Actor Spotlight: Ron Campbell on The Comedy of Errors, Masks, and Clowning

By Aliya Charney

Ron Campbell in "Kooza."

After a seven-year sabbatical, Ron Campbell is back at Cal Shakes. Five years ago, Campbell “ran away with the circus,” performing as The King in over 2,000 shows of Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza (directed by David Shiner) across the globe, collaborating with over 50 artists of 22 different nationalities. His final production took place this past New Year’s Eve in Paris.

Previously, through Cal Shakes, Campbell was the recipient of the Fox International Fellowship, in which he was awarded a grant to tour the world studying masks. Campbell is a prolific mask maker, with over 50 handmade masks in his repertoire. He teaches workshops at his studio, Soar Feat Unlimited, as well as in theaters across the Bay Area, training actors in the delicate art of mask acting. “Mask work gets the short shrift. We see it as a form of conjuring, supernatural. It’s got a spooky edge to it.” Through his teaching and workshops, Campbell is changing the way audiences and actors respond to masks. “Masks are evilly delicious tools used in teaching more often than performance.” Campbell hopes to incorporate more mask work into his future stage roles.

Although in Cal Shakes’ upcoming production of The Comedy of Errors he wears no literal mask, Campbell still makes use of his mask training through props, costumes, and language. Campbell views mask work as a mandate to be truthful, that is, externals allow him to obtain a sense of what the physical body of his character should be. “When I hold [Egeon’s] twisted staff and put on his long coat, I transform. As a receptive actor, try having [those costume pieces] not have an effect on you.” On mask acting in Shakespeare, Campbell suggests that the true masks lie in Shakespeare’s poetic language. “Speech is the beginning of the character. Language allows the actor to become physically aware.”

Mask acting is not the only experience Campbell is bringing back to the Cal Shakes stage. On applying the pitfalls and pratfalls of circus life to his new work, Campbell feels that he has become more aware of the audience when he performs. His years in Kooza have taught him to banish “the fourth wall,” a theater convention that separates the audience from the actors. Recalling a particularly memorable performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Ron interacted with Prince William and Duchess Kate Middleton, demanding his “crown” and attempting to climb up into the royal box where the two were seated. “You’ll never take the full clown out of me,” Ron remarks. “There are lessons of the clown that can be applied to, say, Hamlet.”

A sample of Ron's mask work.

Campbell views clowning as a continuum in which, in its most extreme case, nothing ever gets accomplished. But according to Campbell, director Aaron Posner is finding the balance of incorporating clowning with driving the action of the play forward in The Comedy of Errors. “Clowning is definitely present but nothing is stalled by it for the sake of a few laughs. The play is driven and balanced. A difficult feat with clowning.”

Campbell, who played in The Comedy of Errors at Cal Shakes in the 2004 production (directed by Sean Daniels) as the twin Dromios (alongside a life-sized puppet of himself), compares his experience ten years ago to today. “Not only have the people changed,” Campbell relates, “but the world has changed since then, and Shakespeare has changed with it.

When asked what his dream role would be, Ron responded: “anything out at the beautiful Bruns Theater. I have a deep fondness of the human voice and [performing at the Bruns] is like being a jazz musician. You have to adapt your voice to a sudden gust of wind or a helicopter overhead. You don’t get that indoors.”

You can see Ron Campbell clowning his way through The Comedy of Errors, which begins previews on June 25th and opens on June 28th.

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For more information about Ron Campbell’s workshops, visit www.soarfeat.org.

Interested in learning more about Ron’s experiences in Kooza, mask acting and martial arts? Visit www.RonCampbelltempest.blogspot.com. And visit www.soarfeat.wordpress.com to read Ron’s poetry and travel journal.

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