A tale of five auditions: Who will portray Dickens in Philadelphia?

For the planned year-long celebration of Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, the Free Library of Philadelphia held an open audition to find the best man to portray him. As it turned out, the best man is a woman.

“Spirit! Hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse!”

Thus spoke Ebenezer Scrooge when shown his own tombstone in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and reiterated on Monday morning in the auditorium of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Five actors vied to fill the shoes of “The Inimitable,” as Dickens liked to call himself.

The library has a sizable collection of Dickens artifacts, including letters, original art, his writing desk, and the taxidermied remains of his pet raven, Grip.

For the planned year-long celebration of his 200th birthday, the Free Library held an open audition to find the best man to portray him.

As it turned out, the best man is a woman.

Before Dickens (born Feb. 7, 1812) became one of the greatest Victorian novelists, he was an amateur performer—a mischievous cut-up—with a talent for impressions.

“There was something about his face and his manner, that he was taking you all in as he was speaking to you, and listening to every word,” said audition judge Janine Pollock, head of the library’s rare book department. “The expressions on his face were 1,000 characters.”

Dickens was a popular public speaker as well as novelist, successfully touring America in 1842 and 1867. His reported ease on stage (he packed houses during the American tours) gives impersonators much leeway for hamming it up. So much so that he—or she—may not have to know every detail of Dickens’ biography to pull it off.

Great expectations

“The main thing is someone knowledgeable who can answer questions,” said longtime Ben Franklin impersonator, Ralph Archbold, who also judged the performances.

“Now, given they aren’t going to know the answer to every question, what do they do when they don’t know the answer? They have to come up with something and not look completely lost. That’s important.” Archbold said.

When actor John Baccaro was asked to answer, in character, the question, “What is your pen name?” he had to think on his feet.

“My pen name?” bellowed Baccaro. “I named my pen William Francis Oberholder. He helped me to pen many a book. He was a dear friend, one of my only.”

Of the five people trying out for the part of Dickens, three were women. One of them, by unanimous vote, was the winner: Lisa Litman.

Litman is an education consultant and actress in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. She was the only contestant to come in costume and with a credible London accent.

“I think I can bring my work alive, people reading right and left,” said Litman, staying in character. “Perhaps they would hold real books, although I suppose some of my work could be on those new fancy electronic devices as well, but wherever you read them, they’re going to be marvelous.”

Litman will appear in character throughout 2012 at Dickens-related events at the Free Library. She won a $1,500 prize for the effort.

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