Theater Thursday, Featured

Theater Thursday: Jack the Ripper

Acting hasn't been a part of my life for too long, but in the last few years it has been incredibly influential and undeniably eye-opening. As I approach my eleventh production in almost five years, the conversations I've had and the memories I've shared with my theater family have made me realize I don't remember all of my previous productions as well as I had thought. So this blog series seeks to delve deep into the experiences I've had thus far, as few as they may be when compared to those my many people I've acted beside.

The third post in this series will explore my first large-scale production in Brainerd Community Theater's Fall of 2013 show Jack the Ripper: The Monster of Whitechapel, in which I played Dr. Forbes Winslow...

Bearing All - Equus Auditions

The seasonal lineup of shows for Brainerd Community Theater always seem to be changing. Patrick Spradlin, as many creative directors, often has a number of projects he would enjoy undertaking, but as time goes on and circumstances change it is made clear that such projects won't be entirely possible, at least not in the capacity which was originally expected. I have shared many conversations with him over the years in which we are discussing shows for the upcoming season, but when the time comes to start actual planning, there are entirely different shows on the schedule. I'm sure this is the norm with any community theater organization.

There was one such conversation with Patrick in which he said that he was going to try to cast a show called Equus. I had never heard of Equus before, but apparently it was a gripping, emotional drama that involved nudity. Patrick was concerned about pursuing this project for a few reasons - one because of the potential pushback it could receive from both the college and the community, and two because of the ability to cast the production. It required - at its core - a male and female who appeared of specific ages and were comfortable acting with degrees of nudity. In my subsequent research of the show it became clear that the nudity was both tasteful and necessary to the plot of the show. Without it, Equus wouldn't have the proper gravity which it demanded. Removing the nudity would be to sell the story short.

I could tell from our brief talk that this show was important to him. It was a pipe dream that he had the rare opportunity to attempt to realize. I cannot speak - on any level - of the politics behind putting it on. I can only guess at the many discussions Patrick had with various members of Central Lakes College's faculty to determine if the play was appropriate for that venue, or if it would elicit some sort of negative response from our community of theater-goers (which, in 2013, didn't seem as diverse as they do at the time of writing this article. From my own, relatively narrow, perspective).

I then resolved to audition. It was a strong sign of my own personal development - I was 25 at the time, just a couple years out of a long and misguided post-high-school period dominated by a single, toxic relationship. I had come to the decision after a brief discussion about it with Laura, a decision that brought many concerned questions and misunderstanding conjectures from my family when I informed them of it. But the audition itself was simple enough. The show ended up not being produced, both to my disappointment and relief. I assume that it was cancelled because, of those who auditioned, nobody had both the acting chops to pull off the meaty dramatic role and had the body type to fit the characters. I never inquired further with Patrick about it, and I never felt I needed to. For my own take away, I'm quite certain that I both did not have the desired physique, and also was simply too new, too inexperienced, to have done the role justice.

But with that out of the way, now we can focus on the immensely enjoyable train wreck that was Jack the Ripper: The Monster of Whitechapel.

  Myself with Daryn testing the blood and gore.

Myself with Daryn testing the blood and gore.

Jack the Ripper: The Monster of Whitechapel

Train wreck isn't entirely accurate, and nor does it do justice to the amount of hard work that everyone put into it. As you'll see in this article, there were simply some things that were out of our hands - those of the cast and of the crew - that all came to a head during the performances of this show.

Jack The Ripper: The Monster of Whitechapel is a comedic portrayal of the morbid events that plagued London in 1888 and featured three different endings. I was cast as Dr. Forbes Winslow, the physician who works closely with Commissioner Charles Warren to both protect the young Angela Ellison from becoming the next victim, and to uncover the mastermind behind the string of grisly murders.

It was evident early on in the rehearsal process that this show was going to be a fun and exciting production. It featured a large cast, giving me the opportunity to return to the stage beside Bri Keran, Mitchell Dallman, and Nicole Rotheleutner, among others, but it also gave me the chance to work with accomplished actors I hadn't before - the inspiring Kevin Yaeger from Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Glass Menagerie, and Bri's talented and eccentric brother Shane Keran, who had a knack for improve and impeccable comedic timing. It was nothing but fun as we all found our accents, and as the weeks went on and lines were solidified we began exploring our interactions on stage - who reacted to what and how, what was I doing while they were speaking, etc. This show really gave us actors a chance to play, to thoroughly enjoy ourselves, and Patrick's decision to portray it as a comedic melodrama - our actions and reactions were larger than life, and it was truly a memorable experience.

  Dress Rehearsals

Dress Rehearsals

Talented Performances, Unreliable Tech - Live Performances in Fall of 2013

The tech, on the other hand, was less cohesive. The production not only featured a large cast, but also called for a lot of moving parts, and Patrick sought to really explore what we could do with the show - spraying blood, splattering guts, explosions of sparks, gunshots, moving sets, smoke, fog, everything the theater could muster. It was ambitious, but I think the more accurate word to describe it was unreliable. Every night of the final rehearsals, and especially during performances, had actors on edge, wondering which piece of tech would fail us that night. One night had sound cues that were well off their mark, another night saw our gun not firing, and still another night turned one actor's descent down some incredibly narrow stairs into an unexpected tumble.

In spite of all this, the various conversations I've had with members of that show have revealed that a number of us would like to revisit Jack the Ripper. The show was fun and exciting, the script was hilarious, the multiple endings was an interesting twist, and it would be cool to approach it again after knowing where we ran into issues before, and how we could better those this time around.

  Shane Keran and myself on final dress before opening night.

Shane Keran and myself on final dress before opening night.

Most importantly, however, was the fact that, with Jack the Ripper, I was finally starting to grasp the level of professionalism that others were bringing to their performances. With Dearly Departed, and with much of Ripper, I had approached community theater much like I approach game mastering an RPG for my friends - do the work, get the audience's buy-in, but don't worry about maintaining verisimilitude the entire time. Everyone involved knows the truth about what is going on, and you can't expect them to become so enthralled as to forget that it is simply a group of adults playing make-believe.

But in working with other principal actors, namely Shane, Bri, Mitchell, and Kevin, I came to realize that acting - even unpaid, community theater acting - should be approached as if it were being done with the same professionalism as if it were a Broadway production. The audience, after all, is coming to see a show that they paid money to see. And even if the audience is aware of the fact that we're just a bunch of adults playing make believe for two hours, we have to do the show more justice than that. For those two hours, we have to become the characters, and live in the world of the show. If the spray of blood comes out on stage as more of a soft trickle, react to it as your character, don't cover your face with your palm in embarrassment as an actor. This is a labor of love, to maintain this fourth wall and to live as our roles. It is not a group of friends role-playing for shits and giggles. It is a group of committed performers willing to sacrifice their time and devote their effort to the craft, for the purposes of providing the audience with a few hours of escape.

This ideal was brought to light during my time on stage with Jack the Ripper, but it would truly be tested in my performance with my first drama in The Rimers of Eldritch, which you can read all about in next week's post!