Simon Callow may be the epitome of a theater actor. Born in jolly old England, he worked his way up from box-office worker while watching actors rehearse at the National Theatre.
After appearing in several productions he landed the part of Schikaneder in the film Amadeus. Then a role in Four Weddings and a Funeral followed, which brought him more acclaim, bridging him into a Room With a View and Postcards from the Edge.
His private life became an open book after penning Being An Actor, in which he came out of the closet.
His television roles continue to entertain, especially in the UK with the BBC's Doctor Who; he also was a judge on Popstar to Operastar.
Callow has had a special connection with Shakespeare through the years, performing in festivals and the movie Shakespeare in Loveand now he finally has arrived in Chicago with a one-man show exploring the myth of the man. Using excerpts from the Bard's plays and poems, the audience can get to know one of the greatest authors ever and in a whole new way.
Windy City Times talked to the theater icon while he was in New York before heading to the Midwest.
Windy City Times: Hello, Simon. How are you?
Simon Callow: Splendid, nice to hear from you.
WCT: You are coming to Chicago. When was the last time you were here?
Simon Callow: Let me thinkmaybe 10 years ago. Has it changed a lot since then?
WCT: [ Laughs ] I think it has! Tell me about this show.
Simon Callow: The title, Being Shakespeare, gives a pretty good clue. It is an attempt to find out who that man really was that wrote all of those plays and how they came about. It is quite odd to do this because everybody knows that there aren't many facts about Shakespeare. There are solid facts like where he was born, when he got married and how many children he had, or when and where he died. What we don't have is any private information. We don't have any idea about what went on in his mind or his opinions were. We don't letters or diaries. He never did an interview, for example.
It is a question of looking at the facts that we do have and looking at the world he lived in. We took the famous speech from As You Like It"all the world is a stage"which describes the seven ages of man. We have asked of each age what was it like. What was it like to be an Elizabethan baby, soldier or schoolboy through the ages? I felt if that was true for everyone, then it must be true for him as well. We plug that into the plays and look for examples of what we have discovered. It is done with smoke and mirrors, but [ it's ] an attempt to bring the man to life.
WCT: So it is dissected as a study within a show?
Simon Callow: Kind of, but I would like to stake a claim that it is a theatrical event rather than a lesson. It is a journey for all of us, me, you and everyone.
WCT: Was it difficult to make it entertaining?
Simon Callow: [ Laughs ] No; the work is fantastically entertaining and one comes from it in a fairly light-spirited kind of way. We do go to deep and dark places in the show, and I think we need to because Shakespeare gave the best account to what it is like to be a human being all around. Being a human being is not without its distresses. He, better than anyone, was good at describing those things like jealousy, rage and hatred. Equally, he is the inspired chronicler of love, tenderness, hope and passion. We attempt the impossible to give a sense of the man and his whole work.
WCT: What do you think of the controversy that someone else wrote some of the work?
Simon Callow: I give it no time at all. I waste no thought upon it. Why would the plays of William Shakespeare be written by other people, when his collaborators and actors put his work together a couple of years after he died?
His chief writer, Ben Johnson, wrote his introduction, which started "Sweet swan of Avon." I am not aware of any of the other contenders having come from anywhere the banks of Avon. I can't think how, in a tiny little village that the London theater, someone wouldn't have blown his cover. It just seems to be preposterous.
WCT: Well, I am listening to you because you are the Shakespeare expert.
Simon Callow: That is what I like to think! [ Both laugh. ]
WCT: How was it performing with two sirsSir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewartin Waiting for Godot?
Simon Callow: It was extraordinary because it is an extraordinary play.
WCT: That was a dream team. Shakespeare has been big in your career.
Simon Callow: Shakespeare has been huge in my life. I have also performed his sonnets, which not many people have done, in my experience with great artistic expression. It was a secret in a series of poems written from one man to another. We don't know if he had sex with the people that he wrote the poems to. We don't even know who that person was but it suggests that he was a young aristocrat.
It is one of the most exhilarating documents, followed by doubt, depression and despairending with the collapse of that relationship. I don't think there is anything to compare with it in the English language. Not many people know that poems such as "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" were written from a man to a man.
WCT: Talk about the coming-out process, because you didn't necessarily need to come out of the closet when you did.
Simon Callow: In 1984 it was quite a big deal, but I couldn't see any way around it. I was quite a prominent actor. I was being interviewed a lot and being asked all the time little needling questions about a girlfriend and all of the rest of it. I thought that was ridiculous and didn't want to lie for the rest of my life. So I just told those reporters, "I'm not in a relationship with a women. I am gay." They never printed itever.
Simon Callow: That is the British press for you. They like to expose you. They don't like to be told anything. They want to find you out. It wasn't until I wrote my first book, Being an Actor, that it came out. I had been very candid with the press for five years about my sexuality; I finally got it down in print because it was my book, and there it was. I think it was a quite useful thing to do I have to say. I was one of the first celebrity actors that had done that voluntarily. Actors have been outed and arrested, in some cases, in England but nobody had done it voluntarily. I did, and I am rather proud of that.
WCT: You should be. Now you have been able to be an advocate for our community and perform with the London Gay Men's Chorus.
Simon Callow: That was tons of fun.
WCT: Are you getting to have fun while you are in town? Will we see you at show tunes at Sidetrack?
Simon Callow: I am being worked within an inch of my life while I am in Chicago. I am doing matinees and evening shows, benefits, galas and so forth.
WCT: I noticed you were in Doctor Who; [ that show has ] diehard fans.
Simon Callow: In England, particularly, they do.
WCT: Do you want to do more television this year?
Simon Callow: No; this year is a year of theater from beginning to end. In February, my biography of Charles Dickens came out so I have been talking a lot about Dickens and will continue to do that. It comes out in America in August. People can purchase it in bookshops or at www.simoncallow.com .
Being Shakespeare runs April 18-29 at Navy Pier at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St. Ticketsare $48-$63; see www.ticketmaster.com .