Scott Cupper | Performer of the week
When unemployed Russian Semyón Semyónovich decides to kill himself, he finds himself in the middle of a madcap war between different factions claiming his suicide for their causes. As Semyón, Strange Tree Group ensemble member Scott Cupper (shown in the middle of the photo above) impressively balances the comic and tragic elements of Robert Ross Parker’s Goodbye Cruel World, an adaptation of Nicolai Erdman’s 1928 political satire The Suicide. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Cupper began performing in high school before attending Indiana University, where he met the people that would go on to found Strange Tree. Upon moving to Chicago, Scott was put in touch with Strange Tree artistic director Emily Schwartz, beginning a relationship that has flourished over the past eight years. Cupper speaks to us about why he loves working with Strange Tree, his first impressions of Parker’s script, and the biggest challenge of getting into his suicidal character.
How did you get involved with Strange Tree Group?
I knew Carol Enoch, and she introduced me to Emily [Schwartz]. Dastardly Ficus, the first show we put up here, Carol Enoch and Kara Mackey had done it at IU at the Bloomington Playwrights Project, so we did a small scene for a showcase, and it got picked up. They asked if I wanted to be the stage manager, and I said sure. In Ficus, there’s one male role, Mr. Clock. They asked me if I wanted to be stage manager, I kind of wanted to audition, but I said, “Sure I’ll be your stage manager.” I was at auditions, I didn’t actually realize I had to be there, so they called me and said, “Can you come and hand out papers?” So I got there and there was a lull in the audition and the director said “Do you want to audition?” And I looked at her and I said, “I’m your stage manager.” And she said, “Well, we can figure that our later.’ So I auditioned and got the part and we got another stage manager.
What do you love about working for Strange Tree?
There’s two answers to that. When we’re not doing an Emily Schwartz show, it’s just a great group of people and we find interesting work to do. I don’t have the aesthetic Strange Tree does, so it’s awesome to be involved in that and to have been invited into that. And that’s always great and we find great stuff like Goodbye Cruel World. When it’s Emily’s stuff, you just can’t believe what you’re given to say and do. The text is so wonderful. It’s so rich, so rewarding, and it’s so much fun to bring to life, not only for audiences, but even for Emily herself. She’s a very giving writer, and once she gives it over to us, its kind of ours, and she just enjoys watching what we bring to it, and audiences just fall in love with it. We sometimes have the opposite problem of a lot of theater companies. We have a lot of non-theater people who come to see our shows, but for a long time we weren’t really known in the theater community, we had to work and get ourselves acquainted there. But its great having an audience come and fall in love with Emily’s work.
What was your initial reaction to Goodbye Cruel World when you read the script?
I loved it. I knew it was different. It has a political edge to it. Nothing cutting, it’s not strictly political. But I was like, ‘This is gonna be something different.’ It so fast, so fun. A little bit darker in a different way than our normal, so I was excited to explore that and see what we could potentially bring to it. I just love the humor about it, the little bit of depth it brought—and the fact that it’s based on a play that was never performed in Russia because Stalin wouldn’t allow it is incredible.
What was the biggest challenge for you getting into Semyón’s character?
I think [director] Bob [Kruse] and I both discovered this as we went along: It was so easy to fall into this trap of being depressed and not being involved. Having Semyón come in and not react to scenes and just be a spectator, and the more and more we did it, the more and more Bob and I both realized, as he phrased it, ‘We’ve been on our heels and we need to be on our toes.’ The whole play is a struggle to live, and to survive. The character kind of fights that. The way it reads on the page, you fight that at some points, so it’s finding ways to have this depression, but anyone who is depressed doesn’t want to be depressed. And so to find active ways to be involved in the scenes, and what is driving me—he’s fighting for his life, and so to find these moments of where and how he is fighting with each of these characters and once we had that it really, really came to life. It was difficult at first to find that right balance, that forward momentum that really needs to carry the show forward.
How did you guys work in the rehearsal room to balance the slapstick comedy elements with the political, personal drama?
Bob is great. He always, from the get-go, talked about, ‘We want to ground this, everything needs to come from something, we can’t just be playing at this. We have to find those moments where the stakes are so high.’ And that’s what drives farce, if the stakes are so high, then you can’t be small, you have to be large, because the stakes are so large. That was just something he impressed upon us from day one. We did the tuba scene at a benefit, and even there he was like, ‘What does that tuba mean? It’s saving your life.’ The natural instinct is to be performing immediately and he really challenged me to find what the tuba meant and how much it meant to me and go from there. In every single scene, in every single monologue I have, really helping me find the fundamental question that was at the bottom of it, and really letting that drive me.
Strange Tree Group’s Goodbye Cruel World runs through July 22 at Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave, 773-975-8150). Read our review of Goodbye Cruel World.