When I received The Normal Heart press release from Arena Stage I was ecstatic to see that Michael Berresse was going to be in the cast. I have always admired Michael’s work. He is a magnificent and graceful dancer, singer, director, actor, and one of the nicest people I have ever met in the theatre. It’s a great honor to interview him after watching his mesmerizing performance in The Normal Heart.
Joel: How did you get involved in this production of The Normal Heart?
Michael: The old-fashioned way. My agent called with an appointment and I auditioned for George!
Introduce us to the character you play and tell me what personal experiences helped you shape your performance?
My character is Mickey (Michael) Marcus. He works for the NYC Department of Health for whom he writes a health column. He has also been a gay-rights activist since the Stonewall era. As humans, we have all felt helplessness and persecution of some kind at some point. As an openly gay person, I feel a great connection to the demand for visibility and freedom that Mickey has fought so tirelessly for.
Have you met Larry Kramer and has he been involved in this production? What do you admire most about him and the script?
Larry is a man of utter conviction, wholly dedicated to his specific vision and demand for equality. His is one of the most profoundly influential voices ever on the gay experience and has always been a lightning rod for controversy in order to make that voice heard. The Normal Heart is one of the most important plays of the 20th Century in my opinion.
You and I lived through that time, and I lost dozens of friends to AIDS. I woke up one day and realized that all my friends were gone. How was your life changed when this was all happening?
I was a teenager during the bulk of this play. Growing up in the Midwest I was frankly totally unaware of what was happening, both with the disease and the political ramifications. I didn’t even realize that when my first friend died in the late 1980s that it was AIDS. It wasn’t until I moved to New York in the early nineties, after this play ends, that the horror really set in for me. The fear and loss were everywhere. It was incomprehensible and consuming and it truly defined the generational identity.
I saw this production last week and I was so emotionally drained that I couldn’t leave the theatre right away. How hard is it for you to perform this show day after day? And was has been most rewarding for you appearing in this production?
It is definitely an exhausting experience. Nevertheless, the privilege and reward of telling this story and honoring those I have personally lost and the ones we continue to lose far outweigh the toll.
What scenes are the most difficult and exhilarating for you to perform and watch others perform in the show, and how did Director George C. Wolfe help you with these scenes?
Without question the most difficult scene for me to perform is the breakdown in Act II but in many ways it is also the most exhilarating. I love watching every scene for different reasons. There are so many colors of emotion from outrage to grief to helplessness to intimacy to comfort. It is amazing to witness and participate in. George is brilliant at allowing each of us to truly bring ourselves to those moments while also honoring the play itself. We are all grateful for his amazing insight.
What hasn’t changed in our country since The Normal Heart has been written? What has changed that gives you optimism that things are and will be better In the future when it comes to caring for people with AIDS, controlling the spread of AIDS, finding a cure, and making the Gay and straight community more aware of this disease?
Well the perception of AIDS as solely a gay disease has certainly changed, thanks in no small part to people like the heroes of this play. Nevertheless, there is clearly still a stigma attached. The depiction of “accountable” vs. “blameless” victims persists as does the reticence to aggressively fund a cure and educate against prevention. The epidemic is worse than ever before and yet it’s so-called manageability has taken it off the front page once again. Personally, I think we are still in horrific denial.
What have you learned about yourself as an actor while performing in The Normal Heart, and what have you learned watching your fellow actors perform in this show?
I am grateful every day for the opportunity to take my ego and self-awareness out of the equation in performing this play. This story demands precedence. To be surrounded by actors who are clearly feeling the same thing is doubly inspiring.
You are well known for your work in Musical Theatre and I am a big fan of your work. You are an amazing dancer, singer, actor and director. What have been some of your favorite experiences in musical theatre so far? Any roles on Broadway now you’d love to do or any shows you would have loved to have directed?
First of all, thank you. That’s quite a compliment! I’ve had so many great experiences but Kiss Me, Kate and The Light in the Piazza were two of my very favorites. Though wildly different shows, they both had that perfect storm of phenomenal material, great direction and design, brilliant cast and a role that just makes sense to you. Though there are dozens of roles I would be thrilled to take a crack at, I’m also passionate about nurturing new works at this point in my career. Who knows what’s next!?
What advice do you have for a student who is considering making theatre his/her career?
Follow your passion, be honest and learn to collaborate. You will never be as good or as satisfied as you can be without learning from other artists.
What’s next for each of you after this run at Arena Stage?
I am directing and co-writing the book of a new musical, as well as continuing development on Now. Here. This. another new musical I directed which recently completed an Off-Broadway run. Oh, and I’ll be appearing in The Bourne Legacy coming to a cinema near you in August!
Why is it important for DC theatregoers to come and see The Normal Heart, and what do you want audiences to take with them after leaving The Kreeger?
We go to the theatre to be transported. It is a rare thing to invest a few hours and then step back into the day feeling inspired, educated, changed. And this is a brilliant, moving play. There is no one that can’t relate to some character or aspect of this story.
Alex Murphy’s review of The Normal Heart on DC Theater Arts.