Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Denise Hurd is a Cool Aunt! Redux

Following is a re-post of an interview with Denise Hurd done late last year.

Denise Hurd’s got some ‘splainin’ to do. . . .

“In fact, I may never be forgiven, ” she says, faux remorse wrinkling her brow.She leans across the table and looks deeply into my eye. “I did the unthinkable. I lost a swordfight.”

She sits back, dumps a sweetener into her coffee and look at me again, this time gleaming with mischievous delight.

Two years ago, her nephew, now 7, attended an Actors Shakespeare Company of New Jersey performance of Henry V, where Denise was playing the vanquished French commander. She laughs. “He has not yet forgiven me for losing that fight.  To this day, he still comes up to me and says ‘Denise, Denise . . . no whining, no begging not this. You should have hit him with your sword!’”

“He understood enough about the play – which was especially amazing since I was speaking French and not English – that I had lost my fight. And he understood enough about my work as a fight director to know I gave up that fight. He knows that I am technically a better fighter than my opponent was. And he understood that at five. He got it.”

It’s an accomplishment Denise is particularly proud of. It's what makes her a truly "cool aunt" to her nephews, aged 7 and 4. As far as Denise is concerned, making the story and the action of a play transcend even the language should be of paramount importance to any actor or director. And it’s aspect of her work at the Actors Shakespeare Company of New Jersey that she cherishes most.

“I love that we focus on clarity. We are all about finding clarity of language, yes, but also about clarity of ideas, clarity of story.” She pauses to consider. “Clarity of thought,” she adds.

For Denise, the job of the company is to bring the audience into the world of the play by making the story, the concept, and the emotion present. “I hate concept theater,” she says. “Or rather, I get annoyed when a concept has no connection to the story being told. I wanna know why is that Mercutio a Scot bezerker? Why is no one else acting like that? What is that piece of business that has nothing to do with moving the story forward? Does that costume have anything to do with what is supposed to be happening on stage? I hate theater that is not impelled by oral design, which is not motivated by anything in the oral life of the play. I love that at the ASC we concentrate on being clear!"

It was her sense of clarity in the theater that produced Denise’s first moment of resonance with the world of the stage.

The year Denise was three, her father Hugh Hurd was a member of the company in residence at the Guthrie Theater. Hugh, played Mercutio in their production of Romeo and Juliet, and Denise attended a dress rehearsal. When the action reached Act 3, Scene I, and Mercutio got to his “A plague on both your houses,” speech, Denise suddenly could no longer tolerate the action; she was very upset but not “for the obvious reasons.”

“I didn’t understand that he was dying,” she says. “I was three, and that was just too permanent. But I could see that his friends didn’t like him anymore, and he was being left alone.”

Just as Mercutio was about to draw his last breath, Denise rushed onstage. “It’s all right, Daddy,” she cooed. “I still love you.” She laughs as she remembers. “To say the least, it was a disrupted rehearsal.”
From then on, she was always hyper-sensitive to the stories on stage, hyper-aware of the way in which an audience is moved by the action, and she was destined for her own life in the theater.

Denise says she always assumed she’d work in the theater. “Growing up I thought every grown-up was involved in the theater. I recognized that everyone didn’t act, of course, but I really thought all adults worked in the theater. . ‘cause that is what all the grownups around me did.” I never thought I wouldn’t work in the theater.

Denise grew up around theater folk. In addition to her father Hugh, who died in 1995, her mother Merlyn Purdy Hurd, currently a successful neurotherapist, was also an actor. More than just a legacy, the theater was a natural progression . . . “For all of us.”

Denise’s sister Adrienne Hurd is a dancer and choreographer, currently a teacher at the Alvin Ailey Dance School, and her other sister is Michelle Hurd, veteran television actor and star of The Glades. It’s the family business.

Like her sisters, Denise, began her studies at St. Anne’s High School in Brooklyn Heights, which, she says, had and still has a really good theater program. Her drama teacher there was Maurice Blanc, now deceased, whom she recognized even then as a “really great theatrical innovator. He was really great at getting great performances out of kids.” Blanc eschewed the more standard high school fare and challenged his students with Three Penny Opera, Williams, Odets, and Shakespeare.

From there Denise went on to Yale University to complete her undergraduate studies and was a theater and history major, participating as an actor at the Yale Dramat. After a year at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Drama program, she left academia behind.

Her interest in fighting began in her senior year of high school, when she was briefly on the fencing team at St Anne’s. “In those days, for some obscurely anti-feminist reason, they only allowed women to do the foil.” But she found it invigorating nonetheless. “There’s something really empowering about brandishing a sword,” she demurs.

At Yale, she briefly joined the fencing team but soon realized “Oh, I could have a life” and left the team.  “But because I was on team ever so briefly, I found my way into choreography.”

“I was doing Cyrano at Yale, and the director said, ‘Oh, you were on the fencing team. Could you choreograph the fight scenes?’ And I was too naïve to know what I didn’t know, so I said yes.”
It turned out to be a life-changing experience. “The guy playing Cyrano was left-handed, which I’m not; and the guy playing Le Vicomte de Valvert – I called him Velveeta because he’s so cheesy – was very tall, right-handed and couldn’t fence. So I had to learn to fence left-handed and teach someone who had minimal body skills and who was way taller than I how to fence. What was good was that I was forced to learn to solve the kind of problems I’d need to solve as a choreographer. I had to keep the actors safe, or at least to make the situation onstage less than dangerous. It was a great education.”

Most of all, Denise hastens to add, she had to learn how to change her mindset from “fighting to the touch” to conveying a story. “I didn’t call myself a choreographer yet. I was an actor, but I wanted to do more with stage combat. So I went on to get training in Stage Combat to be better stage fighter . . . and to preserve myself. I had gotten kicked in the head in a children’s show and I needed to learn how to protect myself."

Along the way, Denise became a certified actor combatant in unarmed confrontations, in broadsword, dagger and rapier fights. She teaches Acting and Introduction to the Theater at City College, and she still loves her weapons work at ASCNJ. “It’s fun to run around with the sword,” she laughs.

But she won’t be choreographing Macbeth, the next mainstage production that will feature her work at the ASC. From March 16-April 1, 2012, she’ll be playing Lady Macbeth, and the production will feature a small cast of actors playing multiple roles.

Denise believes that she will confine herself to the role of actor in this one and will let someone else choreograph the fights. “I don’t think that I could do both. I think I would go crazy!”

She’s not sure she’ll invite her nephews to see Macbeth, however. To see someone they love being so very evil might just be too painful for the sensitive youngsters, and Denise is absolutely certain that the story will be so clearly told that it will be entirely real.

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