Ice Fishing

DEC 30, 2015

Two-time Tony Award-winning actor Mark Rylance (Hamlet, The SeagullBoeing-BoeingJerusalemRichard IIITwelfth NightWolf HallBridge of Spies) discusses Midwestern winters and the creation of Nice Fish


In addition to collaborating with Louis Jenkins on Nice Fish, you recited two of his poems in your 2008 and 2011 Tony Award acceptance speeches. What aspects of Jenkins’ poetry initially attracted you as source material for a theater performance? 

I first heard them from Robert Bly at a men’s gathering, and then I was asked by an old friend of mine to say something after dinner at his 75th birthday. I didn’t know what to do, so I thought, “Well, I’ll learn these poems and see how they go.” They went well, and then I had to say things at different awards ceremonies, and I tried them there, and it grew on me that some people thought that I was just speaking my own thoughts. They didn’t realize it was written down—so the poems were written in a way that you could act them: they were written very conversationally.

I had been in Minnesota doing Peer Gynt just before that, and I had been amused by a comedy record of Howard Mohr’s, in which he says that people in the Midwest live so isolated, in such cold, that when they are together they speak in non-sequiturs. And I thought it would be interesting to have two guys from Minnesota talking to each other in some of these poems. Then when I looked into it, there were definite themes in Louis’ poetry: themes of childhood, of animals and birds, of age, and lots of poems about love and relationships with women. So, the conversations didn’t need to be as disconnected as I had imagined.

And I’d been ice fishing that winter, just before the Broadway speeches, and I had been fascinated by the experience of ice fishing early in the morning—how boring it was. I’d been outside of Minneapolis, very early and with a lovely guide. And I was very struck by the equipment: the TV camera, and the radar, and these tiny, beautiful little silver fish that came up. And that’s one of the humors of the play: the men go out there in heated huts with TV’s and refrigerators, and all this equipment. They want an experience of wild nature, but they take a lot of stuff to protect themselves from that intimate experience.

How would you describe the story of the play? 

It’s a play about two friends in midlife meeting for an ice fishing day, which is their annual thing, and they’re hunting for something essential— like the first poem in the play says, they’re out there looking for something deep, something big enough to swallow them whole. They’re out there on the last day of the fishing season. And they’re out there way past where they should be, and when they should be. They’re on the edge.

Did that story suggest itself to you from within the poems, or were you weaving the poems into a narrative that you already had in mind? 

The initial workshop in 2008 just came out of the poems. And then in the development of that workshop into a production at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, I added a plot and wrote a bunch of scenes myself—a plot that was actually to do with going to a production of Das Rheingold and being interested in the Norwegian gods—the two gods who steal Freya, the goddess of eternal youth. But in the end I came to feel that the central idea of these men out on the ice, searching for something essential in nature, and in their own nature, and encountering that— that was enough.

But I want to stress that it’s not going to be a poetry reading. You’re not going to be aware that you’re listening to poetry. It’s as if the play were a three-piece suit: I’ve got this incredible fabric that I’ve cut together. It’s going to look like a three-piece suit, but it’s got the most incredible weave of wool in it. Much better than I could ever do—because I’ve chosen 50 or 60 different bits from 500 of his poems. I’ve been able to take the most extraordinary writing from Louis and weave it into a play.

In a way, these two characters are manifestations of Louis’ psyche or soul, or his creative impulse to put down something essential. Robert Bly, in his foreword to Louis Jenkins’ first book of poetry, said that he heard two voices in the poems: a child who has unlimited imaginative possibilities and an adult who just sees limitation everywhere in the world, and it was the mixture of these two that made the poems surprising and exciting. So Ron and Erik are a manifestation of those two voices; that was the starting point. The characters they meet are then something more.

You were last seen on Broadway as the title character in Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night. How does playing Ron, a 50-something unemployed Minnesotan, compare to playing these Shakespearean nobles? 

Well, it’s quite far away. It’s closer to a character I played in a farce called Boeing-Boeing, where a Wisconsin farmer’s son inherits a lot of money and flies to Paris to meet up with an old friend. (And I grew up in Wisconsin for ten years, from age nine to eighteen.) To some degree I am writing about my teenage experience of the Midwest.

But the magical thing about Louis’ poetry is that because it’s in prose, people don’t realize how very, very finely it’s crafted. It is crafted as finely as an iambic pentameter sonnet—the rhythm and the choice of words, the choice of vowels and consonants, the juxtaposition of ideas. There’s even often a kind of flip in the poem; it may flip on an idea, or even flip on a word that can mean two things—very similar to the flip you get at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. Because it’s written with such natural detail, and follows mundane events, and is written in prose, it sounds just like dialogue. You don’t realize how finely it’s crafted.

Claire van Kampen, the director, is also a composer and will be scoring the piece. How is the music woven into the poetry, and into the extreme landscape of the play’s setting? 

The music is more to do with the soundscape of sound traveling across the lake. People who know frozen lakes—big frozen lakes—know that there’s a remarkable acoustic out there. For one, there’s the booming, cracking sound of the lake ice shifting, which is very unnerving at first. But then you realize that it doesn’t mean you’re going to fall through. You also hear things from miles away—conversations, music that people are playing off of their portable sound systems, airplanes, cars, wind.

You were last at A.R.T. in the 1991/92 season playing Hamlet and The Seagull’s Konstantin Treplev in repertory. Are you looking forward to anything in particular about being back in Boston? 

I love the snow in winter—I miss it here in England. Our winters are not so severe.

Interview by Robert Duffley, A.R.T. Publications & Artistic Programs Associate.  This article originally appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater in conjunction with A.R.T.’s production of Nice Fish.

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