Carpenter, Craig Marker, and Liam Vincent in Romeo and Juliet (2009); photo by Kevin Berne.
In the months leading up to our 2011 Main Stage season, we’ll be profiling the creative minds behind the season’s productions—Titus Andronicus, The Verona Project, Candida, and The Taming of the Shrew—in our e-newsletters. For this season’s inaugural installment, we’re featuring actor, longtime Cal Shakes Associate Artist, and occasional blogger James Carpenter who will play the titular role in Joel Sass’ production of Titus Andronicus. What follows is the full transcript of Cal Shakes’ November email interview with Jim. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.
In the next few months, you’ll be playing a wide variety of roles: your fifth turn as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at A.C.T.; the title character in The Dresser at San Jose Rep; and Titus in Cal Shakes’ first-ever production of Titus Andronicus. When approaching such disparate roles, do you look for commonalities between the characters? Or are you more intrigued by the differences between the roles?
I think I’m more intrigued by the differences in the roles and don’t really look for
the commonalities; if I see one I mark it and make sure I’m not making the same choice for the role I’m working on currently. Right now I’m “leapfrogging” projects—learning lines for The Dresser on BART while rehearsing and performing Christmas Carol, reading through 3 Sisters which I’ll be performing at BRT while rehearsing for Titus, and then trying to find time to read and get acquainted with Titus itself.
Can you share any additional early thoughts on preparing for Titus?
Titus seems a man who has lived “by the book” most of his life—he has a sense of order of the way life should be lead, both militarily and at home; when this sense of order is displaced by chaos, by injustice, by random brutality rather than that measured brutality in which his military self resides, he finds himself emotionally at sea with no stars to guide him. That’s about it for now on that front, sadly—hopefully I’ll wax a bit more productive on these issues.
Do you have a favorite role (or a few favorite roles) you’ve played here at Cal Shakes? What, when, and why?
“Richard II in the mid-’90s (1994, directed by Penny Metropulos) would have to be at
the top of my list; a beautiful play, and one I had nearly a year to work on, much time to decipher a tricky role. I was three quarters of the way memorized when we started rehearsals and knew the way he walked, moved, and talked—I think it energized the rest of the cast to some degree and everyone was 100% on board, everyone looked for interesting choices. (It was) a beautiful piece for actors and our cast was splendid—L. Peter Callender as Bolingbroke, Domenique Lozano as Lady Gaunt (Duchess of York, actually. —ed., dusty from the Cal Shakes archive loft) I think, were both brilliant and I remember the closing night specifically because Peter asked if I’d be godfather to his child-to-be.
James Carpenter and Susannah Schulman in Nicholas Nickleby; photo by Kevin Berne.
We both proved ourselves to be sentimental old duffs by weeping copiously. You should check out the review the Chron wrote some time—a three-inch high caption on the review.
Another would have to be Much Ado that I did the next year, I believe; Domenique L. was Beatrice to my Benedick—both of these were directed by Penny Metropulos, and we had a splendid cast for this one as well.
During Jon’s tenure I’d have to say that Nicholas Nickleby (2005) would have been at the top—a wonderful story told with love and joy, a fantastic cast and Jon’s beautiful direction. It was an amazing experience.
I loved doing Gloucester in Lear (2007, directed by Lisa Peterson)—I have wanted to play that cliff scene ever since I first saw it on PBS; and I enjoyed my bit in Richard III (2007, directed by Mark Rucker) and loved watching Reg Rogers’ splendid performance. I’d have to say my newest favorite would be Macbeth, mostly because of Joel Sass. He had such an acute vision for the show, allowed his actors so much input and is just such a delightful man in general that it made the experience exciting, made us challenge ourselves and push the envelope. I’m expecting more of the same in Titus!
What’s the first piece of theater you ever saw? Alternately (or in addition), what was the first piece you saw that really made you think, “I want to be a part of this”?
Good question …what was it? I remember my sister doing Who Stole Granny’s Garters or some such play at her junior high—I loved it. What made me want to be a part of it? I’ll give you an extensive quote from my blog—an old story of how Jim started. Ready?
I was 17 and a junior in high school and got a role in the school play, Father Goose, playing the strange, wacky, sex-crazed 17-year-old. Typecast first thing off the bat. Thankfully, the only thing I can remember of my performance is that first, fateful opening night…
The first time I appeared was from stage left with jacket on; I was to run in, cross to the other actor at stage right, and deliver my line to him, peel my jacket off as I went, and toss it back over my shoulder without looking, in the general direction of the coat tree standing near the door I’d just entered. I did so. I got about half of my line out before the audience came unglued. Howling. I was facing right; my friend who was facing me was looking stage left over my shoulder with his eyes wide…?????????… The audience wouldn’t stop laughing.
Pulled by an irresistible tug of curiosity, I turned slowly around, the audience’s anticipation of my eventual reaction making the laughter increase the farther I turned. My eyes fell on the coat tree and there, on one of the hooks, hung my jacket. By the collar. My jaw dropped. The audience laughed more. But I didn’t ignore this and continue with the scene—I walked to the coat tree, turned up the edge of the jacket and saw I’d unwittingly performed a minor miracle; the jacket had landed so that the loop on the inside of the garment’s neck had slid neatly over the hook. My jaw dropped again. I showed the audience. They screamed … I’d by now abandoned all pretense of being in character and looked straight out at the kids I’d incited to near-riot, and who were by now red in the face and pounding the tables, and just laughed right back at them. And even though I knew I was being an utter fool, I didn’t care; it was elating—thrilling somehow.
THAT was the moment I knew I wanted to be an actor.
Who are your all-time favorite actors?
Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins.
You were named of one 2010’s Lunt-Fontanne Fellows, and took part in a week-long master class last summer at Ten Chimneys Foundation. What are some of the lessons you learned during that experience that continue to inform your work?
I learned that there are depths to Shakespeare’s work that I may never rise to; that his words, his work and his thoughts are so modern, still so current that it takes my breath away at times. I learned some small smattering of new techniques, new ways of looking at the material—I can’t say how much it will affect my future work, but the experience itself was so productive and inspiring that I will carry it with me always.
And finally, if you could have appeared any play in history, what (and/or where, and/or with whom) would it be?
I have no idea. I kind of like where I am right now.
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