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From Bill – Evolution of the Old Guy

November 12, 2019

Old GuyThe work of the actor has many, many possible approaches. This picture is of a prop – well, actually a collection of props – I use as the Old Guy, in Christmas City Follies. There are a few peculiar aspects to the Old Guy. He’s always been the Old Guy, though I was about 48 years old when I took my first stab at this clown character (you see the red nose by the Christmas sheep?), and he’s pushing 70 now. He really is old now. He came into existence, inspired when I saw Mark McKenna do a brusque, pushy clown in a piece at Touchstone, and I thought I’d try something like that. I think the first time I performed him, I was working with my daughter Anisa. She’s very important to his shape and attitude. Anisa was perhaps 16, and I brought her on in a bag, threw her onto the floor – another idea I’d stolen, this time from Ronlin Foreman. Ronlin had been at Touchstone back in… scratching my head… 1987, I think. He had done a piece with his little girl, bringing her on as a doll that moves when he isn’t looking. I loved that bit, thought perhaps Anisa and I could find some more to do around it. But Ronlin’s daughter was perhaps seven or eight. Anisa was 16… a LOT more involved in shaping our work, and significantly heavier. Anyway, we scratched something silly together from things I’d seen and what we could come up with ourselves, and the Old Guy was born.

But that being over twenty years ago, he hasn’t stayed the same. I’ve heard actors talk about working on a part for months, years even – particularly great roles like Hamlet or Oedipus – working to get it right. Great roles are usually archetypes; they’re like psychic bottomless pits. As the performer/interpreter changes from year to year, he/she must adjust to the naturally deeper understandings of what it means to be a lover or a hero or a fool that comes with time. What was done six months ago is suddenly realized to be not deep enough or just a wrong understanding. Or they’re written with poetry that has layer after layer of interpretive meaning that can be peeled away. One shot at the role may not be enough.

The Old Guy’s a bit like that, and a slippery devil to boot.  Over time he’s been a big-hearted lover, a dreamer, a wandering curmudgeon never happy with inauthenticity while always trying to get by with the tricks of the huckster, the con-man, the guileless child. Every year, thanks to the encouragement and generosity of Touchstone, he’s come back and hacked out a new scheme to make money, find true love, or heal the problems of the world – all three at once if possible. He’s sung, played the ukulele, recited poetry about stars and angels, railed against the golden calf, spread love (very dangerous act indeed), sold junk, and incorrectly or profoundly explained the ways of the world to anyone who’d listen. The challenge primarily rests in this: how to do something he’s never done before without doing something so different that it’s “not what the Old Guy would do.” In twenty years, I’ve created, along with the help of Jp Jordan and the Touchstone Ensemble – particularly Mary Wright and Emma Ackerman – something like 5 hours of material. That’s a lot. It feels like the character, over time, has worn a groove in my soul that I always have to be careful NOT to fall into. Unless of course, I am actually interested in playing him.

More to the core of the challenge, it’s like an old relationship. We’re past the first excitement of getting to know each other. We’ve gone through dry periods; is this guy really worth spending any more time with? We’ve had so much fun together; will those moments ever come again? Where does the play of it come from now? It can’t be the same as it was in the beginning, but what new horizons might be sought? I went through a period a few years ago where, for some reason, I was always trying to kill him off, but I think it had more to do with me trying to understand what it felt like to get old than anything to do with his character.

Twenty-some Christmases I’ve spent with the Old Guy, trying to figure out what’s funny now, what’s true now and isn’t being said, what’s Christmas now in this ever more noisy, dissected, anxious, and alienated age.  Looking back again at the picture up top, though, I can see what holds me always transfixed, breathes joy and life into the Old Guy every time. Right there in the middle, sitting at the base of the candle, between Donald Trump and the Wegman’s sign, is that little, rascally doll I use to represent Mary, the Christ child in her lap. Somewhere in all that is a miracle that never fails to inspire this actor to want to play, to play, play, play.

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