James Carpenter has been holding court on Bay Area stages from Cal Shakes to San Jose Rep for almost 30 years. The consummate actor has reigned supreme in Shakespearean roles from "Richard III" and "Henry V" to "Titus Andronicus." His cavalcade of performances has earned him the mantle of Bay Area theater royalty.
"He's one of the finest American actors anywhere," says Carey Perloff, artistic director at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. "When I think back to the gallery of portraits he has created over the years from his 'Master Builder' at Aurora to his beaten-down salesman in 'Glengarry Glen Ross' at ACT, I feel incredibly grateful that he has chosen to make the Bay Area his home."
A quick study
Hailed as a local treasure, the 60-year-old thespian brings unmistakable intelligence and forcefulness to every role, but also seems to disappear into the part so that he can hop from Strindberg to Stoppard in a heartbeat. In 2010, he won the prestigious Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship for his contribution to the theater world. Now he is bringing his gravitas to bear on Scrooge in ACT's "A Christmas Carol." But despite many years in the spotlight, he still bristles at accolades.
"Local treasure? How the heck did that happen?" Carpenter says. "It's hard to believe that people think of me that way. I've always had trouble taking compliments with grace because I usually think there is something I could have
Those in local theater praise him to the skies.
"In all his characters, from kings to everyman, he is able to endow each with deep humanity," says actress Amy Resnick. "When you look into his eyes, you see fire, you see a twinkle, you see an ache."
An Army brat who moved perpetually as a boy, Carpenter lived everywhere from New Mexico to Germany. He moved to the Bay Area in the 1980s, becoming a stalwart company member at Berkeley Rep. The region appealed to him far more than New York or Los Angeles because he always wanted to be an artist and not a celebrity.
"I fell in love with the Bay Area right away," he recalls. "I think you have to live where you can be happy in your life as well as your work. Too many actors move somewhere just to make more money, and that very rarely makes you happy. It may make you rich, but that's not the same thing."
For the record, he treats "A Christmas Carol" with the seriousness of political theater. Carpenter views the Dickens perennial as a cautionary tale for our society.
Scrooge times seven
The actor, who cut his teeth at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, approaches Scrooge with the same nuance as he would King Lear. Even though this is his seventh whirl through ACT's seasonal chestnut, he invests every moment with a deeply felt sense of realism.
"Children love this play, but it's not really a show for children," he says. "That's not whom it resonates with. You have to have lived for a while for the themes to register with you. Dickens was an angry man when he wrote this. It's very political. It's a fable for adults.
"You can't experience this play and then walk past the homeless people outside. I know I can't," says the actor, who lives in Oakland. "If I see someone with their hand out, I give what I can. That's the power of theater."
He takes all of his roles to heart. When he plays a tortured soul, like the title character in "The Dresser" at San Jose Rep, he feels the sting deeply. In fact, he turned down a part at the Magic Theatre because he'd "done a lot of dark stuff lately, and it can be hard to take."
That intense sense of empathy may be the secret to his versatility as an actor.
"Compassion might be a key to why his range is so broad and true, an ability to relate across a wide spectrum of humanity," says actress Stacy Ross. "He's absolutely committed, well-read, smart, experienced and with a truly broad range. He's also one of the best guys you'll ever meet."
And he's also the rare actor who listens as much as he talks. He makes a point of chatting with the homeless people who camp out near San Francisco's Union Square. He's even trying to snag some of them tickets to "A Christmas Carol."
A true craftsman
"He's a pal. While he has a great intensity of stage, he is laid-back and warm in real life," says Tom Ross, artistic director of Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company. "He takes his work seriously, comes into rehearsal super-prepared and hones his performances until they are polished like gems."
Carpenter's commitment to the craft is unparalleled. Honesty is mandatory. If he does something that doesn't feel true, his "bogometer" goes off. Despite his experience, he still sees himself as a student of the form.
"I try to choose projects because I can learn something from the people involved, from the playwright or the director or the other actors," he says. "And then I invite them to push me as hard they can. That's what I want. Every performance has to be fresh, or it's no better than a recording."
He pays great attention to details, partially because he has to. Lighting designs can sometimes trigger his epilepsy, so he vets strobe effects ahead of time.
Rigor and discipline come naturally to him. He had to be the best to please his father, an Army colonel who repeatedly told him that he had no talent and advised him to quit the stage or court disaster.
His father relented after seeing Carpenter play Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" in the 1970s. "It was the first time I had ever seen that kind of pride on his face," recalls the actor. "I'll never forget it. Finally getting his approval like that was very gratifying for me."
For the record, his father was right about the grim reality of being a starving artist. Money is always tight for Carpenter and his wife, Cassandra, a costume designer. In order to afford the luxury of starring in Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" at the Aurora back in 2000, he had to pump espresso at Peet's Coffee between performances.
"Theatergoers kept coming in saying, 'What are you doing here?'" he says, chuckling. "I was just trying to survive."
The gig paid Carpenter the princely sum of about $250 a week but the performance was a master class in subtlety and restraint.
But make no mistake, Carpenter is no theater snob. He had a ball playing the Frankenstein monster in "The Creature," and he's a rambunctious blogger in his spare time. But it's his devotion to the power of art that makes this "Christmas Carol" far more than just another holiday show.
"Can theater change the world? I hope so," the actor says. "I know it can change how we think and the way we feel."
Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772.
'A Christmas Carol'
Adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh from the novel by Charles Dickens
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
Tickets: $20-$130, 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org