Student Reporter Anne Malinoski '11 spoke with Babb and Diskant about their upcoming production.
Anne: "The Importance of Being Earnest" opens on March 5. Can you tell us a little about that production and your roles in it?
Ben: I have a limited role in "The Importance of Being Earnest." I'm stepping in at the last minute. I'm playing Lane, the butler to Algernon. He is a funny minor character who kind of hates his life. I'm in "Death of a Salesman" right now, so I haven't had a lot of time in the rehearsal hall. I will start rehearsing on Tuesday, but Shirine has a starring role!
Shirine: Ahh, Gwendolen! I'm not used to doing comedic roles. I think the challenge for me in this play was keeping true to the language. It's such heightened language and so much is about the wit and the comedic timing. But at the same time, because it is a comedy of manners, I get to be really outrageous and extreme and I think that's beautiful, because so much of our training is about grounding and really finding a true sense of the characters we portray. But with Earnest, you really get to enjoy the ridiculousness of the characters and really go to the extreme with them.
Ben: For instance, I play a butler who is unhappy—and he vocalizes that! I mean, I would be fired in a second in any other play, but in this comedy of manners you can get away with anything.
Anne: Ben, as you mentioned, you're performing in "Death of a Salesman" at The Old Globe. Being cast in two shows at once must have made your schedule hectic. Is this something actors deal with often?
Ben: Yes, and it happens a lot here at USD. It's common for actors to get a job, and once they're performing that job the honeymoon is over and it's time to find another. In the best of all worlds you'd be rehearsing one show during the day, performing another at night and then one show closes and you move on to the next production.
Anne: But it doesn't quite work that way?
Ben: No, it doesn't. I wish!
"I think the idea is that if you can do Shakespeare, if you can do Moliere and all these text-based productions, then when it comes time to do a modern play that isn't so text-based it 's quite easy."
Anne: Shirine, you are back in school after six years working professionally. What made you decide to return to the classroom?
Shirine: I felt I lost the sense of how to apply the tools that I had, and I started to compensate. I wanted to maintain a day job and still be an actress. In New York City that's close to impossible, because your day job requires a lot from you. But I thought I could do it. And in the attempt to maintain that, I started to fall short in my acting. I wasn't putting a lot of myself into it anymore. I started to rely on my instincts and sometimes my instincts would be wrong.
I started thinking about returning to school, and I knew that I wanted to be in a classical situation, because that's what I love. This school has a big reputation, especially in New York City. They know about The Old Globe.
Anne: The USD Department of Graduate Theatre is a competitive, classical-focused partnership with The Old Globe. Out of hundreds of applicants, about seven are admitted each year. Why is classical training so desirable?
Ben: I think the idea is that if you can do Shakespeare, if you can do Moliere and all these text-based productions, then when it comes time to do a modern play that isn't so text-based it 's quite easy. If you can understand and use words to your advantage in Shakespeare, that's probably textually the hardest of all the work we have to do. In Shakespeare, you say what you mean. There's no subtext. If I love you, I love you and I say it! Once you get into modern drama you say "Hey let's get coffee" and you really mean, "I love you."
Shirine: When you speak Shakespeare, when you speak Ibsen and when you speak Wilde, there's something about the way the language rolls off your tongue. These are smart individuals. These are people that have a spine, that have meat on their bones. I think that's missing in the writing of today. You have to search and dig and find to make sense of it. I think there's a strong desire of people wanting to get back to a place where they can speak in a beautiful way.
With the influx of technology, we don't have a sense of communicating any more. You really don't have an opportunity to write long lovely letters or get into an in-depth conversation, because you're looking at your iPhone to see what time you have to be at your next appointment. I think the desire comes from just wanting to be able to speak that way once again, because a lot of it has been lost over the years.
Ben: With classical, the emotions are out there. I think we contain so much now that it's rather exciting to go back and do all these works. I don't think characters are written that way anymore.
Anne: What have you learned as an MFA student?
Ben: I think when I was an undergrad I didn't take a lot of responsibility. I wasn't ever taking responsibility for choices I was making as an actor, or even really as a human being. I'm no longer just an actor saying, "Tell me what to do, director!" but I'm saying, "I'm an actor, I know who my person is inside and out. I know how he's thinking and what he wants in a scene and I don't need a director to tell me." And it's great if they do, but I don't have to wait for someone to inform me. Before, I was waiting for people to tell me what to do, and I don't do that anymore.
Anne: Tell me about your faculty.
Ben: Rick Seer is the director of the program. He teaches our first acting class as well as our last acting class. He's fantastic and he's the reason I'm here. He's so kind and warm.
Shirine: We can say many wonderful things about Rick, but I think what also makes the program so beneficial is the size of the faculty. You have a small amount of professors who know so much about you, because of the size of the class. There are seven of us and there are only five professors who truly know what it is they want us to work on. You don't have to question whether these professors know what your needs are.
Ben: That's really true. We have a teacher for our voice, we have a teacher for our body, we have a teacher for our movement and we have a teacher for our acting. They're all in communication with each other. And as Shirine said, because we're such a small group, they all know what we're doing.
Shirine: I think that's hard to find in a larger institution, where they're catering to 20 or 30 students on any given day. You can't expect them to retain a lot of information regarding all of the students.
Ben: In my undergrad, we had an acting class and there were 24 kids in the class. We went up maybe once every month to act in front of the teacher. Here, there's nowhere to hide.
Shirine: Even if you wanted to!
Anne: Tell me about your fellow students.
Ben: It's up and down, but we're a family.
Shirine: I was just going to say that! You become a family and learn each other's quirks.
Ben: And we fight, and we make up and we…
Shirine: It is what it is!
Ben: We've all improved together. I think of it as the real world. We're all coming from different places. It's like—how many different sorts of people can we get together? Let's put them in this courtyard and see what they do. And then we're stuck with each other for two years, in a good way.
"I'm no longer just an actor saying, "Tell me what to do, director!" but I'm saying, "I'm an actor, I know who my person is inside and out. I know how he's thinking and what he wants in a scene and I don't need a director to tell me.'"
Ben Diskant (MFA'11) and Catherine Gowl (MFA'10) in The Old Globe's production of King Lear. Photo: Craig Schwartz
Anne: Tell me about your future goals.
Shirine: I want to become an international actress and work in England. I had a chance to study and work there and it was such a big inspiration in my life. More than anything, I would love to do Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre.
Ben: That's been her dream.
Shirine: For the longest! And just to maintain a career out of this business that is so unstable. That's all I can ask for. If anything else comes out of that, then I'm blessed.
Ben: I think another thing I've learned out of this program is that I'm a classical actor; I'm not a contemporary actor. If I do get contemporary work, great! But I want to do classical work. I have the spine for it and I have the feel for classical work. I also want to be on the east coast, but you know, we're actors! We'll work anywhere!
Ben: For food!
Anne: Describe USD's MFA life in 5 words.
Shirine: Challenging, enlightening, exhausting…
Ben: I feel like those were mine.
Shirine: Let me think…
Ben: Worth every second I'm here.
Shirine: Aww, Ben! Forever present. Those were my last two.
- Anne Malinoski '11