TODD GEARHART - It's a Great American Story
Todd Gearhart has a tough assignment. He must play a Mark Twain that is not white-haired and not endlessly humorous - 30-years younger than the Mark Twain we know. Instead, in the play, this young man has just begun his meteoric rise as a journalist and lecturer.
“[The publisher is] getting rich off you. I made a calculation myself. The Century will make $700,000 thanks to Shiloh. And they have the audacity to offer you "standard terms"! - Twain to General Grant
Where are you from and where do you live now? I was raised in a small town outside of Dayton, Ohio. Now I live in Hell’s Kitchen.
Did you start out wanting to be in the theater? Where I grew up, I didn’t know theater was an option. But I played David in David and Goliath when I was 7 and loved it. As a kid, every time I watched TV I wanted to be the profession of the main character – a fireman, a policeman, a doctor… Eventually it occurred to me that I wanted to be the guys playing the characters. I applied to the U. of Cincinnati where they had a good theater program. I figured if I got accepted, I’d go for it. And I did!
Roughly how many plays will you perform in this year and in how many different locations? Three plays a year would be fantastic. Now, I tend to do two plays a year plus some film and TV work. Commercials and voice-overs help supplement my income, but I prefer theater. I love regional theater because all I have to focus on is the work. There are no distractions.
Cite a couple roles you’ve truly enjoyed and tell me what made them so appealing. I played the part of Chris in All My Sons. Everyone involved was great but hearing [playwright] Arthur Miller’s voice was powerful. Saying my character’s words every night made me want to be a better person and work harder. The second would have to be A Doll’s House in which I played Torvald. I was scared that I couldn’t bring anything new to the play. The audience would be totally familiar with the story and know my character. But the director said, ‘Torvald isn’t a bad guy or a good guy. He’s just trying to take care of his wife. Don’t condescend, just show her love.’ I was very proud that the audience got to see Torvald in a different way – a new light.
Have you done, or will you do any research for your character? I did some for the audition. I am a fan of Mark Twain and I love the Civil War. I visited Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, CT. Inside, I could feel his warmth. Being there gave me a sense of Twain’s soul.
You have a special challenge in playing such a well-known character. How are you handling that? I’m going to try to forget I’ve ever seen Hal Holbrook, because that’s not the Twain I’m portraying. Instead, I’ll concentrate on Mark Twain’s words and intentions, the things that he says that I identify with. It definitely won’t be an imitation.
What films or books have influenced your impression of the Civil War? My introduction was the Ken Burns documentary. I’ve also read the Shelby Foote narratives which are powerful. What strikes me most is that no one understood at the start of the war what was at stake. Both sides thought the other would lay down and quit. Grant is the first person, along with Lincoln, who really understood what it was about.
Can you give us a little insight into your character? He was warm – and a rascal. That’s a big part of his charm. Plus both he and Grant had bullshit detectors that were off the charts.
Have you worked with Elizabeth Diggs or Regge Life before? The only person I’ve worked with is Carole Monferdini (Julia Grant). But I’ve known the casting director for years. I am not someone you would look at and say, ‘That guy can play Mark Twain.’ This role will be exciting and challenging because I’m being cast against type.
What might the audience take away from the production? Elizabeth has written a really exciting play with a story people should know about – a great American story. I think we don’t know enough about Ulysses Grant. We know Lincoln, and Grant won the war for Lincoln. Between them, and at great personal cost, they put things back in the right direction. They should be on equal footing.
GRANT & TWAIN will be performed at PS21, Chatham, NY. Performances: Sept. 27, 28, 29 at 8pm. Matinees: Sept. 29, 30 at 2pm. For tickets go to http://ps21chatham.org/event/grant-twain/.