‘Mark Twain’ performer grants fascinating interview

Bill Hand as Mark Twain
Mark Twain

Editor’s note: We thank local actor Bill Hand for this interview. Mr. Hand appears as Mark Twain on March 3, 4, 5 & 6 at Cullman Performance Hall in the North Carolina History Center, 529 S. Front Street in New Bern. For ticket information, call (252) 229-4977 or visit the website: www.NCHistoryTheater.org

Q) Bill: You are an experienced performer, but even for you there must be significant challenges in doing a one-person performance of this nature. Can you give us some of your insights as you tackle the preparations?

A) Always the biggest single danger of a one-man performance is the simple fact that there’s no one to help you when you draw a blank or completely forget a line. Twain most always memorized what he did on stage, and especially when he did speeches or toasts at the many dinners he was invited to. When at a table he would arrange the silverware, salt, etc., in some manner that he could glance at as cues to get him through a piece. I sometimes do the same thing in a linguistic manner — making acronyms out of lists or phrases that may give me trouble, for instance. Mostly, I make sure I know the story. Twain, again, emphasized that the written word didn’t work so well when spoken, while the spoken word didn’t work so well when written. In other words, what reads well doesn’t necessarily work as well when spoken. That liberates me a bit – I can tell Twain’s stories staying very close to his original words, yet varying them slightly for the purpose of telling the tale.

Cheat sheets? Very rarely. I may leave a piece of paper with two or three random words to help me remember a line or order of lines, but I rarely refer to them because they’re more likely to throw me off. Of course, I do keep a list of the order of stories I plan to tell setting on the podium.

Q) Please give our readers a sense of HOW IMPORTANT the make up, mustache, and classic white suit is TO YOU and TO THE AUDIENCE??

A) The classic white suit is vital — people tend not to think Mark Twain if they see anything else. I go light on makeup but, of course, the mustache is a must as is the shaggy hair bit and even the brows — to avoid the hassle of prosthetics and the fear of losing my own eyebrows to spirit gum I will often use ‘clown white’ just to emphasize the eyebrows. The mustache? Glued or taped, because growing one bushy enough is just not a possibility for me. My lip hairs won’t cooperate!

Q)  Do you expect to stay EXACTLY ON TRACK with very little deviation over the several consecutive performances, or do you anticipate vibes from the audience that may send you off on Twain-related tangents? What Twain topic is easiest to EXPAND UPON???

A) Wow! In the past I often have stayed on a specifically set program. I will ad lib a bit with the audience when the spirit moves. But with the new performance I hope to have a large enough draw of material that I can change course if I so choose. Performances change over time more than during a single night. We went and saw the ultimate Twain performer Hal Holbrook – once – and I noticed in the program that rather than a distinct layout of what we would hear, it gave a long list from which Mr. Twain would select as he went along. I really like that idea — but so much memorizing to achieve it! We’ll see how it works. I definitely don’t plan to give the exact same show every night.

Q) I guess there are several schools of thought on this next question. Will you be consulting any of Hal Holbrook’s famous work? Or, would that type of thing corrupt your own portrayal? Since Twain’s death do you know of any other famous solo interpretations of the Mark Twain persona?

A) When I first started doing Twain many years ago, my source was a book of Hal Holbrook’s material, though I’d never personally seen him until the advent of internet and, finally, once on stage. He is definitely an inspiration. But Holbrook edited the material he used, making it his, so I have come to go directly to Twain’s material myself, editing and swapping around from one work to another here and there. There have been many Twain impersonators of the years and it is a big enough thing that you can actually spend upwards of a thousand dollars for an official Mark Twain wig and ‘stache, and some of these people make a full time living doing it. Some are well-known but not to me. I hope to pick up gigs and start doing Twain on a regular basis, myself, and am available for venues.

Q)  Are you hoping that most of your audience will recall at least some of their Mark Twain readings? Or, perhaps you are hoping that many attendees will be inspired to read more of Mark Twain? Is there one item of Twain’s repertoire that touches on the entire gamut of his talent as an author?

A) Just about everyone knows Mark Twain for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — and for the thousands of memes (some even accurate) that show up of his sayings online, and I am guessing the audience will know those when I perform. My first act includes some of his most “popular” work — Tom Sawyer and the fence, Huck Finn and Jim, the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. But I also employ a lot of Twain’s lesser known pieces — particularly in the second act when I do more of his critical work. It’s all fascinating and it makes you think. A lot of people don’t know that Mark Twain, and I want to inspire people to look him up.

Q) Final question: Would Twain prefer to be remembered as an author, or as a raconteur?

A) So much about Mark Twain is fascinating. He was described by biographer Ron Powers as the “world’s first rock star,” a phrase describing his fame as he traveled the world as a raconteur to rebuild the funds he’d disastrously lost in bad business dealings. He eventually tired of speaking and, late in life, mainly did so for charity. Toward the end, he was proudest of a book that most people don’t even know he ever wrote — a fictionalized life of Joan of Arc that was actually a memorial to his beloved daughter, Susy, who died of meningitis in her early 20s. The book, told in first person by a supposed friend, is a bit too worshipful of the girl but not at all a bad read.

My sense is that it was his philosophy and feelings about mankind and the world that drove him most, so in the end I have to come down on the side of raconteur. What I admire most about him? To be honest, his intense devotion to his wife and daughters. There has never been a stronger family man who so adored and strived for his family. When I perform my intention is to give an audience a sense of the man in all his ways — his temper, his humor, his love and his incredibly sarcastic and powerful denunciations of Society — and of what it was like to see him on the stage.

Hope this helps. If County Compass readers have any further questions, they may contact me at 252-229-4977.