Actor, writer, director, educator Timothy Mooney has built his career on making the classics accessible to modern audiences and reaching out to young theater artists by performing in one-man shows such as “Breakneck Hamlet” and writing textbooks for the actor like “Acting at the Speed of Life.” His published adaptations of Molière have brought new life and fresh insights into these classics. Stage Rights has now licensed two of Mooney’s adaptations from the master of French Farce, “The Learned Ladies” and “The School for Wives.” Tim was gracious enough to be interviewed about his work and his process.
What’s your name?
Where do you live now?
Mostly on the road, but in my down-time, I’m in the northwest Chicago suburbs.
Where is your hometown?
I grew up in Arlington Heights, IL (also in the NW Chicago burbs…)
Do you consider yourself more of an actor, a writer, or historian?
I’m an actor who went into directing, who then started writing plays, and found myself circling back into an acting career as I was getting cast in several of the plays that I was writing. In a way I found myself making a living as the actor most psycho/spiritually aligned with this “Timothy Mooney” guy… (Or who at least knew how to pronounce the words that “Tim Mooney” had written…!) The “historical” part of what I do (I’ve really always been bad student of history) is mostly an exploration: weeding my way through to make sense of the cultural landscape that originally influenced these plays, to find out what made them so spectacularly hilarious in the first place. I feel if I can just make sense of it for myself, I become capable of explaining it to other people (or explaining how I wish that someone had explained it to me in the first place). If I’ve done my job, those works will “pop” for a modern audience, which realizes just how much the humor of 350 years ago lives in us today. (It’s really startling sometimes, and I just love seeing light bulbs go off over the heads of the audience as they realize, “Those guys were just like us!”)
I find myself very connected to the life, work and mindset of Molière, who ALSO wrote plays in which he played the most challenging roles. Like me, he spent a major part of his career on tour, bringing his work to “the people.” But more fundamentally, Molière had a wicked sense of mischievous righteousness, daringly eager to demonstrate the foibles of hypocrites, liars and charlatans, showing them up for who they really were, and demonstrating just how they manage to gull the rest of the world with brazen lies and outrageous posturing. I’m not “channeling” Molière, so much as it sometimes feeling as if he is whispering in my ear, saying, “No, not that word: this one…!”
How does one go about adapting a play?
My particular style has me reading as much Molière biographical material as I can absorb, and reading as many variations of the original works as I can dig up. I keep Molière’s original French on hand as I “triangulate” my way into a verbal landscape that entertains ME. If I can’t find a way to improve upon the set-ups and the pay-offs to these jokes, making them better than I’ve seen them elsewhere then I’m not quite “there” yet. My particular “signature” features me writing in rhymed verse (even when Molière himself might have written in prose). Which largely means manipulating the language to balance on two words: the final word(s) of the first line, which will set up the rhyme, suspending a particular sound in the mind of the audience, and the payoff: the final word or words of the couplet’s second line, which will “pay off” the audience’s attention to the first. Although, they may occasionally be unavoidable, I mostly hate the well worn rhymes that we’ve seen a million times (love, glove, dove, of…). I try to find combinations of words that the audience will not see coming, such as: “Don’t talk like I’m a goddess, see: / When you go on it hurts my modesty.” Or: “Thanks for correcting my confusion, I’ll / Be glad to know I’m not delusional!” (Both of those are from “Learned Ladies.”)
What’s more important in adapting a classic work, faithfulness to the original text or modern relevance?
I would have to put the emphasis on faithfulness to the original text. I’m not working, for instance, to “make connections” between Molière’s original characters and specific modern individuals. While some might suggest that “Don Juan” and “Donald Trump” have a lot in common, if I were to depict Don Juan AS Donald Trump, then that’s the ONLY connection that an audience would end up making. They might be entertained when they consider the modern connection, but then they would lose the great multiplicity of connections between this particular character and “life written large.” As long as I write with truth, the minds of the audience will inevitably make those connections for themselves, without my prodding. Then, as a bonus, they will ALSO make dozens of realizations of their own, assuming that I trust them enough to make that leap. – Also, my secret hope is that these plays will outlive me, surviving to have their own impact for an audience perhaps 300 years from now.
Who do you want to be when you grow up?
The guy who gets to just go around seeing productions of his shows, hiding in the corner, taking a special delight in hearing people laugh.
What are you working on now?
I’ve spent the last ten years or so developing new takes on the plays of Shakespeare: what I call a “breakneck” series that manages to contextualize and make sense of the stories of “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar” or the ten History plays in a single hour. But I also dream of going back to finish up the dozen or so Molière plays that I haven’t yet explored. Molière’s 400th birthday is just around the corner: January 20, 2022, and I envision finishing up a “Collected Works of Molière” by then. (I somehow never run out of projects on my list.)
Interview by Jaime Robledo of Stage Rights