In 2002, American theater very nearly lost Bill Camp, one of its most stirring and visceral actors. For years he’d dreamed of leaving the profession, Camp says over a large Americano at a Village café, his fourth coffee of the morning, frustrated by the endless rounds of auditions, the scramble for unrewarding roles. “I just had a very sour taste in my mouth about the whole thing.”
So Camp split for the West Coast, working first as a restaurant cook, then as a garage mechanic. After two years, a new production of Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul—for which he’d already won an Obie—lured him back. Then he left for five more months before director Robert Woodruff encouraged him to return again. He has worked more or less steadily since then, though he warns that he might leave acting at any time. “I have that power,” he says. “I’ve made that choice.”
He isn’t going anywhere at this moment, thanks to Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Notes From Underground, a piece Camp stars in and adapted with Woodruff, from Dostoyevsky’s 1864 novella. It begins previews at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on November 7 and largely explains why Camp now sports a bushy beard worthy of a Russian boyar.
Camp plays the underground man, a retired government clerk and one of modern literature’s most compelling and least sympathetic characters, who spends his days scribbling away in a grubby hovel, attempting acute self-scrutiny. Dyspeptic, sclerotic, and thoroughly unamiable, he is an unsavory host, yet the audience will spend two hours in his company, barring the few people who usually stalk out midway through each performance. Their discomfort is understandable. As the Los Angeles Times explained, in a glowing review of the show, here “psychological turmoil isn’t just depicted—it’s incited.”
The project developed over the course of two years, including a residency at Yale Rep. Though he now enjoys his acting work, it was the disgust he once felt for the theater, the loathing that forced him to leave it, that allows him insight into the character, who experiences so much repulsion toward himself and his world. “That guy exists in me,” says Camp. “He exists in all of us.”
So he must exist in Woodruff as well, though Camp portrays him as “a wicked fun guy.” Woodruff eased Camp’s return to the theater, nudging him to work with Mark Wing-Davey on The Provok’d Wife at ART in 2004 and casting him in Edward Bond’s Olly’s Prison, also at ART, the next year. Camp describes their work on Notes as “a blast. I love being in a room with him, he makes me laugh so hard.” This may come as something of a surprise to those who have seen Woodruff’s plays, which tend toward the rigorous and chilly.
But as Camp tells it, there’s joy in the rehearsal room and his relationship with Woodruff and his co-stars, actor-musicians Michaël Attias as Apollon and Merritt Janson as Liza. It’s “amazingly challenging and so collaborative,” he says. “I feel like I’m contributing to what’s being made and not just being another puppet.” The underground man introduces himself saying, “I am a sick man. I am a wicked man.” But as the actor smiles into his Americano, it’s clear that playing him makes Bill Camp a very happy one.