Q&A With Actor Michael Gotch
Michael Gotch is one of a relatively small group of new actors who has made an ongoing impression from a series of disparate roles on high-end stages in Milwaukee over the course of the past several years. While there is nothing outwardly dazzling about his performances, Gotch assembles a great deal of depth from tiny details in a character’s mannerisms that build into some truly memorable moments onstage. This week Gotch emerges from a series of large ensemble projects with the American Players Theatre and Milwaukee Shakesepare to be the sole cast member in Milwaukee Rep’s I Am My Own Wife. Gotch took some time to answer a few questions about being the cast of the Rep’s Stiemke Theatre season opener.
You’ve done a number of outstanding performances in and around Milwaukee over the past few years, how different is the stress preparing for a show in which you are the only actor? Is it more intense?
Short answer: Yes. It’s a great deal more intense. Ha ha. But fortunately I’ve had some experience with large roles in Shakespeare (like Richard II) and that’s helped me approach a role of this size. The first hurdle, of course, was memorizing the whole play. When I started, back in July, it seemed daunting. It’s an 80 page text and I’m on every one of the 80 pages. I took for granted the small comfort of working on a show in which, even if you have a large role, you have the luxury of turning some pages that don’t require anything of you. Ha ha. You look at this script and you think “Even Shakespeare gave the guy playing King Lear a 20 minute break”. Not so with Doug Wright’s play. I worked slowly, focusing simply on getting the words into my head, into my body. No character work, no dialect work. Then, as rehearsal approached, I started adding elements: dialects, voice variations, rhythms, etc. The Rep thankfully gave me a few months notice before the start of rehearsal, so I was able to begin working while I was back in New York after doing Armadale here in Milwaukee this past Spring. And while it is more stressful in some ways, being the only actor in a show is also very freeing, too. You are the creator of everything right from the start, so there’s an enormous amount of control that you don’t have when you’re waiting to see what scenes will be like when the other actors you haven’t met yet show up. Sometimes it’s a huge shock that takes a few weeks to settle into when you’ve been playing scenes in your head very differently than the way they end up when you meet your scene partner. But even this control is a double-edged sword; at the end of the day with a one-person show, the buck stops with you. No excuses. You have to make choices alone and that’s hard in its own way. You can start to doubt yourself, you can start to worry that you’re making all the wrong choices. Fortunately, I have a grade-A director in John Langs (Misalliance and Ah, Wilderness! at APT) who is both an audience and a guide for me in rehearsal. I trust his eye, his ear. He lets me know when I’m on the right track and helps me come up with solutions to problems that I’m not able to solve myself in some scenes. We’re all having a lot of fun in the rehearsal room and since our “team” is considerably smaller than most shows enjoy, we’re all very close. Our stage manager, her assistant, John’s assistant, our dialect coach and myself are the skeleton crew for this one. Everyone gives input and I’m grateful for all of it.
You’re portraying a dizzying array of characters here. (The press release refers to 40 different characters.) Is there a desire to over-emphasize and over-exaggerate the differences between them, just to keep individual personalities straight? How do you keep all of the characters distinct without oversimplifying each performance?
Good question. Well, first off, I think it’s safe to say (hopefully without dashing anyone’s expectations) that the play really has about 7 characters at its heart. They’re the main focus, the engine of the story. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, of course is the largest. Then Doug Wright himself, which is a device similar to the one used in Lisa Kron’s Well; I’m playing the playwright of the play the audience is watching, but it’s not an impersonation of the real man. Wright, I think, wanted the character to function as a perspective for the audience, a way to enter the story from a more familiar place and voice. As a result, that character is close to being “just me” as I can get. There are a few other characters as well that are shaped quite finely and have a lot of stage time, and they get special attention. The other 30-some people who inhabit the narrative are (thankfully) small and intermittent. They come and they go, sometimes with only one line of dialogue, so they’re a bit easier. It’s almost impossible to create a fully fleshed out voice and history for someone who only says “You can’t go in there” and then isn’t in the play anymore. Haha. So we do paint some broad strokes here and there, dictated by the rhythmic need of the piece, the pacing, the need to contrast each new thing with what’s just happened and what’s happening next, that sort of thing. All these people have to live together, you know. They’re a team in the play. They have to work together to create a flow, an elegance to the piece. I hope people come away with the feeling that while they saw all these characters come out of one person, that they don’t really notice major gear changes—like a faulty transmission in a car. It should really move like liquid. That said, I’m nonetheless really proud (so far) that we don’t have any cardboard characters. The variety is fun and challenging. The dialects help, too. I do German, Standard American, Texan, Californian, Brooklyn, French, Japanese, East Indian, British. There might be a couple more. I forget. Haha. It’s hard for me to think of everything in the play at once when I’m not working on it. I have to be up on my feet doing it and then it comes to me. The important thing to remember is that all the characters have to conform to the demands of the structure, the build. In that way, you could say that there’s only ONE character—the story itself—and my voice and body just changes as necessary to make it come to life.
You’ve been a part of relatively large ensemble productions before. Is the social dynamic in a piece like this at all lonely in comparison? Presumably backstage it’s just you and the characters. Is that at all daunting? How are you getting along with all the characters you’re playing here?
It is lonely. But like I said, the group in the room with me (and I’d include our designers and The Rep tech department in that, too) is great and it’s a team effort. It’s not just me. It’s humbling and I feel really honored and a great deal of responsibility to do well when I see how much work is going into this show in all the different areas. I’m the only one on stage, sure, but the fine, detailed work of everyone else is what’s going to make the show great, I hope.
I’m getting along with most of the characters in the play fine, so far. We have a few divas in the cast that I don’t like to work with at the moment. A couple of characters haven’t shown up for work yet, either. Unreliable, sleep late, aren’t prepared. So we may be replacing a few before we open. I’m not going to name names, because I don’t think they know it yet. Haha.
Previews of the Rep’s I Am My Own Wife start tonight. The show opens Friday, running through October 5th.