I didn’t see him come up behind me at the restaurant. But Dylan Godwin is just that way—slippery, stealthy.
“Look at you,” he says, eyeing me up and down. “You got this whole Diane Sawyer thing goin’ on.”
I don’t know about all that, but it does reveal that for Godwin, people are observational targets. Subjects are monitored, categorized, memorized, and logged into his great big mental database for later use when he’s creating a character and slipping into a role. Then he adapts them, sculpting them into whatever shape he needs them to be.
You can see just a bit of how this works on a Facebook post for a 2017 Alley Theatre holiday production. In this humorous skit, Godwin is calling his mother to ask her what she wants for Christmas. The woman is matronly and kindly, and warm as spiced cider in a holiday mug. Then you notice she bears a striking resemblance to Godwin.
So good is he at portraying her that his real-life persona begins to feel fake by comparison. It’s as if the mother is real and Godwin is the artifice—and at that point you realize you’re watching a master at work. In the Whoopi Goldberg-on-Broadway vein. The likes of Anna Deavere Smith.
So there’s the proof that Godwin has at least one character in him. And in the Alley’s upcoming production of Fully Committed, which runs from November 26 through December 29, we’ll see a lot more of his characters—40, to be exact. If Godwin can pull this off, it’s almost crazy that they’re putting him on the smaller Neuhaus stage downstairs. How will all those people fit in that intimate space?
Fully Committed is a one-man (or one-woman) multi-headed hydra of a play, written so the Sam character can be played by an actor of either gender—or of no gender, for that matter. Becky Mode’s briskly paced comedy follows one day in the life of a reservations receptionist at New York’s hottest restaurant during the holidays. (Think Rosie Cannonball in Montrose, where it’s still hard to reserve a table.)
During the play’s 63 pages of wall-to-wall dialogue, Godwin will bring his 40 characters to life onstage. There’s the socialite Mrs. Vandevere, the put-upon hostess, the volatile chef, the hysterical Mrs. Sebag, the “Laryngitis Guy,” Gwyneth Paltrow’s assistant, a prep cook from the Dominican Republic, and even Sofia Vergara. And that’s just eight of the army of characters who work at or call in to the restaurant where tables are more coveted than positions on a Democratic debate stage.
Elizabeth Bunch carried her solo show all by herself. So did Todd Waite. But they both just played one character. Now it’s Godwin’s turn. He understudied Waite for the Alley’s Santaland Diaries, but it would take a nuclear holocaust for Waite to miss a show. So Godwin has gone pretty much untested, except for the odd outing where he performed for the Alley staff during the Santaland run.
“I knew I had it in me,” says Godwin, before immediately confessing, “Yes, I’m nervous as hell.” He’s a long way from his humble beginnings in Athens, Texas, with its surprisingly robust theater scene. This is something altogether different.
“This . . . this is a beast,” he says, his eyes opening a little wider (in terror?). “Forty characters, 63 pages long, no breathing room. Santaland has one narrative line going through it. This is a guy answering phones. Every time he answers the phone, it’s a different character. So the narrative is shifted through 40 different people instead of one continuous thought.”
Godwin has had his share of roles, in plays both whip-smart (Good People) and withering (Crimes of the Heart). But no matter the quality of the play or size of the role, he is consistently called out by critics. Houstonia magazine calls Godwin “one of the best and most versatile actors working in Houston now.”
“I draw from my own experience. I extrapolate qualities from this person or that person and repurpose them into something else,” he explains. “You have to make sure you can sustain it for that many shows. You can’t make some crazy vocal choice that you can’t sustain,” he says, demonstrating a gravelly bass before returning to his own speaking voice. “There’s one character that’s like a helmet-haired New York socialite. So I’ve been looking at all the helmet-haired New York socialites, [thinking about] how I can mold them into this sort of singular force that’s familiar to me.” (In addition to teaching at TUTS and directing at HSPVA, one of Godwin’s side gigs is working with the Junior League on their annual gala, so he should have the whole helmet-hair thing covered.)
“Dylan’s a leading man, for sure,” says actor Adam Gibbs, who’s shared the stage with Godwin several times. “But more than anything, he’s a character actor. He finds things other people don’t necessarily see. He brings something new, something different, something unique to his roles. I’ve never seen anybody onstage like him.”
“More than anything, [Godwin] is a character actor. He finds things other people don’t necessarily see. He brings something new, something different, something unique to his roles. I’ve never seen anybody on stage like him.”
Godwin has known Fully Committed’s director, Brandon Weinbrenner (The Humans), for years. His husband went to college with Godwin, so they have a relationship that’s both personal and professional. It gives them a shorthand.
“Dylan’s got his work cut out for him with Fully Committed,” admits Weinbrenner. “I am so thankful to have as hard-working and diligent an actor as Dylan. In fact, over the past couple weeks, Dylan has been leaving me voicemail messages on my cell phone as his different characters. So he will call as Jean-Claude the maître d’ on one day, and Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn the next. It’s been so fun.”
The way Godwin approaches his roles is both grand and granular. He not only sees them in terms of their physicality—the way they move, the way they take up a particular space—but he tries to capture where that person is in their own timeline.
“I always try and connect from a personal space first,” he explains. “[What if] this person were standing in front of a white scrim and I were to backlight them and just see their silhouette? What would I know about that person from that silhouette? That’s kind of where it starts for me. Now fill in that shape, and figure out how that shape causes you to move.”
Once the seed is in the ground, growth occurs.
“What’s interesting about this play is there’s this extra layer where you’re answering your phone and you’re in the office. And then on the other end of the phone is this Manhattan socialite. And maybe she’s got a martini in her hand. So she’s in her own world doing her own thing. You’re on one end doing this, but you may catch the other person painting her fingernails, whereas he’s over here, trying to take the message.
“To be able to do that, you have to learn to know these people you’re portraying intimately. The playwright gives the character, but it’s the actor who gives that character life.”
Godwin is in his second year as an Alley Theatre company member, though he’s been working there for a decade. His stage debut was in a production of Our Town. (Doesn’t it seem like Our Town is everybody’s debut?) At a young-looking 35, he is the youngest member of the venerable Houston company.
“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all morning,” he demurs. “And I just came from therapy, so that’s saying something.”
Godwin’s been in therapy for three years. Although his parents did take him to a therapist when he was younger, his mother sussed out that young Dylan wasn’t really into the whole introspection thing.
“You want to get outta here and go shopping?” his mother asked after an early session.
That therapist is still waiting for their return.
“I’m a big advocate for therapy. It has changed my life,” Godwin admits, settling into one of the restaurant’s well-used sofas. “Just discussing things with someone, when you know you’re not going to upset or hurt their feelings, it frees up your brain in a way that’s incredible. For an actor, that’s gold.”
“Seven years ago, my father died suddenly. Massive heart attack, out of the blue,” Godwin says, his voice quick and clipped, like a snap of the fingers. “I was in the middle of doing Life Could Be a Dream at Stages, and I got a call. ‘You need to come home right now. Your dad’s died.’ So I went home, handled the funeral, stayed a day, and then came back and went right into tech rehearsal for the show.”
His eyes seem to lock on something—not so much a memory, but more like a discovery?
“What’s crazy about that was at my age, my dad looked exactly like I did at this age. And I’m in this play that takes place in the ’60s, which is when my mom and dad first met. And I’m in all these ’60s clothes and, looking back on it now, I couldn’t really see it at the time because I was so lost in grief, but it was really this wonderful, cosmic way of mourning my dad as my dad.”
And this is where that line gets blurred—where one thing begins and then turns into something entirely different. A new person, even. A different person.
“I would pour what I was feeling into that, and even though [the Stages production] was this light jukebox musical, there’s still some pathos there. So I was able to pour that in, to focus on my work. After that, for about six or seven months, I was in a dark, depressed phase because Dad’s death was never a probability that I considered. It’s weird when you lose someone that close to you. It’s like there’s less DNA of you on the planet, and all of a sudden you’re aware of how mortal you are. It took me a while to shake out of it and kind of actualize it and move on.
“I always think about it this way: until someone’s experienced a loss like that, it’s hard to understand it. And it’s the one thing I’ll have in common with a ton of other people. Death is this great unifying factor. It’s a kind of melancholy way to think about it. But it’s a fraternity. You get the most comfort from the people that have been there, and they’ll tell you (although you can’t feel it now) that it will get better. And sometimes it will feel like it was 10 years ago, and sometimes it will feel like it was just yesterday.”
Godwin looks off and, for just a moment, watches the barista behind the counter, and then the man at a small table in the corner hovering over his laptop. They’re all strangers to him, but there’s a connection there, too. A connection that every one of us shares, to some extent—no matter how different we are sexually, politically, racially. There is a strand between us that, if you look, you can sometimes see.
“You know,” Godwin says, bringing his gaze back. “It’s funny how the brain grieves and deals with it.”
“But it’s also a beautiful thing.”
What: Fully Committed
When: November 26–December 29, December 5: ActOUT, a pre-show mixer for our LGBTQ friends
Where: Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
This article appears in the November 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.