When St. Ambrose University senior Sam Jones arrives for our March 30 interview, he enters carrying what he calls his “rehearsal bag” – a backpack emblazoned with the Green Lantern insignia. “I bring it everywhere,” he says, eventually pulling out a stack of reading material currently aiding him in his title role as William Shakespeare’s Richard III. There isn’t a DC Comic in sight.
One of the bag’s items, understandably, is the script for Richard III, which runs at St. Ambrose from April 21 (Jones’ birthday) through April 23 (Shakespeare’s birthday). That script sits atop another copy of the Bard’s historical tragedy, which Jones peruses for its extensive footnotes. Then there’s the Dan Jones book The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets & the Rise of the Tudors, which Jones – Sam Jones – says he first read “about a year-and-a-half ago, because I really like Medieval history,” and which is currently being re-read for insight into King Richard’s 15th Century reign.
Yet another book from the bag is Year of the King by British acting legend Antony Sher. “This is one of my favorites,” says Jones. “Antony Sher famously did Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and this is his actor’s diary on the process. It’s just amazing. He talks about his doubts about playing the character, and the kind of monumental task of taking on one of Shakespeare’s most famous roles, especially when it’s been done so many times. Like, ‘How can we keep reinventing these roles? Do we need to keep reinventing these roles?’”
And the fifth literary supplement Jones shows me is a brown leather journal that he says contains “all of my notes – everything I’ve taken on my own in classes and rehearsals.” At one point, Jones opens it to a page featuring a portion of Richard III’s soliloquy from Henry VI: Part III, gives it to me to read, and says it might be his favorite quote in terms of understanding the notoriously loathsome figure he’ll be playing on-stage. I ask if he has it committed to memory. Barring only minor paraphrasing, he does:
“I had no father, I am like no father;
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word, ‘love,’ which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me – I am myself alone.”
Given all this Bard-ian angst, I then ask Jones if he’s also reading anything these days for, you know, fun. And happily, he gives the exact answer you’d expect, and hope for, from a longtime theatre lover and Shakespeare fan assigned to such a canonical character: “This is fun.”
Even if you haven’t seen a St. Ambrose production in the last four years, you may have easily seen Jones on a different area stage, as the nearly-22-year-old’s credits include the Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse’s 2015 The Sound of Music, Genesius Guild’s 2015 Macbeth, four years as an improv performer with ComedySportz, and even more years as a mainstage actor for Davenport Junior Theatre. (Although we never shared a scene, Jones and I also appeared in 2015’s The Pillowman for the QC Theatre Workshop, and are playing father and son – our first time acting together – in August’s Brighton Beach Memoirs for Augustana College’s debuting Mississippi Bend Players.)
But if you have seen a recent SAU show, you’ve no doubt seen Jones, whose list of famed characters – to say nothing of his considerable talent – would be impressive for an actor of any age. Richard Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. Leo Frank in Parade. Lancelot (and others) in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Eilert Løvborg in Hedda Gabler. Trinculo in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
And now Richard III, which is not only one of the most sought-after roles in Elizabethan theatre, but – depending on the source – the figure with either the most or (because of Hamlet) second-most lines in any single Shakespearean text. So is the process of taking on such an intimidating character, and memorizing all those lines, also fun?
“Yes,” says Jones with the slow nod and wide grin of a true Shakespeare aficionado. “Yes yes yes yes yes.”
Poetic Words and a Dope Mohawk
Like many who are similarly Davenport-born and -bred, the SAU student’s theatrical interests originated at Davenport Junior Theatre, where Jones began taking classes at age five. In his early years with the organization, says Jones, “It was just another thing that I did, and I took some time off from it here and there. But it really became consistent when I got to be about 11. That’s when it became kind of a haven for me.
“In my sixth-grade year,” says Jones, “there were a bunch of seniors that had been there forever. This was like their last hurrah, and I was just coming in for mainstage shows. And there was something about their experience and how they treated me as a sixth-grader that I hung onto. They were awesome people, and even though there was this huge age gap, they reached out to the sixth-, seventh-, eighth-graders, and showed us that this was something that needed to keep going. That’s where I learned what it was like to enjoy theatre, and the people I was with, and really be a professional.”
Jones, however, says his true turning point – the moment he began considering theatre as a career – came in eighth grade with the 2008 arrival of Junior Theatre’s new artistic director, Daniel D.P. Sheridan.
“Daniel really taught me how to be an actor,” says Jones. “And how to have power as an actor. I was very raw with everything until he got there. Especially at that age, I was very all-over-the-place, and I had a lot of energy. But he taught me how to use it, and contain it.
“This is such a simple thing,” he continues, “but Daniel would’ve been the first person to show me how to just plant my feet and be present in the space. And he has this talent for treating everybody, no matter what age they are, like a professional from the first second he meets them. Like they’re capable of doing more than they think.” Which, for many student talents, might well include Shakespeare.
It was at Junior Theatre that Jones performed his first Elizabethan role, portraying the fairy king Oberon in a 2011 production – one with a distinctly, memorably 1980s slant – of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And although the challenge may have been a formidable one for Jones, Sheridan says he didn’t doubt that success would follow.
“Sam best applies himself when his heart is in something,” says Sheridan, “and even then, you could tell he had a knack and a taste for the classics” that has clearly continued beyond Jones’ Junior Theatre tenure. “As soon as he knew Richard was being done, he came knocking and reading all he could.” (Regarding Jones’ subsequent casting in the lead, Sheridan adds, “I’m actually a little jealous.”)
“It was sort of difficult,” says Jones of his first foray into Shakespeare, “because I was learning everything from the ground up, and at first, it is sort of like you’re reading another language. But it’s amazing how when you really get into doing Shakespeare, you understand it. And now he’s my favorite.
“I mean, there’s so much to delve into, you know? The characters, the plots – they’re all complex and interesting, and there’s so much to talk about and try to understand. And it’s the words, of course. They’re poetic and beautiful and inspiring and challenging ... . I think that’s what I like most. The challenge.
“So yeah, it was really fun from the beginning. I learned a lot about the basics in Midsummer. And,” says Jones with a laugh, “I got to have a dope Mohawk in that one, too.”
While his résumé has subsequently boasted dozens of contemporary roles – or, as with Hedda Gabler and The Sound of Music, more-contemporary roles – Jones keeps finding his way back to Shakespeare. Genesius Guild’s Macbeth found him portraying a sergeant and Young Siward alongside “a lot of passionate people that really do love to do Shakespeare. They love their Shakespeare there. And I got to do some sword-fighting, which was cool.”
Also in 2015, as a St. Ambrose student, Jones played the title role in Macbeth for an advanced-acting class – “a one-hour Macbeth we did at midnight in the Rogalski Center. It was kind of rashly thrown together, very raw, where we all worked on it mostly on our own, practiced it a couple times, and just did it. But it was fun. I mean, come on. Macbeth at midnight!”
And this past fall, Jones enacted the jester Trinculo opposite Jackson Green’s Stephano in SAU’s The Tempest, which Jones calls “a really different experience, because everybody else kind of had more serious parts in it, and we were cut out from all of the seriousness. We cut that show down a lot, and a lot of those cuts were from our scenes; I honestly don’t think we were on-stage for more than 15 minutes, and it was mostly slapstick. So we were like a whole other entity, and after a certain while, I felt like I was reaching for something that wasn’t there. It was good, but I wish we had more.”
With Richard III, Jones has certainly found his “more.”
“I don’t know how long Richard is without cuts,” he says. “It’s got to be at least four hours. But ours is probably two-and-a-half, and it feels like most of the stuff that’s cut isn’t my stuff. We ran through the whole show just kind of stumbling through it, and at the end, there were three or four scenes in a row where I would leave the stage and just circle back on. I was like, ‘This is ridiculous!’”
“I’m Not Gonna Like You!”
It’s accurate to describe Richard III as a dream part for Jones, who calls it “one of my three favorite roles in Shakespeare. One of them is kind of cheating because he’s in three different shows, but it’s Prince Hal, who turns into Henry V. He’s my favorite. But then it would be Richard and [Othello’s] Iago. And then Hamlet ... but that’s different, you know? Every actor wants to play Hamlet on some level – and should want to. It just seems like that mountain peak everybody kind of wants to climb.”
Yet as anyone familiar with Richard III knows, even Hamlet doesn’t begin his stage journey at the top of the mountain the way Richard does.
“You start the whole show with the most famous line in the show,” says Jones, “and it is so daunting. Like, my heart beats out of my chest before I say the first line: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent. Made glorious summer by this sun of York ... .’ It’s like starting Hamlet with ‘To be, or not to be ... .’ I mean, you don’t get a break – you’re starting with the big thing.”
Not that there’s any end to the big things where Richard is concerned. As the historical figure was born with curvature of the spine, he’s often referred to as a hunchback, with portrayals of the character tending to follow suit. For Jones’ take on the role, “I kind of have a bend to my leg, and one of my arms is useless, and I know there’s going to be some sort of deformity built into the costume, as well.
“But it’s going to be rather small,” Jones continues, “because we all kind of agreed that we didn’t want to make a big deal out of the deformity. He truly believes himself to be something spited by nature: ‘Sent before my time. Into this breathing world, scarce half made up.’ But he doesn’t make excuses for what he is, or how he looks. If you get too caught up in that, then you don’t understand that it’s Richard’s words that matter. That’s his real weapon.”
According to Richard III director Ron Clark, words are Jones’ chief weapon, too. “Sam’s proficiency with language is remarkable,” says Clark. “He has been incredibly well-prepared during this process, and I’m impressed with his thoughtful interpretation of the character and analytical skills. I think his performance will be clear, charming, and quite chilling.”
Jones clearly understands that Richard’s chilling quality – So much verbal bile! So many murders! – will be one of his significant challenges in presenting the character to audiences.
“About two weeks ago,” he recalls, “an older lady was talking to a couple of us actors, and she said, ‘Oh, you’re doing Richard! Who’s playing Richard?’ I said it was me, and she was like, ‘Oh ... very evil. I’m not gonna like you!’ And I realized there’s this preconceived notion about Richard that he’s pure evil. That he doesn’t have any morals. And maybe he doesn’t. But I don’t think he’s a villain. I think he plays a villain because he has to. Because he feels like he has to.
“He grew up during the Wars of the Roses,” Jones continues. “All he ever knew was war. And he doesn’t understand love because he’s never been given love. So I think he’s a product of his time and these circumstances that he’s been placed into. Yes, he’s a deeply troubled man who does very, very evil things that can’t be forgiven. But I think it would be a disservice to Richard as a character to just dislike him, or disregard him. Because I think there’s something to be learned there. He’s a human in search of a soul.
“I mean, even the folio of Richard is called The Tragedy of Richard III. So I think he’s a tragic hero. I think he wants love, and has the capability to love, but doesn’t know how – which is something, at least. Under different circumstances, I think he would’ve been a fabulous politician. He’s brilliant and cunning and, oh my God, he’s a wordsmith. He could actually be great at running a state. It’s just that, by the time he does become king, he’s gone, because of all these evil things he’s done.”
Jones laughs. “Man, the role is daunting. And it can be a little overwhelming sometimes. Like, ‘Wow, this is a lot to try to conceive all in one speech.’ But Ron has been doing a really great job of simplifying things for me when I need it, because I can definitely get caught up in the intricacies of character. All these machinations, as an actor, that let you feel and understand everything Richard’s going through. It’s definitely a challenge. But it’s a challenge I’m excited for.”
Richard III runs at St. Ambrose University’s Galvin Fine Arts Center (2101 North Gaines Street, Davenport) April 21 through 23, with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday’s performance at 3 p.m. For tickets and more information, call (563)333-6251 or visit SAU.edu/theatre.