What goes through an actor’s head in the moments before making an entrance onstage? In the case of Douglas Sills, that depends on the character he is playing. In Nantucket Sleigh Ride, he plays four roles, and, before a recent matinee, we sat in the Newhouse lobby and Sills gave me a sense of how he makes an entrance with two of them.

“You have to prepare yourself for the tone that’s onstage as you arrive,” he explained. “I might do something physical to get me there, for example play with coins in my hand. For Dr. Harbinger” – a psychoanalyst Sills plays in Nantucket – “I have to make sure my body is very relaxed, so that when I enter and sit down I am immediately prepared to listen to my patient.” 

“In this play,” Sills went on, “I’m also playing Walt Disney. I pitch my voice lower than normal for the role, so right before I go onstage I have my voice ready for Walt’s first line.”

Sills, who grew up in the Detroit area in a music-loving family, gave a more general sense of his other two Nantucket assignments: Schuyler and Robert Redford. “Schuyler is a bit of a mystery. He’s a child psychoanalyst, a mad scientist in a 1970s leisure suit. I play him as a combination of Eraserhead and David Miscavige, the head of Scientology – a person who wants to control everything.”

In Nantucket Sleigh Ride, Redford makes a more fleeting appearance. “The movie star,” Sills said, “exists in the lead character’s memory as he’s writing a screenplay. The wig does most of the work for me. Redford plays a murderer, which is something we haven’t seen much from Redford in his career.”

All four of Sills’ roles in Nantucket are supporting, and the actor observed that “usually with auxiliary characters you must be at 110 percent when you enter. There’s no warm-up time. You have to make your impact fast.”

As a performer, Sills has excellent focus and physical elan. He said, “I often do musicals, and they require more energy than this play. But that doesn’t mean this play is a breeze. Our director wanted a rapid rate of utterance. So if you let your mind wander for even a split second things can go awry very quickly. In the dressing room at intermission or after a show we laugh about the mistakes of focus we’ve made. These aren’t things, luckily, that anyone would notice because the play goes by so fast.”

Because Sills is known in New York for musicals – he made a big splash in his Broadway debut: The Scarlet Pimpernel, in 1997 – I asked him to compare his daily routine for a musical to that for a play. “For one thing,” he replied, “with a play I can eat after a show, because I don’t have to worry about waking up with acid on my vocal cords. Also, I can arrive at the theater for a play in almost any condition and feel confident about doing a good show. If I don’t feel great I have a little leeway in a delivering a line. When you’re singing there’s a more rigid structure and you have to work at a specified tempo with an orchestra. If you haven’t done everything right in the preparation that day, you may not hit that high note squarely. You’re more exposed.”

Sills has a terrific singing voice, so I was a little surprised to hear that when he was in graduate school he didn’t tell people that he sang. “At that time there wasn’t much crossover between people doing plays and people doing musicals – this was the era of David Mamet and Sam Shepard.”

Sills added; “At that time I had two resumes, one for plays and one for musicals. I’ve often thought that I might have gotten further along in my career if I’d stayed in one or the other. But I’ve always wanted to do a lot of different things. Now, we have many more people moving between plays and musicals.”

Whether in a play or a musical, Sills has a gift for comedy. “I just did the musical version of the 1993 movie Dave, about a U.S. President. I worried that the humor might seem naïve compared to humor today, which is goofier and more about bad language. But the writers made adjustments and Dave was enjoyed by audiences when we did it last year in D.C.”

Sills talked about the challenge of situational humor in 2019. “You have to lay a lot of pipe to set up the jokes and people today don’t always have a lot of patience for situational laughs.”

How does that relate to the humor Nantucket Sleigh Ride? “There is a bit of set-up in the story,” Sills said, “but the laughs come almost as soon as the show starts. As soon as people hear something about a Times crossword and ‘57 across,’ they laugh. For New Yorkers, that has resonance.”

 

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com