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Mike Schulz — “Red”’s Rothko — Reflects on a Rare Feat, a Double Play

Before the remarkable run of “Red” – the Mississippi Bend Players production that concluded earlier today, lead actor Mike Schulz reflected on getting to play the real-life abstract-expressionist artist Mark Rothko. Twice.

Mike Schulz -- “Red”’s Rothko -- Reflects on a Rare Feat, a Double Play

Schulz as the tortured abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, who took his own life at age 66.

Now 53, the thoughtful, passionate and intense Schulz reflected on his past nine years living with the play – done first with a tiny group at QC Theatre Workshop, running over three weekends, and recently with a crew of at least a dozen at MBP, with just four performances over one weekend.

“John Logan’s script is so amazing, and so engaging and audience-friendly, that you would have to try really hard to screw it up,” he said by e-mail. “Friends and family members who couldn’t care less about Mark Rothko’s abstract expressionism love that show — and the friends and family members who do care about visual art love it all the more.”

Despite the huge amount of dialogue Schulz has, the lines from “Red” seem “strangely easy to access,” he said. “Even before I knew the MBP production was going to happen, I could’ve recited page-long Rothko monologues from 2012 from memory without being able to recall a single line from some shows I did only

Mike Schulz -- “Red”’s Rothko -- Reflects on a Rare Feat, a Double Play

Mike Schulz stars as artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) in “Red.”

two or three years ago. Rothko is just there for me.

“So my biggest personal challenge in this ‘Red’ has been trying to forget lines — by which I mean, to forget what they sounded like when I said them nine years ago,” he said. “It’s amazing how, no matter how well you think you know your script, and as confident as you feel being off-book, you will still totally forget what you’re supposed to say if you accidentally or intentionally deliver a line differently from the way you always had before.

“It’s hugely embarrassing and humbling, and it makes you want to work harder,” Schulz wrote. “And of course, I’m working with Tristan now, not Tom Taylor. Most of acting is reacting, and it’s naturally going to be different if it’s a different person staring you in the face. So your line deliveries consequently have to be different. Otherwise, you’re not really listening to what you’re hearing and responding accordingly.”

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He called the script “90 minutes of high art and antagonism and hilarity and heartbreak and Odd Couple comedy and piercing drama … and audiences get to watch stage characters do something, which actually rarely happens in a medium in which characters are forever talking about doing things, but we almost never get to see what it is they did,” Schulz said, noting their painting scene.

“This show is so ridiculously fun. There’s a reason we extended that initial four-performance run at the Workshop for two extra weekends.

Mike Schulz -- “Red”’s Rothko -- Reflects on a Rare Feat, a Double Play

“Red” starred Mike Schulz, left, and Tristan Odenkirk.

Much as I’d love to believe it was because Tom and Tyson and the rest of our small crew and I were amazing, we always knew what the response was really about – ‘Red’ is an intensely great time, both for the creative team and the people who get to watch the show.”

Like the show itself that’s full of meaty debates, Schulz said he enjoys arguing with Odenkirk about the merit of the art and staging.

“Tristan is exactly the kind of theatre artist I want to work with. I want arguments. I want differences of opinion,” he said. “I want to work with people who’ll challenge me and remind me that just because it’s my idea doesn’t mean my idea is good, you know? He’s 30 years younger than me and will still say things that make me go ‘Hmmm…. I hadn’t thought about that before.’”

“After over more than three decades, I’ve only worked with a handful of people who have come close to matching him,” Schulz said. “Tristan seems to pour every ounce of himself into his characters, and while that’s apparent and impressive when you’re watching him in the audience, it’s nothing compared to what you get from that guy when he’s also pouring that energy into you as a scene partner.

“When he looks at you or talks to you, you know for certain there’s nothing happening in that moment beyond the connection your character is making with Tristan’s character — he is capitalized ‘In The Moment’ like few people I’ve ever worked with.

“And as an actor, that sense of confidence he radiates instantly relaxes you; you know you’re in good hands when you’re performing opposite Tristan Odenkirk. It’s all there in his eyes. He sees you, and that’s incredibly exciting, and you want to reciprocate that excitement.”

THAT is why art matters!

Partly in honor of Schulz’s stunning double play, you can see QuadCities.com rave reviews of the colorful “Red,” HERE and HERE.

Mike Schulz -- “Red”’s Rothko -- Reflects on a Rare Feat, a Double Play

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.
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