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Providence actor to show audience Lincoln's human side in free performance
March 30, 2012
To many Americans, Abraham Lincoln is a larger-than-life figure, a stern and serious moral force. His intelligence and integrity notwithstanding, historians understand another side of him: a warm, engaging, archly funny storyteller.
It is this authentic, human side of Lincoln that Providence actor, director and playwright Robb Dimmick has been portraying for nearly 30 years. He will bring his one man play, “A Lincoln Portrait,” to CCRI at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 31, in the Bobby Hackett Theater at the Knight Campus in Warwick. The performance is free and open to the public.
“What I really wanted to do more than anything was bring Lincoln down to a human level,” Dimmick said about the origins of his portrayal. “We still idolize him at a level that is probably not healthy, and I wanted people to see that he was a human being, he was fallible, and he made mistakes.”
Dimmick’s portrayal is drawn from firsthand accounts of Lincoln and from the words of the man himself. When playing Lincoln, Dimmick speaks in a manner that is friendly and even a little folksy, as historians believe the president himself did.
“He was a great wit and a remarkable raconteur,” Dimmick said. “There are wonderful quotes from him as well as yarns and stories that he told.”
“A Lincoln Portrait” is part historical and part personal. Dimmick, as Lincoln, discusses the president’s childhood, his romances and experiences as a father, and his political career.
He has been taking the show on the road since 1983. He first started working on it while he was in college in the 1970s, gathering quotes and anecdotes about Lincoln’s life after being attracted to his “depth of character, emotion and passion.”
He was a double major in theater and education, and wanted to use drama for educational purposes. “I basically used theater as a way to teach and as a way to engage people in the arts,” he said.
He found plenty of information on how Lincoln looked and moved and spoke, but the actual sound of his voice presented a problem: Obviously there are no recordings of a president who served in the mid-19th century, but contemporary accounts describe his voice as high-pitched and steeped in his Kentucky and southern Illinois roots.
“The voice had to be between the truth of the matter, which was a high-pitched, twangy voice, and the way that an audience, when they saw Lincoln, would expect him to sound. I’ve found a middle ground there that has worked,” Dimmick said.
“A Lincoln Portrait” was complete by 1981. The first round of performances was funded by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and took place in historic buildings in Rhode Island in which Lincoln himself actually spoke or had associations with during his life.
Since that time, Dimmick has performed in many schools, at special events, and at Civil War era historical re-enactments.
Dimmick has a master’s degree in education from Plymouth State University. He has taught master classes at Brown University, Plymouth State, the Providence Performing Arts Center, and other sites throughout New England, curated exhibits at Brown and Johnson & Wales universities and is a co-founder of a Providence-based vocal performance project called “Jazz is a Rainbow.”
Dimmick said he hopes audience members at his CCRI performance will leave with an appreciation of Lincoln as a historical figure and a man.
“I think the one thing that people will be delighted by and surprised about is the wealth of humor in the piece,” Dimmick said. “It’s what I as an actor use to engage the audience and it’s what Lincoln used in everything he did in his political career.”