In addition to their coursework and curricular performances, three graduate students from the A.R.T.'s Institute for Advanced Theater Training perform in The Night of the Iguana. Hannah Sharafian and Ben Winter play the vacationing German newlyweds Hilde and Wolfgang, while Matt Morrison plays Hank, the bus driver of the play's ill-fated tourist expedition to the Hotel Costa Verde. Between shows, these students spoke with A.R.T. Publications & Artistic Programs Fellow Robert Duffley about their experiences rehearsing and performing in this production.
From a student's perspective, what has it been like to rehearse and perform alongside a cast of accomplished actors including Dana Delany, Bill Heck, Elizabeth Ashley, Amanda Plummer, and James Earl Jones?
MATT: It's incredible how these individuals—with the notoriety and the success that they have—still approach the work with such rigor. I think there's a concept in the public mind that stars are just talented, and after a while they don't really work, when really the talent is the work that they put in. And even now, no one has stopped working yet. Everyone's constantly working.
BEN: It's been an extraordinary experience to see these professionals doing what they do best. It's fascinating to see their creative processes unfolding right in front of us. I think I enjoyed, most of all, the enormous amount of truth in the room, from every individual. No one was trying to be bigger or more than who they are.
How has your training at the A.R.T. Institute informed your work creating these characters and this production?
HANNAH: Where I really pulled on my training here is in understanding the actual given circumstances of my character, and getting away from making shallow assertions or judgments. And I think it's so easy to judge a Nazi. In one scene I'm pointing a stick at Shannon, who is tied up in a hammock—that's a terrible thing to do. But I'm playing a girl on her honeymoon, and this guy is being very disruptive, and my husband is doing it, too, so I decide to go along with him.
I'd imagine that for the German characters particularly, there was a burden to find an authenticity in them while balancing their comic surreality.
BEN: For sure. Especially in the scene where I threaten James Earl Jones, I had to find a way to do that without wanting to apologize immediately afterwards. When I originally read the script, I thought, "Oh, they're definitely the clowns." And Michael [Wilson, the director] addressed that and said, "No I want them to be real people, given the social and political climate we're in right now." And that was a great chance for us to dive deeper.
HANNAH: We had a lot of freedom, because Michael was specifically rethinking those characters. He wanted a contemporary menace to them, and he also wanted them to be more human. He didn't want fake German pastiche.
During the production process for The Night of the Iguana, you were also in rehearsals for your upcoming Institute performance of Carmen. Now that the show is open, you're also working on an in-class project involving the work of David Mamet. What has it been like to balance this production with your commitments, as full-time graduate students, to your other work?
MATT: A lot of the feedback that I've gotten from adults in the industry, both our teachers and the cast of this show, is to enjoy all this work while we have it, because it is a privilege to have all this to do, instead of nothing at all. A lot of it, too, is figuring out what to do with your downtime. When we're offstage in Iguana, we're down in our dressing room reading the script for what we'll be rehearsing tomorrow. That's the challenge: there's always something more to be done.
HANNAH: I have learned that at a certain point, one of the things you have to manage is your mental health. Our teachers always tell us that in theory, that you can go so long without sleep and keep up, and then eventually you will feel a crack in your brain. Realizing that taking care of yourself long-term can help you get through.
Have there been any other instances where you've implemented something that you talked about in class in a rehearsal or onstage?
HANNAH: I feel like every time I go out for bows, I try to take that as a moment to think, "we just did something that I'm really proud of." The day I turned in my application for the A.R.T., I ushered a show here. And I remember turning in my application and sitting in the theater and watching that show, and just being like "Wow," and having that come full circle now has been amazing.
BEN: To take it all in, every second. Absolutely. It's a blip in time.
What lessons from this process do you hope to carry forward into your careers?
HANNAH: This is the longest I've ever run a show, and I've tried to use that opportunity to consider, "how do I execute the form today in a way that is true to what we've done before, but also is breathing?" And living that question as my day-to-day experiment, and to come out of school with that experience is more than I expected to have.
MATT: Every time I go out there, I never want to get complacent with my performance. Each time I go onstage and say, "Shannon, come back to the bus," I have to expect him to just come back to the bus. Why wouldn't he? And I think that's probably one of the biggest lessons I'll take away from this.
BEN: And to add on to that, to be in this professional production performing eight shows a week, just like you would in New York or at any other major regional theater, on top of our grad school studies, is a nice merger: a nice way to carry over our almost two years of training and see what is working in terms of our own toolbox that we're creating. This experience really feels for me like the pinnacle of our two years here.
Photo: (L-R) Matt Morrison, Hannah Sharafian, and Ben Winter backstage in costume for The Night of the Iguana.