Alan Rickman, At the Head of the Class

By Harry Haun
November 4, 2011

The students in the biting new Broadway comedy Seminar have a thing or two to learn from Alan Rickman.



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At the time of Alan Rickman's last Broadway appearance, in the 2002 revival of Private Lives (for which he earned his second Tony nod), his highly hiss-able performance as Severus Snape in the first "Harry Potter" movie was already in the can, and Snape was poised to commence his reign of intellectual terror at Hogwarts, first teaching Potions and later Defense Against the Dark Arts.

Now — nearly ten years, eight films, seven books and a worldwide gross of more than $6 billion later — Snape's work at Hogwarts is done. But school's not out for Rickman, who has returned to the private sector of Broadway. His teaching license intact, he still stirs a mean cauldron, but limits his thunderbolts to withering one-liners.

"The whole thing about the 'Harry Potter' series has been, apart from anything else, about young people being reminded that stories are important," the actor solemnly intones. "And to watch a kid, as I have often, lost inside a book — instead of inside a computer game or a screen — is thrilling, and not unconnected with this play."

Theresa Rebeck
photo by Aubrey Reuben

"This play" is Theresa Rebeck's latest and her second for Broadway: Seminar, a dark comedy opening Nov. 20 at the John Golden Theatre. In it, Rickman plays Leonard, a famed author hired to impart his passions and peculiarities to a quartet of fledgling novelists (Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Hettienne Park and Jerry O'Connell); nastily, he's not above picking pets and upsetting the group dynamic.

In Rickman's mind, Leonard comes with an interesting backstory: "He's working, I suppose, in a kind of freelance capacity as a journalist and an editor when he starts teaching young writers at private seminars — hence the title — so the play is set in the Upper West Side apartment of one of his students. When I say that there's a connection between this and the 'Potter's, I mean he's absolutely passionate about writing. It's the kind of sheer craft and sacrifice that is going to be involved for anybody who wants to be a writer. Theresa, of course, is writing the play from deep inside her own experience, so I know I've got the truth in my hands — her truth.

"As an actor, I'm absolutely dependent on what I see on the page. I've an instinct for good writing, where images jump off the page and tell me what to do. I just sit there and wait, and if it's good writing, it's like being smacked in the face with ideas."

True to those words, Rickman admits that it was the "terrific writing" that drew him to this project. "We had a reading of it earlier this year — I wasn't sure I'd even be doing it — but at the end of the reading, there was such a groundswell of enthusiasm for Theresa's play, that that kinda took over. It's the sort of new play where the least anybody knows about it, the better. People should come avoiding knowing anything. Just come. Sit down. Wait for the lights to come on, and hopefully, about 90 minutes later, the lights will go out and you will leave the theatre a different person."

View Playbill Video's preview of the show: