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Building Character: Michael Shannon How the Oscar nominee surfs the chaos of Mistakes Were Made

By ERIC GRODE

Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about how actors and how they create their roles

The bipolar truth-teller in Revolutionary Road, the divinely guided rescue worker in World Trade Center, the anguished Gulf War veteran in Bug: Michael Shannon has repeatedly used his 6-foot-3 frame and menacing-meets-meek demeanor to deliver nuanced portrayals of troubled souls. His skill at playing the sorts of men who hear voices, among others, has put him on the speed dials of Hollywood casting agents: Shannon has shot five films in the last year, along with the acclaimed HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

Now, in Craig Wright’s seriocomic tour de force Mistakes Were Made, running through February at the Barrow Street Theatre, Shannon’s the guy making calls. And this time, he hears voices coming from the ten phone lines constantly being juggled by his character Felix Artifex, a smallish-time theatre producer.

"I feel like a lot of what gets said on the other line is beautifully sculpted," Shannon says. “I’m imagining those conversations as I go. I even wrote ’em out at some points."

In Mistakes Were Made, Felix juggles several crises at once, too. When he's not aiming to hustle his way into the big leagues by corralling a hot movie star into an epic play about the French Revolution, he's navigating an international incident involving homicidal fundamentalists and a caravan of sheep. Meanwhile, he's also trying to reconcile with his ex-wife and occasionally feed his overstuffed pet fish.

The play's director, Dexter Bullard, grounds theconversations by give each one its own position on stage. "Dexter introduced this notion that there are certain zones for certain calls," Shannon says. "It’s not the kind of thing audiences would necessarily notice, but it works. It’s kind of like changing channels."

Before blocking came into play, however, Shannon had to learn his half of the phone call barrage. He recalls, "The first time we did it in Chicago, I spent three months alone with the script so that I could be off book during rehearsals."

The work paid off: The 2009 run of Mistakes Were Made garnered Joseph Jefferson Award nominations for both Shannon and Wright.

However, the New York production is no Chicago retread: Wright made what Shannon calls "hundreds of minute changes" to the script before the production moved to the Barrow Street, where Shannon and Bullard memorably collaborated on Bug. "It was kind of fast and furious this time," Shannon says. "We had about a week in Chicago to brush it off. You show up, they give you a phone and a desk, and it’s 'Alright, let’s see how far you can go without messing it up.'" (The play also features Mierka Girten as an overtaxed receptionist and puppeteer Sam Deutsch, who's in charge of that fish.)

Despite the bravura nature of his performance, Shannon takes pains to subordinate showmanship to the larger messages of the play. He says, "If audiences are viewing this solely as a stunt or a feat, as some kind of vaudeville act, either I’m not doing my job as an actor or they’re not working hard enough.

"I really am trying to throw up a pretty solid fourth wall. If you guys sit dead stone silent for ninety minutes, I’ll be OK. I’ll survive. I’m trying really desperately to create this guy’s universe. The investors and whatnot would like to hear some laughter, but me? I’ll take it or leave it."

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Eric Grode, the author of the recently released "Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation" (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.