Performer aims for literary, theatrical journey

Dec 28, 2018

When Stephen Collins opens one of his one-man plays, he feels as if he is asking the audience to come with him on a journey.

Collins will present one of these journeys, “Sailing Toward my Father,” which explores Herman Melville’s complicated relationships with God, his family and Nathaniel Hawthorne, at the Mattapoisett Free Library on Jan. 6.

Melville was an American novelist, short story writer and poet most well known for his novel “Moby Dick.” 

“If you know nothing about Melville I think watching the show has kind of the experience of reading a biography,” Collins explained, “and if you know Melville you’ll have a lot of kind of ‘ah-ha!’ moments, where you think ‘I know where that reference is from.’”

Collins, who earns his living from his plays and literature lectures throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut, was drawn to the play because of its connection with literature.

Collins loved Melville when he took a life-changing 19th century American literature course at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He explained that “Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson are probably the four giants of 19th century literature.”

It may have been the theatrical and literary combination that sparked Collins’ interest in one-man plays began when he saw a one-man  play on Henry David Thoreau in 1996.

“The performance just totally blew me away, and I was totally moved by how powerful it was,” Collins said. “I think theater has the potential to be a really great teaching medium as well as reaching people with positive messages, and I know it definitely reached me. I went back to see it a second time, and asked [the actor] if I could chat with him.”

Based on that discussion, it wasn’t difficult for Collins to decide to try the genre himself, with a play on Whitman.

“I did a lot of theater in high school, so I had a theater background but I hadn’t done anything in a while except for community theater, and I always wanted to do a one man show, ” Collins said in a phone interview. 

Though Collins admits that “I’m not a writer,” he formed a partnership with writer and director Carl A. Rossi for “Sailing Toward my Father,” one of the nine plays that he has in his repertoire. 

Even with a director, he enjoys the artistic freedom of the one-man play.

“It’s all on you. You control the tempo, you control the modulations, you know it’s all on you,” Collins said.

“I probably have at least 20 hours of memorized material in my head,” Collins said. But even when he has performed a work many times and feels like he knows it he will still review the lines in his head on the way to performances to double check. This is because a one-man play is not forgiving with mistakes.

“If you’re in a play with a cast of four or five people the whole thing is not up to you. If you’re having a bad night as an actor maybe the others can pick you up because they’re having a good night,” Collins explained.

“But the thing about being up there by yourself is it’s very incumbent upon you as the performer to make sure that you have the requisite amount of energy and intention and that you carry it through,” he added.

Luckily for Collins, bad performances are few and far between. However, he acknowledges that “Sailing Toward my Father” is one of his most challenging roles in terms of energy output.

“The Whitman show is really well-written and well-conceived, and I feel like I know it well and perform it well. But the Melville, at the end of performing it every time I am totally spent,” Collins said.

To make a reservation for Collins’ 2 p.m. performance, call the Mattapoisett Free Library at 508-758-4171.