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Interview: J. Daniel Herring on ‘The Elephant Man’

Fresno State’s “The Elephant Man,” under the direction of J. Daniel Herring, opens Friday. And it might come as a surprise to learn that Dane Oliver, who plays the title character, doesn’t use any makeup or prosthetics in his portrayal. It turns out that’s a tradition for this show. I caught up with Herring to talk about the production, which continues through Dec. 15, for Friday’s 7 section. Here’s an extended version of that interview.

Question: Many people are familiar with the movie version of “The Elephant Man.” In what major ways does Bernard Pomerance’s play differ?

There are two distinct differences.  One is that the majority of the play takes place in Whitechapel Hospital while there are many scenes in the film outside the walls of the hospital.  Probably the most significant difference is that the actor portraying the Elephant Man performs the role of this grossly disfigured man using no makeup or prosthetics and of course in the film, the actor is quite “made-up”.

For those who aren’t familiar, what’s the basic storyline?

The Elephant Man” is based on the life of John Merrick, who lived in London during the latter part of the nineteenth century. A horribly deformed young man, victim of rare skin and bone diseases, he has become the star freak attraction in traveling side shows. Found abandoned and helpless, he is admitted to London’s prestigious Whitechapel Hospital. Under the care of celebrated young physician Frederick Treves, Merrick is introduced to London society and slowly evolves from an object of pity to an urbane and witty favorite of the aristocracy and literati only to be denied his ultimate dream, to become a man like any other.

It’s traditional for the title character to be portrayed without makeup or prosthetics. Is this the case in your production?

Yes, and I believe it is essential.

How does Dane Oliver, who plays the Elephant Man, use his body and voice to portray the character? Did you use any specific exercises or techniques to assist him?

Dane has been an incredible giving actor in this role. His work ethic has been outstanding. His vocal work has been on the mark providing a speech impediment without hindering the understanding of what he is saying. I would work with Dane to help him decide on phrasing that provided the key words or phrases needed for the audience to understand his speech/language. The physical work began with breaking down each element of the bodily deformities and adding each one at a time until a complete picture of a crooked body was created. Dane and I also discussed and worked in rehearsal on how to show the disintegration of Merrick’s health as the play progressed and how this decline effected his speech and body movements.

What does the audience gain from such a portrayal?

From purely an acting standpoint, they get the privilege of seeing an actor transform into a character that has both a speech impediment as well as a disfigured body and how the actor sustains this throughout an hour and 45 minute performance. I also feel audiences are able to decide for themselves what is beautiful about the Elephant Man without regards of his physical deformities. Our eyes can deceive us – what appears “deformed” once seen in “true” light is not as deformed as we first thought.

Merrick was rescued from the circus but ended up essentially on “display” in the hospital. How does the play explore this theme? As director, what are your thoughts on it?

To me this is the main thrust of the play. Those who believed they were helping John Merrick, simply had him on display for their own personal reasons. Though not as a “freak show” he was still on display. There is a line in the play spoken by a supporting character that is the foundation of my concept for the production, “Just keeping him to look at in private. That’s all. Isn’t it?”

Tell us a little about your concept for staging the show.

I leave John Merrick (the Elephant Man) onstage throughout the entire play in his hospital apartment as other action/scenes take place around/about him as if he is always on exhibit. Merrick remains in view of both the theatre audience and the characters in the play at all times. Therefore, there are no blackouts. We see the characters end their scenes and transition to the next scene in full view. What you get are those offstage and previous moments of characters on display for the audience to witness. I think this has been a rewarding aspect for the actors in the show — character development and research on exhibition as part of the play and for all to see.

In deciding not to depict the main character in his severely disfigured state, do you think is there a danger of softening the material too much by making it more palatable? Are our imaginations vivid enough?

No, in fact, what I think is powerful is that we see what might be considered a beautiful human form at the very same time we view a disfigured body. This juxtaposition, I believe illuminates the theme of “judging a book by its cover.”

This is your first time directing the show. Why did you pick it?

“The Elephant Man” is one of the first plays I read on my own when I started college in 1980. I have never directed it and I have never seen a production of it. I loved the play then and still do — it has lived in my heart and mind for over thirty years. To finally get to direct a play that passionately moved me as a freshman in college is much like having a dream coming true.

Tell us a little about the rest of your cast.

I believe everyone in this cast has “stepped up their game” for this production. I think they embody the saying, “there are no small parts only small actors”. Even those cast members who only appear onstage for one or two scenes give it their all and produce some incredibly memorable moments.

We’re always told that “beauty is skin deep,” but people still judge a lot on appearances. 

I think this is perhaps the most touching and passionate play to deal with the universal and timeless themes of “beauty is only skin deep” and “you can’t judge a book by its cover”. I hope audiences will think about what it means to be on display and how heartbreaking it is to only want acceptance and not be able to gain it without ridicule. I also hope audiences take away some thoughts about what it means to help someone without selfish reasons.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I’m particularly proud of the unified production concept of The Elephant Man. When I approached the design team about a film noir style and the use of sepia tones to reflect old photographs or tintypes they jumped right on board. I believe it is simply beautiful to look at as if you are watching a memory or dream from history.


Photo: Dylan Curtis, left, Kia Vassiliades and Dane Oliver.


Responses to "Interview: J. Daniel Herring on ‘The Elephant Man’"

diana says:

The production was fantastic, great staging, poignant scenes, Dr. Treves anguish over the failing health of John Merrick was heartbreaking. He was torn between science and emotion.

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