Working on Spamalot has been a treat, but it’s also felt a little strange, and I finally realized that part of the reason why must be that I am in fact unused to performing.
Think about it—since I started directing theatre in Newnan in 1975, here’s a list of the shows in which I had roles:
- Hotel Paradiso, Maxime
- Midsummer, Oberon (1979) & Theseus (1997)
- Twelfth Night, Antonio
- The Dining Room, various
- You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Schroeder
- Love Letters, Andrew
- Pericles, Gower
- Henry VI/3, Clifford
- Into the Woods, The Baker
- Marriage of Figaro, Count Almaviva
- Wit, Dr. Kelekian
- Auntie Mame, Mr. Babcock
- Coriolanus, Aufidius/various
That’s it. Out of the hundreds of shows done in Newnan for the past 38 years, I have had roles in fewer than twenty of them, and only five of those could be considered lead roles, and only one of those was a starring role.
And Arthur, King of the Britons, is a starring role, the kind that gets your name up in lights on the marquee if not the top of the Playbill title page. That’s hard for me to wrap my head around, actually.
It’s not because I am unused to being a star, because in GHP Land I am a huge star where hundreds of people whose names I do not know think I am wonderful and gush on Facebook that they saw me at some function or other. (It’s mostly amusing and of course bunches of fun, but even on that small scale I am acutely aware of the responsibility to be perceived as cheerful and gracious to my “fans.”)
That’s not what I’m talking about with Arthur, however. Arthur is not about being a star, about stardom, it’s about handling a starring role. On one level, of course, there’s nothing different about it than any other role—you learn your lines, your songs, your choreography (eventually), and you use your skills to evoke laughter/tears/delight/horror/whatever.
On another level, though, there is a huge difference between being Arthur and being the Third Peasant from the Left. There is a responsibility to the production that does not weigh in the same way on the Third Peasant; if he flubs a lyric or a step or screws up the timing on some gag, hardly anyone but his mother will notice, whereas if I screw up something, it has the potential to wrench the whole show out of its frame.
There is also a curious sense of dividedness inherent in the role. On the one hand, there is a huge amount of attention being showered on me, but at the same time, it’s not really me, it’s Arthur. This is true of any role, of course, and it’s one reason some people have a hard time committing to playing the truths of an unpleasant character, but it’s magnified in a very weird way in a starring role. I can see why some actors would become irritating divas: if you confused Arthur’s “stardom” with your own, you might begin to believe that it was you that everyone loved so incredibly much. That way madness lies.
I’m not sure even now that I’ve adequately explained how odd playing a starring role is for me. I’m sure anyone reading this is likewise puzzled, because I imagine that most people would never associate “shy, self-deprecating modesty” with me. But dammit, I’ve been working on that, and now here’s a stumbling block in my path to enlightenment. Which you can see for yourself March 13-24 at Newnan Theatre Company.
3 thoughts on “Spotlight on… me?”
Your list of performances omits all of the juicy cabaret bagatelles you have tossed off over the years. Don’t forget about those. We can’t.
Watched something recently about the late Graham Chapman and the comments about his work in the original film may prove helpful. His fellow Pythons all noted that he took the roll very seriously. Never played for laughs. They also pointed out that he was useless after lunch because he was, by then, quite snockered. If we combine these, the advice is: time for some serious drinking.
I did omit all the cabaret and murder mystery performances. Sue me.
Ironically, Chapman’s performance has been on my mind in recent rehearsals and largely because of what you’ve noted: his absolute straightness in the role. In general, the difficulties in playing any of the roles in the show are attributable to the difference between film and stage. Where Chapman could blink uncomprehendingly at the latest outrage to logic from beginning to end, I find that it makes more sense to give the audience an arc wherein we see Arthur grow increasingly frustrated with the loonies. By the time we get to “Skip a bit, Brother Maynard,” the only possible reaction to the gag (not in the film, btw) is a Bugs Bunny burn.
Also, too, within the frame of the show, Arthur has to waver in and out of the fourth wall in ways that the film chose not to do until the whole thing came undone at the end.
But I agree: heavy drinking might be useful.