WASHINGTON – Without missing a beat, actor William Diggle changed character from the serious Detective James McDevitt to the passive Mary Surratt.
In high-pitched southern woman’s accent he recited Surratt’s testimony on the night of the Lincoln assassination. Diggle did not break character or even crack a smile while his tour group giggled in enjoyment at the shift.
“He is very businesslike about it, but he also has a great sense of humor,” Kristin Fox, director of programming at Ford’s Theatre, said.
Diggle, 37, from Silver Spring, Md., plays McDevitt for the the theater’s History on Foot walking tour. On the two-hour, 1.5 mile journey, Diggle recounts McDevitt’s experience as a first responder to Lincoln’s assassination.
“I pretend it is 1865 the whole time. I tell people to not get mud on themselves and to watch out for the cows that are roaming around D.C.,” Diggle said.
To bring everyone on the tour into this world is not easy. Fox said that anyone who plays McDevitt has to engage everyone from eighth graders to excited older history buffs.
“I was definitely glad when he agreed to do this. You cannot just hire any actor to play Detective McDevitt,” Fox said. “They have to be able to interact with the public in a way that normal stage actors do not.”
Despite having a love for history, being a historical interpreter was not something Diggle ever intended to do. After graduating with a degree in economics from Wake Forest University, he traveled the country as an actor. He worked in 16 states in five years before receiving his master’s degree in acting from the University of Houston.
“I realized that I had only taken one acting class up to that point and was doing it professionally,” Diggle said.
He eventually returned to Washington and fell into historic roles. He has played Thomas Jefferson in “1776” and Abraham Lincoln in “Chasing George Washington.”
“There is a byproduct of being a tall, big-voiced man in Washington, D.C.,” Diggle said. “Thomas Jefferson has to be over 6 feet 2 inches, so by process of elimination I become Thomas Jefferson.”
“I am someone who likes variety. One thing I discovered in undergrad is that I am not someone who enjoys sitting,” Diggle said. “I think I knew that in kindergarten.”
On the 150 tours Diggle has led, there has been no lack of stimuli. Once, he witnessed a mugging and had to guide his tour group away from it. Sirens often interrupt his narrative, or he sees a friend on the street. He has to respond to each distraction as if it were 1865.
“I have learned to negotiate it, but the over stimuli when you are trying to pick a word out of your head is very difficult,” Diggle said. “But now I have done it so many times that you could be screaming in my ear and I could still recite it perfectly.”
However, the role took some getting used to.
“There is that initial sort of realization when you are walking through the streets of D.C. that people are staring at me,” Diggle said.
The shock wore off, and playing McDevitt became a fulfilling role. With more well-known historical characters, such as Thomas Jefferson, Diggle said people have certain expectations of his portrayal. McDevitt gives him room to play.
“My detective is very serious. He does not ever smile, not even when children are being precious and cute,” Diggle said. “Other detectives will be a little more jovial and tell more topical jokes. That is our choice.”
While Diggle said he has a head for storing useless facts, Fox said playing historical roles was part of his calling.
“Actors do a lot of research for any role. Playing Detective McDevitt gives him an opportunity to share that research,” Fox said. “There are times on the tour when they are just walking between locations and he can answer question. He definitely has the knowledge to answer them well.”
Reach reporter Sarah Fulton at [email protected] or 202-408-1492. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
Download photos: McDevitt.zip