Amy E. Harmon | Performer of the week
In Chicago Mammals’ intense All Girl Moby Dick, Amy E. Harmon passionately captains the Pequod as disfigured whale-hunter Ahab, taking the crew and audience on a sweeping journey inside the Mammals’ tight Zoo Studios space. Growing up in Mattawan, Michigan, Harmon first started performing in a high school production of Oliver! to overcome her shyness. She joined the fencing team while pursuing theater at Northwestern University, but after graduation, fencing proved to be too expensive to realistically continue. Harmon took her swordsmanship to the stage, joining Babes With Blades in 2003, and she took on the position of managing director of the company in 2005. Harmon speaks to us about the adaptation process, her Moby Dick blast from the past, how she got into Ahab’s character (and peg-leg cast).
Were you a part of the earlier workshop of All Girl Moby Dick?
I was not. I came into it right as they were auditioning for the full-cast production.
And did the piece continue to evolve in rehearsals?
Absolutely. Particularly in scenes that were being added, that weren’t part of the original workshop. We would come in to pages of Melvillian text, sit down and we would read them, and [director/co-adapter] Bob [Fisher] would ask us questions: What feels comfortable? What doesn’t feel comfortable? Is there anything here you think you could say better in today’s English? Try it that way. Can we meld the two? And chunks would go away, and chunks would get rearranged, and things would muddle their way toward being suited to the actor’s voice and Bob’s production. It was kind of a wood-shedding process, scene by scene.
Had you read Moby Dick before being cast? After?
I read it in school, like we all do. And then yeah, once I got cast, I sat down and read it again cover to cover. And what was hilarious, as I read it, I kept coming across lines that were familiar, and I didn’t know why. And then I realized, back when I was this little angsty high schooler and kept a journal, I scrawled quotes that triggered things for me on the cover of this journal, and some of them were actually Ahab lines (laughs). It was a lovely little window to who I used to be.
Building Stage remounted their 2006 production of Moby Dick this season as well. Why do you think it is such a popular story right now?
There’s such a collective American discomfort and fascination with Moby Dick. It doesn’t end the way we feel like it should. We keep picking at it and trying to make it end “right.” Particularly now, in times that are so uncertain, in times where we look around at our heroes and they’re not heroes and we look at our bad guys and maybe they’re not bad guys, I think Moby Dick really resonates.
How do you work to strip away your femininity when you take on a masculine role?
To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with a character and said, “OK, how do I remove the feminine elements from this character.” I approach each character as a person, and identify that person’s traits and just play them. And I’ve never had anyone say, “OK, but you’re doing that like a girl.” It really is a process of finding that character’s essential humanity, and playing that rather than worrying about whether I’m being a man or a woman.
How did you get acclimated to the cast you wore for Ahab’s peg leg?
(Laughs.) Oh, that leg. That was about a two-week process, and it was being adapted and tweaked every single day as we learned things about how it was shaped, and how it could be shaped better and what we could do to make it make a better sound. Initially it was puckering, how could we reinforce it? Just wearing it rehearsal after rehearsal, taking it off at the end and giving feedback to the costume designer and to Bob. But I have to tell you, everyone, from the other actors to Bob to the costume designer to ensemble members who watched the run, they would all grab me and take me aside and say, “OK, if this is hurting you, don’t be macho. Don’t power through it. You talk to us. You let us know if this is hurting.” And I was like, “I swear to God. I promise you, if this is hurting me, I’ll let you know.” And one night it did. We made some kind of addition that didn’t work well, I sat right there on the floor and said, “This hurts.” And they sat right next to me and said, “We will fix it.” And it was fine the next night.
What do you think are some of the advantages of adapting an epic novel like Moby Dick for a storefront space like Zoo Studios?
One of the things that I think this production in particular does is it implicates the audience in the story itself. It brings it right up close to them and it puts it in their laps and it asks them to understand and participate and support what happens in that world. So bringing a huge, sweeping epic like Moby Dick into a tiny little 35-seat—less than 35?
I counted 32.
It’s such an intimate space. It pulls the viewer into it in a way that is a lot more visceral than witnessing it from a distance, whether on the screen or in a bigger space.
What are some of the challenges of managing a theater while pursuing an acting career?
It’s a balancing act. You have a finite amount of energy and a finite amount of creativity, and if you’re throwing it all into the business aspects of the theater, your artistic side gets short shrift and vice versa. But I don’t know what I’d give up, it just pulls on such different parts of my brain that I would hate lose any part of it.
All Girl Moby Dick runs through May 26 at Zoo Studios (4001 N Ravenswood, 866-593-4614). Read our review of All Girl Moby Dick.