When Steven Epp tackles “The Winter’s Tale” for Ten Thousand Things this month, one theatergoer who will watch with special interest is the woman who helped him dive into William Shakespeare’s work for the first time, 46 years ago.
Louise Bormann was a 21-year-old teaching newbie when she met Epp, a high school sophomore in Freeman, S.D.
“She made it possible for me, a high school student who already had these dreams of becoming an actor, by saying, ‘Yeah, you can do that. Here’s how,’ ” recalled Epp, 61, a Theatre de la Jeune Lune veteran and co-founder of the Moving Company who’s also one of the busiest freelance actors in the Twin Cities.
“I do wonder what would have happened to me and to all my students that I’ve had since Steve if I hadn’t had him,” Bormann said. “I learned what kids could do.”
Epp was in “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Spoon River” and won a statewide prize for a cutting of “Fiddler on the Roof” in which he played every part, including Tevye, a “dream role” he took on for TTT in 2017. Bormann said she has enjoyed following his career since then. (She moved to Minneapolis in 1979 to revive the acclaimed drama program at South High School.)
For his part, Epp said, “She’s one of those great teachers. She brought to Freeman a sense of theater as important, as important as football, and the idea that it takes just as much discipline and work.”
There’s been a lot of work this year for Epp. He did “Metamorphosis” in San Francisco and at the Guthrie Theater, from January through May. Then, the plan was to vacation in Austria with his wife, writer/artist Nanci Olesen, and see their daughter, Nora, perform. Olesen had to go without him as a result of an e-mail from Theater Latté Da artistic director Peter Rothstein.
“After the last show, I had some dinner and I was going to watch the finale of ‘Game of Thrones.’ But I checked my e-mail and there’s one from Peter, saying he has a very exciting project he thought I’d be great for and he needed to talk ASAP. The ASAP seemed weird since the [Latté Da] season was months away, but I texted him, ‘Great. I’m home. I’d love to talk to you tomorrow on my day off, unless you need to talk sooner. Here’s my number.’ Ten minutes later, he calls and says, ‘OK, here’s the deal,’ ” recalled Epp.
The deal was “Immortal Longings,” a play by multiple Tony Award winner Terrence McNally. Rothstein was directing it in Texas, but the lead actor, who played legendary ballet impresario Sergei Diaghliev, had been fired a week into rehearsals. Rothstein needed Epp there in three days. Which he was, for a summer production that underwent significant changes throughout the rehearsal process.
“I was a deer in the headlights. I got off the plane Wednesday and went right to rehearsal and never stopped,” Epp said. “I had a blast.”
Back home, he has a Moving Company show next month, “What If,” and then Jungle Theater’s “A Doll’s House Part 2,” which will reunite him with Jeune Lune/Moving Company collaborator Christina Baldwin. (He self-taped that audition in Texas.)
First, he has the challenge of “Winter’s Tale,” in which he plays a shepherd girl named Dorcas and King Leontes, who transforms from devoted husband to vicious tyrant when he suspects wife Hermione (Shá Cage) of infidelity.
“Reading Shakespeare on the page: What the hell? It can be so opaque. But as soon as you get it in your mouth, the process of trying to memorize it and the stuff you do to put it up on its feet, it suddenly makes sense,” Epp said. “There’s a sense of the language helping you discover what the story is.”
Director Marcela Lorca knew casting Leontes would be tricky because audiences need to empathize with a guy who can be brutal.
“Steve has a capacity to perform great darkness but also incredible lightness. His range is enormous. I’ve seen him over the years do both things really well, and I was interested in us seeing Leontes go through a roller coaster of emotions,” said Lorca, who worked with the actor once before. “Steve is comfortable with bold physicality. That’s part of his vocabulary. I can have a wild thought and, instinctively, he will say, ‘Absolutely not, Marcela. That’s not what I need in this moment,’ or he’ll embrace it. And I’ll know either direction is the right one.”
Leontes is a character almost without humor but Lorca wanted an actor who’s capable of being very funny. She’s exploiting a similar tension within TTT’s customary intimate staging, particularly in a scene when Leontes hauls Hermione into court.
“I suggested they get very close together and react in a very intimate way. And it totally worked. We’ve really fallen in love with that moment because it says so much about them, by breaking with the formality of the court proceeding,” Lorca said.
Physicality was a huge part of Jeune Lune, where some of Epp’s most beloved roles are in “Hamlet,” “The Servant of Two Masters” and “Children of Paradise.” In Jeune Lune’s work, how characters interacted with each other within a defined space always was a major consideration. For Epp, it still is.
“I don’t think I’m an actor who asks a lot of questions,” he said. “I like to be able to propose ideas, and I like to do that by doing the ideas. I’m most comfortable on my feet when the scene is being discovered and you’re showing how far it could go, that this could be possible.”
Shakespeare doesn’t tell us why Leontes flips into green-eyed monster mode and, although Epp has been interested in exploring that, he also is comfortable in not knowing the answers. He believes there’s something “jagged,” both emotionally and physically, in Leontes: “He’s vulnerable, but then a tyrant, then calm and levelheaded, then a mess. I find him fascinating.”
One aspect of an actor’s life that audiences don’t see is what happens offstage. Epp talks about making the shift from the 25-year, full-time job at Jeune Lune to the gig economy, something members of the Guthrie’s former acting company also experienced. And he talks about being rejected, even if he always seems to be working.
“There have been a number of things that have been just devastating,” Epp said. “And you never know what would have been, what would have come from them. Would they have been The Thing?”
Actors, of course, have very little control over The Thing. Epp knows what he’s doing for the next several months, and some recent jobs may not be over: “Immortal Longings” has New York hotshots behind it. “The Lorax” journeyed from Children’s Theatre Company to San Diego and could have more stops ahead. A Moving Company collaboration with Minnesota Orchestra, “The Prodigious Life of Clara S.,” seems likely to return, since its one-night-only performance was a smash that featured one of Epp’s most “thrilling” curtain calls.
One person who’s apt to be there to watch is his old teacher, Bormann, who keeps up with former students such as Epp, Nathan Keepers and Emily Gunyou Halaas. Impressed by what a “deep, analytical guy” Epp was, even as a teenager, Bormann remains dazzled by his ability to make bold decisions on stage.
“He pulls off every part completely. In ‘Inspector General,’ he was the wife — oh, and in ‘Liberty Falls,’ too. He doesn’t change his voice or make it a drag thing. He just plays a woman and it is beautiful and amazing. Always,” said Bormann. “Honestly, I have never seen him give a bad performance.”