Ron Campbell Leads With His Chin
The Bay Area actor brings intensity, vitality, and control to roles big and small, comic and otherwise.
By Jean Schiffman.
(originally published in American Theatre Magazine.)
To get a sense of the quirky and existential wit of Bay Area–based clown/actor Ron Campbell, consider his outgoing voicemail message: “Please listen to the entire menu, as some of your options may have dwindled. Some calls may be recorded so we can laugh at you later…For infinity press 8. You may dial or say the word ‘help’ at any time to be immediately connected to the vacuum of space…Please stay on the line. Godot is coming.”
Forget Godot. Campbell is a viable substitute. He shows up punctually for an interview at a Berkeley café, beaming, a slender, natty figure in beige linen vest and white shirt, with matching slacks, shoes, and fedora. He’s currently sporting a silvery goatee and mustache to play Don Quixote at Marin Shakespeare Company (“We don’t own our faces,” he jokes). His glasses dangle on a string, and his blue eyes are particularly piercing.
Campbell is often out of town. He toured the world as lead clown in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza for five years, is playing the lead role (not for the first time) in the circus-y dinner theatre Teatro ZinZanni in Seattle (the new piece is Hollywood Nights, running Sept. 17–Jan. 31, 2016), will return to San Diego Repertory to reprise the role he created there (in 2000) in D.W. Jacobs’s tour-de-force solo show R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe.
Yet just this season I’ve seen him in three wildly different roles in the Bay Area: at TheatreWorks on the Peninsula as an insanely batty Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles; in the tiny role of the ancient waiter Alfie in Berkeley Rep’s coproduction (with South Coast Rep) of One Man, Two Guvnors, in which he tumbled down a flight of stairs several times—and in completely different ways both times I saw the show; and as the funniest, most poignant wannabe knight imaginable in Peter Anderson and Colin Heath’s comical Don Quixote: feeble, klutzy, half-masked, leaping over the laps of delighted audience members, an ever-hopeful smile on his face.
“What I loved about his performance was that it wasn’t about the clowning, it was about the story and the characters—nothing gratuitous,” says his Quixote director, Lesley Schisgall Currier. “It was about making sense of the character moment by moment in the circumstances the character is going through. He is never into taking the cheap laugh; he connected everything to the heart of the character. I think he’s always thinking about making choices that are not obvious.”
As a kid growing up in a half-Jewish family in Southern California, Campbell had a particularly funny uncle (not that kind of funny) who’d do goofy things, like announce the NFL games backward. “I learned a lot about comedy at that really formative stage,” Campbell says.
But he learned about drama early on, too. When he was 8 years old, his grandmother took him to Europe; in London they saw Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. “I went berserk when the character died and sang ‘The Impossible Dream,’” Campbell recalls. An usher took him and his grandmother backstage to prove that Kiley was alive and well. “That was resurrection to me,” he says. When he got home he started putting on plays with his brothers.
“I didn’t follow the academic path,” he continues. “I took to the streets.” In the late 1970s, after studying at UCLA and being “on the fringe of theatre,” he went to Europe. In Paris, a truck was unloading rags. “I saw these pants, much too big for me but with stirrups and zipper pockets that came way up to here, under my chest, and stretched to here,” he says, spreading his arms out. Suitably attired, he began performing mime and clown routines on the streets of Italy and France: in Piazza San Marco, the Piazza Navona, the Place Georges Pompidou. Okay, he thought, if I can do this, I can do anything.
Returning to Los Angeles in the 1980s, he reconnected with some of his old UCLA classmates and was a founding member of Tim Robbins’s Actors’ Gang. There and at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, San Diego Repertory, American Conservatory Theater, Seattle Rep, and elsewhere, he would play assorted roles, starting with plays by Sam Shepard and continuing on to Ionesco, Beckett, Shakespeare, and more, including a one-man version of A Tale of Two Cities in which he portrayed 28 characters. He has performed at the Royal Albert Hall, the Habima in Israel, and the Mark Taper Forum, to name just a few, and has won a raft of theatre awards.
It was taking on the challenging role of 20th-century theorist Buckminster Fuller in Jacobs’s two-hour monologue that eventually brought him to the Bay Area, where he wowed local critics and audiences with a complex character: brilliant mind, easygoing warmth, down-to-earth humor.
“I’d always perceived the play as a movement/dance piece,” says Jacobs, who also directed it. “Ron has a very powerful animal vitality in his movement and acting, which I thought was a good parallel to Bucky’s own intensity. I also saw the [character] as based on Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd—erect posture and bird-like attitude, which Ron has, and he also has a whole vocabulary of movement.”
Those movement skills are an essential part of Campbell’s tool kit. He started studying karate when he was 7 or 8—with Chuck Norris. He wanted to be a stuntman. In his 20s he discovered aikido, but when he injured his toe he took a seminar in iaido (a martial art involving swords) instead and was hooked.
“For me, it’s anti-acting,” he says. “It’s awareness without facial expressions.” In his iaido practice, he feels like he’s on a little vacation in feudal Japan. He works with a three-foot version of a sword, training to become proficient at drawing and cutting, and has the scars on his hands to prove it. “You have to be delicate and aware,” he says. “It’s all about the feet, and about maintaining certain postures and awareness. You get a sense of timing and space. There’s a wonderful quality of peace and a camaraderie that’s similar to what I get in the acting world.”
Some of his enchantment with martial arts spills over into the classes he teaches at his Soar Feat Studio, where he lives with his wife, floral designer Momoko Shimokado (they met five years ago when he was touring with Kooza in Japan; she came to see the show). The studio, in Emeryville, was once a cupcake factory—before that, a rubber factory—and was nothing more than a dirty warehouse with a concrete floor when Campbell first saw it. He turned it into a big, airy, industrial space with high, exposed wood beam ceilings; banks of high, small windows; a brick wall; a large bathroom with claw-foot tub (it used to be a ladies’ room and had two sinks and four toilets before he renovated it), and an open kitchen. (A black curtain separates part of the couple’s living area.) A bookshelf is stacked with hats: fedora, cowboy, derby. Commedia masks lie on a long table. There’s a skylight, and paper lanterns shading the ceiling lights; aikido mats cover the sprung floor of the main studio area, which he sometimes rents out to exercise classes or for auditions.
At a Monday night “actors’ jam,” about 25 students show up—it’s a three-hour drop-in class—plus observers. On his website, Campbell posts each week’s agenda. One week the theme was “mischief”; before that, it was “lovely maladies, paper obstacles, and curtain calls.” Campbell calls his classes “aerobics for the theatrical muscle” or “a jungle gym on the playground of your imagination.”
On the night I’m there, it’s the final class of 30 sessions before Campbell heads to Seattle, so after a few hours of varied exercises, the students pull together their material into little scenes. Everyone is barefoot. Campbell, in white yoga pants and a white T-shirt, never sits down; he’s always roaming the periphery of the mats or bounding onto them to interact with the actors, using each exercise to impart a little lesson.
A student tells me that Ron always finds something positive to say, and indeed, his comments are peppered with “Bravo!” and “Gorgeous!” and “Perfect!” He says other things, too: “Don’t talk, do!” “Uh-oh, clowns in trouble!” (That’s a good thing: “You having a problem is wonderfully compelling,” he says. “It’s like Houdini: Are they going to get out of this particular trap?”) “Find the emotion, but not from pushing it. Go about your business. Be a clown with a plan.”
He also says, “Too much character!” and “Find the opposite choice.” The students work on making entrances, on follow-the-leader variations, on Suzuki and Viewpoints-type movement; they use paper plates as eyeless masks.
“I try to be the cheerleader, the fan of people who are trying to do what we do,” he tells me later. “The other half of me is stern taskmaster—I bounce between those two extremes. Somewhere in the middle comes me: caring enough to put my heart into it.”
Strong words, but the classroom mood is entirely upbeat; Campbell’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious. In one exercise, he gives the students an impossible task: to make an entrance invisibly. As each one tries it, he says cheerfully, “Good, but that’s not it.”
“It’s not so much what they do but who they are between the attempts,” he explains. “Anger is a great motivator. Or they go inside, and depending on the actor, that can be very good or detrimental. The exercises are difficult on purpose. You don’t conquer them.”
He recalls a key lesson he learned from Kooza: He’d sometimes arrive at the tent early to find master juggler Anthony Gatto juggling 10 pins. “Sweat would be pouring down from him. In the show, in his big moment, he’s juggling 7—but he practiced at 150 percent. Which means he can be doing that amazing thing and connecting with the audience at the same time. No juggler can do that; their connection is with pins or hats—but he could wink at somebody in the fourth row! He had that kind of relaxation. I want my rehearsals to be really intense so when I get into the show I can hear the audience breathe and relax.”
That “ferocious commitment” to physical training has clearly paid off, declares Jacobs, who marvels that over the years, though he has aged, Campbell has learned more about how to use his body. “He’s less vulnerable to certain kinds of stresses and injuries than when he was younger,” avers Jacobs, who finds it odd to watch someone age 10 or 15 years and actually become a stronger physical specimen. “He went very deeply into iaido,” adds Jacobs, “and when he came back [to play Bucky again] he went through the material with very sword-like clarity.”
“There’s something about Ron’s own generosity, his own way of empathizing with people, and also the way he sees the uniqueness in everybody,” says San Diego Repertory associate artistic director Todd Salovey. “He’s able to create a simplicity of character that’s astonishing. When you work with him, you see how obsessed with detail he is.”
Salovey is developing a one-man version of the Yiddish folktale The Dybbuk, in which Campbell will play many characters, including a girl possessed by the spirit of her lover. He’s able to find the heart for all his characters simultaneously, and to shift seamlessly among them, marvels Salovey. “He’s meticulous about understanding and exploring what’s at stake for the character—the transformation, the vulnerability. That’s what makes each character so heartrending. Audiences relate to him the minute he walks onstage. And he recognizes how to lead an audience through a dramatic scene involving multiple people, and what he has to do to make the sequence, and also the conflicts of needs and perspectives, clear from one character to another.”
Campbell describes himself as largely an “outside-in” actor. “I often make two, just two, clean decisions, and then ride the character, not steer it,” he explains. He explains that the chin is one of his favorite body parts, so for the role of old Alfie in One Man, he chose the chin and the feet and allowed those two body parts to war with each other. “I made basic decisions about how I was going to move through space,” he elaborates. “I put my heels out, toes in [a classic pose], and let that infect the rest of me. It’s a better experience than just hunching over and playing old. For Don Quixote, I put my heels together and actually crossed them a little bit…and let my character develop from there.” (The spine is his second-favorite body part.)
Chins, spines, feet—and masks. Thanks to a fellowship, in 2009 he studied masks in Greece, Italy, and Japan, and now teaches acting with masks. The first time he worked with a mask, with Actors’ Gang, he hyperventilated; he couldn’t control his breathing and almost passed out. Since then he has learned about the power that a mask offers—it sculpts him, he says.
“You’re a servant to the mask just as you’re a servant to the text. You put on a mask and you follow it. It’s both deeply psychological and demandingly physical—if you get in the way of it, all of a sudden the mask doesn’t reveal. If you overplay under a mask, the mask goes dead.”
Musing on the relative marginality of theatre and stage artists, Campbell drily analogizes: “We’re dinosaurs wallowing around in the tarpit.” But he’s not planning to leave the stage any time soon: “We have these incredible advantages over film in that we’re breathing the same air as the audience.” Campbell loves to break the fourth wall—I’ve never seen an actor more comfortable with it—and says he likes to imagine breaking a fifth wall, too. To illustrate, he stares deeply into my eyes.
“Yes, I get stage fright,” he admits. “Always. Maybe it’s an addiction to adrenaline. That motor underneath, that do-or-die-ness—I want that.”
"Art is the tool we use to excavate ourselves."
- Peter Brook
"Fail. Fail again. Fail Better."
- Samuel Beckett
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."
"Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it."
- Mary Oliver
Poems, Plays and other Places
by Ron Campbell
Soar Feat Unlimited
Ron Campbell's Blog
Among the tools I use to find out more about myself is the martial art of Iaido and sailing the San Francisco Bay aboard VALHALLA, my 1968 Yankee Dolphin 24, designed by Sparkman & Stevens.
With Nishikawa Sensei.
I have a long standing relationship with the Martial Arts. Starting with none other than Chuck Norris at the age of 8, I have studied various forms in various dojo around the world, particularly in Iaido, Aikido, Karate and Wu Kung, while as an actor, becoming proficient in all forms of Stage Combat. I currently study Muso Jikiden Eishen Ryu Iaido in which I hold the rank of Yondan, (4th Degree Black Belt) and am a member of Nishi Kaigan Iaido Dojo, Berkeley, California and Esaka Dojo, Tokyo, Japan, and student of Esaka Sensei, Kobara Sensei, Nishikawa Sensei, Kaneda Sensei, Yoshikawa Sensei, Hattori Sensei.
Theatre As A Martial Art
Why Every Actor Should Train in Iaido.
by Ron Campbell
(Originally published in Theatre Bay Area Magazine)
You stand in the wings, listening for your cue. You wiggle a little, trying to gently release a little of that excess adrenaline that courses through your body. Dragonflies are doing acrobatics in the pit of your stomach. You notice them, but let them go. You take a quick final tour through your personal checklist: Who am I? What do I want? Where is my center? Have I got my props? Is my zipper up? You take a deep breath. Your pupils dilate, trying to bring in any extra information to your cerebral cortex. You hear your cue. You enter…
Weightlifting for the Mind
In studying Iaido, the actor can create a practice by which he or she may see themselves with the kind of granular scrutiny that being a true theatre artist requires. The Japanese art of drawing, cutting and returning the blade to its scabbard is called Iaido. More properly termed Kenjutsu with an emphasis on the draw, Iaido is the art of wielding the Japanese katana, the three foot single edged sabre of choice for the samurai class of feudal Japan and it can be just as challenging, thrilling and frustrating as any theatrical endeavor. And it may hold a key to better self appraisal and discovery than any acting class.
Iaido is taught here in the Bay Area by Sensei Andrej Diamantstein in dojos in San Francisco and Berkeley. Mr. Diamantstein is a Renshi, the equivalent of a sixth degree black belt and an excellent teacher. He was also a leading actor in his native Germany. He calls Iaido weightlifting for the mind.
I am one of his students.
Preparing for Battle
The theatre actor and the martial artist have a great deal in common. First of all, there is no separation between the artist and their art. A sculptor can stand back and admire his work. A writer can hand you their book. Film actors can hand you their DVD and walk away. Theatre actors, dancers and martial artists are not afforded the luxury of detachment. For their art to exist, they must place themselves on the pedestal to be admired or reviled. They must be present to present their art.
Another commonality between the disciplines of the martial artist and the actor is in the field of training. In both realms the principle of “use it or lose it” applies. I had a basketball coach whose favorite saying was “What you do in the practice you do in the game.” Keeping a continual practice between gigs keeps you sharp, regardless of what endeavor you may pursue. Indeed, the only difference between the actor and the martial artist is when the actor’s training is insufficient, he gets a bad review. When the martial artist’s training is lacking he may end up with a bloody nose. Or worse.
The Mental Muscle
Your typical Iaido waza, (a series of prescribed moves dictated by a scenario of corresponding moves by an opponent) has too many intricacies to detail here, but for the human mind to make all the calculations necessary and still make any attempt to perform them in a nice orderly manner requires the practitioner to stretch the mental muscle unlike any theatre training I’ve encountered.
When practicing Iaido or playing Iaido as it is termed, the practitioner seeks to move in the most efficient way possible. The founders of the art knew from years of practical experience on the battlefield that accuracy and precision always trumped unfocused emotion. The practitioner trains to develop true command over the body to respond efficiently and clearly. What better training for creating a more complete actor?
One Hand Clapping
The term Iaido, like many Japanese concepts, does not translate into English at all easily – very roughly, I comes from Iru, to be; Ai (as in Aikido) means coming together or harmony and Do means road, or Way (in the Buddhist sense). So, loosely translated, Iaido means being in harmony with one’s surroundings, always being prepared for any eventuality. What better way to be as an actor onstage?
I was playing the Chef in Teatro Zinzanni. I was attempting to be in harmony with my surroundings: In this case, a mirrored antique Spiegel tent filled with 300 well dressed patrons. The Chef introduces each course but also adds about fifteen minutes of what we call “Victim Work” in which the Chef involves audience members in the story of the evening and improvises with them. This definitely involves being prepared for any eventuality. In one particular segment I chose for my victim a portly gentleman with a big laugh who seemed to be really enjoying his evening at Zinzanni. I was planning on playing that my hand had been chopped off in a kitchen mishap and that had contributed to my character’s hatred of vegetables. Once I got the patron up and into the center of the room to banter with me I looked down to realize that he indeed was missing a hand himself! I like to think my training in Iaido enabled me to not only roll with the punches in this case but to quickly re-fashion the segment. My victim ended up pointing out his hand- or lack thereof- and was perfectly at ease with it. I was able to do all my material about the kitchen mishap with him and we both got a huge ovation. Talk about the sound of one hand clapping!
Anger Won’t Do It
There have been many instances in which my Iaido training has unexpectedly offered me a footpath into a deeper understanding of my art.
I was playing Herod in a recent production of Wilde’s Salome. Late in a grueling day of rehearsal, I found myself allowing Herod’s frustration with Salome and my own frustration with the difficulty of Wilde’s text fuse into something entirely detrimental to the work. I was allowing anger to seep into the proceedings. That’s when I remembered something that had happened earlier that week in the dojo.
I was working on a waza in which the final slash of the sword is sometimes called the “courtesy cut” with which the practitioner puts the already mortally wounded opponent out of their misery. Yes, the move is violent, but in Iaido it is not done with rage. The mindset is compassionate. The practitioner is thinking “most regrettable” as the blade whistles in its perfect arc through the (imaginary) opponent. Frustrated with my technique, I was fixating on the move, practicing it again and again, like a dog on a bone. While still working with another student in the row next to me, Sensei Diamantstein quietly said to me “Anger won’t do it. Try something else” Back at the rehearsal I was able to take his advice and apply the lesson learned on the mat. My practice in Iaido had given me insight into my habits and at the same time encouraged malleability.
The Lingering Mind
Another principle practiced in Iaido that has had a direct impact on my work as an actor is the concept of Zanshin. Literally translated as “The Lingering Mind”, Zanshin refers to the level of concentration necessary in an environment in which each breath may be your last.
I was in rehearsal for a one man show called The Thousandth Night. One of the 38 characters I play is Shaherazad, the doomed bride who must tell her husband tales of the Arabian nights to stave off her execution. The director and I were working on the moment when she must kneel before him. After trying it several ways, I flashed upon the practice of Zanshin in Iaido. In many waza, the practitioner strives to place themselves in the Japanese style seated position called sieza or the more difficult tatehiza. Throughout this movement the spirit of Zanshin must be present. It is a kind of mental vigilance. It is a practice of being “on guard” without showing “on guard”. And it is the perfect expression of Shaherazad’s inner state. Not telling my director all this, I simply showed it to her.
“I don’t know what you just did, but that was perfect!” she said. And we moved on.
Deadly Force Encounters
If the stage is a battlefield of sorts, where we seek to slay our audience- (and what actor hasn't boasted that he was killing them out there) how do we prepare ourselves for battle? What training will best help us out there on the front lines in front of the footlights?
I came across a study of the perceptual distortions experienced by police officers and combat soldiers in what they call Deadly Force Encounters. Basically when the fecal matter hits the fan. Of the more than 140 combatants surveyed, 85% reported diminished hearing. 80% reported tunnel vision. Many reported dissociation and memory loss. Nearly all said they went on “automatic pilot.” Every combatant thanked their training for their survival.
In a recent workshop I was leading at the Berkeley Rep, my students concluded that the exact same perceptual distortions take place pretty much every time one steps onstage. I’m not referring to stage fright or backstage jitters. These are all skilled practitioners. I’m referring to the challenges of developing a practice by which one can respond and react to the ever changing landscape of the human condition. It’s not easy, but nothing good ever is.
Sharpening the Soul.
As a theatre artist I am still finding ways in which Iaido can enrich my work. Each class I take offers me new levels of kinesthetic awareness, deeper understanding of my own instrument and stronger resilience to all the persistent challenges that face every actor and every martial artist alike. And failure has become my friend. As Beckett said, “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”
You stand in the dojo. You bow smartly to the mat, honoring the sacredness of your practice and all those who have gone before you on this path. The Dragonflies are there but you let them go. You go through your personal checklist. Who am I? What do I want? Where is my center? Awaiting the sensei’s command, you take a deep relaxing breath. You hear your cue: Hajime! You enter...
For more information on Iaido in the Bay Area:
LISTEN to a talk Ron gave at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Berkeley here.