Michael Satow ’07 played many different roles on stage in the Studio Theatre at Northeastern, from the lovable con man Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, to Jim the dying father in Tales of the Lost Formicans, to Touchstone the clown in As You Like It. Even in his student days he excelled at making a character his own. Now a professional actor with an impressive list of credits, Satow is playing multiple roles in the new off-Broadway comedy, A Better Place, by Wendy Beckett. As the show prepares to open, Satow looks back on his development as an actor at Northeastern and out in the world, and the challenges and opportunities in playing multiple roles.
I saw a picture the other day taken during my senior year at Northeastern, in the dressing room during a production of Guys and Dolls. It’s a great picture. There are about fifteen of us crammed into this white cement room, lined with lighted mirrors and counters. Chairs are scattered. Guys dressed in gangster suits and blushed with theatrical makeup are sitting, standing, leaning, telling vulgar jokes. Looking at that photo, taken about ten years ago, I realized in a way I never have before, the theatre is my home.
As I write today, I’m sitting in another white-walled dressing room. This time at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street. And this time I’m alone. Mostly. There’s a special kind of buzz today, because tomorrow we have our first preview, so people are in and out checking things off their last minute lists.
We’ve had almost five weeks of rehearsal for this play. A luxury by most standards. On average for a non-musical you get about three and a half weeks before audiences start coming. I once did a production of Red with eleven rehearsals. It never seems like enough time, but somehow it always comes together. Prepare prepare prepare, then you improvise.
I play seven different roles in this one. Four real estate brokers, a waiter, a doctor, and a concierge. The challenge with something like this is to make each character different in a purposeful way, while still serving the scene and the story as a whole.
It’s not my first time doing a multi-character track. The first one I ever did was freshman year. The Laramie Project, directed by Dr. Nancy Kindelan. It was my first three weeks of college. I was the only freshman. I was terrified. I felt completely out of my depth. I got up, went to class, went to rehearsal, went to bed. Rinse (sometimes) and repeat.
As far as I was concerned, they chose the wrong guy, I was going to ruin the play, and I’d never work again. I remember fighting back tears in the foyer of the theater while Nancy basically caught me up on three years of acting class. We all worked so damn hard on that play. I got a C+ in Algebra that semester, but we got that sucker open. A show that stands on its feet is an absolute miracle that we take for granted every time we sit down to watch a play.
There’s something freeing about playing more than one person in a play. Playing one character kind of takes over your life. It digs in. You get protective of your character, or at least I do. Depending on the kind of actor you are, you might find yourself adopting the points of view of your character (much to the chagrin of your wife, who is also an actor, so understands… mostly). You only have one role to think about, so you can camp out there. The thing about playing multiple characters is you can’t really live in all of them at the same time. You have to give each of them your equal attention. I find (at least during this rehearsal process) that this creates a sort of objectivity about my place in the play. It’s less personal. Not in a way that makes it unspecific, just that makes it more about the play than me. It removes the ego.
There may be a lesson in that. Because we all want to remove the ego from our work. That helps collaboration, but even more importantly, it allows us to get out of our own way and do our best work.
The costume designer has just brought me a fake mustache and some spirit gum. She tells me we might not use it, but just try it tonight! The director has told me to make a vocal change for one of my characters, and the heat doesn’t seem to be working on this cool, rainy, spring afternoon.
There’s no place like home.