What happens when an actor is cast as a master cook and famous gastronome?
In the case of Nick Olcott, he digs in to some cookbooks and heads for the market.
A Washington-based director of theatre and opera, Olcott returns to the stage as an actor to play the late James A. Beard in the one-person show I Love to Eat.
This is also Olcott’s first one-person show; the last time he worked as an actor was at Round House, in their old venue. He has frequently directed at Round House, including Around the World in 80 Days, The Book Club Play, and A Year with Frog and Toad.
Directed by Leon Major, I Love to Eat comes to Round House Theatre’s Bethesda location, October 17 through November 4, 2012.
James Beard is one of America’s first celebrity chefs and a champion of American cuisine. He believed in food prepared with fresh ingredients and seasonal produce. Beard, who died in 1985, authored nearly 30 cookbooks and founded a cooking school. He also has the distinction of being the first chef to appear on television in 1946.
When Nick Olcott was cast as the influential foodie, he admitted he had some work to do.
“I was a very, very bad cook. I’m one of those people who didn’t have to joke that there was one thing I knew how to make: reservations.”
Olcott said he was lazy about cooking, often eating out or on the run, except for one particular day: Christmas. “That was my only real day to cook, I love that.”
The actor decided to go to the source himself for a crash cooking course. With more than 25 cookbooks to Beard’s credit, the actor chose to focus on a handful to get him going.
Olcott cites “Delights and Prejudices: A Memoir with Recipes” as his main starting point. Other resources included “James Beard’s American Cookery, Beard on Food: The Best Recipes and Kitchen Wisdom from the Dean of American Cooking”, and “Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles: Letters to Helen Evans Brown.”
“Exploring Mr. Beard’s cookbooks, oh, I loved it. Over the summer, I would spend the whole day reading in the morning, shopping in the afternoon, then preparing and cooking in the evening.”
Olcott said his experiments with Beard’s dishes, lead to improved eating and cooking. He also got to share what he was preparing. Vacationing in Nova Scotia with his partner Tim, plus family and friends, he followed Beard’s tenets of buying seasonal produce at the local farmer’s market and starting from scratch.
He made one of Beard’s signature dishes, chicken with 40 cloves of garlic that was a big hit. But one recipe in particular was one of Olcott’s favorites.
“In “Delights and Prejudices,” Beard included his mother’s clam chowder recipe. There in Nova Scotia, I could just go right to the dock and get fresh clams, and I must tell you: that clam chowder was spectacular.”
Leon Major agrees, since he and his wife were among the summer guests who enjoyed Olcott’s Beard-inspired cooking.
“Oh, yes, we loved the clam chowder, and I remember a great steak dinner. I told him he needed to keep experimenting,” Major said with a chuckle.
Working together as actor and director has been an interesting twist for Olcott and Major. They have been colleagues for years as the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland. Major is the artistic director; Olcott teaches scene study; and they both direct operas, as well as teach.
“We have known each other for at least 10 years from working at the university, but this is the first time as director and actor,” said Major. “The relationship between actor and director can be fragile, in some cases. But we have trust. It has been invigorating and stimulating.”
Olcott said their mutual respect allowed for a smooth rehearsal process for I Love to Eat.
“With Leon, I had complete trust. And since I have done so much directing, it was nice to turn off that part of my brain when I entered the room. It has been a great luxury, just to concentrate on what I need to do.”
Major said their rapport fostered an atmosphere of good ideas as they discovered the play together. “We do share an aesthetic, which helped us make our ideas be understood.”
Getting back to acting has been a good reminder for Olcott, especially since he has concentrated on directing for more than a decade.
“Losing myself in the world of James Beard, as written in the play, made me realize the great vulnerability of the actor. And with a one-man show, everything rests on my shoulders. This has been a good reminder for me as a director, to remember the actor’s process. Sometimes we think of actors as marionettes.”
Directing I Love to Eat has brought Major back to his roots. In his native Toronto, the director said he worked almost exclusively in the theatre and he did not work regularly as an opera director until moving to the United States.
Major said the difference between opera-theatre and non-opera theatre is the music.
“In opera, music is the guide. The music tells me exactly what to do. In a play, you have to find the play’s music – the music of the text, and make the rhythms work. My job is to make it work for Nick.”
While researching his character, Olcott not only improved his cooking skills, but discovered he shared some background with Beard. “Our mothers were both from England, and we were both attached to our mothers.”
Cooking, however, is where they diverged.
“Beard’s mother was an excellent cook, he actually learned from a great deal from her. My mother, on the other hand, grew up with servants and learned to cook later. The most important cookbook for my mother was “I Hate to Cook.” I say this with all affection, but her cooking was horrible.”
Coming to the character of James Beard in I Love to Eat, Olcott said he was struck by other similarities.
“We are both of a certain size, physically, and share the need to be in public. In fact, he was originally trying to be an opera singer or a performer. So, he became famous for something he did not originally set out to do.”
In his own journey, Olcott said he began as an actor, but in recent years found himself directing more and not performing.
“Beard talks about wanting to be on Broadway or on the opera stage in Europe. I had a similar experience being replaced on a film. So there is always the feeling of that tug, ‘What could have been?’ I look at my life as very good. But it makes you think what would have been if life had gone a different way.”
Thanks to James Still’s play I Love to Eat, Beard the character, if not the man himself, gets his wish and takes the stage in a setting that represents his townhouse.
Oct 17 – Nov 4, 2012
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD 20814
Tickets: $26 – $63
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 240.644.1100
“The play is constructed with James in bed asleep,” said Major. “Then he suddenly emerges, and talks about himself sleeping. Throughout the play, we learn about his friends, and he shares moments of pain. There is an undercurrent of melancholy.”
Olcott said the moments of sadness stem from the fact that Beard never really found true love and always ended up alone. “But it is a funny script,” Olcott added. “That was one thing that made me empathize with James.”
In spite of the personal insight into the man who was James Beard, what would a play about the dean of American food be without some cooking?
“When I go into the kitchen, I make a dish that really established him. It is one of his hors d’oeuvres, onion sandwiches, made with parsley, raw onion and two slices of thin bread.”
The audience will also get to know a man who was all embracing, according to Major.
“James Beard embraced life, and was very kind to people, even in his loneliness.”
Actor and director hope for the same thing when audiences attend I Love to Eat: they want the audience to go out of with the feeling that they had a friendship with James Beard.
– Nick Olcott has been posting an occasional blog on the Round House Theatre website about his journey as James Beard and learning to cook.
– To read more about James Beard, go to the James Beard Foundation website.
– James Beard’s clam chowder recipe which Nick Olcott described as “spectacular.”