“All the world’s a stage/ and all the men and women merely players….”
William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”
“We have assembled in this ancient and insane theatre.”
Jim Morrison, “An American Prayer”
We’ve been following the evolution of “The Lizard King” opening in Milwaukee later this week from it’s very beginnings. This week we’ll get to know the three lead actors involved in “The Lizard King”, Maxwell Tomaszewski as Jim Morrison, Brittany Curran as Pam Courson, and Coy Wentworth as Jim Morrison’s drinking buddy and partner in crime Tom Baker.
From talking with them it seems a real group mind exists between them, and that elusive ‘chemistry’ that is talked about in relationships between actors is present in the cast of “The Lizard King”. Here is the interview.
DE: Let’s start with some questions you all have in common. How aware of The Doors and Jim Morrison were you before joining “The Lizard King”?
Max: My parents had a greatest hits vinyl that they would play when I was very young. I remember dancing around the living rooms of a few different apartments to ‘Break on Through’, ‘Light My Fire’, ‘When the Music’s Over’, and the like. It was hard to resist the temptation to jump, which would of course make the record skip. I really liked what I heard, but I didn’t pursue my interest in The Doors much further. Later, as I developed my own interests in poetry and mysticism, I gained a new appreciation for The Doors and, in particular, Jim Morrison’s ethos. But it wasn’t until I saw the casting notice for this play that I began to study Jim and the music in earnest.
Brittany: Before this project, my awareness of The Doors ran only as deep as knowing they were the band from the 60s that sang “Touch Me” and “Light My Fire.” I knew that they were a big deal back in the day, and had I heard the name Jim Morrison. I maybe would have vaguely remembered that he was the front man of the band. However, my knowledge of The Doors was extremely limited, and I had never heard of Pam Courson before auditioning for “The Lizard King”.
Coy: I have known about the doors since I was a teen, and I listened to them some when I was younger, but this show definitely got me more in tune with their albums. I’m a bigger fan now.
DE: What research did you do for your characters?
Max: I started off simply revisiting the music. Then, I started listening to whatever recordings I could find of Jim Morrison’s poetry. I was drawn in particular to ‘An American Prayer’, which posthumously features Jim’s poetry over backing tracks recorded by the rest of the band. Although there are flashback scenes, this play is primarily rooted in Jim’s attempt to create a new life as a poet in Paris, separate from the band and its reputation. So, those recordings were extremely valuable tools in terms of getting a feel for what Jim the poet was about and where he may have been headed in terms of creativity during this mysterious portion of his life. They also helped shape the delivery of the many poetic monologues that appear throughout this play. I watched whatever live performance footage, interviews, etc. I could find. Especially helpful resources were Tom DiCillo’s documentary “When You’re Strange” and Jim’s own film, “HWY”.
Also, director Ken Morgan lent me a copy of “Angels Dance and Angels Die: The Tragic Romance of Pam and Jim Morrison” by Patricia Butler, which contains a huge wealth of knowledge about Pam and Jim, individually and as a couple.
Coy: There is an autobiography by Tom baker called “Blue Centre Light” that I have been checking out, also watched his movie “I, A Man” on YouTube a few times. There are a lot of articles out there chronicling his times with Jim as well, like when they got kicked off a plane in Florida (Arizona ed.) that I found useful and fun to read.
Brittany: I began my research by reading stories and articles online, but most of these articles revolved around Pam being “Jim’s muse,” or “Jim’s cosmic mate,” or “the love of Jim Morrison’s life.” While this is all true, these articles failed to identify Pam as her own person, separate from rock star Jim Morrison. I was determined to give this character her own identity outside of her relationship with Jim; I knew there must have been more to her than just that. Fortunately, Tom (Weicenbach, producer) and Ken were so kind to provide me with a copy of “Angels Dance and Angels Die” by Patricia Butler very early on in the process. This book really fleshed her out as an individual and was an integral part of my research.
DE: How do you think Courson’s portrayal in “The Lizard King” fleshes her out as a person?
Brittany: “The Lizard King” does a decent job of showcasing the full range of Pam’s emotions as well as her struggle to find her true self. In this play, she isn’t simply “the sweet little redhead” or “the sometimes physically abusive firecracker” or “Jim’s girl”—she is a little bit of all of these things, and more. Pam has her fair share of scenes without Jim where the audience learns more about her as a person with her own separate history. However, in the end, I really believe this show is a love story. Jim and Pam truly loved each other through anything and everything they put each other through. This script does a wonderful job enhancing their love story by fleshing out both characters as individuals, which in my opinion, makes the story all the more real and heart wrenching.
DE: Let’s tackle a couple questions more specific to your characters. Max, Jim Morrison is frequently described as a mirror. What part of the character reflects, or even refracts, you?
Max: I’ve never actually heard that description before! But it’s funny that you shared that because throughout the process I have been struck by many deep seated similarities between this character and myself, and naturally also some profound differences. I think that Jim – as I understand him in the context of this play and my research – and I both share a fascination with the mystic, and are very passionate about creating moments that transcends this version of reality and takes us and the audience-participants to a totally difference plane of experience. During the course of my research, I very much related to those passages, quotes, and footage that described or showed Jim’s genuine efforts to connect with audiences and serve as a conduit for their awakening. On the other side of that coin, I can also empathize with his frustration with the media and eventually audiences that didn’t seem to him to care about that aspect of his work, and only wanted to exploit his willingness to be weird and vulnerable for their own distant amusement. I can relate to his desire to withdraw from the circus and pave his own pathway.
Alternatively, Jim seems to have been much more outrageous and brash than I would care to ever be. On stage, it’s a whole other story, but in my day-to-day (life) I’m a pretty quiet and mellow individual.
DE: Coy, Tom Baker is maybe one of the least publicly known figures in the play, did you find the lack of information freeing or somewhat of a drawback?
Coy: I’d say both. Usually the more I know the better, but playing a character who was real but doesn’t have a lot of information on him isn’t so different from approaching a fictional role. So it doesn’t bother me that much that I have to fill in some blank spaces myself, it makes the process more dynamic and creative when I have to come up with character choices.
DE: Kind of touching on that, is this the first time you’ve played a character based on a real person? If it is, how does it differ from playing a fictional character?
Brittany: My final semester of college I had an internship with Renaissance Theaterworks in which I understudied and performed the role of Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst”. In my experience, I have found that there is a certain amount of research that goes into playing a character, whether that character is based on a real person or completely fictional. When playing a fictional character, for example, I may research the time period, location, or a certain profession or culture in order to make informed decisions about the character. On the other hand, when the character is based on a real person, there are typically specific audience expectations that must be met in order to be as true-to-life as possible. However, at the end of the day, one must rely on the words the script gives us. An actor can research a real person to the point of knowing every cold hard fact about that person’s life, but if the script has you saying a line that does not match up with your research you still have to say it! This is where playing a character based on a real person is not much different from playing a fictional character—there are still opportunities for creatively filling in the blanks.
(to be continued)
“The Lizard King” is appearing at the Arcade Theater, 161 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI. Preview dates start September 15 with opening night being Thursday September 17 at 7:30pm. Information and performance days and times are at KACM Theatrical Productions. The run of the play is scheduled September 15- 27. Tickets are now on sale at Brown Paper Tickets.
DE: Max, do you think Jim Morrison is becoming more of a myth to fans than a real person?
Max: Definitely. I think it’s possible that Jim even saw that happening during his lifetime, and that awareness motivated his decision to withdraw from the limelight. He wanted a chance to be Jim the Real Person, even if the rest of the world kept on howling for more of the same. But, speculation aside, I think it is very clear that the iconic image and understanding of Jim Morrison we see today is just a sliver of the whole story, if not an outright myth.
DE: Coy, you and Max had a shared experience of playing Jesus and Judas. Do you see a corollary in the relationship of Tom Baker and Jim Morrison?
Coy: We actually never did a full performance of “The Last Days of Judah Iscariot,” but Max and I were in a production of Orphans by Lyle Kessler last summer. You can definitely see some correlations in the relationships in that play between two orphaned brothers and in this play where we play two drug induced buddies. It’s people who love each other who are also in competition, so it’s friendly, but the stakes are really high, and they are at each others’ necks at times. So when we signed on for “Lizard King:, we had emotional connections to relate to already, which was helpful.
DE: Let’s finish up with another question your characters have in common. Is there any insight into Jim Morrison’s experience that you may not have had prior to ‘The Lizard King” experience? Coy?
Coy: I didn’t realize how sad and confused this man was, doing this play opened me up more to the idea that even rock stars have insecurity issues. I also didn’t appreciate how much he embraced his individual eccentricities that fueled his stream of conscious, easy flowing abstract poetry. This is why people still are attracted to his work today, and probably why he will always be remembered. He made his art his own. I dig that.
Brittany: Like I said, I knew little to nothing about Jim Morrison before working on this show. I suppose I also knew that he was a crazy party boy with an alcohol problem, but I clearly had a very narrow view on his life story and the story of The Doors. Working on this project has opened my eyes to see past the surface of the media’s portrayal of these people. Instead I now see them as human beings and artists with real inner struggles. They were not just celebrities; they were people with lives that went beyond the public eye.
DE: Max, before you answer that last question, here’s sort of a bonus question. A lot of Doors fans have the fantasy of “being” Jim Morrison. How does it feel to be able to act out this fantasy?
Max: At a certain point and to a certain degree, I think every actor has to make a role their own. It’s inevitable that unique aspects of your own personality, appearance, delivery, and so on, become essential to the character that you are playing. It goes beyond portrayal and becomes reality born from illusion. Live theatre is an experience in the moment, first and foremost. I don’t really have the words to describe it. But it is very interesting to do that while embodying a historical figure and a modern icon. That brings with it a lot of responsibility because you are now playing with a public image, an intersection of the past and present, and a powerful spirit. So, that has been in my mind a lot. Your comment about Jim being described as a mirror sticks with me. As the process of developing this character comes to an end, I notice that all the pieces have gotten scrambled and the cracks that divide them have started to seal together. As I have become ‘Jim’, he has also become a part of ‘me’. Our stories are currently folded together, and from that mixture something new is being created, bearing the name of ‘Jim Morrison’ in the context of the play, and bearing my name in the context of the theater … perhaps it’s just best to call it “The Lizard King”.
My feelings about resurrecting Jim have been strange, to say the least. I will be able to speak to it more accurately, I think, after we have our first show. The ritual of theater always feels incomplete to me without an audience.
DE: Back to the last question, any insights into Jim Morrison’s experience that you may not have had prior to “The Lizard King” experience?
Max: Where to begin? Like I said, I was only superficially familiar with Jim and The Doors prior to reading the casting notice. Since then, I’ve been working to develop a complete human being grounded within the context of the play and my research. It has been a deeply personal, profoundly transformative, very fun, and also at times kind of unnerving experience. But as far as insight gained regarding Jim Morrison’s experience goes … well, I guess you’ll just have to come to the show and see for yourself.
DE: Thank Max, Coy and Brittany. I’m looking forward to seeing you in “The Lizard King”.
Originally published September 16, 2015