At 11:30 AM this Tuesday, Seattle theatre lost one of its leading lights when Mark Chamberlin died from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident on Sunday. Our city still has one remaining print daily newspaper, and Mark was famous enough to rate a fine obituary therein, but for my own selfish sake, I need to stand here and share my particular thoughts.
Mark made this city a better theatre town. He did so by being an immense talent as an actor but also by being generous with that talent, because theatre is the art form wherein, by definition, nothing be accomplished alone (including mourning). Mark had a rare soulful sensibility as an actor, an enigmatic quality difficult to describe. Yesterday on Face Book my colleague Allysa Keene captured it better than I ever could:
It's a delicate dance to assert perspective and accept critique. It's tricky to know when to lead and when to follow, but wisest artists don't allow their accolades or their insecurities to eclipse the fact that it's simply that: a collaboration, a dance. They acquiesce to all the paradoxes and graciously give their "yes." MC, I am honored by your deference and will miss that twinkle-eyed "yes"...
Perhaps my favorite turn of Mark’s was as Antonio in the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s recent production of The Merchant of Venice directed by John Langs. While strictly speaking Antonio is the title character of the play, the role is enigmatic and largely thankless; and-- due to its subtlety-- nearly always ends up drifting into the background, until by Act IV the actor on stage becomes little more than a flexi-prop from which Shylock might draw his pound of flesh. Chamberlin, however, never ceded his ground. He made his counterparts Portia and Shylock fight for the focus that they can usually simply assume. And how did he do this? By living and breathing on stage, deep in the life of his character. You believed Antonio. You didn’t always know why he did what he did or exactly what he was feeling, but Mark as a consummate actor understood that it is a rudimentary performer who lays these things bare for all to read. He subsumed Antonio’s mystery and made it his own, such that you had to watch to see what would happen next. Such a simple order; and so so difficult to fulfill.
Many people in our business, myself included, need at times to make a second show of their talent, advocating for it outside the theatre, either literally on the sidewalk during a furtive smoke, or in the bar, or, yes, on blogs like this. Mark let his work speak for itself. And he shared that talent for free with the likes of me, doing readings of new plays of mine and others’, when he could have just as easily stayed within the safe confines of Seattle’s Big Houses. The fact that Mark was rehearsing to appear as “the Goat” in New Century Theatre Company's upcoming production of O Lovely Glow Worm just adds evidence to the incontrovertible case for the man’s eagerness to remain on the cutting edge of theatre in this town. I understand that New Century will be dedicating their upcoming season to Mark. By doing so, they honor not only him but all of us who had the pleasure of working with Mark or enjoying his work as an artist.
Just recently Mark read something of mine which was part of a quarterly public evening of prose pieces written for performance. A week or so ago I was asked to submit another piece for the next quarter’s offering. I began crafting it with Mark’s voice in mind. This is just a habit I have. I start to shape words for a particular actor’s mouth whether or not I know they will be ultimately speaking them. It helps me hear the music. I have worked on the piece since learning of Mark’s death, and I am still, sadly, writing it with him in mind.
And that brings me to what actors like Mark Chamberlin do for theatre. Beyond making plays possible by being in them, great actors make new plays conceivable by being the living suction that draws the words and stories out of the playwrights who know their talent. Mark was one of my many muses who live, and yes, die in this city. This is my selfish understanding of Mark’s inestimable loss. Muses are hard to come by. And while I have many here in Seattle, the loss of one so generous and so fine leaves me shaken and humbled and, also, strangely somehow more determined to carry on. After all, I believe that is what Mark would do.
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PS: Mark’s good friend and colleague Ian Bell has already set up a lovely campaign called Mark Chamberlin Memorial Bicycle Rack Project which will raise funds to install stylish bike racks in Mark’s honor in front of all of Seattle’s major theatres. You can check that out and help by clicking here.
PPS: Note on the picture above: I particularly love this production shot of Mark, not just because it is from one of my favorite performances of his, Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, but also because it makes me happy to see him surrounded, as he most certainly is at this moment in spirit, by his fellow players. Plus, it shows him as what he was in real life: a cool, confident leader: an example to the younger talent of how to be a great artist, and more importantly, a good man.
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PPPS: Apologies to all. I decided to remove the aformentioned photo as I understand that doing so most closely conforms with the families wishes. PM 3/25/11 12:03 pm.