Three Faces of Steve
Actor Steve McDaniel Shows His Different Sides
Of course, actors hardly consider their excess of personalities a disorder. On the contrary, they think of it as a professional asset, the mark of artistic versatility. The more different individuals they can summon up, the greater their chances are of getting work. And they want that work. Most actors desire nothing so much as to show all their varied, vivid personalities to the public.
Case in point: Austin actor Steve McDaniel, who has spent the past year on a mission to demonstrate his range as an actor. McDaniel has been active in Austin's theatre scene since 1991, when he made his local debut in the Deus Ex Machina production Brecht on Brecht. In the next four years, the actor appeared in 10 more shows, including Waiting for Godot, Inspecting Carol, and The Illusion at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center; and Hamlet the Dane, Perfect Crime, and Jeffrey at Capitol City Playhouse. While this certainly constituted getting work, McDaniel felt it was mostly a limited kind of work. He saw himself cast repeatedly in roles that called for extravagant behavior, either buffoonish -- lots of broad takes and rolling eyes -- or lunatic -- lots of demented laughter and rolling eyes. McDaniel felt that this showed only a fraction of what he could do as an actor. He thought local directors weren't considering him for a broader range of roles because they wouldn't look beyond his previous work or, in some cases, beyond his physical appearance.
"When you're 5' 5" and you're bald, you notice very quickly that people have preconceptions about you," McDaniel notes. "You're treated in certain ways; you're spoken to in certain ways. People bring in preconceptions. Nowhere is that more evident than in the theatre, where people will say, `I want so-and-so to look like this.' No one would ever look at my small frame and say, `There's a hero.' No one would ever look at my frame and say, `There's a leading man.' No one would look at my frame and say, `There's a guy who can convey a sense of nobility.' And that's very irritating to me because in my experience in life, it doesn't matter what you look like."
McDaniel, who earned his degree in theatre from Trinity University, thought the theatre scene here might not contain the barriers of preconception he encountered elsewhere. "But when I came to Austin, I found the barriers were very stiff and resistant indeed. I make choices. That's my motto: Make choices. Take a chance. Otherwise, why is it worth it for anybody to come out and see? I have made choices, I have taken chances, and they have not always met with positive responses. The first thing I heard after I did Waiting for Godot was, `You're too broad. We won't cast you in an Ibsen play. You can't do realism.' People had seen me in one thing and all of a sudden that's all I can do. It took me three of four years in this town before people stopped thinking of me as a broadly comic sort of a human being. I feel there's more to me than that. Everybody gets to go pigeonhole everybody else, and it pisses me off that we all do this to each other. You have to break down these barriers one by one. I needed to show a range."
So, last fall McDaniel made a commitment to himself. He would spend the next year pursuing parts that would show the breadth of his talent, that would allow some of his hidden personalities to surface. With persistence, he could land three or four roles, and if they were different enough and directors saw them, he expected to start getting calls for roles that demanded more than a facility for rolling one's eyes.
Soon after making his decision, McDaniel scored a substantial role outside the realm of clowns and madmen: the part of the Doge of Venice in The Public Domain production of Howard Barker's Scenes From an Execution. The drama concerns a Renaissance artist who is commissioned by the Doge to paint a mural commemorating a recent battle; conflict develops between the artist and the Doge over their respective visions of what the piece -- and art in general -- should be. Here was a part, McDaniel felt, that provided ample opportunity to show range. "That guy," he says, "got to show everything."
The role of the Doge came with a considerable challenge, however. The part is all too easily interpreted as a stand-in for the congressional forces who have so savagely criticized the art and artists supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. "The first thing I kept hearing [about the Doge] was Jesse Helms or any other politician who was anti-NEA. I thought, `Well, that's easy, but there's more to him than that.' Those guys would not have the authority and influence and power that they have unless there were people out there who had heartstrings that they were tugging on. I watched Newt Gingrich. You want to know something? The guy comes across as honest, sincere, and trying to get a job accomplished for his constituency. So I said to myself, `That's what the Doge has to be. He has to come across as someone who is likable.' I wanted to play him as a person who was earnest, who was serious, a sincere person with a problem."
McDaniel's approach paid off. He created a memorable figure of intelligence and ingenuity whose face-off against Johanna Whitmore's artist had little of the vicious philistinism of the recent NEA battles. He was a man looking out for his city. His performance earned McDaniel not only the hearty applause of audiences and some praiseworthy notices from local critics, but also an award for "Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Drama" from the Austin Theatre Critics' Table.
The second step in McDaniel's versatility campaign didn't even require an audition. Zachary Scott Theatre Center Artistic Director Alice Wilson, with whom McDaniel had worked on Inspecting Carol and The Illusion, was directing Zach's revival of the Garson Kanin comedy Born Yesterday and wanted him for the role of Eddie, the dutiful schmo who serves as flunky to -- and whipping boy of -- junk tycoon Harry Brock. The part barely covers 10 minutes of stage time, according to McDaniel, but he liked the way the part differed from that of the Doge. He recalls, "I looked at it and said, `Ah, this is the opposite end of the spectrum, from a noble head of state to a shmuck, a wipe-your-shoes clown."
All the shrewdness and complexity of thought and attachment to power that McDaniel had cultivated for the Doge were swept away to create a dim-witted doormat of a guy, whose biggest concerns are doing what he's told and avoiding more verbal abuse. McDaniel approached Eddie this way, "I wanted a guy who was trodden upon, who took a lot of abuse, but found something good each day to be able to wake up to and pursue his job in earnest. I was looking for a survivor." McDaniel's Eddie not only made it through the play with his skin intact, he also won his share of the laughs from audiences and a few more bouquets from local critics.
McDaniel followed Born Yesterday with yet another dramatic change of pace: a soft-spoken, enigmatic fabric merchant in The Public Domain production of Catherine Rogers' drama Einstein's Daughter. The character is a shopkeeper in 1916 Philadelphia who's written to look and sound like the great physicist Albert Einstein. The play concerns a young dressmaker who visits the fabric shop and develops a curious relationship with the merchant. The role appealed to McDaniel for numerous reasons: the opportunity "to do somebody from a different culture, a different time period; the accent thing; and the sensitivity of the character, who was a very meek human being, very mild-mannered, a very quiet sort of a person. That was very contrary to what I had been doing. It was a different thing for me to do."
Although the part in Einstein's Daughter offered McDaniel a significant new personality to showcase, it also proved the most challenging of the year. The first challenge McDaniel faced was what to do about his hair: He doesn't have any, and Einstein had that huge head of white hair. "That was my major worry," he remembers. "Can we come up with a wig that's going to be Einstein-looking? And that's a worry I had until we closed the show down. The wig had a life of its own. Every night, I would look at it and ask, `Are you going to cooperate with me tonight?'"
On a more interpretive level, McDaniel was challenged by "the quality of his voice. What I was looking for was lost. What does lost sound like? There we go back to my Paul Baker training. That would be a legitimate question in a drama class under Paul Baker. What does lost sound like? What does it look like? What is the texture of lost? How does lost move? What's the color of lost?" In answering those questions, McDaniel lowered the volume of his voice and muttered some of his lines. But the problem with that, he says, was "We had a very hot theatre, and there were box fans blowing at one end of the audience. As I was blocked entirely on the opposite end, I was downwind of those fans. So, in what I consider to be a very small space, where subtlety can be conveyed vocally, I was knocked off my feet. Your voice is carried on the wind and the wind can blow it away. Simple physics."
More challenging still was the effort to understand a character whose behavior and comments are frequently oblique. McDaniel fashioned what he felt was a credible backstory for his character and an explanation regarding the character's relationship to his missing daughter, only to discover from the playwright just before the show opened that his guess had been totally off the mark. He had imagined the daughter to be alive and was told that she had died in a fire. McDaniel says the information threw him: "I was going, `I'm lost; now, I'm lost.' To me, it's mostly mental. If I know where I'm going mentally [with a character], I can usually reach the audience. Here it was obvious I didn't reach them. Only after the second week was I able to absorb the pain of knowing that a loved one burned to death."
In terms of the calendar, McDaniel's yearlong effort to demonstrate his range ended with Einstein's Daughter, but A Family Affair has turned into a bonus part in the experiment. He was originally cast as the attorney in this 19th-century Russian comedy, and while the role wasn't a buffoon or a lunatic, McDaniel did not consider it a huge stretch for him. But director Robi Polgar had to make some cast changes, and he opted to shift McDaniel into the lead role of burly businessman Samson Bulshov. It gives the actor the chance to be "entirely different again. This guy's an asshole, but he's not the intelligent schemer that the Doge was. He's a much more blunt and selfish character. It's a broader role than I've done this past year. Verbally and in terms of movement, it's larger than realism."
Moreover, the role demands that McDaniel be larger in ways beyond expression or mannerism. "He's supposed to be a physically huge character," McDaniel says. "How am I going to convey this?" It takes him back to those Paul Baker questions: What does big sound like? What does it look like, move like, feel like, taste like?
McDaniel insists that he has "no idea" if his experiment of the past year has been successful. But given that at least one director can envision this 5' 5" actor as a giant and is giving him the opportunity to show that hidden personality on a local stage, it appears that McDaniel has done precisely what he wanted to do. n
Einstein's Daughter runs Sep 6-28 at The Public Domain.