Interview: DAKIN MATTHEWS (currently performing in Lincoln Center Theater’s CAMELOT)

Post image for Interview: DAKIN MATTHEWS (currently performing in Lincoln Center Theater’s CAMELOT)

by Gregory Fletcher on June 24, 2023

in Interviews,Theater-New York


Melvin Richard “Dakin” Matthews has had a major theatrical presence on the west coast, the east coast, and at many regional theaters inbetween. He’s also made a multitude of appearances on TV and film — the list is over 250 credits. He’s currently performing at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in Aaron Sorkin’s newly adapted Camelot, playing the roles of Merlyn and Pellinore. His co-stars include Andrew Burnap, Phillipa Soo, and Jordan Donica. His previous Broadway credits include Henry IV, for which he won a Drama Desk Award, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Iceman Cometh, Waitress, The Audience, Rocky, The Best Man, and A Man for All Seasons. The list of Off-Broadway and regional productions is in the hundreds. He is a former artistic director of four professional companies, an award-winning playwright, dramaturg, and translator, an emeritus prof. of English, and a Shakespeare scholar. At Stage and Cinema alone, he has earned many rave reviews from Stage and Cinema. Here are three examples (and more under photos):

As King Lear at the Antaeus Theatre Company in North Hollywood: “Mr. Mathews reminds us why theater remains a magical enterprise: when a masterful interpreter of Shakespeare converts complicated dialogue, via character choices and a teeming inner life, into easily understood language, you must witness it, especially in a space as intimate as Deaf West Theatre.”

Dakin Matthew and Morlan Higgins in King Lear (Ed Kreiger)

Regarding his rhyming verse translation of Lope De Vega’s The Capulets and The Montagues: “And the translation, receiving its world premiere, is by the estimable Dakin Matthews, and by virtue of the fact that there is no better translator of a classic text – even if Matthews speaks not a word of Spanish – than an actor who knows how to create the kind of ripe language that makes speaking the lines such a rich experience for his fellow actors.”

In The Nether at the Kirk Douglas Theatre: “Dakin Matthews, who plays a man called in for questioning, could read from a menu and I would wash his feet with rose water; it is always an honor to witness such mesmerizing internal machinery.”

Recently, Stage and Cinema’s Gregory Fletcher admired Mr. Matthews’ work in Lincoln Center Theater’s Camelot and shortly thereafter they spoke together on the phone:

Danny Wolohan, Anthony Michael Lopez, Fergie Philippe, and Dakin Matthews
in Camelot (Joan Marcus)

GREGORY FLETCHER: The relationship your character Merlyn has with King Arthur [Andrew Burnap] felt so grounded and meaningful, which is a great compliment because essentially you only have the first scene together. Later, when you’re gone, your presence is missed, and the heavy grieving heart of Arthur is very touching. You don’t have long to make that happen, but what a tender way to begin a musical.

DAKIN MATTHEWS: Well, Andrew is a wonderful actor, a magnificent scene partner. The most important thing for us was since Aaron [Sorkin] wanted to do the show without Merlyn being a magician, and without there being anything supernatural in the show at all, we couldn’t look to that part of the relationship. A couple days ago, Andrew and I did selected readings from The Once and Future King at Bryant Park, and we both picked very magical passages to read. Onstage, our mentor/mentee relationship couldn’t have magic in it, so I had to pick another sort of model than the magician.

FLETCHER: Did you have a mentor in your youth you could pull from?

MATTHEWS: Actually, John Houseman. Not John Houseman himself, but John Houseman as he portrayed Professor Kingsfield in the The Paper Chase. [1973] You know that really hard, imperious kind who was seemingly unforgiving. An exacting teacher.

FLETCHER: As a kid, I saw Rock Hudson play King Arthur in Dallas, TX at the Music Hall. Recently, while perusing the program, I was surprised to see in the cast list that two different actors played your two roles: Merlyn and Pellinore. [Mark Mensch played Merlyn, and Iggie Wolfington played Pellinore. And Sherry Mathis as Guenevere, and Jerry Lanning as Lancelot.]

MATTHEWS: Wonderful. I believe Merlyn was a bit larger role in the original book.

FLETCHER: Perhaps the characters overlapped?

MATTHEWS: I don’t think they do. They usually want a big comedian for Pellinor. And I’m not sure, but that’s usually what happens, I think.

An "outrageously well-timed Mr. Matthews" in the American premiere
of Yes, Prime Minister at the Geffen Playhouse (Michael Lamont)

FLETCHER: Are you an actor who avoids reading reviews?

MATTHEWS: No, no, I read them.

FLETCHER: Well, clearly, you are very admired here at Stage and Cinema. If you’re ever feeling blue, you should search your name on the sight. It’ll be quite the pick me up. With all your glorious experience, credits, and years in the arts, you are quite possibly the Merlyn of our time. I feel like I should take advantage of our time and ask for your wisdom. Would you mind sharing whatever wisdom you think of on a few topics I offer?

MATTHEWS: [laughter] Well, we can see how this goes if you want. Yes, I’ll play that game.

FLETCHER: I’m sure our readers will be grateful for anything you have to share. Alright, let’s start with acting Shakespeare.

MATTHEWS: Oh, dear, I would say it’s a dying art. Because it is not actually being taught very well in most of our conservatories. And the generation of great Shakespeareans, like for example, a few days ago Paxton Whitehead passed away. I’m afraid they haven’t had many opportunities to pass their wisdom to the next generation. So little Shakespeare is actually done these days. A lot of stuff that calls itself Shakespeare is being done, but so little actual Shakespeare. I learned by being a member of companies like Summer Shakespeare Festivals when I was very young, and I watched the senior actors handle verse. And with many years of such opportunities, I became a scholar of Shakespeare. How to speak verse, and how to write it. But you know, I’m lamenting the loss of these skills, and I try to teach Shakespeare to young actors as much as I can. I’m probably going to start a master class. Whenever I do a play with the big cast, once we get into the run, I offer a master class to the cast members just to continue passing it on.

Dakin Matthews as Col. Stonehill in True Grit

FLETCHER: Next category: acting in film.

MATTHEWS: I didn’t really start acting in film until I was 50. Though, I always sort of looked like I was 50 years old, even when I was 25. I had to learn on the job. I had no courses in how to act for the camera, so it took me a couple of years to discover the difference between acting onstage and for the camera. I mean, there’s no difference in the prep. There’s no difference in the study that you must do as an actor to make the character and his speeches your own. But there is some difference in terms of the size of the performance and the process by which you achieve your goal. Because you don’t get much rehearsal in film, if at all, and you don’t shoot continuously or in order. A stage actor is like a long-distance runner, and a film actor is like a sprinter who must run several short sprints but without a logical order or schedule. Your scenes could be shot on different days or weeks apart. So, you have to learn how to do that. You must work very quickly and without rehearsal when acting in film. And if you’re a supporting actor, like I am most of the time — I got this advice from a wonderful old actress, Kathleen Freeman [who passed away in 2001]: the supporting actor must be perfect on every take because they’re not looking at you, they’re looking at the lead actor. When the lead gets it right, that’s the take that’s used. You’ve got to be perfect for every retake.

Phillipa Soo, Andrew Burnap, Dakin Matthews, Jordan Donica
in Camelot (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: How about Acting in a musical.

MATTHEWS: Well, that’s really new for me. I mean, every actor over the course of his career, and mine has been 58 years long so far, is bound to do a few musicals because they sell tickets, and theaters must keep themselves alive by doing them. I’ve done a small selection of musicals through my career. Very small. Almost nothing. Much to my surprise, I began to get invited to start auditioning for workshops of musicals. It started like this: “Would you like to do a musical workshop of a new musical called Time and Again?” [composer-lyricist Skip Kennon’s musical version of the popular Jack Finney novel] This was about 25 years ago. I knew the book because a friend of mine’s father wrote it. And I said, “Well, I don’t know, I mean, are they going to pay me to fly out because I don’t live there? And what do they want me to do?” “Yes, they’ll pay you, and they want you to make an audition tape of a song.” I said, “Well, I’m not really a singer; I’ve never done this before.” They said, “A woman in Los Angeles will teach you how to sing a Broadway song. Go to her for a lesson. She’ll put you on tape. Send us the tape.” So, I did it. It was a brand new song from a musical I’d never heard. Then they said, “Come in and sing it for them in person.” This is very strange world, I thought. And I did the workshop, and it was as much fun as I’ve ever had. There were two very young actors in it: Brian d’Arcy James and Laura Benanti. She was 18 years old, I believe. We did this little workshop, and I had two solos, a trio, and a little dance number. I kept thinking, what am I doing here? But it was so much fun! The next time somebody asked me to do a workshop, it was Rocky the Musical. I thought, that’s the stupidest idea I ever heard. But what do I know? I was in-between jobs and agreed. They said, “It’s not a singing role, don’t worry about it.” Then weeks later, I got a phone call from the writers: “Do you sing?” “Well, I can carry a tune,” I admitted. And they wrote a song for me. I’ve done four or five musicals ever since. I’ve enjoyed it a lot; though, I usually get the non-singing role.

For musicals, you must have the stamina for it. And great humility. You change the way you think about acting because the emotion and the choices are all in the music rather than in the acting sequences. I have a sense of awe at the raw talent of almost all musical comedy actors. Even down to the lowest ensemble member, they have more talent than I’ll ever have. It’s very humbling. It makes me feel really old and really young at the same time. Working with these young singer-dancer-actors who are so positive, enthusiastic, and multitalented. My word of wisdom about musicals — if someone offers you a musical, even if you don’t sing, take it. It’s a great experience.

"Dakin Matthews’s crusty party man offers up a bit of unexpected ham,
which, under the circumstances, is quite right."
Matthews, Jefferson Mays, Michael McKeon, Corey Brill in The Best Man
(curtain call photo Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images)

FLETCHER: Playwriting is next.

MATTHEWS: I remember I did a workshop with Robert Anderson one time, the great playwright. [Tea and Sympathy, I Never Sang for My Father] He said, “Playwriting is like no other writing skill. Every time you start a new play, you start from zero every time.” He said when he rolled that first piece of paper into the typewriter, he knew nothing. He started from zero all over again.

A couple of things about playwriting. First of all, most actors are probably pretty good playwrights. If they’ve had a career of 20 years, they’ve done plays in almost every genre and somehow the rhythms of dialogue and the rhythms of structure and the needs of character get into their bones. So, I think most actors may be surprised that they could be pretty good playwrights. The difficulty for playwrights is this: when the economy of theater is so difficult, especially in the regions, the conditions don’t allow you to be very exploratory or expansive. Producers ask, “Could you write me a three-character play with one set?” I just ignore such requests. My plays have 14 characters and are trilogies. They’re never going to be produced. But I just keep writing. You must keep writing. Someday, maybe the economy will change, and you can write plays of size — of a hugeness. Of the grandness that will eventually pay off.

FLETCHER: How about for a theatre director?

MATTHEWS: I don’t direct that much because I don’t have a good sense of space — a visual sense. I have a great sense of timing, a good sense of comedy, I know comic rhythms, stage rhythms, acting rhythms, but not visuals. Well, you know how I dress, I have no sense of style or taste whatsoever. I’m amazed my wife lets me out of the house in the morning. But wisdom for directors? Honor not just the words but honor the actual intentions. You can interpret, but don’t dishonor the playwright. Don’t dishonor the blueprint that gives you a production. Don’t imagine you could write a better play. Don’t think about cutting without honoring the essentials. Don’t consider using the play to produce a message that was not intended. I can sum this up with a little joke: when Fred Astaire asks you to dance, don’t insist on leading. The playwright offers the director and actors an enormous gift because he/she leaves the work of art half-finished and says, “Now you finish it.” There is no art until it’s actually staged, and you have the opportunity to collaborate with some of the greatest writers and artists of history. Take advantage of the collaboration to learn, not to try to force your ideas on the play.

FLETCHER: Next is wisdom for future artistic directors.

MATTHEWS: I feel that acting companies are the lifeblood of theater, not pick-up shows where you assemble a company to support a hired star. I think acting companies should be in residence at theaters for at least a year. It’s a possible salvation for theater, but nobody does it anymore. It’s how I learned. But it’s just very difficult these days. There’re so many constituencies, begging you to do their kind of play and complaining that everything is uneconomical. But I think it’s very economical if you can find a good company of 16 actors of all ages, races, ethnicities, and experience. 16 good actors on a one-year contract. I think audiences love returning to see the same actors doing different things. Actors thrive in such a situation because they’ll play a lead one day, a supporting character the next, and a walk-on the next. They will be given parts they’re not right for, so they’ll learn and expand their craft, and they’ll always be a member of an ensemble. They will be a family. The rehearsal period will be much easier because they’ll know how one another works and will respect one another’s methods of working. They will have developed a kind of shorthand for working, and then you can produce repertoire — a wide repertoire and learn to act and perform in various styles. Which then gives the audience a given series of experiences unlike what they would have had in one pick-up company performance. I’m just suggesting — please explore this. Please don’t just dismiss it. Ballet companies stay together, opera companies stay together, symphonies stay together, but nobody wants to have a resident acting company anymore. Instead, they have dozens of management, eight people in the press room, five executives here, seven assistants there. Sometimes, you will see 40 people working for a mid-sized theater, and within the 40 people — not one of them is an actor. That doesn’t make sense to me. So, consider it — that’s my advice — explore the possibility of having a resident company. I was part of resident companies all through my first 25 years of acting.

FLETCHER: Which ones?

MATTHEWS: I was involved with A.C.T. in San Francisco. The Old Globe, which was kind of a loose acting company with a resident pool to pull from. There was a festival that began as the Santa Clara Shakespeare Festival. Then I ran the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival for a while. And that way, we formed a small core company of about eight actors who did everything. And The Acting Company, originally John Houseman’s Acting Company back in the early 70s. Those people stayed together for a long time. I just love that way of working.

FLETCHER: You make me realize how fortunate I was to grow up with Paul Baker’s acting company at the Dallas Theater Center, and then later with Adrian Hall’s company there and in Providence, RI.

MATTHEWS: Adrian was the last of the company oriented artistic directors, yes.

FLETCHER: I take it you grew up in the West Coast because you only came to New York 20 years ago?

MATTHEWS: Yes, I grew up in the Bay Area, and at around 50, I moved down to Los Angeles. I think I first came to New York when I was 28 or 29 when I was teaching at Juilliard. My wife was a student there. [Anne Marie McNaughton, married in 1969] She was there before I got the job, and I was going to NYU for graduate work. We remained here for about 3-3 ½ years, then moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area, and then to LA.

(front) Jordan Donica, (back) Phillipa Soo, Dakin Matthews, (front) Andrew Burnap
in Camelot (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: What was your New York theatrical debut?

MATTHEWS: My Broadway debut didn’t come until 63 years of age — 20 years ago in Henry IV with Kevin Kline, Ethan Hawke, Richard Easton, Michael Hayden, and Audra McDonald. Since then, I’ve been here about half the time. I keep an apartment here when I’m working and let it out when I’m not.

FLETCHER: When you think back over all the theatre you’ve seen in your life, is there a production that’s left a lasting impression on your artistic soul?

MATTHEWS: The first time that happened to me was when I was doing my first Shakespeare Festival job in 1965, playing Falstaff in Henry IV, Part One. I was teaching high school by day. At the same time we opened at the Marin Shakespeare Festival, there was another production of the same play at a College Shakespeare Festival in Santa Clara. Our reviews came out the same day. We got a very good review; these college kids did not. I suggested that we all go down to see their show, thinking it would be nice to support these little college kids. We rented a bus and drove down. I was shocked when we arrived. It was an asphalt parking lot with a Double Quonset Hut. It wasn’t even a theater. We went inside, and they had the strangest configuration. They had bleachers on two sides of the prow of a ship going down the center. But when the show started, it was the most amazingly beautiful production of Henry IV, Part One I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been in some good ones including the one at Lincoln Center Theater. But I have to say, that one at the college still lingers with me. It was great. On the way home, it was a very quiet bus ride. I was so taken with that way of doing Shakespeare that I’d never seen before, so full of life and vitality and youth. And this was basically a college production with a couple professionals in it. I went back later and saw their production of King Lear. The next summer, I went back to see The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet. I sought out the director of this company, and he invited me to join it. It changed my life. David Ogden Stiers was their star player at 23 years old, playing King Lear and Kurtwood Smith from That ’70s Show and That ’90s Show. And these actors and directors became my friends for life. The year I joined their company, we did a production of Othello where I played a very small role. After my exit, I used to walk to the back of the theater in costume and watch the rest of the show because it was so impressive. Those were two that made a huge impression on me. Also, I remember a Major Barbara and a Heartbreak House at the old Berkeley Rep that were thrilling, absolutely brilliant. I remember seeing Bill Ball’s The Taming of the Shrew, which was some of his early work in San Francisco. And Tartuffe. Just astonishing. Those were early in my career. It’s harder to astonish me as I get older.

FLETCHER: King Arthur in Camelot talks about setting a foundation for the next generation and letting each generation build on it. Is our theater community achieving that, too? Do you see that kind of building with each generation? Going from your own generation to today? I see plenty of Broadway debuts in Camelot.

MATTHEWS: I mean these young kids in their 20s making Broadway debuts — I was 63 when I made mine. They’re great, and it’s terrific for them. But to learn the breadth and depth of theater, I’m not sure it’s there anymore. Resident theaters are closing all over this country. 50 years ago, there was the invention of the resident regional theater, and this growth of regional theaters accompanied the growth of conservatories because everyone assumed all these regional theaters would need trained actors. But I don’t see that actually happening anymore. I think the widespread availability of non-live performance, streaming on television, the difficulty of getting people out of their houses and into the theater, and of course the economics of theater are really very difficult. It’s so labor intensive that I don’t see those opportunities for actors growing. Who’s going to do a big Shakespeare play anymore? Who’s going to hire 16 actors? It seems to me like the great classics with large casts are not being done any longer. Maybe they’ll be done in a few colleges and universities, but who can maintain conservatories when there’s no jobs for their students to go to? Sometimes, I feel like King Arthur on the verge of despair. Thinking, oh God, I hope it won’t take several generations to bring theater back. But then, every once in a while, you meet a young playwright or a young actor or a young composer who’s doing amazing work and people actually love it. And you think, well, there it is. So, I guess, theater will survive. But I don’t know what the magic formula is anymore.

FLETCHER: [laughter] Oh, “Merlyn,” don’t let us down here at the very end. If you can’t advise us, who can? Share your wisdom for the last dilemma: how will theatre survive?

MATTHEWS: Well, let me see. I would … I don’t know. I would say … alright, for actors, if somebody offers you a play, do it. Just keep doing plays. Develop a really good reading habit and read plays and try to understand what riches there are in both the western and the non-western repertoire. Experience new plays you’ve never heard of. Find a play you’ve never read and get your friends together and do a reading. Sometimes, I feel like I’m a monk in a scriptorium, copying Latin manuscripts I can’t even understand, hoping the next generation will somehow discover them and revive them.

FLETCHER: You’ve given our readers a lot to consider.

As King Arthur says in the last scene of Camelot, [okay, I’m paraphrasing. And slightly revising.] “Dear readers, after reading this interview, you will run behind the lines and you will return to your homes. Alive and renewed. And for as long you live, you will remember what I, the king, Dakin Matthews has told you. Each evening from December to December, before you drift to sleep upon your cot, think back on all the tales that you remember…of Camelot Dakin Matthews. Ask every person if they’ve heard the stories. And tell it strong and clear if they have not. That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory…called Camelot conservatories. Now say it out with love and joy! Run!”

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

R. Scott Williams June 28, 2023 at 3:52 am

I’ve been a fan of Matthews for many years and have been lucky to have seen him onstage in musicals (as the diner’s owner in “Waitress”), plays (as the Judge in “To Kill A Mockingbird”), and Shakespeare (a starry production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” with Helen Hunt as Beatrice. When “Much Ado” is stolen by the guy playing Leonato, you know that guy’s good). Thank you for this enlightening interview with a real pro.


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