This is a guest post by Jennifer Fawcett of Working Group Theatre.
An interview with Saffron Henke on The Syringa Tree
by Jennifer Fawcett
This is the second time Saffron is entering the world of The Syringa Tree. In 2005, she performed this show at the Sacramento Theatre Company, where she was a Company Member. For that production she won the Princess Grace Honorarium for Emerging Artists and Best Performance of the Region for 2005.
“Henke gives an amazing, non-stop performance, rising to the challenge of the material again and again, shifting convincing from one character to another.”
Capital Public Radio, Sacramento
“Not only does Henke portray the potpourri of characters, but she also fully embodies each and every one... Henke seamlessly blends characters and moments to create memorable stories. It’s a remarkable performance.”
In conversation about the upcoming production at Riverside Theatre, Henke says, “every time this play is performed, it generates a lot of excitement. The original run with Pamela Gien ran for almost two years off Broadway, which is pretty incredible for a solo show. Our production in California sold out a 500 seat theatre and was extended, so I’m really excited to bring the show to the Riverside audience.”
Q: What is it like to perform The Syringa Tree?
A: The Syringa Tree is unlike any one person show I’ve ever seen or read. The magic of this play has a lot to do with one performer making all these transitions. The best part of doing this show is that as a performer, the show works on you. You end up being the conduit for the play. Often when you’re on stage, you’re wondering, “does the audience understand the play?”, “do they like it?”, and this can lead to getting nervous and stepping out of the play. With this play, I don’t have time to think. I’m too busy.
Q: You portray 24 characters of different ages and races, both male and female. How do you bring each of these characters to life?
A: The way I’ve created all of these people has been to pick a simple gesture or vocal choice for each one that is very different from all the others. In South Africa there are three major dialects: English, Afrikaans, and numerous tribal accents like Xhosa and Zulu. There are actually many tribes but for the sake of simplicity, I’m choosing to do just one general dialect. All of these accents help to add another dimension to the work I’m doing, and hopefully will help the audience differentiate the characters. I try to make choices that are theatrical. It’s less about having the accent be perfect and more a question of finding the character’s voice. Then I do all the regular actor work which is thinking about the given circumstances for each character; where do they come from, how much money they have, how much education, and figuring out what is important for each one of them. The difference with this play is that instead of doing that for one character, I’m doing it for 24!
Each character looks a certain way in my head. They all wear specific clothes and sound a certain way. I’ve heard that people build their own versions of the characters when they watch the show, even though they all look like me. Your imagination does the work.
Q: This is the second time you've performed The Syringa Tree. What is it like coming back to this story and these characters after six years?
A: When I did this show in 2005, I identified more with the children, especially six year old Lizzy who is the narrator. This time I’ve found that I identify more with the parents, particularly Lizzy’s mother, Eugenie. That’s surprising to me. As I come back to these people, I still feel like I know them well but the way I think about them has changed, and so my support of their journey changes with that. I used to see Eugenie as nervous and weak, now I see her as the hero.
When I originally did this show, I was a Company Member in the Sacramento Theatre Company, and had been making my living as an actor exclusively for a number of years. The longest I’d ever gone without acting in my adult life, at that time, was two weeks. Acting was my only job, which meant I was in really good shape. People don’t realize how much stamina you need as an actor. You have to be in good physical shape, but you also have to develop your emotional muscles and your memory. Memory is a muscle and mine is definitely getting a workout now! My life has changed since I’ve come to Iowa. I’m directing more, teaching more and balancing a number of jobs and those all factor into the process of re-entering this play. But it’s been a great journey and I’m really looking forward to putting it in front of an audience again.