Any serious viewer of television dramas such as Law & Order, Army Wives, The Kill Point, Brothers & Sisters, NYPD Blue, and Pan Am will recognize this handsome actor. Jeremy Davidson is also known for his fine stage and film work, often with an emphasis on political history and social conscience. He and his wife, fellow actor Mary Stuart Masterson, founded the Storyhorse Documentary Theater, whose works explore and bring to vivid life the history of New York’s Hudson Valley. Read on to learn about their fascinating mission, as well as Jeremy’s approach to the differences between mastering roles for the stage and television.
Brent: Hi, Jeremy! Thanks for talking with me. What would you say was the most demanding role you ever had to prepare for in terms of memorization?
Jeremy: I’d say the most challenging role (memorization-wise) that I’ve worked on was a one-man play called Nijinsky’s Last Dance. It was written by Norman Allen, and is based on the life and institutionalization of the Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. I played the role three times—initially at the Signature Theater in Washington DC, and then again four years later at the Kennedy Center and Berkshire Theater Festival. The play—if my memory still serves me!—ran about 1 hour and 20 minutes without an intermission.
Brent: That’s a long stretch! Do you have a general approach for learning a role?
Jeremy: For me, each role seems to have its own unique process; I don’t always find it useful to commit my lines to memory in advance of rehearsals beginning, as I tend to feel more expansive creatively and more open to discovery if I first explore the world of a play through research and conversations with the other actors and director.
Brent: So, get to know your character and his environment before digging into the specific lines.
Jeremy: Exactly. The more elusive thing to discover is how a character thinks, his motivations, physical rhythms, and the where the need to say the words I have to say comes from. Ultimately, if I can find those things and somehow root them in my subconscious mind, it gives me a better chance at creating truthful behavior underneath the words.
Brent: So how does all this relate to your mastering of the Nijinsky role?
Jeremy: For the Nijinsky play, I knew I would need to be physically free of the script in advance of rehearsal. I’m not a dancer, so my body also needed to try to learn the language of ballet, as well. I was cast about a month before rehearsals started, so I tried to lock myself in a room and memorize five pages a day by rote—without any emotional choices to the words or lines or sections.
Brent: Sounds practical but at odds with the deeper connections you prefer to explore.
Jeremy: Ultimately, I found it lonely working this way. I much prefer being able to work off other actors and having discoveries and impulses triggered by their choices in a scene. But then again, the isolation Nijinsky had to face was far more terrifying than what I had to deal with.
Brent: Right, Nijinsky’s final years were very sad, spent largely in the confinement of psychiatric hospitals.
Jeremy: Far more terrifying.
Brent: Have you ever worked on a show with frequent rewrites, new material, and rearranged sequences? How do you keep the most recent version in your head and scrub the old one?
Jeremy: In the theater, I actually prefer working on new plays, which usually means you will get rewrites throughout rehearsals, previews, and up to opening night. And over the past ten years, I’ve really only worked on new plays. I love having access to the playwright in rehearsal. It’s a luxury you don’t get working on Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. Of course, if a scene isn’t working, it can be a difficult conversation as to why—is it the writing that needs to change or is it the actors or is it a bit of both?
Brent: You do get spoiled when you ask those questions directly.
Jeremy: So when rewrites and cuts to the narrative come in, you can feel if there are suddenly jumps to the emotional logic you’ve built into a scene. And sometimes you do slip back into old drafts, but that’s just the nature of theater.
Brent: And where some of your most creative acting skills come into play to get the scene back on track.
Jeremy: One of the more interesting things a director once told me was how much better my performance was one night when the other actor forgot their lines. The director said I seemed to be “more present” when it happened. As difficult as that “compliment” was to take—I wanted to believe I was good every night in the role—it also made sense to me. I was forced to really listen to what was being said by the other actor, instead of taking for granted we were going to be on the same path the script and memory had laid out for us.
Brent: The saying goes that mistakes are gifts. So yours was the chance to be more natural, if not vulnerable.
Jeremy: Relying on memory too much can lock us down into repeated behavior that isn’t always free and spontaneous. And I guess losing track of that roadmap forced me to search for the words in a fresh way.
Brent: How is working in television different?
Jeremy: In television, rewrites come every day. Some of the best writers and directors throw new lines at you take to take. So you have to stay open to it and trust you understand the circumstance of the scene.
Brent: Do you have a favorite example?
Jeremy: When I worked on NYPD Blue years ago, David Milch came in with a completely rewritten scene just minutes before we were going to shoot. But he’s a terrific writer and his words are easy to memorize quickly. That’s not to say you don’t stress it in the moment; it’s just that emotionally true writing is easy to memorize quickly for some reason.
Brent: That makes perfect sense. The lines are easier to memorize the more they align with the character’s personality or motivation. What are the main differences between television and the stage?
Jeremy: The most difficult dialogue to memorize (for me) is when a showrunner (or the network executives whispering over their shoulders) feel a need to remind the audience of events that happened in previous episodes and fill your dialogue with a lot of exposition. As an actor, it feels “heady,” as if the lines are more motivated to the writer’s need to explain plot or history to an audience than the character’s need to share information with another character. The latter is a lot easier to commit to memory. But television and film really aren’t actors’ mediums; stories and performances are shaped and manipulated so much in the editing room. So when you screw up a line on set—as frustrating as it is for everyone there—you can simply do another take. And if you never get it right, they’ll either cut it out or have you come in and record the line in post-production. So though the audience hears you say the line, the editor stays on the other actor while you say it—and nobody has to see your struggle.
Brent: What other anecdotes would you like to share about getting into character and memorizing material?
Jeremy: Well, I hesitate to share this, as I don’t want to sound overly precious about being an actor. Though I feel real lucky to make a living doing this, I don’t always find it to be the most useful way to engage in the world. But I’ve come to believe that there is a stage in the creative process that is a conversation with our subconscious, or spirit, or some higher part of ourselves. And physical repetition can unlock the door to that place. There was a scene in a play I did where I had to lift another actor up against the wall, pull back my fist, and punch him in the face. When we moved into tech rehearsal, I had to repeat that gesture about 50 times, making sure the movements were specific and had the appearance of real violence without endangering the other actor.
Brent: That sounds intense!
Jeremy: Anyway, that night, I had a dream I was being attacked. And the person in my dream was grabbing my leg. As I did in the play, I jumped up, pulled back my fist and prepared to punch the person. But all of a sudden, my wife’s voice broke into my dream, saying “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” When I opened my eyes to reality, I realized she had been shaking my leg to wake me up, and in response, I had jumped up in bed and pulled back my fist, preparing to punch her.
Brent: Yikes! Scary, and yet a testament to how deeply an actor embodies his character, physically and emotionally.
Jeremy: Yeah, it wouldn’t have been a great moment for our marriage.
Brent: You and I run into each other at storytelling events in the Hudson Valley. One of the things you do with your acting is bring history to life with your own theater company, the Storyhorse Documentary Theater.
Jeremy: Storyhorse Documentary Theater is a project my wife Mary Stuart Masterson and I started here in the Hudson Valley. We record people’s stories, transcribe them, and then, using historical documents and other primary sources, shape them into live multimedia theater pieces where actors read the stories surrounded by a projection and sound design. We’ve produced three pieces so far: the little things is about a family in Poughkeepsie who lost their 17-year-old son to Lyme Disease; Good Dirt, a collection of Hudson Valley farm families; and The Kept Private, a narrative about slavery and race in our town through the Revolutionary War pension application of a black farmer in the town of Milan.
Brent: I saw The Kept Private, and it chilled me to the core—in a good way! It made me think of a play I saw a decade ago, The Exonerated, about death row inmates wrongfully convicted and whose sentences were eventually overturned. The Kept Private reminds us of social injustices that took a long time to make right. And you cast a diverse line-up of first-rate actors who bring their characters very much to life. What’s coming up next?
Jeremy: Our next piece focuses on a remarkable cold case in Rhinebeck from 1949. These local stories have given us a chance to bring our own work to the place where we’re raising our kids. And a useful way for us to be a part of the collective spirit and history of the Hudson Valley.
Brent: Thanks, Jeremy. I look forward to seeing it. Thank you for being so generous with your time, words, and experiences.
Jeremy: My pleasure. I hope you found this useful.