On June 6th, 2019, I had the privilege to interview James Rana who plays the role of Simon in the touring version of The Band’s Visit. I would like to give tremendous thanks to Mr. Rana, the show’s staff, and the communications department at the PPAC for helping to put all of this together. Tickets for The Band’s Visit are on sale now and the show will be running through at the PPAC from June 25th, 2019 to June 30th, 2019. The theater is located at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, Rhode Island and the phone to the box office is (401) 421-2787. During the interview, Mr. Rana provides a terrific description of the show.
Carvalho: So, I was told you were a student at Rhode Island College. What I want to ask you is: being a student at RIC and being in the state, what kind of influence did that have on your career as an actor.
Rana: So, I did my master’s at Trinity Rep Conservatory when it was with Rhode Island College. So, now of course, they’ve been with Brown for several years, but when I was there, the master’s degree was through Rhode Island College. So, I had RIC classes where they would come to us. I had Doc Hutchinson, the Great Doc Hutchinson, who would come over to us and his classes, but overall, all of my training at Trinity Rep Conservatory made me who I am- (there was a brief disconnection on the phone) I had Doctor Hutchinson, Bill Hutchinson, he was the theater professor at Rhode Island College. He would come to Trinity Rep when I was a student in the conservatory, and he would give us our Rhode Island College classes towards the master’s degree, but I did the acting training at Trinity Rep Conservatory. Everything that I learned from him and my teachers at the conservatory in Rhode Island is what made the actor that I am. I learned everything when I was a student, and everything I am doing now, it all goes back to those days in Providence, all that training, all that work.
Carvalho: In The Band’s Visit, you are playing the role of Simon. Now, could you tell us a little bit about your show and who you play?
Rana: The Band’s Visit is based on an Israeli film from 2007 called The Band’s Visit. I saw it when it came to America in 2008, and that movie had such a lasting impact on me. It was a truly beautiful film. The story is about a group of classical Arabic musicians, they are a police orchestra from Egypt who have been invited to Israel to perform at an Arab cultural center. Because of the language barrier and pronunciation of especially the letters “p” and “b”, which is huge because of major issues, they end up in the wrong town. The people take them in. There is Different people, different culture, language, religion, and they invite them into their homes. My character of Simon has been with the band for a long time; he plays the clarinet. He says he can conduct; he wishes he could be a conductor and he feels unfulfilled with his life. He just goes about his life, goes about working with the band. He plays a little concerto that he wrote but it’s only a small piece of it, it’s a fragment of the concerto. He hasn’t finished, his life is unfinished in many ways.
Carvalho: When playing a character as quiet and reserved as Simon, what kind of place do you have to put yourself in when you are going into that role?
Rana: Oh Matt, I just have to be myself. I just really have to be myself in many ways. I was part of the original Broadway company, I know you were going to talk about that, and I really was understudying several roles, including Simon. I remember in a rehearsal that we had, our director, David Cromer, said, “why don’t you make this character a little bit different, separate the characters and make them each a little distinct”. I decided to just play the character in the way I behave sometimes in social settings. I can easily become a wallflower; I blend into the wallpaper. I sometimes don’t know how to start a conversation, too quiet, too shy, don’t know what to say, don’t want to embarrass myself. There is a good and a bad thing. The good thing is it fits the character; the bad thing is it is sometimes how my own social behaviors are.
Carvalho: You did mention being part of the Broadway show. Now, that brings me to one of my questions. Since you were part of the original production, when the new actors are playing in the new roles, what do you bring to the new version of the show? Do you help the actors that you have seen the original actors of now helping out the versions of them? What do you do to help them out as well?
Rana: I’m just supportive and enjoying every moment with them because what we did on Broadway was something extremely special, unique, and a very wonderful experience and that will always live in our hearts and in theater history with our ten Tony Awards. This is the same story, but it is told differently now. It’s a whole new group of wonderful actors. We are telling this story that we are looking at it with different eyes and I think that is a wonderful thing what our director David Cromer is doing. We are reexamining the show, looking at different ways so we are not just doing a carbon copy of Broadway. It’s still the story, it’s still the music, but now it’s new voices, new people, new faces, and that just enriches the storyline. So, everyone knows that I have been with the show forever and there is always a joke that “James knows”, which is true, but at the same time, that idea, I don’t always know. We are looking at things differently.
Carvalho: Now, you did also mention music. Music is a very big part of this show. You all play your own music in the show. When going to play the music, did you have to learn how to play the instrument that your character have been given to play or what was the process of having to do that?
Rana: Yes, so my character plays the clarinet. Now, we have amazing musicians in this show. It’s very fascinating because sometimes actors, like in my situation, are called on to learn how to play a musical instrument. In this situation, so many wonderful musicians are also being called on to be actors. It’s a very fascinating marriage of the two arts. I did learn how to play the clarinet. I have been studying it; I found a teacher on my own and I have been studying quite a lot for the past year and a half on Broadway, and that really helps. Now, what I do is not very intense. We have an amazing amazing woodwind musician named Evan Francis who does the clarinet and the flute. He is extraordinary and so when we are on the road, he is going to be continuing to teach me which I am excited to grow. It’s another skill that I have been able to learn and I am looking forward to continue learning how to play the clarinet.
Carvalho: One of the ideas of the show is different cultures coming together within the show when the Egyptians and the citizens of the village come together. How can that idea be applied to today’s world in today’s climate?
Rana: I think our story is a very poignant one because it reminds us that we have so much more in common than people do not have in common. We are all human beings, just remembering that we are much more similar than we are different. We have our wants, our needs, many times we feel unfulfilled with our lives, we yearn, we have hopes, dreams, and I think what the band does is remind us that music brings together in so many ways.
Carvalho: When people go to see this show live, what is the one thing that you hope people take away from this show?
Rana: The one thing I hope people will take away, and I spoke to so many audience members on Broadway is the fact that we are all human beings, we are all people at the end of the day, and we are very similar, no matter what are differences might be politically, culturally, or religion or language, we have a lot in common, and we have music and people find connection.