Categories: THE BUZZ

THE BUZZ: Looking Behind the Curtain. A Conversation with actors Aaron Clifton and Louisa Jacobson

Aaron Clifton Moten as Romeo and Louisa Jacobson as Juliet. Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare and directed by Barry Edelstein, runs August 11 – September 15, 2019
at The Old Globe. Photo by Jim Cox.

Article by Mario Sanguinet

August 27, 2019

If you saw them, walking down the street or on the sidewalk of the Cabrillo Bridge in Balboa Park, you would hardly recognize them. They were dressed like true locals.

Rehearsals for “Romeo and Juliet” started in July, so they moved to San Diego around that time. Even though they have only been here for a few months, they have nicely adapted to the San Diego lifestyle, at least attire wise.

Aaron Clifton with his light teal T-shirt and dark shorts; and Louisa Jacobson with an airy navy-blue three-quarter sleeve blouse with tiny white polka dots and jean shorts. Each one, respectively, the eponymous lead in the Old Globe Theatre’s rendition of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

They walked with an iced coffee in hand. The hallmark and telltale sign of a young Californian. Or maybe just the indicator of someone in need of a caffeine boost in the middle of the afternoon. A dire necessity when working late into the night. Either way, they looked the part of a young local.

They even knew more places in Little Italy than me, and suggested I check out Nolita Hall and Herb & Wood. So, they have definitely earned their San Diego stripes.

As they walked into the courtyard of the Old Globe, someone recognized them as Romeo and Juliet. Both were gracious and kind to the bystanders who identified them and engaged with them for a moment.

I was sitting at a nearby table in the theater’s courtyard when I caught a glimpse of this exchange. Then, I heard them say they were supposed to meet someone. So as if waiting for my cue, I turned around to introduce myself.

We all walked in together into the administrative offices of the theater and were lead up a small staircase where we could barely fit. When we reached the second story, we were invited into a temperature-controlled conference room, a nice respite from a near blazing sun and summer heat, where I talked with them for a little over an hour.

Prologue

My conversation with Ms. Jacobson and Mr. Clifton was fascinating because we are all in our late-twenties (not to date anyone). And we commiserated over that. We covered a lot of ground, from our listening habits, such as podcasts or music; to aspects of our professional lives; to our general views on life. It felt as if I was talking with my friends.

Case in point, at one juncture in the conversation we all got to share bits and pieces of our academic experience, which kind of turned into a moment of shared life experience, which morphed into a moment of sage wisdom.

“It’s interesting to walk into the world at 22 with all of that stuff swimming in your head,” reflected Mr. Clifton about graduating from Julliard’s combined BFA/MFA program, “versus where I am now, where we all are now, with a little bit more experience. And a little bit more self-trust.”

This struck a chord with me and I retorted, “Yeah, at 22 you’re like: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’ I mean, not that I know what I’m doing now.” And we all had a brief laugh at that.

However, Ms. Jacobson’s response to my comment was incredibly profound, “We never land, y’know? Human beings never land. Everybody has this myth that, ‘Once I land, and once I know exactly what I want, and exactly what I’m doing for the rest of my life, I’ll be good…’ But we never land.”

This exchange captures the kind of interaction I have with my friends. Somehow hearing Ms. Jacobson say, “we never land” gave me an odd sense of solace, which I did not know I needed. I will be thinking about this exchange for the foreseeable future.

Act I – Acting to a Degree.

Both Ms. Jacobson and Mr. Clifton have memories of performing and being in front of an audience at relatively early ages.

Still, for Ms. Jacobson, her repertoire of performances at a young age was rather vast. She had a hard time trying to remember when or what age she was when she first stepped before an audience.

Perhaps it was the impromptu performances she put on at her house with her siblings and cousins during family gatherings. Perhaps it was the dance or piano recitals “in front of tons of people.”

Perhaps it was at theater camp when she was eight where they did “a hodgepodge of different numbers from different musicals.”

Perhaps it was her middle school production of “the Wizard of Oz.” Where “a couple of girls playing Dorothy,” recalled Ms. Jacobson, “there was a Dorothy for the beginning, middle and end. I was one of them and I had a blast doing that.”

Regardless, of when she first stepped in front of an audience Ms. Jacobson readily admitted, “I’ve always loved performing.”

Mr. Clifton, on the other hand, was slightly older and his memory about it was clearer. “I actually didn’t get into acting until I was 12. And it was by fluke. A drama teacher came up to me in the dining hall and asked me if I wanted to read this part in a play,” he remembered, “and I got the part.”

He went on to say the first experience in front of an audience involved making a theater of 300 people laugh, which gave him a sense of joy as well.  

Mr. Clifton and Ms. Jacobson have come along way since their middle school performances, achieving academic accolades and becoming trained professionals.

Ms. Jacobson got her undergraduate degree at Vassar, majoring in psychology and minoring in art history. This past May she graduated with her MFA from Yale. Mr. Clifton’s accomplishments are just as impressive, having graduated from Julliard, which is no small feat.

For both, Ms. Jacobson and Mr. Clifton, getting to play the leads in “Romeo and Juliet” at the Old Globe Theatre has been a professional dream come true. Albeit for slightly different reasons.

Mr. Clifton considers Romeo an underrated character in Shakespeare’s canon. Noting most actors would rather play Hamlet or Prince Hal. So, he was excited about the opportunity to bring new life and a fresh take to the role of Romeo, at the Old Globe. Together, with Barry Edelstein, the play’s director, they have done so.

For Ms. Jacobson, being able to play Juliet has been “a dream come true.” After all, “What young actress wouldn’t love to play this role,” she stated enthusiastically. But, the timing of the role plays a special significance for her, since it is her first role after graduating from drama school.

Act II – Before and After.

However, unlike most of my friends, who are college instructors; Ms. Jacobson and Mr. Clifton are professional actors. So, I was curious about the intricacies and nuances of the acting profession, and who better to ask than the two of them.

They each have routines to prepare themselves and get in the right headspace prior to a show. But, their individual approach is different.

For instance, before leaving home, Ms. Jacobson needs anywhere from a couple of minutes to half-an-hour to rest or clear her mind. Once at the theater, she usually does a vocal warm-up, which she learned in drama school, for about 25 minutes.

After this, she starts doing her hair and makeup. Sometimes during this process, she will listen to some music. The songs she listens to are specially curated for each character.

I asked if she could share some of the songs on her Juliet playlist. And in a brief moment that seemed wildly out of character to me, Ms. Jacobson got kind of shy and said, “No! It’s a secret.” Which only makes the playlist more intriguing. Alas, we might never know what those songs on the secret playlist are.

Mr. Clifton’s routine is slightly more active. Up until show time, he has to talk to someone in a similar way that a character would. If his character requires him to tell jokes, he talks to someone and makes them laugh. This means he sometimes has to call someone and talk as the character would.

He also checks in with his body to see if anything needs attention. So, he might stretch or do some calisthenics to loosen his body and get in the right frame of mind.  

Another thing I always wondered was how performers cooled down after a show. This came to me after attending a rock concert, because an audience’s energy can be so powerful. I figured artists must have a way to recalibrate after being the source, receivers and center of so much energy.

Mr. Clifton and Ms. Jacobson’s answers fell in line with what I thought. Nevertheless, that is probably due to the nature and intensity of “Romeo and Juliet.”

(*spoiler alert!*)

After all, losing your loved one and then committing suicide onstage is no small emotional feat. So, to help them wind down after the show, they have to watch something light and funny, like “the Office.”

Act II – Acting. Human.

The way they described the craft of acting seemed so simple at times, but sometimes its complexity bewildered me.

At one point, Ms. Jacobson said, acting was just “talking and listening.” It seemed so unassuming to me because many of us do these on an almost regular basis. Then I had to remind myself, just because you do something frequently does not mean you are good at it.

But later on, we talked about how listening manifests in a play because usually the actors know what comes next. The key, however, is in the reaction and the delivery of the next line.

If I were to expand on Ms. Jacobson’s definition of acting as “just talking and listening” based on my conversation with her and Mr. Clifton, I would flip the order and say, acting is listening then talking.

In doing so, actors also have to emulate the way they would respond in real life. Not as a character. But, as a person reacting to what just happened, in real-time. That is where part of the acting craft and training comes in.

In other words, actors have to be attuned to the nuances of how their fellow cast members deliver a line. “Why you say anything, is determined by everyone around you,” noted Mr. Clifton.

He continued to say that in any given play, an actress/actor “can know what [they are] saying… But [they do not] know why [they] say something” until something happens.

“If [any of my cast mates] do anything different, any night I have to be open to that. Or else, it’s not true. It’s not real [and] I’m just doing something I’ve memorized,” concluded Mr. Clifton.  

For instance, is their scene partner emphasizing an inflection or focusing on a particular word. Maybe there was an extra pause or facial movement. The actress has to be on the lookout for these minor cues.

Every time an actor reacts to and says a line, it has to be like it is the first time they are doing it. Ms. Jacobson captured it best with her daily reminder that, “Every night is a new audience, so they’re seeing [the play] with fresh eyes.”

An actor has to take all of these small variations into account when delivering their lines. In a way, acting is pretending not to know what you are going to say next, when you really do. But it has to match the moment.

The other way the acting craft emerges is when both the actor and the characters come off stage.

Specifically, Mr. Clifton and Ms. Jacobson mention that before the second act, right around intermission, is when things can get challenging for them. Because they have to go back into the real world for 15 minutes, then come back to complete the second act, which is significantly heavier, darker and emotionally taxing.

So, as trained actors they have to have the discipline to separate themselves from the character, and come back to the role and its intricacies, when they need to. And as Ms. Jacobson mentioned, that is part of “what training is supposed to do, [allowing] you to come out of it an go back in.”

***

Ms. Jacobson and Mr. Clifton have a unique lens/perspective on what it means to be human. And like most people, they have learned something about the human condition while doing their jobs, acting. If anything, their particular profession probably gives them a deeper look into human beings.

Ms. Jacobson mentioned acting has taught her to be more inquisitive about people’s motivation. And, in a way, give people the benefit of the doubt. She said acting has helped her be, “more active in asking questions about why [she does] things in [her] own life.”

But she does not limit these questions to herself. She asks the same questions about other people, “why they do the things that they do. Because as an actor you’re always asking of your character why did they do this… You’re constantly asking questions about [the character’s] motivation, right? And so it’s sort of made me think about my life, and about the people in my life a little bit more deeply.”   

She concluded that, “Most human beings… just want love and respect.”

Through acting, Mr. Clifton has learned that words often fail to capture human being’s true meanings, desires, emotions and intentions. We can try, and say as much as we want, but only a few things will truly capture the essence of our message.

“Acting has taught me that the most remarkable thing a human being can do is to clearly express to another human being how they feel,” Mr. Clifton pointed out. “I can sit here and talk for hours. But it might only be one sentence, or one thought that comes out of my mouth that actually expresses something that was closer to what I feel.”

Technical Difficulties

Inevitably an actor will forget their lines and they must go on. But, Mr. Clifton and Ms. Jacobson have a different way of getting through those moments. Ms. Jacobson says it is a lot easier to remember her lines in this play because, after all, it is Shakespeare.

Since the Bard’s phrasing, pacing and articulation of ideas are incredibly particular; this works to Ms. Jacobson’s advantage because it allows her to better recall dialogue.

Despite Shakespeare’s writing in iambic pentameter, Mr. Clifton admitted that at times he has forgotten his lines. As such he has had to adapt and forge forward as close as he can.

Nevertheless, Ms. Jacobson recognizes that when it comes to non-Elizabethan English, things can get dicey, like in auditions. Because the language used in those scripts is how we regularly speak, and actors have less time to learn the dialogue. So it can be a little bit more challenging to recall things word for word.

Even though they are trained actors, they are still human and they may inevitably get nervous, especially if they forget their lines. Still both agree breathing is one of the best ways to let the nerves subside.

Whenever Ms. Jacobson gets nervous she reminds herself to, “prioritize the character’s problems in this moment, over the actor’s problem of wanting to do a good job and be liked.”

Act III – Appreciation Nation  

At the end of almost every show, no matter the type, the audience claps (usually). If an audience finds a performance truly remarkable, they will rise from their seats and give those on stage a standing ovation.

Both of them said receiving a standing ovation was a great, if not overwhelming, sense of gratitude and appreciation for the audience, because a standing ovation is recognition of the actor’s hard work, dedication and commitment.

But, they also admitted there are occasional instances where they still struggle to take in the audience’s acceptance and appreciation.

For Ms. Jacobson, at times it can present itself as a minor case of impostor syndrome, where she feels like she does not deserve the recognition.

Sometimes, Mr. Clifton feels like he wants to give something back to the audience. He would like to reciprocate the gratitude he feels because when he sees people clapping he feels like he is only taking. And that does not sit well with him.

I took issue with both of their answers because I cannot do what Ms. Jacobson does. At least not well. And certainly not as well as she does it. So, she deserves every ounce of recognition she receives and the audience gives her.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clifton does give the audience something, every night. He gives them a unique performance. As such, the audience bears witness to something that will not and cannot ever be replicated.

There is a sense of transience in each performance. Like trying to catch lightning in a bottle each night. That is one of the mysteries and allure of the theater. The live collaboration between the actors on stage and the audience.

Ultimately, it is the ephemerality of each performance that both, Mr. Clifton and Ms. Jacobson, believe is what makes the theater so special.

It has been in said multiple instances, that art imitates life. And theater as an art form does this. But for me, it is not the emotions or relationships portrayed on stage. Rather, it is the fleeting nature of moments between people that can never be replicated. To paraphrase Mr. Clifton, once we say something, we cannot fully say it again the same way we did before.

It is the same for the theater, which is probably why the truism about live performances is “no two shows are alike.” Because as they both noted the audience, is the most important part and they change every night.

Encore

Like any self-respecting Millennial, both Mr. Clifton and Ms. Jacobson listen to podcasts and love the US version of “the Office.”

Mr. Clifton subscribes to “Lore,” a podcast about “dark historical tales,” because he enjoys that mystery, intrigue and even a little bit of darkness the show provides.

Meanwhile, Ms. Jacobson listens to “the Daily” by the New York Times and appreciates how each day is a deep dive into one issue in a relatively short amount of time.

They both agreed that lengthier narrative style audio content are better suited for “long car rides,” which can be anything from 40 minutes to an hour driving. More concretely, “the drive from [San Diego] to LA,” as Mr. Clifton noted.

As far as their music preferences, they both seemed to have similar tastes and they went back and forth naming bands from our adolescence. Mr. Clifton mentioned the Clash and the Postal Service. And Ms. Jacobson added Death Cab for Cutie, the Shins, as well as the Postal Service.

And while Mr. Clifton has seen “the Office” multiple times, his favorite episode is the opener for season three. Ms. Jacobson’s favorite episode is “Women’s Appreciation,” also from the third season. But, she admits, that particular one might be fresh on her mind because she saw it again earlier in the week.

So, if you ever find yourself in the enviable position of being on a road trip with either one, rest assured; they have your pop culture needs covered, from music to podcasts, to references from “the Office.” Even moments of sage wisdom. And isn’t that what we all want in a road trip buddy?

Who knows? You might even be fortunate enough and have Ms. Jacobson share one of her “secret” playlists. The ones she uses to develop and inform the characters she plays.

And while it may be true that “we never land.” Let us hope that we never crash. Let us hope that we cruise at our desired altitude. And let us hope we all find our destinations.  

For more information about this production or to purchase tickets visit: https://www.theoldglobe.org/pdp/19-summer-season/romeo-and-juliet/#?startDate=2019-08-01&?endDate=2019-08-31

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