In John Logan's heralded play "Red," the brilliant, suffered-no-fools painter Mark Rothko doesn't have much patience for his new assistant, Ken.
"You have a lot to learn, young man," the artist says. "Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archaeology. Anthropology. Mythology. Music. … You cannot be an artist until you are civilized. You cannot be civilized until you learn. To be civilized is to know where you belong in the continuum of your art and your world."
To Eric Berryman, who will play Ken opposite Bruce Nelson's Rothko in Everyman Theatre's production of "Red" opening this week, that speech rings a very loud bell.
Berryman heard advice much like that week after week at his alma mater, Baltimore School for the Arts, from the head of the theater department there, Donald Hicken. Since Hicken is the director for "Red," the actor's high school memories are fresher than ever.
"He teaches a class called 'The Continuing Saga' [at BSA] where he just talks about art, theater, time periods, Kabuki, Noh, everything," the now 24-year-old Berryman said during a joint interview with Hicken. "There were such pearls in that class. I just soaked it in."
Hicken remembers Berryman well.
"As a student, Eric was encouraged to stand up for and express his own thoughts and feelings openly," the director, 68, said. "That's what the character of Ken does in 'Red.' Rothko begins to respect and listen to Ken. I'm reminded of Eric as a student in all of that. He always made significant contributions. He was well-read and curious."
That curiosity helped lead to the programming of "Red" this season. Berryman, a member of Everyman's resident company, is always reading plays — "I read them like novels," he said — and when he came across "Red," he quickly recommended it to artistic director Vincent Lancisi.
Lancisi embraced the suggestion and wanted Berryman to be part of the cast.
"When Vinny said [Hicken] was going to direct, I said, 'I hate you,' " Berryman said. "I live in New York, and there is always a small possibility of getting a show there, but I knew I had to come do this."
Hicken, who has directed several Everyman productions over the years, including "Our Town" and "The Children's Hour," likewise was enthusiastic about the idea of doing "Red."
"When Vinny said, 'I have a project for you and it will star Bruce and Eric,' I didn't take a breath before I said yes," the director said.
The chance to work with his former student was a particular draw.
"At BSA, we're teaching drama as a vocation," said Hicken, who has been on the faculty since the school opened in 1980. "And when you're teaching a pre-performance training program, you hope the students will eventually be professionals."
That hope was fulfilled with the Baltimore-born Berryman, who went on to graduate from the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama and did additional training in Korea and Japan. He recently worked with the adventurous Australian physical theater company Zen Zen Zo.
Berryman's taut performance in the edgy drama "Topdog/Underdog" was one of the highlights of the company's 2012-2013 season. Previous Everyman credits include "A Raisin in the Sun," where he also left a strong mark.
"When Eric agreed to join Everyman's resident company, that was a great moment for me as a teacher," HIcken said. "And I liked that he was willing to do this and not just wait for Hollywood or Broadway to call."
Berryman jumped in with a point of clarification.
"I just want to do good work," the actor said. "If the work happens in Hollywood or Broadway, of course I'll go there. It's great to think that thousands or millions would be able to see you. But there is no timeline for that."
Berryman has drawn on his BSA experiences since graduating.
"When someone says [they] do high school plays, people have no idea," he said. "The whole atmosphere at BSA is very professional. The expectations are the same. The only difference is you don't get paid."
One of the expectations placed on budding actors is that they immerse themselves in their role ands everything that entails.
"I learned how to research at BSA," Berryman said. "And my love of research guided me through high school and college. It's still a constant for me, finding all I can about the time period of a play. It's just like Rothko says in 'Red': You can't be an artist until you're civilized."
Before leaving New York to start rehearsals, the actor visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to soak up some of Rothko's mature paintings, with their distinctive color fields.
Once in Baltimore, Berryman checked out the Baltimore Museum of Art's bold Rothko work, "Black Over Reds." He also joined Nelson and Hicken on a field trip to Washington to visit the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection, the only museum with an installation of Rothko's paintings designed in consultation with the artist.
"That was wonderful when we were all sitting side by side there," Hicken said. "So much happens when you're looking at those canvases. But you're limited to eight minutes inside the room. We had to keep going out and coming back in."
"If Rothko was running the museum," Berryman added, "I'm sure he'd say you need to be in there for at least an hour and a half."
Berryman found that the paintings did what the character of Rothko says they do in the play: "They ebb and flow and shift, gently pulsating. The more you look at them, the more they move. They float in space. They move."
The play is set in the late 1950s, when Rothko surprisingly accepted a commission for paintings to adorn a restaurant in New York. Why he changed his mind is an essential element of the drama, which digs into the heart of his philosophy about the purpose and potential of art.
"Rothko was looking for this visceral experience," Berryman said. "And as an actor, I've always been about a visceral experience in the work. When people come up to me and say, 'That was nice,' I hate that. I want them to feel something."
If you go
"Red" opens Wednesday and runs through Dec. 8 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun