Todd Blakesley has been dabbling in and studying the art of theater his entire life, mostly in San Diego. He’s acted in plays at Moxie, Intrepid Shakespeare, San Diego Repertory Theatre, North County Repertory Theatre, read with dozens of playwrights, and when he’s not acting or reading, he’s worked as a dramaturg developing new projects.
In the 1970s, Blakesley even owned his own small theater, the Crystal Palace in Mission Beach, where he and colleagues wrote and produced original work for five years.
In all those years of artistic stewardship, it never once occurred to Blakesley to take on the role of Truman Capote. After all, at a full 7 inches taller than the 5 foot 3 inch — but larger-than-life — late celebrity novelist, he never really seemed to “fit the bill.” That is until this year, when friend and director Derek Livingston suggested he try out for Diversionary Theatre’s upcoming one-man show, “Tru.”
“In many ways, casting for a one-person show differs little from casting a multi-character show,” Livingston said. “However, I have to make sure that the actor has a natural facility for storytelling and a chemistry that reaches into the audience as opposed to just a chemistry with another actor or actors. Further, that actor has to have a theatrical presence to hold our attention while also being honest enough that we believe him.”
Livingston said he’d worked with Blakesley long enough to know he might have what it takes.
“Todd is much larger than Truman, has a deep voice, and has sported facial hair for decades,” Livingston said. “But my casting instinct told me that he had qualities in him that could be Truman.”
Capote, an unabashed and very flamboyant public figure who was openly gay before anyone was comfortable with it, lived his life out loud and mostly in people’s faces. In a television biography about him, the narrator said, “He wrote some of the best known books of the 20th century, but in the end, he was his own greatest creation. A self-styled celebrity who loved the spotlight.”
“It was interesting to have somebody that you can actually study and read about and get in on his thinking, listen to him talk and see his mannerisms,” Blakesley said. “But all I really try to do up there is approximate those and be consistent about it, because what’s really the struggle is to get inside — what’s the heart of the man? What’s driving him? That’s what the real task is.”
“Tru,” written by Jay Presson Allen, was originally performed on stage by acclaimed theater, film and television actor Robert Morse in 1989, just five years after Capote’s untimely death at the age of 59.
Allen has said she based the script for “Tru” on “the words and works of Truman Capote.” Blakesley said that while studying Capote, he found that Allen clearly sourced Liz Smith columns, interviews Capote did for “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” excerpts from his unfinished “Answered Prayers” novel, and from a biography of Capote published two years after he died.
“Part of the challenge was understanding the patchwork of ideas and stories that are linked together to make this play,” Blakesley said. “Why did she pull that? Where did that come from? It’s not always so clear until you get into his life.”
The play is set in Capote’s New York City apartment, located in the United Nations Plaza, on the days leading up to Christmas. It is just months after a chapter from his unfinished novel, “Answered Prayers” ran in Esquire magazine and caused a firestorm in the press and among social circles. The excerpt was rife with fiction based directly on gossip he overheard at “La Cote Basque,” a NYC lunch and dining spot that attracted the elite. The backlash was immediate.
“It’s one thing to spread gossip and tell stories,” Blakesley said. “It’s another to put it in print for the entire nation to see.”
Morse played Capote to rave reviews on stage. Toby Jones played him in the independent film, “Infamous.” Philip Seymour Hoffman received an Academy Award for his performance in “Capote.” But Blakesley won’t be comparing himself to any of those performances when he takes the Diversionary stage this month.
“It’s not about doing an impersonation, it’s not about getting it absolutely exact, because that’s not the issue,” Blakesley said. “The issue is what’s happening to this man at this time in his life?
“This is nine years after ‘In Cold Blood,’ three months after the offending chapter of ‘Answered Prayers’ was published in Esquire, and it’s Christmas, which is a time that has a lot of significance for him,” Blakesley continued. “He’s been kind of shunned by, not all, but a great many of his friends that he would always hang out with, so he’s somewhat alone and abandoned. It makes for a really interesting soup for conflict.”
Blakesley said the conflicts are all within Capote himself, which are displayed on stage through phone conversations and Capote’s own bantering with himself, all the while telling anecdotes and funny stories of his life.
“That’s what makes it exciting,” he said.
Livingston, who is also an actor, said he is the type of director that he, as an actor, appreciates; one that will seek and value artistic input from his actors, but remains firm with his vision.
“I hope the audience walks away feeling that after two days with Truman — Act One takes place on Dec. 23 and Act Two takes place on Dec. 24 — they have a sense of his whole life, and that they feel a great deal of empathy for this titan of American literature, but not as a titan, as a human being.
“I also hope they walk away admiring Todd’s ability to create a multi-dimensional character and hold their attention for 90 minutes.”
After spending his own life championing LGBT causes, Livingston said he recognizes that Capote was anything but an activist, but feels his story is still important.
“His open life and his public notoriety [were] part of paving the way for the better life all of us have now,” he said. “When I was 20 and refusing to date men who wouldn’t hold my hand in public, it was because I believed that our cowering was part of what was standing in the way of our achieving rights. Truman, as he says in the play, was ‘always right out there.’ This play gives us a chance to see someone who, despite his flaws, is worthy of examining because in some ways, he was one of our pioneers.”
“Tru” begins previews Nov. 20, opens Nov. 29, and runs through Dec. 21. Diversionary Theatre is located at 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. For tickets visit diversionary.org or call 619-220-0097.
—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at email@example.com