For Dooley, acting is ‘a way of living inside great literature’
Fans know him as the man of 1,000 faces.
For nearly a quarter-century, Ray Dooley has been the mainstay of the PlayMakers Repertory Company stage; his body of work, a kaleidoscope of shifting form and muse.
During the 2011–12 season alone, he played nine different characters. He went from Selsdon Mowbray in the 1982 comedy “Noises Off” by English playwright Michael Frayn to three characters in “The Making of the King: Henry IV” (Worcester, Fang and Shallow) and three more in “Henry V” (the Archbishop of Canterbury, Jamy and Burgundy).
That was followed by George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Salter in “A Number,” by English playwright Caryl Churchill, a play set in the near future that addresses the subject of human cloning and identity.
This season, Dooley was the narrator in “An Iliad,” Ergo in Molière ‘s comedy “Imaginary Invalid” and four different characters in “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” (radio host Freddie Fillmore, Peter “Pop” Bailey, Uncle Billy Bailey and Henry Potter) in which the holiday film is performed as a 1940s radio broadcast on Christmas Eve. And he just completed a run as Max in “Cabaret.”
Although Dooley appreciates how his audience sees him, he does not describe himself in quite the same way.
The face, you see, is only the outer shell of a character. Dooley is more interested in revealing – and expressing – the character’s dark secret. What hole, he asks himself, is his character trying to fill? Or, as with the Fisher King of Arthurian legend, what is the wound that will not heal?
Understanding what drives the character and makes him do the things he does is always the starting point of preparation, Dooley said. Finding that is what enables him to inhabit the part, not merely play it.
And it is why he can make himself at home in myriad roles – from the disparate worlds of the classics to sci-fi fantasy, from the works of Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde.
A talent for work
Joe Haj, PlayMakers’ producing artistic director, loves every member of the company, from the seven faculty professionals to the 12 to 16 graduate students who also perform each season.
Each is a spectacular talent, but Dooley occupies a league of his own, Haj said. In fact, Dooley is one reason Haj chose to come to Chapel Hill seven years ago – and a reason he is still here.
“I’ll say it this way: If I was starting a theater anywhere in the country, and had the luxury of having a resident company, the first actor I would call is Ray Dooley,” Haj said. “I mean any actor in the country. Period. That guy has more tools in his belt than any other actor I know.”
In the world of theater, the word “talent” is thrown around, and with it, the notion that some actors are born with talent and others are not. Haj disagrees.
To do what Dooley does takes imagination. It requires knowledge. But most of all, it demands hard work, Haj said.
“I’ve come to understand that the greatest talent you need to have as an actor is a talent for work,“ he said. “It’s a discipline for work. It’s knowing what to work on and how. Ray holds that work sacred.”
‘A concentrated reality’
Dooley began adding tools to his belt before he even knew he would become an actor.
He joined the drama department at his high school on Long Island, but he also played sports. He did not realize that playing baseball would teach him to be a better actor.
“Being on stage is like a baseball player at the pitch who has to be ready to take whatever comes,” Dooley said. “You have to be that attentive to what is going on around you and then react to it. It’s a concentrated reality. It is reality with all the air squeezed out. It’s not life. It’s like life.”
Until recently, he did not think his undergraduate education at Hamilton College, where he double majored in English and theater and drama, had any bearing on what he does professionally.
Accepted into the University of Virginia’s graduate school for literature, he chose instead to attend the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.
“I loved literature, and to me, being an actor was a way of living inside great literature,” Dooley said.
For him, talent includes the ability to inhabit an imaginary world with full personal conviction. That can only be achieved through what Dooley calls “confessional acting” – not showing emotion, but re-experiencing an emotion from his life so it becomes real on stage.
“The best kind of acting, the acting we all aspire to, is that alchemy between thorough preparation of the world you are inhabiting with absolute spontaneity on stage,” he said.
He remains an avid reader, of literature as well as history, philosophy and religion. For Dooley, the texts are user manuals for the human condition.
He has always been drawn to Shakespeare and the bigger questions he asks, and is not bothered by the answers being in rhymed couplets.
“You can get at a deeper truth, the bigger questions, speaking a heightened language than you can with everyday language,” Dooley said. “Shakespeare can capture the truth of something in a way you can’t do on Twitter. You just can’t.”
Getting to home base
When Dooley began training for the theater in the early 1970s, there were regional theaters in almost every major city supporting a resident company of actors. By the mid-1980s, though, those opportunities began to disappear.
“That model is now all but broken,” Dooley said. “There are very few places where one can do that any more, and Chapel Hill is one of them.”
He found his way here in summer 1989, thanks to David Hammond, Dooley’s former teacher at the American Conservatory Theatre, who had become PlayMakers’ artistic director. Hammond called Dooley about performing for the upcoming season, and Dooley did six shows that fall and taught drama courses in January.
“It goes back to the Fisher King and the Parsifal legend and this notion that ‘he who seeks shall not find,’” Dooley said. “I came here thinking I would do one season and head back to New York. Before I knew it – without looking for it – I found exactly what I was looking for.
“It was a matter of one door opening, and the next door opening, and the next door after that.”
Suddenly, he said, it had become a life, and a wonderful, rewarding one. When Dooley joined the company 24 years ago, it was like becoming part of a team. Through the years, the team turned into his family. And Chapel Hill became home.
“People come together in this space and sit in the dark as a community and watch an event,” Haj said. “What they may not realize is that they are watching a group of artists who are themselves a neighborhood tied together with shared ideas and values.”
Dooley served as department chair for nearly six years and currently is in charge of the graduate program in acting.
He is an outstanding example to young actors, not only as a teacher and performer, but as a person who understands how to be “confident in one’s gift, but humble in the art,” Haj said.
“He wears his success and his great talent as a loose garment,” Haj said. “He participates in the life of this community by being part of it, not above it. He doesn’t strut around like a star.”
Dooley is active in his church. He belongs to a local book club and a running club. He said nothing is more gratifying than being stopped at the grocery store or at church by people saying how much they enjoyed one of his performances.
They also remind him how lucky he is.
“I like to say I have the best job in the country in my field because I think I do,” Dooley said. “I don’t take it for granted for a day.”