1998 and Before


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In 1998, when I graduated from a large public high school in a small Southern town, I still had only limited experience with professional theater — even as an audience member.

 What I did have, though, was an already obsessive love for the stage.

 

 

 George Cruikshank's 1838 illustration of The Artful Dodger

George Cruikshank's 1838 illustration of The Artful Dodger

OLIVER TWIST

Middle School Production

adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens, dir. Vicki Parker

Role: The Artful Dodger

Lylburn Downing Middle School

A non-musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel, Oliver Twist is the first play I can remember performing in. Since my only exposure to Cockney at the time was Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, my accent likely left something to be desired.

Still, when the audience applauded as I left the stage (led off in chains to The Old Bailey), I felt a surge of enchantment with this strange new world.


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WINNIE THE POOH

Middle School Production

adapted from the book by A.A. Milne, dir. Vicki Parker

with Amy Woody

Role: Owl

Lylburn Downing Middle School

Owl, a self-important intellectual, was a real stretch for me.


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ANTIGONE

Middle School Production

by Sophocles, dir. Vicki Parker

with Jenny Parker and Emily Peck

Role: Creon

Lylburn Downing Middle School

Though only in eighth grade, I remember thinking, "It's great to get a first stab at Creon. I'll be able to play this part for years."


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SHENANDOAH

College Production (Musical)

April 13-23, 1994

music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Peter Udell

book by Peter Udell, Philip Rose and James Lee Barrett, dir. Joellen Bland

Role: Robert Anderson

Virginia Military Institute

Shenandoah, written in the final days of the Vietnam War, relates the story of a Virginia farmer struggling to keep his large family free from the ravages of the Civil War.

Virginia Military Institute was still all-male at the time, and though a fourteen-year-old boy like me could wander freely through the VMI barracks, women (like our director, Joellen Bland) were forbidden to enter.

My 100-year-old grandmother insists that seeing me in this role is when she knew I should become an actor.


            

  

 

 

 

BRIGADOON

Community Production (Musical)

1994

music by Frederick Loewe, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

with Agatha Kaplan and Justin Tolley

Role: Harry Beaton

Fine Arts In Rockbridge

Harry Beaton was the first of many tortured outsiders I've played: John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2001), Leo Frank in Parade (2002), the title role in Sweeney Todd (2002), Hunter in Welcome to Nowhere (2007-2009) and Yegor Timoveivich in Dying For It (2014-2015).

I successfully captured something of Harry's angst-ridden inner life. (I was a teenager, after all.) Less successful was my Scottish accent. I'd never heard a real one, and what I ultimately concocted was an unholy cross between French and German.  

Twenty years later, I finally perfected my Scottish accent for Peter and the Starcatcher (2015).


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THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE

Regional Production (Musical)

September 2-17, 1994

music by Robbin Thompson and Carlos Chafin, dir. Randy Strawderman

Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University
at The Lenfest Center for the Performing Arts

A musicalization of Stephen Crane's brutal novel about a young man coming of age on the bloody battlefields of the American Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage was my first professional production.

We were all convinced the show was Broadway-bound. Two decades later, it has yet to make its New York debut — and neither has its volatile director Randy Strawderman. (Only years later did I realize not all professional directors throw chairs.)

Local high school and college kids made up the ensemble, while the principals were played by working actors from Richmond and elsewhere.

Many years later, I ran into our lead, Duke Lafoon, at an audition.  He's still working regularly in theater and television, and you can check out his webpage here.

A recent recording of the musical (with a different cast) is available here.


 Ben with Lesley Larson and Amanda Duff  (photo by Claudia Schwab)

Ben with Lesley Larson and Amanda Duff
(photo by Claudia Schwab)

DIRGE

High School Production

November 17-19 and December 3, 1994

by Jerome McDonough

Role: Jody McKenna

Rockbridge County High School

The first leading role I ever played, Jody McKenna is a poor kid from a broken home. When an altercation with a neighbor turns unexpectedly violent, he finds himself facing the death penalty.

As the play's title suggests, it doesn't end well.

We took home first place in the District Festival Competition, but at the Regional Festival Competition we lost out to — if I remember correctly — a play that featured a lot of umbrella sword fighting.


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BIG RIVER

High School Production (Musical)

1995

music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman

dir. David Sorrells

with Boise Holmes, Molly Quinn and Nate Weida

Role: Ben Rogers

Chapel Hill High School

I joined my dad in North Carolina for the '95-'95 school year, while he was there on sabbatical. Spending sophomore year at CHHS — where we performed in the stunning Hanes Theater — changed my life.  It was the first time I’d met people as deeply passionate about plays and musicals as I was.

After I was kidnapped in Shenandoah, murdered in Birgadoon, slaughtered in Red Badge, and executed in Dirge, my parents were relieved that nothing particularly terrible happened to me over the course of Big River.


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OKLAHOMA!

High School Production (Musical)

1996

music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II

with Scott Speiser, Molly Quinn, and Nate Weida

dir. David Sorrells

Role: Ensemble

Chapel Hill High School

We had a great cast. Our Curly (Scott Speiser), who later became a member of The Blue Man Group, now has a recurring role on Amazon's The Tick, and our Laurie (Molly Quinn) went on to get her master's degree in music and become a professional singer. 

Later that spring, fellow ensemble member Nate Weida wrote and mounted his first full-length musical, Commander Squish.  Scott and Molly were the stars, and I was in awe.  Ten years later, I performed the Scott Speiser role in New York; twenty years later, Nate and I wrote a full-length musical together.

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DREAMWALK

High School Production

1996

by Eddie Kennedy, dir. Linda Gorman

Role: David

Rockbridge County High School

Though heartbroken to leave the artistic oasis of Chapel Hill High, I was excited Linda Gorman had taken charge of the drama program at RCHS. She was smart and dedicated, and despite lackluster support from our mediocre administration, she persisted.

In Dreamwalk, I played a young cancer patient who falls in love with a fellow patient.


 Ben (center) with the cast of  The Man Who Came To Dinner

Ben (center) with the cast of The Man Who Came To Dinner

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER

High School Production

1997

by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, dir. Linda Gorman

with Sam Rude and Justin Tolley

Role: Sheridan Whiteside

Rockbridge County High School

My first leading role in a full-length play, Sheridan Whiteside is a radio celebrity with a mellifluous voice beloved by his adoring listeners and a savage temper feared by his famous friends.

In those days, "Great dribbling cow!" (my first line) seemed like pretty harsh language.  This was before I worked with Tommy Smith.


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CURCULIO

High School Production (Latin) 

August 1997

by Plautus

Role: Therapontigonus Platagidorus

Virginia Governor's School (Latin Academy)

The ancient Roman comedies of Plautus more-or-less defined the comedic types (the wily servant, the horny old man, the callow young lover, the hooker with a heart of gold) that found their way into Commedia dell'Arte and eventually into our present-day comedies and sitcoms.

At Virginia Governor's Latin Academy, an intensive summer Latin program for high school students, we put on Plautus' Curculio, which we performed in the original Latin. I played the braggart soldier Therapontigonus Platagidorus—or, as he's known in the Plautus-inspired A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, "Miles Glorious".


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I NEVER SAW ANOTHER BUTTERFLY

High School Production

1997

by Celeste Raspanti, dir. Linda Gorman

Role: Pavel Friedman

Rockbridge County High School

A play based on children's poems collected from Terezin concentration camp.


Godspell

GODSPELL

High School Production (Musical)

1998

music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by John-Michael Tebelak

dir. Linda Gorman

with Brevin Balfrey-Boyd, Meredith Cox, Valery Estabrook, Jennifer Harris, Brennan Harvey, Kellan Harvey, Tiziana Lopez, Jonathan Mayer, Jenny Parker, Lauren Robbins, Sam Rude, Jeff Schwab, Justin Tolley and Macon Williams

Role: Jesus

Rockbridge County High School

 above, Ben (back center) with the cast of  Godspell  below, Ben with Sam Rude in "All For the Best"

above, Ben (back center) with the cast of Godspell
below, Ben with Sam Rude in "All For the Best"

While a dubious choice for a public high school, Godspell was a fantastic experience. The musical has a quintessentially ragtag glory, a quality probably difficult to achieve in a slick professional production, but that lends itself perfectly to a group of high school students putting on a show.

That’s not to say Linda Gorman hadn’t assembled an extraordinary group of students. Justin later joined the New York NeoFuturists, a group of downtown Manhattan performance artists; Valery’s a Brooklyn-based video and installation artist now; Jenny – who served as Obama’s Chief of Staff for the Department of Housing and Urban Development before becoming a Princeton professor – knew her way around a flap ball change. Sam Rude, my best friend, played Judas; when college pulled us to different corners of the country, we didn't speak again for decades.

Godspell wasn't Mrs. Gorman's first choice. She'd initially proposed A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum, which the administration considered unsuitable, and then Oklahoma!, which they deemed "too risqué". 

Ironically, I'd already done both shows. (Though to anyone not fluent in the language, Plautus’ play probably seems less lascivious in the original Latin).