By Blair Best, Contributing Writer
In the heart of the East Village lies one of New York’s most celebrated off-Broadway theatres. The New York Theatre Workshop is home to many of New York City’s premiere theatre artists and continues to bring new work center stage, provoking audiences and creating theatrical conversation since 1979. Its current production features upcoming playwright Lucas Hnath with his original play, “Red Speedo.” This New York debut dives deep into the lure of scandal behind performance-enhancing drugs in professional Olympic sports. Following the precarious training process of Olympic swimmer Ray, the fast paced story unearths a hideous truth laced with outrage, dishonesty, family feud and moral dilemma. Award- winning actor, teacher and narrator Peter Jay Fernandez (The Coach), takes us inside the creative process of what it was like working on “Red Speedo.”
WSN: What did Red Speedo mean to you? Were there any over all feelings or personal connections to the play that you found?
Peter Jay Fernandez: I think the immediate connection is what we do, which is we are in the entertainment business and there is the notion of being a celebrity and maintaining power. We are in the spotlight and the tricks and traps of all that. That’s an immediate parallel with the play, because this kid is a world class athlete and he’s immersed in that notion because the better he does the more attention he is going to garner. It’s a question of what comes along with that attention and what about it is truthful and what isn’t. And what kind of support system does he have, which in this play, he doesn’t have a lot of. So that’s the immediate connection. Then there’s the whole notion of family, fathers and sons, blood family as opposed to the family you create for yourself and how that helps or does not help navigating that situation. There is also the notion of integrity, how do you maintain your integrity when you’re surrounded by people who are, for lack of a better term, yes-men or butt-kissers, so to speak. How do you maintain your integrity and your balance, which I think is an issue for so many of us these days? I mean look at the political situation we are in right now, where does the integrity lie in the midst of these platforms that these candidates are espousing? So those are my immediate connections.
WSN: What was your biggest challenge working with Red Speedo?
PJF: The language. Mastering the language. Lucas Hnath has very specific rhythms in which he writes. They are realistic and not realistic all in the same time. These characters are based in truth but they kind of live on the edge of a different kind of truth. Their dialogue is very stylized and very rapid. There’s a lot of interrupted speech. The playwright was very specific; he doesn’t want overlaps per say – he wants cut offs. So that made it very challenging to memorize.
WSN: Do you think that it was too much for him to ask of you as the actor?
PJF: No, not down the line. I think initially it is, it always seems that way. But these are the particular challenges for this kind of writing. I don’t think every actor can do it. It’s very specific and you need intelligent actors who can play precision. The challenge was to master that and then bring the humanity that exists in the characters underneath that.
WSN: Like Shakespeare.
PJF: Yes, precisely.
WSN: I see you have done a lot of audio book recordings, such as Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe, Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup and Prodigal Son by Kimberla Roby. Did your experience with narration help you at all in mastering this language?
PJF: I don’t know if it helped, it certainly didn’t hinder. I mean the beauty of having done as many audio books as I have is that I’ve had the opportunity to explore many kinds of language and many ways of writing. I guess that kept my mind open to, “okay this is a challenge,” and so it was one that I didn’t feel overly intimidated by. I’ve had to narrate some pretty obscure and strange books. Some really well written, some over written and some poorly written. You still have to make them believable. Again, the challenge with this was not that you can’t make the language sing, but where is the life underneath it.
WSN: Can you speak a little on how you got into the character of The Coach?
PJF: We talked earlier about family… Well, I don’t have any blood children but I have many adult children in my life per say. A lot of people that I mentor and I teach over at The New School and I taught at NYU last semester in the first year graduate program. I find your students become your children to a certain degree. The challenge for the coach in this play is when do your hopes for your students intertwine with your hopes for yourself? There’s the notion of living vicariously through your students, which is not always a good thing. Certainly the backstory that I built for the coach is that he was a swimmer at one time, probably a college level and pretty good but never the first, second or third place swimmer. He was the one that didn’t make it to the Olympics and as far as he did get, he got there on hard work. So when he encounters Ray he thinks maybe he couldn’t make it but he can help him do it. I think he vicariously maybe lives through Ray. Hence, when all of a sudden Ray’s times start picking up, I think the coach knows in the back of his mind that something’s up; but I think he compartmentalizes and puts it aside so he can continue to live his dream through the kid. I recognize that danger is always there with your students. The challenge is to help them find themselves and encourage them in what they find moving forward. You always maintain some kind of connection, they become kind of like your children. So that was an easy way in for me.
WSN: Since the cast was so small, was it a very individualized process for each actor and then you came together in rehearsals or was it a collaborative experience? And was the playwright present in rehearsals?
PJF: I think it was very collaborative. The playwright was there every day of rehearsals. It was a little intimidating initially. But, ultimately, I find having the playwright in the room can be very helpful and in this case he was. He could give us insight. It got a little confusing for a while because you had both he and the director and it seemed like both of them were directing. Ultimately, I found it a plus to have him in the room. I think he’s a very smart writer and one of our premiere young playwrights. It was very collaborative for all of us because I think a lot of us had the same questions about the style of the piece, who we were to each other and the world of the play.
WSN: What is coming up on the horizon for you and your career?
PJF: I am getting ready to do a two-character play about fathers and sons in the Berkshire’s this summer. I will continue teaching through the rest of this semester and I have a teaching gig for part of the summer and after that, I don’t know. We’ll see. I might pick up a little TV work since I’ll have more time for that. I’m kind of at a space in my career where I let things happen as they do.