Interview: Actor and playwright Scott Watson

The appeal for me in this job is that every day is different.
– Scott Watson

Scott Watson is a New York-based playwright and actor of stage and film. He just finished up a run as Grumio in the New York Classical Theatre production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. In the following interview, he discusses his thoughts on Shakespeare, life as a working actor, and the importance of social media. 

  • THEATERIFIC: Let’s start off easy. How did you get into acting? What was your first experience and when did you get the “bug”?

SCOTT WATSON: It was 1993.  My father, Dr. Watson the Entomologist, transported our family from the ho-hum town of Reed City, Michigan (population one thousand eight hundred and two) to Gaborone, Botswana on Fulbright.

Private British school. Westwood. Uniforms. Sweaters in the desert heat. Headmaster’s dusty cane, just-in-case. Feeding giraffes in Kenya. Nelson Mandela’s election in South Africa. Petting a wildebeest. Losing first tooth on safari in Chobe. Schoolyard fight against pugnacious, Italian Vito and his Zimbabwean crony Dembe. Bird watching. Lilac-breasted roller. School play. Lead roll. Three Billy Goats Gruff. Taking the stage as the Big Billy Goat. Defeating the Troll.

Surrounded by the United Nation of children dressed as goats and bridge dwellers, I found acting in Africa. I looked into the cavernous blackness that always hangs above the audience’s heads and found an endless comfort, a beautiful void to fill.

  • How did you transition into acting professionally?

I moved to NYC three months after graduating college with $39 dollars in my pocket and my first month’s rent paid. It was a heady mix, that giddy first-love feeling that everyone gets when they touch down in the city mixed with the harsh reality that I barely had enough money to eat. A bag of rice and beans goes a long way. Luckily, I was able to land a job within my first two weeks here and carved out the needed stability to start pursuing acting.

There are some amazing insights in the book An Actor Prepares to Live in New York City: How to Live Like a Star Before You Become One by Craig Wroe that will be invaluable to anyone looking to move to the Big Apple to pursue acting. Unsexy stuff like budgets, union jargon, and job boards that really make up the day-to-day of an actor’s life.

You have to view acting as a business to work professionally, so you calculate your start-up costs (headshots, website, reel, etc) knock those out and start submitting. The top platforms for self-submission are Actors Access, Backstage, Playbill and Casting Networks. Most of these charge a monthly or yearly fee for their services, but it’ll pay for itself once you book your first gig.

I started working professionally one gig at a time, all through self-submissions by the four websites listed above.

  • According to your resume, you’ve performed in 13 Shakespeare productions. What is it about Shakespeare’s work that keeps drawing you back as an actor?

Shakespeare is an accidental focus. There’s a wonderful Shakespeare festival where I attended college called the Grand Valley Shakespeare Festival that allowed me to appear in a Shakespeare show every year. I also began working with a professional touring company called Pigeon Creek Shakespeare based upon my growing Shakespeare credits from college. My resume became Shakespeare centric, so when I moved to NYC I naturally gravitated towards Shakespeare productions, of which there are many, because Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years and you don’t have to pay royalties on his works.

Some of Shakespeare’s plays are a mess, some are masterpieces, but there’s an undeniable beauty in mounting the stage and putting on the mantle of a character that’s been played countless times before over the past 400 years. How many Hamlets have there been? How many Richard III’s ? But each actor, each individual, brings something new to each part. You forget about the arcane nature of the language quickly and instead focus on the larger than life, fantastic stories and relationships that have made the plays timeless. I keep coming back because there’s always a new angle, a fresh take on any part and any play in Shakespeare’s canon.

  • You have over 30,000 Twitter followers. How important is a social media presence to an actor’s career? How has it helped yours?

As an actor, you are your own business, and social media is the single most cost-effective way of marketing yourself. Twitter is my platform of choice, as it’s very easy to reach out with a quick electronic handshake and meet new people. Just saw an influential casting director? Save the postcard and send them a thank you tweet. In a world dictated by bankability and brand power, you have to build a brand name for yourself, and there’s no better place to do that then on social media.

  • I assume that acting is your primary job. Describe a typical day in your working life.

I try to have at least three or four auditions per week. Every weekday is a flurry of submissions to projects across the four platforms I mentioned. If it’s a shoot day, I’m up at the crack of dawn and hopping a courtesy shuttle to somewhere and eating a delicious craft services breakfast. If it’s a rehearsal day, I pack my backpack full of office supplies and spend the day with the cast rehearsing and prepping. If it’s a performance day, I hit the gym in the morning to build energy and then hit the ground running for the play. The appeal for me in this job is that every day is different.

  • How can you describe the difference between acting for stage and acting for TV? How do you prepare for each? Do you have a preference?

TV acting and stage acting are comparable to musical theatre and opera, or modern dance and ballet. I learned stage acting first, with a live audience, so that informs my acting in all other mediums. And I feel that acting on the stage before you act on screen is beneficial, because there is a learned focus to maintaining a reality onstage that I’ve found invaluable to film work. On a set, so many people are whirling around you, adjusting lights, powdering, that when they finally call action it’s like the starter pistol going off in an Olympic race. With a theatrical background, you’re much more prepared to leap right into a character and ignore the countless distracting factors whirling about you.

I love both mediums equally. I love the reality of film work, the precise nature of acting for the camera, but I also love the energy of a live audience.

 

  • Who do you look to for inspiration? Who were your mentors? Do you still stay in touch with them?

I was lucky to have many talented and inspiring teachers. Timothy Locker single-handedly ran my high school drama program, and without him I wouldn’t be here. Karen Libman, Ian Borden and Roger Ellis were probably my most influential college professors, and in terms of idols in the professional world, I adore Gary Oldman, Woody Harrelson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Hanks.

  • Think back to all of the people you’ve worked with throughout your life. Who are the most memorable? Which actors helped you elevate your craft? Which directors were incredible visionaries? Which were just nice people?

I’ve had so many amazing experiences with talented people that it’s difficult to single everyone out. In terms of talented theatrical directors who really pushed me to expand outside my comfort zone and take risks, I have to highlight Karen Libman, Ian Borden, Claire Shannon Kelly, Christopher V. Edwards, and Sean Hagerty.

  • When and why did you begin writing plays?

I’ve always love to write stories and was a creative writing minor in college. It was only natural, then, for me to gravitate towards the perfect pairing of my two main interests, acting and writing.

So many plays written today are too clever, too symbolic, too obsessed with selling a singular message. I love shades of grey, multiple interpretations and subtext to facilitate a discussion rather then drive it exactly where you intend.  

  • How many have been produced? Where?

I’ve had quite a few of my play produced across the country. Particular favorite performances include “Wet Glue” at the Richmond Shepard Theatre in NYC and “Pound” at Stage Door Productions in Fredericksburg, VA and Durango, CO.

  • What is your personal definition of “making it”? How does one know if it’s been achieved?

“Making it,” is working. You are a business. How would you describe success in business? Profits are up, costs are down. Acting is the same. Making it means making a sustainable wage as a freelancer.

  • What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Move. Don’t wait. If you want to be an actor, and you don’t live in a place with professional acting opportunities, you must move ASAP.

  • What advice can you give to people who want to act (or write, or direct, or produce) for a living?

Do it. Move someplace where it’s possible. But stabilize your life first. No one is a good actor when they’re worried about what’s for dinner.

  • What advice can you give to people who want to become better actors (or playwrights, or directors, or producers), but not necessarily do it for a living?

Write truth. Act truth. We’re surrounded by it all day. Listen, record, and write.

  • What do you do in your spare time? (Theater related, or not)

I love animals, so I volunteer at the Brooklyn Animal Shelter

  • What are some of your favorite credits?

Hard to choose favorites. Anything against type is always amazing.

  • What are you working on next?

I’m taping an episode of “A Crime to Remember” at the end of the month, then onto Drunk Shakespeare Off-Broadway and the Adirondack Shakespeare Festival upstate.

  • Where can people find you?

Please follow me on Twitter at @scottymwatson

 

Interview with Andrea Mays, author of The Millionaire and the Bard

Not a day goes by that I don’t incorporate the plays or the language of Shakespeare.
– Andrea Mays

The Millionaire and the Bard, by Andrea Mays, is – as the New York Times describes it – “an American love story” about a man and his obsession. Mays’s book chronicles the story of Henry Folger, an executive of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, and his hunt to acquire every copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Without the First Folio, there is a high likelihood that most – if not all – of Shakespeare’s plays would have been lost forever. In Shakespeare’s time, plays were meant to be seen as a form of entertainment and were not regarded as literature. Therefore, most scripts were discarded after a production. It took two forward-thinking members of Shakespeare’s company, actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, to compile as many plays as they could find and present them, in some order, to the print shop of William Jaggard. There, Jaggard and his son, Isaac, spent much of 1623 printing the First Folio of Shakespeare. According to the Folger Library website, it is estimated that 750 copies were initially printed, 233 survive, and 82 are in the collection of the Folger Library.  Henry Folger also amassed a collection of tens of thousands of pieces of Elizabethan and Jacobean artifacts and publications to be housed in his library, making the Folger Shakespeare Library a premier research library for that time period. In the following interview, Mays explores the ways in which she conducted her research for the book, and her own obsession with Shakespeare. 

  • THEATERIFIC: When and how did your interest in Shakespeare begin? How were you first introduced to his work and how did you continue to cultivate that interest?

ANDREA MAYS: It started as obsessions probably do for many people: with an excellent teacher!  I had a fantastic English teacher in middle school, then two more – including Frank McCourt – in high school. In school we used the Folger Editions of the Shakespeare plays. When I moved to Capitol Hill in the 1980s, I walked past the Folger Shakespeare every day on my way to work.  I had already been attending the plays and reading them for 20 years when I had the idea to write a book about something related to Shakespeare and the man who amassed the collection I walked by every day.

  • What inspired you to explore the life of Henry Folger? Why were you motivated to write about him, his collection, and his library?

I encountered Henry Folger a few times before I wrote this book. In graduate school and law school at UCLA I studied the famous Standard Oil antitrust case: Henry Folger was one of the defendants.  When I moved to Capitol Hill in the 1980s, I walked past the Folger Shakespeare every day on my way to work.  I grew up in New York City, surrounded by the trappings of the Gilded Age: playing in the gardens of the Carnegie Mansion, walking by the Frick Mansion on my way to school.  Henry Folger came to mind when I was looking for a story to tell about the Gilded Age.  I had not heard about him as a Gilded Age titan, and at his Folger Shakespeare Library I saw nothing that described where the money came from that enabled Folger to amass this amazing collection.  I wanted to combine his unknown story with his and my love of Shakespeare.

 

The Millionaire and the Bard was released on May 12th.
The Millionaire and the Bard was released on May 12th.

 

  • You clearly referenced hundreds of sources while conducting your research. Your bibliography and notes are extensive. Where did you start?

I spent a year reading or re-reading the basic books about Shakespeare and his times: the classics like EMW Tillyard’s book about Elizabethan society, modern books like Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars, and all the books I could find about printing in the 17th century.  I visited a printing museum in Torrance, California to get some hands-on experience with a printing press, and I read or re-read each of the 38 plays written by Shakespeare.  Next, I read the archive Henry Folger left behind. He saved every scrap of paper, thousands of letters he wrote to book dealers and to his mentor John D. Rockefeller, every auction catalogue, and thousands of check stubs.  Those were an excellent place to start.

  • Aside from the written primary sources that you referenced, what other types of research materials, conversations, or personal experiences helped you with the writing of this book?

The major research materials were at the Folger Library, at the Standard Oil archive at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas and at the Rockefeller Archive in Westchester, New York.  Aside from those sources, I made a trip to Amherst, Massachusetts to see where Henry had spent his college years, and to the Standard Oil headquarters building at 26 Broadway in New York.  The one additional unusual resource I had at my disposal was my exposure to some hard-core crazed collectors I have known for decades.  Their experiences in acquiring precious objects or books (including their penchant for financial brinksmanship) was very helpful to me in understanding Henry Folger.  Finally, I met many people at the Folger Library, fellow travelers, and Shakespeare lovers.  One man, Anthony James West, stands out as being very influential in the process.  One of the world’s (two) great authorities on the First Folio, Anthony West has an encyclopedic knowledge of each copy of the book and its provenance, price, and owners.  He also has a great gift for narrative and was extremely generous in pointing me in directions I would not necessarily have gone.

  • I visited the library last year, but of course only entered the exhibition gallery and the theater on the far end. What kind of access did you have to the library and how helpful was the staff with providing information for the book?

The staff at the Folger Library is extremely knowledgeable and professional.  They were very helpful: from the head librarian to the research librarian on down to the people who brought documents and books up, including First Folios, to me in the reading room.  I also made several trips to the vaults of the Folger Library, where I handled multitudes of First Folios, the unique Titus Andronicus quarto, and other treasures.  By the way, the public can visit the reading room on a scheduled tour at noon on Saturdays.  That way you can see more of the treasures and you can see where Emily and Henry’s ashes are kept!

 

The 1594 Quarto edition of Titus Andronicus (folger.edu)
The 1594 Quarto edition of Titus Andronicus (folger.edu)
  • What was the most fascinating part of the library for you? Why?  

The freezing cold vaults below ground contain the most precious relics in the collection.  I saw the entire collection of 82 First Folios in situ: as they are stored for safekeeping and preservation.  The staff let me hold and examine the only known copy of the 1594 publication of Titus Andronicus.  I examined an elaborately carved oak cask, hand made and inlaid with an engraved silver plaque: the cask was made from a piece of oak from the Herne’s Oak given by Queen Victoria to banking heiress Countess Angela Burdett-Coutts.  Herne’s Oak plays a part in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor as the place John Falstaff gets some come-uppance.  The carvings on the cask illustrate the Globe Theater and characters from Merry Wives. The box was used to store one of her copies of the First Folio, now owned by the Folger library.

  • Did you get to examine a First Folio up close? Do you remember which one specifically? What was the most interesting thing about the book, in your opinion?

I examined about a dozen First Folios at the Folger Library, and the two held by the Library of Congress as well.  In one instance I examined a copy that had the slight trace of ink from a printer’s ornament – a round medallion – that was accidentally transferred to a page in the First Folio.  At the same time I was able to examine a copy of the book in which the medallion was printed: both it and the First Folio were being printed at the same time in William Jaggard’s print shop.  On another occasion, I looked at several copies all at once, noting differences in the size of the pages, bindings, condition, marginalia.  Most interesting was turning through the pages and observing first hand the differences in the copies: one page in one containing a printer’s proof sheet, another copy with the uncorrected text, still another with the corrected version of the text.

 

A First Folio of Shakespeare (folger.edu)
A First Folio of Shakespeare (folger.edu)
  • What was the most fascinating book/object that you were able to see that wasn’t a First Folio?

I have already described the 1594 Titus quarto above.  Next to that? Henry Folger’s retirement gift from Standard Oil: a beautiful Tiffany bowl in gold and silver with each leg of the bowl carved with the initials “SONY” [Standard Oil of New York] and “SONJ” [Standard Oil of New Jersey] for the Standard companies he had worked for.

  • You are clearly passionate about Folger, the subject of his collection, and his library. Do you see any parallels between yourself and Henry Folger?


Like Henry Folger, I enjoy reading the plays and watching them being performed.  Like him and like Emily Folger, I do not tire of the magnificent language Shakespeare used.  I enjoy the plots of the stories.  Many of the plots were stolen, but improved upon.  Most of all, Shakespeare teaches us about love and loss, jealousy, hatred, admiration, loyalty and the whole range of human emotion as experienced by early modern man, Kings and gravediggers.  And in the end, man of today is not all that different than man Shakespeare describes.  Where I differ with the Folgers is that I do not have the collecting bug!  I am happy to examine and delight the treasures they amassed without coveting them.

  • What role do the works of William Shakespeare have in your life today?

Not a day goes by that I don’t incorporate the plays or the language of Shakespeare.  I quote Shakespeare in my classes, use part of The Merchant of Venice in my Law and Economics classes, and use Timon of Athens to teach about politics in modern life. “Into thin air”, “the green-eyed monster”, “sea-change” and hundreds of other expressions originated with Shakespeare.  So much of the color of the English language comes from Shakespeare: you, too, are using his language, whether you know it or not.

  • If you were able to sit down with Henry Folger and could say one thing to him, what would you say?

Thank you!  I would thank him and Emily for putting their magnificent collection – truly a piece of Elizabethan and Jacobean heaven – in the nation’s Capital and making it available to scholars.  If you want to study Shakespeare, or his contemporaries, or medicine, botany, science, music, or acting, or plays in the 16th through 21st centuries, the Folger library is a priceless resource.

  • Do you have any plans to continue your work on Shakespeare and/or Henry Folger?

I am working on a project for high school students that will draw from materials in The Millionaire and the Bard.  Most people are surprised to find out that Shakespeare was not the God of English language literature when he died: his ascendance to that status took a few centuries.  I will tell that story to young adults and their teachers.

  • What are you working on next?

I have a young adult book about Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg almost finished.  I am also collaborating with the world’s expert on First Folios on another book project, the nature of which I am not at liberty to disclose yet.  Last, I am writing a one-act play about a meeting (that never took place) between John D. Rockefeller and Ida Tarbell, whose exposé about Standard Oil in the early 1900s created the lasting impression of Standard and Rockefeller as evil and harmful to consumers.

  • Is there anything you’d like to promote?

I will be appearing at various book festivals over the next year: Texas Book Festival (Austin), Miami Book Festival, Savannah Book Festival, Tucson Book Festival with several others in the works but not fixed yet.  In 2016 I will be speaking in several locations as copies of the First Folio from the Folger collection travel to all 50 states.  I will be speaking at various bookstores and a few private libraries.  People can follow me on Twitter @AndreaEMays to get updates on where I will be appearing near them.

  • How can people find you and your work?


@AndreaEMays on Twitter, also on my author page at Amazon and Goodreads, which I will be tending to before the end of the summer.  Happy Reading!