Ron Campbell Leads With His Chin

The Bay Area actor brings intensity, vitality, and control to roles big and small, comic and otherwise.

Forget Godot. Campbell is a viable substitute. He shows up punctually for an interview at a Berkeley café, beaming, a slender, natty figure in beige linen vest and white shirt, with matching slacks, shoes, and fedora. He’s currently sporting a silvery goatee and mustache to play Don Quixote at Marin Shakespeare Company (“We don’t own our faces,” he jokes). His glasses dangle on a string, and his blue eyes are particularly piercing.

Campbell is often out of town. He toured the world as lead clown in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza for five years, is playing the lead role (not for the first time) in the circus-y dinner theatre Teatro ZinZanni in Seattle (the new piece is Hollywood Nights, running Sept. 17–Jan. 31, 2016), will return to San Diego Repertory to reprise the role he created there (in 2000) in D.W. Jacobs’s tour-de-force solo show R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe.

Yet just this season I’ve seen him in three wildly different roles in the Bay Area: at TheatreWorks on the Peninsula as an insanely batty Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles; in the tiny role of the ancient waiter Alfie in Berkeley Rep’s coproduction (with South Coast Rep) of One Man, Two Guvnors, in which he tumbled down a flight of stairs several times—and in completely different ways both times I saw the show; and as the funniest, most poignant wannabe knight imaginable in Peter Anderson and Colin Heath’s comical Don Quixote: feeble, klutzy, half-masked, leaping over the laps of delighted audience members, an ever-hopeful smile on his face.

“What I loved about his performance was that it wasn’t about the clowning, it was about the story and the characters—nothing gratuitous,” says his Quixote director, Lesley Schisgall Currier. “It was about making sense of the character moment by moment in the circumstances the character is going through. He is never into taking the cheap laugh; he connected everything to the heart of the character. I think he’s always thinking about making choices that are not obvious.”

As a kid growing up in a half-Jewish family in Southern California, Campbell had a particularly funny uncle (not that kind of funny) who’d do goofy things, like announce the NFL games backward. “I learned a lot about comedy at that really formative stage,” Campbell says.

But he learned about drama early on, too. When he was 8 years old, his grandmother took him to Europe; in London they saw Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. “I went berserk when the character died and sang ‘The Impossible Dream,’” Campbell recalls. An usher took him and his grandmother backstage to prove that Kiley was alive and well. “That was resurrection to me,” he says. When he got home he started putting on plays with his brothers.

“I didn’t follow the academic path,” he continues. “I took to the streets.” In the late 1970s, after studying at UCLA and being “on the fringe of theatre,” he went to Europe. In Paris, a truck was unloading rags. “I saw these pants, much too big for me but with stirrups and zipper pockets that came way up to here, under my chest, and stretched to here,” he says, spreading his arms out. Suitably attired, he began performing mime and clown routines on the streets of Italy and France: in Piazza San Marco, the Piazza Navona, the Place Georges Pompidou. Okay, he thought, if I can do this, I can do anything.

Returning to Los Angeles in the 1980s, he reconnected with some of his old UCLA classmates and was a founding member of Tim Robbins’s Actors’ Gang. There and at the Los Angeles Theatre Center,San Diego Repertory, American Conservatory Theater, Seattle Rep, and elsewhere, he would play assorted roles, starting with plays by Sam Shepard and continuing on to Ionesco, Beckett, Shakespeare, and more, including a one-man version of A Tale of Two Cities in which he portrayed 28 characters. He has performed at the Royal Albert Hall, the Habima in Israel, and the Mark Taper Forum, to name just a few, and has won a raft of theatre awards.

It was taking on the challenging role of 20th-century theorist Buckminster Fuller in Jacobs’s two-hour monologue that eventually brought him to the Bay Area, where he wowed local critics and audiences with a complex character: brilliant mind, easygoing warmth, down-to-earth humor.

“I’d always perceived the play as a movement/dance piece,” says Jacobs, who also directed it. “Ron has a very powerful animal vitality in his movement and acting, which I thought was a good parallel to Bucky’s own intensity. I also saw the [character] as based on Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd—erect posture and bird-like attitude, which Ron has, and he also has a whole vocabu­lary of movement.”

Those movement skills are an essential part of Campbell’s tool kit. He started studying karate when he was 7 or 8—with Chuck Norris. He wanted to be a stuntman. In his 20s he discovered aikido, but when he injured his toe he took a seminar in iaido (a martial art involving swords) instead and was hooked.

“For me, it’s anti-acting,” he says. “It’s awareness without facial expressions.” In his iaido practice, he feels like he’s on a little vacation in feudal Japan. He works with a three-foot version of a sword, training to become proficient at drawing and cutting, and has the scars on his hands to prove it. “You have to be delicate and aware,” he says. “It’s all about the feet, and about maintaining certain postures and awareness. You get a sense of timing and space. There’s a wonderful quality of peace and a camaraderie that’s similar to what I get in the acting world.”


Ron Campbell, Darren Bridgett, and Michael Gene Sullivan in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" at California's TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. (Photo by Tracy Martin)
Ron Campbell, Darren Bridgett, and Michael Gene Sullivan in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at California’s TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. (Photo by Tracy Martin)

Some of his enchantment with martial arts spills over into the classes he teaches at his Soar Feat Studio, where he lives with his wife, floral designer Momoko Shimokado (they met five years ago when he was touring with Kooza in Japan; she came to see the show). The studio, in Emeryville, was once a cupcake factory—before that, a rubber factory—and was nothing more than a dirty warehouse with a concrete floor when Campbell first saw it. He turned it into a big, airy, industrial space with high, exposed wood beam ceilings; banks of high, small windows; a brick wall; a large bathroom with claw-foot tub (it used to be a ladies’ room and had two sinks and four toilets before he renovated it), and an open kitchen. (A black curtain separates part of the couple’s living area.) A bookshelf is stacked with hats: fedora, cowboy, derby. Commedia masks lie on a long table. There’s a skylight, and paper lanterns shading the ceiling lights; aikido mats cover the sprung floor of the main studio area, which he sometimes rents out to exercise classes or for auditions.

At a Monday night “actors’ jam,” about 25 students show up—it’s a three-hour drop-in class—plus observers. On his website, Campbell posts each week’s agenda. One week the theme was “mischief”; before that, it was “lovely maladies, paper obstacles, and curtain calls.” Campbell calls his classes “aerobics for the theatrical muscle” or “a jungle gym on the playground of your imagination.”

On the night I’m there, it’s the final class of 30 sessions before Campbell heads to Seattle, so after a few hours of varied exercises, the students pull together their material into little scenes. Everyone is barefoot. Campbell, in white yoga pants and a white T-shirt, never sits down; he’s always roaming the periphery of the mats or bounding onto them to interact with the actors, using each exercise to impart a little lesson.

A student tells me that Ron always finds something positive to say, and indeed, his comments are peppered with “Bravo!” and “Gorgeous!” and “Perfect!” He says other things, too: “Don’t talk, do!” “Uh-oh, clowns in trouble!” (That’s a good thing: “You having a problem is wonderfully compelling,” he says. “It’s like Houdini: Are they going to get out of this particular trap?”) “Find the emotion, but not from pushing it. Go about your business. Be a clown with a plan.”

He also says, “Too much character!” and “Find the opposite choice.” The students work on making entrances, on follow-the-leader variations, on Suzuki and Viewpoints-type movement; they use paper plates as eyeless masks.

“I try to be the cheerleader, the fan of people who are trying to do what we do,” he tells me later. “The other half of me is stern taskmaster—I bounce between those two extremes. Somewhere in the middle comes me: caring enough to put my heart into it.”

Strong words, but the classroom mood is entirely upbeat; Campbell’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious. In one exercise, he gives the students an impossible task: to make an entrance invisibly. As each one tries it, he says cheerfully, “Good, but that’s not it.”

“It’s not so much what they do but who they are between the attempts,” he explains. “Anger is a great motivator. Or they go inside, and depending on the actor, that can be very good or detrimental. The exercises are difficult on purpose. You don’t conquer them.”

He recalls a key lesson he learned from Kooza: He’d sometimes arrive at the tent early to find master juggler Anthony Gatto juggling 10 pins. “Sweat would be pouring down from him. In the show, in his big moment, he’s juggling 7—but he practiced at 150 percent. Which means he can be doing that amazing thing and connecting with the audience at the same time. No juggler can do that; their connection is with pins or hats—but he could wink at somebody in the fourth row! He had that kind of relaxation. I want my rehearsals to be really intense so when I get into the show I can hear the audience breathe and relax.”

That “ferocious commitment” to physical training has clearly paid off, declares Jacobs, who marvels that over the years, though he has aged, Campbell has learned more about how to use his body. “He’s less vulnerable to certain kinds of stresses and injuries than when he was younger,” avers Jacobs, who finds it odd to watch someone age 10 or 15 years and actually become a stronger physical specimen. “He went very deeply into iaido,” adds Jacobs, “and when he came back [to play Bucky again] he went through the material with very sword-like clarity.”

“There’s something about Ron’s own generosity, his own way of empathizing with people, and also the way he sees the uniqueness in everybody,” says San Diego Repertory  associate artistic director Todd Salovey. “He’s able to create a simplicity of character that’s astonishing. When you work with him, you see how obsessed with detail he is.”

Salovey is developing a one-man version of the Yiddish folktale The Dybbuk, in which Campbell will play many characters, including a girl possessed by the spirit of her lover. He’s able to find the heart for all his characters simultaneously, and to shift seamlessly among them, marvels Salovey. “He’s meticulous about understanding and exploring what’s at stake for the character—the transformation, the vulnerability. That’s what makes each character so heartrending. Audiences relate to him the minute he walks onstage. And he recognizes how to lead an audience through a dramatic scene involving multiple people, and what he has to do to make the sequence, and also the conflicts of needs and perspectives, clear from one character to another.”

Campbell describes himself as largely an “outside-in” actor. “I often make two, just two, clean decisions, and then ride the character, not steer it,” he explains. He explains that the chin is one of his favorite body parts, so for the role of old Alfie in One Man, he chose the chin and the feet and allowed those two body parts to war with each other. “I made basic decisions about how I was going to move through space,” he elaborates. “I put my heels out, toes in [a classic pose], and let that infect the rest of me. It’s a better experience than just hunching over and playing old. For Don Quixote, I put my heels together and actually crossed them a little bit…and let my character develop from there.” (The spine is his second-favorite body part.)

Chins, spines, feet—and masks. Thanks to a fellowship, in 2009 he studied masks in Greece, Italy, and Japan, and now teaches acting with masks. The first time he worked with a mask, with Actors’ Gang, he hyperventilated; he couldn’t control his breathing and almost passed out. Since then he has learned about the power that a mask offers—it sculpts him, he says.

“You’re a servant to the mask just as you’re a servant to the text. You put on a mask and you follow it. It’s both deeply psychological and demandingly physical—if you get in the way of it, all of a sudden the mask doesn’t reveal. If you overplay under a mask, the mask goes dead.”

Musing on the relative marginality of theatre and stage artists, Campbell drily analo­gizes: “We’re dinosaurs wallowing around in the tarpit.” But he’s not planning to leave the stage any time soon: “We have these incredible advantages over film in that we’re breathing the same air as the audience.” Campbell loves to break the fourth wall—I’ve never seen an actor more comfortable with it—and says he likes to imagine breaking a fifth wall, too. To illustrate, he stares deeply into my eyes.

“Yes, I get stage fright,” he admits. “Always. Maybe it’s an addiction to adrenaline. That motor underneath, that do-or-die-ness—I want that.”

Jean Schiffman is a freelance theatre writer in San Francisco.  Find the story at American Theatre.