Jim Lichtscheidl discovered the power of comedy at an early age. Sitting across from me on the couches of Guthrie Theater’s Level Five Cafe, Lichtscheidl recalls using his knack for humor to get out of schoolyard scrapes, ease tense situations, and set aside his introverted nature—a “surprising trait for an actor,” he says.
But the reason Lichtscheidl’s characters resonate with audiences isn’t because he leaves viewers rolling on the floor laughing after every scene. Rather, it’s his ability to infuse his roles—most recently, Erik in Nice Fish and Karl/Steve in Clybourne Park—with honest emotions and down-to-earth traits that elevates them from punny to poignant—even when he’s playing a pock-marked, eternally optimistic “misfit,” as he does in Uncle Vanya, opening Friday, September 20.
Here, Lichtscheidl talks about his creative process, his earliest memory, and how getting out of character isn’t as easy as you’d think.
First of all, I loved your performance in Nice Fish.
lichtscheidl and mark rylance in “Nice fish;”
photo by Richard Termine
It was such a great experience and it really inspired me as an artist, too. I’ve written a show before, but I haven’t done it in a while. Nice Fish really reignited that flame in me to create; the process was so collaborative and free and creative. I want to do more of that.
Uncle Vanya is almost the complete opposite of Nice Fish, in terms of going from that collaborative, anything-goes process to producing a well-known Chekhov play.
The show and Chekhov are very well known. There’s a preconceived notion of how it looks and sounds—which also has its advantages because then you can just focus on your character and making things specific and honest.
Does it ever feel constricting, when comparing the two?
It’s challenging in different ways. My preference is more of the collaborative process. I have a lot of ideas, and sometimes if a play is too formulaic or if the character is too boxed in I get a little claustrophobic. I have a creative impulse to add my own flavor, if it were.
When did you figure out you had a natural ability to lighten up a situation?
Wow. Probably when I was a kid. Actually, it’s one of my earliest memories. As a kid I loved the song “The Entertainer.” I loved that piece. I think I was maybe three or four. One night, my parents were throwing a party and it came on the radio.
Right? They ran into my bedroom, woke me up, and said, “Do your dance!” Because I had a little routine. I was so shy—I’m an introvert, which is odd for an actor—that I made everyone turn around and I did my dance. I’m sure everyone was peeking around. Then I did a big finish and ran back to my room. But that’s when I knew I had a little something that people wanted to see.
How about on stage?
In grade school I did a silly little play called The Book That Saved the Earth—it was a one of those text-book plays. I created my own Martian costume and everything and got laughs and kind of went, “Wow, what is this?”
Comedy was also kind of a defense mechanism for me because I could get myself out of trouble. My sense of humor saved me in a lot of fights, bullies—a lot of those situations. I learned it was a survival instinct as well.
When did you decide to make it your “thing” professionally?
I don’t know if there was one defining moment where I said, “I’m a comic.” But I knew that people appreciated it. I remember something Mark Rylance said in a talk-back for Peer Gynt: An audience member commented on how his character was similar to others they’d seen in London or New York. And they inquired, “Don’t you want to stretch or change it? Create new characters?” He said, “If you know what you’re good at, stick with it. Why not? Why fight it?” And at first I was outraged, thinking, “Why not challenge yourself?” But the older I get, the more I realize that my job is to serve an audience, and the best way to do that is to play to my strengths. If I’m constantly fighting that comic element it’s not doing either of us any good. That sunk in and stayed with me. I’ve embraced it.
lichtscheidl (far left) in “Uncle Vanya;”
photo by Joan Marcus
How do you balance your comedic energy and creativity with Chekhov’s perhaps stoic, not-so-funny script?
That’s kind of a misconception, especially with this (renowned Irish playwright Brian Friel’s) adaptation. A lot of that is due to Friel, who added more comedic, honest moments for all the characters—really kind of fleshed out the secondary characters and made them more accessible. My character (Ilya Telegin), fortunately, is kind of the court jester of the group. He’s very optimistic and tries to look on the light side of things; in tense situations, he really tries to lighten the mood. I have a guitar on me almost all the way through the show, so whenever a tense moment comes, I play the guitar and take the whole “music soothes the savage beast” kind of take. It’s very similar to my own personality. Tense situations or arguments or shouting are things I retreat from as an individual. It just fit naturally in that way.
Is Friel’s version of Uncle Vanya different enough where you think “true” Chekhov fans will be up in arms?
No, I don’t think so. It’s very faithful. The coupling of Chekhov and Friel is really incredible to be a part of. The fact that some of the smaller characters are more fleshed out and more real now brings in more of sense of community and adds to the overall effect of the production.
Chekhov’s writing is notoriously difficult. How do you overcome that as an actor in one of his productions?
You need to listen and respond honestly as your character. Be honest and in the moment and real, reacting physically, honestly, and emotionally. All those things are so important, especially with Chekhov.
A lot of people are turned off by Chekhov—they think his work is inaccessible. What would you say to them to convince them otherwise?
Well, his work is kind of like Seinfeld: you think it’s about nothing, but you get to know these characters so well and so fully that you could watch them do nothing and that’s okay. It’s the comedy and tragedy of everyday life—putting a magnifying glass on that and saying, “Look, you’re not alone in these things. These situations and feelings are universal, and it’s alright to look at it and reflect and identify.”
How do you think such a dialogue-heavy, deeply intellectual play will be received by a modern-day, ADD-riddled audience?
It’s amazing how contemporary Uncle Vanya plays. I mean, there’s a whole argument in the show about forestry and which basically lays out the greenhouse effect. That’s what Chekhov wrote so many years ago. And the relationships—the encounters between the characters, the heartbreak, the unrequited love—all resonate, always. That’s what we’ve found so far in previews: people really identify with that and find humor in it and are touched by it.
Speaking of relationships, I heard your partner, Robert Dorfman, is in the production as well?
(Points to the elevator) Right over there!
Want to join us?
(Robert walks over)
We’re just chatting Chekhov and love…
Have you guys ever done a show together?
Jim: We did Merchant of Venice. That’s where we met!
How’s being back on stage together?
Jim: It’s wonderful.
Robert: It is. Not only that we enjoy each other’s company, but he’s such a reliable actor. Not that everybody else isn’t also, but it’s great to have a life jacket up there.
Jim: There’s something to be said for having a strong comrade in a cast to lean on and support you.
Robert: Our characters are connected in a strange, friendly way. I play a fading professor who’s very arrogant. And he plays… well, what would you say?
Jim: Um, well, how would I describe him? I think he’s a truly optimistic misfit. He’s an impoverished landowner who’s living on the estate of Vanya and Sonya. He’s the person who’s always in the room and always has something to say, but maybe not always in the most appropriate manner.
Robert: His character exudes a spirit, a radiance. My character is all intellectual and pomposity. And yet they’re friends, allies.
I can’t wait to see it! I’ll let you get to rehearsal though, Robert.
Robert: Nice to meet you!
(To Jim) Is there anything that’s been surprising about the rehearsal process so far?
There’s one moment where my character gets so anxious he has to leave the room. Normally he’s the happy guy, but this is a time where you see he’s obviously distraught. And for whatever reason, it gets a huge laugh. For a while I thought I was doing something wrong, but in reality I’m doing it right because it shows the audience knows my character and understand how he processes and works and lives in this environment. So really, it’s just the audience identifying with that moment and reacting with it.
Another challenge is I’m not the prettiest character. I’m sweaty and greasy; I have to draw on pockmarks and wear glasses, a beard, and a frumpy costume. Everyone else has pretty costumes. It’s not a “date” role. But embracing that helps my spirit as the character, because if he looks like this but still has an optimistic outlook that really says a lot about who he is.
lichtscheidl (far right) in “clybourne park;”
photo by Michael Brosilow
Are you the kind of actor who takes your character home with you?
I try not to. I really find it affects me, though. That especially happened with Clybourne Park, oddly enough. There’s a lot of anger in that show. Some of those characters were hard to inhabit. And one of the last lines is literally curses being shouted at me. And it’s hard not to be affected, even as an actor, because I feel those things do affect you. Your body doesn’t know this isn’t a real moment, and you’re trying to react as honestly as you can. Each night after a performance, I would try to do something lighthearted—dance or sing or something—to cleanse me from that. Some characters do cling a little bit, but I try not to go home with it.
Friday, September 20–Sunday, October 27
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., 612-377-2224