Ann had the opportunity to chat with Charlie Black, retired high school science teacher, and long-time Northfield Arts Guild Theater actor.
Ann: So what was the first show you were in?
Charlie: Hello Dolly…1973
Ann: Had you just moved to Northfield?
Charlie: I came to Northfield in 1971, two years out of college from New Jersey to try something different. I had friends from Minnesota, so it wasn’t like I was coming out here on my own, and out of the blue. We had this hippie, wannabe farm out north of town, but they all left for California and I stayed behind. I liked Northfield.
During the summer of ‘73 I was working in the Wilson Center in Faribault, and I happen to mention to two guys that I had done some musical comedy in college with the Princeton Triangle Club, and they said, “Oh! We need men for the chorus of Hello Dolly. You’re coming with us!”.
So, I showed up and sat in the back, and Myrna Johnson gave me a part. I believe back then, there was only one show a year being done and it was around Jesse James Days. The theater was the entire Arts Guild…there’s lots of funny stories about that building…down one flight of stairs, through the costume room, and up a ladder…oh my god…it’s lucky that nobody fell through that hole!
The next year, 1974, Myrna and the “cadre”, which was probably Sue Shepard, Marie Sathrum, Judy Brandt, and Ruth Legvold, launched the Northfield Musical Theater and that’s when we began to expand the season.
The most awkward moment was when I had to play a romantic lead across from a girl that I had in class the year before. And you know I’m not the romantic guy…I’m the comic. The second-banana comic guy. But they were desperate. [chuckles]
Ann: When did you start teaching?
Charlie: I started teaching in 1969, right out of college, so my graduating seniors from that year are now 61-years-old. I know! Oh my god! I taught pretty continuously from 1969 until 2007, and then came back part-time in 2009 until 2012.
Ann: So what is it about teaching that you really carry with you like a gift?
Charlie: I love the relationships that I had with kids. It’s really all about that. I find that it’s just a blast. We did West Side Story with the high school, and the Rock and Roll Revivals, Honk, Wizard of Oz, and so on. I just love it. It’s the dawning of intellectualism in their lives, and putting together problem solving skills and applying them. You can see a lot of kids’ minds just opening up.
Ann: Talk a bit about being an actor. What do you like about it? What’s challenging? One of the things I find interesting is being an actor in a small community. How does that enhance your life?
Charlie: It’s always been an avocation for me. There was never any thought in my head ever to try and do this on a professional level. It’s sort of an extension of myself. What I’ve always loved about it is the ability to tap my own inner resources, and express myself in ways that I might not be doing in real life. To try and find emotional resources that I’m unaware of, and also have license to be nutty or villainous. I love the zen of it…you have to be here now, or you’re screwed. I like that whole aspect of it, but it’s also terrifying.
It’s also introduced me to a lot of people in the community. I like to be connected and involved, and this was one way to do it. Initially I was primarily in musicals. I could dance a little bit…nothing special, but I could do it, and could project a character and have presence on stage. All of that was a revelation to me! And the challenges, of course, is understanding a character and getting out of yourself and being that character. Making sure to watch out that you’re not the same each time…explore new ways to gesture, to stand, to walk.
Ann: What is an instance that you’ve experienced when a director has really pulled something from you? Something unexpected…
Charlie: That’s happened a number of times with a number of different directors. For example, in the production of Glengarry Glen Ross, we were told to memorize our lines before the production. I found that by doing that, and continuing to work and rework the lines of the scene, I could get deeper into the character.
Some directors do a lot with ancillary activities outside of the actual production…like drama concepts, games, intentionality on stage, more mindful movement, characterization, and expanding vocal ranges. I’ve come to realize over the years that I can just push it, and then the director will tell me if I’ve gone too far. It’s hard to be vulnerable enough to do that.
Ann: What pushes you out of your creative comfort zone?
Charlie: I think I need an outside person like a director saying, “Give me more”…and I find that as I get older I’m getting less self-conscious about it. For instance, when we did 12th Night, I played the role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and was able to get more zany, more clowny, and the director was able to rein me back in a little bit. I like working with individuals that can help bring that out, with movement and craft.
I also worked with one director, many, many years ago, in a production of Dracula. He was quite good at the “intellectual plane”. He had worked as a dramaturg, and ended up getting us to understand and connect with the play to a broader context. So we watched a number of Dracula movies and discussed the vampire themes…he helped me to find stuff in the text that I may not have seen before.
Ann: Whose work do you admire…like professional actors, and what inspires you about them?
Charlie: Well, primarily I see actors on the Guthrie stage, and what inspires me about them is their skill level, their ability to project a character, be different, to be true to the text, but to let the emotionality of the character shine through them…sort of channel it. And they’re so damn professional. Their presence on stage is so consistent. They’re in the moment…that requires a lot of concentration.
I particularly admire those actors and actresses with great physicality on stage. They use their bodies to project the character, the demeanor, all of which expresses a particular character. It’s difficult for amateurs to do well, just due to lack of training. And I love good physical comedians…because of the timing and the physicality.
Ann: Earlier you mentioned the text of the character and the script. Can you tell me more about what you mean?
Charlie: Yah, well, I’m VERY concerned that I get all of the words right. I don’t want to be sloppy with the words and I find it much easier to memorize parts that are well written. So for example, Shakespeare is not too hard to memorize. It’s so beautifully written..you just have to “get into the language”. David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”…unbelievably well written. John Millington Synge’s, “The Playboy of the Western World”…beautiful. In “Waiting for Godot”, by Samuel Beckett, I played Lucky…he had three pages of nonsense. It was a snap to memorize..it was beautifully constructed.
The things that are hard to memorize are when you say, “Yah? Uh-huh. What?”
So I want to be extremely true to the text, because that is what the author has to express him or herself. If they’re a decent playwright, they’ve worked those texts over and over again…with a purpose. Whatever the character is saying the author has presumably worked that, and that has two purposes: one to help the character express themselves, and two, to move the drama along.
Ann: How would you say your own work has evolved?
Charlie: I think I’ve gotten more nuanced. I think I understand more of the things that we’ve been talking about. For example, the physicality of it…how to lead with a part of the body. I’ve become more interested in drama, so I’m looking for parts that might be a little “straighter”. And of course, the aging has dictated the parts. I think I have a deeper emotional depth as a person, being older and wiser.
Ann: So if you were sitting out in the seats of the theater, give me some adjectives to describe that actor?
Charlie: Hmmm….It would depend on the part, of course, but in general I’m kind of “agile”…maybe.
Ann: …And are you speaking physical and character?
Charlie: More movement type of thing. Oh, I know…definitely “project”. Um. Loud. I would hope “expressive”. Good timing. Congruency in the character. That’s what I aspire to, that’s where I’m trying to go.
Ann: If you could share the stage with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
Charlie: Oh my god. Alive or dead? Ok…you know? I’m going to go to my favorite movie of all time, “The Third Man”. I would love to be on stage with Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard. Or how about…Susan Sarandon, or Meryl Streep.
Ann: And why those two?
Charlie: Well, I’ve got a thing for Susan Sarandon. She just projects a certain juiciness, emotional depth that I really like watching. And Meryl Streep is just a consummate actress. Two actors on the Guthrie stage I’ve always loved and admired, Sally Wingert and Richard Iglewski.
When I see an actor really being successful, I would think about them “inhabiting” that character. They are no longer themselves. They ARE that character which is built out of their foundation…the words of the author, and the motivations and the emotional intention of that character, and they are just living it.
Charlie: Well, obviously the sets, from a purely practical point of view, as that dictates your movement on the stage. But it is also very effective in setting the mood of the play. More importantly in that regard, would be the lighting. I really appreciate effective lighting. So for instance in Jekyll and Hyde, having that scaffolding allowed for some interesting stuff.
Oh! And costumes are big! Costumes are really cool if you get good ones going. I loved what Susan (Dunhaupt) and Helen did for 12th Night. They put us all in scrubs and wacky coats…I thought that was pretty good.
Ann: How would you talk about your work at the Arts Guild?
Charlie: Umm…I’m not sure where to begin [chuckles]. I’m really thankful for the opportunity that I’ve had this dimension in my life. And the potential to explore this dimension. The Guild stage has done that to me. I’ve never had any interest in doing anything anywhere else, because it’s been an avocation for me.
I’ve always loved this place. I would have to say those early shows were part of my entree into this community, and that was mighty important to me. But it’s primarily been a chance to express myself, explore different dimensions of myself…and of humanity. I mean if you’re going to play a character, it isn’t just you. You have to reach down inside yourself and find that commonality that is a resource to that character.