One Man Tour de Force: An Interview with Charlie Ross
The calm and contemplative timbre of Charlie Ross’ voice draws a sharp contrast to the energetic torrent of characters he can unleash at any moment—approximately 40 per performance—in his extraordinary one man shows.
His lauded theater productions of One Man Star Wars, One Man Lord of the Rings, One Man Pride and Prejudice and many more have taken him far and wide—from his native Canada, to the UK, China, Australia, and back again (pun intended!)
Mr. Ross’ friendly insights and thoughtful answers about his work make one contemplate why popular stories are just that—popular. His is a story about a man who has an unapologetic and visceral love for storytelling and character—no matter where it comes from.
So pull up a chair and make yourself a cup of tea (the Bennets would approve!) and read on as Mr. Ross and I discuss everything from Star Wars, Pride and Prejudice, to himself —an actor who astonishes with his portrayals of so many characters we know and love.
Charlie Ross grew up in Canada in a place called Prince George until he was 11, living in town and then out on a farm. He says the farm changed everything, and that moving to the wide open spaces “Tossed me inside myself. It was hard to find new friends again, and I became a bit of an introvert for a while—although the person and the personality that I had was desperately trying to get out. I mean, I love people; I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to still be myself and try to navigate this new place that we were in—this farm.”
He started acting out; eventually getting kicked out of class. It was then, at the early age of 8, that he realized that they sent you to the principal and gave you a talking to; but then just sent you back to class. “So, I kind of broke this rule, and at a relatively early age I found out there wasn’t that many consequences for it. It was a bad/good thing to witness as a kid, that you can kind of bend a rule.” Another early memory he recalls is a contest where they had to take an aluminum pie pan and create a Halloween mask. He remembers thinking it was stupid, so he decided to make the dumbest and most outrageous mask he could think of—he ended up winning first place. “Anyway, I remember these little things that happened in my life where I realized that we were bound by some kind of strange laws—like in our classes and all that—but they weren’t real. They were sort of bendable—they were all pliable. And sometimes if you do something that maybe you don’t totally care about—but is highly imaginative—that appeals to everybody.”
Charlie’s family then relocated to the town of Nelson—famous for being the filming location for Steve Martin’s Roxanne—a beautiful little town about half an hour from the American border. “The climate was different, and there were more people around—I wasn’t on a farm anymore. I had an outlet for that energy—you know, it could have been going to a negative place, but theater, acting, it had a direction: a focus that I could express who I was; whether it was anger or disbelief or happiness—I could do that when I performed. And I had never really known what it was all about. And then, having a couple different teachers that identified this talent that I seemed to have; a propensity to get up in front of people—and I was comfortable being there—they decided to nurture that potential skill.
After acting all through grade and high school, he found his way to the University of Victoria. He recalls though that once again, the times he felt the strongest in an environment with stringent rules, were the times when he was slightly bending those rules; finding out how far he could push them. One example was when he auditioned for the main stage shows his freshman year and didn’t get in, so he decided to be running crew. A mentor told him at the time that even though he was only stage crew, he could still be artistic while he was changing sets. “He gave me some great pointers, and I just went for it. And then, I remember people were quite impressed with the way we were being all artistic while we were changing sets. I was 18 at the time, and I ended up getting cast in the second half of the year in a Shakespeare role. I had never done Shakespeare before and that was a huge scary challenge, but I remember it was so neat to make these little jumps forward.”
The next year he didn’t get cast into any main stage shows, so instead he bent another rule—and went out auditioning for jobs in the real world. “I thought—Screw this, if I don’t get into any main stage productions, I’m going to go find some work outside in the real world. So I went out and I auditioned—even though I was going to school. So, even though that wasn’t really bending a rule, they didn’t really want you to do that at the department. And thank goodness I did! I made friendships and connections with people that I have to this day. I just didn’t think it was right to sort of abide by whatever rules that were there, because otherwise you might just find yourself depressed if you’re just accepting your lot that life seems to put in your direction.”
During and after university, he tried to stay immersed in acting as much as he could. He made sure the jobs he had in the summertime were acting jobs, and was willing to go anywhere for the work. This led him to a date with destiny at a festival called The Fringe between his second and third year of university. He found himself loving the solo shows. “There were a couple shows I watched that were based on popular material. One was Star Trek, and it was based on the character that William Shatner played—Captain Kirk—and it was almost like this lost episode of Star Trek. I remember seeing the show and loving it, just loving it with a visceral, visceral love. And I just thought, that’s such beautiful brilliance to be able to watch somebody doing this and be able to celebrate your love of a character and of a series.”
Flash forward to graduation; Charlie decided to sit down and write himself his own one man show. But it wasn’t about Star Wars—at first. “I didn’t actually think that it would be a Star Wars show, I just thought it would be something that was more like the history of film, where I was doing all of film. I tried to write a 5 minute Star Wars and I found I had about 25 minutes worth of material—and I was still on the first movie.” At the time, he was working with his friend from university, TJ Dawe— a fellow solo performer— on stage readings of radio plays. Charlie was in charge of the sound effects, but they also performed some other stuff that they were working on. “I remember performing what I had—it was slightly more than the first film’s worth of material— and when I did it, it went— my God, so, so well. It seemed like, okay, this could get longer. So, TJ and myself expanded it to be the one hour show that it is. And I just started touring it. TJ was acting as my outside eye and eventually I went, “ I think you’ve become the director. And he said, ‘I guess I have!’ We’d just been friends, but we’ve took on those roles together as friends and as colleagues and we’ve kept that relationship going ever since.” All together TJ and Charlie have worked on 6 or 7 shows together to include, One Man Star Wars, One Man Lord of the Rings, One Man Dark Knight: A Batman Parody, One Man Pride and Prejudice, One Man Stranger Things, as well as several more including Sev; where he plays a kid working at 7-11, and The One Man Eighties’ Blank Tape—based on a VHS tape that he and his sisters kept recording over as kids. “I remember watching the video when I was an adult, and seeing this video tape where the things that were recorded—there was nothing there in its entirety. It was just this bizarre, almost ADD kind of flipping through the channels—it would be 5 minutes of this, 1 minute of that, thirty seconds of this, 5 minutes and thirty seconds of that, just going on and on and on— this weird weird sort of record of a lot of stuff that girls liked and a lot of stuff that guys liked all mashed together.”
When asked about the process of how he tackles each project, he says “I research, and by research, it means immersing yourself into whatever thing it might be. If it’s Star Wars, you watch the films a couple more times and really absorb the details. Everything usually has a novelization as well, so it’s good to be able to read a film, and in the case of something like Lord of the Rings, you actually have the source material to read, and all the other appendixes—all these things help you inform the choices you make when you decide to start editing it down. Also, you can see the choices made in what they cut out and what they kept in. So, once again, you take that series of choices made and then go even further and say ‘What can I really cut out and not just get the gist but get what I love and put across the story to the audience?’ It’s amazing how much you can cut out of a film and still get the basic elevator pitch—the storyline. Then you can start adding extra stuff; you can start to flesh it out with the things that you really loved. The little details, the side characters, the jokes. You try to get a piece of work up on its feet so that it comes in just under an hour, so you have a little bit of leeway to improvise if you want, but it also allows for laughter. When I sit down at the computer, I tend not to have the show going—I don’t even make notes. I make notes in my head beforehand and sit at the computer with nothing on except for maybe music from that film playing, and I just start to write out in a linear sense the beginning to the end of the film, and it doesn’t take that long—it really doesn’t. Lord of the Rings took about two days of sitting down and writing it, and that was for a few hours here and a few hours there. Star Wars came out so fast. So fast. I probably wrote the first film in its entirety in an hour and a half. You can go back later and fact check it—rewatch things so you can guarantee you have the exact line. It’s amazing how quickly things come together, it really is. Once it’s on its feet, you’re just repeating and repeating it, until basically you have something that’s like a piece of choreography and speech. This is your little song and dance that you’re going to repeat the same way, every single time. And you become comfortable—not complacent but comfortable—in what you do to the point where you feel quite strong.”
When asked about switching from character to character on stage, he says “Now I’m very used to doing it in all the shows I do. When I first started off, I felt people might have a hard time keeping up, because some impressions are better than others. But people can follow you as long as you have the right intonation or you are trying to be sincere. Also, if you’re doing a voice that you don’t sound like, you don’t spend that much time doing it. You say the most important lines, and then you get the heck out of there—back to the characters that you do very well. Lord of the Rings is kind of a bad example because I feel like I got the voices for really almost everybody. But whereas something like Pride and Prejudice; my Darcy’s good, my Mr. Bennet is good, my Mr. Collins is good, my Lady Catherine de Bourgh is good—but you know, Lizzie, while she’s very distinct, she doesn’t really have a dynamic voice—it’s just a pretty voice. So, I’m a person, and I’m a man, so even though I try to be ‘pretty perfect Lizzie’, I’m never going to sound like her— but I’ll get the intonation right, and my heart will be in the right place.
The only two- man show in his arsenal is a show called 421 is Dead— a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead parody—but with storm troopers. “We never say the Death Star, we never say anything that lets you know that it’s Star Wars, we don’t have any costumes that are particularly Star Wars—we just wear these coveralls. We’re guys who are in the background of a very, very big and popular story, and only a few times does that grand story with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo etc. even come close to these guys at all. They just live on the Death Star and all of a sudden they have to get off it because they’re under attack. And it’s a comedy. It’s not meant to be totally serious. It’s like a Waiting for Godot meets Star Wars.
There is only show he has ever worn a costume in, and it is one of his more recent shows: One Man Pride and Prejudice—dressed like Mr. Darcy himself. He agrees with your humble correspondent that not only is it a truth universally acknowledged that “a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” but that the story is chock full of so many universal truths. “It’s timeless in the sense that oftentimes love comes out of this adversarial and continual rolling mat of misunderstanding between people. We sometimes have such a strong mind, we can be very strong minded individuals, and you might have some pride or prejudice that’s helped you navigate the world to get through life. But it also might work against you—and you have to work against it in order to discover love or discover what you’re feeling for another person—is in fact—love, rather than hate. Some people that look to be one way on the outside, like, say Wickham, he isn’t in fact what he is; he is too good to be true. And someone like Darcy; he’s far more worthy of a longer look to find out who he is. I think it resonates because it’s a wonderful comedy that shows how incorrect the world is and sometimes how right it is. You have a person like Lizzie who is incredibly intelligent and Darcy who is incredibly intelligent —they’re observant, but they’re so completely hobbled by their inability to see past their own pride and prejudice, whereas the world around them that seems to be absurd, sometimes is quite astute. You’ve got a person who is ridiculous like Lizzie’s mom, and there are times when she is completely correct—her trying to marry off Jane—she’s never done it before, but she manages to do it and help the whole process of the proposal go through. I think it’s a wonderful story, and the book is amazing as well, obviously.”
When asked about any funny anecdotes from the road, he said that there are two funny stories that always come to mind. “I was in Orlando doing the Fringe Theater Festival and I was using this venue which was kind of like a small quarry; it was this weird little building that felt like all the water in the world would drift towards it if there was a heavy rain—and sure enough—that’s exactly what happened. I’m in the middle of doing the show there’s a couple drip, drip, drips coming from the ceiling because it was raining like crazy, and I can hear the audience suddenly make this noise where clearly something is going on that I don’t know. This rat had run across to the middle of stage, lingered there a couple seconds, and then ran off the other way—and I did not see the rat at all. I kept doing the show and I didn’t find out until afterwards what had even happened. Another one; I was in San Francisco and at a very odd part of the show suddenly people started to react, it sort of felt like nervous laughter, but I couldn’t quite tell what the heck it was. I was like ‘Ok, I’ve never had a reaction at this point of the show ever, ever.’ I couldn’t put it together exactly why, and then, after the show was done, I found out we had an earthquake during the show—and I didn’t feel it—not at all. I mean the show is very, very demanding physically and perhaps I just thought I was a little bit winded for a moment or something. I thought it was amazing that I could get upstaged by a rat—or the earth itself could shift when I’m doing the show and I was just so in the zone I was completely oblivious to it.”
As far as interesting fan interactions, “There was a friend— in some ways a colleague of mine—his name was Richard and he’s in England; he acted as my storm trooper. There is a costuming club and charity organization called the 501st, that pretends to be this lost storm trooper legion after the Death Star gets blown up. They’ll go to children’s hospitals or an opening of a film. Richard was one of these guys, but he decided he wanted to be my traveling storm trooper when I was in England. So for three different tours—I’d be willing to bet he’s probably done a hundred cities with me— I had my very own living storm trooper. He was just there. I kept asking him why, because he would not accept pay (they’re not allowed to) and he had taken off his vacation time for the entire year to come and tour with me. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, and the truth was, he said he couldn’t figure out what it was either. Turns out, what he really wanted to be was a comedian, and when he put on that costume—when he would interact with people as a stormtrooper—he came alive. By covering himself up with this gear, it gave him an opportunity to shine by being this character. So it was amazing to see that my show—and just the chance of touring—was something that was able to enrich another person’s life, in a way that perhaps he—and certainly not me—would have ever thought of.”
Since he has travelled so extensively, I asked him if people from all over the world laugh at the same parts in his shows.
“They all laugh at different things. There are certain jokes in there that everybody laughs about. You pick up little things as you go and realize, ‘Okay, I’m gonna push that joke just a little bit more to see how people react. And if they react differently, you end up learning something about people but also about your show—that somewhere beyond the show is what you do. Maybe it’s skill or maybe its just trying to sync up with the people who are before you, but you can talk to large groups of people that have had a very different life than the one that you have led.”
As far as future one man shows are concerned, he says he is looking at Sense and Sensibility, as well as the super hero genre that has exploded in popularity in recent years. “I think that the story of any of these superhero things is that people become isolated because of who they are, and then they find where they either belong in the world as an individual, or in some cases, how they work together with others—how they can develop friendships and can sometimes accept help, where help never felt like it was going to be. It’s finding strength in weakness, and finding the value in both of them.”
For Charlie Ross, it all comes back to embracing that childlike wonder that started him off on his path so many years ago. “I think as far as my own heart, there’s the heart of the child, the child that loves things. Loves stories in particular. Loves to play. This career I have managed to mold for myself, it interacts with a part of my past and a child of my past that we tend to lose touch with. It’s the child that loves things unabashedly and doesn’t have to explain why—they just do. We lose contact with that, or we start second guessing that child so very often. I think that without that connection to that child inside—I don’t know who I would be. So, I’m very, very thankful.
Charlie Ross seems to still be bending rules; enchanting audiences with a myriad of characters only waiting to be summoned to appear. Creating a show as one man, and yet incredibly expressing so many. It is truly a thing to behold. This humble correspondent cannot possibly be objective: I count one of his performances as the best I have ever seen.
If you are interested in booking Charlie for one of his incredible shows, please email Gail at firstname.lastname@example.org