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Shakespearean actor Simon Callow steps into high heels for the latest Brits Off Broadway fest
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles.
Pauline, the alternately proud and insecure transwoman in Tuesdays at Tesco's, isn't the first female character Simon Callow has portrayed, but she certainly is the most complex.
The British actor, director, and writer -- well known for his one-man Shakespeare and Dickens productions across the pond and for his film work stateside -- acknowledges, "I did play Margaret Thatcher once in the 1970s, and I played Princess Anne earlier than that, but those were cartoon performances. Pauline is such a different kind of mind and body to get into, which is one of the joys for me. She's a person who needs to be heard."
Penned by French playwright Emmanuel Darley as Le Mardi à Monoprix, then adapted and translated by Matthew Hurt and Sarah Vermande, Tuesdays at Tesco's premiered at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Callow as the lady formerly known as Paul, who makes weekly trips to her hometown to help her widowed curmudgeon of a father go grocery shopping. Hurt, a frequent collaborator of Callow's, saw the original production in Paris and immediately envisioned the actor as Pauline. "He sent me the script in French and said, 'You must do this!'" Callow recalls. "But it ended up on my pile of unread plays. Then the Edinburgh Fest called and asked if I wanted to do a solo show, and I pulled it out. I started reading, and after a few minutes I thought, 'This play has such quality.' All we needed was an English title, so we quickly came up with Tuesdays at Tesco's, which is a very big supermarket chain in England. We always felt that was part of its huge success. It did staggeringly well at Edinburgh's Assembly Hall, an 850-seat theatre."
Four years later, Tuesdays at Tesco's is making its U.S. debut in a venue less than a quarter of that size. However, Callow says he only needed to make minor calibrations to bring his performance to 59E59's 11th annual Brits Off Broadway festival. "You just have to turn a switch in your mind really," he says. "It's almost as if I am now doing it on film rather than on stage. When we went to Edinburgh I initially thought, 'Are we insane, this show on this stage?' But actually the play has what I call epic intimacy. It's a story about a personal relationship between a woman and her father, but also her relationship with society in general. In Assembly Hall, with all its seats and wide stage, I felt so naked. I feel a little less naked here, but on the other hand, I feel closer to the audience. They can climb right inside my head."
Scotland native Peter Tear, the executive producer of 59E59, believes Tuesdays at Tesco's is indicative of the type of offbeat, boundary-pushing productions he imports for Brits Off Broadway. "Back in 2004, we were used to seeing the odd British hit play on Broadway, but nobody thought about bringing in the tiny shows," he says. "That first year, the fest included Heavenly by Frantic Assembly [company members Steven Hoggett and Scott Graham are currently up for the Best Choreography Tony for their work on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time] and Paines Plough's The Straits directed by John Tiffany [who won a 2012 Tony for helming Once]. At that time, nobody was talking to these companies. I've always looked for shows that are out of the ordinary. With Tuesdays at Tesco's and Simon, here's a major actor who's going way out on a limb in a show that isn't screaming 'crowd-pleaser.' That's what we try to do -- bring in the British shows you probably won't get a chance to see anywhere else in New York City."
To that end, this year's eclectic Brits lineup also includes Cuddles, about a 13-year-old vampire; My Perfect Mind, the real-life story of its star, Edward Petherbridge, a renowned classical actor who had a stroke while rehearsing to play King Lear; and a stage adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel One Hand Clapping.
Callow, meanwhile, who says he was "raised by women," relishes transforming into Pauline, save for the waxing. "When I was a boy, I watched the process of making up with such fascination," he remembers. "My aunt's makeup was a work of art. She had hair literally down to her ankles, and she would curl it into a huge edifice on top of her head. She wore heavy toenail and fingernail varnish, and a real mask of a face she put on. So I'm always thinking of that. It takes over an hour to become Pauline every day. Thank god I don't have to wax on a daily basis -- that would be a nightmare."
Inspirations aside, however, Pauline is her own woman and not based on any individual. "She's a confection of so many personalities, including my great friend, the pioneer transsexual April Ashley, who heroically had the operation in the early '60s in Morocco," he says. "April is the person that Pauline wants to be, but she can't begin to get there."
With trans awareness moving to the forefront of American culture -- consider Bruce Jenner's recent, widely-publicized announcement -- audiences may think that Tuesdays at Tesco's has an agenda. But Callow insists the play is the portrait of a person, not a political statement. "Playwriting starts from the human dimension, not the political one, you know," he says. "Emmanuel saw a transgender woman and her father having a fight in a market one day and thought, 'I must know about that relationship'. He started with Pauline, and that's where I start from, too."
Raven Snook is the associate editor of TDF Stages
Photos by Carol Rosegg