William Jackson Harper talks performing for audio with new Audible play
William Jackson Harper has dealt with his fair share of space-time conundrums as a star of NBC's metaphysical comedy The Good Place. (Chidi saw the Time-Knife, lest we forget!) And the actor has an extensive background in theater — even writing a play, Travisville, that debuted in New York last year. But the sci-fi-inflected Wally Roux, Quantum Mechanic was still a new type of challenge for the Midsommar actor: an audio-only solo play in which he performs every role. (You can listen to an excerpt below.)
"Theater for me, it's never been a very solitary venture. It's always been something that's been hyper-collaborative," Harper tells EW. "And while this is collaborative, there's no actors with me making unexpected choices that drove me into a different odd reaction and a weird new reading. Everything is coming from me. And that's an exercise in itself, trying to find a way to be spontaneous when the moment before is something that you made, as opposed to being surprised by your scene partner."
Produced through Audible's Emerging Playwrights Fund, Wally Roux is part of the audio entertainment company's ongoing efforts to democratize theater, as well as a unique showcase for Harper. Ahead of the play's Aug. 1 debut on Audible, EW chatted with the actor about the experience of recording, the challenges of an audio performance, and taking theater beyond the stage. <iframe width="100%" height="300" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay" src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/658034729&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" class="" allowfullscreen="" resize="0" replace_attributes="1" name=""></iframe>
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What can you tell us about this play?
WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: It's about this middle-school kid named Wally Roux, who moved from the Northeast to the South with his mom. He's a quantum mechanic, so there's a sci-fi element. Basically, he fixes rifts in time and space when he sees them. He's a precocious young guy who feels very out of place where he is. And that's sort of what the story is about, is identity, and home, and feeling comfortable where you are, feeling uncomfortable where you are. And it takes place in this time in everyone's lives, which I think is synonymous with questioning all of that. You know, within that sort of odd, early teens. I mean, for me it continued in my 20s, but… [Laughs]
And how did you get involved with it?
Well, I've done a lot of stage work. I primarily did a lot of theater before The Good Place, and with my schedule, with The Good Place taking as much time as it does, and other projects taking as much time as they do during the year, it's really tough to commit to stay four months on stage. And this is a really great way to sort of exercise that muscle a little bit. It's something that's very much dialogue-driven, and it's an audio play, so it's meant to be listened to rather than read or watched. It was something that came my way that I just couldn't resist.
What was your approach to doing an audio-only performance?
I've talked to several theater actors that feel like sometimes, the process of rehearsal in a play is trying to get back to that initial read that you had when you started doing the play. It's taking the long way around to come back to where you are. And this [project] is starting from where you are and just obeying the first impulses of first ideas, and really trying to flesh them out. And then also on top of that, I'm reading every single character. There's an aspect of that which feels very active as a performer. Rather than just trying to pour yourself into one single character, it's very much having to put on the mantle of several different people and their ideas and their feelings, and their voices in particular.
What was the actual recording process like? Did you work with the playwright, Nick Carr?
I did. He was there all the time. And we had a director, and we basically read through everything a few times. It's really simple in a lot of ways, but then there's a lot of fine-tuning that happens in certain areas of the story where we just need to make certain things a little bit more clear. Because there is nothing to show, everything is very much reliant on what one is hearing. So we're really trying to set that world as clearly as we can without straying too far from something that feels truthful. And so it's kind of a tightrope walk in a lot of ways. It was a lot of fun.
Can you talk about the differences between this performance and more traditional theater?
One of my favorite things about being on stage is being in charge of that experience every single night, in front of that audience with your scene partners. And having new strange things thrown your way that you have to react to, and watching that performance change over the course of several weeks of rehearsal, and then from night to night when you're doing it in front of an audience.
And doing something like this, it's a challenge. It's a real challenge because the clarity of the story is something that's paramount very early. Whereas in a traditional rehearsal process, when you're on stage making a show with your friends, you take the time that it takes to get at the truth, and a good director will sharpen all of those things, and bring them to a very focused point. And so the story is becoming very clear. And this was something [where] we really needed to sort of make that clarity the primary focus from the very beginning. I guess it's a slightly more result-oriented way of working. But it is kind of nice, also, to know exactly what the endpoint is, and knowing exactly how this story really should feel and sound going in. That was the major difference between the two.
How did it feel to be bringing a piece of theater to a larger audience than would usually get to experience it?
Well, the theater is not the most accessible thing for a vast swath of people. And I feel like the storytelling in theater is some of the most satisfying. It has a very strong undergirding of real exploration. And sometimes when you're on a set, that's harder to come by. It's not to say that it never happens. It absolutely does. But you just get to spend less time before diving into a scene that people are going to see.
And theater is something that is very carefully orchestrated and thought about and overthought about, and then rendered for an audience hoping that it really lands in a very sort of visceral way. And so I really wanted to be a part of bringing something like that to people who may not have the impulse to go to the theater. Or that really don't know where to begin when it comes to trying to hone that interest in theater. I think it's really, really important as sort of a gateway for people to enjoy theater.
Do you think that this will open people up to the experience of theater?
I really do feel that it will. The cool thing is that this is something that can be done in your home, or when you're running errands. There's something about being in a place where people are live on stage performing for you. It can feel there's a reverence around it sometimes, that I think can be a little exhausting. It's like, everyone turn off your phone, everyone shut up all the time. And so for this to be something that someone can just enjoy in the privacy of their own home, at their leisure, is such a great idea. I'm excited to be a part of that. And also it's free. Theater tickets aren't cheap. And it's really great that people can just listen to it when they want to.
This play was produced as part of the Audible Emerging Playwrights program — can you explain what that is?
It's actually bringing opportunities to several new and experienced playwrights to have their work produced. You know, getting a production, it's really tough and painstaking. And so this is a program to sort of get the work out there for playwrights who deserve it, who probably haven't gotten the opportunity, or have had the opportunity and want to try something different. I think it's such a great idea, and it's such a great program for people to be introduced to theater without the required reverence that sometimes can be a little daunting.
And what does it mean to you personally, as someone with your theater background and as a playwright yourself, to bring an up-and-coming writer's work to an audience?
It's great! There's just so many people that are talented that have not had their voices heard. And it's really important to me that people understand that there are so many talented, creative people that maybe haven't had the notoriety that is due them. I feel like it's just a really important thing to give them a platform and to help with that. I mean, I'm not giving anyone a platform, but I'm definitely trying my best to help. Because I think that the more voices we have in the world creating art, and the more visions we have, the richer we all are for it. I think it's just an amazing thing to get as much of that work out there as possible for people to experience.