yale”. He adds: “It was largely unpaid help, but I remember being able to observe real actors at work.”
Q&A: Patrick Page
What was your first job?
The Utah Shakespearean Festival – I stayed for six years.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To be prepared for auditions. People would say you ‘go in to read for something’, so I thought you went in and read it – showing your instrument, like you’re at a first read-through. But I wish I’d known you go in and act – you don’t read.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Laurence Olivier and Sanford Meisner. It was Meisner’s techniques of freeing yourself of preconceived ideas of how things might occur and allowing it to arise off your partner or what was happening that informed my approach to acting.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Absolutely. First of all I’ve played the Scottish king three times and I very much believe in it – horrible things have happened in every production I’ve been in. I don’t know if it’s a superstition so much as a tick, but I also can’t stand in the wings – I have to time my entrance so I walk from my dressing room without stopping on the way to the stage. It has caused some consternation with stage management sometimes, but I’ve never missed an entrance.
Page auditioned for Yale and Julliard but didn’t get in, so he decided to do an English literature degree at Whitman College, a small liberal arts college in Washington state. There, he saw a notice that Utah Shakespearean Festival was looking for staff.
“I went to the man who ran our programme and asked if I could audition and was told: ‘no’, they wouldn’t see me – you had to be Actors Equity, or from Juilliard or Yale,” he recalls.
“That made me a bit angry. Before I went to Whitman, I’d been accepted into the professional acting training course at the University of Washington. I’d opted not to go there but stayed in touch with the man who ran it, and they were going to have auditions for Utah there. I don’t know if it was stupidity or arrogance – I had plenty of both at the time – but I asked him if I could audition with his students in Seattle. He was very thrown and said there wouldn’t be time. But I drove up there – they wouldn’t let me into the building and made me sit out in the cold, and then the man who ran it, Sanford Robbins, who I owe a great debt to, came out and said: ‘What about him?’ His assistant was telling him he would be late for the plane, and I remember him saying: ‘There will be another plane.’ ”
He was 22 and won a place in the cast that season. “My first roles were Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida and Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew. And I stayed for six years.” He proceeded to act at theatres around the country, until a job in The Kentucky Cycle – a two-part epic – brought him to Broadway for the first time in 1993.
“But it closed almost straight away,” he recalls. “It was the same season as Angels in America and there was not really room for two epics. I was completely without work and I only had a temporary agent. I had at this point played most of the leading Shakespearean young men – Hamlet, Mercutio, Henry V, Richard II and Mark Antony – but when I came to New York I found none of that meant a thing. I saw Richard II was being directed by Steven Berkoff at the Public Theater, and I was a huge fan of his particular brand of physical theatre and how he used the audience’s imagination and actors’ bodies. I said I’d play anything but they wouldn’t see me. So I sat down and wrote him this angry letter – it had a few choice curse words – and popped it in the mail box.”
Patrick Page’s tips for aspiring actors on auditions
• Auditions take far more preparation than most actors understand if you want to be competitive in a city such as New York or London. My students ask me if they need to have the audition script memorised – and I tell them: ‘If you have worked on it enough to be competitive you will know the words.’
• Since all acting is listening and reacting, use the reader in the room. Some people get in there and ignore them.
• Your stage is the room. People will use two sq ft of it, but you should use it all – the use of the space puts everyone at ease, because they can see that you have a sense of initiative and creativity and will bring something to the party, so they won’t have to do all the work.
He subsequently wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake, but his agent assured him that Berkoff was not casting it himself, so wasn’t likely to even see his letter. But it paid off: the Public Theater rang and offered him an audition. He won the part of Aumerle – and on the first day of rehearsals, Berkoff came up to him and said: “Good letter.” They remain great friends to this day, he says, adding: “What makes him great as a writer is the same thing that makes him fascinating as a human being and actor: he’s unfiltered. We all wish we had that courage.”
In fact, Page has demonstrated his own courage in speaking (and writing) openly about his struggles with depression and mental health. “I am on medication now but I went 25 years suffering very badly refusing to take it, until it came to a point that they would hospitalise me against my will unless I did. A lot of actors and artists in general – writers, singers, painters – feel that because they need to be in touch with their emotions to do their work, medication will dull them and make them unable to work. I try to reassure people that is not the case. It’s not an exact science and may take time to get the right combination to treat your kind of depression – at least in my case it took nine months to a year – but stick with it and you will find the right balance. Now, I honestly believe I act better than I could before. My acting used to be overwrought as my emotions were frequently so close to the surface that I would jump to that rather than play the scene. We really live in the first 50 years in history where you don’t have to suffer with this.”
He may be playing the god of the underworld at the National Theatre, but sometimes the devil really does sing the best tunes, and give the best advice.
CV: Patrick Page
Born: 1962, Spokane, Washington
Training: Whitman College (English literature); as an actor: “I trained on the boards”
• The Kentucky Cycle, Broadway (1993)
• The Lion King, Broadway (2005)•
A Man for All Seasons, Broadway (2008)
• Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, Broadway (2011)
• Cyrano De Bergerac, Broadway (2012)
• Casa Valentina, Broadway (2013)
• Spring Awakening, Broadway (2015)
• Saint Joan, Broadway (2018)
Agent: Jim Wilhelm at DGRW
Hadestown is at London’s National Theatre until January 26