AAPEX Interview: Dave Chattam — Dave Chattam — AAPEX

Thursday, March 25, 2010

AAPEX Interview: Dave Chattam


One of the most important and challenging plays of the 20th Century is Samuel Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT. Born in Ireland in 1906, Beckett found his way to Paris during the early years of his academic career, where he met and became student, assistant and friend of fellow Irish writer James Joyce and a participant in the pre WWII European literary community.

WAITING FOR GODOT was written in 1948-49 in the wake of the second world war, when many writers and artists were convulsing from the devastation of the war in a world which no longer made sense to many. Becket and WAITING FOR GODOT spearheaded what renowned theatrical philosopher Martin Esslin christened The Theatre of The Absurd; in the play, two pals, Vladimir & Estragon, kill time while waiting for someone named Godot, who never shows and who may, in what suddenly appeared to be a godless universe, be God or not-God. The dialogue between the two is indeed absurd, a string of ramblings, non-sequiturs and exclamatory outbursts of existential angst.

Seriously, the roles in WAITING FOR GODOT have got to be among the most daunting any actor can face, and Nashville actor Dave Chattam is about to tackle the role of Vladimir in the Amun Ra production of the play, which opens here in Nashville towards the end of April. I asked Dave to share with us his journey as an actor which has brought him to this challenge.


What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?

Not much at all. My only memories of acting of any kind as a kid are of playing one of the Wise Men in a 4th grade Christmas play (I remember using one of my mother’s jewelry boxes as my gift to the baby Jesus) and of portraying my grandfather in an Easter play at my church when I was about 12 or 13. That’s pretty much it. I grew up around music more than anything. My dad was the youth choir director at our church and he also played the piano. He wanted me to play the drums for our church, so I joined the school band in the 7th grade. After one year of lugging that drum to and from school every day (even though it was only about a mile walk) I gave it up. I also took piano lessons as a youth for a couple of weeks before giving that up too. Of course now I wish I could play both instruments. I began playing basketball my sophomore year of high school, and that’s were I focused all of my time and energy throughout high school and on into college. I do remember joining the drama club in high school for reasons I don’t know, but as with the drums and piano, I soon gave that up. I also thought about trying out for my senior class play, ‘West Side Story’, but singing is not one of my strong points, and I knew that I would only be used behind the scenes, so that dream was short lived. If you told me back in 1986 that 20 years later I would be pursuing acting as a full time career, I would have laughed in your face… seriously!

Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.

First of all, I am very much STILL evolving as an artist. I have only been acting for about nine years now, so I still consider myself a rookie in the game. I started acting purely by chance, and the grace of God. Back in 2001, when the DreamWorks film “The Last Castle” was being shot here in Nashville, TN. I signed up to be an extra at the urging of one of my co-workers. The very first day on the set, I guess I was just in the right place and the right time, and was bumped up to a Principal role. I suddenly found myself working with James Gandolfini and Delroy Lindo. Even though 99% of what I filmed got cut, I had been bitten by the acting bug. A few months later I signed with The Hurd Agency Modeling and Acting Troupe, and with the urging of the owner, Terrance Hurd, began taking acting classes. My first class was and adult acting class with the Nashville Metro Park Association. The class was instructed by a wonderful actor/director by the name of Stella Reed-Patterson. I remember walking onto the stage of the theatre in the Looby Center the first day of class and looking out over the rows of seats. Even though the theatre was empty, I felt like I was walking back onto the basketball court before a big game. I felt like I belonged there. I guess Stella saw something in me that day too because she immediately started challenging me with scene work from playwrights such as Ntozake Shange, Lorraine Hansberry, James Weldon Johnson and August Wilson. I look back at that time and laugh now because back then, I had no idea who any of those people were!

The more acting I did, the more I wanted to do. I had been working in the technology field since graduating from college, but never felt happy or satisfied with what I was doing although the field paid well. Acting gave me a since of fulfillment and accomplishment, and I soon realized that acting was what I was meant to be doing in life. I began to think of ways to purse the acting career more and more without sacrificing time on my job, which was virtually impossible to do. Ironically, in 2003 the company I was working for began downsizing, and the same co-worker (who was now my supervisor) that talked me into acting in the first place, laid me off. He actually told me that he knew acting was where my heart was, and that I would never pursue it as long as I was working full-time. He was absolutely right. Being laid off was truly a blessing in disguise because it gave me the kick I needed to pursue acting full time... at the ripe old age of 30! I began taking all the acting classes I could and going on all of the auditions that I could. I started to study films and actors rather than just watching them. I made an oath to myself that acting from that point on would be my career, and began to approach every class, every audition, and every job with a seriousness and professionalism that I would have if I was working in a Fortune 500 company.

How are you approaching playing Vladimir? What are the challenges of acting Beckett?

Let me say first off that I am thrilled that Jeff Carr has decided to add ‘Waiting for Godot’ to Amun Ra Theatre’s 2010 season. I am very excited about taking on the role of Vladimir. This role is definitely going to be a challenge, and at the same time a huge learning experience for me. Anyone who has ever read the play knows that in its simplicity, it is a very complex piece. The characters are very much European, and the language and dialogue of the play is quite reflective of that. I have watched British shows before and was totally lost by the language and the quick paced back-and-forth banter of the characters. My goal as an African-American actor playing the role of Vladimir is to remain completely true to the European feel of the play, while at the same time giving the character a personality that can be related to by everyone who attends.

To me, the biggest challenge of this piece is being able to effectively communicate each and every little beat – and there are many. Thankfully, the play’s director, Robert Kiefer, is a wiz at working with actors and helping them find the little nuances that may have overlooked. Our very first rehearsal was several hours long, and we never made it past page three in the script! Mr. Kiefer is really allowing us to discover and create our own characters. I think that one of the most important elements of giving a believable performance is having a complete understanding of what is going on internally and externally with a character at any given time. Vladimir often changes his thoughts and emotions within a single paragraph or even a single sentence. Since there is no real rhyme or reason as to why the characters do what they do, each actor is given the creative license to determine the what’s, why’s and how’s of the moment. I believe the end result will be some really entertaining and believable performances of some really, really peculiar characters.

What are your thoughts on Nashville as a theatre town?

Nashville’s nickname may be ‘Music City’ but in my opinion, Nashville is very much a theatre town as well. On any given day you can peruse one of the local entertainment publications and get a listing of the many different shows currently being performed. Aside from the many great Broadway shows you can see at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, there are numerous community theatre companies that showcase a broad range of locally talented performers in a diverse array of shows. As an African-American actor, I can’t express how fortunate I feel to have a number of local African-American theatre companies to work with. I’ve worked with SistaStyle Productions, BScott Productions, Destiny Theatre Experience, GeoSoul Productions, Collards & Caviar, Amun Ra Theatre, and there are so many more that I have not had the privilege of working with yet. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with other companies such as Act I, Actor’s Bridge and New Day Theatre, and have auditioned with People’s Branch, Nashville Children’s Theatre, and the Nashville Shakespeare Festival just to name a few. If you are in Nashville and you can’t find a theatre show to view, or even one to perform in if that’s your thing, then it’s just because you really aren’t looking.

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