BWW Interviews: Dustin Tucker - Shades of Laughter
Here in Portland, Maine, in the last two months a young actor has been creating a sensation in two tour de force performances of two vastly different comedies. Thirty-four year-old Dustin Tucker, who now makes his home in Maine's largest city, is having what many would consider a breakout year - starring first in Morris Panych's dark theatre of the absurd, Vigil, and then reprising his hilarious turn as David Sedaris' Elf Crumpet in the Santaland Diaries, both at Portland Stage.
"It has been a remarkable season with these two back-to-back shows," he laughingly agrees. But the Texas-born actor, who is an Artistic Affiliate with the Portland Stage Company, says he does not see the two roles as similar challenges. "They are really two different kinds of humor with very different feelings. Vigil is so dark; this man has such a sad and lonely life, whereas the Elf is cynical, but it is a cynicism with which we can all identify."
The distinction is crucial not only for Tucker, but for audiences. In Panych's drama he creates the role of Kemp, a solitary, misanthropic misfit who comes to the bedside of a woman he believes to be his aunt and in the course of her long, lonely process of dying, he takes a painful journey from isolation and despair to a modicum of awakened humanity.
"Vigil was the first time Portland Stage asked me to do something on the darker side,' he says. "I do enjoy doing serious pieces, but that's not usually what I get hired for," adding modestly, "I think people associate me with comedy, and I don't mind that at all."
Nonetheless, Tucker received high critical acclaim for his risky performance as Panych's anti-hero. Asked about the challenges of playing a character as alienated and alienating as Kemp, Tucker replies," He has very few redeeming qualities, at least at first, so all I could do was to try to portray his loneliness, which is not really an excuse for his behavior. I tried to bring out those awful instances in his past which have made him the way he is. Horrible things always have a reason, so by finding the motivation for his behavior, the audience can discover some good in him." But, Tucker concedes, "You do have to wait a very longtime - almost to the end of the play - to get a glimmer of kindness and love. It's pretty exhausting all around!"
Not only are the emotional demands of the role enervating, but the technical ones are strenuous as well. In the more than two hours on stage, Tucker carries virtually all the dialogue - the old woman is essentially mute -in what can only be described as a brilliant virtuoso performance. Asked how he sustained the tension night after night, Tucker admits that "Vigil was pretty tiring, unlike Santaland Diaries which is pure fun!" He says he has learned how to conserve his voice. "I generally don't talk a whole lot or hang out with friends. I go home after the show and stay there until the next one."
Once back on stage, as he currently is with Santland Diaries, he explodes with an irresistible energy. Tucker has been doing Sedaris' (and Joe Mantello's) dramatic monologue for six seasons now, and this, he confides, is to be his last. "It's time to move on," he says quietly. Keeping a show fresh for that long is a tricky task. The actor credits director Dan Burston and stage manager Shane Van Vliet for holding him accountable. "Dan calls me on it if it sounds as if I'm starting to get bored or slip into routine."
Tucker also shares some other hints for engaging his audience in such an immediate way. " For every performance I try to know at least one person out there for whom I want to do a really good job. Of course, I want to do a really good job for everyone, but knowing someone helps me. When you have faces that close to you, you can see them, and if they are checked out, then I realize I may be checked out," he continues.
The audience is an integral part of his performance and in the variety he is able to bring to the stage each night. "I can never say I had a bad show because of the audience. I don't believe in that. It is up to me to engage them. If people start from beginning having a good time and laughing a lot, usually everyone will follow suit and let down their hair a bit." Tucker does concede, however, that some audiences are more restrained than others. "Sometimes I have a little more conservative audience who is not sure what they are getting into. They may be put off at being so close to me or a little nervous because they don't know what I am going to do." So, Tucker describes how he goes about winning them gradually.
"I have to make eye contact because I am talking to them. It is not a show that can be delivered to the empty black space. I have to learn to read people's reactions. I will look at one person, and he/she may look down. So, OK, I figure this person is not ready, so I'll find someone else to make eye contact, and then further along in show I will come back to that person who was nervous to see if he/she has finally come into the world of the play. If they have, then I can play a little, but I have to be careful because I don't want anyone to have a bad experience."
Tucker also talks about the process of putting his own stamp on a work so closely associated with its creator, Sedaris. "It is his story. I am an actor playing David. I have read all of his books and listened to all of his radio monologues, and am familiar with his writing style and his way of delivering a punch line. I try to embody some of his vocal mannerisms, but I don't want to impersonate David Sedaris." The following Tucker has achieved in his six-year seasonal run in Portland testifies to the manner in which he has succeeded in owning the part, and while "moving on" is completely understandable from a career perspective, his departure will dim the Christmas cheer a little.
That career began sixteen years ago when Dustin Tucker was graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy, a prestigious private secondary school dedicated to the arts in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. At eighteen, he headed to New York City to immerse himself in the theatre scene there and to take classes at The Neighborhood Playhouse while considering application to college drama programs. As so often happens with talented actors, he apprenticed at the Williamstown Festival and was cast in a small part as The Farm Boy in The Rainmaker. When director Scott Ellis brought the show to Broadway, Tucker was along for the ride. He laughs about his naiveté concerning this early success:
"I heard they were were taking the original cast, and nobody had said anything about the little parts, so I called the director up-this is how naïve I was at eighteen-and I said, 'Hey, Scott, I heard Rainmaker is going to Broadway. Do you still need The Farm Boy?' He said, 'Sure, are you free?' And I said, 'Oh, yeah, I'm free.' He said someone would call me, and I hung up the phone and thought, 'Well, that was easy! What is everybody talking about?' So that happened, and that ended, and then I thought, 'Well, now what?' I didn't know I had to be out there pushing myself and looking for work." For the next decade he worked at off and off-off Broadway theatres like Primary Stages, Edge Theater Company, the DiCapo Opera Theater, and the Culture Project in a variety of contemporary and classic roles.
Tucker says it took a while for him to fall into the rhythm of the theatre scene in New York. "I fell into a kind of funk, and I started to do lots of free theatre projects, and it wasn't until I got onto the regional circuit that I started spreading my wings and doing some neat stuff. It wasn't actually, until I got out of the city that things started to get exciting."
About six years ago, he was hired by the Shakespeare Theater at Monmouth and that summer introduced him to Maine. "I was very lucky to get hired in Maine for several gigs. I had felt as if I were in a hole in New York; like so many actors, I had dealt with depression and anxiety, and then I realized that when I was here I felt relaxed, calm. I fell in love with Portland because it is a city that is not very big; it's livable and has such an openness." In the past six years he has performed regularly with Portland Stage in such diverse pieces as Greater Tuna, Fully Committed (another one-man performance), Bach at Leipzig, at the Theater at Monmouth in Shakespearean leading roles in Henry IV, Part I, King Lear, As You Like it, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Tempest, and Midsummer Night's Dream in addition to returning the Williamstown Festival, and guesting at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and the Sierra Repertory Theater.
Tucker explains why he "such a huge fan of regional theatre. I feel people in New York can be somewhat unfazed. They sometimes become immune to theatre because it is all so big. Broadway is so shiny and glittery. What I like about Portland is that the audience really cares about what they are seeing. After Vigil, for example, I had people come up to me and say, 'I hated the show, but you did a fine job' or ' I really loved that show.' I had one guy come up to me in the grocery store and say, 'My aunt just died, and I didn't know if I could sit through it, but I want you to know the play helped me a lot.' He sums up his enthusiasm for the regional scene: "Everyone [in the community] seems to have a connection to the theatre, and that connection seems to be deeper and more personal than in New York."
The flourishing of the arts in Portland gives the city, Tucker feels, an exciting cultural ambiance. But, he remarks," Portland is also blessed and cursed, because with all the little theatre companies popping up, I worry that there may not be enough audience to support them. [The companies] are wonderful, and I try to go to everything I can and support them all."
He concedes that while Portland is his base, in order to work full time as a professional actor, he must "go out on the road each year." After the first of the year, Tucker will head across country starring in a production of As You Like It which moves from Cleveland to Idaho to Lake Tahoe over the course of six months. After that "I don't know yet." As an Affiliate Artist of Portland Stage, he has enjoyed close ties to the company, acting as an "ambassador for the theatre, doing outreach, educational workshops, and the like within the community. We try to spread the word about why we love theatre" - in general and Portland Stage, in particular. He praises Portland Stage Artistic Director, Anita Stewart for "taking good care of her actors. She has been very good to me," he says with obvious attachment.
Asked if there is a pet project lurking somewhere, Dustin Tucker hesitates a moment and then admits he does "keep a wish list on my desk." When pressed for some titles, he offers the suggestion of One Man, Two Guvenors, Richard Bean's recent contemporary adaptation of Goldoni's commedia dell'arte play, The Servant of Two Masters. One can only imagine what a delightfully engaging Francis Henshall he would make in a role that requires wit as well as athleticism and a healthy dose of improvisation! But Tucker quickly adds that he is open to all suggestions. "There is so much theatre out there, that it is always an honor to do something new."
Photos: Headshot Courtesy Robert Mannis; Vigil, Courtesy Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke; Santaland Diaries Courtesy Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke; Shrew Courtesy Interlochen Shakepseare festival; Wozzeck Courtesy Culture Project NYC