Tom Key Finds Inspiration from Mark Rothko for Red

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Red at Atlanta's Theatical Outfit

Tom Key and Jimi Kocina star in Red. Photo courtesy of Theatrical Outfit

While researching a role and preparing for a performance is nothing new to Tom Key, his preparation for playing Mark Rothko in the Theatrical Outfit production of the Red has been an intricate process.

In the Tony Award® winning play by John Logan, Key plays artist Mark Rothko during the period of his life when he was painting for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. Rothko’s work on the project could have represented a high mark in his artistic career if he had completed it. The play explores events surrounding this situation.

Playing a historical character may seem like an easy process, but for a character as rich as Rothko, Key has found several ways to help him embody the famous painter. It doesn’t hurt that both his wife and son are artistic and can help provide technical background for the performance.

“Being married to an artist and having a son that is an artist really has an impact on me,” Key mentions. “We had an ongoing discussion of impressionism and expressionism, and they got heated up when we got the rights for the play.”

To add to this research, Key has studied Rothko’s history as well as visiting several sites related to him. He has been to Rothko’s Chapel in Houston, but one visit that has had a significant effect on his portrayal of the character is his visit to the Seagram Building.

While describing the experience, the amazement in his voice shines through as he speaks about Rothko’s own experience there. He describes how Rothko mentions hearing the restaurant while climbing the stairs. “I saw the staircase and heard the roar upstairs; it was electrifying,” he says. “I just put on my actor role. It was a terrific kinetic, sensory experience.”

Using all of this research can make the creation of the character easier. However, it also creates challenges of its own, making it just as much work as portraying a fictional character. Each presents unique hurdles.

“Both present certain challenges and rewards. I think what is easier is that you have a lot of history, background and subtext,” he says. “For someone like Rothko, there is a wealth of information. It’s great not to have to invent a background.”

The difficulty with this amount of available information is keeping the idea of the play in sight. “The information has to serve Rothko at this particular time. The task is to interpret the information so that is it useful,” he says.

To add to the realism of his performance, Key has been working with dialect coach Elisa Carlson to develop an accent that Rothko might have had. Since no sound recording of Rothko exists, they have used what they know of his background to come up with one that is close to what it might have been. “Elisa worked at the Guthrie for eight years, and I worked with her specifically for Red on how Mark Rothko might have produced his voice,” he says.

Key feels that Atlanta audiences will be in for an incredible theatrical experience when watching this play. He says, ““I think they will experience the power of what it is to live their life with passion that the color red is a metaphor for in the story.” Key goes on to mention that he hopes each audience member leaves “a more passionate person in life and with one another. It gives a vision of a better, stronger way to be. Red offers a story that makes audiences see a possibility to be more passionate.”

From the moment that he saw the play on Broadway, Key has wanted to undertake the challenge of playing the role of Rothko and has known that the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, with its intimate space, is one of the best places for the play to be presented. “I am really happy we are presenting the Atlanta premiere,” he says.

Theatrical Outfit’s production of Red plays at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s February 1 to March 11. Directed by David de Vries, the play stars Tom Key and Jimi Kocina. For tickets and more information, please call 678-528-1500 or visit Theatrical Outfit’s website.

By: Kenny Norton