Greg Matthew Anderson | Performer of the week
Starring in the first show after a major company shake-up at Remy Bumppo, Greg Matthew Anderson is tackling the pressure head-on in Lee Blessing’s one-man show Chesapeake. As Kerr, an artist who is reborn as the dog of the Republican senator he hates, Anderson gives a vivid, uninhibited performance. Raised in the northwest suburbs, he began performing at a young age, regularly starring in productions at Northbrook Children’s Theatre, which was owned by friends of the family. After graduating from Duke University, he moved back to Chicago, where he quickly contacted Remy Bumppo, beginning a relationship that would result in him becoming an associate artist with the company in 2007. Anderson speaks to us about his history with Remy Bumppo, how he got into his canine character, and how the drama behind the scenes motivated his art.
How did you first get involved with Remy Bumppo?
I went to Duke University for college, and they had a London program that was theater intensive, and I saw a play called Power at the National Theatre there. And when I moved back to Chicago, I had a friend who the manager at the box office at Victory Gardens at the time, which was in the Greenhouse space, and she had told me to check out this company called Remy Bumppo that was in the building and did great work. And I looked at their season brochure and they were doing [Nick Dear's] Power. So I wrote them a letter saying I wanted to audition for Louis and his brother, and I found out a lot later, I think I was probably the only person who knew what that play was. And Linda Gillum, who was casting at the time, was kind of taken aback by somebody writing in knowing who he wanted to audition for in the play. So they brought me in, and that was the first show I did with them. I did [Gore Vidal's] The Best Man right after that, they asked me to come back and do a second play, and shortly after that was something else, I don’t remember what it was [Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story], and then they asked me to become a company member. It just rolled from there.
How soon after being cast did you start preparing for the role?
Not a whole lot of time. I didn’t want to stress for months and months on end thinking about it, and potentially overthinking a lot. So basically at the turn of the year, in about January, I started reading books about dogs and some of the political history that the show is inspired by, and in February I started learning lines and just kept at it in rehearsals. That was about it. I was just reading and trying to get the words in.
How did you work with director Shawn Douglass to make Kerr’s transformation in the second act believable?
We met quite a few times before we started rehearsals, and every now and then he would just plant a little seed, in terms of thinking about the character, thinking about my body. This sounds so dull, but those small and specific questions open up a whole lot of thoughts, and that was before we started in rehearsals. In rehearsals, it was really freeform, and there’s just two of us, so the amount of focus is pretty intense. So we just play around, bit by bit, chunk by chunk, and see what happens. A lot of the stuff from probably the first day of rehearsal is still in the show, and then the other stuff that wasn’t in that first day probably changed 30–40 times. This probably isn’t the most illuminating window into the process, but it was really cumulative, and just basic.
Have you ever done any of the wacky kinds of performance art Kerr talks about in the show?
No, I haven’t. I haven’t had that opportunity, and this is probably enough. (Laughs.) It’s definitely cool, though. It’s cool to imagine the stones that it takes to conceive and execute and believe in something that postmodern. There’s something comforting about living outside of the narrative, and that kind of performance art that [Kerr] talks about, and that I know others are capable of and have done, is impressive. There’s something there that I don’t have.
A lot of this play is about what goes on behind the scenes, and that interfering with the actual art. Has that mirrored the last few months at Remy Bumppo?
You know, the play is about change, isn’t it? The play is about being revived, and the company was revived with Timothy Douglas, our first new non-founding artistic director. And then the artistic sensibilities of the company that had existed beforehand and his own didn’t find a home together, which I think is—I’m going to go outside the company approved rhetoric here: I think he’s a terrific guy. And a really wonderful artist and I was excited to work with him, but for some reason we didn’t share a lot of language when it came to trying to find a way to marry our artistic histories and evolve together. So we changed individually and as a company, and I’m sure Timothy would be the first to tell you that it opened his eyes to a lot of things about his process and working with other people. God knows it did for us, and how we think about ourselves and the work that we want to do and like to do.
The sense of change, or that sense of being revitalized, it’s been invigorating. It was when Timothy took over, it was when Nick [Sandys] took over as artistic director. It invigorated us to come together on such short notice for Shawn and I to work on a play. A lot of that tumult and real emotional instability—we were all worried about the company throughout a lot of this change, and wondering where we were going to be on the other side of it. And I think that had a lot to do with the work in the room; there was a sense of importance [placed] on letting that feed the work in a really tangible way.