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"Are We All Met?"

-A Midsummer Night's Dream III, i

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December 22, 2011 - 1 comment(s)

The Twelve Days of (a) Christmas (carol) - Passing the Chains

I took over the role of the Ghost of Jacob Marley upon the great John Buck’s decision to retire in 2004.  How I got the role was far from auspicious: Dudley Swetland, Scrooge at the time, approached me on the first day of rehearsal of The Taming of the Shrew earlier that year and said, “Buck retired.  I think you should do it next.”

I was 26 years old in 2004.  I was a year out of graduate school.  However all my hair had fallen out around the age of 22, so I could pass for older, and I’d played “old men” most of my still very young career.  I felt I could pull it off with a little make-up magic and vocal effects.  I had only been in A Christmas Carol once before: the year prior which was to be John Buck’s last go ‘round.  He was very sweet, very professional, though I didn’t pay much attention to the details of how he went about creating his performance.  I found that to be a blessing, freeing me up so I could put my own personal stamp on the role; how mine could be different.  Later I would discover what a waste of time that would be, as I was already different from Mr. Buck so logically my performance would naturally be different.

But John was very helpful as I took over the role, coming in to show me the ropes, as it were, teaching me the movements, how he threw the chains around, troubleshooting the long coat, and giving me some insight into the reasons why he did what he did.  Midway through our session, he stopped and noticed my dark brown beard that I had grown in an effort to stay true to the original design of the show.  He regarded my face for a moment, and then touched his own silvery facial hair and said, “My beard was that color too, when I started.”  Eight years in, and there are now three dozen or so white hairs doing their best to take over the whole colony of my once thoroughly brown beard.  Alas, it would have happened anyway, and at this rate I won’t have to use hair whitener for very much longer.  It’s harder to see the passage of time when you work on different plays, playing different roles.  But coming back to the same role, the same performance, year after year, makes it much more present. 

I had a moment during the performance the other night, as I was taking off my makeup, preparing for Act 2, where I thought about all of the things that I’d like to change, play differently or just re-examine.  I realized that although I was playing the same character that I’ve always played, but I am a different man than the one who stepped into the role back in 2004.  I’m interested in different things on stage, my way of expression is different…I’ve lived a bit more.  I know this may be of little importance to folks coming to see the show: they just see Jacob Marley.  But the constant work in any performance, whether you’re new to the role or if you’ve played it over a hundred and fifty times, is the fleshing out of a character, the imbuing of your own flesh and blood and feelings and thoughts to make a richer, deeper experience for the audience.  I think that the more you bring yourself to the table, in service of a great story, to help the audience see that there are real human beings being presented on stage, or at the very least approximations of humans, the easier it is for them to see themselves.

Now to be perfectly honest, Jacob Marley is not a very demanding role.  Yes it takes vocal and physical stamina to pull it off for the purposes of this production, but his scene is only 6 or 7 minutes long.  The make-up application takes longer than the total stage time for the character.  But it’s fun as hell to get in the costume and really transform into someone else.  As most of us play multiple roles in the show, I take it as a point of pride that most people don’t know which of the dozen or so Londoners on stage also plays Marley.

I think to me, the real challenge of playing the role is that the “action” of the character is also the “action” of the actor.  The look, the vocal effects, the entrance, all of the effects are designed to scare the audience, just as the appearance of the ghost must scare Scrooge.  But once that is established, both Marley and the actor must terrify with their words.  Marley’s regret for the way he lived his life and his description of what has happened to him is a cautionary tale for the audience, as well Scrooge.  That, to me, is the reason why I look forward to coming back to this play year after year.

-Lynn Robert Berg
Ten Seasons at Great Lakes Theater

(Lynn is one of only three actors to play the role of Jacob Marley in Great Lakes Theater’s production of A Christmas Carol over the past 23 years.)

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