by Ryan Duncan
“We are many strands. But together we are one.”
These are some of the lyrics of the first song the cast sings in Passing Through, currently playing at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Connecticut. They’re fitting words since Passing Through is based on the book “Walking to Listen” by Andrew Forsthoefel, in which he walks a southern route across America from Pennsylvania to California. On his trek he ‘walks to listen’ and collects the stories of the tapestry of souls that makes up our national landscape. In doing this, he learns a great deal about himself and where he fits into our world. Our cast of eleven plays a couple of the people important to Andrew (played beautifully by Max Chernin), as well as many of the people he meets on his journey across the continent. In other words, ten actors play up to 30 distinct people.
The show gives me the opportunity of playing at least nine of these people, which is a dreamy situation for this character actor. I’ve noticed, especially in recent years, that I’ve been cast in shows that need someone to play multiple roles. I’m a linguist who speaks a few different languages and has an obsession with accents, dialects, and various cultures. I also have a varied ethnic background, so I understand why I often fit the bill. Creating characters using language, history, and physicality is something I feel honored to get the chance to do. Sometimes that representation is the only experience of its kind for an audience, so I take great responsibility in doing it with as much reverence and authenticity as I can.
I begin the show as Paul, a Navajo man who grew up on the reservation in New Mexico and left for a period of time to go to college and work on the east coast, only to return home to take care of his father. Paul’s heavy scene is in act two. There is a lot going on for him emotionally and historically, and what I have to do first is find the person he is, and not the ‘people’ he is.
Once I know who a character is as an individual, I can ‘dress them up’ in their legacy and speech. I can find how they fit in with their demographic (age, gender, language, ethnicity, etc.) and see how that also feeds their path within the context of the play. I feel that actors are so lucky that we get to research and explore various time-periods, backgrounds, and situations because we’re asked to portray them. Often we draw upon our own lives but we usually need more. For example, my Native American ancestry is a small branch of my family tree and is from a tribe east of the Mississippi. I didn’t grow up in that culture but I’ve studied it for a long time and I’m involved with another First Nations project called Distant Thunder. The Navajo are quite a different people and from a very different part of the country than my ancestors, so specific information and a chat with a Navajo friend were needed. Reading “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” was also a real eye-opener and frankly, should be a history book we all grow up reading. I find what I need to know that may be important to the show, and then serve the story.
Another character I play is Ethan, who is based on a real guy with mental illness whom our leading player meets on the road in Texas. Since Ethan mentions his mental issues, I wanted to infuse him with sincerity and honesty and make sure he wasn’t going to come across as a joke, or a lost cause. The character strays from the book a bit but we’ve all met someone like him. My intention is to be a vessel for a moment of enlightenment for the Andrew character and present a real guy seeking to make a misguided yet inspiring change in his life.
I also get to play Diego, who, with his wife Carmen (played by Linedy Genao), travels through the desert and across the border for a better life in the US. These characters mirror current events and racist legislative decisions and we feel it’s important to present a truthful account of their intentions and struggles to achieve success. The song they sing is called “De Nuevo,” which means ‘again’, and it’s sung in English and Spanish as Diego teaches Carmen English so they can both find work. As we play the roles, our own families’ immigration experiences, though different from how our characters arrive here, are mental shadows that guide our ambitions and hopes, and hopefully reach an acknowledging hand out to America’s Diegos and Carmens.
The entire ensemble, alongside Linedy, Max, and myself, of Mary Jo Mecca, Charles Gray, Celeste Rose, Jim Stanek, Garrett Long, Reed Armstrong, Jennifer Leigh Warren, and Joan Almedilla, have together created real people from real stories that weave in and out of each others’ narratives. We’re rarely off stage for very long, and at different points of the musical, we each sit in on scenes, watching each others’ interactions. In act two, we also take turns moving and rotating a floating platform, further entrenching us into various moments along the road. The audience realizes that Andrew carries all of us with him as he walks, as the real Andrew did on his way to California.
We pass the baton of the story seamlessly through Igor Goldin’s direction and Marcos Santana’s movement. The music direction is by Matt Meckes, who leads a five-person band playing over a dozen instruments among them. It’s been easy to do since Eric Ulloa and Brett Ryback wrote such a touching and gripping piece. Passing Through couldn’t be done without a dedicated and talented ensemble, who also cares very much about the people watching and receiving powerful and unique messages from the show. I feel so much gratitude and joy in being able to be a part of this special experience.
For Passing Through production photos: Scenic Design by Adam Koch, Costume Design by Tracy Christensen, Lighting Design by Cory Pattak