To Kill a Mockingbird is a
timeless story - and in today's troubled times, it seems more relevant than
ever. Director Nigel Shawn Williams has brought a poignant and powerful
retelling of this classic American tale to the Festival Theatre stage, bringing
audiences to tears and to their feet at the end of each performance.
Seeing the darkest side of human nature is never an easy or comfortable thing
to witness - but what's it like for a performer to bring the most hateful of
characters to life?
Actors Jonelle Gunderson and Randy Hughson play the
villains at the heart of the piece: Mayella Ewell falsely accuses Tom Robinson
of a violent rape, goaded on by her hate-fuelled father, Bob Ewell. What
particular challenges do actors face when required to get inside the skins of
such racist characters?
"A vital component for me in this journey has
been the fact that Randy is so incredibly grounding and trustworthy to work
with," says Ms Gunderson. "We have to go into such dark and terrible places
together, but I always feel safe with him at all times. In fact, Nigel and the
entire cast all work beautifully together as a team in this respect: everyone
is supported and surrounded by an overwhelming atmosphere of trust at all
"One thing that makes it easier is that Jonelle is simply the
loveliest person," says Mr. Hughson. "She exudes empathy and kindness and is
very giving to work with, both as a performer and a person. And yes - the whole
cast has come together in a spirit of support and trust.
right after the courtroom scene, Matt [Matthew G. Brown, who plays Tom
Robinson] and Jonelle and I always come together off-stage for a hug. That
ritual moment of connection means a great deal. Everyone is so vulnerable in a
play like this, but we all have to be 100% full-on with our roles, or it just
These portrayals provoke high emotions in audience
members, and strong reactions can sometimes be levelled directly at the
"I've had three letters from people who've seen the show,
asking me things like, 'How can you be so desperate to act that you take on
such a despicable role?' " Mr. Hughson smiles wryly. "And there was a student
performance earlier on in the run when someone threw a quarter at me while I
was sitting in the witness stand - I heard it ricochet right beside me.
"But the key to playing the darkest side of humanity is that you must put
aside any personal vanity. The minute an actor starts worrying about being
liked by the audience, the power and the realism is gone. You absolutely must
give the other characters something strong to come up against or the entire
balance of the play is off."
"Something I have learned from watching and
working with Randy is to really go for it and make big choices as an actor,"
says Ms Gunderson. "Being bold in your approach means that you make a stronger
impact. Our roles are an essential part of a larger picture. There is no room
to be tentative in the approach - we just have to lean fully into it. We have
to believe in Mayella and Bob as real people with their own stories and
humanity, or you have no reality to the story."
"One of the most
difficult aspects is having to wear a KKK costume," says Mr. Hughson. "All of
us who wear them on stage find it very affecting. There is such a huge stigma
attached to the image. The first time I put it on, it felt like I was putting a
horrible weight of history and the worst of society directly onto my shoulders.
It was awful. I remember the fitting in the wardrobe room - someone passed by
in the hallway and gasped when they saw me. From that point onward, we always
kept the door shut."
"Nigel treats the KKK costumes the same way we
treat weapons in the theatre," says Ms Gunderson. "You don't just leave stage
weapons lying around when they aren't in use on stage - they get locked away.
And that is exactly what happens to these costumes. They are locked up, and
kept away and apart to be safe and contained. They are never treated
flippantly. Their impact is too terrible."