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Inside the Assassins’ Studio

How does an actor approach playing one of the most infamous criminals in American history?

The lights had come up over the audience in Signature Theatre, moments after the final notes of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins” had faded. The players took their bows, and the crowd applauded their performances, having brought to life some of the most infamously demented characters in American history over the last two hours.

Later, in a post-show discussion with the cast, one member of the audience admitted not knowing exactly how to feel about the show. A singing John Wilkes Booth, a dancing Charles Guiteau, comic relief from John Hinckley … is “Assassins” humanizing “demons” when it should be condemning them?

“I don’t think it glorifies them, because anytime there is an assassination, it’s a failure of our society,” said Stephen Gregory Smith, who plays Lee Harvey Oswald. “It’s a very sad thing; that someone was so tormented by this country, or what they got out of this country, or by their own demons, that they had to do something so awful. These people are just like you, sitting around in the audience. The only difference is that they got to a point where they couldn’t control their rage anymore.”

Director Joe Calarco’s goal was to “blur the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’” using Sondheim’s darkly satirical lyrics and a set design that literally has each character staring back at the audience for most of the show, sitting in seats that mirror those in the gallery. Sympathizing with these characters without glorifying them was the challenge for each of the actors involved in Signature’s blockbuster staging of “Assassins” this summer. Here’s a look at how four of the main characters were developed and approached by their portrayers.

<hd>John Wilkes Booth

<sh>Portrayed by Will Gartshore

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For Will Gartshore, portraying John Wilkes Booth is an actor playing an actor. Booth was a prominent stage performer from an acting family, but his legacy was cemented years later when he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater in D.C.

“[His acting] is an essential part of him. As much as it’s a historical character, it’s also a theatrical character. The Booth that exists on stage is not how he actually existed, but it certainly draws on that,” said Gartshore, who previously won a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actor in last season’s production of “Urinetown.”

In “Assassins,” Booth’s is a critical role: he’s the first killer to take a turn in the spotlight, and is responsible for establishing the rules and the thesis for the rest of the performance. “It’s kind of a ‘do as I do, watch me and learn’ kind of thing,” he said.

From that point, Booth becomes a protagonist for the other characters through the end of the show, when he’s convincing Lee Harvey Oswald to fire on Kennedy’s motorcade.

“There are a couple of different narrator-type characters in it, and you never know who the MC is. But he has kind of a catalyst role — I’m not in charge of how the evening is supposed to proceed, but I keep inserting myself and making it change direction,” said Gartshore.

In those critical moments with Oswald, Gartshore said he’s working on two levels: convincing a killer to kill, while continuing to sell his character’s logic to the audience. “You’re going to draw on your skills as an actor. It’s something Bill Clinton used to do, although he didn’t realize he was doing it.”

Gartshore is Canadian-born, and admittedly wasn’t “steeped in Americana” when taking on this role. His research into Booth involved trying to understand his politics — what he saw and believed, to make him view Lincoln as a tyrant who needed to be defeated at all costs.

“When you listen to them, they have a good point; whether it’s valid or not, I don’t know. It’s like the debate that you have over Columbine or Sept. 11 — sometimes you have to understand where these people are coming from,” said Gartshore. “Does it validate their actions? Of course not. But do you condemn them as evil? As an actor, you can’t put them in a good or evil place. If you think they’re evil, then you can’t play them because they don’t think they’re evil.”

<hd>Lee Harvey Oswald

<sh>Portrayed by Stephen Gregory Smith

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During the majority of “Assassins,” Stephen Gregory Smith is dressed like a backwoods paperboy; a “balladeer” acting as both a narrator and as the conscious for the audience, while the criminals on stage attempt to rationalize their actions. Then, in the show’s climax, his role changes — a twist that brings an entirely new shading to his previous interactions with the characters.

The balladeer is actually Lee Harvey Oswald, perhaps the most infamous assassin of them all.

“The person you identify with, who you kind of thought is one of you, is actually one of them,” said Smith.

A 2004 revival of “Assassins” was the first to have the balladeer and Oswald played by the same actor. Director Joe Calarco told Smith to imagine he was Oswald the entire show, even when he’s singing and dancing with Charles Guiteau before an execution.

In the end, it’s the corruption of Oswald — who goes from suicidal to homicidal at the encouragement of the assassins surrounding him — that “blurs the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’” as Calarco had intended.

“I personally find Oswald to be the most everyman/USA kind of guy. Not psychopathic. In the few interviews he had before he was shot by [Jack] Ruby, he seemed very even-keeled, very normal,” said Smith, 27, who previously appeared in Arena Stage’s production of “Damn Yankees.”

Historical accuracy for Oswald wasn’t something Smith was too concerned about, as he sees “Assassins” as a “Twilight Zone”-like view of these figures. “Here’s a man who’s going to shoot himself, and then in walks John Wilkes Booth. At this point, there’s not much you can play with historical accuracy.”

More important in his preparation was viewing the footage most associated with Oswald: the Zapruder Film of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.

“[I wanted] to have in mind what I’m seeing as I pull the trigger. It was really sick, but I re-watched it over and over to have the image in my head,” said Smith.

Does he feel any sympathy for Oswald and the rest of the assassins portrayed in the show?

“There’s a point in almost every one of those [scenes] where they connect for a second and then something gets screwed up. I do feel sorry. In a way, it’s humanizing,” said Smith. “It doesn’t make you feel sorry for what they did, but it makes you think, ‘Boy, if John Hinkley only had someone he could talk to and were willing to listen.’”

<hd>John Hinkley

<sh>Portrayed by Matt Conner

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Matt Conner had two thoughts before taking on the role of John Hinkley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in D.C. in 1981.

The first was whether “Assassins” was intended to be funny. “I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t know what the audience was going to expect.”

The second was a bit more personal: “Why am I John Hinkley?”

Director Joe Calarco saw vulnerability in Conner that he felt was essential in capturing Hinkley’s lonesome, obsessive disposition. “He wanted me to do whatever I could to disappear during the show: hiding behind a guitar, scooting behind a seat. Not making contact with anybody,” recalled Conner, an actor and composer.

Hinkley’s obsession with actress Jodie Foster fueled his madness, and served as a basis for Conner’s portrayal. He clutches a photo of Foster during the show like a security blanket. While the actors are staring up at a fictional screen, facing the audience, Cooper used to picture “Taxi Driver” playing in front of him.

Getting Hinkley wasn’t difficult, as he was one of the more contemporary assassins in the show. In keeping with Calarco’s manta that the audience is a lot more like the killers than it wants to believe, Conner understands Hinckley’s motivations — right up until his dastardly deed.

“I can totally relate to everything I do on stage except for pulling out the gun,” he said. “I think everyone’s story is an amazing story. They all want to be loved. They all want a hug.”

<hd>Lynette Alice “Squeaky” Fromme

<sh>Portrayed by Erin Driscoll

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Erin Driscoll can’t help but see the response “Assassins” elicits from its audience. “I’ve seen more people uncomfortable in this show than I’ve seen before, because we’re so close to them and we can see their reactions. Turning away and covering their ears to get away from the guns — that’s the biggest.”

She also notices the reactions to one of “Squeaky” Fromme’s shining moments in the show: a lovely duet with John Hinckley. For Fromme, it’s a paean to her mentor Charles Manson; for Hinkley, it’s a ballad to actress Jodie Foster.

“When I first heard the song, I thought it was hysterical,” said Driscoll. “I don’t think we’ve gotten a laugh yet. For some audiences it’s a comedy, and for others it’s a serious drama.”

Driscoll understands that confusion, which has dogged Sondhiem’s musical since its debut in 1990. To those who say it humanizes the assassins, she contends that the show simply analyzes them.

“Everyone has gotten to that point where they’re so depressed and so down and so low, and these people have gone and taken that next extreme step of picking up a gun and doing something about it. You know that you wouldn’t take that step, and that’s where the separation is,” said Driscoll, who attended Oakton High School in Vienna.

In researching Fromme, who was convicted of attempted assassination after going to see President Gerald Ford in 1975 with a loaded Colt .45, Driscoll turned to movies, books and the Internet. “It was my first time playing someone that really existed. I started to go online, and I was told to be careful because I might come across some disturbing photos,” she said. Later, she found a documentary on Manson that included footage of the real-life Fromme.

Driscoll understands the character’s sad upbringing, but has no sympathy for Squeaky — and much less than that for Manson, even though she has to “love” him during the musical.

“I can see where she would latch onto a person like Charlie. But as an actress, you have to go ‘I don’t feel this way about this guy, obviously’ and you have to find something to put in his place — God, or something else where I can make it this ‘what if’ sort of thing.”