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Craig Wallace is prolific. This holiday season the local actor donned the nightcap and selfish outlook of everyone’s favorite Christmas redemption hero, Scrooge, 10 times a week. In addition to starring in Ford’s Theatre’s A Christmas Carol for the past four years, the 25-year veteran of the D.C. theater scene recently wowed audiences as Troy in August Wilson’s Fences, and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In April, local theatergoers can see him onstage at Round House Theatre in Cost of Living. City Paper spoke to Wallace about how he prepares for his roles, the hard work of being an actor, and how he reacts when an audience member whips out a cellphone when he’s mid-monologue.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
WCP: You’ve said that a high school performance of Guys & Dolls changed your life. What do you remember about that performance?
Craig Wallace: Just how much fun rehearsal was. Discovering, learning how to rehearse. Discovering the camaraderie and the sense of ensemble. All of that stuff was new to me. I went into this kicking and screaming. I didn’t want to do it. And then I got there and it was just wonderful. The songs were fun and the dances were fun and I found that I liked to do it and it was great. It was time well spent.
WCP: You’ve pretty much only acted and taught since college in terms of jobs. Now you’re booked back to back to back to back. How did you get here from the beginning?
CW:You know, I just was always in the window and finally someone said come on in. Seriously, I started at the Shakespeare Theatre. What was great about being at Shakespeare is that I got to meet people. And people introduced me to other people. And then I got to learn under some great people: Ed Gero, Ted van Griethuysen, Floyd King, Fran Dorn, and Emery Battis. I worked with them all the time so I got to watch and learn and eventually use what I learned to create my own path.
WCP: What are the things you saw people like Ed or Ted do that clicked in your mind, and you now do yourself?
CW: Discipline, preparedness, commitment. All of those things are so very important. I think what young people should understand is that directors love actors that are helpful. A director wants to direct, but he also wants something to direct. A good director doesn’t want a clean slate. He wants somebody who’s got ideas at the ready so that he can hone and improve and build on them. And that’s what I got from those guys. Those guys were always coming in prepared, ready to work, ready to explore, ready to grow, ready to take direction. All those kinds of things go a long, long way. And I believe I’ve achieved that.
WCP: You’re always touting hard work. Is that something you picked up from those folks you’re talking about or were you always that way? Where does that come from?
CW:I don’t know if I was always that way. My years at Shakespeare, doing those plays, at least the way Shakespeare does them, or used to do them, is hard work. It’s 30 people on a cast, and if you’re not the star you’re playing four or five roles. So there’s not a lot of time for play. We have a good time doing it, but what I mean by play is there’s not a lot of time for not being focused. So I carry that into every situation that I’m in. And as I start to play bigger roles, the responsibility is there for me to work hard. I started working on Fences almost a month before we got into rehearsal because I knew that Troy never leaves the stage. And he never stops talking. So I knew that I had to come in and be prepared to shoulder that.
WCP: A month before the show even starts rehearsing, what is Craig Wallace doing?
CW: I’m figuring out what I’m saying. What I wanted to do was be as familiar with the script as possible as we went into rehearsal. I’ve never been able to memorize before the first rehearsal. I just can’t do it. But what I could do is put all the words on tape. I was just with the words. So that when I came into rehearsal I knew what the beats were, I knew what I was saying, and as we put it on its feet I could start to learn it.
WCP: I talked to the director of Fences, Timothy Douglas, about directing you, and he said that specifically for the role of Troy, there’s a lot of work that he and the actor have to do to figure out what motivates Troy. But he said that you came to him very prepared for the role. Was that your experience?
CW: I felt like I knew who he was. I saw a little bit of my father in him. Which helped … I believe that imagination is a huge, huge thing for an actor. As I thought about my father and I thought about other people he reminded me of, I started to formulate a picture of him in my mind. And it was that picture that helped me frame the rhythm of how I said the words and why I said the words. And it just so happened that Timothy agreed. And we did go back and forth on some things. There were some things I felt strongly about that he made me see in a different way. But because I had done my homework it was easy to adjust.
WCP: When you’re onstage, what is your internal monologue?
CW: You know, I did Louis Armstrong at Mosaic a couple of years ago. Much of the play is direct address. So I’m looking out at the audience. And some guy pulls out his phone. And you can see the light from his phone. So I gotta stay in it, but in my mind I’m going, “Why is he doing that? Why, why do you have a cellphone?!” In Fences, there was one particular performance where everyone was late, so there were like 50 people coming in during the late seating break. And I’m doing this monologue. And once again I have to stay in it, but in my mind I’m like, “What is happening?” You’re always dual. I call it taking your eye off the ball. As soon as you think “Oh, I got that laugh there,” boom, it’s gone. It happens 100% of the time. But sometimes you can’t help it. Sometimes someone takes their phone out. Or your scene partner has really bad breath and you’re talking to them and they’re like hitting you with this breath and you’re like, “Oh my god, I gotta stay in this scene though, you know?”
WCP: How often are you accessing your own life when you’re on the stage or you’re building a role?
CW: I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare and of course, you know, most of Shakespeare’s characters are European. And so when I play a European character I think to myself, “OK, what of me, what of Craig, and who Craig is, can I bring to this character, this traditionally white character?” So in that regard, yes, I pull from me all the time. Also, you know, imagination is another thing that’s so great. Like, there are parts of Troy that are reprehensible to people that I enjoy playing because it’s like, how often do you get a chance to go there or say those things or take that risk.
WCP: And it’s not just in Shakespeare that you’ve played what people think of as traditionally white characters, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Is it the same process there?
CW: Same process. Willy Loman had to be Willy Loman from me, not Brian Dennehy’s Willy Loman orDustin Hoffman’s Willy Loman, the traditional Willy Loman. It’s the same words, but it has to motivate from who I am and through my lens. Like Torvald in A Doll’s House, Part 2. I heard many people say “there weren’t black people in Sweden,” and I thought “Well, OK, but the play and the character are universal. There’s nothing specifically in the play that says he has to be European.” So now that we’ve taken care of that. Let me figure out who this guy is. And then let me present that guy, as part of the story. And of course that guy comes from me.
WCP: And are there parts of you in Scrooge also?
CW: Laughs. Yeah. Absolutely. In order for me to embrace the character I have to find things in the character that I relate to. And so, you know, Scrooge, at least my Scrooge, is very practical. Scrooge compartmentalizes because of hurts that he’s had in his life. And who can’t relate to that. There is a safety blanket in shedding parts of yourself off so that you’re not exposed to hurt. And I’ve experienced that. Who hasn’t? So then when he does it, I relate. I’m like, “Yeah, I know why he’s doing that.” Because he doesn’t want to feel. I don’t think that drives me in life, but I can certainly relate.
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