Crafting a career from a habit: An Interview with H. Michael Walls
Veteran actor, H. Michael Walls, returns to the Arden for the 2016/17 season production of Gypsy. He discusses his journey towards a life in the spotlight and penchant for Shakespeare as he crafted a professional career out of habit.
You were a reporter, earned your real estate license, and worked in public relations. Your acting career has had a very different journey than the girls in Gypsy.
How did I get to the theatre?
Well, all those other jobs were to support my theatre habit. When I was a sophomore at the University of Virginia (I think Jefferson may have been alive then), I found that law and public affairs (which had been my intended course of study and career) were not to my liking after all. So there I was at a prestigious and conservative school (jackets and ties to classes were a tradition) without a compass. I discovered the theatre building which sat to one side of a Greek amphitheatre, while the art building sat on the other with the Bursar’s Office at the head. Students not in jackets and ties played frisbee in the amphitheatre in blatant rebellion against the Powers That Be. It appealed to me, and I enrolled in a drama course. When I discovered the practicality of it (most of the day’s classroom discussion had direct application at the night’s rehearsal), I fell in love. I really haven’t thought about anything else since then. Of course, life intervened and all those other jobs provided stability while I continued acting and directing in educational and amateur theatre. I even ran a theatre in the seventies where we staged O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Albee, and other greats. The best part of life intervening was meeting my wife (we met in a theatre) who told me I should be doing this professionally. She spotted an open call for auditions at the Arden. I went, was cast, and the rest is why I’m still here.
Are you thinking about a career change again? Obviously, we hope not.
I don’t contemplate any career changes, but I keep toying with the idea of writing, too. We’ll see.
A great deal of your career has been performing Shakespeare. . .
A great deal of my career has been in Shakespeare because I love and admire it, and the opportunities presented themselves. My second play with the Arden was Hamlet. My history with Shakespeare goes back to seventh grade with a near tragedy in eighth. Seventh grade we studied Julius Caesar. A great teacher and a production of a play about some students who decide to perform Julius Caesar with little understanding of it. The mob was simply the tallest one dressed in a bathrobe (toga), and Cassius’ gait was a picket one worn as a breastplate. We had a ball and learned a good bit about Shakespeare and theatre while doing so. Eighth grade was not so good. The play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and despite the previous year’s production resembling the rude mechanicals’ play in “the dream,” I missed the parallel and pretty much everything else. It was supposed to be comedy but I didn’t find it funny at all. The class went to see a road production by the American Stratford Theatre. Bert Lahr played Bottom. I laughed hard. I “got” almost all of it. Bert Lahr “saved” Shakespeare for me. Since then I have been fascinated by the process of making that sometimes seemingly arcane language not merely understandable but also human and powerful by the art of performing it. I believe I have developed some skill at that, and every time I perform it I remember Bert Lahr, hoping to “save” Shakespeare for contemporary version of my child-self. And by the way, it is great to just say those words of his!
What brings you to musical theatre for Gypsy?
The trip from Shakespeare to Gypsy is not as strange as it might seem. First of all, a HUGE story told masterfully. Secondly, the Arden and Terry. Thirdly (and these are not in order of importance – they’re all equal) Mary Martello. Anyone who has seen her or worked with her knows she is magnificent as an actress and as a human. Tony, Caroline, Rachel and the rest of the cast are wonderful as well, but I didn’t know any of the other casting at the time I accepted. By the way, the cast, the crew, the Arden and the entire Philadelphia theatre scene bear no resemblance to the harshness faced by Mama Rose and her family. It is working in that stimulating and wonderful pool of talent that keeps me coming back.
What has been your favorite role to play in your career?
Picking a favorite role in my career is impossible. Sometimes it’s the material, sometimes a specific speech or scene, and I always feel it unfair to whatever my current role may be to look back at something else as a favorite. That being said, I look back with fondness on some of my younger roles such as George in Of Mice and Men, or McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, or Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. More recently, there are Sir Toby in Twelfth Night, Common Man in A Man for All Seasons, and Willi Unsoeld in Willi. If I were forced to choose a single favorite or lose my life, I suppose it would be Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten. There! You made me do it!
If you could hijack any song from the show from another character, what would it be? (ie. “Rose’s Turn”)
As far a hijacking a song, I wouldn’t do it unless you gave me the singing talent to go with it. However, even though it is a relatively light-weight song in a show loaded with others, I really like “Mr. Goldstone.” Not just because it’s named after one of my characters and sung to him. It is so incredibly energetic and celebratory and silly. It encompasses nearly all the cast, and it makes me laugh and feel good.
H. MICHAEL WALLS Arden: A Moon for the Misbegotten, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Willi: An Evening of Wilderness and Spirit, Translations, Appalachian Ebeneezer, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Third and Indiana, Henry V, St. Joan, The Brothers K, Hamlet. Regional: Three Nights in Tehran (Arena Stage); The Three Sisters (Studio Theatre); Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, A Man for All Seasons (PA Shakespeare Festival); Under The Whaleback, The Invention of Love (The Wilma Theatre); Glengarry/Glenross, The Importance of Being Earnest, Harvey (Walnut Street Theatre). He has also performed at Orlando Shakespeare Festival, Philadelphia Drama Guild, Philadelphia Area Repertory Theatre, Novel Stages, and Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays. Training: B.A. Universities of Virginia and Delaware.
A Musical Fable
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Suggested by memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee
On the F. Otto Haas Stage
May 18 – June 18, 2017