Today we introduce Paul Baker, who plays the Woodcutter. Paul is the founder of the HPCP and the current vice president. Paul served as HPCP president for seven years and has appeared in and directed numerous HPCP shows.
Q. What made you decide to try out for Rashomon?
Paul: I tried out for Rashomon to support the Players and to support Bill. I have the notion that when every Player does what they can to support each and every HPCP production, the Players flourish. Kudos for the flourishing of the Players!
Q. Your character is part of the frame story–the trio of people taking shelter in the ruined Rashomon Gate and retelling the story while the rain beats down. You all have been rehearsing on your own a lot. Can you tell us a little bit about how your trio has developed its particular chemistry and dynamics?
Paul: I’m not sure I know how to talk about this kind of thing very well. I think actors playing the Priest, Woodcutter, and Wigmaker are not given a lot to work with, in the way of character, so a lot of what has been going on has been each of us, Leslie, Michele and I, trying to figure out who the person is that we’re playing. As this gradually coheres and comes forwards, with Bill’s help, each of us gets a clearer sense, from the other two, what and who we are. So, I’m off learning my lines and trying to figure out who this Woodcutter is. Michele and Leslie are off doing the same thing. So when we get together, it’s becoming clearer who I’m interacting with– the Priest, the Wigmaker–and that tells me more about who this Woodcutter is that’s engaged with them. So, it’s like something sharpening and coming into focus…if that makes sense…
Q. Why do you think the Woodcutter is so concerned about the prospect of the priest leaving town? He says himself he doesn’t go to temple much. What do you think the priest means to him? Why is he so concerned to get him to stay?
Paul: As I read him, the Woodcutter is one of those people who tacitly places himself on a moral/spiritual continuum between the truly “bad” untouchable people (e.g. The Wigmaker) and the truly saintly “good” people (typically clergy, and in this case, the Priest). In between are regular joes like himself who rub along making the compromises they have to make to make ends meet, but secure in the knowledge that they’re anyway better than some people, and someone, high above, is living the holy life on everyone else’s behalf. This is not at all an uncommon world view, in my observation.
Anyway, the Priest has this spiritual meltdown. His stated reasons are sufficiently illogical that we can assume that is chiefly an emotional collapse, and the story tells us that the reaction was triggered by what happened in the police court trial. The Woodcutter was there, in a kind of complicit camaraderie with his surrogate holy man, and he must have seen him begin to totter on his pedestal. The Woodcutter needs the Priest on that pedestal; it’s part of his world view.
Add to that that the Woodcutter’s guilty knowledge of his own suppression probably has him thinking that it’s maybe his fault that the Priest is losing his groove, so he has lots of reasons for trying to prevent the Priest’s despairing exodus.
Q. A lot of people assume, partly because it’s told last and partly because it’s told by an outside party, that the Woodcutter’s story about what happened is the true one. In your mind, when he describes what went on with the three of them, is he giving an accurate and faithful account? Or is he also telling the story about them that he wants everyone to believe?
Paul: This is complicated. Without giving away too much of the story, once you know that whole play, you can see that the Woodcutter has been actively suppressing at least one part of the story for the entire play. How much does this very conscious suppression corrupt the rest of his telling?
I do think the playwrights have written the play in such a way as to privilege the final telling as the truest version that we see, but as we see it enacted, it is useful to remember that this is a dramatization of one person’s spoken version. The pictures of Bandit, Samurai and Wife are being shown through the lens of the Woodcutter’s expectations and assumptions. Given that we know, as I said, that he has a tendency to idealize those he believes are above him, is part of his story tinged by his disappointment at finding these larger-than-life figures are merely human, after all?
Q. You’re directing Collected Stories this winter. (The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, originally scheduled for our winter show, had to be dropped because we were unable to obtain the rights.) Can you tell us something about why you chose that play, and how you plan to approach it?
Paul: First off, I want to say that, as excited as I am to have the chance to direct Collected Stories, I’m truly sorry that it came at the expense of Renata’s successful proposal. “The best laid schemes…” I guess.
That said, Collected Stories has two women in the cast, Ruth, an older successful writer, and Lisa, a young aspiring writer who is her student and who becomes her protégé. The play explores their subtly unquiet relationship: intimacy, loyalty, and betrayal; affection, influence, rivalry. The story drives towards a “break” in the relationship that is not resolved as the curtain falls. We are left asking if that is the “fault” of one or the other of the women. I’ve discovered, talking to people about the play, that some people see the play as vindicating Ruth, and others, Lisa. This even-handed complexity is one thing that excites me about this play. It’s textured like life and feels true; Ruth and Lisa are passionate and contradictory, like real people. To keep it balanced/unbalanced like that, like life, is an exciting challenge. I originally proposed this small play as an option in case we decided to do another production of two plays in tandem as we did in 2016 with Proof and Jar the Floor. As a stand-alone mainstage play, Collected Stories presents different challenges. So we’re planning to stage the play in a real living room, somebody’s home in Hyde Park, make it very intimate, so that our audience is really sitting right in the room with Ruth and Lisa.
Q. Which do you like better, acting or directing? Why?
Paul: I don’t really like one or the other better, but I really do appreciate the fact that I can do both in the Players. I wouldn’t want to be limited to only one.
Paul Baker with Susan Harris