Ron Chapman plays the titular role of Pericles in Free Shakespeare at Home and in the Park, 2021. Last year, he played Edmund in SF Shakes’ virtual production of King Lear, his first ever Shakespeare play. We Zoomed with Ron to talk about his return to the virtual stage, which happens to be the only stage on which he’s ever performed Shakespeare … so far. SF Shakes returns to in-person park performances soon, so we asked Ron to discuss how he feels about the imminent transition from virtual to in-person performance.
Interview by Aline Mata Vazquez, SF Shakes literary intern 2021. Aline has a BA in Theatre, Film, and Digital Production with a concentration in Writing for the Performing Arts from UC Riverside. Along with playwriting she has experience in dramaturgy and directing.
SF Shakes: I know you also like to write. What kind of things do you write?
Ron Chapman: Well, more recently I’ve been writing short stories. I was taking a short story class at City College San Francisco and was actually published for the first time this year in the city college literary magazine (Forum Magazine). It’s the first piece of writing I’ve ever had published and I was really, really happy about that. I have some stuff that’s somewhat autobiographical fiction, and then somewhat science fiction. That is how I would describe my writing.
SF Shakes: Do you find that your experiences as an actor helps with your storytelling as a writer?
Ron Chapman: I think they influence each other because in both those ways; you have to think about character and you always have to think about what is motivating that character. And something that I love doing is just playing that game of What is this character saying? Why are they saying it? What are they attempting to accomplish by saying it? And that is true, whether you’re acting it or whether you’re writing it as a piece of dialogue in a short story. Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. And you always have to think about the effect that these words are having on the other characters and why that character is saying that thing in that moment, what is it all for?
SF Shakes: How does Shakespeare’s language appeal to you as a writer? How does it influence you?
Ron Chapman: I like it, but honestly– I mentioned this before with my previous work for SF Shakes– I’m not really that familiar with Shakespeare. I kind of remember reading Romeo and Juliet in high school. I’ve seen a couple of his plays, but this is only my second Shakespeare production. So what’s more effective to me about Shakespeare is just the characters, the motivations.
And maybe this is because we are always interpreting and reinterpreting his work He seems to have this knack for getting at the human drama and the human struggle or human joy, pain– whatever it is, there’s this way he has of like, yeah, this is how things play out. This is how people operate.
And the other thing is that I always feel whenever I read Shakespeare everything is incredibly clear. Even if you don’t understand at first. I feel like the characters, their motivations, their intentions, what they’re doing here are always very clear and full out. No one half steps in Shakespeare. Nobody does anything like, “Maybe I’ll dabble.” No, they’re going to be evil. It’s there; they’re going to hatch a plan and it’s going to work and they’re full out into it, or they’re going to be a good person and they just stick to it.
And then there’s this way in which the language seems so exalted and high and there’s all the rhyming and that’s really nice because it makes it really, really easy to memorize. And I like to kind of sing the lyrics before I have to speak them. Usually before the show, I will sing the lyrics or rap the lyrics so that I really understand the flow of them and really make them my own. And the language seems so, oh, but every one of those words has concrete, right here, right now, meaning and real thrust to them and real power.
SF Shakes: I was going to ask you about what your process is for approaching something like this. It’s really interesting that you sing or rap your lines.
Ron Chapman:I grew up in the nineties, with hip hop, it was my first memorization stuff. That was the first thing I did. You could ask me to sing a song from the radio and boom, I would have it for you. So that’s where that all came from for me. But the important thing there too is that rapping and rhyming and rhyme schemes are incredibly important to Shakespeare. So stressing the right syllable for the right intention, but then also having enough breath or leaving enough breath to come back and get that next syllable so that it all makes sense together, and understanding where that line ends is all about breath control. It’s all about word play. It’s all about speaking your intentions. These are all things that you do automatically when you’re rapping. That’s my first school of that.
SF Shakes: You said something really surprising: this is only your second production of Shakespeare. What made you want to dive into it?
Ron Chapman: I was looking for work. I was coming out of a pretty good year, honestly, for me, as an actor and especially as someone who’s really so early in his acting career– I’ve only been doing this for about four years– and I saw this opportunity and I was like, Okay, let me see if I can do that. And I didn’t know necessarily if I could, because of the way that people always talk about Shakespeare and about being a Shakespearean actor. I thought You can’t just do Shakespeare. Nobody can just do Shakespeare. You have to study it for “umpteen” years first or something. And so I believed in myself, but I also thought what if this is an impossible task? What if I really don’t know enough? And so I just did the thing that I always do, which is that I just worked hard at it.
Especially in King Lear, I was playing Edmund and I was looking at his language and I was like, thank God that seems pretty clear what he’s saying and what’s going on and what motivates him. And then I just kind of did what you do as a dramaturg. I have to play that role for myself. I have to look up all these words and look up all these speeches. And then I watched a bunch of YouTube videos about people explaining Shakespeare and how to act Shakespeare, what it means and how to keep it real and how to keep it grounded and how to make sure it stays fresh, which was the most important thing to me.
So it was just about how to make it exciting, how to keep it fresh and how to keep people engaged, and hanging off of these words. To speak them in a way so that there was some action or emotion or something behind every line … so that the words were almost translated by speaking them and by the way that the character just behaved … and it turned out to be something that I could do and I was happy to do it– but, oh my God, the time that I spent every day, just going over those words and I mean, just running and running that script. I really got wrapped up in it.
SF Shakes: So you do your first Shakespeare play, it’s online, virtual, and then you come back to it a year later and it’s still virtual. How has the process changed coming back the second time?
Ron Chapman: I would say the thing that I think has changed the most is that I’m just used to it now. I’m used to the process, but it can still be difficult and almost frustrating. And there’s such a small play space to act in. And now what’s funny is, Episode 4 will be the first time I’ve actually ever done Shakespeare on stage, if you could imagine. I’ve never known a world in which Shakespeare is done in any other way except virtual (A Peek Behind the (Virtual) Curtain of King Lear).
Virtual performance demands really precise physical movements that we have to make in order for everything to look the way it should. It has to look like we’re looking at each other. And if it’s just not-even-an-inch one way or the other or up or down, I’m looking somebody in the nose or in the ear instead of their eyes. There are all these things that we just really have to do. And all of that has to be attacked and perfected first, so that we pull off this illusion, because then all the acting can come in on top of all of this super duper technical stuff, and the performance can be complete. But if you don’t get that super duper technical stuff correct first, then the illusion kind of falls apart a little bit. And then it doesn’t matter about the acting that you’re doing and the performance that you’re giving in a way, because it’ll fall apart and then people will be looking at you looking in the wrong place rather than just taking in the story.
SF Shakes: So when you heard that SF Shakes was doing Pericles this season what was your reaction to that? Were you familiar with the play?
Ron Chapman: I in no way was familiar with the story. And again, I’m not that familiar with Shakespeare outside of popular culture. When I saw Pericles I thought, let me read this whole thing and just see what it’s like. And I read it through and like all good writing, it brought me to tears. I love this story, and I wanted to be Pericles. I think this is such an amazing gift of a role. And, it’d be kind of an honor. And I just thought that it was just such a great story, that I immediately was like, I want to do this. I need to do it. Once I read the story, I was just really happy and I just wanted to go into that audition and just give it my all and just show them that, okay, look, I’m your guy. I can do this. And hope that they believed that.
SF Shakes: And now that you have two episodes under your belt, how do you feel after being almost halfway through this process?
Ron Chapman: Oh my gosh, I feel amazing. I feel amazing about it. I think it is again, still just such a wonderful kind of gift of a process as well as a gift of a role. Everyone involved is so very good at what they do. And I mean that across the spectrum from the design team to the directors, to all of the other actors. I really feel like sometimes with being so early in my career, I feel like I just need to hold my own. I just want to make sure that I’m doing my part to not mess up this beautiful story that Elizabeth [Carter] and Rebecca [Ennals] and Carla [Pantoja] and the whole design team and all the other actors are crafting. I just hope that I am getting in where I fit in, and doing what I need to do for that role to do its job, for this character to be the vehicle that I feel that he is for this story. Also, I was having this thought the other day: this is the closest I think I’ve ever come to working in a television format or like a miniseries or limited series drama or something like that because it’s episodic. There are only four episodes and we have three different directors, although there’s a showrunner almost, in terms of Carla being the director of vision. And so it’s really cool cause you get all these folks working together to make this thing the best that it can be. And going towards one particular vision, but you also get to see what each director really focuses on.
SF Shakes: Shifting gears a little bit, what do you feel you’ve learned from Pericles so far?
Ron Chapman: I think it’s learning stuff that I already knew, in a way. I’m not unaccustomed to grief. It’s something I’ve known in my life and hard times– not literal shipwrecks, but definitely metaphorical shipwrecks. And so I’ve known times when I just don’t feel like I could get up and keep going again. And I just had to sort of, as Pericles does towards the end of episode 3 and in the early parts of episode 4, just completely shut down and literally let my hair grow until I can come back to the world ready to be engaged. Or times when I’ve just had to get on my knees and pray, and hope that god would answer me. I’ve known that. But I’ve also known times of being incredibly resilient and bearing things that the next person maybe couldn’t bear. Or just acting in a moment when it seems like things are lost, but we just have to act now. We just have to put one foot in front of the other, like this is time for triage. This is just about walking forward and not losing hope and having faith in something. Knowing that, or hoping that keeping faith and keeping hope that there will be a good end to it.
SF Shakes: What do you hope people take away from this production of Pericles?
Ron Chapman: I really don’t know. But I do hope that it affects them in the same way that all good or great art affects me, which is that, I hope that it is life affirming. And that it says, Hey, look at yourself. Here’s another way to understand yourself or your own pain or what you’re going through. And that it gives them some strength, something positive to take away from it. Exactly what that is? I will leave that in that magical realm where the art interacts with the viewer. The observer kind of gets into the art and the art kind of gets into the observer because it’s not for me to say.
SF Shakes: As a closing question I want to ask you how you feel knowing that you’ll be back to in-person stages soon?
Ron Chapman: So I haven’t done in-person theater in two years. At that point I think it’ll definitely have been two years. I feel kind of nervous about it because there’s the twofold thing. One is, as much as we all want it to be, the pandemic is not over. So for one, I’m honestly nervous about that. I want every single person that’s involved with these live performances to be safe and be protected. And I’m very glad that we’re doing this out of doors, that we’re doing this in parks. I think that that helps you feel more secure about it and safer about it.
But then also I’m kind of nervous because I haven’t been on stage in space with other bodies, with people in a long time. And I don’t know how that’s gonna go. I don’t know if that’s somehow going to now be harder than virtual space.I don’t know if when my footing doesn’t have to be as precise, it’ll be as good, I don’t know what that’s going to be like.
So, I’m a little nervous about it, but I’m also incredibly excited about it and looking forward to it. I think for me, it’s like a nice way to sort of ease back into doing onstage performance. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens because, we have all these brilliant people, all these brilliant designers working on all this stuff and I can’t wait cause I’ve never known a time when I wasn’t working with SF Shakes that we weren’t doing virtual theatre. And I’ve never attended one of their productions before. So, I can’t wait to see what all these brilliant designers get up to when they’re finally unleashed on the world again.
Free Shakespeare in the Park 2021: Pericles, Prince of Tyre returns to in-park performances on September 4. Visit our website for the full performance and touring schedule. Before visiting the parks, you can catch up on Episodes 1 through 3 on the SF Shakes YouTube Channel starting August 13. The recordings of our live virtual performances will be available for a limited time.