Seeing ’Red’ :: Thomas Derrah on playing Mark Rothko

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday January 9, 2012

When Thomas Derrah was a resident actor at Houston's Alley Theater for a year, he lived directly across the street from the Rothko Chapel (commissioned by oil millionaires John and Dominique de Menil). It is home to fourteen massive sized paintings by Mark Rothko described by one art critic as imposing visions of darkness.

Derrah's interest was partly as a painter who's put down the brushes.

Derrah plays the master abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko in the SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of "Red," recently opened at the Boston Center of the Arts for a five-week run.

What a British critic deemed a "sizzling, intellectually thrilling" two character, one-set drama was premiered late in 2009 at the Donmar Warehouse in London directed by Michael Grandage with Alfred Molina as the misanthropic painter Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his young assistant. It was an immediate hit and was transferred intact to New York's Golden Theatre where it opened in the spring of 2010 and won six Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Redmayne).

Move and vibrate

But back to Texas.

"I went to the Rothko Chapel daily," recalls Derrah, who found the experience of sitting in the small and windowless structure "moving, spiritual... the paintings luminous."

Rothko kept tabs on every step of the chapel’s construction which he envisioned as a place of pilgrimage for seekers of his newly "religious" art work.

"These paintings in their setting filled up your head and your heart," Derrah said of his meditative visits. "They do seem to move and vibrate. They were very personal to him as well."

Now on to the time of the play.

"Red" takes place about five years prior to when Rothko embarks on the chapel paintings, a time, 1958, 1959, when, as one observer puts it about the color Rothko favored, before "black swallows red."

He’s been given what was the most lucrative commission for any artist in the 20th century art world - to create large scale canvases that will decorate the walls of a Four Seasons restaurant planned for the new Park Avenue Seagram and Sons building as a series of murals. These paintings as he works on them are suffused with a red that virtually throbs but are also beginning to darken from the reds he used to use.

Disturbing commission

For an artist who paints to disturb the viewer the assignment is problematic, and, as it turns out, the high stakes venture, which borders on the crass, will not work out.

The Tony Award winning play by John Logan, (an out playwright/screenwriter whose script for the current hit "Hugo" is on the short-list of film awards this season), is a series of conversations taking place over two years between the 50-something, intense Rothko and his (at first wide-eyed) 20-or-so-year-old assistant named Ken, Ken is an artist as well, but his presence in the studio is strictly to perform duties as stretch and prime canvases, mix paints, clean brushes or run out for a pack of cigarettes for Rothko, a heavy smoker. He is advised from the start by Rothko to disabuse himself from the notion he will be painting.

These interchanges, which take place in Rothko’s studio - an old gymnasium on New York’s Bowery, are sometimes practical, at other times philosophical. And they get heated, especially when Rothko seems to grill the younger man on a variety of subjects, from the meaning of art to the up-and-coming crop of artists that Rothko sees as threatening his reputation.

Mark Rothko wanted absolute jurisdiction in making his paintings, and in their exhibition as well, a trait of being controlling that carries over to the character as Derrah plays him.

"To play him you need to know about his process for creating a work of art, his life, and his experiences," commented Derrah as we sat over coffee at Francesca’s in the South End near the theater.

A play, not a documentary

However, Derrah adds that building the character also "depends on the world the playwright puts him. It’s a play, not a documentary."

The Boston-based Derrah is best-known for his work at the American Repertory Theater (where he’s appeared in some 119 productions). He has also appeared on Broadway ("Jackie: An American Life") and off-Broadway, and has won high critical praise for his interpretations of real-life figures.

Most recently Derrah played the visionary R. Buckminster Fuller in a one-person play ("R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe") about his life that won him numerous local awards with critics’ groups.

"Bucky Fuller was a big hug," says Derrah, distinguishing that warm hearted genius from the prickly Rothko.

But unlike the biographical focus of the Fuller play, "Red" looks at Rothko with a more narrow lens, zooming in on a two-year period when he was creating the Seagram’s commission. This reduction of scope impacts Derrah’s characterization.

"In the play, there is no mention of Rothko’s wife and children (whom he adored) and no mention of any kind of activity outside the working space.

"Here, the paintings are his children," said Derrah.

"Here, the older more established artist who rebelled against the Cubists has his primacy being challenged through arguments with his assistant by the next generation of artists the likes of pop art figures Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol," said Derrah.

Apollonian art

For Derrah, the key to playing real life figures is to latch onto "what defines him," he said.

Derrah said that there is Rothko’s inclination to make money by doing the Apollonian art, whose grandiose, comforting qualities appeal to wealthy buyers, versus his Dionysian soul that does not brook compromise.

"There is the dark and the light," of the colors he uses as well as to the level of illumination in his studio. "There is language in the play that is quotes from him in his very words."

He notes that Rothko saw himself as painting in the era of the atom bomb and the death camps.

Rothko thinks a lot," Derrah adds.

Derrah comments that Rothko "didn’t like nature. At one point he rented a place on Bradford Street in Provincetown. He would walk to the beach fully dressed with a shirt and tie.

"Provincetown is a very social place," said Derrah. "Rothko was lonely, but he didn’t want to reach out to people."

In creating his portrayal of Rothko, Derrah drew upon a pivotal decision he had as a young man.

"At one point I was at a crossroads, dealing with what I would do in life," he said.

"I wanted to be a painter. I was encouraged in that by my dad. But I recognized that painting is possibly the most lonely thing to choose to do ...ever.

"I turned instead to theater where the work is always collaborative.

"Even when you’re learning your lines, you’re living with a character.

"My choice of a career swung that way," he said.

A variety of roles

Acting turns out to have been a smart choice. Derrah, who is on the faculty at the American Repertory Theater’s Institute, has played roles at the Loeb (and now Oberon) since graduating from Yale School of Drama. The variety of parts is remarkable from last season’s Fraulein Schneider in the musical "Cabaret" to the title role in Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya," Stanley in "The Birthday Party," and Richard in "Richard II." He teaches acting at Harvard University and Emerson College. The actor is married actor/playwright John Kuntz, himself currently playing Uncle Vanya at Chelsea Theatre Works.

He has also performed a great deal nationally and internationally having recently been in "Julius Caesar" in France. He did five productions at Houston’s Alley Theater, including portraying Doctor Gibbs in "Our Town" directed by Jose Quintero. He has numerous film and television credits.

He says of audiences, "when the lights go out, it doesn’t matter where you are. You are people on a stage telling a story to people in seats."

Derrah returns to SpeakEasy Stage having earlier appeared in "Fuddy Meers" and "The Drowsy Chaperone."

"It’s a wonderful company with a lot of heart," he praises. "There’s an urban feel and an excitement. It knows its audience and it challenges its audience. It feels right to me.

"I love and respect deeply that they are committed to local actors," he said.

And right up there for Mr. Derrah, of course, is that the once isolated painter is working collaboratively.