A few weeks ago I sat down with Steven Gondre-Lewis, a senior B.F.A. major, to discuss his role as Cleante in the Theatre Department’s production of “The Mail-Order Bride.”
Can you start by giving some background on the play?
The play itself was written by Charles Mee, a renowned playwright. The play’s called “The Mail-Order Bride” and it follows an older man named Argan, who is yearning to stay young, to stay sprightly, hip and cool. In the name of that goal, he orders a mail-order bride. Everybody else in the house – his sisters, his two daughters – are freaking out and [the play] becomes this interesting piece commenting on the standards of marriage, gender roles and theories on love. There’s this journey when the mail-order bride comes in – June – and everybody’s just discovering this new sense of love as their whole world is being shaken.
Who do you play?
I play a character named Cleante. I am the boyfriend to one of Argan’s daughters, Julie. I’m actually her fiancé and I was actually dating the other sister, Susanna, beforehand, and Susanna is not terribly happy about that. So that’s part of the sisters’ conflict – how can you steal my boyfriend? There’s a whole fiasco with that, so when I come in I’m introduced to that conflict too and I have to deal with that. It’s a lot of fun; it’s quite the time and a half.
What did you do to prepare for this role?
We were given different plays by Moliere to read and analyze because the thing about this play is that it is a marriage of multiple different themes from different Moliere plays. Moliere is kind of like the French Shakespeare. He was really big on comedy and there’s so many different types of really, really big plays that start a theatre craze in the genre. What Charles Mee did, was he took concepts and characters, themes and some plots from some of those different plays and marries them together. So what we [the cast] did was create presentations on some of those specific plays and how they relate to “Mail-Order.” What I did personally was I tried to look at the character, tried to get an image for the character and based on the information I’m given from the script and my interactions with my fellow actors, I try to figure out how the character is like me, how is he not. There’s a common exercise that we do exploring how the character acts by himself – what do they do in their free time, what types of music do they listen to, and I’ve done this for a lot of characters for a lot of different classes. It’s a lot of bookwork, a lot of understanding. The way that the script is written is that it’s broken up into a lot of different ideas and there’s no punctuation for most of it. A lot of it is reading piece by piece, as you’re memorizing your lines, and trying to understand what it is you’re saying. It was particularly difficult with this script because we didn’t have the grace of punctuation to direct where we’re going. So we can kind of say it however we want and put our own meaning into it, but figuring out where one sentence ends and another begins gets a little difficult sometimes. There was one moment when I kept saying one line one way, and my friends told me to try it another way; you can go a long time not knowing how something is being said. And now I know. It’s an interesting process with a script like this. There’s a lot of bookwork before actually getting up and feeling out the stage.
Has that been the biggest challenge with the piece? Figuring out the script?
Yeah. Part of the thing with me is that, as an actor, I overthink a lot, and my professors have pointed this out, and it’s something I’ve been working out. For me, it’s trying to get out of my own head that is the most difficult. And having diction, trying to pronounce each part of the word. Getting out of your head is really hard to do.
So, embodying the character instead of just speaking the lines?
It’s the difference between playing the character and being the character. Stepping away from, “Oh, this is my action; this is what I’m going to do,” and turning to just being in it. Don’t anticipate.
How do department shows differ from the club shows you’ve done?
It’s a little bit more intense. With the club shows, it’s easier for me to feel a sense of levity because it’s with a whole bunch of friends, there’s a director I know really well. With the department show, initially I felt really tense because it is a class—there’s a feeling of “I have to get this right. In order to get a good grade, I have to do this right.” Which is not necessarily the mentality that you should go into it with. And I’m still learning in terms of acting exercises, because there’s a little bit more time dedicated to figuring things out, but a lot of it is just different based on the people that you work with. The last [club] show that I did was Urinetown, which was in my sophomore year. That was very, very different from this process; it’s a different type of fun. With the club it’s a bit easier to feel light, but I feel like I earn the light, jaunty air when I am understanding what the director wants. It feels good working with professionals in the field, so there’s also that kind of experience. I feel a bit more responsible for what I’m in charge of. I’m more in charge of figuring things out on my own, and that’s part of the work that we’re expected to do as B.F.A. students.
What is the most fun part of the show?
The choreography. It’s so great. There’s one song that I’m not in that I wish I was in—and I know all the choreography, and I’m just all about that number. Another thing that I enjoy is the spontaneity. One of my friends in the show just goes for it in his scenes, and it’s just so funny. I have this blooper reel in my head that I wish I could make into a reality. It’s just hanging out with everybody, making mistakes and recovering from those mistakes. We’re in a pretty good place right now, and I feel like as we keep getting better, [the show] is going to be ready. We don’t feel pressured. We stay focused, and everybody is so talented, everybody is just so, so brilliant.
What general theme are you trying to convey individually as a character and then also within the piece as a whole?
My character specifically – he’s a bit of a hopeless romantic. And we’re all trying to figure out love, what it means to be loved, and that’s the beauty of the language of the show is everybody in their own world trying to describe this indescribable feeling, the thing we all can’t put words to, but we try our best. That’s kind of the angle of the entire show, where we’re all trying to find that happiness. The main character, Argan, is trying to find it by buying youth, buying anything that can make him feel love. And that’s his angle towards happiness, what that love feeling is. On my [character’s] journey, I’m trying to figure that out myself, in my own nerdy, hopeless romantic way.
“The Mail-Order Bride” will be performed in the Proscenium Theatre on April 27-29 at 8 p.m. and May 5-6 at 8 p.m. There will also be a matinee performance on May 7 at 2 p.m. for which comp tickets are available to UMBC students. Student tickets for any other performance are $10.