During rehearsals for My Name is Asher Lev, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) spoke with actor and TimeLine Associate Artist Alex Weisman (AW) about his experience portraying the title character.
(PJP) How familiar were you with Chaim Potok’s novel before auditioning for the show?
(AW) I wasn’t! I had heard of the play before I knew it was based on a novel. I remember reading about the New York production, but not being familiar with the book. The Chosen, I knew.
(PJP) What has the book meant to you in your preparation and process to play Asher?
(AW) The book hasn’t left my side in two months. I once had a teacher who told me that the best thing an actor can do to learn about character study is to read a novel in first-person narrative. It’s the medium that allows us the most insight into a character’s motivation, intention, and (literally) inner thoughts. So to have this resource available to me for Asher Lev was essential, it was like an appendage of inspiration.
Before even touching the play, I read the book. Aaron Posner’s adaptation is extremely successful, but in order to create a concise evening, pieces of the story had to be left out. Fortunately, we have all of that in the novel, so relationships can be deeper, stakes can be higher, and the circumstances can be clearer when working on this character.
(PJP) How are you similar or dissimilar from Asher?
(AW) Well, just looking at the basics, Asher is a Hasidic visual artist, and I’m a VERY reformed Jewish actor. My faith and my art have, until this process, seemed to never overlap. In The History Boys I played a Jew, but that served dramaturgically to make my character Posner more of an outsider. Here, Asher’s faith plants him firmly in his community.
Ultimately, I think the play is about identity and questioning our identity, and I’ve certainly done that in my life.
Trying to figure out who we are, or as Asher says, “Who I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to become.” As an actor, there is that moment where someone says to you, “If you can do anything else, you should do that other thing, because this business is hard.” That’s what the character Jacob Kahn, and even Anna Schaeffer, do for Asher in the play. I thought of that question a lot when I was applying for college and deciding whether or not to study theater. There was a moment when I said, “This is who I am. I am an actor.” Asher has to answer the same question.
(PJP) Playwright Aaron Posner is very specific in the script about the audience never seeing Asher’s painting fully realized. They must imagine what his style is and what is on the canvas. But have you crafted a vision for yourself of what you’re painting and how it looks?
(AW) I can’t draw for you what they look like. But I can tell you how I see them. I’m a big fan of the BBC’s Sherlock, and whenever Holmes is figuring something out, the screen seems to explode with images and words swirling and overlapping around him in the space. That’s how I imagine Asher sees the world and sees his paintings. In the book, Potok speaks often of Asher’s process and how he seems to be unconscious of when he his working; in the play we hear of it briefly when he draws the Rebbe. Once an “image enters him,” it lives and breathes alongside him. It grows and matures. Sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes it takes an hour, like his pimply classmate. When I look at the art in our production, which is blank, I don’t see a 2-D rendering of the picture, I see the living, breathing moment Asher hopes to capture.
(PJP) From your perspective, why does it make sense that we (the audience) don’t get to see Asher’s art? Its seems like folks will want to, but I’m curious as to how you view that decision.
(AW) The characters in the play speak extensively about the quality of Asher’s art, how from an early age everyone agreed he had a “gift.” Art, of course, is subjective. Anything we presented literally couldn’t live up to the audience’s expectation. By not showing the art, the audience member can project his or her own “personal vision” of what they think great art is. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and this conceit frees the audience to fill in their own blanks, to become part of the storytelling.
(PJP) How is it working with Kimberly Senior as a director?
(AW) It’s been amazing. During the audition process, I think we both discovered that we have a very similar language when we work and that has been so great. I can be very hard on myself, and Kimberly is able to encourage and support and also be firm and get me to get out of my own way. I’ll be struggling with a moment and feeling frustrated and she’ll just smile and say, “That’s why we have these meetings!” Her personal connection to the story has been clear from day one and a great director, like Kimberly, inspires each member of the team to think of the play in the same way. We all feel connected to this material now, because of Kimberly’s insights and questions unlocking the world of these people.
(PJP) In the play we see Asher’s evolution as an artist. In some ways TimeLine audiences have gotten to see some big parts of your own artistic evolution, starting with The History Boys in 2009 when you were still in college, to last year’s production of The Normal Heart, and now this hugely demanding role. You’ve really been working non-stop all over Chicago since we first met you five years ago, but what has TimeLine meant to your ongoing evolution as an artist?
(AW) I joke about this, but it’s pretty true. I owe everything to TimeLine. To you and Nick Bowling. In college I had been playing dads and best friends and older men (because everyone is 20, someone has to). But doing The History Boys allowed me to strip away artifice and embrace truth. That character of Posner was the darkest role I’d ever done and the simplest work I’d ever done, thanks in no small part to Nick’s meticulous and formative direction.
In 2011 I joined as an Associate Artist and having a home here has been hugely important to my life. I suddenly felt responsible to the company, and wanted to represent TimeLine as a professional in all of my work at other theaters. In The Normal Heart, Nick again forced me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to grow, playing to date, the oldest character I’ve ever played. Not that I’m complaining about my baby face, but I usually don’t get to work as a person of authority or high status, and in that play my character Tommy, though seemingly frivolous, needs to command that group of men.
And now Asher, my most challenging role to date. And we’ll see how this goes!
(PJP) Tell me a bit about your theater life before coming to Chicago. How and when did you get started and what led you to Northwestern University for school?
(AW) I was a baby model in Miami and worked in commercials before I grew into my baby fat (most people grow out of theirs). I did a lot of professional theater in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale and moved to Chicago simply because I wanted to get a liberal arts education and study theater. I didn’t really know about the Chicago theater scene, mostly just Second City. At Northwestern I got to work with Chicago artists like Shade Murray, Jessica Thebus and David Bell, who showed me what a rich community was just 20 minutes away! And then The History Boys was my introduction to Chicago professionally.
(PJP) Can you take us back to that breakout role playing Posner in The History Boys—running the show for six months, winning a Jeff Award— all while still in college? What stands out to you about that experience, five years later?
(AW) It was crazy. The show opened and everything exploded. I got an agent the next week, got cast at the Goodman the week after that. Northwestern was incredibly supportive and thrilled when I became the only undergraduate to win an Equity Jeff Award. Professionally it was a thrill.
But what stands out, what remains five years later, are the people and the silly little memories. I still talk to some of those boys every week, my best friends for life, like Will Allan and Behzad Dabu. I was just at Michael Peters’ wedding and Joel Gross and I got to play together again in The Normal Heart.
I remember going to Bamee Noodles every Saturday between shows. I remember Will and I accidentally creating a secret handshake in the middle of a scene (that we still do today). I remember warming up at the piano and watching Emily Reusswig’s copy of My Name Is Barbara during pre-show on the VHS player in my “bedroom.” I remember my 22nd birthday party where Rob Fenton and Brad Bukauskaus came up to my apartment in Evanston dressed as old men because they were coming to a college party. I remember Gail Shapiro, my acting teacher, coming to the 100th performance. I remember the standing ovation after I sang “Bewitched” on closing night. I remember Nick, you, Liz and Lara basically raising me and guiding me through the crazy aftermath of being in a breakout show. I remember every cast member’s final show, how they would run up to me and kiss me on the mouth after Dakin did. And I remember winning the Equity Jeff Award for Ensemble. That was the best part of all.
(PJP) A few weeks ago you got to reunite with your cast mates from The Normal Heart for a one-night only reading of the play at Three Oaks Theatre Festival in Michigan. What was that night like and how was your overall experience working on Larry Kramer’s play last year?
(AW) That night was such an amazing experience. Because we didn’t have sets or props or costumes or lights, we just had to rely on the lines and each other. We didn’t know if we would be enough, but when we got on that stage, with six months of history with the text, it all came back and we were able to share that incredible play with an audience that might not have seen it otherwise.
(PJP) Beyond what you’ve done at TimeLine, what are some of the other theater/film/TV experiences that have been meaningful moments in your career thus far, and what makes them stand out?
(AW) My second family, outside of TimeLine, is The Back Room Shakespeare Project, a group of artists like myself who do free, unrehearsed Shakespeare in the back of bars. The project started in 2011 and has since built a small following in Chicago, often stuffing upwards of 200 people into bars like The Fireside and Blokes and Birds. I am a huge Shakespeare nerd and my favorite memories as an actor and an audience member come from those one-night-only events.
At Northwestern I did a production of Amadeus that forced me to grow up as an artist. I was a sophomore and it was by far the most demanding show I’d ever done and I grew so much through that work. Right after I graduated (after The History Boys) I did Peter Pan: A Play at Lookingglass that has been one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. It was an amazing ensemble, a brilliant retelling of a story that’s really special to me, and sparked a physical transformation in my own life—losing 40 pounds.
When I was going through a tough time in my personal life, I was working at Remy Bumppo on You Never Can Tell, my first experience with Shaw. No matter how bad of a day I was having, I would walk onstage and get to play with those nine other actors, including the incomparable Dale Benson and C. Jaye Miller, and I escaped into that comedy. It was a lesson for me in the power of theater escapism—not just for the audience, but for us as artists.
And earlier this year I got to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Chicago Shakespeare’s Short Shakes! program, run by Marilyn Halpern. The show was a blast to do, and the students and families that we got to perform for were incredible. Marilyn has curated a brilliant program and the talkbacks and meet and greets were some of the most rewarding moments I’ve had in my career.
(PJP) In the last year you’ve become a recurring character—the chatty paramedic—on NBC’s Chicago Fire and Chicago PD. Sometimes you were even doing that during the day and the performing in The Normal Heart at night. How is working on TV different from working on stage for you?
(AW) It’s so much fun. It’s incredible to see hands-on how many people are working so hard to put something like that together. In the theater, the actors are in rehearsal, the designers are in the studio, the costumer is in the shop, and we all meet during tech and see how it comes together. On TV and film, everyone is there at the same time flying by the seat of their pants.
(PJP) In My Name is Asher Lev we see the character of Jacob Kahn have a life-altering impact on Asher, inspiring his life as an artist. Have you had someone—or multiple people—who have had that type of impact on you?
(AW) In 10th grade, Nina Zak cast me as George Gibbs and taught me that I can be anything on stage, even someone’s boyfriend. Dave Kraft taught me over the course of four years of Speech and Debate camps the importance of having a point of view as an artist, dramatic structure, character, conflict, and the Stanislavski method. At Northwestern, in one night of rehearsal for Amadeus, Anna Shapiro taught me that it doesn’t matter how I feel, all that matters is your scene partner. During The Madness of George III at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Harry Groener taught us all what it means to be a leader of an ensemble. And above all, my acting teacher from college, Gail Shapiro, taught me to have technique. She took a ball of energy and gave me a method and tools and I think about her every single day.
(PJP) Happily, you’ll be with us through October with this show, but where will we be able to see you on stage next?
(AW) I’ll be doing the world premiere of Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s follow up to The Iliad, called The Good Book, at Court Theatre in March.
(PJP) Finally, what are your dreams for what comes next for you as an actor/artist?
(AW) Who knows?! I would love to do more TV work. I think I’ve been bit by the on-camera bug! I would love to do a dramatic Shakespearean role and a Pinter or Mamet play. I’m excited about growing up. Maybe by the time I’m 30 I’ll be playing someone in his 20s! I would love to do a great new play by a Chicago playwright, maybe Calamity West or Phillip Dawkins or Andrew Hinderaker or Ike Holter. Those are the people whose work gets me excited right now. And if I’m dreaming big, sign me up to play a sidekick in a superhero movie.