Any time Carson Elrod is onstage audience members are assured the ultimate kind of comedic performance: the one that engages with their brains, while tickling their funny bone. As the servant Cliton in David Ives’ adaptation of The Liar, Elrod delivers hilarious lines in iambic pentameter, while inviting us to think about the repercussions of lying. Both modern and classic, his performance anchors the work of a pitch perfect ensemble, as he acts like a moderator between the audience and the world of the play. I spoke to Elrod about his affinity for Ives’ work, how verse exercises his brain, and roles he’d love to play.
What’s the worst lie you told your parents when you were a kid?
For the most part I was a pretty honest kid. I never threw any naughty parties when they were out of town, I was a boy scout, took an oath to be truthful and made sure to stick to it. My parents would probably be able to tell you more about this.
Many people assume that in order to be an actor you have to be a great liar, would you say that’s the case?
I’ve heard that too, but lying isn’t what we’re doing onstage. People think that acting as someone you’re not means you’re lying, but because of our political climate I’ve been reading about the word “lie”, and the word means “the intent to deceive”, and I don’t think any actor has that intent. We want to tell you a story in as honest, truthful, compelling and convincing way as we can, to allow the audience to relax and enjoy themselves. We never pretend it’s a documentary, more than professional liars we’re professional storytellers. We’re all complicit in this communion that we collaborate on together.
Sitting through the show in this political climate was so strange, because I laughed throughout the show, but when I went back into the real world I felt guilty for laughing at lies, when it’s what the new administration is doing to everyone. Has the show taken on a new meaning because of the state of the country?
My invocation to the audience at the beginning of the show is that along with the gadgets they turn off their brains, because what we want to do is to be a beautiful, light, brilliant, witty cupcake of a show that makes you feel good. We want to take you out of the world we’re living in, I think because of the political climate people want to go into a dark space, turn off their brain and engage in something that makes them laugh...with that said, as you noticed, the idea of lies, liars and lying has a more sinister and ominous impact on our lives from a leadership point of view, than what we see in the show. In fact there’s a monologue where the liar says “the liar gives us joy”, they take the boring world into something fabulous. In a way David Ives has created a ying and yang of what a liar can be, we have our real life with misinformation and lies, and in the play you see the lie as fun. Although I think David Ives does a really good job at showing how the liar is confronted and told how his lies hurt people.
Before talking to you I went for a swim and there’s always that feeling that you’re floating that remains after you swim, so I’m curious, when you speak in verse for two hours, does it feel like that when you go back to normal speech?
I love that question, it’s funny because in the context of rehearsing we notice we do a couple of inadvertent rhymes, not in iambic pentameter, but you still go “wow, that’s unusual”. I think with actors whatever part you’re doing does alter your brain activity, just like meditation does. If you’re working on Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare or David Ives, you are carving neural pathways in your brain that elevate your thought process. I love being an actor because just by memorizing the words of authors like Lynn Nottage or Suzan-Lori Parks, you are taking elevate thoughts that are so beautiful, and you’re lifting your own brain up into that space. I wouldn’t say we walk out of the theater talking in iambic pentameter, but your analogy of swimming is right, I think that’s why actors go to bars after shows. You do this meditation of sorts with the other actors and the audience, so when it’s over you’re buzzing and high, and it is a couple of hours before you can go to sleep, so you go across the street and have a beer and a hamburger.
Was it a similar process to do verse as it was to do opera in The Merry Widow?
The thing about that was, God bless Susan Stroman, she needed a comedic actor to do a non-singing role, so I didn’t necessarily have to think about it in those terms. I enjoyed working with heightened language and verse, but I also enjoy working on contemporary material. I’ve been fortunate to work on modern and classical stuff with David Ives.
You’re the only actor in The Liar who addresses the audience directly, does this mean you have to play more off the audience’s energy and reactions in a way the others don’t?
One of the things I love about theatre is that the most we learn about neuroscience and apply it to acting, theatre, politics and church, is that they all have in common a biokinetic feedback loop between what is being observed and who is observing. In theatre we have this feedback loop between the actors and the story, so we are in relation not only with each other, but also with the audience. My character in this play has special permission to check in with the audience, David Ives and director Michael Kahn gave me permission to explore this throughout the run. What is exciting is it opens this loop in a completely different way. The other actors have to stay in the specific sof the story, but also when an actor holds for a laugh, they continue living the life of the character while people laugh, theatre is special because of this air. When you have actors skilled enough to listen not just to each other, but to the vibrational force of the room, then it’s amazing.
Which of David Ives’ works that you haven’t done would you like to do next?
Playing Thomas in Venus in Fur which is one of the only of David’s works I’ve never done would be great. I’m a huge Chekhov fan, so before I’m too old I’d love if someone gave me the chance to play Trofimov, he’s a wide-eyed, passionate revolutionary who wants to make a better future for people. I would also love to continue doing Shakespeare and Sarah Ruhl, I’m a creature of the stage.
Your work onstage always makes me think of silent comedians like Buster Keaton, is there any of that in your influences?
As a fellow Kansan I have a special affinity for Buster Keaton, when I see those early films I appreciate their storytelling, which is what I appreciate the most as I age. I often think about the story and how to tell it as truthfully as possible. I have to say I never thought of myself as a comedian, but the more I work, the more I see myself getting those parts, and the more people like you comment on those aspects of what I do, and I really enjoy doing it. So more than anything, thanks for the comparison, I do like doing very in my body physical work. I appreciate being able to use my body in whatever way I can to tell the story.
The Liar runs through February 26. For tickets and more click here.