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INTERVIEW: McKenna Kelly-Eiding on Becoming Sherlock Holmes in Baskerville

McKenna Kelly-Eiding and Sara Richardson as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in Park Square Theatre’s production of Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery by Ken Ludwiig. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Park Square Theatre opens its annual summer mystery play this Saturday: Ken Ludwig’s new play Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. This freewheeling adaptation transforms the dark, quasi-Gothic horror mystery novel The Hound of the Baskervilles into a hilarious farce. As you might expect, there are a few twists. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are gender-flipped, and just three other actors play a massive array of characters.

The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine sat down with Sherlock Holmes herself, McKenna Kelly-Eiding, to talk about playing the master detective and more.

McKenna Kelly-Eiding plays Sherlock Holmes in Park Square’s new production of Baskerville.

How did you first encounter Sherlock Holmes the character?

My first point of contact was the animated film The Great Mouse Detective. From there, I did a little reading of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories growing up, and most recently I’ve been pretty enthralled with the Benedict Cumberbatch series Sherlock.

Those are some very different takes on Sherlock Holmes. Depictions of the detective have gone all over the map over the years – have some of those been stronger influences on your interpretation than others?

I’ve personally been pulling from more closely reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work – specifically The Hound of the Baskervilles and a bit of A Scandal in Bohemia, plus watching a bit of the 1984 Sherlock Holmes, and a bit of classic Basil Rathbone. I draw bits and pieces from the different aspects throughout the ages.

Ken Ludwig is very specific, as far as the script goes, in how he’s adapted this story. It’s a 39 Steps-ish, clowny way. What really resonated with me, personally, about Sherlock the character is the way he looks at the world and the way that solving crime brings his life meaning. Needing to also take everything very seriously – life and death, extremely high stakes – is what makes the show what it is. Solving these crimes and mysteries is what keeps Sherlock going.

The Park Square production of Baskerville has more than a few Fourth Wall breaks. Were these scripted, devised, or some combination?

Some of the Fourth Wall breaks are in the script; some were orchestrated by us, personally.

There was a lot of leeway for us as the cast to play within the parameters that Ken laid out in his script. Opportunities for us to look at what he’d written, explore how to make it our own, and make it fit with the particular bodies that we have on stage. Our director Theo Langason gave us a lot of room to play, laying out “this is the game, and these are the parameters; we’ll see what emerges naturally and play with that.”

How long have you been in rehearsal?

We began on May 22nd, rehearsed 6 days a week, and just went into previews last week. That makes about 3 weeks of rehearsals, plus a week of previews that are also rehearsals.

How is the process different while you’re in previews?

It’s primarily been having a rehearsal during the show, getting notes, and doing tweaking in the next show. There’s a lot of looking at what transitions aren’t working or working as smoothly or quickly as we’d like, and how to make those better.

Without giving too much away, Sherlock Holmes has a lot of time offstage. Are you kicking it in the green room or being drafted to help move sets?

There’ve been a few times when I’ve offered to help because there’s so much going on onstage, but they haven’t taken me up on the offer. I’ve spent most of the time backstage watching from the sidelines because the rest of the cast is so good, brilliant, and funny.

An interrogation scene in Baskerville. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

What has this year been like as an actor – milestones, shows, et cetera?

I had a great run of The Wolves over at The Jungle earlier this year. Baskerville is quite a different show, but it’s been a great experience to have these very different works and their different processes, stories, and roles. I’ve been really greatful to run the gamut, if you will.

I’ve personally done a lot of Shakespeare and Classical work in my acting career – that tends to be what I’m drawn to, and what I’ve trained in, so it’s been a nice year of doing something different. Before The Wolves, I’d done some little things here and there, but I hadn’t done a big show role for some time.

You’re a graduate of the University of Minnesota-Guthrie Theater BFA. People joke in some circles that you end up training to be Spear Carrier #4; are there any aspects that you’ve found especially helpful in your career?

The emphasis on clarity and storytelling was, really, a huge part of my training. That’s very important, whether or not we ended up becoming Spear Carrier #4 or more of a leading character.

Something that I’ve experienced in this particular play is the large amount of words that Sherlock has – really, really excellent words, but a lot of them – and the challenge of trying to be as clear as possible, and not letting anything get lost.

Even though Sherlock himself doesn’t always pay attention to or care about whether Watson and the other characters can follow him, and is sometimes deliberately misleading them.

Yes. It’s been really challenging and really rewarding. It’s what kind of clarity you’re going for.

What’s up next?

I’m supposed to be shooting a short film at the end of August, but that’s all I know of. I’m hoping to travel in the fall.

In the fall? That’s when the weather gets nice here!

Well, that’s the hope.

You grew up in the Los Angeles area before moving to the Twin Cities for college. In your experience, how do the theatre communities compare?

I think the sense of community and its presence are more prevalent here, because they’re not conflicting as much with the TV/film culture. I’ve almost had more exposure to the LA theatre scene since I moved away than I did while growing up there, because I wasn’t as aware of it, so my own feeling is that the community here is a bit tighter. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t seem similar if I was involved in the LA theatre scene – community happens in every town. The more involved you are, the smaller it seems. I think a lot of the work done in LA is excellent.

You mentioned your focus on Shakespeare and Classical theatre, which is a repertoire that has more of a history and practice of gender-flipping and cross-gender casting than more recent bodies of work. In some respects, this allows one to compare directly how different writing for male and female characters was in those times. How does this experience compare with your recent roles in The Wolves and Baskerville?

A lot the experience I’ve done in Shakespeare and classical work is with characters written as men, and playing them alternately as men or as women. It’s very interesting to see how that changes things. I feel really grateful to do both The Wolves and Baskerville back-to-back, because being in a all-female cast (and, also, with a mostly female crew) is an experience that is rare.

The Wolves is pretty special because you have nine incredibly dynamic and highly individual women onstage. Those are the women that I know in my own life, but who are not as broadly represented onstage. Either people are writing plays with those characters and they’re not being produced, or people are writing it and other people are being critical of it, asking why it’s not being “all the things” (which isn’t something that’s said about male-dominated shows).

People ask me, “Is it hard to play a man?” and the answer is “No.” There are things that make Sherlock Sherlock that aren’t restricted to gender in any way.

I hope that performances like this can make people forget that Sherlock was ever a man, or realize that some things about his character are actually universal. It’s the same thing with Watson – there’s something between them and their dynamic that’s so very fascinating and special; I don’t think that any of that should be limited to gender.

It’s been pretty special doing these shows and I’ve learned a lot in terms of representation, and about how being allowed to be a fully dynamic human on stage is very important.

Are there some contemporary playwrights whose work you enjoy, who are also creating these types of dynamic and individual characters?

I think Sarah DeLappe (the author of The Wolves)’s work is pretty wonderful. Paula Vogel (The Oldest Profession, How I Learned to Drive, Indecent) is amazing – seeing Indecent at the Guthrie was pretty special. There’s also Tanya Barfield, particularly her play Bright Half-Life – I got to do her Lasso of Truth in town a few years ago; Martina Majok – her Ironbound is getting produced a lot; and Lynn Nottage (Sweat; Ruined; Intimate Apparel).

I’ve thought a lot about how people apply different standards to works based on who wrote them or who is featured. I’ve found myself, at times, asking questions like “Why isn’t this play doing xyz?” when similar questions aren’t being asked about so many historical plays that have largely been focused around men’s narratives.

The answer to “Why aren’t you representing this group of people?”, “Why aren’t you telling this story?”, etc, is because we’re telling this story now. It’s not that these other stories aren’t important, but they do need their own room, space, and finances to be performed. I imagine that it’s particularly hard for a larger institution trying to produce work that is broad, dynamic, and still also tells everyone‘s stories, to represent more of our actual world onstage.

That’s a lot for anyone to expect of all plays – not that it can’t sometimes be done, but usually it’s like the old adage “Fast, cheap, durable – pick two of three” except that it’s “Pick two of ten.”

I wonder if it’s a matter of tipping the scale pretty hard the other way, in order for it to balance out the other way.

I think the process begins in artists’ individual brains with the stories they want to tell. For myself, it’s thinking about what projects you want to be involved in. I’ve often felt this sort of pull: about where the balance is, about how intentional I can be with what I choose to be involved in, how it represents the world, and how I’d like it to go.

It’s important to think about balancing the things to fight for and make better, versus doing things that support you. It’s also a good thing to ask “Why?” and “Who are you doing this for?” In the end, you’re doing this for the audience and the community.

What are some favorite things in Baskerville?

My favorite moments are all surprise moments with things that jump out at you or the other people in the cast – they are just really incredible and funny. These are also the times when I have the most difficulty keeping face. (As an actor, you need to have a lot of focus and work to keep true to the story.)

I really like the way that everyone switches to and plays so many characters so rapidly – it is really a pleasure to watch.

Park Square Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery opens Saturday, June 15 and plays through August 5.

Basil Considine