Interview: James Carpenter on Transitioning from Mamet to Shaw and his Twenty-Six Year Career at Cal Shakes
By Aliya Charney
In 1988, James Carpenter made his debut on the Cal Shakes stage (then called “Berkeley Shakespeare Festival,” its performance space then John Hinkel Park in Berkeley) as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1. Pygmalion (directed by Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone) marks his 30th production for Cal Shakes. Pygmalion is not Carpenter’s first time working with our Artistic Director. Moscone was a directing intern at Berkeley Rep in the early 90’s when Carpenter was a core company member. “Even then I knew he was going places,” said Carpenter of Moscone.
Aside from the location and name, how has Cal Shakes grown over the past 26 years? According to Carpenter, now a Cal Shakes Associate Artist, Cal Shakes “has become a national force. You can see the growth with every season because we are constantly reinventing ourselves here. It’s no longer just Shakespeare but American theater and world theater. For a season ticket holder this gives a well-rounded, theatrical experience.”
Hot on the heels from performing in David Mamet’s American Buffalo at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, Carpenter joins the cast of Pygmalion as Alfred Doolittle, the outspoken yet well-intentioned father of Eliza Doolittle. Perhaps no greater contrast exists in the theater than between Mamet and Shaw. (Carpenter describes American Buffalo as a “high voltage piece of danger.”) To smooth out his exceptionally quick transition from Mamet’s contemporary America to Shaw’s Edwardian London, Carpenter revealed that he would recite his monologues from American Buffaloin a Cockney accent. This allowed him to seamlessly transition from one piece to the next while simultaneously discovering the differences between his two wildly contrasting characters.
Discovering Alfred Doolittle is an ongoing process for Carpenter. In the beginning of the rehearsal process, he sat down with the text, piecing together Alfred’s world view and “wrapping [his] head around it.” Then, Carpenter applied this worldview to his scenes to give them a rough shape. “[Alfred] just wants to get by for the moment…[he’s] never planning too far ahead for the future,” he said.
Carpenter sees Alfred Doolittle as “the everyman’s voice” whom Shaw writes as a “counterpoint to Eliza’s story.” Just like Eliza, Professor Higgins creates a new Alfred Doolittle by the end of Act V, although Carpenter sees his character’s transformation as not a “conscious creation” like Eliza’s, but rather, an unintentional outcome of Higgins’ careless regard towards others. Doolittle is obsessed with happiness, and happiness, for him, emerges from having no responsibilities. Doolittle’s transformation forces him to take on unwelcome dependability and charity; the burden of the middle class, as Doolittle sees it, is living for others, not yourself.
On the rocky, estranged relationship between Alfred and his daughter, Eliza, Carpenter holds a bold theory: “I suspect Eliza is his favorite child,” Carpenter states, because “he has a delicacy in regards to telling her that he never married her mother. He doesn’t want to ruin her reputation or her life [being born out of wedlock]. [This] means that he cares for her…but she’s got his mouth and [he] could never make her shut up.” That’s where the true anger and resentment stems from: their similarities. Their complex relationship comes to a head in Act V, when Eliza begs her father to rescue her from Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering. Instead of rescuing his daughter, Doolittle leaves her to fend for herself between the two men. Carpenter grapples with Doolittle’s decision. “Is he abandoning Eliza or granting her independence?” Carpenter questions. “This is an example of one of those moments, as an actor, when you really have to pay very close attention to detail and think analytically. The answer may not come until opening night.”