Kurt Sutton sports a white suit a few sizes too big for him when when he plays Samuel Clemens — better known as Mark Twain.
He’s been channeling the famous writer on stage for eight years on his national tour, “An Evening With Mark Twain,” which comes to the Concord City Auditorium on Wednesday, Nov. 28. But Sutton had been preparing for this role for ages. Twenty years ago, in fact, before he retired from working as a teacher and business owner, his wife bought him the white suit that Twain was famous for. This would be the suit he’d wear, she told him.
“I talked so much about doing it [impersonating Twain], that my wife had a suit custom-made for me. But she got it three sizes bigger than I am. She said that it was because I was going to get fat when I got older. Plus, a bigger suit makes you look older,” he said. When he’s telling the anecdote that Mark Twain told of learning to ride a bicycle as a 70-year-old, the outfit just adds to the performance.
Maybe the suit helps him get into character, but Twain’s material is so good that Sutton said he doesn’t need much help for his performances.
“He was the first stand-up comic,” Sutton said. “Comics today, it’s a short story with a punchline. Twain was a humorist; he told longer stories that had satire about a politician, or whatever the subject was that he talked about, and it made you think. And while you were thinking, you realized that what he said was really funny.”
Even 150 years later, his material works.
“When he told stories about people’s greed or happiness, he was always just spot on. Human nature hasn’t changed much for 10,000 years; we still hate each other and love each other and have the same emotions. He could just capture them in words and images, and he spoke the same things that you could relate to as a young person,” Sutton said.
Sutton’s two-act production is set up like the kind of lecture tour that famous authors used to take across the country. “During the 1800s, this was the only way that people got to see famous people like Emerson and Tennyson, Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe,” he said. “To see the actual writer in real life, that was a big thing. … People have always been like that. They want to see famous people. It’s just like when you’re going to see Justin Bieber.”
Ninety percent of the stories he shares are those that Clemens wrote, comments he made, quotes from him. The other 10 percent are the segues between the pieces, the transitions Sutton created to go from one story to another.
Sutton studied Mark Twain like most people did in school. He read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But he became more interested in the man behind the pseudonym, Samuel Clemens, and after graduating from Reinhardt College at the University of Georgia, he continued to study Clemens.
Lots of people know Mark Twain, but not as many people know Samuel Clemens, Sutton said.
“Mark Twain was just part of what Samuel Clemens did. But Samuel Clemens, you’ll see that he was a writer, a steamboat pilot, a gold miner, an inventor, an investor.... He did all kinds of things besides write Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn,” Sutton said.
Some people will think he’s copying Hal Holbrook, an American actor famous for his Mark Twain impersonations, Sutton said, but his performance is different from Holbrook’s. His intention is not to impersonate the famous writer.
“I’m not an impersonator. I’m an interpreter. I interpret it the way that I think he’d like it to be interpreted,” he said.
Unlike Holbrook, he also will be playing both Clemens and Twain on Wednesday night. How will you know when he’s playing which role? For one, Twain never played music in public. That was something he kept for private guests. Few people know that Clemens was a musician, and in the show, he’ll play music from the time period. Twain will be the guy telling a humorous story from one of his books, Roughing It, about a buffalo hunt, and Clemens will follow with the song “Buffalo Gal.” The second act also pays tribute to Clemens’ serious side, with a dramatic rendition of Huck Finn’s trip down the Mississippi with Jim the runaway slave.
Sutton loves touring the country “like a rock star” with his wife and makes a trip to New Hampshire almost every year, always polishing his production. One of his favorite quotes from Twain is, “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not, but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.” It’s a quote that you appreciate more as you age, he said.
“When you’re older, you’ll understand,” he said.