The account of young American Jews who created some of the most popular and enduring superheroes of the golden age of comic books — invincible heroes who stood for truth and justice — while Jewish civilization in Europe was devastated by mechanized hatred and accessory indifference is a goldmine for profound drama.
Theater J’s upcoming The History of Invulnerability is the story of one of those creators, Jerry Siegel, the man behind the greatest superhero of all, Superman, first published in the pages of DC Comics in 1938.
I met with actor Tim Getman, who will proudly don the tights and cape for Theater J’s production, on a sweltering May afternoon at the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street NW.
What’s it like playing Superman?
Tim: It’s a little intimidating actually. We’re borrowing the costume from the original production [at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park] and luckily I’m the same size as the guy that played him, but that first time I put it on, I was thinking “Oh my God” this is such an iconic role and it comes with so many expectations. There have been so many incarnations from the original comics, to George Reeves, to Christopher Reeve to the last guy that played him, Brandon Routh. It comes with expectations.
Tell me about the role as conceived for this play.
It’s a different spin on Superman. In this play, he’s less the iconic figure and more the child or idea that came from Jerry Siegel’s mind. So it gives me more room to take some liberties with who this guy might be. My challenge is to do it in such a way that’s supportive of the relationship between Siegel, the creator, and his child. The play takes on multiple levels. Not only child/father, but it parallels the Golem myth from Jewish tradition, and the Frankenstein idea that this creator is separated from his creation. It’s been really fun to do my own take on it.
It sounds like Superman is going to get a lot of stage time.
I’m on stage the entire time. I’m present the whole time. But the central story is Jerry’s. Superman functions as his conscience. Shirley [Serotsky, the director], at one point talked about it as a Ghost of Christmas Past kind of character, who asks the hard questions and points things out.
What kind of research did you do?
Shirley did an amazing amount of research and brought us a lot of stuff to look at. I’ve been reading some of the original comics [Tim pulls out a few from his knapsack] and I’ve been looking at how he moves, and what the differences are between him and Clark Kent. I’ve studied the style of this era, which is much more presentational, as [Superman is] always talking to the reader. It seems like thought bubbles didn’t exist, and everything is said out loud.
Will there be allusions to the comics, or popular past incarnations?
There are re-enactments from the comics on stage, so we can go to the full, campy, traditional idea of who Superman is. I’ll emulate the sensitivity Christopher Reeve brought to the role, and the grumpiness that George Reeves brought to it too. I’m trying to be conscious of all the different ways he’s been portrayed, but also find a central through-line that supports the story as well.
Biggest challenge playing Superman?
The biggest challenge will be people’s expectations and whatever judgment they have on how Superman should talk and how he should look. I’m not this muscle-bound guy, so I’m a little nervous that’s something people will comment on. But I hope that the story we’re telling and the way we’re telling it will be the thing that is most important.
Also bringing life to a person who is just an idea. He’s not a real person. I can do all the research I want, but ultimately I’m not playing a person who existed, so it’s a delicate balance of a lot of things that I hope will come together. As an actor it’s exciting because it gives you free rein to play someone that wasn’t real, but on the other hand, people have their expectations for that character.
I think you probably won’t have to worry about that from what I gather about this play, in that the context is not so much a reproduction of Superman from the comics as a weighty look at artistic creation and the Jewish experience.
Absolutely. And it really is Jerry’s story. In that sense, it takes some of the pressure off, because I’m just this presence that’s there, and the story is what’s coming out of Jerry’s imagination.
What motivated you to take this role?
To work with Shirley. We’ve been wanting to work together for many years. The chance to play an iconic role. There are challenges involved, but to get to do something like that and explore it myself was a definite draw. Because it’s a new play. I’m very dedicated to doing new plays, that’s very exciting. This is probably my sixth or seventh production with Theater J, and coming to a comfortable place is probably a draw as well. And my wife, Gabriela Fernández-Coffey, played the Marilyn Monroe character in Theater J’s After the Fall earlier this season, so it’s funny that we each get to bookend the season playing these iconic characters.
Tim Getman is appearing in Theater J’s The History of Invulnerability, opening June 6 and running thru July 8, 2012 at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street, NW Washington, DC.