April 2008 Issue
Shades of May
As the lights dim and the curtain rises on Great Lakes Theater Festival’s spring repertory, Andrew May will once again reach into his bag of tricks and perform the vanishing act that leaves audiences mesmerized.
For two decades, May, GLTF’s associate artistic director, has used his versatility to bring an eclectic cast of characters to the stage, ranging from tormented composer Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s archrival in “Amadeus,” to
Angelo, a political zealot who lets desire get the better of him in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”; to neurotic Mortimer Brewster, who must contend with his aunts’ penchant for murder via elderberry wine in the darkly funny “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
But although the plots are familiar, audiences have learned that when May takes center stage the result is anything but commonplace. The classically trained actor, who studied at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, exudes a charisma that brings a distinct dimension to the tried-and-true –– one GLTF’s producing artistic director Charles Fee acknowledges is alluring to theatergoers.
“Andrew brings a tremendous sort of heat onto the stage with him, along with engagement and excitement,” Fee says. “You don’t want everyone in your company to be a comic leading man. The trick is to find someone who is very masculine and sexy as well as comic. Andrew has all three qualities, and that’s a killer combination.”
So it’s understandable that May’s acting prowess isn’t the only attribute that garners attention. During the four seasons he spent as artistic associate at the Cleveland Play House, his photo would repeatedly get stolen from the lobby; and critics have described the 47-year-old as the handsome hunk you always recognize. May scoffs at the matinee-idol comparison.
“That’s the thing that kills me the most,” he says. “The connotation is that of a personality actor who’s getting on in years and is going to work his handsome angle until he’s just going to die –– very much like the old Rat Pack guys.
“I fight against that image because it has nothing to do with what I’m about.”
A case in point is his current role, that of stalwart farmer John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” based on the Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft trials of the late 17th century.
Proctor, the play’s tragic hero, strives to protect his good name, despite the mass hysteria that ensues as a result of that decision.
As rehearsals begin, May reflects on this latest role, one he says exhibits universal qualities we can all relate to.
“John Proctor is just a very regular guy in an unusual circumstance,” he explains. “The only thing that makes him irregular is that he really sticks to what he says. ... It’s just a matter of how to go down: with dignity or by succumbing to the ridiculousness of the world around you.
“He decides to go with some dignity, and I think that’s a wonderful trait –– one that in essence makes him an everyman.”
Lydia May isn’t surprised by all the fuss her husband of 17 years generates from fans and media. “He is a hottie,” she says bemusedly, explaining that when the two met in 1987, it was, for her, love at first sight. “I think part of Andrew’s appeal with audiences is that he really just doesn’t get that.”
Couple that with the dedication her spouse has to his craft, one, which Lydia explains, leaves him no room to phone it in, and the result is hard to resist.
“So many actors go into rehearsals with their lines already memorized,” she says. “Andrew never does that. Although it places extra stress on him, he wants to discover the character and have the text be part of that discovery. He just doesn’t memorize words. He creates an energetic rhythm that actually fleshes out the role and gives it life.”
It’s a process, Lydia adds, that never fails to astonish her and the couple’s children, Julia, 16, and Charlie, 12. “Andrew never stops amazing us with what he comes up with. If it’s like that every day for us, I can’t imagine what it must be like for the audience who is seeing him with a fresh eye.”
May didn’t always feel he was destined for a life on the boards. Born in Hinckley, Ohio, to British parents, he and his family moved to Montreal, and later suburban Chicago, as his father, a former Royal Air Force pilot, climbed the career ladder at Air Canada. During his high-school days in Wheaton, Illinois, May was all athlete. “I was a jock and my friends were jocks, and you know who you associate with and who you don’t –– those are high-school givens,” he says.
But when the severe knee pain of Osgood-Schlatter disease sidelined him during his sophomore year, May was forced to attend drama class in lieu of going to phys ed. He admits his first thought was “Dear God, get me out of here. I hope my friends don’t see me.”
But anathema was quickly replaced by awe.
“I began to admire what all these wacky actors were doing and how difficult it was,” he says. “Then it just won me over, and I jumped on the bandwagon with gusto.”
May vividly remembers the moment he knew destiny awaited him onstage ––a flashback that still gives goose bumps. It happened during his senior year, after the final performance of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” in which he played the lead.
“There were moments where I’d sort of fantasized about ‘Wow, maybe I could be an actor,’” he says. “But then came that play. I put so much of myself into it; I’d never loved anything so much. And when it was over, I was lost –– I mean just totally lost. I didn’t know what to do.”
The teen jumped on his bike, rode to his drama teacher’s house and burst into sobs. The two talked, and the pupil was encouraged to pursue his dream.
“I knew right then I was going to be an actor,” May says. “I just knew it.”
Following graduation from Illinois State University in Normal, May spent a year abroad at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, honing techniques ranging from breath control to dialect under the watchful eye of a notable faculty that included Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons.
“Mostly what I learned in England was how to be a good technical actor,” May says. “In America, that’s sort of looked down upon because we Americansfeel everything, and technique is considered to be for sissies. But acting is such a long journey, and you need so many tools to get there.”
That philosophy, along with a painstaking attention to detail, has been a hallmark of May’s work through 20 years’ worth of unforgettable roles. They include a beleaguered lizard in Edward Albee’s “Seascape” –– which he was able to pull off with aplomb, despite having a raging case of mononucleosis –– and the compelling portrayal of young Russian Jew Haskell Harelik in “The Immigrant,” which May took Yiddish lessons to perfect.
As he prepares to take the Ohio Theatre stage in “The Crucible,” May muses about the next casting call.
“I often get asked what role I would like to play –– you know, the ultimate one,” he says. “And the fact of the matter is, I’ve done it. There is no role out there that I think that before I die, I’ve got to play.
“Instead, life pretty much comes at me the other way. It gives me the role, and I have to come up with an answer to it.”