John Emmet Tracy is an actor with 30+ years of experience behind him in both stage and screen. Recently I had the chance to chat with him about everything from behind the scenes stories, to his charity, and the technical aspects of acting.
Here is part one of our conversation.
How did you get into acting?
Well I actually started acting before I even knew that it was called acting. It was one of those situations that a lot of kids put on shows for their family. We got really involved, my sister and I, with our basement productions. Making them elaborate and having music. Doing everything we could and a lot of kids do that but I was still too young to even know that it was even a thing and to know that it was a job.
I remember watching Dog Day Afternoon on television. I really shouldn’t have been watching that movie at that age. For some reason I don’t think my parents knew I was watching it. I was so blown away by Al Pacino because at the time I though it was really happening. I thought I was watching a real bank robbery on television. I called my mother from the other room and I said “How did they get the camera in to record these robberies?”. She said “Oh these are actors.” I said “These are what?” and she said “You know actors. Like what you and your sister do.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing wasn’t actually happening. I was so enthralled by it that I just decided right then and there that I wanted to do this. I must have been 7 or 6 and I just have not stopped going since. I just keep going.
I got inspired by it and as a young kid I started doing theater and whatever I could audition for in my hometown. Then I eventually started doing more. I got involved with classical theater. Then I started studying it and I went to school for it. Later in life I started working on film and television. I’ve always kind of done it.
How do you feel higher education has helped you with acting?
I studied at a lot of places and I’ve tried to study from a lot of different teachers from all over the world and from different disciplines. I always wanted to have a well-rounded creative education. My actual theater degree is from Rose Bruford College. Which is in Kent, England. I’ve done courses and master classes and in extended studies in a lot of different places. One of them being The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
To answer the question. I think what most performers have naturally is a certain instinct for storytelling and a certain desire to help in the storytelling process. So many actors can thrive on instinct alone. What helps with education is adding technique that can support instinct and inspiration. I think if you’re able to have a technical foundation that allows you to use your impulses and instincts in performance then hopefully you have everything it takes to repeat the performance or to find what the moment requires.
The great thing about studying any art form is that technique can be there as a basis through which you can use your inspiration and instinct for storytelling.
You have studied under some prestigious teachers, including Lynn Redgrave,Uta Hagen, Edward Albee, Madeleine Sherwood and Casey Kizziah. Can you describe your experiences working with such talented teachers?
Absolutely. As I said earlier. One of the things that I love about being an actor is we’re part of a tradition that goes back as far as humanity goes back. What I love about it is that we learn from the generation before us. From two generations before us. They’re the ones that teach us everything we know. So much of what I learned was from the great teachers you mentioned. Quite a lot of it just simply came from older actors that I worked with when I was a little kid doing theater. They would tell me how to behave backstage or tell me how to handle the moment in a play. We hand those things down to the generations that come after us. Working with those great teachers was inspiring for so many reasons. Not only because they had achieved so much in their personal careers but because you also become part of this lineage of sharing information and sharing storytelling traditions with somebody who has inspired so many people. I find that very thrilling and I never fail to learn something on any job I do and with every actor I work with. I think that’s what is great about creative collaboration.
It is the dream of many Shakespearean actors to perform in the Globe theater. Can you describe what that was like?
Thrilling. Intimidating. Exhilarating.
When I was a high school student I was chosen for an exchange program to England. One of the reasons I wanted to go was because I was already a huge lover of Shakespeare’s plays. I wanted to be in the place that Shakespeare was from. At this point they had not rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe Theater but while I was there studying in London they broke ground very, very near the original site to recreate Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. I was just so excited to be there as that was happening. I went to the build site, which at the time was just rubble and earth moving machines things like that. I told myself that one day I would have the opportunity to perform there. I really didn’t know how I was going to make that happen or if that would even be realistic but I promised myself that someday I would perform on that stage.
It took me a long time. It took me decades but eventually I was selected for something called the International Actor’s Fellowship. Where a small group of actors are chosen from around the world and then brought together to collaborate, compare working methods, and perform together on that famous stage. It was so exciting.
In fact I remember when they first walked us onto the stage they sort of put you back, what they call the tiring-house behind the stage, and they opened the doors to the beat of a ceremonial drum as we all went out and entered the space. It was really exciting and even emotional for most of us because it is a bit of a pilgrimage site for actors who love Shakespeare’s plays. That’s what it was for me. I would say without a doubt it was the highlight of my life as an actor.
It sounds very surreal.
It was. I just didn’t want to leave the stage when the last moment came and the performance ended. I just didn’t want to leave.
It’s an amazing structure to be in. To be performing in because there’s no roof and daylight is everywhere. So you can see the audience and you can see the director standing over there and you can see a theater critic standing over here and I could see my wife and children sitting over there. So everything is connected. You’re connected to the audience in a different way than if you’re in a theater where the audience is in the dark and the actor is in the light and you sort of pretend the audience isn’t there. That’s the traditional way of doing it for the most part these days.
Going back to this Elizabethan form where the actors and the audience can not pretend they’re in separate places. You’re there together and you’re looking at each other. You’re delivering soliloquies right to them and they’re smiling and they’re bonding or hopefully not booing and throwing things but they’re there with you. So it’s such an amazing and rare opportunity.
You founded the charity The 24 Hour Shakespeare Project. Can you explain what that is?
When my son was two and a half he was diagnosed with something called coarctation of the aorta and they came to us and told us that he needed surgery on his aorta. Which is quite a shocking thing to hear about your two and a half-year old child. The surgery was done in Canada at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. My wife and I were so impressed and blown away and grateful to the amazing team of people who work at that hospital and the care they gave us and the care they gave him through out this process. I remember standing with my wife at one point, all these people rushing around us and looking after all of his needs. I said to my wife “I want to do something for this place. I want to find a way to give back and maybe raise some money.” and naturally my heart and mind goes right to what I do for a living which is telling stories. My favorite stories to tell are those of Shakespeare.
So I set about editing down Shakespeare’s plays to short, manageable versions. In fact I edited all 38 plays. It took me five years and I edited them down to roughly thirty to forty minute versions. On Shakespeare’s 450th birthday We came together with nearly 200 actors and I got on stage and stayed for 24 solid hours. We performed stage reading of all 38 of his plays and raised money for BC Children’s Hospital. The rest of the actors were a rotating cast that came through throughout the night. Some would come and be involved in say King Lear and then they’d leave and maybe run to film something or to go to an audition or to go home and sleep. Then they’d come back. Many of them stayed with me. Some stayed for 12 or 15 hours at a time. Many parents of other children that were in that hospital came with sleeping bags and food and spent the night in the audience and in some cases I pulled them onto the stage with us. They performed as well.
We performed the entire canon of all 38 plays. It actually ended up taking more like 27 hours. That was an incredible experience and there were so many people who came out to get involved and donate their time and their energy and took money out of their pockets to give to the hospital. So that was a fantastic experience for me.
One funny story was that although the plays were edited down, I started noticing that actors maybe we were stretching out the moments a bit. I realized we weren’t going to finish in time. There were moments throughout the night where we’d be performing, say Measure for Measure, and I was quickly going through the script for Hamlet and reediting and cutting out pages, scratching things out and then having those distributed among the actors. I was continuing to edit throughout the night even though we were in the middle of performing.
(Editorial Note: After the interview I asked Mr. Tracy how his son was doing. I am happy to report he fully recovered.)
For information on coarctation of the aorta click here.
If you would like to donate to the BC Children’s Hospital click here.
To find out more about John Emmet Tracy click here.
To follow John Emmet Tracy on Twitter click here.
Header photo taken by Shimon Karmel.
Part 2 coming soon!