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When he was 3 years old, Christopher Michael Bauer watched his father die for the first time. It was at Arena Stage, the scene in Julius Caesar when Cassius falls to the ground dead—motionless. “I started to run down the aisle toward Daddy,” the son recalls, “and Grandma grabbed me by the arm to tell me everything was OK. ‘Is Daddy all right?’ I kept asking her.” It was also the first time the young actor watched his famous father perform onstage. “I’d get so lost in his characters,” he says.
The second time he watched his father die, this past March, was for real. Richard Bauer had been suffering from leukemia for some time, and Christopher would soon begin his new stage role, playing a Hungarian soldier in Olympia at the Washington Stage Guild.
“During the first few weeks after his death, I’d hear whispers from the crowd: ‘That’s Richard’s son,’” Bauer says. “It took a few runs before the whispers stopped taking me out of the moment, before I was able to make myself not hear it.” He knew that lots of people were all thinking the same thing. Richard Bauer’s legacy cast a formidable shadow.
At the elder Bauer’s funeral, more than 1,000 people packed St. Dominic Church in Southwest D.C. to pay respects to the veteran stage actor. As the pallbearers lifted his casket and walked solemnly out the church doors, everyone in the sanctuary stood up spontaneously to cheer him as he made his final exit. The occasion turned into a celebration in a matter of moments. “You cannot imagine how much he was loved in this community,” says John MacDonald, producing artistic director at the Washington Stage Guild. “He and Halo were the first couple of Washington theater.”
Halo Wines, that is: Christopher’s mother. For nearly four decades, she and Richard Bauer dominated Washington theater, for much of that time as leading members of the resident company at Arena Stage. They cast their lots in this area when Washington was a theatrical cow town, when the Washington Post featured prominent reviews of plays at Catholic University. Work was steady enough to let them raise their two children, Christopher and Libby, comfortably.
Their success appealed to Christopher Bauer enough to draw him into a theater career, too, but as recently as last year, the scion considered packing it in and checking into chef school.
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“My shit had run out” as an actor, he says. “I was collecting unemployment, doing odd jobs, cheffing, catering….I was a bike courier…whatever….I did it all.” He especially hated catering. “‘Get the fucking things on the table, fast!’” he snaps, imitating a neurotic New York catering manager. “It sucks.” Even with a certificate from New York University’s graduate acting program and some 20 years of professional stage experience under his belt, the younger Bauer couldn’t find steady work.
These days, few regional theaters maintain a standing company—a staff of salaried resident actors who perform in each of its plays—like the one that gave his parents such stability at Arena. For a theater, it’s an immense financial burden. So Bauer, like most of his colleagues, rises and falls with the theatrical economy. “I’m rolling now, but in a month—I don’t know what the fuck I’ll be doing.”
In light of his run the past few months, his uncertainty seems surprising. Those who saw Olympia watched Bauer portray a ramrod-straight, well-mannered soldier—charming, dashing, graceful. Within a few weeks of its close, he shifted character to a breakdancing, soul-singing, hiphop poet named Jordan in Slam!, now playing at Studio Theatre.
A glance at his resume (heavy on Shakespeare, Molnar, Shaw, Gorky, and Brecht) suggests that his role as Jordan is anomalous and possibly unsuitable. “That shit was weak!” he shouts out at one point during Slam!, provoking another poet. Later in the play, Jordan says, “I’m not a pimp, but I am a playa.”
“You are a wigga,” another character shouts back.
In his camouflage trousers, black jackboots, and short, front-slicked hair, the jive-talking Jordan seems vastly more distant from the actor than the well-heeled characters he’s made his own. In reality, though, Jordan’s manner isn’t so different from that of Bauer himself.
“It’s weird,” Bauer says, walking up 14th Street NW toward the Red Room on a recent Friday night. “I didn’t even know there were any bars around here. Man, when I was comin’ up, 14th Street didn’t have shit except for prostitutes.” Washington seems like another world now, he says. Although he spent his first 20 years growing up in D.C., Bauer and his wife, Charlotte Gibson-Bauer, also an actor, as well as a playwright, now live in New York. (He won’t disclose his age, “because directors sometimes don’t wanna give roles to people they think might look older,” he says.)
Some of his memories of life here seem bitter, but many are fond. Bauer grew up practically within shouting distance of Arena Stage, on H Street SW. His parents spent their days at the theater; he spent his breakdancing, street-singing, and rapping. In Slam!, his character describes growing up “being the only white dot on the black map.” As he tells it, his childhood in Southwest was much the same. It’s the only place in Washington he really knows well, though he attended the private Washington Ethical High School (“It was sort of wiggy—wiggy,” he says) in Northwest D.C. Bauer’s circle of friends in Southwest was almost entirely black. He developed the kind of black identity that some white kids today like to affect for fashion’s sake.
To the role of Jordan, says Thomas W. Jones II, writer and director of Slam!, Christopher brings a higher level of understanding than other contenders for the role. “He knows how to walk the walk and talk the talk. I joke with Chris that it’s almost as if I knew him when I wrote the part.” The character of Jordan, Jones adds, represents a subcultural shift occurring among a lot of young white American men—those white boys who grow up listening to hiphop, hanging around playgrounds in black neighborhoods, and exchanging trash-talking macho wit. “Because Christopher grew up around it, he embraces it,” says Jones.
Indeed, despite having left Southwest behind years ago, Bauer retains some of the characteristics of his boyhood world: His diction is clipped and to the point, and he uses the rhetorical “You know what I mean?” and “You know what I’m sayin’?” as punctuation when he talks.
As a kid he hung out on the streets during the day, but in the evenings in the Bauer household, conversation tended toward theater—deconstructing scenes and offering honest criticism. By the age of 7, he had performed professionally in Arena Stage’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. “My parents would always have these detailed discussions around the table after their shows,” he recalls. “It’s probably why they’ve been my best and worst critics”—his worst critics because they didn’t hold back: “I pick my times, but I’m honest,” says Wines. “And opening night is never the time to criticize.”
Wines sees occasional glimpses of her late husband in her son. “A turn of the head, or an angle. I see it in his cheekbones,” she says. She and Richard Bauer never pushed their son into the theater, she says, but they didn’t discourage him. “We wouldn’t have been good examples otherwise.”
“I was drawn to the theater because of my parents,” says Christopher. “And then when I got to work with them, it was so amazing. For my dad to watch me onstage, it was great. Really great.”
Richard Bauer had extraordinary control over his physical faculties. Most observers remark that Christopher shares that control. “Chris has an intensity and a focus,” says MacDonald. “Richard was the same way. All of his physical energy would be focused in on the moment.” The younger Bauer’s talents, MacDonald adds, are “a synthesis of Richard and Halo.”
Christopher enrolled in the drama program at Catholic University at age 18 but dropped out after a year, frustrated that he wasn’t landing any roles in school plays. “I was doing professional shows, and I never even got so much as a callback after any audition at Catholic,” he says.
So he went to work at Arena Stage for a year, and soon he managed to get a place at NYU. (The university admits certain talented actors without a bachelor’s degree.) For three years, he endured the rigid curriculum of the graduate acting program. His first gig out of NYU was performing in the ensemble of All’s Well That Ends Well in the New York Shakespeare Festival. After that run ended, Christopher found work with less and less frequency. “At times, it’s been depressing,” he admits. “But, you know, you’ve got to love doing this, because unemployment is a reality in this profession.”
During the final few weeks of Olympia, Bauer was rehearsing for Slam! at Studio Theatre during the days and rushing back to the Stage Guild for Olympia at night. “The first few times I did it, I was so self-conscious—because here I was rehearsing this urban white kid all day, and then I’d have to be a 19th-century soldier at night,” he says. It’s not a simple transition. Slam! is a musical, Olympia a formal period piece. “The number of actors capable of doing musicals are not always capable of doing a period drama like Olympia,” says Conrad Feininger, a local actor who worked as Richard Bauer’s understudy for two years.
For Bauer, though, performing the role of Jordan isn’t too different from parodying himself or the kids he played with “comin’ up,” as he might say. He’s not performing a character, but “filtering the character through himself,” he says. “Tom [Jones] would say that if people perceive this show as a play, then we’ve failed. My role is to help make it succeed.”CP
Slam! runs at Studio Theatre to July 11.