In Belleville, Amy Herzog’s psychological thriller, Americans Zack and Abby seem like your average newlyweds. Though tensions underlie their life in Paris, Abby’s yoga practice and french lessons keep her occupied and Zach work as a doctor seems to fulfill him. Yet in Belleville’s first moments, a trivial shock sets the show’s foreboding tone. Over the next ninety minutes, the show juggles humor born of idiosyncratic characters, subterranean tension, and complex interpersonal relationships. Our Town spoke with Cliff Chamberlain (Zach) about Bellville’s challenges, his experiences in acting school and whether he prefers theatre to film.
Our Town For an actor, how important is a formal education?
Cliff Chamberlain I can only speak for myself on this, because I know and respect just about any path one takes towards being an actor, but going to college was one of the pivotal experiences of my life. And the importance of it was two-fold. On the one hand, the challenge of being in a rigid BFA acting program was a fantastic learning experience, and some of my favorite theatrical moments to this day were in the safety of the classroom, watching my classmates perform, creating movement pieces, or failing miserably at a Shakespeare monologue and having to figure out why.On the other hand, I was going to college in Santa Barbara (UCSB), which is a great university in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and so being there for four years was also amazing outside of the theatre. The beach was directly to the west, there were mountains a few miles to the east, there were interesting people everywhere you went. I played a lot of golf and Ultimate Frisbee, rode my beach cruiser everywhere, learned how to ride a longboard skateboard (which I take advantage of even now, from my house to the train), worked at a beach club, and lived with friends (and my brother) who had nothing to do with the theatre.It was the combination of those two existences that I truly value from those four years, because it’s what I strive for to this day: to be a working actor who can play Ultimate Frisbee on Saturday mornings.
OT What’s the first thing you do when you’re cast in a new role?
CC The first thing I do is tell my wife. And then I find my black DayMinder planner and add the show to my calendar. There's a comfort in knowing that at least 3 of the 12 months is filled in and accounted for.
OT Is it important that you find something relatable in a character?
CC I think so, absolutely. And sometimes it's incredibly hard to find, that something, but I think always attainable. It just means you have to distill things down and down and down. On the surface a character can be the exact opposite of me, especially if I simply pay attention to his actions. But if I work hard at figuring out why a character does what he does, I can usually find common ground. Because the whys are usually pretty universal. Unrequited love, jealousy, fear, a longing to be understood, the bonds of family, the pressures of relationships, the fear of death. It's just that the volume of the why may be turned way up (or way down) for a certain character, and so I think of just adjusting my dials a little bit.
OT Leaving money aside, are you more drawn to theater or film? Why?
CC I'll say theatre, because it's what I do and it's what I've done pretty exclusively for the past 10 years. I feel more at home in a theatre and in a rehearsal room than anywhere else on Earth, aside from my own home.
Excepting a few high school friends, my best friends are theatre artists in Chicago. My favorite actors are Chicago theatre actors. So in doing theatre here, I basically get to hang out at home, work with my friends, and, when I'm lucky, act with people who I look up to and can constantly learn from. And then really smart and interesting people come watch. It's a good gig.That said, I can't deny the draw of film and television, mostly because I’ve have had a few great experiences doing it but feel it’s still something I want to get better at.
OT What’s the best aspect of the Chicago theater scene?
CC The support that one finds as an artist in the theatre community. I’ve been in a number of plays where one night the entire cast from another show will be in the audience. On their off night. I love when that happens.I find there to be a real lack of competition, and of ego, which as a young actor starting out, was key for me in feeling like I could gain access. Here's a story: When I first moved here, I understudied a show and met a great actor named Brian Hamman, who was already established here. He was out there working, had an agent, and didn't know me from Adam. We weren't exactly the same type, and I was way greener than him and not nearly as strong an actor, but I'd say the chances of us being up for the same roles in the future was definitely there. But in an amazing act of generosity, he took my headshot in to his agency, which got me a meeting, and I ended up signing with them. That, to me, defines the Chicago theatre scene.
OT What challenges are unique to working on Belleville?
CC The word we used a lot in rehearsals was calibration. So much of the tension in the play hinges on an audience's anticipation of what is about to happen. All of us, in fact, are the stewards of that tension. For me specifically, calibrating Zack’s…energy…has been an incredibly delicate process. Oftentimes during rehearsal I'd make choices that would feel natural and honest, but would tip the balance of how Zack was perceived in a way that we didn't want. But oftentimes those tipping points would be the smallest things! A laugh here, a pause there. A phrase spoken too loudly. The direction I’d be looking in at a given moment. They all add up over the course of the play. So it was tricky. Great fun, but tricky.
OT Without ruining anything for audiences, do you have a favorite moment or line in the show?
CC At one point Zack says to his wife,
"Since I met you, I have never done anything without thinking of you first."I love that line because it perfectly describes how Zack feels about his marriage. It's the genesis of everything he does, both good and bad, for his wife. It's the "both good and bad" of it that I think is so genius on Amy's part.
"Belleville" runs through August 25th at Steppenwolf. Purchase tickets at http://www.steppenwolf.org.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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