Thursday, April 1, 2010


Jerry Orbach as Charlie Davenport, 1966

How does an actor create a character? Each has a different approach, a unique alchemy with which he or she puts the pieces together, but we all start from one place: the words on the page. Really, they are all we have. An author has imagined this person, woven him into the fabric of the story, and placed within the lines on the page all the information we need. This is where I start, no matter how classic the piece is, no matter how many times I have seen it performed, or seen the movie adaptation. In the case of Charlie Davenport, as imagined by Herbert and Dorothy Fields and the adaptor Peter Stone, I wanted to know who this guy is, what is his importance to the story, and as much as possible about where he comes from and his personal quirks and qualities. Charlie is the guy who keeps the Wild West Show together, he's the manager, the boss... but he is also, in this adaptation, an important part of the framing device of the show--the play within a play. Charlie introduces every scene, ordering the roustabouts to set up whatever locale is necessary for the next event in the story. So right away, I know that this guy has a certain energy--he gets things done, he issues orders, and he will do whatever he needs to do to keep the show going.

The text also told me how Charlie speaks, the rhythms and the peculiar idiom of his speech. With lines like, "We're waitin' 'til midnight, so's we can sneak ashore without no one seein' us make our triumphant return on a cattle boat," I was able to gather two things: he's no Rhodes scholar, and he probably comes from New York. He also sounds like those guys in the classic Hollywood films of the '30s, like "42nd Street"-- the harried stage manager, chomping on a cigar, barking orders, and shooting off zingy one liners. The picture starts coming together. Archetypes and cliches are a part of the fabric of our collective culture. While we never want to settle for a two dimensional stock character type, we can't ignore the potency of those familiar creatures with which the audience can form an instant rapport.

So here's this guy with sort of snappy energy, a working class New York accent, and a spicy sense of humor. He's starting to take on a shape. That's where the costume designer becomes the actor's best friend. Traditionally, Charlie has always had a very specific look. He represents New York show business, vaudeville, and as such, has to have an entirely different appearance from the western characters like Buffalo Bill or Frank Butler.
Looking at pictures of say, Jerry Orbach in the 1966 revival, or Keenan Wynn in the MGM film, one sees a template emerging--flashy checked suit, bowler hat. Our costume designer, Alejo Vietti, in line with our director's vision of creating a more realistic, textured world for the show, has given Charlie a slightly more elegant look, with stylish suits and brocaded waistcoats. These vests have truly informed my physicality for this guy, and I find myself in rehearsals hooking my thumbs into my vest pockets and showing off my gold watch chain. And there's that classic bowler hat. Just as there are archetypes for character, there are certain articles of clothing that speak to our embedded cultural consciousness.
A bowler hat evokes many things to me: the surrealist paintings of Magritte, Charlie Chaplin's little tramp, Monty Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks," the stuffy father in "Mary Poppins," Mr. Banks. All of these associations lend subtle, almost imperceptible color to the way in which I wear and use the hat. It's a wonderful prop, incredibly fun to work with, gesture with, and use to punctuate my dialogue.

At last, when I look in the mirror, I want to see Charlie looking back at me. Our costume designer has given him a pair of wire rimmed glasses, which to me give him a rather sweet, vulnerable side that works wonderfully at odds with the snazzy suits and wisecracking dialogue. And to add that last bit of period flair that to me really evokes the late 19th century, I decided to grow a mustache for the role. Part of the reason for this decision was purely selfish. I hate gluing false beards and mustaches to my face. The spirit gum (a mixture of liquid resin and toxic spirits) stinks and burns the skin, and no matter how fine the quality of the hairpiece, inevitably, with facial movement and sweat, that thing will come loose on stage at some point and no one wants to have to deal with trying to keep a fake mustache from dropping off in the middle of a scene. Besides, actors love to transform themselves, and while I must say I feel rather self conscious in my daily life wearing a 'stache that might have been fashionable in the 70s but is completely outre now, I love it for Charlie.

So, am I an "outside in" actor, or an "inside out?" My answer is: both. You can't help but be, really. Your imagination has a life of its own--the script suggests things that evoke memories and images stored in the deep recesses of the brain; the historical research of the period the play is set in tells you things about your character's lifestyle; the clothes make you feel and move a certain way; the other actors will tell you about who you are in relationship to everyone else who populates this imaginary world. This is what makes an actor's art-- largely an interpretive art form-- so creative and exciting. Ultimately, the character is ME. Me in imagined circumstances. Until the actor grasps this concept, his work will be superficial--pasted on, like that fake mustache. All of Charlie's emotions, his needs and wants, are mine, emanating from me as a result of the way the imagined circumstances play on me. The accouterments, like dialect and costume, are the finishing touches, the cherry and the whipped cream on the sundae. It's my hope that my Charlie will be a delectable treat in the smorgasbord of theatrical delights the Goodspeed audience will enjoy in "Annie Get Your Gun."

1 comment:

  1. James - I found your blog by searching on Charlie Davenport. I will be in this role, my first semi-lead, in December. I appreciate the tips that you are providing in your blog that will allow me to build out Charlie's character to make it my own. Keep writing.