Monday, December 11, 2017

Containing Multitudes.

Containing Multitudes.

I'm currently playing 20 characters in a 5 actor adaptation of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. One actor plays the unflappable Phileas Fogg and the rest of the cast plays key parts like his erstwhile servant Passepartout, the dogged Detective Fix and Aooda, the girl he rescues plus a few assorted British noblemen and Indian elephant sellers.
I play everybody else.
20 characters.
20 different accents.
20 different costumes.
20 separate and distinct body types.
20 velcro enabled, dresser assisted whirlwinds in the wings to change everything from boots to facial hair and everything in between.
All packed into 1 sweaty, frantic and strangely invigorating evening of performing.
9 shows a week.
For 4 weeks.
That's 720 characters in 1 month.
But who's counting.

And each character is clamoring for his (or her) own respect, truthfulness and integrity. Each character possesses his (or her) own gait, gestures and grievances. Each character is trying to get his (or her) laughs.

I've done this kind of thing before. Most recently I played 20 characters in a one man adaptation of The Dybbuk at San Diego Repertory Theatre. Previously I've played 28 characters in a one man adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, 22 characters in The Boneman of Benares and 38 characters in The Thousandth Night. In those one man shows the costume changes were usually done in full view of the audience. A scarf or a hat suggested the new character. A pillow became a hunchback or boobs or a pregnant belly. The rest was up to me.
Playing 20 Characters in The Dybbuk.

But in Around the World in 80 Days I get the whole enchilada. Costumer extraordinaire B. Modern and her team assembled a whole closet full of period garb, rigged it all with snaps and magnets and Velcro patches, attached beards and mutton chops and mustaches to hats and caps and helmets and for 2 hours each night I dive in and out of it all while trying to pop onstage with the right lines in the right accent spoken by the correct character.


This is just the kind of demanding fun I like. Most actors give themselves a little moment to settle in to who they are portraying before making an entrance. I don't get that moment. A fully fledged character has to be put on in seconds, then erased and replaced by the next one while desperately trying to put my hand in the right sleeve or apply the next mustache. And then bang, I'm back on. Sometimes you come on so flushed with the fact that you made the quick change in time to make your entrance that it takes a moment to remember who you are. You are out of breath. But the character isn't. He (or she) is just coming on to play the scene. So one of the delicious challenges of multi character work is respiratory. How to keep breathing onstage while a breathless scramble awaits you offstage at every exit. How to give each character at least a fighting chance to play, have fun and be his (or her)self.
Ralph Gautier of the Reform Club starts in on a monoclelog.


Finding these characters and distinguishing them from each other calls upon some particularly keen observation. I generally start with the chin, one of my favorite body parts. Where a person wears their chin can color not only their posture and attitude but their entire outlook on life. And when you're playing multi characters distinguishing chin placement goes a long way. The arrogance of the upturned chin works nicely in contrast with the tucked chin of a shy person. Angle that same chin and suddenly we don't trust this guy.
But that's just the beginning. Actors talk of a character's center. (My Colonel Procter in Around the World in 80 Days is decidedly belly centered for example) but few actors speak of a character's tether, that part of them that leads, that moves them through space, ambulates them from one place to another.
Colonel Proctor. (Photo by Kevin Berne)


Each character (person) has a different relationship with gravity. This may manifest itself in how the spine is worn. Which may in turn color the baseline emotional state of the character. Truly, the body has a sense memory.
Try saying "It's a beautiful day" while wearing the body of someone beset with heavy gravity, bent spine and tucked chin and you will feel what I mean. 


Other questions I try to answer for each character include:
Is he large or small, fast or slow?
Where does he keep his hands?
What is his "home"? (The posture he is most comfortable in.)
What personal quirk, tick, twitch or habitual mannerism does he rely on?
What is his relationship in space to the other characters? (Is he a space invader or a space evader?)
Does he flow or is there something more jagged there?
What is at war within him and what side is winning?

Acting is the study of everything. And coming up with 20 separate and distinct characters for Around the World in 80 Days has tested my resources. Sometimes you borrow from our shared culture.
Captain Bunsby. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Captain Bunsby.

My Captain Bunsby of the Tankadere, who takes Phileas Fogg from Hong Kong through the storms to Yokohama sounds a bit like Quint from Jaws and a bit like Sterling Hayden. (Who was originally slated to play Quint in Jaws by the way.) 

He has a mouth full of gravel, an erect chin, a bent spine and lives in his own cloud of increased gravity. His center is his grizzled beard and for a tether he sports a wooden leg. A fear of the sea and a thirst for adventure are at war within him. His hands are fists and they're most at home in his pea coat pockets. He has a habit of stroking his beard that he's not aware of.
He's on stage for about 5 minutes and then limps off, his wooden leg leading the way, never to be seen again. But 2 seconds later I'm back on again, wearing a maid's dress and bonnet and a whole new set of decisions sculpting me. 


Emperor Norton.
Suez Consul.

Beautiful Contradictions.

Sure there are stereotypes here. Easy ways to latch on to a character and pigeon hole him into an easily recreate-able cypher. And that's where an actor's malleability and keen sense of observation comes in. To look for not only the broad strokes of what makes a character recognizable but the deeper exploration of the qualities (and contradictions) that make him human.

A line from Song of Myself from Whitman's Leaves of Grass reminds us that we are never just one thing, and all the quirks, imperfections, and contradictions are par for the course. And what differentiate us. All 20 of us in Around the World in 80 Days.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

      -Walt Whitman

Life size game of Risk ends badly.

No comments: