Cliff Chamberlain | Performer of the week

John Henry Roberts, Cliff Chamberlain in The Iron Stag King: Part One.

John Henry Roberts, Cliff Chamberlain in The Iron Stag King: Part One. Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Magic is happening on stage in House Theatre of Chicago’s new fantasy epic The Iron Stag King: Part One, a dynamic first installment of a planned trilogy influenced by Lord Of The Rings, Game Of Thrones, Superman and other heroic tales. Starring as enigmatic storyteller Hap the Golden, Cliff Chamberlain returns to the House with a charismatic performance, guiding the audience through the rich world Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews have created. Raised in northern California, Chamberlain attended University of California in Santa Barbara before moving to Chicago to join four friends with whom he founded The Sandbox theater company. Two of those friends, Lee and Chelsea Keenan, are now ensemble members at the House along with Chamberlain, who joined in 2008, the same year he turned Equity and could no longer appear on their stage. Chamberlain talks to us about his past experience with high fantasy, how it feels to be back working with the House, and how audience interaction changed the show for him.

What is your fantasy background?

I read Lord of the Rings. I think I read The Hobbit in 3rd grade, it took me about six months. I loved Lord of the Rings as a kid, it’s one of the only things I’ve read twice. And a series called The Belgariad, which is a series of five books that I read as a kid and also again in college. I don’t think Nate or Chris have ever read it, but it has so many fun similarities to this. For me, it’s like having my own little secret having that story to bring to this.

How did you first get involved with House Theatre?

I got asked to be in The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz in 2005, because I had done a show with Matt Hawkins at Chicago Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet. I was playing a basket carrier and understudying Paris. They were writing the part of Tin Man in Wizard of Oz for Matt, and then he got a job at Chicago Shakespeare and couldn’t be in the show, so they asked me. But when I first moved to the city in 2003, I wrote an e-mail to Nate. I wrote before I knew anything about them, just because I saw the company’s website and it fit right in line with the things I liked in college. It was like, “Hey, my name is Cliff, I have this one-person show that I have brought to Chicago and I really think your company would like it. And if you ever have time for coffee, let’s get it.”  And it took years for us to get coffee, but we finally did it. I did that one-person show and I don’t think any of them made it. But that show was a fucking disaster. At the time I was like, “This is the greatest thing ever!” (Laughs.) That’s a whole other story.

My company at that time, The Sandbox, we did a lot of site-specific shows, we did a show in a gym, a show in a bar. We haven’t done a show in a while, but that was our first show and it was a royal disaster. The thing is, three of the four core Sandbox members are a part of the House. I just knew that was a company I was supposed to start working with. I worked with Shawn Pfautsch and Dennis Watkins in a show at Steppenwolf about a year after I moved here, and then I just started to get to know everybody and it seemed like life was pushing me this way. Then I did Wizard of Oz, Hatfields & McCoys and The Sparrow back-to-back and then got asked to be a company member ironically the same month I went Equity and haven’t done a show with them in five years.

How does it feel to be back?

It’s fun. I noticed from the first day of workshops, just a sense of ownership and relaxation in the room. I take being a company member really seriously, and I respect the whole idea of what a company is if I’m not a company member. So before I joined the company, I was really respectful of anyone who was a company member because that was their group and I was getting to play with them, I was being invited to join the club. Almost like any company I’ve worked at since, especially some of those companies like a Steppenwolf, who has a core group. It’s an honor to hang out with the people that built this thing. So to do this now as a member of the group, it just was a different feeling. I felt like I could fall on my face in a way that was safer and that I could risk being wrong more often because I was already part of the company. And for me, that creates more moments of being unexpectedly right.

When you first read The Iron Stag King, what was the thing that resonated with you most?

I loved questioning the idea of a king, and I loved the idea that points of view are the most important part of what a story is. One story or one event can be shaped in different ways so that the viewer or the listener reacts to that story based on whatever the storyteller is saying. I just like the idea that things change depending on the point of view. Specifically because when I grew up, I read about kings and queens and accepted that at face value and loved the idea in Lord of the Rings of Aragorn becoming king. But I live in a country that is a democracy, and I never once read those books and stopped and thought about that. Why am I rooting so hard for a king when I believe in democracy? I love that my naïveté and attitude about that was suddenly questioned.

How much backstory have Nate and Chris created for your character?

We worked a lot on the backstory in workshops, all of us helping to create the entire—basically enriching the prologue and making all that stuff specific and deep. In terms of who Hap is and how long he’s been alive, I have rough ideas about it, and I have other ideas that are more specific, especially his relationship to Katherine, Casper’s mom. I wanted to specifically know what those things were as an actor even though they’re not fully revealed in the play. Just in terms of figuring out—the map is so beautiful, but we were starting with a really rough map sketch. So everyone got the chance to be like, “Where are the pines? Where are the glades? What do these people do? Who am I? Why do I come from this?” Paige [Collins], who plays Rienne, her entire family backstory is pretty rich, her brothers and what happened to her. I think everyone has really distinct paths for how they got to the beginning of the play, and everyone was able to chime in with ideas about what they wanted, even though Nate and Chris had really specific ideas about them as well.

What was tech like for this show?

Totally insane. (Laughs.) It’s a hugely technological show. It’s really ambitious, people are doing things that they’ve never done before. Lee Keenan and all the puppets is something that he, to my knowledge, has not really attempted before, and it was wild. I missed a couple days of the tech process and a couple of previews, I was out of town for my brother’s wedding, so I missed a little chunk of it, but even with the time I was there, it was wild. It was really slow, in a good way. It gave the actors a good chance to work on our stuff and figure things out. Most House techs are wild, mostly because we’re trying to do things that no one knows how to do in the room. It’s like, “That’s impossible, let’s figure out how to do it.” And it takes about nine times failing miserably before the tenth time magically works, and then figuring out how that worked. My moment with the bell rope at the very end, that didn’t even really get teched until—boy—two days ago. We didn’t have it for the first preview on Thursday, we didn’t have it for the preview on Friday. We teched it and worked it on Saturday, and then really perfected it for Sunday. That’s one moment where I can say we needed the very last moments of tech to figure things out.

What do you think Hap’s audience interaction brings to the production?

It gives me a chance to get the audience on my side and listening to my story and my version of the events. Because I think that’s where the entire power of Hap lies: People believe his story, people believe that his story is right. Even though there’s no real reason to trust him in the beginning other than he’s the first person talking. I have the first words of the play and I’m sort of the Gandalf-like character, and we’re programmed to think “Oh, that’s my guide.”

For me, the show really clicked when Hap is talking about magic as knowing all the variables in nature and manipulating them, and he’s interacting with all the audience members, who are variables in this environment. That was when the “theater is magic” idea really hit.

It’s funny, that actually didn’t happen until Saturday night. I got a note from Nate and Chris that said, “We need you to have more fun. Hap just needs to be happy.” So I was like, alright, I’m going to play it more. Up to that point, I had never used the audience. It was sort of just on Brandon [Ruiter], trying to figure out what the heck that scene meant and how to tell that scene and what storytelling was. Because it seems like we’re on this mission, and then let’s have a scene where we describe what magic is and it doesn’t really advance the plot that much. That’s how it felt until Saturday, and then it was like, oh, this is essential to what I’m doing, or what the play is doing, or what theater is trying to do. Especially what the House is trying to do. To suddenly be able to look at all of us that are inside that square and be like, “We’re here together and this what we’re here for.” I love it a lot. 

The House Theatre of Chicago’s
The Iron Stag King: Part One runs through October 21 at Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St, 773-769-3832). Read our review of The Iron Stag King: Part One.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)