Building "This Beautiful City"
One of the key pieces of context for me in this show is that it marks my return to the stage as an actor after two years of teaching and directing. That's been very exciting, but also quite nerve-wracking. I forgot, for example, just how much the addition of new technical elements can mess with my muscle-memory; the first day we rehearsed on the assembled set I blew dozens of lines I had known cold two weeks earlier. I even made an entrance from the wrong side of the stage. Lights and costumes were less of an issue. I'm very much a foot actor; it's my connection to the ground that you can't mess with. Change my footing or adjust my blocking at a late date and I can guarantee trouble will ensue.
It's nice to be back in a multiple-character role, a genre I grew to specialize in during my years with Richmond Shakespeare. (In fact, RS devotees may even recognize the appearance of Moped Man during the second act.) It's an interesting and unique set of challenges for us to be playing real people rather than fictional characters. Two of my roles, military religious freedom activist Michael Weinstein and journalist Noel Black, are published authors, and several of us play people who can be easily found on YouTube and CNN. That said, I have to admit here that I refrained from looking up my characters. It's a bit snooty, but I'm not a fan of impersonation as a foundational acting technique, unless one is playing an exceptionally famous person. Scott Melton, for example, is playing Pastor Ted Haggard, and many of his lines are culled from national television footage; in his case, impersonation was necessary. By eschewing that requirement, I was freed up to create characters using more traditional actor tools.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention here that my Revolution House of Prayer leader has a little bit of Stephen A. Smith in him--mainly because I can't stand Stephen A. Smith.)
It's a fascinating challenge to be speaking the words of real people, people who are still around and who could conceivably show up to see your performance, as Ted Haggard himself did in New York last year. (You've gotta give the man huge respect for that.) Even more interesting is the contrast between Weinstein and an unnamed Catholic priest I play, each of whom has completely opposite perspectives on the issue of separation of church and state. As an actor, you must naturally always find something to love about each character you play, and you must certainly believe in the right of what they believe in. I've certainly played enough villains to have learned that. Playing a real person and speaking their exact words is a whole other level of responsibility. We must have complete respect for each role we play or the integrity of the show is completely lost.
Because the thing about This Beautiful City that makes it unique is its genre. It's a documentary, pure and simple, something almost never seen on stage. Yes, it's full of music (a musical documentary??), it's often moving, frequently hilarious, and occasionally somewhat terrifying. But it's non-fiction from start to finish, and we have to approach the show with a documentarian's eye. It's one thing to pursue the artistic or emotional truth of a script, to honor a playwright's intention and a director's vision. Honoring the personal truth of a city full of real, vital, dynamic, diverse people is an entirely different challenge, and it is one we took very seriously. Complete respect was our responsibility.
This Beautiful City is unlike any other play you will see in Richmond this season. It may be unlike any other play you have ever seen, or that you will ever see. I really hope you come out to see it. It approaches issues of faith and identity in a way that is more frank, more real, and more necessary than any piece of fictional theatre can do. It will make you laugh and it may make you cry. It will make you think and it may make you angry. I am immensely proud to be working with this cast and crew, and to be making my debut with director John Knapp and the ambitious Richmond Triangle Players.