In Spring 2012 I had the opportunity to play the role of famed Georgia folk artist Howard Finster in the World Premiere of Pamela Turner’s play Hidden Man. This was a co-production between 7Stages, an internationally recognized theatre in Atlanta and the UGA Dept. of Theatre and Film Studies. 7Stages is a 36 year old professional theatre company devoted to engaging artists and audiences by focusing on the social, political, and spiritual values of contemporary culture. 7 Stages gives primary emphasis to international work and the support and development of new plays, new playwrights, and new methods of collaboration. When Hidden Man moved to Atlanta, I performed under an Equity Special Appearance Contract.
How to embody the spirit of Howard Finster without trying to directly imitate him? How to play a Southern preacher without relying on stereotype?
Modes of Research Specific to Finster:
Learning to play the Banjo
Listening to Library of Congress Recordings and Home Videos of Finster preaching
Learning the North Georgia Dialect
Visit to Paradise Gardens
Sacred Harp Shape Note Singing
Although he would not have called it such, Finster, clearly recognized the "queerness" of himself and others. His was the role of an outsider, not just as an artist, but as someone who never felt worthy of reaching the Gates of Heaven. I found an "in" to the character through that. When interacting with other characters I found the Finster was always looking for his "in" to them. He wanted, more than anything, to make them understand the passion and beliefs he had. So he would learn to speak "their language".
Using the concept of the physical Grotesque is always helpful to me as an actor. I will utilize strong images to make bold physical choices, gradually veiling them to a more naturalistic manner. But it assures me that I am making clear differentiation between myself and the role. It was no different with developing my interpretation of Finster. I have included the sketch from my notebook below. Interestingly, the images I chose were items that were commonly found in Finster's world. The images I used were arrowheads for his face and torso, pie crust slits for his eyes, an upside down coffee cup for his mouth, two ears of shucked corn for his forearms and hands, and parsnips for his feet. His center of gravity was directly between his heels with his feet at a 45 degree angle. In the picture to the right it is clear how the grotesque manifested itself in character presentation on stage.
Hidden Man--- World Premiere