"This is the hardest voice for me," says Adam Miles, the actor portraying 40 characters, and their voices, in the Piccolo Spoleto show Fully Committed, written by Becky Mode and directed by Mike Kordek. We're sitting in on a Fully Committed rehearsal and Miles is struggling with one character in particular, an ornery woman whose accent he can't quite figure out. "That's starting to sound too British," suggests Courtney Daniel, Threshold Repertory's executive director. "Maybe more nasally?" says Miles, pursing his lips to alter the woman's voice. In this play, it's all in the details.
Currently running on Broadway, with Jesse Tyler Ferguson playing the same role of Miles — which is to say, many roles — Fully Committed is about the man behind the reservation line at Manhattan's most popular restaurant. This man, Sam Peliczowksi, dreams of being a successful actor, but until then, bides his time fielding calls from potential diners. And the diners come in all different shapes and sizes, with the majority, naturally, being needy and obnoxious. Naomi Campbell's assistant, for example, insists that she and her party are served a meal that is gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan ... you get the idea. "It's like grabbing water," laughs Miles as he struggles to differentiate between two male characters. All he has is his own body, making the most of facial expressions, hand gestures, and voice changes to portray 40 different people. And to him, they are indeed people. "I'm not trying to make the characters a generality. I try to give each one as much time as I possibly can," he says. And yes, he's been having pretty weird dreams since he started embodying 40 different humans. It comes with the territory.
Miles, who has performed for Threshold Rep before, including in last year's Piccolo show, Twilight Los Angeles, enjoys the challenge this one-man show presents. "I was drawn to the role — the sheer scope of it. It is something very few actors have the opportunity to do," he says. "It's a crash course in characterization."
The characters range from a kindly British woman to a constantly confused Pakistani man. Sam, the anchor that holds it all together, is an unlikely fit for the task he's been given. While he's kind and attentive to the people he works with, and the various characters phoning him every few minutes, he's also a day-dreamer, prone to lengthy chats with his dad and nervous calls to his agent, asking if he's been given any acting roles. Sam is likeable enough to make up for some of the more annoying characters, and he has enough of a backstory for the audience to root for him.
"I'm like a caged tiger, there's lots of pacing," says Miles as he runs lines with Daniel. While the setting isn't in place for the dress rehearsal, Daniel explains what the audience will see. Which is to say, not much. Miles will be standing in a black box of sorts, with a headset, telephone, and wall sound system as props. That's it. Oh, and 40 separate entities racing around his mind.
Miles physically braces himself when he switches between characters. It's subtle, just a twitch of the eyes or lips, but it's a sure sign that Miles is becoming someone else in a matter of seconds. "I'm very aware of every movement," he says. He admits to practicing the mannerisms of various characters while he's driving. "I'm talking with my hands. People think I'm crazy," he laughs.
We imagine Jesse Tyler Ferguson can relate to the crazy challenges of the role; in a recent interview on The Tonight Show he said, "My mind is my own." Ferguson's performance has gotten generally positive reviews since the play debuted on Broadway earlier this year, with critics praising his ability to switch between various voices, which is clearly a key factor in nailing this role.
Daniel helps Miles with his voices by having him read lines from monologues entirely unrelated to Fully Committed. He's not just memorizing lines in a certain voice — he is becoming the person to whom the voice belongs.
"I'll definitely do something like this again," says Miles before adding, "But it's going to be a while."