Last summer, during a production of ‚ÄúThe Merchant of Venice‚ÄĚ at UC Irvine‚Äôs New Swan Shakespeare Festival, Richard Brestoff ‚Äď the UCI drama professor who won accolades for his portrayal of the vengeful loan shark Shylock ‚Äď was thrown for a loop just as he was about to launch into a pivotal monologue. There on the ground level of the mini-Elizabethan theater, a young man sitting just off the stage uncrossed his legs and appeared to sigh. Heavily.
‚ÄúIt distracted me enough that I lost a couple words,‚ÄĚ recalls Brestoff, who assumed the playgoer was bored. Fortunately, the actor recovered so quickly that only a Shakespearean scholar would‚Äôve known he had deviated from the script.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a challenge to hold your concentration when you see these instant reviews,‚ÄĚ he says.
Despite the peculiarities of performing in a small house like the 125-seat New Swan, Brestoff found the role of Shylock to be one of the most satisfying of his long and varied acting career. He‚Äôs appeared in more than 30 television shows (‚Äúthirtysomething,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThe Fugitive‚ÄĚ) and a dozen feature films (‚ÄúMy Favorite Year,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThe Entity,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúCar Wash‚ÄĚ). He‚Äôs also appeared in regional theaters, off-Broadway and on radio.
‚ÄúThe character of Shylock turned out to be something I was finally ready to play. He‚Äôs so interesting,‚ÄĚ Brestoff says. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a normal person, but life‚Äôs damage over time has made him capable of monstrous behavior. That‚Äôs his flaw.
‚ÄúYou reach a certain age, and you gain enough control of your craft that you can take on these complex, demanding roles, and they seem to fit.‚ÄĚ
His performance in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts‚Äô winter 2011 production of ‚ÄúMerchant‚ÄĚ earned him a nomination for the Falstaff Award, coveted among Shakespearean actors.
‚ÄúThere was no other actor nominated from a university production. I don‚Äôt even know how they found out about me,‚ÄĚ Brestoff says. The other nominees ‚Äď including Kevin Spacey for ‚ÄúRichard III‚ÄĚ ‚Äď performed in professional theaters.
At UCI, he counsels drama students about the realities of their career choice.
‚ÄúI used to really scare them and tell them only 4 percent of Screen Actors Guild members find work, and less than 1 percent of those make more than $30,000 a year. But I don‚Äôt anymore,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt want them to go into this blind, but I do know they need to go in with hope. They‚Äôve heard it‚Äôs impossible all their lives.‚ÄĚ
In particular, Brestoff tells them to expect ‚Äď and rise above ‚Äď failure. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôre going to be rejected way more than you‚Äôre accepted,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúFailure is an event, not a person. It‚Äôs not who you are. You learn from it and you go on.‚ÄĚ
He remembers how devastated he felt after narrowly missing out on the role of Mozart in the movie ‚ÄúAmadeus.‚ÄĚ (Tom Hulce won the part.)
‚ÄúI got as far as a screen test with the wig and the makeup,‚ÄĚ Brestoff recalls. ‚ÄúThat crushed me. It took me a year and a half to get over the disappointment. That took a toll on me, and I swore I would never let it happen again. You have to pick yourself up and go back out there. Otherwise, [rejection]will drag you to your knees.‚ÄĚ
He recommends having outside interests to help weather the highs and lows of acting. Brestoff joined UCI‚Äôs Claire Trevor School of the Arts in 2003 to pursue his love of teaching and writing; he‚Äôs the author of five books, including The Camera Smart Actor.
‚ÄúPerforming before a camera and a live theater are very different,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúWith a camera, you can work in such detail. If I pick up a cup and hold my pinkie out a certain way, that reveals something about my character. The camera can capture these tiny behavioral clues and make them mean something. They get lost in a big theater.‚ÄĚ
One exception is the New Swan Theater, where attendees are close enough to catch the smaller movements and expressions.
‚ÄúWe can do some interesting, subtle things, and people will get it,‚ÄĚ he says.
Brestoff has developed his own method for fully inhabiting his character, a focus that takes his mind off the audience and helps him overcome the stage fright he‚Äôs had since he started acting in junior high.
‚ÄúI look up into the rafters and feel the presence of the characters I play,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs like they‚Äôre ghosts who can‚Äôt speak for themselves, and as actors we give them a voice. It gets me onstage, because it‚Äôs something larger than myself.‚ÄĚ
And if a lone playgoer has itchy feet, it doesn‚Äôt matter as long as Brestoff feels he‚Äôs given a character like Shylock his day in court.
‚ÄúIf I look up during a performance and see the ‚Äėghost‚Äô nodding his head, I know I‚Äôve done my job,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúAnd if he‚Äôs not happy, I still have another show tomorrow night.‚ÄĚ