Open Studio with Jared Bowen


Sophie Calle, David Coffee, and Sirena Irwin

A talk with David Coffee on his 20th year in the signature role as Ebeneezer Scrooge in the North Shore Music Theatre production of A Christmas Carol, a visit with Massachusetts native Sirena Irwin, who is bringing Lucille Ball to life in the production of I Love Lucy at the Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre. Also, a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for a tour of Sophie Calle: Last Seen.

AIRED: November 29, 2013 | 0:26:46

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome to Open Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen, coming up on Open Studio,

with a new show about the Gardner Museum theft,

its director talks about the crime's toll.

>> It just seemed that she had the grit,

and the imagination and the courage to turn loss

into some kind of work of art.

>> BOWEN: Then the source of Scrooge.

The actor who's been playing him for two decades.

>> It is a story that we need to hear,

and that we want to hear at this time of year, every year.

>> BOWEN: Our cast of characters continues

as we talk with the woman playing the one and only Lucy.

>> She would say, "I'm not funny, I'm brave."

I think she was both, but she would say,

"I'm not funny, I'm brave."

and so I just try and take those words,

and be brave in my pursuit.

>> BOWEN: And a music group with chameleon-like qualities.

>> Honestly, classical music is the roots of all music;

it's what everything goes back to.

>> BOWEN: It's all now on Open Studio.

First up, the most painful art theft

in Boston also remains

the biggest ever in American history.

And for 23 years, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

has largely shied away from talking about the night

it lost a host of masterpieces

to thieves crudely ripping paintings from their frames.

But with a new show in which French artist Sophie Calle

considers their absence, museum director Anne Hawle

is also opening up about the loss in ways

she never has before.

It's as notorious as it is heartbreaking.

On a late night in March, 1990, thieves gained access

to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

It took 81 minutes for them to deliberately make their wa

through the Gardner, stealing 13 works of art

valued at more than $500 million.

The most prized paintings: Rembrandt's only seascape

and an exceedingly rare Vermeer--

one of only 36 known in existence.

Both were literally torn from their frames.

Anne Hawley was fresh into her directorship.

>> The theft was such a painful and horrible moment

in the museum's life.

>> BOWEN: Historically, Hawley has publicly said little

about the theft, which remains unsolved despite

drawing worldwide attention from the beginning.

>> We also were being threatened from the outside by criminals

who wanted attention from the FBI,

and so they were threatening us and threatening putting bombs

in the museum.

We were evacuating the museum, staff members were under threat.

No one knew really what kind of a cauldron we were in.

>> BOWEN: In the midst of it all, Hawley received a call

from artist Sophie Calle, who counted Vermeer's

The Concert as one of her favorite works of art.

Calle wanted to document the sudden absence

that pervaded the museum.

>> It just seemed that she had the grit

and the imagination and the courage

to basically come into what was a very, very hard environment,

and use creativity as a way of regenerating something

that could be healing for the staff, and also could turn loss

into some kind of work of art.

>> BOWEN: In Last Seen, which has been shown

around the world and now appears at the Gardner

for the first time, Calle asked museum staffers

to describe the stolen works.

>> You could imagine what that did for people,

and also just she is such an interesting person.

So it took people's minds off for a moment

what was going on.

>> BOWEN: Roughly 20 years later,

the museum invited Calle back.

In What Do You See? she again confronts absence--

this time made even more profound

by the museum's decision in 1995 to rehang

the stolen paintings' frames.

Here the artist posed questions to a variety of museum staff

and visitors as they contemplated the missing works.

>> BOWEN: One of the most haunting images features

Hawley herself caught in reflection,

23 years of loss staring back at museum patrons.

What's it like for you to see their portrait,

the picture where we see you?

>> That was shocking to me, because I didn't know

that I would be reflected.

I'm sort of staying away from it.

I don't know... when I saw it, I just turned away.

I was very surprised, and I asked her last night

if she knew that she caught that reflection,

and she said yes.

And I said, "Oh, why didn't you tell me?"

I just, you know, would have preferred

to have been anonymous.

>> BOWEN: It's poignant though--

Hawley is now forever remembered,

just as she wants the paintings to be.

Next we lighten things up a little bit for the holidays

where one of the stage staples isScrooge.

For many in Massachusetts, there is but one Ebenezer

and he is actor David Coffee.

This year he celebrates his 20th anniversar

playing Dickens' curmudgeon with a belated heart of gold

at North Shore Music Theatre.

We'll talk to him in just a moment,

but first, here's a glimpse of A Christmas Carol.

>> ♪ Let's have a bloody good cry ♪

♪ And always remember the longer you live ♪

♪ the sooner you bloody well die. ♪

>> I will honor Christmas in my heart.

I'll try to keep it all the year.

I will live in the past, the present and the future.

The spirits of all three shall strive within me.

I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.

Oh, tell me, that I may sponge awa

the writing on this stone!

(loud explosion)

>> ♪ Good tidings we bring to you and your kin ♪

♪ Good tidings of Christmas and a happy new year ♪

♪ We wish you a merry Christmas ♪

♪ And a happy new year ♪

Merry Christmas!


>> BOWEN: David Coffee, congratulations

on your 20th year of playing Ebenezer Scrooge.

>> Thank you very much.

>> BOWEN: Now he is a character that I assume everybody knows,

or at least they should know him,

but you've been playing him for 20 years,

immersed yourself in him, I'm sure have studied a lot,

and read a lot-- but how do you describe him?

>> He is a gentleman who as a young child

had a lot of sadness in his life,

and as we see in this show,

we see all the things that have hardened him

as an individual over the years

come peeling off as an onion and he is kind of reborn.

>> BOWEN: And is this something that you understood

from the beginning or as you have aged,

have you found... have there been different revelations

in who Scrooge is?

>> No, I have always for some reasons I related to him,

I don't know what that says about me,

but even as a child, I always related to him,

never was Tiny Tim or anybody, it always was Scrooge for me

for some reason.

And I started playing him... I did a thing in high school.

I did a radio production in grad school in college,

and then right after I got out of college,

I started touring with productions

of A Christmas Carol.

So I have been involved with Mr. Scrooge

since about the mid-'70s.

So it's been a long time we've been friends.

>> BOWEN: I know some actors will go to great

pains and lengths to avoid seeing anybody else

inhabit the role because they don't want it

to inform them.

But that doesn't bother you; that doesn't affect you.

>> Well no, after doing the role for so many years,

I feel so comfortable with the character itself

that that never changes.

We will change different moments in the show,

or certain approaches to a scene; we may change

a little bit here and there.

But the character doesn't change,

so I feel totally at home with that,

and comfortable with what I'm doing.

Now if I didn't know what I was doing,

or if I was uncomfortable, then I might be more likel

to be scared of what I'm seeing.

But since I feel comfortable with what I'm doing,

I can appreciate what I'm seeing from other actors.

>> BOWEN: Going back to Dickens, you said you read it so often,

and I understand that for North Store Music Theater,

a lot of the script is actually Dickens' language,

so what does that do?

How does that help the production, do you find?

>> Well, it makes it authentic, that you are not messing around

with a classic.

Why mess with, you know, this genius?

The thing I found interesting when I first started

working on the show was Dickens, you know,

had been to-- where was it-- Manchester, Birmingham,

somewhere, and he had seen where they had children

working in the mines

and the horrible conditions these people were in,

where they were being treated by their employers,

and by the lives that they had to lead.

And he was going to have an address to really rip

into these people, and tell them, you know,

you were treating people badly, you got to treat

your fellow man better and all of this,

and it turned 180 degrees when he got the inspiration,

to instead of just going and berating people

for an hour or so, of writing, turning this

into a positive, and writing this stor

taking an old story he had written,

and readapting it where it became A Christmas Carol.

>> BOWEN: Which he did to create success here too

in fact, he traveled all through the North Shore.

He read it at... >> Tremont Temple.

>> BOWEN: Tremont Temple, so yeah, he had his Boston premiere

here I think, and had done the same thing looking at mills

and so on and so forth.

Why do you think this is that this story,

this character, among all of Dickens' great classics,

and all of his iconic characters, this is the one

that people gravitate toward the most?

>> First of all, because of the time of the year.

The story, it's a time of rebirth.

And it is a story that we need to hear,

and that we want to hear at this time of year,

every year, and it never fails to make an impact,

at least on me, I know it doesn't.

>> BOWEN: Yeah, do you think it gets more resonant?

I mean especially when you look at this issue of money,

and how he's isolated himself, and shut out everybody else,

because it's all about commerce for him?

>> Yeah, somebody wrote, somebody wrote last year

I think when we did the show, and one of the reviews said

"Oh boy, this year he is a certifiable one percenter,"

you know, up there,

you know that was what we saw from him last year,

people always pick up what's alive at that moment too...

When the story was written, they said that one part of the book

that everybody could quote was the Cratchit's dinner.

And that becomes the focus of the story at that point,

because you know people did not celebrate that much at the time,

and this brought back the celebration of Christmas,

and developed it all.

You know, after Cromwell outlawed the celebration

of Christmas, all of the festivities

moved basically to the country folk,

and then gradually when the country folk came back

in the industrial revolution moving back into London to work,

then they brought some of those customs with them,

and that's what Dickens was showing in the book.

So that was the feature then,

and then there will be other years when it will be,

like during the Depression, you know, it would talk about

how people were surviving and how people had to survive.

So different times will take different leads,

and right now it's about the one percenters.

>> BOWEN: So I'm sure you get asked this question

all the time, and I'm going to fall into the pitfall too.

After 20 years, this is your 20th you're playing him,

how do you not tire, how do you keep it fresh

and invigorating for yourself?

>> Well, I'm having a catharsis at least eight times a week,

and that is the easiest thing to do as I get to literall

play a character that changes 180 degrees every performance,

and at the end of the performance,

I'm in a nice, happy positive outlook on life.

How could you not enjoy that, right?

Now if it went backwards, and I was, you know,

the old miser at the beginning-- at the end of the show,

then I might not be in such a great mood about it,

but it's such a wonderful, freeing, cathartic feeling

to be able to do this show, and then to see the response

it has on everybody else.

That's the magic of the show.

>> BOWEN: Forget Ebenezer Scrooge,

you're an inspiration, David Coffee.

Thank you so much for joining us.

It begins next week and plays all the wa

through December 22 at North Store Music Theater.

Thank you for coming.

>> Thank you! I appreciate it.

>> BOWEN: And now another iconic character.

Lucy Ricardo is the spirited dame Lucille Ball

made instantly famous with her pioneering

1950s television show.

Now in a new stage adaptation that's been selling out

across the country, I Love Lucy Live on Stage

delivers audiences into the taping of two Lucy episodes.

And stepping into those very daunting shoes--

and red wig-- is Massachusetts native Sirena Irwin.

So Sirena Irwin, you are Lucy.


What is it?

What do you have to do to get her mannerisms?

I mean she's so iconic for everything--

for her delivery, for her voice, for the physical comedy,

so how did you get it all into you?

>> Well, step by step.

You know, I came from knowing absolutely nothing,

which may have been a benefit at the time,

I was terrified by that, so it set me into

a deep action, deep work.

>> BOWEN: We should explain this because you grew up

in Massachusetts, but without a television set.

But you came from artist parents so we'll forgive you.

>> Yes, yes, thank you, I appreciate that.

And then when I was out on my own,

I just still for some reason, didn't tune into the TV,

and ultimately, ran into-- started working

with Paula Stewart, who was a friend of Lucille Ball's.

And they had worked on the Wild Cat together.

And she said to me, "Sirena, you've got to check out

"I Love Lucy", you remind me of Lucille,"

And then shortly thereafter, I got the audition.

And when I got the part I tried to talk Rick Sparks,

the director, out of giving me the part.

I'm like I don't know... I don't know about this.

I don't think I know her well enough,

hire an impersonator.

And he was like, "No, no we don't want an impersonator,

we want an actor that can capture her essence.

>> BOWEN: In terms of the actual physical process,

as you were studying her, I'm sure mannerisms

presented themselves,

So how did you decipher the comedic code she had?

>> Oh, ah, it's like Morse code.

Her sense of timing is just impeccable.

And, oh, you know, I think it's such a difficult thing

to actually get your fingers on in terms of that,

because it really comes from an individual's heart beat,

like what I consider the heart beat,

the way that everything courses through their body.

And so her timing came out of that, and then of course

watching Buster Keaton and working with him

and working with all of the old...

the vaudeville performers who had mastered that before her,

and then taught her, and then of course

she was dealing with her incredible instrument.

For me, it's watching what she did,

and then dealing with my new situation,

which is I'm working with Bill Mendieta as Ricky Ricardo,

and Joanna Daniels as Ethel, and Kevin Remington as Fred

and we all have to be in those moments,

and that might be one thing that I take from Lucy Ricardo

and watching her.

We have this idea of her being kooky and zany,

but she is super grounded too.

And so I try and just keep that in as I move forward.

>> BOWEN: You mentioned telling the director

to not cast you after the audition.

You must have felt the weight of taking on

such an iconic character, and knowing that

as much as you try, you're still going to be judged

against the actual television show.

>> Of course, yeah, it was terrifying, absolutely,

I mean...


And it still is to a certain degree,

but of course I have done the show

I think almost 400 times now, and I'm starting

to just accept my own journey in this character, in this role.

And I have done a tremendous amount of work,

and I love doing it, and every night that I go out,

it's a new opportunity to get it right,

to have that perfect show.

And Bill Mendieta who plays Ricky,

he and I have spoken, the reason we never tire of this

is because we... neither feel we have had that perfect show,

because it's so complex,

and to get every moment exactly right every time

is, for us so far, impossible.

But so much is still so fun and still vibrant, and alive

that we're just interested in it, and we love it.

>> BOWEN: I've read that she was so fastidious

about getting everything right, and pointing out

there was no ad-libbing in the show,

everything was scripted.

The physical comedy was scripted,

so how intensive are you about those efforts?

And actually, I wanted to ask you about that,

I know I'm asking you multiple questions here,

but the physical comedy, what was it, what did she do,

how did she get it so right?

I mean, cause it-- and I have to say,

that I Love Lucy is one show that if I'm ever

flipping through I will stop.

I never do that with any other show but Lucy,

and I think it's because of the physical comedy.

>> Yeah, you're right, and she is a master technician,

and what I have read is that she would do it

in front of a mirror, and she would try something,

no, try something again, no.

And then yes, I mean as you too have read

and stated it's like she worked tirelessly.

From the accounts I've read, you know, she came in

for the table read, Jess Oppenheimer,

I think in his book said-- and he is the creator

behind the show, producer--

he said, "If you were to just walk in

to the table read, and you didn't know who she was,

"you would say you need to fire that redhead,

because she doesn't have any idea where the comedy is."

Now I mean, of course, this is subjective,

but he said because of her incredible tireless work ethic,

of course by the time Friday rolled around

when they were taping in front of a live audience,

she was amazing, and she had worked all those bits.

And then you know I think at some point,

even after working those, it seems like she would have

to let go of that work, because now she's dealing

with a live audience.

And the great thing about theater is that

you have an audience that you're connecting with.

It's like, you know, a communication.

So your timing is going to be slightly adjusted by them too.

>> BOWEN: I just want to ask you quickly,

you're from Massachusetts, you still have family here,

you're far into your career now, you have sold out audiences

around the country, but do you still get nervous to know--

and I think we talked just briefly before taping--

that this is one of the first times

you'll encounter the situation--

will you be nervous this far in your career

to having the intimates watching you?

>> Yeah, probably, like it will be at the beginning of the show,

I will be, "Oh gosh, you know, my friends are out there,"

and I feel a little bit that you know, even with famil

and everything...

But as, you know, after the show gets moving,

then that goes away you remember you have to be

in service, you know, of the script,

and of the characters and you hope they're having

a fun journey out there.

>> BOWEN: Well, I Love Lucy plays at the Colonial

through December 22.

Sirena Irwin, thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thank you so much for having me.

We're so excited to be coming to Boston.

>> BOWEN: And finally, we head to New York where,

since it was established in 1890,

Civic Morning Musicals, or CMM, has drawn

talented chamber musicians to the central part of the state.

Here we meet some of the dedicated members of the group

working to keep chamber music thriving.

♪ ♪

>> My name's John Spradling, I am the immediate

past president of Civic Morning Musicals.

I was president for about five seasons.

♪ ♪

CMM started out as morning musicals,

which exactly is what it was.

Recitals so forth taking place in the mornings

in ladies' living rooms and they were playing music

for each other because nobody wanted it out of their lives,

they had to have it.

We brought chamber music to Syracuse,

we brought symphony orchestras, and I think probabl

most notably we brought an astonishing arra

of top world-class soloists.

Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz,

Jascha Hiefetz, the great singers all came here

under CMM's auspices.

CMM has been around since 1890 and one of its reasons

for existence today is that it has taken on

chameleon-like qualities.

It services what's needed to be serviced at various points

in the community's history.

♪ ♪

The other huge thing that we've taken on

is that we've realized that young people and youth

are the future of this great culture.

Everybody knows that classical music

and the classical arts don't have the instantaneous appeal

that some pop stuff does.

And we have to therefore encourage and cultivate

any of the young people in the area who see

the endeavors in classical music are in their future

and something that they best spend their time on now,

so we encourage that.

>> I started piano actually at the age of five.

My mother started making my brother play piano for a year

and that was the deal and if he didn't like it

he could quit.

And when he started, I actually begged my mom

to start performing.

And out of that I started taking lessons from my mom

for a couple years and then it led on to meeting

John Spradling around the age of eight.

And then he got me into the competition circuit

probably around 11-- ten or 11 years old--

competing locally, CMYNT competitions.

And out of that CMM kind of jumped on board,

they helped me get opportunities to perform on Wednesday concerts

and things like that.

The actual first time I won I was 12 years old

as I played the Grieg Piano Concerto;

I was the youngest competitor at the time.

Being 12, I was younger than most people,

I mean I came up to the shoulders of everybody there,

the top of my head-- I was small as anything--

nobody believed that I could pull it off in the end

and it was just an amazing experience,

it was life-changing pretty much.

♪ ♪

If the Civic Morning Musicals allow me to keep performing

I'll gladly jump on board and perform as much as I can,

bring it to the public, helping people understand music,

enjoying it more, helping people my age understand music

because as John said, most people my age

like pop, rock music, things like that.

>> I think the thrust in encouraging youth

is here to stay for as long as I can see

for the foreseeable future.

As you'll note, I'm a past president.

The organization has had a long list

of really distinguished people being at the helm

of this organization as well as the board.

Without our volunteer board we can't do anything.

>> Honestly, classical music is the roots of all music;

it's what everything goes back to.

Pop music and rock music couldn't be created toda

unless classical music first came about.

I choose classical because it just it moves me internally,

it does something to your mind and to your body,

emotionally and physically that other music does,

but it's just music without words.

So I mean it does more long run for me.

♪ ♪


>> BOWEN: That is all for this edition of Open Studio.

We return on December 20 and we're getting all Shakespearean

with a look at the Bard's lesser known work:

the explosive Henry VIII.

That and more when we return next month on Open Studio.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

As always you can visit us online at


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