I never considered how daunting it could be to play a historical figure. But a year ago I was cast to play Thomas Jefferson in a three-hander at the Lantern Theater, and I assure you I have been mildly daunted ever since. (THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THOMAS JEFFERSON, CHARLES DICKENS, & COUNT LEO TOLSTOY: DISCORD, performing throughout the month of June - and yes, that's the longest title in the history of titles.)
I think it is fair to say that I bear little physical resemblance to our famous founding father – he was taller than I, fairer of complexion, and far more red-headed than I, to name just the most obvious differences. (I suppose, you could qualify it as non-traditional casting.)
This is compounded, in my mind, by the fact that I’ll be taking on this persona IN PHILADELPHIA. In fact, when I arrive at the theater for rehearsal every day, I get off the train at Jefferson Station. I walk past Jefferson Hospital. The theatre is a stone’s throw from the apartment where Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence, and Independence Hall is only another brief jaunt down the street. His likeness is, quite literally, all around me every day. (On the first day of rehearsal, I stopped for a snack. My change was exactly one nickel, and there was Jefferson, again, in the palm of my hand.)
My job, though – and I’ve had to remind myself of this a number of times over the past year - is not to focus on those deficiencies in resemblance (which are physical traits that I cannot entirely control), but to leverage the characteristics that I DO connect with. He was a southern gentleman (who probably had a gentle southern drawl), a man of reason, of logic, and principle. He was mild-tempered, and somewhat introverted. He disliked personal conflict, etc, etc. These traits are all things I know I can wear comfortably. Our director, James Ijames certainly felt that to be true when he cast me in the role.
Most importantly, though, is to remind myself every day, that my job is not really to impersonate Thomas Jefferson, but to play this particular character, in this particular play, which is partly about a man who, or course, resembles our third president, but exists, more specifically, within his own world as created by playwright Scott Carter. My real job is to honor THAT creation.
And so it was a great relief to finally begin rehearsals last week, to get back to the work I understand. Getting into the words and the relationships on the page and bringing them to life. And it’s a gift to be sharing the room with two very talented cast mates, a very smart director and generous production team (with a special shout-out to our extraordinary dramaturg, Meghan Winch). It’s good to remember that it’s still the same process it has always been: discover the point of view, establish the stakes, play the objectives, and, oh yeah, memorize the words. And just like always, hopefully, if you do that well, and the design team helps you look good, then the audience suspends their disbelief, and we all go on a really great ride together every night.
I’m no longer feeling daunted. I’m enjoying the ride, and excited to see where we go.