Among the special skills demonstrated by actors in regional theatre in the past few years: playing gin rummy, cracking a whip, riding a horse, rope tricks, roller-skating, fly-fishing, knitting, playing basketball, knife fighting, sleight of hand, and performing an actual Caesarean section. Okay, I made that last one up. But still, how many of these skills do you possess? Actors have to work hard to acquire the feats of dexterity that many scripts demand. Not surprisingly, considering today's short rehearsal periods, they gear up well in advance so that by opening night the physical business is almost second nature.
At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, veteran actor Jonathan Toppo has been walking along a balance beam for the past few months, playing real-life circus performer Philippe Petit in the world premiere of Bridget Carpenter's Up. Petit is the Frenchman who made headlines in the 1970s by walking between the towers of the World Trade Center on an incline wire. Toppo's task is less risky. Describing the 3-inch-wide steel beam with three-quarter-inch plywood on top, he says, "The beam is on a platform going from 6 inches to an incline several feet high. So if I stumbled, my ego would be bruised, not my body." From the audience's vantage, it looks like a Cirque du Soleil solo.
The prop master built Toppo a portable beam to practice on in the actor's backyard for several months before rehearsals began. (The production runs through June 23.) He wanted to perform as many activities as the real Petit did—juggling, saluting, jumping, turning, lying down. Carpenter's lines, too, dictate many of the actions. But unlike Petit, Toppo must not only worry about balance but also listen for cues, maintain a connection and dialogue with the character underneath him, face stage lights shining in his eyes, coordinate some of his actions with a recorded musical score—and stay focused on his objectives.
He is amazed by the amount of concentration he needs. "Last night I was aware someone in the audience had a Palm Pilot, and I had to refocus," Toppo says. He's also amazed at the degree to which lighting affects balance. Sometimes he's backlit, sometimes front- or side-lit. "Looking directly into the light gives you a sense of vertigo. Your eyes will trick you."
Toppo shaped up by going to the gym, which he still does because the role is so tiring—probably due to "the amount of concentration and the amount of slight adjustments your body's making." Before each show he stretches and also practices all his moves on the beam, some with his eyes closed so he can rely on his feet. That gives him a sense of how his balance is that day. When performing, he says, "I have to be rigorous in my concentration, which is great practice."
A colleague at Oregon Shakespeare, New York–based actor Gwendolyn Mulamba, knows how to sew. But, for her role as Esther in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, she had to learn to work a vintage treadle sewing machine. She had plenty of time to learn, because she understudied the role for the Roundabout Theatre Company production in New York and at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles before taking it on fully at OSF. Her stage machine has one big foot pedal, and her feet have to be balanced just right to make it work. She says it's like driving a stick shift: You turn the wheel toward you while your right foot is placed forward and pushing away from you and your left foot is up in the air waiting for the pedal to come back up. Your right hand and each foot must be in sync. The costume staff taught her how to use the machine, and she says it's not that difficult, except that sometimes the little belt attached to the wheel pops off or the machine starts going backward. "I don't let it throw me," Mulamba says. "I take my time, try to figure out what's happening, get it going while keeping the dialogue going with my scene partner."
Sometimes Mulamba will stop fiddling with the machine until the dialogue gives her a break. "I'm always thinking about my objective," she says. "And the most important objective has to do with me and the other character." But, she adds, sewing enriches the scene: Her character is making a camisole for a neighbor who's having a bridal party, so the need to finish it in time ups the stakes.
Los Angeles actor Dominic Hoffman had to learn sleight of hand for the title role in the world premiere of David Mamet's Dr. Faustus at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. Magician Ricky Jay was slated for the role but got sick at the last minute, so Mamet, who directed, had to adjust the tricks to meet Hoffman's proficiency level, which the actor calls "nonexistent." A magician showed him a few tricks, which he practiced every day—and four or five times, very fast, before each performance. He refuses to divulge how he did the tricks; apparently he's now bound by the magician's universal code of honor. And yes, he screwed up royally a time or two. "I never felt confident about any of that stuff," he recalls.
Even actors who are also circus performers, such as Joan Mankin (most recently in The Black Rider at the Ahmanson in L.A.), can find certain skills challenging. For her role in The Gamester at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, she had to crack an 8-foot-long whip and also coil it around another character's neck. Warming up, she practiced with both her hands. "It's a juggling thing," she explains. "Juggling requires ambidexterity." Cracking with her left hand was hard, forcing her to take the action apart and analyze it. By the end of the run, she was cracking as well with her left hand as with her right—but still only achieving a really satisfying and scarily vibrating crack about 60% of the time. She wishes she'd gotten a cowpoke to teach her rather than taking general advice from fellow actors. Was it fun anyway? "Oh, yeah," she says, conceding that while she loved learning the skill, she also hated the frustration of it.
For an outdoor production of Oklahoma! last summer, Chaz Simonds, who played Will Parker, didn't have a certified cowboy to teach him how to ride a horse convincingly. But he and the actor playing Curly had four lessons from the guy who supplied the horses (plus rope-trick lessons from a bona fide wrangler). Simonds learned all about grooming, horsemanship, and saddles—"more than I needed for one minute on a horse, but it added to our self-confidence level." He spent lots of advance time bonding with Jack, a beautiful brown parade horse with a spot on his head, so by the time he mounted the horse, he felt comfortable (the actor, that is; who knows about Jack?). "The most difficult part is the adrenaline," says Simonds, who also had lines on horseback. "Getting off the horse, doing the song and dance, going into a rope trick while thinking about five other things, getting the correct timing with the music...having these extra things to think about makes you not worry about your acting, singing, and dancing.... If you don't fall off the horse, everything's fine."
ACT core company actor Gregory Wallace comments that for some actors, it's easy to learn new skills, but not for him. "I don't have a particular love for or great aptitude with props," he says, yet he's had to work with everything from medical instruments (for Tony Kushner's Angels in America) to firearms (for August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean). No doubt speaking for many other actors, he says, "Actually marrying and integrating organic life with very technical things—it's mind-boggling. I get incredibly excited when I succeed."