Interview: BRIAN LONSDALE (performing on Broadway in THE PITMEN PAINTERS)

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by Cindy Pierre on November 12, 2010

in Interviews,Theater-New York


[Last week, Stage and Cinema‘s Cindy Pierre sat down with Brian Lonsdale, the actor who plays The Young Lad and painter Ben Nicholson in The Pitmen Painters, to discuss his acting pedigree and the cultural differences between New York and England. Between Pierre’s peals of laughter and Lonsdale’s chuckles, they bonded over their mutual respect for the stage.]

Cindy Pierre: I understand that you’re a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  Do you remember which monologues you had to perform?

Brian Lonsdale: I can remember the Shakespeare one.  It was a speech from Macbeth.  And the modern one, I did this short thing from Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn.  Jim Cartwright did a play called Road, and in that there is a character called Skin, who is a Skinhead, and he has a fantastic monologue about finding God, I suppose in some sense, through beating people. That was the one that got me into RADA.

Pierre: What is your fondest memory during your time at RADA?

Lonsdale: My fondest memory is of rehearsing that first play, which we knew was going to be our first public show.  It was such a lovely feeling to be doing that.  It’s just one of the times where you spend a few years with these people, you see their ups and their downs, and at one point in time, everyone was just up.

Pierre: How did you come to join the cast of The Pitmen Painters?  I know that it was performed as a radio play, and that you were involved with that production as well since 2007.  Is that when the radio version started?

Lonsdale: There were only two or three of us from the current cast involved in the first read through – Michael Hodgson and David Whitaker.  My agent at the time was married to the director of the show.  So that’s a good way to get your foot in the door, isn’t it?  I never had to audition or anything.  They just wanted to hear it read.  They didn’t know if I was any good or anything.  So I went ahead to read this part, and they said, “By the way, can you do it with a stammer?” So I was like, oh man, you know what I mean, just chuck me in the deep end! So I did it, and it must have gone quite well because three years later, I’m still doing it.

Pierre: I know that, aside from The Pitmen Painters, you’ve also done other radio work.  How do the two mediums compare?

Lonsdale: Well, nothing compares to being on stage because that’s live.  Things can and will go wrong, and you just have to get on with it.  Once it starts, it starts, and it has a life and you have a relationship with the audience, there and then, in that theater, at that performance.  Radio is a bit like film. You can get it wrong and start again.  Personally, I thrive on just being there in front of an audience, knowing that it’s alive there.  I think most actors do, to be honest.
Pierre: I’ve always had a very healthy respect for the stage above any other performance media simply because you have to be at the top of your game in order to be in front of a live audience.  I’m fascinated by stagecraft.

Lonsdale: Yes, absolutely.  And it is a craft, you know. We’ve done The Pitmen Painters 400 times now, but you see some of the guys out there, every single night, trying to hit that level of consistency that the character deserves, a certain moment the play deserves.  I think people imagine it’s playing and we’re having fun. But it’s not easy.  You’ve got to be on your game, it is a craft, and like you, I have a lot of respect for any actor that can get up and do that.  It’s quite a big deal.

Pierre: What is it like to play the Young Lad, a very important character that isn’t dignified with a name? What was the reason behind that choice?

Lonsdale: The reason behind the choice might simply come from the fact that I’m the only character in the play that is made up. There was no young lad that turned up that nobody liked that got smacked around the head.  He’s a kind of idea about a lot of young men at that time, I think, struggling to find work, struggling to fit in.  Then the war comes along, and it gave a lot of young men a reason for being.  A young man could be a man and be respected.

Pierre: Is it fun to play two distinctly different roles, and to be the only actor in the show playing two roles? I’m sure your cast members are jealous, right? Tell the truth.

Lonsdale: Not at all.  I think they’re glad that they don’t have to run around and get changed backstage.  They get to take it easy during the couple of scenes that they’re not in.  Of course it’s fun.  People ask “Is it difficult to go from one role to the other?”  And it’s really not.  It’s just what we do, and it just so happens that I’m lucky enough to do it twice in one night. And it’s nice to have a little cameo and ham it up a bit.  It’s very much fun.  My mother was in last night, actually.  She came with my auntie to see it. And I came on stage as Ben Nicholson.  She’s seen the show before.  I think I’m a bit more ham than I used to be.  When I came on, my first line is hello, but I really screeched it out, and I can hear my mother in the audience cackling away.  It really made her laugh.  So that was a rough start.

Pierre:  What’s it like to be on Broadway?  Do the audiences here differ from London? What’s the energy like in the two different theater houses?

Lonsdale: To be honest with you, it’s a lot more similar than I thought it was going to be.  We were really worried about the accent and people understanding on a basic level what we were     saying, but it’s not been a problem.  They’re laughing in all the right places and they’re on their feet at the end of it. It’s been more than we could have hoped for.  We were really braced for having a quiet, thoughtful New York audience – I certainly was – and it hasn’t been like that at all.  It’s really been a joy.  It’s really a treasured time, I think, for us all in the cast, and my wife is with me as well.  We just got married, so it’s like a honeymoon for me as well.

Pierre: Congratulations!

Lonsdale: So, it’s wonderful.  It’s been a great time.  The show has been a success and we’re all very, very proud of it.  It’s brought us to Broadway, so there you go!

Pierre: Do you have a favorite fast food here in New York?

Lonsdale: There’s a wonderful sandwich shop opposite the theater called Carve.  And they do absolutely fantastic sandwiches.  I highly recommend it.

Pierre: Are you sneaking away right now to see any shows in between performances?

Lonsdale: I’m not because when we’re on stage, that is when everyone else in New York is onstage.  There’s plenty at the cinema that I’d like to see though.  I do like a good horror film.

Pierre: Do you have a dream role, a part that you’ve always wanted to play and hope you get to play in your career?

Lonsdale: The only dream I’ve got is to just be able to keep paying the rent.  Just work.  It’s a great way to make a living when you’re working, but it can be a very, very depressing time when you’re not.  The only dream is to just maintain a living and be able to support meself and me wife and any future children.  I played Macbeth when I was in college before I went to drama school.  If anything, I suppose, I’d love to do it professionally because it’s a cracking, cracking play, and I’d really like another bite at that one day.  But like I say, really, I just want to keep busy.  That’s the dream.

photo by Joan Marcus

The Pitmen Painters
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
ends on December 12, 2010
for tickets, visit MTC

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