Actor Andrew Pond Takes on Dozens of Characters in The 39 Steps
February 17, 2016 § Leave a comment
Often, when thinking about what makes a great actor, the word “versatility” gets bandied about. The ability to convincingly play several different types of characters is highly lauded in the theatre. It’s an attribute that most actors strive to develop, and as a theatre teacher, it’s an attribute that I try to instill in my students. Fortunately, it also appears to be an attribute, as far as Metropolis is concerned, that I possess, since they have cast me now in several shows where I am required to play multiple roles within the same show.
It’s a unique situation that brings with it some interesting, and unexpected challenges. “But Andrew,” you may ask, “what are those challenges? I mean, if you play different characters, you just come out in different costumes, right?” The simple answer is yes. But The 39 Steps is anything but simple. Firstly, as I tell my students, every person has a different physicality–the way they walk, stand, hold themselves, gesture, etc. Each character you play onstage needs a different physicality. This is not only for the truth of the person you’re portraying, but also because it helps the audience instantly recognize the fact you are someone different. And that is necessary because unlike some other shows, where people playing multiple roles have plenty of offstage time to change not only their costumes, but in some cases, style their hair differently or add makeup effects, the actors playing multiple roles in The 39 Steps are often required to change characters within the span of seconds. Sometimes we change characters onstage in full view of the audience, switching back and forth at breakneck speed. This makes being able to develop and remember different physical traits for each character essential so the audience doesn’t get confused.
Speaking of breakneck speed, the actors playing the two Clowns (who play all but four roles in the show) are also responsible for the lion’s share of the set changes. Because this show is based on a movie, there are A LOT of scene changes. So, not only do we, as actors, have to change our physicality and costumes in the blink of an eye, we must also, at the same time, manipulate large wheeled platforms and even larger wheeled set pieces rolling on and offstage, very often trying to change clothes or grab a prop at the same time, while also avoiding the other large wheeled set pieces sitting backstage. It is chaos. But, thanks to the incredible help of the two-person set crew backstage (yes, you read that right–two people) the chaos is controlled and is reduced to merely mayhem.
Because there are only four actors in the show, all of us spend a lot of our time running (sometimes literally–at one point in the show I am sprinting full speed from an exit on one side of the stage to reach an entrance on the other side within about four lines) from one side of the stage to the other. The 39 Steps is an incredibly physical show. I liken it to a two hour sprint. It is both physically and technically demanding. Your mind, as an actor, has to constantly be working along two parallel lines–what you are doing onstage as an actor, creating believable characters for the audience, and where the next platform full of furniture has to be set before you run offstage, grab a coat and a wig, sprint to the other side of the stage and come on as a completely DIFFERENT believable character for the audience. It’s taxing, it’s exhausting, and when you’re in your 40’s, like I am, you wake up a lot of mornings with your body wondering why you hate it so much. But when it all comes together, when the costume change fits perfectly in the space right after you set the door flat and you somehow manage to worm your way through the rest of the set pieces backstage to make your entrance on the exact line necessary to get a huge laugh from the audience, it is also exhilarating. And the beautiful thing is, this production, even before an audience has seen it, has reached that exhilaration point. It is fast-paced, well-timed, and hilarious. It’s a joy to work on, and the challenge of creating more characters than should be allowed in such a short span of time is a challenge I relish. Come see it. You never know–you might just catch my full out sprint if you watch closely enough.