Actor Alan Wade has long been a favorite of Washington audiences. For this month’s Art of the Actor, he shares his views on stage craft, his obsessions with English detective shows, and the pleasure he finds in channeling those intrepid inspectors for his role in Dial ‘M’ for Murder at the Olney Theatre Center through May 1.
Tell us your origin story. How did you become an actor?
We’re going back a very long way, since I’m 70. When I was a freshman in high school, I went to an afterschool class in downtown Pittsburg called “the Radio and Television School.” It was run by a nun—I went to Catholic school—and while it looked as though it was ostensibly about radio and television broadcasting—being an announcer or something—it turned out to be more about acting. We did something on the local TV channel—a religiously themed piece—and the bug bit as a result of that. I went on to Northwestern University as a theatre major, and then after that to Catholic University for a graduate degree in drama where I toured with the National Players, which was then a function of the graduate program at CU.
What do you enjoy the most about acting?
I enjoy rehearsals. I enjoy the other actors and working with them; it’s a social experience for me. I also enjoy that it’s an aesthetic enterprise, that it’s constructed. In this particular play at Olney, Dial M for Murder, which is sort of a chestnut of a thriller, there are all kinds of things that construct the audience experience. There’s the lighting, the sound effects, and the actors are woven into that environment. I like the sense of it being constructed.
What do you consider the most challenging thing about acting?
Being believable. Being truthful. The audience accepting what it is you’re doing as truthful. To create that sense of truth is the challenge, I think. Sense of truth…not necessarily realism, because that’s just one style, but that you discover a truth in the particular production you’re in, no matter what kind of play it is, and that’s what you hope the audience will discover along with you.
Tell us about playing Inspector Hubbard in Dial M for Murder. What’s was that process like, creating a role that's known to so many people?
I will tell you that I am – as is my wife—an in inveterate viewer of English police procedurals and mysteries. For example, my favorite English import over the last, say 25 years, has been the Inspector Morse series, and now we watch Inspector Lewis. I’m channeling all the police detectives I’ve watched over the years of a certain age. It’s such a pleasure to be able to do a character who is—at least in terms of the character’s profession—very like what I’ve been watching on television for so many years. I’ve seen the movie—John Williams who played the role in the movie and, before that, won the Tony Award for performing it in New York—was consummate. I’m not trying to be John Williams, except I’ve grown a mustache like his, but that’s about the extent of an attempt at any kind of similarity.
What is “the art of the actor?”
Since I also am a professor of theatre at GW, my reference here will be something that others will immediately pick up on. The art of the actor is living truthfully in imaginary circumstances. Earlier, I talked about the challenge of making what you do accepted as truth by the audience—that fits into this definition too, the definition espoused by Robert Lewis, the great acting teacher: “Living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.”
What do you know now, as an actor, that you didn’t know when you started acting?
It became clear, and it remains the case, that it is work. When you’re a college student and you’re doing maybe four performances of a production over one weekend, it’s always exciting. It’s always new because you’re not doing it very often. If you’re doing it seven to eight times a week for five or six weeks, at some point in there, it is no longer new in certain sense. Now, of course, the audience each time is new and you want them to experience anew, so you have to try and do that, but that’s work. Constructing the play in rehearsals is work. It’s also a joy, but it’s work.
[Washington D.C.] is an absolutely fabulous theatre community. Among all theatre artists, but certainly among the acting community, everybody is mutually supportive of everybody else. The actors who aren’t in a show but come to see one you’re in and vise versa, you find out about an class or audition and tell another actor you think would be right for that role… This is a great place to be an actor. Kudos to Washington theatre.