The next interview in our stagey chat series is with the cast and creatives of KUNSTLER, Jeffrey Sweet and Jeff McCarthy. Jeff McCarthy is playing the title role of the play, while Jeffrey Sweet is the playwright. KUNSTLER is playing at the White Bear Theatre from 1st May 2024. You can book tickets here.

Get yourself comfy and join us for the next segment of Stagey Chat!

Hi Jeffrey and Jeff, how are you both doing? Thanks so much for chatting to Stage to Page today! Would you mind introducing yourselves and telling us how you first got into the theatre industry?

Jeff: Hello. My name is Jeff McCarthy. I was extremely lucky have been raised in Central California. Specifically Santa Maria. My high school theater department was phenomenal. In fact, we toured Scotland and England with a play in 1970. And then 3 blocks in the other direction was PCPA, one of the best theater companies on the west coast. I did probably 80 shows or more over a period from 1971 to 1976. We also toured with “Once Upon a Mattress” all over Asia, the last year I was part of that company. So this gave me a very rich introduction to show biz.

Jeffrey: I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, which hosted a lot of shows on tour, so I saw a lot of theater as a kid. Feeding that interest, my parents sent me to an acting school for children called the Jack and Jill studios. I was “discovered” in one of the performances and booked two TV shows as an actor when I was a kid. This panicked my parents. The last thing they wanted was for their kid to go into show business. So they called up the agent who booked me those jobs and said I was retiring. At ten years old. (They didn’t tell me until many years later.) But the damage was done. I wanted to be in theater.

I went to a high school that was well-known for its drama program. I ended up being the kid who pulled out a toothbrush and painted grey into his hair when they needed someone to play the father in a school play. When I was a senior, the drama department scheduled Inherit the Wind, the play inspired by the Scopes “monkey” trial, so I could play the part based on Clarence Darrow.

The high school also let me put up my own projects. I started writing sketches in abject imitation of Beyond the Fringe and the scenes of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and then graduated to writing a full-length musical (for which I also wrote music and lyrics) that they produced.

I wanted to do theater and film both, so I applied to the NYU film school (where one of my teachers was a young Martin Scorsese). Outside of school, I was also invited to join something called the BMI Musical Theater Workshop run by a legendary guru named Lehman Engel. (My classmates included Alan Menken, Ed Kleban and Thomas Newman.)

I was also reviewing theater for the NYU paper. At the end of my junior year at NYU, I was invited to be part of a new project involving theater journalism at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center not far from O’Neill’s boyhood home in Connecticut. One day, I was playing the piano to amuse myself, and a guy passing by stopped to listen. He asked me what it was. I told him it was a musical version of Aristophanes’ The Birds I had written called Winging It. He asked to see it. Then he told me he was the artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and he wanted to produce it as a special project that fall. And that was my first professional production. I was 20 years old and, without even trying to, I had gotten a musical produced. And I thought, “Wow, this show business stuff is easy!” I’ve learned a few things since then.

Your most recent production together is Kunstler, which is set to make its European premiere at the White Bear Theatre on 1st May for a limited run. Can you tell us about the story and the character you play?

Jeff: KUNSTLER, the play we are bringing to London in May is a particularly relevant and resonant play about the passionate work of attorney William M. Kunstler and his focus primarily on civil rights.

Jeffrey: I am a child of the Sixties and was very aware of the legal adventures of William Kunstler, so, when I figured out how to tell the story, it was a treat to revisit the issues and the people of that time. Having grown up in a suburb of Chicago, I was very aware of the Chicago Seven story. For one thing, I was in that suburb the summer of 1968 when the Democratic convention was held and the police riot that led to the Chicago Seven trial occurred. (I also had friends who had been caught up in the middle of it.) I’m always happy when I find a story to tell that connects with my home town. Chicago is a city full of great contradictions – great idealism juxtaposed with great corruption and violence. I think there are endless stories to be told about that place.

Jeffrey Sweet wrote the play with you in mind as the lead. When did you find out, and did it add a certain amount of pressure to your performance when accepting the role?

Jeff: When Jeffrey Sweet offered to write this play with me in mind, I was honored and thrilled.  Mr. Sweet and I had worked together previously, so I was confident that he would structure this role based on what he perceived to be my strengths and passions as an actor.

Jeffrey: I approached him before starting to write. The world isn’t filled with good actors who can play the very specific guy William Kunstler was. I wasn’t looking for someone to do an imitation, but I wanted to know that if I wrote it, someone could play the part as authentically as possible. Other people have indeed played this part successfully, but having Jeff McCarthy committed was an inspiration.

Jeffrey, within the play, you draw on scenes from public record, including the trial and speeches. How much research did you have to do for the play to make it feel as authentic as possible?

Jeffrey: I often write plays that draw on history, and I’m very aware that for much of an audience what they know about a subject will be primarily what they learn from what I write. So I work hard to be accurate. The passages I quote from the transcript are the product of a lot of reviewing of records and primary sources. My dad had a degree in history from Harvard, and he raised me to do the work.

My blog is called Stage to Page, but if you could turn any book from page to stage, what would it be?

Jeff: The relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill is so fascinating. Several times I have visited FDR’s home in Hyde Park, NY. It was actually the first Presidential Library in American history. Inside, there is a very narrow office  built to accommodate FDR’s wheel chair and his need for privacy. I learned that he and Churchill agreed to develop the atom bomb together in that very space. Their relationship would make for very complicated and fascinating stage characters.

Jeffrey: I have only done a few adaptations. The stuff in public domain I might be attracted to has largely been picked over by other playwrights! (How many adaptations can you do of The Great Gatsby?) So, that means adapting something that would require getting rights. For a long time I was interested in making a musical out of Empire of the Air by Tom Lewis, a story about the people who invented radio broadcasting and how Edwin Armstrong went from being essential to the founding of NBC to being pretty much destroyed by NBC. I also think that Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana would make a terrific musical, but I don’t have a hope in hell of acquiring those rights! To do either correctly, I would probably need resources on the level of the National Theater, and I don’t have access to those resources. I’m a practical guy and I like to write what I think will be produced. Once upon a time, when I was a resident writer of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, if I wrote something it would almost automatically be produced within a year. Victory Gardens died a few seasons ago, so I don’t have an automatic stage for my stuff anymore. This does influence what I write. I’d write larger-cast plays again if I could get away with it!

Do you have any advice for any aspiring actors finding their place in the industry? 

Jeff: My advice for aspiring young actors, as I did, work toward being invited into an MFA program somewhere in the world. I understand that there are several right here in London.

And finally, why should people book tickets to see Kunstler?

Jeff: Please do come and see our production of KUNSTLER. To reiterate, this is an extremely relevant play considering that the world is still struggling with civil rights for all races and genders.

Jeffrey: William Kunstler was a fascinating, swashbuckling figure. He was funny, he was courageous, he had a large ego and he was involved in issues and contests that continue today. His was a great American life that was filled with the contradictions of idealism and celebrity. In fact, I think he was the only lawyer who was invited to play himself on an episode of Law and Order. Though their characters are very different, I think if you like Falstaff, you’re going to respond to Kunstler.

You can book tickets to see KUNSTLER here.

**Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2016**

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