Interview with John Behlmann, now performing in ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S THE 39 STEPS, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (adapted from the novel by John Buchan, Off Broadway at New World Stages

by Cindy Pierre on November 20, 2010

in Interviews,Theater-New York

Post image for Interview with John Behlmann, now performing in ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S THE 39 STEPS, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (adapted from the novel by John Buchan, Off Broadway at New World Stages

A TRIPLE THREAT (HE ACTS, TRAPS, AND RAPS)

Stage and Cinema’s Cindy Pierre recently sat down with John Behlmann (who sounds very much like the Movie Phone guy), now appearing as Richard Hannay in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.

Cindy Pierre: You double-majored in Government and French back at Wesleyan.  Was that to groom you into a politician, an FBI agent, or a French spy?

John Behlmann: Those are all good guesses and not terribly far from the life of an actor.  Professional spy?  I lie for a living as well.  I would’ve been content being all of those things.

Pierre: Where did you get your trapeze training?

Behlmann: I started my trap training in grad school at the National Theater Conservatory in Denver.   It was a means to an end of fostering body awareness.  Then I moved to the city and found other friends of mine that wanted to keep doing it, and now we have a company where we do trapeze plays, basically.

Pierre: Matchbook Productions.

Behlmann: Yes.

Pierre: Do you go to the circus now?

Behlmann: I don’t actually, and haven’t been.  The kind of trapeze that our company focuses on is low-flying trapeze which is a lot different than circus trapeze, which is high-flying.  That’s about tricks. What we do is sometimes called dance trapeze or single-point trapeze.  The bar is anywhere from 7 feet to 2 feet off the ground, and it’s more maneuverable and expressive.  The magic moment in high-flying trapeze is when people let go of the bar and do a trick, but the magic moment in low-flying trapeze is when people suddenly leave the ground and they’re flying. It’s kind of like the music in the musical.  It’s the thing that heightens whatever’s happening at a given moment.

Pierre: Since you’re 6’4, is it really hard to maneuver on the trapeze?

Behlmann: Yeah, there’s a lot more body to be swinging around.  There’s less room to do things, and the world is not generally built for people my size.  It does add an extra dimension, but the nice thing about it is that what can be more difficult ends up being more rewarding, because to see a big person move through the air is, I think, more interesting – just because they take up more space.

Pierre: There’s this wonderful scene in The 39 Steps in which you half-limbo, half-shimmy your body out from under a corpse.  That must have been very difficult.  You’re very tall, and you probably have to be extremely flexible, and I was thinking that the trap training must help with that.

Behlmann: I think it does.  You really have to know, for this show in particular, how to use your body.  Other people have studied clowning, dance, or other kinds of movement disciplines that help with that.  Plus, I get to add in some trapeze tricks every once in a while, like hanging by my knee under the ladder, which none of the other people that played Hannay ever got to do, so that’s fun.

Pierre: Tell me about Matchbook Productions.  How difficult is it to find spaces to perform aerial arts?

Behlmann: There’s a surprisingly large aerial community in New York. What’s tricky for us is that the low-flying trapeze is not a very popular apparatus.  It’s tough to come by, and we made our own trapezes because we can’t pop by to Home Depot to purchase one.  What people don’t expect from Matchbook is that we’re all actors who do trapeze, whereas most of the aerial arts people are dancers.  We try to use a lot of humor too.  We did Richard II and that worked out very well.  We’ve done a retelling of the movies Top Gun and The Lost Boys.  It’s a mix of goofy and serious.

Pierre: Were you a giant Hitchcock fan before you took the role of Richard Hannay?

Behlmann: I didn’t grow up with him.  Vertigo was the first movie of his that I saw.  I love Hitchcock, but I hadn’t seen The 39 Steps before I auditioned for the play.  Now I’m a greater fan.  Some of the best jokes in our play are directly stolen from Hitchcock.  The guy was a genius.

Pierre: So what percentage of The 39 Steps is from the John Buchan novel vs. the Hitchcock film?

Behlmann: The novel is actually very different.  The Hitchcock adaptation takes a lot of liberties.  You have the same basic story about a guy on the run from the law while also trying to prove his innocence, and you have spies, but that’s pretty much it.  The original spy in the novel is a man [instead of a woman, played by Kate MacCluggage, in the play] and takes place the eve of World War I instead of World War II.  There’s still a reluctant love story that happens, but it’s much more pronounced in the Hitchcock movie.  We’re pretty much bang-on scene for scene with the movie.

Pierre: What’s it like to be the only actor that plays one role when your cast mates that play all these myriad crazy roles?  Do you have role envy?

Behlmann: I get to interact with everyone, which is nice.  Some characters never meet, but I meet everyone. I get to experience everyone in their incarnations which is a lot of fun.  And I get a whole, complete storyline, which is great.  But that being said, I don’t get to do as much crazy, silly stuff as some other people do.  Are there nights that I would love to play the professor [played by Cameron Folmar]?  Absolutely.  There’s some minor role envy maybe, sometimes, but I’m pretty happy with where I am and what I get to do.  It’s not often that I get to do a lot of great comic and physical stuff in my career, but this role hits all of that.

Pierre: Do you have a preference for the classics and period pieces?  You’ve done Ibsen’s Ghosts, R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End and Shakespeare’s As You Like It.  Is that your niche?

Behlmann: I feel very comfortable in a lot of those period pieces.  I just haven’t had as much of a chance to be in contemporary things.  I’m certainly not averse to it.

Pierre: You’ve been in productions all over the US: New York, Oregon, Colorado.  Do you enjoy being a vagabond?

Behlmann: I don’t want to be on the road all the time.  But getting away from New York and being part of something somewhere else is really great.  It’s got a kind of summer camp feel to it.

Pierre: You’re an actor, writer and trapeze artist.  If you could only pick one, which would it be?

Behlmann: Oh my.  That’s a tricky question.  I’ve had the most obvious success as an actor, and it’s a lot of fun.  I couldn’t stop doing that.  I think that I would be truly happy in my life if I could only act for the rest of it.  Ideally I’d like to keep all those balls in play always.  That’s what would keep me the most fulfilled.

Pierre: Will you be adding any other functions to your resume anytime soon?

Behlmann: I have been known on occasion to be a rap artist.  One time, I was going to have a birthday party, so I made a rap music video to invite people to the party, and that was the beginning.  I started doing it every year since then.  Just last week, I had my very first commissioned rap.  I performed at a benefit at Joe’s Pub for Jack O’Brien.  So, you never know, maybe someday I’ll be dropping an album, but that’s not in the works yet.  But you can certainly find my rapping styles online.  Yo, yo, yo, you’ll see me.

Check out John’s rapping styles here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kfx12Jk784

cindypierre @ stageandcinema.com

production photos by Carol Rosegg
trapeze photo by Gregg Le Blanc

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
scheduled to close January 16, 2011 at time of publication (check for extensions)
for tickets, visit http://www.39StepsNY.com

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