Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Timothy D. Stickney: The WLS Interview, Part One

Soap fans know Timothy D. Stickney best for his fascinating portrayal of R.J. Gannon on ONE LIFE TO LIVE.  For twelve years he played the classic "bad" guy who could win his family and friends (and the audience) over effortlessly with one flash of his tooth-filled smile. What most viewers haven't seen are his accomplishments on theater stages tackling some of Shakespeare toughest roles.  In this exclusive multi-part interview, Stickney shares his experience of performing Shakespeare, coping with racism in the theater and television community, and insights into how prejudice and "quiet fears" continue to inform the entertainment we witness today.

In Part One below, Stickney shares his attraction to the play "Macbeth"and shares aspects of his current staging of this classic piece.  How do the themes relate to current political events? Continue reading to find out.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Tell me about your current staging of "Macbeth."
Timothy D. Stickney: I’m having fun with it.  I love doing Shakespeare. This was my second time getting to play Macbeth.  I did it about four years in upstate New York with a small company that had been around awhile. While I had a good time with that company, they by and large did musical theater.  Many of the company just weren’t that familiar with Shakespeare.  The woman playing Lady Macbeth had never done Shakespeare before.  In retrospect I realized I spent a lot of energy pulling them along, encouraging them, helping them to feel it was okay.  In the end I thought I lost a lot of potential for myself because I wasn’t just focused on doing my own job.

So this company, the Repertoire Theater of St. Louis, pulls talent from all over.  I could tell by the auditions that they wanted people who were familiar with the work.  I was confident I would not have to spend that same kind of energy cheerleading, or trying to lead by example.  You do end up leading by example when you’re in the central role, but I didn’t have to focus on that, I just did my job.  So I’m having a great time.  I understand we’ve gotten good reviews, though I don’t read them until I’m done.  It just messes with your head, positive or negative.  I’ve had just as much disruption from having read a positive review as I have from a negative review.  I save them all until I’m on the plane home. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What specifically about the play Macbeth is interesting to you?
Timothy D. Stickney: Before I was even an actor this play was interesting.  It has witches, it has battles, it has a fight for power.  It has one of the more famous female Shakespeare parts.  Having seen it when I was in school, it was cool.  Once I started doing plays and doing Shakespeare I thought, “Well, for the work that goes into doing Shakespeare, that one would be fun to do.” After having been in a production or two I found it is fun.  For a modern audience it is easier to swallow.  I think of it as “Shakepeare’s action movie.”  It is one of his shorter plays.  It has all the bang for the buck—murder, sex.  It may not traditionally be thought of as a sexier play, but it has moments where is to establish that the Macbeths really love each other, really care about each other, and are not an “evil” couple.  They just make some really bad decisions.  For all those reasons, I enjoy the play.  I’m confident that if you don’t really screw it up your audience will enjoy it. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Macbeth himself is driven by his ambition to tragic ends.
Timothy D. Stickney: It’s a slippery slope.  He’s hesitant [to kill] at the beginning.  It is established he is warrior and has killed before, but that is a sanctioned kind of killing, as we’ve had in our society.  It’s one thing when we send soldiers off to war and ask them to kill people.  But when they come home we ask them not to do that at the mall for a parking space.

Similarly, in this time period, there were similar rules about who you could kill and when you could kill.  The Lady (Macbeth's wife) gets a bad wrap because early on she’s the one who convinces him to do what they talked about and to stick to their promise, which is killing in a place you’re not supposed to kill, and killing a person you’re not supposed to kill.  But once they go through with that, by subtext and action, you see Macbeth is following a different moral code.  [The code] says that the way to get rid of your problems and change your future is to keep killing your problems until the bodies start piling up.  I think that after the killing of the king and then his friend it is a different situation.  He is no longer even exists in civilized society, he is trying to maintain power.  There’s no going back.  It’s like the argument you hear in movies when the bank robber says, “Well I’ve already killed one guy so they can’t get me for more than life. I’m already damned” 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I like how you tie it into today’s world where people are given mixed messages about what is okay to do and under which circumstances.
Timothy D. Stickney: His higher self is overwritten by the one person in the world who he cares for. Someone asked me last night if I think MacBeth would have killed the King if the Lady hadn’t talked him into it? I said, “No,”  Clearly he realizes there is a boundary he is crossing that he shouldn’t cross.  I think that is beyond religion.  That is the human spirit, that is knowing that some things are just wrong. 

But in a very real sense, his world is just the two of them.  They are given no other family to speak of, just friends and servants.  I guess it is akin to the sort of brainwashing that goes on in enclaves, whether they are familial or religious.  If I really narrow your world down to a simple focus or a simple need, it become animal instinct to protect need and promote it.  I’m not trying to say in any way he does the right thing.  Shakespeare makes it very clear that it is wrong.  But I think it’s understandable if you can put yourself in their shoes.  And most people don’t want to put themselves in their shoes.  They want to imagine that if they were in that situation that they wouldn’t do the same thing.

That’s why in our show we start off with Shakespeare’s first and second act before the murder of the King.  We want it set up that these people are fun loving, they love each other, they are popular, they are powerful.  They’ve had this pillow talk about what it would be like if they were in power.  And in that society, as in modern society, assassination was a way to position yourself into power.  Then you were voted into being King.  Macbeth doesn’t become King because he kills the King.  It is the people who vote him into power.  Beyond his murderous act he was still popular and he still needed their vote.  Even though some of them had doubts about how the King died, they still voted him into the throne.  You don’t have to go very far back in time to find a more modern instance of the same situation. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: That reminds me quite a bit of recent events over the past decade.
Timothy D. Stickney: Yes, the people that are now facing uprisings, or have recently been facing uprisings.  Removing your rival is unfortunate it but it works.  I think the Lady takes a bad wrap for that.  They want to forgive him, they want to blame her.  But she could not have done that by herself. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You have worked with Shakespeare companies even before your work on ONE LIFE TO LIVE. What draws you to that material?
Timothy D. Stickney: I did not always have a love of Shakespeare.  But I had an excellent teacher at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts who taught Shakespeare.  She helped me find that there were human beings behind the poetry.  It’s not just a bunch of pretty words that you try to make sound as pretty as possible.  It’s actually the opposite.  Despite the beautiful flowery language, you have to find what makes this human animal need to communicate to another human animal and pick those words.  You have to find the basic need to communicate.  Then you find what it is in that person in their mind that makes them pull out that particular phrase.  It’s like detective work with beautiful language.

When I got out of school, a total shock to me, I was apparently too well spoken.  My English was too clean, I was too polite to be hired by anyone in America as a twenty-something black man.  I needed to be more aggressive, animalistic, and have a clear lack of education present in my speech at all times.  It didn't matter what the audition material was.  Apparently I just did not exist.  I was repeatedly told, “I don’t know anyone like you.”  I couldn’t get work playing anything in the modern world.  Suddenly I only existed in classical work.  It was fortunate I enjoyed doing it but it was really all I could be hired to do.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Come back for Part Two as the multi-talented Stickney discusses racism in classical theater, on television, and life in Llanview.  Did Stickney really rewrite his dialogue on ONE LIFE TO LIVE? Find out in Part Two.  

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Therapist now accepting new clients in New York City.  He is also the author of the popular book "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve," currently available at For more information about scheduling an appointment, please email him at [email protected].



    I am so grateful this interview.

  2. Whoops! Meant to say "I am so grateful for this interview."