A promotional photo for Booth’s Ghost. Photo by Nathan Kornelis.
He’s played a Disneyland Genie, a Green Bay Packers Super Fan, Hubert H. Humphrey (twice), and assorted police officers over the years – so it’s natural that Andrew Erskine Wheeler should eventually come around to playing a ghost. This ghost’s beef? One of the United States’ “First Families” of the stage, the famous Booth family of actors.
Booth? you ask. Like John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Abraham Lincoln? That’s the one. In Booth’s Ghost, opening August 3rd at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Wheeler plays a particularly theatrical sort of ghost who expounds on the Booth family’s history and their theatre. Erskine spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about making the jump to creating and performing a solo show.
You’ve spent a lot of time in acting – at what point did you decide to take up the playwright’s pen?
I’ve written several plays for children over the years as a writer/director and several workshop productions at The Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles, but for the most part, yes, I’ve spent most my time performing other peoples’ works. I guess you’re ready when you’re ready.
Why this story and why now?
Good question. I’ve been searching for a subject for a solo show for a long time, probably a good 15 years. I’ve kicked around some ideas but they never seemed to stick or else the timing was off because I was in the midst of other projects or honestly I just wasn’t disciplined enough at the time to do the grueling work of draft after draft to refine a quality script. On this project, I was grateful to be at a sort of convergence point in my life where my desire to write it was intersecting with the availability of time and a subject I was thoroughly inspired by.
Is there something specific that motivated you to work on a solo play about the Booth family?
For a while now, I’ve been wanting to write a play about my great-great-grandfather Wirt Shuman, who fought for the 2nd Minnesota Regiment in the Civil War. As a writer, you try a whole lot of roads into a story – which mostly lead to dead ends. As an actor, I thought to try the angle of who my great-great-grandfather might have seen perform on stage when he was young. I immediately thought of the Booths because I’d always remembered Dennis Maher (my theatre history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington) telling us a story of Edwin Booth’s performance of Hamlet following the assassination of Lincoln.
I started really diving into Edwin’s story and stumbled on an account in his journals that became the spine of this current play about the Booths. So I guess my great-great-grandfather’s story remains to be told, but perhaps his ghost led me to this new discovery. (Thanks, Wirt!)
What else happened as you delved into the stories of the Booth family?
I came to find that I had always misremembered the story that my professor told us. The more I researched – and reached out to my professor (after 20 years) to ask him about it – the more I began to see the play as being a memory play, of how we begin to build myths and resentments around events. This led to the play being narrated by a witness who may or may not be reliable. A ghost who always wanted to be an actor, so his own accounts are tainted by envy and hero worship.
The ghost embodies the spirit of the Booths, who in turn are narrating events in their own lives. So there are layers of separation and the fog of distance over time. These are phantoms we all struggle with in dealing with our own histories, both personally and collectively.
Is this your first solo show?
Short answer, yes. To be honest, however, I have performed several shows where I’ve played characters with long extended narration or monologues while on stage alone.
I remember the opening of Lucas Hynath’s The Christians with Walking Shadow in 2016m where I had to give an opening sermon that went on uninterrupted for about 20 minutes. That was a real challenge, especially coming into the Twin Cities as an unknown at the time. (Audiences always want you to succeed, but there’s also a bit of that ritual of seduction where they want you to win them over, especially if it’s just you up there.)
As the Genie at Disneyland in Anaheim, I had long extended moments of storytelling; believe me, winning over children is no easy task – they make you earn it and aren’t afraid to let you know if they’re bored. But, once you’ve got their trust, they are the greatest audiences around. Although it’s extremely daunting, a solo show is something I feel I’m ready to tackle.
Any one of the Booth family of actors could be the subject of a full-length play in their own right. What lead you to decide to tell this trio of narratives?
I began with Edwin Booth. He has been widely regarded as America’s greatest performer of Hamlet – he ran for 100 straight performances at one point – he created the Players Club in NYC, and is a massive historical figure in our nation’s theatrical history. But hardly anyone knows this who isn’t a history buff. If they know Edwin, all they know is that his brother shot the President.
Their father was a theatrical titan as well. Eventually, what began to be shaped was less a story about the political implications or motivations of the assassination of Lincoln, and a far more personal story of two brothers fighting for recognition in the shadow of a larger-than-life father. It became more “Cain and Abel” and, I feel, a much more universal story… Professional envy, sibling rivalry, and instinctual Oedipal conflicts between sons’ desire for veneration, versus the need to transcend the father.
You’ve engaged a director, Matt Sciple, to assist with bringing this solo play to Fringe. Have you worked with Matt before? How did the two of you end up collaborating on this project?
When I first moved back to Minnesota from California in 2015, I was cast by Matt – ironically, in a series of one-acts called The Remember Project dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Matt also directed a 5-person version of Henry V at the Crane Theatre a few years back, which I really loved, with all the actors taking turns playing Henry. We ended up seeing each other around town at political rallies and protests and realized we had a common view of the world so we became good friends.
When I came up with this play about Shakespearian actors with a historical/political backdrop dealing with memory, Matt was a perfect fit.
Is there a planned future for this play? Or: is this intended as a one-time thing, or something that you plan to take on the road or shop around?
I created this show with the intention of touring it on the Fringe circuit. However, I would also love to shop around a longer version here in the Twin Cities if there is interest and a willing company to produce.
I also have a dream of creating an illustrated book to go along with it. Edwin Booth was a voracious reader and loved books so my vision is to create a really cool theatre book that is like a ghost story and promoting it in independent bookstores and theatre bookshops around the country. The narrator for my show is the ghost of the original Booth’s Theatre, which is now a Best Buy on the corner of 6th Ave & 23rd Street in NYC…so the play is also about how the buildings and monuments of our shared history may be torn down but the memories and ghosts remain seeking new homes.
The issue of Confederate Monuments is a case in point. We definitely want to tear these symbols of racism down, but just because the physical forms are removed, doesn’t mean the ghosts have been exorcised. I’d love to tour with Booth’s Ghost all over the country to see the reaction: how does it play in the “South” vs the “North.” What ghosts still remain? What spaces are still haunted by the past?
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.