Jim Dale's first taste of theater was a performance of the musical Me and My Girl in London in 1944. The nine-year-old self-described "class clown" liked what he saw and decided to pursue a life in the theatre. Dale’s entertainment career spans four decades: he’s been a familiar figure in Great Britain since the early 1950s when he began working as a teen-aged stand-up comedian. His broad range of work includes classic comedy stage roles in London and New York and at several regional theatres; television appearances; movies (including fourteen of the popular British Carry On series); and credits as a pop singer and composer.
Dale is best known in the United States for his 1979 Tony-award-winning performance as the title character in Barnum, an acrobatic send-up of the legendary nineteenth-century showman. He first came to prominence in New York in 1974, when he and long-time collaborator Frank Dunlop (artistic director of the Edinburgh Theatre Festival) presented their musical adaptation of Moliére's comedy Scapino for an extended run in three different theatres. Scapino—with Dale in the title role—gave him the chance to display his talents not just as a musical performer but as an actor and comedian as well. Dale paused recently to talk about his career and the art of comic acting. He possesses tremendous personal charm and a friendly, and a conspiratorial stage persona that has been widely praised by critics.
Dale is never more serious than when he is trying to make his audiences laugh. "It’s a little like casting out hundreds of fishing lines into the audience. You start getting little bites, then more, then you hook a few, then more. Then you can start reeling them in and that’s a loveliest feeling - the whole audience laughing with you."
Seeing Me and My Girl may have helped Dale decide on a theatre career, but he says he was always an instinctive performer. "I was always the clown in school," he recalled. "I had a personal put down sense of humor. I wasn’t vindictive. I didn’t make fun of people, but the clowning got me into trouble. I was always a ‘fall guy.’ I’d take tumbles just to get a laugh. "When I was nine, we’d take a bus to the seaside. Coming back, we’d take turns entertaining, singing songs and the like. I tried some stand-up comedy. I had a captive audience in that bus. Then I realized I wanted to do more than that."
Dale’s parents, with a love for music hall performers, gave their young son some good advice. "They told me ‘you should learn how to move,’" said Dale. "That’s the most important thing in any kind of theatre—movement. But where could a young lad learn how to move on stage? The answer, of course, was in dance training." Dale chuckled at the memory of his childhood dance training. "None of my friends could believe I was doing ballet. I had more ‘fights in tights’ than any other kid on my street. I also studied tap, ballroom dancing, national folk dancing, even judo, for six years. Dance training gave me the confidence to walk and move on stage. It gave me the gestures. It made me feel at ease.’
At seventeen, when most adolescents are still toiling in study halls and classrooms, Dale joined a small touring company and toured England with it for two years, playing theatres and music halls. "I did an eight-minute comedy spot," he said. "It wasn’t very funny, but I’d get more applause than some because I was just seventeen. If they didn't clap at the end of my act I would limp off stage and boy would they feel guilty. They would all burst into tremendous applause as they saw this poor cripple kid walking off. Then I would run back on without the limp and take my bow. I lived on sympathy in those days."
After a stint in Britain’s Royal Air Force (where he produced monthly stage shows), Dale became a successful pop singer "almost by accident." He was supposed to be a warm-up comedy act for the first rock'n'roll show on British television, Six Five Special. Dale borrowed a guitar from one of the musicians and did a song 'in the Elvis Presley vein.' He was immediately booked as a singer, and spent the next two years on the rock’n’roll circuit; among his credits are the lyrics for the song "Georgy Girl," the musical theme for the 1966 movie of the same name.
Dale’s comedic style—intense, physical, visual, and audience-directed—is grounded in his mastery of 'shtick,' comic routines handed down from other entertainers and visual comic business. For Dale, mastery of 'shtick'—a Yiddish word meaning 'a method of doing things’ ‘—is one of the most important aspects of comedy movement on stage. "American vaudeville was wonderful to watch," he said. "But it begin to die out as the old theaters closed and comics retired. In the Broadway show Me and My Girl, the gags and business were fifty years old at least, but they made today's audience fall out of their seats with laughter. It will still be as funny in fifty years time if people hold on to it and protect it. We talk about theatre museums filled with old costumes and things. What we also need is a theatre museum of the old routines on videotape. We are only the custodians of those techniques, and they should be preserved.
For Dale, playing to the audience is a fundamental part of his performance. Some actors, he said, hear audience laughter— without really being conscious of how the audience is reacting—and think they are being funny.
"It isn’t necessarily so," he said. "Some people sitting out there think they are expected to laugh. In 'Alfie' [Bill Naughton’s play and movie screenplay produced in the mid-1960s,] Alfie describes an abortion. I remember certain people laughing and I wanted to ask: ‘What are you doing that? This isn’t funny.’ Now I realize that laughter can come from insecurity. they don't know how they should be feeling."
The big belly laughs from audiences in today’s theatres are, unfortunately, often provoked by the utterance of an outrageous obscenity or the breaking of some social taboo. Veteran comic Dale is disturbed by what passes as funny these days.
"When I started doing comedy at seventeen, every joke had to be very
innocent," he said. "I couldn’t swear—not that I wanted to. Since
those days, I'd rather get a good clean laugh with good
material, than an easy laugh by swearing or shocking. That’s not clever
or comedic, anybody can get a laugh that way, it's too easy."
As Scapino expanded in length and scope, Dale decided to add music, accompanying himself (as Scapino) on the guitar. "I made up one of those sexy Neapolitan love songs," he explained, "but it was actually a lot of rhyming dishes from an Italian restaurant menu! Over the next several years, there were cast changes. We kept the 'shtick' of those who’d gone, gave it to the replacements, who created even more with their comedy talent. By the time the show came to New York we had some of the best comedic moments ever seen on stage at one time."
But those British actors had to return home after so many months, so we had to teach young American actors how to do farce. Many of them thought farce meant over-acting, it's not. It is one of the most special styles in comedic acting. You have to do it with the utmost sincerity. You have to believe in what’s happening. No making funny faces, no funny Monty Python moves. It’s being so sincere that people fall out their seats laughing."
Dale’s own approach to creating a character starts with some basic questions: What does he look like? What does he wear? What kind of shoes is he at home in? How does he move in his clothes?" After I’ve established these things, what comes out is much easier."
"Good acting is consistency of performance. You've created a character who may be on stage eight times a week for perhaps a year. Yes, you can get bored, especially if you think you’ve explored everything in your character. That’s where consistency comes in. You have to find or create something new every night —a moment— a gesture which freshens you. It must look to the audience as if you are creating that performance for the very first time."
Dale conceded that the path he followed to a successful acting career is not an easy one. "To learn to perform comedy, you’ve got to have a real audience. I was lucky—I had a captive one," he said, recalling his early days in Music Hall and warming up rock’n’roll audiences. Finding a place to perform—particularly for young comics who want to work in theatre—is not easy. While comedy clubs offer plenty of opportunities for aspiring stand-up comedians, Dale’s kind of comedy—dynamic and movement-oriented, is more visual than verbal.
Breaking into theatre in Dale’s native Britain is a bit easier: most cities have a repertory theatre ensemble. In America, he noted, many regional theatres no longer support resident companies.
Dale offered a few observations and some common sense advice to young actors who want a career in professional theatre:
"There is no spray can called 'Instant Stardom,' only talent can keep you at the top. You have to have that talent and the training to keep you there. You cannot learn anything from success, you only learn from failure. Young students," said Dale, "have to decide what they want out of life. To say ‘I want to be an actor’ is to say ‘I want to give the rest of my life-time to learning the art of acting.’ You are taking on a commitment for the next fifty or sixty years. And expect to give up a lot of your personal life. You give up your time being with your children, family and friends. You give up years getting the necessary training, keeping fit, performing the work, traveling the road. A career in the theatre demands so much commitment.
Dale may have learned his craft the hard way, but his broad range of experience and skills would probably prove invaluable if he chose to teach. Queried about the possibility of becoming a trainer of young performers, the genial, straightforward actor was momentarily hesitant.
"I don’t know my abilities as a teacher as I have never had an acting lesson, but I love to offer advice if asked. When I give a note, nine times out of ten, it’s how to help create a moment on stage, not ‘you’re doing it wrong.’ At the same time I realize that what may work for me may not work for another actor. I find great joy in helping him create that moment for himself."
Glenn Loney, is a frequent contributor to
DRAMATICS. He teaches at Brooklyn College in New York.