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NickNick: Three Roles

Now that NickNick is over, I have had a few people come up to me and tell me that they enjoyed it, which is nice. I wrote—ten years ago??—about how to talk to near-strangers who you have seen in a local production, and that seems to have done some good. My standard response is now Thank you for coming; it’s very kind of you to tell me, which seems to do the job.

I have been ruminating, though, on several people specifically telling me that they were impressed by my playing different roles. And, yes, it’s a nifty trick. I played three roles, with three different voices and three different physical traits (I hope), and it’s nice, I suppose, that people are impressed by that. I like impressing people! And, you know, it’s a trick that I am good at: I played three roles in The Man Who Came to Dinner, two in Pygmalion and eighteen or so in Hearts. It’s fun to do. It’s also easy. Still and all, for LoveTheatreDay, here’s a little note from my point of view about doing the three NickNick roles.

Well, and first of all I’m a technique actor with a certain facility with accents. Vocally, I can usually just slot in an accent for a character: William, the waiter at the Saracen’s Head in Snow Hill: Cockney; Wagstaff, the Shakespearean actor: Upper class English; Brooker, the mysterious stranger: Cornish. I did have to develop the West Country accent, never having played a Cornishman before, but that’s the facility with accents part. I listened to a bunch of recordings of Cornishmen (on the British Library’s Accents and Dialects site, an invaluable resource) and then after marking up my script had only a few questions to ask our dialect coach (I mentioned this was at a performing arts conservatory, yes? We had a dialect coach, a resource the students did not take as full advantage of as might be hoped.) about specific words (the word again was the main one, whether to rhyme with grain or hen but also whether the first syllable would get slurred into the previous word or given weight of its own). Mostly, though, putting on three accents in three different scenes is not much more difficult than putting on one accent. Particularly if the dialogue is well-written for that accent.

Physically, as a technique actor I am used to starting (and sometimes finishing) with exterior attributes: a walk, a gestural style, a costume, a prop. William the Waiter didn’t really come together physically until I got my apron. He was the last of my characters assigned to me, and to be honest the one I worked on the least. In the end, I settled on William keeping his smeary hands in the pockets of his dingy apron as much as possible; when he takes them out, it’s for a purpose (to carry a tray or shift a table, or to usher in or out a customer) and when that is completed, the hands are wiped carefully on the apron and then returned to the pockets.

Wagstaff the Actor is a comic drunk, staggering and falling, with actual staff wagging. The joke of him is that he is an irascible old drunk who plays the virtuous old gentlemen; in the novel, the company also contains a virtuous old gentleman who plays the irascible old drunks. That joke goes away, in the play, and the remaining joke is pretty much that Wagstaff is a drunk. So, staggering and falling, listing to one side as much as possible. His arms go out, with broad gestures, to balance himself. Wagstaff’s hands, at rest, have their palms out (toward the audience), and he gestures from his wrists. He also wears pince-nez, and so has no peripheral vision, requiring him to turn his head entirely toward whatever he looks at.

I am playing Brooker, the mysterious stranger, without glasses at all, which is always a bit of a challenge for me, but I think spectacles would not go with the ragged and shapeless layers of garments and battered hat that indicate Brooker’s homeless poverty. As a result, Brooker makes very few gestures at all, and doesn’t move his feet much, either, which (more or less coincidentally) makes a nice contrast with Wagstaff’s wanderings. He strides quickly, to where he is going, and then plants himself and stays. I also had a tendency to hunch my shoulders a bit under the weight of the layers, and had to remind myself to pull up my neck and jut out my chin: Brooker is aggressive, not defeated, even if he is beaten down by circumstances. For the long speech, I held my hat in my two hands—gesturing a couple of times by thrusting it forward, but otherwise keeping my arms and torso still (I did take a couple of steps in one direction and then back, to draw in the rest of the people in the room; I am now thinking it may have worked better if I hadn’t) as much as is possible for me.

I also grew my hair out and brushed it differently for the three: William the waiter had my usual part on the left, but brushed as flat as possible without Brylcream and back off my forehead; Wagstaff had the same part but loose in waves, and a little loose kiss-curl on the forehead; and Brooker was brushed straight forward over the brow in what (as far as I could tell in advance from the mirror and I think was verified in production photos) looked like a homeless man’s fringe. Assisted, no doubt, by the fact that by the time Brooker takes his hat off, it’s almost three hours into Play Two, and I have been schvitzing like a hydrant.

So: three parts, quite differentiated from each other. I also appeared as a muffin seller and as a toff in a casino, both effectively without lines, and I didn’t worry much about differentiating those. I also gave a few lines of narration in a few places, mostly not ‘in character’ but as one of a team of narrators; I don’t know how that worked into the audience’s experience of me in multiple parts. Perhaps it was confusing, I don’t know; anyone I am liable to chat with about it knew me beforehand and that in itself would tend to make it less confusing. Well, anyway, that’s the playing different roles trick that people seemed to enjoy, and I’m glad they did enjoy it, after all.

But I do have to say that my immediate reaction is to take those people and shake those people and say: Three different roles is an easy trick! Do you know what’s difficult? Playing one role that grows and changes over six hours! But I am good, and thank them for coming, and for their kindness.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,