Part Jake Esau, part Mr. Dickens
At Large in Ballard: Character actor for all seasons
From Random House Dictionary of the English Language. Copyright 1987:
"Stentorian, adjective, very loud or powerful in sound, usually describing a voice, from Homer’s Iliad, Stentor, a Greek herald with a loud voice."
Who would use the word stentorian to describe their own voice? The answer is a man who describes himself as a character actor for all seasons, but who currently refers to himself in third person as Mr. Dickens.
February 7, 2012 marks the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Dickens. Although character actor Jake Esau realizes this is a bigger deal in England or New York City his mission is for Seattle to appropriately honor Dickens the man and writer, well beyond the season of “A Christmas Carol.”
Esau contacted me last fall with a formidable list of all the venues where he would be performing in character as Mr. Dickens. By the time he completes his current bookings, just days after the 200th birthday, he will have performed 23 times since November. On January 24th he will be presenting “Dickens & Dessert,” an event open to the public, at the Ballard NW Senior Center at 1 p.m. The $5.00 cost will include “a combo of three favorite desserts,” but Esau admitted that none of them will be the flaming plum pudding described by Dickens “as a speckled cannonball.”
In the course of trading many voice messages with Mr. Esau, I came to recognize his voice quite well, even the time it was ravaged by a miserable cold. It was in the next message that Esau assured me he was almost “restored to his stentorian tones.”
Esau talks like this all the time, tossing off words like mellifluous and ubiquitous in various bass-baritone octaves. He has been performing one man shows with a range of 40+ characters for three decades, with his Mr. Dickens dating back to 1984. Esau has lived in the Seattle area since 1992; the Greenwood neighborhood is his base and Couth Buzzard his local bookstore (he’s a Wednesday night Open Mic regular there).
Esau was a teacher disillusioned “by the need to attend children’s behavior” versus “teaching them great things.” When he saw Vincent Price on television performing as Edgar Allen Poe he realized his own passion. Thus began his years of research into various literary luminaries and one person shows. When necessary he would supplement his income by doing telephone work, having what he called the “voice for business telephone sales, never the kind that would call you during dinner.”
Esau was mostly able to make his living performing educational characters at schools, libraries, retirement homes, etc. but his former venues can no longer afford to pay for his appearances. “I don’t even think decimated is the right term,” Esau told me about his inability to support himself by acting. Now 65 he receives Social Security, which allows him to do what he loves most, embodying great writers.
Esau slips in and out of different voices during our meeting, not so much quoting Dickens on the vile habits of Americans vis-à-vis chewing tobacco, as channeling Mr. Dickens. He fluffs his beard, changes his glasses and demonstrates the comb-over he’ll do on his hair. During the interview there’s also P.T. Barnum and Sherlock Holmes.
Before parting Esau wants me to convey to readers the reason for his Dickens character beyond his own love of delivering literary works to audiences in character. “There’s an untold story to why I’m doing all this,” he said. “Dickens underwent these public tours because, yes they were lucrative, and he loved the audience contact, but he was also trying to secure financial stability for his sons. His health was rapidly declining. He had been advised by his doctors not to continue the tour; it was too taxing.”
Esau said, using his indoor stentorian voice, “And yet he continued. He continued.”
“It hastened his death,” Esau said pausing almost as if he too would be too would need to be helped from the stage, one leg dragging from a possible small stroke before his fatal stroke in June 1870. “This was brave and valiant,” Esau resumed, regaining strength, “Perhaps foolhardy.”
Then sounding ordinary for the first time in all of our conversations, Esau as Esau said, “At least that’s a part of why I’m doing it.”
“Dickens & Dessert” is scheduled for 1 p.m. January 24th at Ballard NW Senior Center, 5429 32nd NW. Cost is $5.00, call 206.297.0403 to reserve a place. The event is open to the general public. http://www.nwseniorcenter.org/