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Whose Line is it? It's Charles Esten's!
The actor, singer and improv comedian is in Whose Line is it Anyway? on stage at the Royal Albert Hall Saturday 15 December and Sunday 16 December.
Interview by Michael Burland
Buy Tickets for Whose Line is it Anyway?at the Royal Albert Hall
We're here to talk about Whose Line is it Anyway?, which you're starring in at the Royal Albert Hall on December 15th and 16th – but first I want to ask you about locations! Where are you at the moment?
I'm in Nashville Tennessee, where I live – we lived for about twenty years in Los Angeles, and for almost two in London. The Nashville show brought us here and I felt like I was home so we made it such.
You could live anywhere, but I guess the US is so varied that it's possible for anyone to find the right place for them?
I think you're right, there are so many different styles, cultures, vibes, the topography, all those things. I grew up in Pennsylvania and Virginia and I really loved California, but I was mostly there to do the acting that I wanted to do. But for all of us there are so many reasons that we love Nashville. I think the green reminds me of where I grew up. And actually having weather! I liked London for that too – it was the anti-LA, plenty of weather.
What took you to London?
I was brought over there to do the musical Buddy, and I loved in a mews apartment in Paddington and walked in Hyde Park every day. Buddy was a much-loved musical at the time – and still, I run into people again and again who saw it and it stayed with them,. It was a joy to do the show there, and to get to live there.
Was it long enough to become a Londoner?
I felt so. We learned a lot about it – becoming a part of London was the real joy. My dad visited us and he said it's one thing to go somewhere as a tourist but he liked that we were there on the next level.
What did you enjoy most about Britain?
The people and the enormous amount of history there. My castmates were very quick-witted and kind. When I grew up my image of what was British was some strange combination of Shakespeare and Monty Python – a blend of antiquity, intelligence and wit. And for somebody fairly interested in history it was a great leap to go from Los Angeles where a quote ‘old building' was built in 1918 to England where it was"I'm pretty sure this place comes from the year 7!" You can go to any time you want – Victorian or Elizabethan or the Blitz – and drink your fill. It's very powerful.
Buddy was a combination of music and acting, you include music in your improv comedy, and you were in a band, N'est Pas, at college. Do acting, comedy and music go together for you?
Looking back, although I majored in economics, what I really majored in was the band! And I was not a fool to do that. In the end the band probably served me far better than my economics degree ever did! [laughs] My bandmates went on to become doctors and lawyers and such, I went to LA to become an actor, and the first job I got took me to London to be Buddy Holly! I know for a fact I never would have gotten that job if I hadn't first been the lead singer in that band.
I think you can tell – oftentimes when actors get a job where they have to sing, you can see them ‘acting' the singing. On screen, you can tell you are a real singer.
Thanks, I appreciate that. One of the interesting things about Nashville is that it's like a unified theory of what acting and singing have in common. Clearly they're both a performance – you perform a song and perform a scene. I learned early on from T-Bone Burnett, who's in charge of the music on Nashville, was that the music should be as truthful and honest as you can make it. The moment you lie in a song – either in writing the lyrics or in the performance of it – something breaks and it all comes down around you. It's the same thing with acting. That's the test for both of them. I got my acting training on stage in Buddy – and I guess some of it in the band where I'd have to improvise and say something when a string broke or a keyboard needed plugging back in. It got me over that fear of being in front of an audience without a script. Maybe that made improv a little less foreign to me when I started doing it in LA. I had never performed improv for a paying audience before I got on Whose Line is it Anyway? in London! So that band got me to LA, and to London, and it really helped with getting on to the show.
It sounds like you like throwing yourself in at the deep end – learning acting in a major stage musical without ever being in one before, learning improv on Whose Line?
I would rather say yes and potentially fail than say no and always wonder how it would have gone. My entire career is basically throwing myself in at the deep end. For Nashville, being onstage at the Grand Old Opry was going to a high level rather quickly. And Whose Line? was intimidating – live improv with some of the fastest minds anywhere, British and American. But I wasn't going to say no, I just jump on in. You always feel that energy inside you – this could go great , or this could go not great, but it's gonna go!
Whose Line? had American and Canadian as well as British performers, even in the UK version. Is improv a particularly North American art form?
That's hard for me to say, because I'm such a fan of so many of the British improvisers. Come on man, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore – it doesn't get any better than that! But you're right to pick up on the North American aspect. If you look back at The Second City, and The Groundlings where I came up, there's a massive contingent from Canada. But I was blown away of the British version too – very quick, off kilter comedy, like Josie Lawrence, and Tony Slattery talking to Clive Anderson – the game hadn't even started and you were laughing already. But the Americans bring something too, I guess we bring another flavor to it. It's like the Blues. The British took that music that started in the Mississippi Delta and had a very American flavor, loved it, but took it to another place that we would not have taken it. Then it came back here and it had a special British flavor with Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. It's a dance between the two sides. The deepest roots of the Blues are from Africa, but America changed it and then the British musicians take it and imbibe it and say ‘yes… AND… ' and they send it back. Maybe the same happened with improv. Good improv is throwing something at the other person, they add some information and throw it back and so on.
The two places have such a shared culture and history that they have a common understanding, but not exactly common – there's enough differences that each side will add something that the other side hears as utterly new, and so on. That's what makes a great relationship. I think we solved it – thank God for this phone call!
My British friend Dan Patterson who started all this Whose Line? madness was wise to search afar, and find the funny where he could find it. And he found the best in this sub genre – Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie and Greg Proops. Maybe the North Americans brought a physicality – Colin impersonating a Tyrannosaurus Rex, or Ryan being a baby foal taking its first steps...
It's a version of improvisational acting that's quite singular. There's a reason that there's not a lot of great improvised comedy on television. The British have found some other versions, like the news commentary shows where you get very funny people to comment on things in an off the cuff way, that's another great format for improv. But in terms of long form improv, that's never worked really well on TV, except Whose Line? Dan found a particular set of games and a particular set of players and particular set of hosts that worked with television, who were able to keep scenes to a certain length, things moving and get to the joke quickly.
You're doing Whose Line? at the Royal Albert Hall – have you performed there before?
Strangely I have, with the Nashville show, two years ago we did three shows there. But this time I won't have a guitar in my hand or some songs written for me. This is amazing, it's the deepest of ends. First of all I have not being doing this for a while. These fine people have been killing it with the improv day in and day out. But even if it doesn't go well for me I know that my good friends will make it even funnier for the audience.
Finally, what's the best thing about being Charles Esten?
Man! I'd say the variety of things I've been able to do combined with the stability of my family. I get to do all these things and go back to my wife who I've been with all the way back from when I was in Buddy. You could have either of those things but miss the other.