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London, and the World, Calling

What are the odds that a California boy will grow up to play Charles Dickens characters at the London Palladium? It wasn't something I planned. My ambitions were set on playing in Shakespeare and Shaw. Training at London's Guildhall seemed a logical step toward my dream. Through many years of theater on three continents, the biz has taught me a few lessons: (A) North America produces far more Shakespeare and Shaw than Britain does; (B) British actors in classical plays are woefully underpaid; and, of course, (C) Work is what comes along when you're planning your "career."

On Dec. 15, I'll be narrating Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale" with Chamber Music Palisades in Los Angeles. I've played L.A. in previous decades: Nicholas Nickleby with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Ahmanson and Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood" at the Doolittle (Huntington Hartford). But this concert will truly be a homecoming to the neighborhood in which I grew up. It's also a reminder of the extraordinary power of good teaching: the director of the concert is Dolores Stevens, the very same teacher who first got me to stand up on a stage and sing.

So how does a boy make the move from L.A. to London? Before drama school, my brief experience of the U.S. acting profession was that every actor had a "survival" job. Leading actors in regional theater (my heroes as a teenager) led nomadic lives without family. In my first year in London, I met actors with mortgages and grown-up lives, living in a country that didn't frown on low incomes. Of course, all of that has changed now: London actors struggle just as much as actors in L.A. and NYC, and being a starving artist is definitely not cool.

But in the '80s I was sold on life in London: In my third year of school, I was offered work and an Equity card. This was an amazing time for London. But having weathered the recession of '88 to '92, I too was growing tired of being a starving artist. I left the world of Shakespeare for the world of West End musicals—with an immediate boost to my income. I still wasn't allowed to speak in my American dialect; inevitably I played the swarthy foreigner with an ethnic accent. I was hungry for a big American role—in particular Billy Bigelow in "Carousel." So when I learned that the 1995 "Carousel" production team would be at an audition for "Oliver!" I naturally went along to sing one of Billy's big songs. The audition went terribly well. That production of "Carousel" never went on a U.K. tour, but I somehow ended up with "Oliver!" encoded in my DNA. I was playing Sowerberry and covering Fagin—the only "Yank" in a very British cast at the London Palladium.

I finally got to speak in the accent of my youth when I joined the Reduced Shakespeare Company in the West End. I believe I'm the only actor to work with both companies called RSC. And somehow Dickens keeps popping up in my career—a fourth time last year, in a new West End musical called "Dickens Unplugged." (Keep your eyes open for a U.S. tour in 2011.)

Concert pieces have become an unexpected staple in my repertoire: beginning with "Façade" and "Babar the Elephant" with the Sarasota Orchestra. Who knew that score-reading could be so useful to an actor?

For those of you feeling xenophobic: Actors complain equally about foreigners coming over and taking the roles. As someone who works on both sides of the Atlantic (and viewed as a foreigner in both countries), I can report that the exchange (and the griping) really is pretty even. My greatest wish is that more theater people would travel and see what other countries are doing on stage.

Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" ("The Soldier's Tale") is presented by Chamber Music Palisades at 8 p.m., Dec. 15, at St. Matthews Parish, 1031 Bienveneda, Pacific Palisades, Calif. (310) 463-4388.

Bryan Torfeh has been a member of England's Royal Shakespeare Company for numerous seasons and has performed in regional theater across the U.S. A Pacific Palisades, Calif., native, he attended Windward School in Santa Monica and holds degrees from UC Santa Cruz and London's Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

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