James Keegan is currently playing Pistol in the highly successful production of Henry V at Folger Theatre which concludes it’s extended run today. James’s regional credits include at American Shakespeare Center (13 repertory seasons): The Merchant of Venice, The Lion in Winter, Cymbeline, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, King John, The Tempest, The Importance of Being Earnest, Hamlet, Henry V, Tamburliane the Great, Part 1, Othello, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Much Ado About Nothing, The Rehearsal, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Titus Andronicus, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Richard II, Measure for Measure, The Jew of Malta, The Duchess of Malfi, Hamlet, Quarto 1, Pericles and Wild Oats; at Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater: Julius Caesar and Stuff Happens and at Delaware Shakespeare Festival in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. He is the father of actor Thomas Keegan who is currently performing in Shear Madness at Kennedy Center and his daughter in law Alyssa Wilmoth- Keegan recently was seen in Contractions at Studio Theatre. I see talent runs all the way through that family.
How did you get interested in performing?
My father, Bill Keegan, is probably my first influence in this arena; he was an Irishman, born in County Meath, and he owned and operated a bar in Queens, New York, called The Spinning Wheel Inn, appropriately enough, as my dad was a spinner of yarns. He had that special Hibernian talent for stories and humor—he remembered them in detail and delivered them engagingly. So it was from him that I first learned the power that a well and lovingly told story could command; and that is, I feel , first and foremost my obligation on stage—to serve the story and to draw the audience in to how it will unfold this time. My first strong interest in acting came in high school. My locker was next to the homeroom of Father George Stack, the Catholic priest who would be my sophomore and honors English teacher and who was also the moderator of the drama club. George first truly introduced me to Shakespeare in the classroom—presenting it in a way that was engaging and enthusiastic (he very wisely chose Macbeth)—and directed me in several more contemporary plays in the drama club. I also performed in college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and that’s where I got to do my first Shakespeare plays’ Twelfth Night (still my favorite) and The Tempest. So I have long loved being on stage—I feel at home there. And as much as I love performing, what I really love is rehearsal, the building and fashioning of the thing in a collaborative effort with the director, my fellow actors, and the design team.
You have performed in quite a few of Shakespeare’s plays. What is your favorite Shakespeare role and of all of his plays which is your favorite?
I often dislike when people say, “Wow, that’s a tough one!”, but . . .
I have been fortunate to play some terrific Shakespearean roles and I have loved so many. So, for today at least, I will have to say for favorite role: Falstaff. I have gotten to play “plump Jack” in both parts of Henry IV (and hope ardently that the opportunity will again arise) and in Merry Wives. Falstaff is a such a wonderfully witty reprobate, driven by appetites, childish and petty, loving and expansive, mistrustful of all the values that the less-than-trustworthy brokers of power forever tout and so often betray or manipulate to serve their own designs. On another day answer might have been Iago or Lear, but for today I will stay with Sir John.
My favorite play remains Twelfth Night—it is, for me, such a marvelous and musical mixture of the intertwined themes of human loss and human love. Loss pulls on us and hurts us so that we can turn ourselves into monuments to the dead—as Olivia does, all dressed in black at the outset of the play, in mourning for a dead brother, and as Viola does, when she dons a disguise that turns her into a representative of her twin brother whom she believes to be dead. But love is waiting to be re-awakened and to draw the individual whom it ambushes back to life, back to the world of the living—to resurrect her out of her grief. As Feste’s song has it, we must seize the day, seize life and love: “In delay there lies no plenty. So come kiss me, sweet and twenty. Youth’s a stuff will not endure.” Also, Act 2, scene 4, in which the disguised Viola discusses the love between men and women with the Count Orsino, with whom she is in love, is one of my very favorite scenes in any play, ever. I’ve played Sir Toby Belch several times (it was my first Shakespeare role in college, but Orsino is the role I wish I could play—just to get to do that marvelous scene. I look forward to catching the Folger’s production of the play, coming up next in their season. (I believe that qualifies as a shameless plug; I have a number of Henry V comrades and other friends involved in that show, so I refuse to apologize.)
How does it feel having your son and daughter in law in the same profession as you?
Personally, very gratifying—Tom and Alyssa are such dedicated and hard-working actors.
Artistically, very exciting–we’ve worked together in the past (we did my two favorite Shakespeare plays together a few years ago—Twelfth Night and King Lear—and I hope that will happen for us again soon).
Monetarily, ah, well, one can’t have everything.
Seriously, though, I love that they love their craft and pursue it with passion. Tom is in Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center now and will be at Everyman Theater in Baltimore in late spring as Archer in The Beaux’ Stratagem. And Alyssa, just closed a very well-reviewed production of Mike Bartlett’s Contractions at Studio and will appear this spring in Round House Theater’s production of Becky Shaw. So there’s your lesson, if you don’t want to hear me brag on my children, you should not ask about them.
If presented with the opportunity would you consider directing a show?
Yes. What have you heard?
After Henry V finishes its run what is next for you?
Immediately, I will be visiting artist at the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of South Carolina (Go Gamecocks!) where I will play King Lear in their spring production of Shakespeare’s great tragedy. And later this year, I am slotted to play Mick Dowd in Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara at Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater (PICT). I am looking very much forward to both.