Matthew Gretzinger believes a key component to great acting is for the performer to check his or her ego at the door.
“Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art,” as famed Russian director Constantin Stanislavski once said.
Largely inspired by the works of William Shakespeare and Orson Welles, Gretzinger is an actor, director and part-time teacher in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Toledo. His stage experience spans nearly 20 years, with many acting and directing credits on the professional and university levels with UT and Bowling Green State University. Some of his notable performances include roles in “King Lear,” “Eurydice” and “Hamlet.”
Adding to his résumé this summer, Gretzinger will attempt what many close to him call impossible. Not only will he direct two Shakespeare plays within a month of each other, he will also star in one of them.
Starting Aug. 9, Gretzinger will direct and star in his adaptation of the drama “Macbeth.” The play will run Aug. 9-11 and 16-19, and will be an independent black-box production inside the studio theater at UT.
One month later, Gretzinger’s take on “Hamlet” will open at The Toledo Repertoire Theatre in Downtown, with the show running Sept. 14-16 and 20-23.
Gretzinger said he decided to direct these productions because he wants to share the inspiration he has received from Shakespeare.
“I’m doing this because I love Shakespeare, but it’s also because I want to share it,” he said. “I would like to give other folks the opportunity to share that love with me.”
“‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’ feature a protagonist whose mind we come to know through soliloquy,” Gretzinger said. “You have a window view into the mind of these characters, with ‘Macbeth,’ especially. I’ve always loved it; it’s so brutal, bloody and quick, and if it’s done well it should be horrifying.”
Actress Jennifer Nagy Lake said she and Gretzinger have known each other for roughly 20 years. Their friendship dates to their days as theater students, when they acted opposite each other in a production of another Shakespeare play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” This August, they will do it again when Lake stars as Lady Macbeth, opposite Gretzinger.
“‘Macbeth’ actually started off as a conversation between the two of us and I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’” Lake said. “So, then it was just a matter of getting some friends together and trying to figure out how we can make his baby come to life.”
While acting and directing simultaneously can be a tall order, Lake said Gretzinger’s energy, intellect and acting experience are the qualities that make him a smart and successful director.
“He’s so smart that everything he says is interesting,” Lake said. “He knows the text inside and out and he dissects everything so you don’t have to look something up if you don’t know what it means because he knows it. Because he’s an actor, he gets it. I think many directors are just really frustrated actors, but that’s not the case with Matthew. He just gets it.”
As for her character in the upcoming adaptation of “Macbeth,” Lake said that as strange as it may seem, her favorite aspect of Lady Macbeth is her inevitable weakness and the journey she goes through to succumb to that weakness.
“No one thinks she has any human qualities until she does; and, unfortunately it’s too late by the time she realizes it,” she said. “In the beginning, she sort of comes off as if she doesn’t have a soul or if she sold her soul; but, when she breaks down, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, she is human. She does have a soul.’ It’s very fascinating to me.”
Jennifer Rockwood, the assistant dean in the College of Innovative Learning at UT, was one of Gretzinger’s theater teachers at UT. As a stage director and an actress, she said it is very difficult to wear both hats at once.
“It is impossible. It scares me,” Rockwood said. “If there’s anybody who can do it, it’s Matthew, but I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.”
Matthew Gretzinger and Kate Abu-Absi in ‘Bell, Book and Candle.’
Gretzinger said there is an extreme difficulty in attempting to run a show while being on stage. So, to ensure he and his fellow cast mates give their best performances with his creative vision still in mind, Gretzinger said he brought a close friend to the project to serve as co-director.
“It’s not hard, it’s impossible,” Gretzinger said. “A good friend of mine, Kate Abu-Absi, will be co-directing. She will see everything I do. When we’re doing a scene I’m in, she’s the director.”
While Gretzinger said he agrees that putting on two in-depth plays so close to each other can be difficult and time consuming, he said his love of Shakespeare’s material makes it a comfortable environment.
“It is a tall order, but it seems taller because of where we are,” Gretzinger said. “Community theater makes it seem larger than it is. I love Shakespeare, so putting me in these two plays is the kind of situation that’s going to work for me. With ‘Macbeth,’ I’m going to be surrounded by people who know me well. I’m going to be at my best.”
While this will be his first venture into the world of “Macbeth,” Gretzinger has been in the director’s chair for “Hamlet” before. While still in college, Gretzinger said, he directed a stage production of the play in the ’90s.
“That production was set in ’30s Europe and it had a fascist Europe sort of approach to it,” he said. “This production is going to happen in September 2012 so people will see it in the height of election season. I like the idea of doing some kind of an American ‘Hamlet.’ There are a lot of things in this play that can speak to our moment, where we are with our country right now. [Hamlet] is a philosopher; he’s a man of action. In my head, ‘Hamlet’ is a contemporary production.”
Creative freedom for a stage director does have its advantages when it comes to production, though Gretzinger prefers to let the story do the talking. While he is approaching both of his upcoming plays differently, he said making sure the stories are told “clearly, strongly and well” is a top priority.
He said he learned that lesson early on while watching a minimalist performance of a play he would eventually direct.
“There was a touring company, an English company that came to UT in the early ’90s and did ‘Macbeth’ with eight actors in the center theater. A very minimal production,” he said. “It was just amazing. The emphasis was on storytelling and not on big effects. The emphasis was on language. It was just amazing. It was riveting.”
Setting the stage
Rockwood said spending time on stage has matured Gretzinger and given him the knowledge and confidence to take on the tasks of acting and directing simultaneously.
“He has learned how to communicate his ideas, which is not easy,” Rockwood said. “He knows how to tell the actors what to do because he’s had people telling him what to do before.”
Originally starting his UT undergraduate career as an English major, Gretzinger switched to theater during his sophomore year, starring in and directing a number of university plays including “Full Circle,” a play about Nazi-occupied Germany.
Just as Gretzinger still jumps at the chance to work with some of his UT classmates, he has continued to work with Rockwood throughout his career, most notably acting alongside Abu-Absi in November 2011 in Rockwood’s take on John Van Druten’s “Bell, Book and Candle.”
Acting and directing are not the only aspects of theater that inspire Gretzinger. He said the unpredictability of rehearsals and collaboration often make the whole experience more enjoyable.
“I love rehearsing. I love the environment where it feels like anything is possible and you’re collaborating with talented people that you respect,” he said. “With performance, what I value is you can’t get what you get in a theater anywhere else. I think a lot of people are not aware of that. We love to go see movies and we get a lot of entertainment on the Internet these days, but none of that can compare with really, really good theater that you’re experiencing live.”
Gretzinger said he learned to love all things theatrical at a young age, tracing his love for the stage to his days as an elementary school student starring in the lead role in “Merlin.” His late father, a magician and former teacher, helped him prepare for the role. His father’s magical occupation taught him a lot about performance and theater, often just by watching, he said.
“I spent most of my childhood watching him do things,” Gretzinger said. “My dad was a magician and that’s not theater, but it’s very close. He worked at a place called Guntown Mountain in Cave City, Ky., where he did magic and he played a gunfighter; he would get shot in the middle of the street in a duel like the O.K. Corral. And then he would get put up on the gallows and he got hanged. I saw that and I must’ve been like 6 or 7, so I was exposed to that at an early age.”
His mother Carolyn’s support and affection also helped motivate him, he said.
“My mother always told me you can do anything you want to do,” he said. “And I think a lot of the passion that I have for making art comes from that, just her constant support and love. She was very committed to that idea.”
Some of Gretzinger’s greatest memories involving his artistic performances come from his family and his friends.
“You remember things that have a deep, emotional impact on you,” Gretzinger said. “When I did ‘The Tempest’ at BG, my father had just died the semester before that and I was obviously still grieving. The thing is, ‘The Tempest’ is a play about a magician who lets all of his power go. Emotionally, it was a big deal. You feel like everything has been arranged so that moment has been given to you so you can deal with your grief.”
While acting and directing are his great passions, Gretzinger said his ultimate goal is to one day teach the subject he loves so much. After going back to school in 2001 and receiving his master’s degree in theater from BGSU, he began a career as a part-time teacher at UT so he could give young theater students the same enjoyable experience he had in college. This past spring, Gretzinger taught a theater history course at the university.
“I have a lot to give and I have a lot to give back. I’ve benefited from having some of the really great teachers in my time and it’s just something that I enjoy,” Gretzinger said. “I enjoy helping people discover what it is that they want to do in life. I had a really great experience at UT because I learned a lot about myself while studying theater and I would like to give that to other people.”
When he is not thrusting himself into the dark world of lies, tragedy and death that power “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” Gretzinger said he finds himself inspired by current events and the uncertainties surrounding the future.
“I’m trying to figure out, like everyone else is trying to figure out, what’s going on in the world and how it’s changing,” he said. “It’s changing very, very quickly. If you’ve been around for even as long as I have, you’ve seen some huge changes. When I was younger I had some ideas as to what I thought the future was going to hold. We’re so off the map now that it’s really hard to see what the future holds.”
Tags: Bowling Green State University, Hamlet, Jennifer Nagy Lake, Jennifer Rockwood, Kate Abu-Absi, Macbeth, Matthew Gretzinger, Orson Welles, Toledo Repertoire Theatre, University of Toledo, William Shakespeare