An Actor Prepares is the title of a book by Stanislavski. But in all his advice about how to master action, imagination, relaxation, emotion, memory, and creative states the fabled early-20th-century Russian theater practitioner somehow never got around to the Neti Pot. This device, which is used to flush the nasal cavity, came up the other evening in my conversation with Clarke Thorell, who plays the whiplash-mustached Karpathy in My Fair Lady.
We were in his dressing room, as the show was running upstairs in the Beaumont, and we were speaking about the ways Thorell keeps himself in shape vocally for his work. “For years,” he revealed, “I did the Neti Pot, including when I was in Hairspray on Broadway.” (He was a memorable Corny Collins, the slickly coiffed host of a TV show for Baltimore teens.) “Sometimes, I’d be on the passerelle, the strip stretching out beyond the orchestra pit into the audience. I’d have done a Neti Pot earlier, and a couple of people in the audience would get sprayed a little. This happened a few times, so I decided to stop the Neti Pot.”
I am sharing this story for two reasons. First, to convey the sometimes nitty-gritty ways in which actors keep their physical selves in maximum mode for 8 shows a week. And, second, to convey the good-humored, personable, and winning way that Thorell talks about the rigors of his work.
As he relaxed into our lighthearted approach to discussion of his craft, Thorell told me about his daily preparation for performance in My Fair Lady. “I start the day religiously with three things. I make my bed. I open the curtain, take in the light, and give gratitude. And I meditate for 22 minutes.” Why 22? “It’s a little superstition thing, because 22 is a multiple of 11 and 11 is my lucky number. Plus 20 minutes is the meditation time recommended in many modalities and it takes me a couple of minutes to settle into my breathing.”
Thorell’s day usually involves some kind of yoga practice at a yoga studio, and elements of that practice can also take place at the theater. “I have my blocks and my mat here,” he said. “There can also be some muscle work. Most of us in the cast have ab rollers or foam rollers or a TheraCane to loosen up areas of the body that feel constricted.”
Thorell briefly opened a dressing-room drawer that gave a glimpse of the liquid part of his practice. “Essential-oil diffusers are a key part of my life. I also sometimes apply the oils topically, because they can have incredible results and benefits.”
The actor, who made his Broadway debut in The Who’s Tommy and who has appeared more recently in the hit revival of The Front Page, also had a very liquid childhood. “I grew up in San Diego,” he said. “I spent a huge portion of my early life in the ocean, swimming and surfing.” When he was 11, his mother enrolled him in a performing-arts school, where he trained in singing and acting and dance.
Thorell’s mother was also attuned to another of his talents: whistling. “Once, when I was a kid, my mom heard me whistling to a song that was playing in the living room. She said, ‘You’re not whistling the melody; you’re whistling the harmony. That’s great.’” In 2007, Thorell got a chance to use this talent when he appeared in a show of Liza Minnelli’s. “We did this song ‘Liza, Liza,’” Thorell said, “which in its long-form version began with me whistling 8 bars.”
Minnelli isn’t the only pro who’s taken notice of Thorell’s whistling. He said: “Ted Sperling” – the music director for My Fair Lady – “has hired me for a number of concerts in which I’ve been able to whistle some things.”
Thorell and I also talked about his approach to playing Higgins, a role he understudies and which he has played a handful of times. “Playing Higgins,” Thorell said, “is an enormous feat that Harry” – Harry Hadden-Paton – “makes look easy.” Thorell continued: “The first time I went on as Higgins, the lyrics were intact for me but a few bits of dialogue weren’t coming out of my mouth the way I wanted to. For example, when Higgins says to Doolittle, ‘Do you mean to say you’d sell your own daughter for 50 pounds?’ it came out the reverse: ‘Do you mean to sell you’d say your own daughter for 50 pounds?’ I had to go back and learn how to bite the words better. Harry gave me some great tips.”
But don’t the accomplishments of Karpathy dwarf those of Higgins? Playing along with my ridiculousness, Thorell said, “Oh, yes. Karpathy supposedly speaks 32 languages. Can you imagine all the mouth training and memory training and physical exercise required to keep all those skills in shape? Very impressive.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com