Andrew Ableson and Jeff Sugarman, currently appearing in Orson's Shadow at the Black Dahlia Theatre—as, respectively, Kenneth Tynan and Laurence Olivier—each carved out an impressive resumé prior to relocating to Los Angeles. Ableson, an English native with a background in multimedia performance, has numerous London stage credits, including A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe, Sweet Charity, The Ecstasy, Bent, and Legend. He also starred in a British sitcom for two seasons. Upon arriving in San Francisco, Ableson premiered in Shopping & Fucking, while appearing in plenty of independent films. Ableson has since reprised his gripping performance in Shopping in Los Angeles and guest starred on The Geena Davis Show and the yet-to-air Kristin.
New York transplant Sugarman, who makes his L.A. stage debut in Orson's Shadow, most recently appeared in South Coast Repertory's staging of The Countess as John Ruskin. His New York and regional theatre credits are extensive, among them Scenes From the New World, Orestes, and the national tour of The Heidi Chronicles. The actor has also appeared in All My Children, The Contractor, and The Beast, a pilot for ABC.
The two thesps recently met with Back Stage West at the Hollywood Canteen to chat about their play, auditions, and the ever-challenging accent.
Jeff Sugarman: When playing an icon, you don't want to do an imitation. You want to capture some of the essence of the character. I did a tremendous amount of reading about and watching Olivier's films, but really what I wanted to get at was the spirit beneath the picture we all have of the public persona. Interestingly, I found, as Olivier worked, that certain physical gestures or manners of speech sort of led me into my own sense of what Olivier might have been like.
Andrew Ableson: Was it through watching his films or through interviews? There were a couple of documentary interviews passed around that we all looked at.
Jeff: There was an interview with a 75-year-old Olivier. Olivier is 53 in the play. One of the most helpful things was reading Olivier's book on acting. Just the way he speaks in terms of acting gives you his sense of royalty with it, in a way, the sort of British false modesty that many Brits have. "Oh, no, no, please, please…." It's frightening to step into the big old shoes of somebody like Larry Olivier.
Andrew: I had an easy job, I think, really. Although Ken Tynan is very well known in this business, he's not well known outside of it, really. The name is known, but there isn't the physical embodiment that is so fixed in anyone's mind. A lot of English friends of mine, when I told them I was playing Ken Tynan, said they knew him for really random, bizarre things. He was the first person ever to say "fuck" on English TV, and it aired, or he was the guy who wrote Oh! Calcutta! He turned into this swinger, basically, in the middle to the end of the 1960s. They knew he was a snappy dresser, and he was an athlete. Luckily I wasn't tied to a way of speaking. The only thing, the key thing, was that he… he… he stuttered, as I stuttered actually on that sentence.
Jeff: As does the playwright, Austin Pendleton. He stutters except when he's onstage, which is interesting.
Andrew: And I've only ever seen one piece of film of Tynan, which I really had to search out at the UCLA film and TV archive. He's filmed as a talking head on this Lenny Bruce documentary that was done in the early '60s.
Coming to L.A.
Andrew: I was in San Francisco for five years beforehand doing mostly independent film and a fair bit of theatre, and Nash Bridges. That's the only TV show that's up there. I played two different characters in the same season, and that's when I realized I needed to leave because they were going to be fitting me with peg legs and false noses.
Jeff: I was reluctant for all those unfounded fears, like my image of L.A. After acting training I was more interested in getting a foundation in theatre, but I also thought I could get into television and film in New York. After doing a lot of theatre there and not finding as many doors open to film and TV, I was visiting a friend to see a show that he had done, and I auditioned for The Countess at South Coast Rep. I got in, so I came out here to do the show, and while I was out here I found more opportunities in a couple of months than I had found in several years in New York. What was the film and television scene like in London?
Andrew: It's weird, because people in America are very aware of English films, but you're talking about five films a year that make it to American cinemas. So there's this enormous pool of great actors, but the chance of doing film roles is very, very minimal. It's actually exploded in the last—actually since I left. But the explosion is still a very controlled explosion.
The TV scene, however, is actually almost the more prestigious route, but it's also tough to break into because I don't look particularly Anglo. I'm of Russian-Jewish heritage, and they were always asking me if I was Italian, French, Russian. I always looked like I was possibly from somewhere else. Most of the shows that you start up on in England are the cop shows or the fire department shows, and me in a fireman's helmet looks ridiculous, or in a cop's uniform or even as a doctor. I just look like I'm going to kill someone rather than help them.
I loved the idea of being in front of the camera and the process of filmmaking, but I couldn't get into the film industry. So when I was offered a work visa through an agent in San Francisco—Joan Spangler said she'd represent me—I came there specifically to work on a reel to get film experience. Ironically, it was a theatre piece that took me to another place, but whatever.
Have you played English people a lot? That's interesting to me because I'm the only English person in the show. That was the same when I was in Shopping and Fucking, as well, and I'm always interested to see how Americans react to that challenge, especially when there's an Englishman in their midst.
Jeff: The John Ruskin role I just did had a British accent, and I've done a couple of others in my time. The trickiest part of that is you want to get the dialect down even before rehearsals begin so you are not removed from the emotional reality of the character. That's the hardest thing because you don't want it to be this character with an accent.
Also, being open to the speech patterns of another dialect might inform or inspire a choice of character, the speaking, the rhythm. But, with British particularly, it's not enough simply to get the dialect word-perfect. You need to also get the inflection. I found it very challenging. I'm still doing my speech exercises every day so that it can be second nature. I do a speech warm-up every day before the show, British tongue twisters, Dr. Seuss in British dialect.
Andrew: I've played American a few times.
Jeff: It must be difficult coming the other way.
Andrew: It's horrible. It's so terrifying. I did an episode of Kristin, an NBC sitcom, which is under house arrest at the moment. But I played a Brooklyn playwright and theatre director. I was terrified at the audition because I just thought I would be so busted. Luckily it was a casting director I knew, so she knew I was English. That accent is one that is easier for me. But suddenly I got on the show, and we rehearse during the week, and then shoot on Friday night, and there was a 400-member audience. I just thought it would be dreadful, and afterward the network came down, and we were talking and they didn't know I was English. That was the best thing that happened all week, so I was very relieved.
Jeff: Well, I heard someone say you had a marvelous English accent in Orson's Shadow.
Jeff: So many times I've gotten prepared for an audition, and I auditioned and it went fairly well. The feedback was fabulous, but they already had a person in mind, somebody with a name or something. They had already chosen somebody.
Andrew: So they bring you in as a safety.
Jeff: You take those things in stride. Occasionally, as has happened twice in the last year for me, something happened with their first choice.
Andrew: Is there a pattern to these things, Jeff? Do they tend to fall down stairs? "As luck would have it, he had a boating accident."
Jeff: We'll have to keep an eye on that trend. BSW