Moore, Please! An Interview with Terry Edward Moore

Terry Moore as Lord Peter Wimsey in Taproot’s “Busman’s Holiday,” 2017

There’s a deft sort of patrician air about Terry Edward Moore. He is very adept at playing the man with all the answers–the detective, the father, the thoughtful authority figure. Even if, as in his devastating performance of the father of a severely disabled daughter in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in Seattle in 2013, his answers can’t provide him comfort or relief from pain.

In 2010, I was tremendously fortunate to have Terry originate the role of the Great Detective in Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol when it premiered at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre. A problem with writing such a well-known character as Sherlock Holmes into your play is that you then have to find an actor worthy of the role. Moore, who’d I seen as a quite splendid Lord Peter Whimsy at Taproot some years previously, was perfect–brilliant, arrogant, cutting, and surprisingly funny, capturing not just the acidic observations but the mischievious wit of the sleuth.

Moore was one of the actors I approached initially when we began planning BRASS, and to my delight he accepted two roles, the kindly science officer Erik Von Hoffman and the arch-villain The Crime Minister. Now in Season Three, with the criminals approaching new heights of power and ambitions, I wanted to check in with one of my favorite actors to learn some more about how he does what he does.

Brass Bulletin: What brought you to Seattle, and where were you before?

Terry Edward Moore: My semi-serious response is that when I met the woman I later married she was in New York and I was in Minneapolis, and she wanted to live there and I wanted to live where I was and so we moved to Seattle.

The more serious response is that she was from the area, and we were already thinking of starting a theatre, a Shakespeare company, and Seattle needed one.

BB: You were one of the founders of Seattle Shakespeare. Tell me a little about why you started the company and with what aim.

TM: The aim was to do good Shakespeare and at that time Seattle didn’t have a lot of it. Intiman was the classical theatre, but they were slowly evolving away from that, and they didn’t do Shakespeare very often anyway. We had some fairly specific ideas of what good Shakespeare entailed, including working from the Folio, which was a new idea at that time. Our first production was in summer of 1991, when we did Richard III, in a theatre with no air-conditioning, in August.

A summer of discontent. Tell me about this idea of working from Shakespeare’s Folio.

At the time this was a fairly new idea. The spelling and punctuation of the original text was evocative to me. Shakespeare’s Folio was published at a time of transition for the printed word, between punctuation for the speaker’s voice and the reader’s eye. We have no Shakespeare manuscripts whatsoever, so we have no idea of what his own punctuation would be. But the Folio’s as close as we’re going to get. It’s not his, but it’s someone’s idea of punctuation for the voice. We didn’t follow it slavishly, but following it was intriguing. The spelling was also often evocative. For example in the First Folio of Richard, War is spelled “Warre,” and probably pronounced something like (growling) “WARRRE,” which is a very different word. It helps the actor to know that it had that kind of weight and power. It’s not a gentle word. I found all those sorts of things evocative. We were also working with ideas of how to treat first lines and pauses. This sort of work was new then, but it’s much more common now.

You’ve acted at a wide variety of Seattle theatres, including ACT, the Seattle Rep, SCT, 5th Avenue, Intiman, Taproot, Book-It—what would you say is the state of the city’s theater scene today?

So-so. It’s not under as much stress as it was 10 or 12 years ago with the Great Recession. It also hasn’t recovered completely from that time. Specifically, the price of real estate in Seattle is driving a lot of artists out to the suburbs or out of the area completely. And that’s a major stress. But it also has a major effect on the smaller fringe companies, as real estate prices make it harder for them to maintain a performance space. They’re part of a healthy ecosystem. It’s difficult for younger artists to follow their craft when they can’t afford rent.

Your own company Thalia’s Umbrella produces plays that you describe as a “dance on the line between comedy and tragedy.” Why do these sorts of plays appeal to you?

Day in the Death of Joe Egg, 2013

Partly because I think it’s a better reflection of how most of us experience our lives. Most people don’t have lives of unremitting tragedy, thankfully. And while I love comedy as much as anybody, particularly when I’m only producing one show a year, it’s unsatisfying to only do something funny.

When was the first time you encountered the stories of Sherlock Holmes?

When I was a kid. I couldn’t tell you what age when I first read them, but when I was a teenager I asked for and received the collected short stories. College friends of my parents had a daughter my age who also loved Sherlock, and we exchanged cryptic letters written in invisible ink, all related to the stories.

Would you describe yourself as a Sherlockian?

I don’t know if it’s the best adjective to describe myself. Maybe I’m a Sherlock snob. Most of the non-Conan Doyle pastiche is fairly inferior, though I do like the novels of Laurie King. The same with the filmed versions. Some of the Cumberbatch series I like a lot, though I have some issues with the writing.

When was your first time performing as Holmes?

TM: I think it was around 1996, an original play by Claire Brown called Sherlock’s Veiled Secret at The Bathhouse Theatre. Like much secondary material it was fascinated by his relations with women or lack thereof.

BB: How about Scrooge?

TM: That would have been 2003 or 2004 at ACT. I was in that production for four years running, playing Marley for one of them and Scrooge the rest.

Scrooge, ACT Theatre, 2003

BB: Which role did you find more fun, Sherlock or Scrooge?

TM: Oh Sherlock, definitely, in this play anyway. It’s got all the things that make Christmas Carol fun, plus all the things that make Sherlock fun. No one would describe Scrooge as the smartest person in the room, for example. I remember something Kurt Beattie [Carol’s director) told me when we started, which was the problem of playing Scrooge on stage is that Marley really should be enough, right? So you have to keep inventing ways to not reform too soon. But it’s not a problem with Sherlock, because with his immense intellect and immense pride, he’s better informed on his misanthropic position. Scrooge’s position is ultimately emotional. Sherlock’s is also emotional, though he would be reluctant to admit that, but it’s fortified by his intellect.

BB: I know that you play the cello. Do you find it meditative in the manner that Holmes saw the violin?

TM: Very much so. I think there are a number of elements. Playing music in any way accesses different parts of our brain in different ways than words do. It allows our brains to rest, and to get out of ourselves, to be unself-conscious, quite literally, for a while. I find when I’m trying to figure things out that often I’m the one standing in the way of making progress.

Finally, string instruments are such a kinetic experience. I’m literally wrapping my body around this resonating wooden box. I feel it in my chest, my legs, my arms. That is its own powerful sensory experience. My first cello teacher said he spent more time with his arms around his cello than his wife.

Sherlock Holmes, 2009

BB: Where do you focus your effort on interpreting such an iconic role as Holmes?

TM: That’s a good question. I’m not sure that I know the answer. One of the dangers of course in the profession is that as Hamlet says actors hold the mirror up to nature, but we can also hold it up to other actors. It’s easy to become reflectional to Jeremy Brett or Nicol Williamson or move sideways to other actors in other roles, like Leonard Nimoy as Spock, or Alan Rickman’s Snape, which sometimes people compare my Sherlock to, because no one does disdain better than Rickman. In any role, you have to find the way it resonates in your chest. If you can find that, all the pyrotechnics that the playwright may have given you, the workings of a brilliant mind, the disdain, it is all rooted in something real. If you can’t, it’s all disconnected and the center does not hold.

BB: You’ve got another connection to Sherlock, as the voice of Mycroft Holmes for Imagination Theatre’s Sherlock Holmes series. What’s the challenge of playing Holmes’s smarter brother?

TM: Well, the obvious one is that you hope that the scriptwriter has written you as smarter, because you really can’t act that if he hasn’t helped you along that way. Beyond that, it’s mostly in how it comes out in the relationship between the brothers, which is a dynamic familiar to anyone who has a sibling. It’s shown more in how Mycroft treats his younger brother.

Most of the scripts we’ve gotten have had quite a bit of conflict between them, in that Sherlock expresses a desire to have as little to do with Mycroft as possible. His brother may be condescending, but he’ll also admit the usefulness of Sherlock’s greater physical energy. (in a Mycroftian rumble) you like crawling around on your hands and knees, which is beneath me, though not you. There’s affection there, and neither suffers fools gladly, but neither will easily admit that the other isn’t in that category.

BB: Turning to BRASS, you’ve been playing with us on film and audio drama since the first season, voicing two very different characters. One, Van Hoffman, is a distinguished man of science, while the other, the Crime Minister, is clearly also brilliant but something of a monster. How, using only your voice, do you create such very different characterizations?

TM: The way we speak has the whole variety of different attributes. It helps in this case that Van Hoffman is a foreigner with an accent, so that’s one easy distinction, but there are all kinds of technical tools; pitch, rhythm, emphasis by inflection or stress. When you break down the way a given person speaks, you have all of these of different attributes that one can vary. It helps sometimes to have my own physical image. The obvious example of this is Mycroft, who as a large man has a voice that’s rather resonant, and the mouth has a lot of flesh to work around. But it also involves things like: how secure is the character? Are they working hard to impress someone? What level of urgency is there? Rhythm, particularly, is something I pay a lot of attention to.

BB: We spoke recently about the Victorian era being in many ways the ending of the great British tradition of speechmaking—with perhaps Churchill being the last great Victorian speechmaker. What’s your approach to making somewhat antiquated rhetoric come alive?

TM: By being brilliant. (Laughs.) I don’t think it’s something that I can turn on and off. It has to do with a lifetime of being aware of language, of reading a lot, going to a lot of theatre, listening to political speak with half of my brain being aware of how It’s structured. Just doing it a lot gives you a facility to stop thinking consciously about how it’s put together. Once you’re clear on that, as long as you have a certain facility of language, then you have a tool instead of a potential impediment.

Moore as Vanya in Theater 9/12’s “Uncle Vanya,” 2019

BB: “Being in your head” is often a criticism of thinking actors—I know I suffered from it during my brief time as an actor. But while you’re a thinking actor, you seem to be reasonably proportioned between head and body. Was this a challenge for you?

TM: It was a problem for me early on, and I’m still conscious of it. In American theatre there’s always been a suspicion, a bias against intelligent actors. The Strasbergian version of Stanislavski gives a lot more weight to emotional intelligence than the other kind. But I was fortunate enough in my training to have a master teacher, Ted Kazanoff, who liked smart actors, but was very clear that you don’t think while you’re performing. You think before, and after, but not during. That was very good training for me. If I’d run into a teacher who didn’t want me to think at all I would have rebelled.

That distinction made a lot of sense to me. The way I put it now is a distinction between actor brain and character brain. You want to be maybe 80% character brain, but you need 20% of actor brain, to find your light, wait for a laugh to finish, the practical realities of being on stage.

If I find myself getting too far into my head, trying to direct my own performance, or noticing a critic in the third row getting out their notebook, it’s always best to reinvest in what the character is thinking at that moment.

BB: What’s up next for you and for Thalia?

TM: We’re doing a new David Grieg called Europe. I like to say that the best play about Brexit was written in Scotland in 1992. It’s also about a few other places. That’ll be at 12th Avenue Arts opening on March 13th.

Gandalf in Miss Witherspoon by Christopher Durang, ACT, 2006

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