It was the late 1990s when Wallace Acton decided he’d had his fill of metropolitan Washington. He packed his bags and moved to New York. Today, this Helen Hayes Award winner splits his time between Gotham and Delaware, where he owns a furniture and design shop.
But he’s back, at least through Jan. 6, playing the lead in Edward II at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. It’s a role that would be hard for any serious, gay actor to turn down — though Acton says it’s Director Gale Edwards’ participation, rather than the play itself, that brought him back to D.C.
Still, Edward II is not to be dismissed. This play, more than 400 years old, offers an unabashedly gay protagonist, penned by a playwright believed to have been gay himself. Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, is reputed to have claimed that ”all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools,” according to an informant’s testimony offered after torture. That would certainly fit with Marlowe’s recurring use of gay themes. Sadly, that’s meant some of his plays, such as Edward II, have not been widely performed in the centuries since his death.
But when Edward II is pulled out of the closet, it can cause a stir. When the BBC broadcast a television version of the play in 1970, it featured a young, closeted Ian McKellen in the BBC’s first televised kiss between two men.
Edward II made a splash again when gay filmmaker Derek Jarman brought his surreal take on the story to the big screen in 1991. According to Filmmaker Magazine, Jarman, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1994, wrote in his production diary Queer Edward II, ”to make a film of a gay love affair and get it commissioned, find a dusty old play and violate it.” That seems like a fresh attitude that Marlowe, something of a rabble-rouser who was killed — some say assassinated — when he was just 29, would have appreciated.
As he recently turned 43 and speaks with a sort of elegant diction that reminds a listener of 2001‘s HAL computer, Acton’s life seems more solid than Marlowe’s bar-brawling legacy. Still, beyond a love of the theater, Marlowe and Acton apparently also share a disdain for gray convention. In Marlowe’s case, that meant a revolutionary writing style and rumors of espionage. In Acton’s, among other things, it meant getting out of D.C.
METRO WEEKLY: Why did you leave Washington?
WALLACE ACTON: I was born in D.C., grew up here. I was kind of looking for something new.
MW: And what did you find in New York that was new?
ACTON: It’s hard to talk about it without seeming mean toward D.C. It had little to do with the theater and more the quality of life, in a way.
MW: D.C. has had a reputation for being drab.
ACTON: Yes, and a fairly conservative, traditional city. It’s a beautiful place to spend one’s time, and I’ve certainly availed myself of that visual splendor on this particular trip.
The other thing had to do with quality of life as a homosexual. As I said, it’s a conservative town. What I love about New York is that I don’t seem to draw any attention whatsoever from anybody on the street. It’s a nice thing to experience, to just kind of feel normal.
MW: Holding hands with another man? I don’t imagine you’re so flamboyant you’d otherwise be picked out of a crowd.
ACTON: No, I don’t imagine my nature is that flamboyant either, but it didn’t seem to matter here in town.
MW: What’s your life like in New York? Are you working there?
ACTON: No. I have a store in Rehoboth Beach. I import and sell contemporary furnishings, lighting, chandeliers. It’s kind of like a design store. It’s called Tulip, on Route 1 between Rehoboth and Dewey Beach. You can find me there any time of year.
MW: How much of your time now is spent on the stage?
ACTON: This is the first time I’ve been on the stage in four years.
MW: Did you miss it? Did you need a break?
ACTON: I did need a break. I took what I like to call a sabbatical.
MW: That’s when you began Tulip?
ACTON: That’s when I moved it, tripled its space. I’d been working on a large renovation. That’s kind of what I’ve been focused on for the last three and a half years. It allowed me the chance to get away.
MW: It must be a different sort of passion than the stage, but do you bring a passion to Tulip?
ACTON: Very much so. I enjoy the travel. I enjoy the treasure hunt, trying to find unique items from around the world. I enjoy the other half of the theatrical enterprise: the design part, the aesthetic part. That gets fulfilled. And, of course, hanging out at the beach is not such a bad thing, either.
MW: Where have your treasure hunts taken you?
ACTON: The majority of the furniture, the antiques, come from Romania and Mexico and China and India at the moment. It really depends on the year, what kinds of hints I get, what kind of information I acquire throughout my travels to figure out where I should be going at any given time.
MW: What did it take to bring you back to D.C. for this engagement?
ACTON: It took a phone call from Gale Edwards. I adore her as a director and a person. Working with her is such a fulfilling experience that it would be hard to turn that down.
There is an additional bonus in the particular show. I think in college was the first time I ever read this play. I remember being quite astonished by it. I remember seeing a picture — I think it was from Ian McKellen’s production in the ’70s — and at that time not having quite the grip on my own psyche as I do now. It seemed quite a brave thing to me that he was portraying this role in a public arena. It kind of just stuck with me. To have the opportunity to put myself in that place, certainly at a time where it doesn’t seem brave at all, it just seems natural.
MW: Have you worked much with Gale Edwards?
ACTON: This is my third time with Gale. We did Hamlet together, here, and the year after that we did Richard III.
MW: What do you enjoy, specifically, about her directorial style?
ACTON: Gale cares very deeply about the theater as an art form. She cares about the theater not just as a tool of artistic expression, but as a necessary dialogue that can happen between artists and an audience during the particular time the audience is going to witness the event. Gale makes it feel very necessary. In this day and age, that’s a very rare experience.
MW: Have you portrayed Edward II before?
ACTON: No. One thing we’ve said repeatedly throughout this experience is how blessed we are to have this opportunity, because this play is so rarely done, especially in the United States. It’s likely — very likely — all of us associated with this production will never have an opportunity to do it again.
MW: Could this production contribute to newfound popularity for the play?
ACTON: Well, I don’t know how much an effect Washington, D.C.’s theater scene has on the United States’ theatrical community as a whole, but I guess one could hope.
To read the play, we all thought it was a bit dry. We were all a little worried about it, how it was going to keep the audience interested. It was a fascinating experience to discover who Chris Marlowe is as a playwright. When you come to a text like this and you’re thinking Shakespeare, it does seem dry. But Marlowe’s got a very different perspective. I would call his playwriting less poetic and more condensed or distilled. It has its own merits in that way. We all came to think that he was quite a decent playwright and that his plays are well worth exploring.
MW: Do you prefer Shakespeare to Marlowe?
ACTON: I have certainly developed an appreciation for Marlowe that I had not had before. I think there are only seven plays, and Shakespeare’s got 36 or something, so to throw my hat into the ring of Marlowe and have him surpass Shakespeare would be a little foolish career-wise. [Laughs.]
They’re just different. Shakespeare is more poetic, he’s richer. Having had this experience with Marlowe, we were all constantly saying, ”Well, it’s not Shakespeare.” It was hard not to compare him to Shakespeare, especially being at the Shakespeare Theatre and having all that experience with Shakespeare. But at the end of the day, Marlowe is not Shakespeare and he need not be compared to Shakespeare.
I actually think Marlowe probably looked to Shakespeare and said, ”Why do you need so many words? You’re a little flouncy.” He probably thought Shakespeare was a little too precious. [Shakespeare's life] seems decidedly more middle-class in a way, more comfortable than Marlowe’s. Marlowe’s seemed a little more dire, more dangerous, more exciting.
MW: Do you like the character of Edward?
ACTON: It’s an interesting question, because it kind of requires me to step out of the character and try to see it from the outside, which at this point you don’t have the greatest utility with. What I kind of admire is his fortitude and his self-assurance, his strong belief in following the tenets of his heart. Even faced with great opposition, he believes that for better or for worse that what he feels about this man, this Gaveston, is a worthy thing, something he ought not to be ashamed of or bullied out of.
MW: Edward II‘s appeal to the gay community is obvious, but do you think the story is universal?
ACTON: Certainly. You can have different takes on this production. There is a storyline we basically downplayed, which could show Edward perhaps in not as positive a light as he’s portrayed in this telling of the story.
Gaveston doesn’t actually come back in the play as it’s written. That’s something that the director put in herself as a way to kind of keep him in the show and keep that relationship present. In the play as it’s written, pretty much the moment that Gaveston dies, Edward kind of transfers his need, his desire for connection, from Gaveston onto another character, called Spencer.
That’s kind of a sticky issue. In one sense, it could demean the relationship with Gaveston and point up his own psychological frailties.
MW: In the 21st century, what’s the benefit of telling a story onstage, in front of an audience, versus watching a story on an iPhone?
ACTON: Those of us who are passionate about theater discourse about this all the time. There isn’t a succinct answer. The one constant, the one thing that everybody says, the one thing when we all marvel that theater still exists at all, is just the simple fact that it’s a place where real, live people actually get together to present something to real, live people. That’s really, in one sense, its only distinction.
MW: I take it that’s a strong distinction for you?
ACTON: I think so. It has an immediacy, a different kind of energy. Think about the difference of sitting down to a meal at a table. How does it feel different when you’re surrounded by friends and family, as opposed to computer screens where you’re talking to different people in different cities? There is a human connection that doesn’t necessarily exist with an iPhone. [That connection] seems to have some sort of meaning.
MW: Do you need an audience? Would you have any joy working on a closed set?
ACTON: We do that in the theater in rehearsal. That’s a very different experience. It’s a wonderful experience, and why I do it. It’s what I love most about it. It’s actually the process and the digging in, getting your hands dirty and figuring out what’s going on, figuring out what you want to say with this piece at this particular time. That wouldn’t go away with something being filmed on a closed set.
What’s different is when the process becomes production. That’s a totally separate aspect of the situation. Then it becomes the fine tuning and crafting of a story that you have a certain degree of control over, and a direct communication of that story between yourself and the other actors and your audience.
MW: Do you find that audiences in D.C. react differently than audiences elsewhere? Do we seem more focused on the politics in a Shakespeare play, than, say, the romance?
ACTON: I find D.C. to have a particularly intelligent audience. In my experience, they get the more subtle jokes, especially the political or philosophical ones. That’s an appreciative experience, as an actor, that somebody is keying in so closely on the text and what’s going on.
MW: Maybe we’re just cruelly Machiavellian.
ACTON: Well, D.C. audiences, these highly intelligent people, are also gasping when they see two men kiss onstage. So it’s tempered with a certain traditionalism and conservatism.
MW: In Washington — in 2007 — you can hear people in the audience gasp when Edward kisses Gaveston?
ACTON: We have heard it. It’s not nightly, but, yes, it does happen. It was a little chilling for me when I first experienced that.
MW: Did it make you hasten the kiss?
ACTON: No, no, no. Perhaps just the opposite. I don’t feel any shame at all about what we’re doing on the stage. It doesn’t inform what I’m doing; it informs who [the gasper] is.
MW: Do you prefer classical theater? Or will we ever see you in something like Spamalot?
ACTON: I don’t know. I’ve certainly had those experiences. As an actor, it’s quite enjoyable to be able to go into the theater at night not have it cost you anything emotionally or physically.
When I was doing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, I used to liken that to going to an amusement park every night. It’s jut alive. It’s fun. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. If they are well-told stories and strongly directed, as far as I’m concerned they have as much value as any classical piece of theater.
MW: When did you begin acting? Does this go back to childhood?
ACTON: I was in school plays, yes. In the third grade, I played the third shepherd in the Christmas pageant. I had one line and was well-praised for my irony. [Laughs.]
There was something that made me interested, and I’ve been in it ever since.
I was just constantly involved in the theater, at whatever school I was at. I was a theater major throughout college, but scholastically I spent a great deal of time delving into performance art. They had a Shakespeare festival that I participated in in the summertime. Then I came back to D.C. and I started working.
MW: Where along this timeline did you come out?
ACTON: I would say it was relatively late, in my late 20s.
MW: Was there some catalyst?
ACTON: No. It was kind of a long, slow, labored process. I found it a very confusing journey, to be honest. I certainly — growing up — didn’t have any exposure. There were no role models. There was nothing on TV, in the arts, that I was experiencing. There weren’t any guideposts.
MW: Were you surprised, in college, upon seeing that photo of Ian McKellen playing Edward II in 1970, to realize there was something gay going on when you were a little boy?
ACTON: I’m trying to remember what I felt. Whatever it was, I had a strong reaction to it because I feel like I could still paint that photograph that I saw in that textbook. Honestly, I don’t know if it was surprise. I don’t know what it was. I think what was surprising for me was that somewhere there was a place on the planet where someone didn’t feel the need, or didn’t feel compelled by his society, to be other than what he felt he was.
Ian McKellen wasn’t out at that time. Feeling what I felt, not understanding what it was or just starting to come to grips, I couldn’t imagine portraying something so close to what I was feeling. That would’ve been a little too vulnerable.
MW: How would you recommend Edward II to the gay community?
ACTON: The most astonishing thing about this play is that it was written 400 years ago and yet it deals with the very topics, the very situations, that we as homosexuals find ourselves dealing with today. In a strange way, it’s kind of opened my eyes to the realization that I think we’re actually in more conservative times now than they were in when this play was written.
On top of that, I believe in the clarity of this production. The play is done so seldomly, that to lose a chance to see it in a way that’s so appealing and clear to the modern audience would be a bit of a shame. I encourage everyone to come out and see it. Besides, it would be nice to have an audience that would appreciate all the camp factor, all the gay love, and everything else that the other half of this conservative audience base is kind of curious about.
MW: Again mentioning conservatism, I’m wondering if you have strong feelings about politics.
ACTON: If I answer that question honestly, I would have to say I’m actually more interested in the politics of humanity rather than the politics of society, because I guess I’m pretty cynical about power within the societal structure. I’m less cynical about the ability to change people’s minds person-to-person and how that can affect society as a whole down the road.
MW: How does theater rate as a vehicle for creating change?
ACTON: It changed my life. As a suburban Washingtonian — conservative, traditional, suburban Washingtonian — my parents used to come to the city and take me to the theater. There were topics discussed on those stages that I would never have heard in my own home, and points of view expressed on those stages I never would have experienced in my school or amongst my family. I credit it with my awakening, my growth. At least the genesis, the path I took toward growth. That’s what I think about when I’m on the stage: Whose life is getting changed tonight?
Edward II runs to Jan. 6, 2008, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW. Tickets range from $23.50 to $79.75. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.