This week, we've teamed up with the folks at Groundhog Day for our "Creating Punxsutawney" week at The Ensemblist. Everyday this week, we will bring you an insider look at how the talented ensemble of the show developed their characters. First up, friend of the podcast Michael Fatica (Newsies, She Loves Me, Matilda) discusses the process of creating the role of The Chubby Man.
Hello, Ensemblist readers and listeners! Michael Fatica here, fellow Ensemblist fan and currently playing The Chubby Man in Groundhog Day on Broadway. I’d like to quickly shout out some thanks to the gang at the podcast for their love and interest in both our show and its many quirky townsfolk. It’s a blast to get to do what we do every night, and I am thrilled to share a bit of insight into its creation with you here!
Firstly, a bit of background on The Chubby Guy (aka, Jonathan or Chubs): he is a sweet, energetic, excitable, and naively positive resident of nearby Punxsutawney, PA, here to soak up every moment of the year’s Groundhog Day festivities. He’s staying at the same B&B as the central character Phil (played by the incomparable Andy Karl), which is run by his Aunt Mabel Lancaster (spitfire Heather Ayers). On the day of February 2nd, as Phil leaves his bedroom and heads down the hall to the Parlor, Chubs passes him while deep in the throes of a crossword puzzle, but of course takes a moment to say an emphatic “Good Morning!” and spark up some GhD conversation about the Groundhog and such. Of course, because we get to see Phil wake up multiple times during the show, we also see this exchange happen 5 times. Phil’s reaction to Chubby is a real barometer for the audience as to how this version of the day is about to go. Day One: annoyed and bothered. Day two: thrown and confused. Day Three: Manic. And so on. He get’s the brunt of Phil’s unedited reaction to his circumstances.
During our first week of rehearsal, our director, Matthew Warchus, sat us in a circle and spent a few hours talking to each of us about whatever he knew and felt was important for us to know about our characters in order to get started, ranging from professions to relationships, etc. The image that stuck with me the most about Chubs was that he was a sort of “Welcome Sign” to Punxsutawney; he should remain unfazed by negativity, always remaining that picture of a REALLY happy guy waving and encouraging visitors to the town. This sort of one-dimensional description is an example of the challenge with a show like this: how to make these characters actual people and not solely archetypes. We were definitely given the same challenge with the movement, which I’ll get to. Matthew then gave us the stencil of each scene… the blocking, the timing with the music, the tone he’d like to set, and then we were free to create inside that. He is a genius in the world of timing and would adjust many a pause or line pickup throughout the rehearsal process. That sort of detail is so important with a show as stylized as this, and it’s nearly impossible to see how your cog fits in the giant clock without outside perspective.
Speaking of stylized, the choreography in GhD created an even more specific stencil to live inside for each person. We were given planned gestures, speeds, and relationships solely based on how Peter Darling and Ellen Kane (our beautiful choreographers) previously mapped it out for us. For instance, the Chubby Guy LOVES a double finger point. Something that wouldn’t have naturally crept into my physicality for him, but after doing about ten of them before the opening number is finished, I knew it would have to become a part of his physical vocabulary. It is genius, though: what’s more annoyingly friendly than not one, but TWO finger points at once?? He’s also besties with BeachBall Girl (Taylor Jones) and Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry), runs around with incredible agility in contrast to his size, and is REALLY REALLY excited to see the Groundhog. These were all part of the givens based on proximity and direction within the choreography. Our intention was also very specifically suggested. When Chubby takes 5 counts during the ceremony to imitate the groundhog, it has to be sharp and buoyant at the same time, which reads as EXCITED and URGENT. It’s also masked within what is supposed to look like general crowd movement, which is why each character has been so specifically choreographed and considered. We all must exist both as complete individuals that make up one group of people, a group that is either creating atmosphere for Phil or for the audience. It’s all about storytelling.
The most exciting part of the “homework” process for this show for me was trying to justify each of these “givens” and making them a part of one character that I could connect to. It’s so rare that we are given such an amount of material from the creatives that we are required to use, and it’s a real challenge as an actor not to let that strip of you individual choices. Because most of my “givens” were related to happiness and only that, I found it useful to think through was does actually upset this guy and why he chooses to let it roll of his shoulder. Think Kenneth from 30 Rock. Does he LIKE being called a “pork chop?" No, but, maybe it was meant as a term of endearment? Maybe Phil’s just trying to jeer him a little as a joke… maybe they’re meant to be friends! You get it.
I’ve also been given the joy and burden of the body suit that helps create the curves of the Chubby Man. After months of learning material in my own body, I had to learn to do it all over again in the suit, which is almost double my own size. It’s not particularly heavy or constricting, but I was amazed to feel how differently I stood and how I started to lean back and walk from the hips rather than the shoulders (my default). I had tried not to affect my physicality in the rehearsal room only because I knew the suit would help me, and it absolutely did. The charm of Chubby also lies in the fact that he doesn’t let the weight distract him; he dances and runs around with as much verve as the rest of the town. Emotional height outweighs his physical constraints.
Playing Jonathan, The Chubby Man, is a JOY. It’s honestly some of the most fun I’ve had as a character in any show I’ve done. He’s a guy who completely embraces the community aspect of Groundhog Day (the holiday), and as an actor, helps me embrace the community aspect of doing a show with a group as lovely and insanely talented as this. It’s absolutely NOT without its challenges (I mean, we’re wearing actual winter wear and it’s 85 degrees outside………. I’ve never sweat like this), and feeling joy to this extreme can be hard to find on that 7th show of the week, but the rewards outweigh them ten fold. Come see Chubs and the rest of the gang celebrate Groundhog Day over and over and over again!
Listen to our Creating Characters episode here.