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Nashville Scene Silent Witness

Nashville actor/writer creates inspiring stage production from early film star's life story

By Angela Wibking

JUNE 12, 2000:  In today's world, film actors and directors rise to star status in less time than it takes to screen their latest project--and they fall just as quickly. Yet Charlie Chaplin's appeal remains undimmed after more than 70 years. Filmmakers still revere, emulate, and steal shamelessly from his works. Moviegoers remain enthralled by the silent classics Chaplin made in the 1920s, as well as his sound films of the 1930s and '40s.

For Nashville actor/writer Brian Hull, Chaplin is more than a film legend. He is an example of a child's triumph over adversity--a triumph that Hull wants his own kids to know more about. In Hull's case, those kids include not only his own young son and daughter, but the thousands of children who come to Metro Public Library branches each year to see the original stage shows written and directed by Hull.

Since 1998, Hull has held a full-time position as resident artist/children's program specialist with the library system. In that time he has adapted several popular children's books and folktales for the stage, including Tomas and the Library Lady and Anansi the Spider. Hull's latest work, however, is based on his own research and imagination, and it uses live actors, shadow puppets, music, dance, and film footage to chart Chaplin's rise from a broken home and impoverished childhood to superstardom in Hollywood. It is the first in a series of plays that Hull plans to write for young audiences on well-known people who have succeeded in spite of great hardship.

"The show begins with Chaplin's early years, performing with his mother in London music halls," explains Hull, who also stars as the adult Chaplin in the play. "His first stage performance was at age 5 when he stepped in for his mother, who had a nervous breakdown onstage and couldn't finish the song she was singing," In the show, Chaplin's stage debut is conveyed through shadow puppetry and a recorded soundtrack that features Hull's 7-year-old son Chaplin as the singing voice of his namesake.

Naming his son after the film star is part of Hull's longtime fascination with Chaplin. "I've always been a fan," he says. "Back when Richard Attenborough was making Chaplin [the 1992 film that starred Robert Downey Jr. in the title role], I tried to get an audition. Attenborough and his casting agent were amazingly nice and they actually wrote me back, though I didn't get to read for the film." When the film's release date coincided with Hull's wife's due date, though, the couple decided Chaplin's surname was the obvious choice for their new son.

Hull's show also traces Chaplin's years in the Lambeth Workhouse, where he and his half-brother Sidney were placed when their mother's mental health problems escalated. It was a time, Hull points out in the show, when Chaplin was so destitute that he shared a pair of shoes with his brother, but it was also a time when he taught himself to read and write. "Then the show moves on to his joining the Karno Troupe, a pantomime and clown company that brought him to America and to the attention of Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios," Hull says. "There we see him create the Little Tramp character, and later we show his growing frustration with the creative limitations of the early films." The play continues with Chaplin's career as he leaves Sennett to create his own films, including The Gold Rush and City Lights. Portions of those films are recreated onstage in Hull's play. "The show is really about storytelling and using writing and creativity to succeed," the playwright says of the show's message for kids.

Last year, when Hull began developing the play, he recalled the infamous Broadway musical about Chaplin penned by Anthony Newley in the early 1980s. The Chaplin estate, which rigorously guards the use of all Chaplin images and copyrighted material, had denied Newley the right to use Chaplin's most famous character, the Little Tramp, and the musical was a critical and financial fiasco. Still, Hull wanted to find out more about some of the music used in the show, and he started an Internet search for songs from the ill-fated musical. "I kept being forwarded to different addresses and ended up at Bliss House, the Chaplin licensing agency in England," he says. "From there I was sent to the Association Chaplin in Paris, France, and I asked them about doing a kid's show about Chaplin. To my surprise I got an e-mail back from them requesting a copy of my play."

Hull complied and sent a copy of My Name is Chaplin and got an immediate response. "They said, 'We have read the script and think it is very sweet and it is, of course, approved,'" he recalls. "They were really very helpful and shockingly nice about everything. They even suggested certain songs--not the ones from the musical--and piano music to use." Chaplin's own signature tune "Smile" is featured in the show, along with "You Can Make Your Own Happy Ending," an original song written by Hull and Sarah Hart. And unlike the Broadway musical, the association also approved Hull's use of the Little Tramp character and other Chaplin images in his play.

If Hull had any doubts about the appeal of Chaplin's silent-film style to today's media-saturated kids, the response from children who attended a preview performance in May put them to rest. "They laughed at everything, especially the scenes where we recreate scenes from Chaplin's silent movies," he says. "Most of all, though, I was surprised at how quiet and attentive they were. Kids today are so bombarded with noise and frenetic activity in films and television, it's exhausting for them. I think they need a break from all that."

In fact, after that preview performance, Hull received letters from teachers and drawings from young audience members expressing their delight with the show. He forwarded some of these to the Association Chaplin in France and received another e-mail from them. "They wrote to say how pleased they were that the children enjoyed a show about Chaplin in 'this age of Pokemon,'" Hull says.

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