For the April issue of American Theatre magazine, I interviewed actor Mark Rylance about his new play, Nice Fish, currently making its world-premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. At the time of the interview, the play was still in development, so we talked mostly about Rylance’s inspiration and the play’s language.
Nice Fish blends dialogue written by Rylance with monologues (or rather, poems) by Minnesotan prose poet Louis Jenkins. A longtime fan of Jenkins’ work, Rylance has quoted such poems at dinners, events, and – most famously – at the Tony Awards in 2008 and 2011 in lieu of acceptance speeches. Watch his 2011 Tony speech HERE.
Nice Fish portrays ice fishermen in Minnesota on the last day of the fishing season. In addition to co-writing the script, Rylance also co-directs with his wife, Claire van Kampen, and stars in the production. Here is an excerpt of our conversation:
I watched an interview that you gave after winning your second Tony award where you were asked if the acceptance speech was your own composition. You replied that you couldn’t write something that good.
(laughs) Probably not.
What was your initial inspiration to combine your words with Jenkins’ words?
I think the initial inspiration came when I noticed Robert Bly’s forward to Louis’ first book of poetry, and Robert identified what he felt was an adult voice running through the poems and also a child’s voice. One voice that was cynical and another that was imaginative. That was the beginning, and I thought maybe these two fisherman might say these words to each other. I don’t know where I got the idea of ice fishermen…. Oh that’s right, there was a funny recording I heard about Minnesota people and how they talk in non-sequiturs. They don’t pick up on what the other has said. Maybe it’s the isolation of the long winters or something.
How much did that Midwestern sensibility tie into your own adolescence in Wisconsin and thinking back on your childhood there?
That’s what it’s about for me. That’s the memory I play on. The long winters in Wisconsin. When I was doing Boeing Boeing [on Broadway] we did a workshop with Matthew Cowles, Christine Baranski’s husband, and I playing the two fishermen. It was about 45 minutes long with just Louis’ poems, no other dialogue. From that I set about wanting it to be a fuller evening with three acts. And then I started to write and imagine the other characters.
Is the non-sequitur style of conversation retained in this version?
Yes, to some degree. Their speech picks up some detail of what the other person has said. One person might be talking about a girlfriend and saying, “I waited for her outside the red house where she lived,” and then he might go on for a few sentences about her. And then the other speaker might say, “I lived in a red house once.”
That almost has an absurdist air to it.
There are absurdist turns in Louis’ poems, it’s true. The ingredients are so recognizable that you don’t see the absurdist thing coming. It’s an ongoing process to make my dialogue marry with his language. For instance, he never swears in his poems, and I’ll sometimes put that in to make something more dramatic, but I’ve just recently taken all that out.
Is it clear when the dialogue shifts from your words to his poems?
Well, hopefully it blends. But the poems tend to be a one-minute speech about something, whereas my dialogue goes back and forth.
I like the idea of collaboration. I like the fact that Shakespeare collaborated. And I expect the collaboration to carry on when the actors join. Most of them are local Minnesotan actors, so I think they’ll correct me on my syntax.
What do you think people think of when they think about ice fishing? What does it mean to a local audience?
I wanted to create [Nice Fish] in Minnesota so that people coming to the play would know about ice fishing and that environment. There’s something magical about being suspended on eight or nine inches of ice. There’s the sense that it won’t last. Hopefully we’re reflecting something truthfully, recognizably.
I’m hoping that the play is more universal than just for a local audience, but this is certainly their environment and their sense of humor. That Northern sense of humor has been in my ear a lot. I remember a Minnesotan man once saying to me, “If a man from Wisconsin tells you a joke, you don’t laugh until a week later.” They’re very dry. I certainly found that when I came to London, my humor was not recognizable.
But your point about why people go out on the ice and build these little huts. What are they escaping for and what experience do they want to have? These are all quite useful things.
Are you hoping to have a set that evokes a realistic setting or a metaphorical setting?
I hope the set will be like Louis’ poems. They’re made up of real things, but they have the ability to be surprisingly expansive. It’s a wonderful setting – this icy lake with trees in the distance. As we’ve worked on it, I’ve realized that the character of Mother Nature is very expressive in my imagination – wind and snow and aurora borealis. I certainly remember that about the Midwest as compared to London. One is much more aware of the elements.
Do you find your accent returning when you come back to the Midwest?
Yeah, I do. Not just the accent, but a character in me too. I get a flash of being eighteen again. It was a big thing to leave the Midwest at eighteen and come to London, having very little conception in our family that any such thing would ever happen. But we all thought we were English. We used to have tea parties on the fourth of July. When I came to England I knew so little about the rest of the world. Everyone was quite politicized and well read in London. Coming out of high school, I wasn’t awake to very much at all apart from Shakespeare and plays that I had done. So when I go back to the Midwest, I feel an enormous weight come off my shoulders.
Photo credit: Mike Habermann