Temporarily removed. Content will return in a week or two.
Recently, I received a request for information from a writer at the Huffington Post working on a story about presidential impersonators. While it can be said I “impersonate” two US presidents plus a couple of other men – it’s not something I’m likely to say. The Post writer is hoping to connect my work and the work of others with the comic presidential impersonators we see on Saturday Night Live, Mad TV and elsewhere.
This post was temporally removed until the writer’s work was competed. Its absence went unnoticed; I doubt its return will generate excitement.
My remarks didn’t make the cut but my photos appear in a slide show in conjunction with the story. You may read Mr.David Moye’s Huffington Post piece at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/14/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-impersonator_n_1190243.html?ref=weird-news
In response to some of Mr. Moyes questions:
Many solo actors hedge themselves in characterizing exactly what it is that they do. I perform ‘solo history’. That’s what I say I do. I let people describe what I do as they choose; though I draw the line at “look-a-like”. The late Bill Meikle performed “Franklin, Alive!” - he was numbered among the very best in New England. Bill would say with some heat: “I do not ‘impersonate’ Dr. Franklin! “I ‘personate’ him!” And, he did for many years and I miss him.
Why Calvin Coolidge?
I was born in Vermont – as was Coolidge; he more famously on the 4th of July, 1872. In 1976 I was cast as CC in a play and found him a fascinating puzzle. At once it was clear that there was more to him than the nonentity fostered by historians. Coincidentally, I was drawn to minimalist playwright – Samuel Beckett. Ten years later it didn’t seem much of a stretch to reach out to the minimalist president. Besides, no actor had ever “done” Coolidge. New Deal historians did a hatchet job of bullship and scholarshit on old “Silent Cal”. As I read his speeches and autobiography I could hear a voice in my head; I liked the way it sounded. I liked his honesty, humility and humor. Especially his humor – Will Rogers said: “Calvin Coolidge was one of the funniest public men I ever met!”
John Quincy Adams?
JQA offers a powerful example of what a man can do at the end of life if he is driven to do something. In his Journal he remarks that he might have preferred a literary career – a “life of letters”. I incorporate some of his poetry and present the last decade of his extraordinary career. Fact: I’d quite like to keel over and make my final exit in performance much as he did in Congress. (I’m not in any hurry!) I’m older than my other characters. When I started out with Coolidge in 1985 I was playing this old man who used to be president. Today: I play Coolidge as a young man who was once president. I’ve a few years left to grow out of Adams.
Which one came first and why?
Coolidge first. Physically – I “fit” both men. I wouldn’t consider a character I could not “see” myself in. When I started with “More Than Two Words” I didn’t think of myself as one who would stay long with solo history. I was a serious actor devoted to Williams, Miller, Osborne, Shakespeare, Beckett, etc., but like Michael Corleone says: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
How long does it take to work up an act; what’s the biggest challenge?
I’m never “ready” - However: All you really need is your character and a performance date. That focuses the mind. I look for the “way” into each character and the “way” out. We find Calvin Coolidge at one of his twice-weekly press conferences; John Quincy Adams sits for his “last” portrait. (Here, I see the influence of Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”.) All my work is in progress. I’m never ready; I’m never done. My performances are a work in process; my biggest challenge is getting a lazy actor to rehearse!
“The Way to Study the Past is not to confine oneself to mere Knowledge of History but, through application of this knowledge: To Give Actuality to the Past.”
- from the I Ching or Book of Changes
Richard Wilhelm translation, 1950
That’s what I hope I’m doing. “Giving Actuality to the Past”.
What are the keys to doing Coolidge on stage? What about Adams?
With both men – “Why is this man talking?” and – “Who does he think we -his audience- are?”
Side note: The “key” to performing King Lear? A light Cordelia!
With Coolidge – How do you motivate a man to speak who is noted for reticence? Very soon, I understand “Silent Cal” was a myth; a myth which he encouraged and cultivated. True, he lacked any capacity for small talk, and – unlike most of us: He was comfortable with silence.
JQA was an intellectual giant; it is generally believed he had the highest IQ of any president. With Adams it was a matter of adjusting JQA’s language so it is attuned to the contemporary ear. As far as possible, in all performances – I use the man’s actual words; edited, of course. (See above I Ching quote)
How do they differ?
Coolidge and Adams? I’ve written at length on this – See:
In response to a question about SNL type impersonators:
I admire their work but we are engaged in very different activities; I might be able to offer advice to an actor fifty years from now but I have nothing helpful for impersonators of contemporary figures. We are as “like” as table tennis and badminton. They must project what is familiar and known. The audience sees and “gets” it. Their characters live in our minds. We are drawn in by familiar lines. Reagan’s “There you go again.” Nixon’s “I am not a crook!” Clinton “I did not have sex with that woman!” Elder Bush “Read my lips.” Younger Bush “I’m the decider!”
My job is harder in that I must present the whole picture. In solo history I need to make my audience believe – to paraphrase old Walter Cronkite - “That’s the way it was.”
Is there a fraternity among people who do this?
Yes. See: www.solotogether.com. We are a spin-off from a conference I convened at the JFK Library a dozen years ago. We are helpful and supportive of each other and meet three times a year – usually in Mr. Longfellow’s carriage house on Brattle Street in Cambridge. The real sustaining and motive force behind SoloTogether is Ted Zalewski who performs Teddy Roosevelt and Galileo portrayed by Michael Francis. There’s an association of Lincoln presenters composed of tall men married to large women. See: www.lincolnpresenters.net. I’m a fringe member owing to Edward Everett: The Other Speaker at Gettysburg. Of course, I’m always looking for a large woman. I’ve not mentioned Daniel Webster, He is sulking, just now. Of all my men: “Black Dan” wanted to be president more than any other man who sought the office. Coolidge, on the other hand, might well have been content to run the General Store up in Plymouth, Vermont. However, he was driven by a desire to please his father and win his approval. John Quincy Adams was likewise driven by parental expectations.
I’ve not touched upon Chautauqua Players and the Chautauqua revival because my experience in that area is limited. The Chautauquans are distinguished and distinguished especially by the fact that they are credentialed scholars. The early work of Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson best represents the scholarly Chautauquans. Dr, Jenkinson has often repeated that what I and others who remain in character are doing is akin to a dog and pony show. I must tread softly here because John Quincy Adams has been invited out to the High Plains Chautauqua in Colorado in August. The mantle of “scholar” is not one I’m comfortable wearing. I’m an actor. Actors are artists. An artist’s standards are higher than the scholar’s. I base this assertion on the scholarly hatchet job done on Calvin Coolidge by New Deal scholars. It would be impossible to portray the man they present. He lives only in the minds of those historians. I could name names. See my blog on: “Presidential History”.
Who is your target audience?
My Cranky Yankees can link to a past time, event or place. I’ve been invited out to Mount Rushmore to recycle Coolidge’s 1927 speech of dedication – the last time a president travelled on horseback to deliver a major address. The end of this month, I’ll go to Florida. In retirement, Coolidge spent a month at the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora. Earlier, as president, he had dedicated Edward Bok’s Singing Tower and Bird Sanctuary at Lake Wales, Florida. Coolidge is our only President to visit Cuba while in office; one time there were plans to get him back. It was thought he might hand out Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream. However, it was not to be. 9-11 ended all thought in that direction. The Civil War Sesquicentennial should provide Edward Everett opportunities to redeliver some of his Gettysburg Address. Three years ago our State Department sent John Quincy Adams to Russia to mark the Bicentennial of diplomatic relations. I’m trying to position myself for any upcoming observance of the Bicentennial of the Ghent Treaty of 1814.
Beyond that, there are Historical Societies, Libraries, Corporate events looking for a little history, clubs, civic organizations, family reunions, birthday parties, presidential libraries, birth sites and museums. Schools? Rarely. They don’t teach the men I portray. Neither Coolidge nor Adams was a “great” president. To be a great president many people must die on your watch. You need a war. It is that simple. You can become president by promising to keep us out of war but if you wish to be a great president you will do well to forget your promise once in office. Coolidge had opportunities a greater man might have seized. We could have had a wonderful war with Mexico; Nicaragua was another promising avenue to the top tier but, for whatever reasons, he wouldn’t go there. My guess: His regard for the Constitution was an impediment.
JQA was our first photographed president. Photographer Meg Birnbaum has replicated an early Daguerean image. See: www.megbirnbaumphotography.com/index.htm. Click on: “Persona – Persona”
Coolidge, speaking to a photographer who had earlier taken his photo, said: “I don’t know why you need another picture; I’m still using the same face.”
“Presidential Impersonators See Serious Business in Election”
In my case . . . Not so much.