In a rather strange twist, my interview with One-Man-A-Thon Charlie Ross began with an inquiry into my life. Eight minutes in and I realize he knows about my time in China, my relative newness to Victoria, my partner, my place of birth and my childhood hometown. I know he’s heading to the Yukon to perform his One Man Star Wars and One Man Lord of the Rings (LOTR) Trilogies, but I knew that before we sat down.
I caught up with the inquisitive and self-professed geeky Charlie Ross a week before his performance of both shows as a fundraiser for Intrepid Theatre:
M: Is Victoria home base now?
Ross: Oh yes. I went to university here [UVic]. I’ve lived here off-and-on since 1992. I’ve actually just bought a house up in Gordon Head, which is an adjustment. I’ve always lived downtown.
M: Your show has been seen in 180 countries, 1,200 performances, almost 12 years performing Star Wars, eight for LOTR. Where do you mostly tour?
Ross: Most of the work I do is in the States because there are so many markets. Asia’s obviously an untapped market, but there’s a language barrier and cultural barrier. In a lot of ways I’m not sure if the sense of humour completely translates.
M: How is Victoria’s art scene for your work?
Ross: The one-man-show-thing, I think is necessary. A lot of us [performers] are like cockroaches. We have to survive and we’re not handed everything. There’s not all the infrastructure here. There are fantastic theatres and there’s the arts council if you can get something from them, but there’s only so much to go around. In a lot of ways making a one-person show is just being realistic about the way the arts are funded or not funded. If you can do a show that’s just yourself and work on your own steam, you only have to worry about your own overhead, your own schedule. For me that’s been the nice thing about this. I’ve just added another dimension, which is this humongous world franchise. Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. I’ve got those huge banners and I’m licensed by them.
M: How does one get licensed by Star Wars?
Ross: It was a whole lot easier than I thought it would be. I went about it the wrong way. I never asked for permission. I just started doing it. On a local level, then on the Fringe and it just sort of blossomed in an organic way. I think that’s the only way to do something like this. If I had gone to George Lucas saying ‘Hey can I do a one-man Star Wars show?’ they probably would have said ‘no’ because it doesn’t cost them anything to say ‘no’. [Instead] They put me in front of thousands of people and it worked.
M: You mean the Star Wars fairs?
Ross: Yeah, the big science fiction conventions. They’re insane. They’re like a religious revival. Someone had written that once and I thought I’d never heard it put quite so perfectly.
M: So how did this all happen?
Ross: The origins are kind of murky even for me. I just remember I was out in Halifax trying to write my own shit. It wasn’t even interesting to me and if I’m not interested no one else is going to care... I got a call from my buddies, TJ Dodd, who’s a very well known Canadian solo performer, and Mike Rinaldi. They were working on radio plays for a live audience, about 60 people. The two shows together were only about 20 minutes of actual material and we thought we’d fill out the evening with some sketch comedy as well. I wanted to do a five minute Star Wars sketch, but when I tried to write five minutes that encapsulates Star Wars it was just getting longer and longer. I didn’t want to do it by myself, so I wrote a three-person script where we all play multiple roles. We had a director, Paul Rivers, and we tried to read it [together] and they didn’t understand the humour. So I started reading it myself, to tell them how it worked. Mike said, ‘why don’t you just do it yourself?’ Then TJ said, ‘yeah, just do it yourself.’ So I rehearsed a bit that lasted about 35 minutes and I performed it that evening ...It went really, really well… TJ and myself were the only two guys that continued to work on it. TJ knew Star Wars as well as I knew Star Wars and we hammered out the details. He almost became the director, though not in the conventional sense. Because TJ was well known on the Fringe and my intention was to perform this on the Fringe, I said, ‘Do you mind if I put you as the director?’ He said ‘That’d be great,’ and that’s how it started. My second kick at the can (with LOTR) was a lot more editing and script writing.
M: Are all the lines from the movies?
Ross: It’s all lines from the films. I know there are people who don’t like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and that’s fine. When people know the story of Lord of the Rings and know the story of Star Wars, I’m just doing these stripes and dots and doing impressions, of course, but people fill in the blanks. There’s something utterly absurd about seeing a 38-year-old man flipping around on stage like an 8-year-old kid. I’m sweating my ass off. That’s kind of the childlike exuberance some geeks, some nerds still have. That also touches on what fandom is all about. People get absolutely giddy about NASCAR. It seems absurd to me, but that’s the wonderful thing about geekdom or nerdom. You can apply it to crotchet, NASCAR, whatever you like and it’s just as valid…I guess I’m trying to bring some of these things together by saying ‘Laugh at me, laugh with me. Laugh at each other as well.
M: How long does it take to actually get those faces, that physicality right?
Ross: No costume, no set, no props. I don’t want any of that. In the beginning I couldn’t afford to carry around a bunch of costumes, sets and props. I also thought, if it’s just me, it should be, just me. TJ was really supportive of that. Let’s get it down to just the characters. Just the physicality. I remember when we were kids and we’d play superman or guns and you’d get shot and make the impression of it. We understand that. I can kind of reawaken that language that we have as kids. As far as taking time, it didn’t take any time. I think I can still play. M
M: Twelve years later, any jitters?
Ross: The last time I had jitters was doing a big TV thing like Conan O’Brien or something. But even then it’s being taped. Live to TV, that’s different. They don’t cut it. They have a five second delay, but that’s just 5 seconds to laugh while you sort of crash and burn. The TODAY Show what like that. I didn’t crash and burn, but it was live television. It’s like okay, ‘There’s Al Roker. There’s Matt Lauer.’ Doing this show has been beyond theatre and beyond performance. It is something totally different. I’m very happy that I get to share it.
M: Do you think you’ll ever want to perform with other people?
Ross: Yeah. That’s where I started off. I would love to work with other people. It’s a matter of putting myself out there. It would be nice to segue out of this into group stuff.
M: What about comedy? You’re considered comedic, but to a certain extent your being true to serious moments in these films.
Ross: I think that’s the absurdity of it all, because I’m none of those people in fact. I’m just being true to the material and still trying to be serious in how I’m presenting them.
M: So the intent is always comedy?
Ross: It’s a fine line. I can take it seriously or I can try to be as true as I can but when I know I’m being serious and someone is going to laugh, it’s a reaction that happens. I see some fans welling up because it’s a touching part of the film and I love that. I mean, I cry at anything. I cry watching The Office! I love to have that feeling.
M: Would you ever want to do more serious work?
Ross: I think the question is, would anyone want to put me in something serious? I love serious stuff. When we went to university pretty much everything we did was serious. But, I remember I would always try to push comedy into roles I was doing. Sometimes I’d get in shi!% for it. The first thing I was ever able to do at UVic was Comedy of Errors. I was playing this serious Duke, basically coming out and giving expositions but I tried to add a little bit of something funny, just a little something and I got in sh!% from the head of the department saying, ‘The duke is not a comedic character.’ I thought that was so f#@$ing myopic. None of us are completely serious and if you want to show something as completely serious, it’s seriously f#@$ing boring, or taxing.
M: Is there another trilogy you want to do?
Ross: Yes, but I’m not sure there are any that are going to work. I was really hopeful for Batman, the way the films are put together, but I kind of feel like the shootings in Colorado completely eclipsed the movie. It’s hard to find a trilogy like Star Wars or LOTR that tells the story from the beginning through to the end. For myself, I’d like to make a trilogy of trilogies and then be done. It’s a matter of finding it.
Catch the smash hit shows One Man Star Wars Trilogy (Thurs., Dec. 20) and One Man Lord of the Rings (Fri., Dec. 21) at the Metro Studio [1411 Quadra], 8pm. Ticket $25/Adults, $20/Children at ticketrocket.org, 1609 Blanshard or 250-590-6291. M