“Every play you do is a rehearsal for the next play you do,” says Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays. If that’s the case, Mays has been in rehearsal for the last nine months.
Last spring, he began literal rehearsal for Off-Broadway’s Oslo, the new play by J.T. Rogers that goes inside the secret back channel meetings between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that led to the 1993 Oslo Accords. While performing Oslo by night, Mays rehearsed by day for the Nathan Lane–John Slattery-led Broadway revival of The Front Page as germophobic reporter Roy Bensinger. Once Front Page closed its limited fall engagement, Mays picked up Oslo again to bring it to Broadway this spring.
In Oslo, Mays plays Terje Rød-Larsen, the real-life Norwegian visionary who brokered the underground meetings of representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel in a peace process rooted in personal relationships. The stakes are stratospheric, the interactions intimate. In The Front Page, Mays’ fictional Bensinger added to the bombastic comedy of a Chicago press room while a fugitive runs AWOL. The premise localized, the physicality loud and large.
The incessant gear-shifting was “less exhausting and more invigorating” for Mays. “To go immerse myself into the rehearsal process at Front Page [during Oslo’s performance period] was like going to a spa in a way, to get to exercise different muscles. And then I would come over here and do [Oslo] and the demands were completely other.” Mays, who won a Tony Award playing over 40 characters in the solo play I Am My Own Wife and was again Tony nominated for his portrayal of eight members of the D’Ysquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, thrives on the diversification of his talents and the packing of his schedule.
“I think that a lot of actors are at the top of their game when they are overextended to a certain degree,” says Mays. “There is such a thing as spreading yourself too thin, but you’re operating out of exhaustion and more instinctive. I think all art essentially rises out of intuition and instinct.”
Which is why Mays tries to find Terje’s unconscious habits, so he can operate out of impulse. “What I want to do is follow him around like Jane Goodall,” says Mays, “and sit in his apartment and watch: How does he pick up a fork?”
As for revisiting the role, Mays couldn’t be more pleased. “This is an extraordinary luxury that you don’t experience very much in the contemporary American theatre … in which you get to rehearse a piece, perform it, go away from it for six months, come back to it, and do it again,” says Mays. “I never want to work any other way.”
Look at some of the transformations of Jefferson Mays throughout his Broadway career: