When I was the ripe ol’ age of 18, I met Richard Gwartney. He was a director in town that I had not had the pleasure of working with yet. He was in need of an actor to step in for a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at City Park Players. He had lost his Hamlet and asked if I would be interested in stepping into the role. After our first conversation I knew this was someone I needed to work with. So, I found a way to make the schedule work and joined the show. That singular chance meeting gave me one of my truest friends and mentors. It wasn’t long after that first show together, that Richard asked me about doing this funny two-man show with him as a fundraiser for Empty Space Players.
Richard invited me to come over to where he and Tommy lived to read through the script. It all seemed like such an honor. Here was this man that I knew was very respected in the community for his artistry and talent who thought that I was talented. I learned so much about how and why we do theatre during this process. I was so nervous about playing the role because he had done the show previously with Tom Tift, a local actor who had moved away. I heard stories of their brilliant production. It all seemed so much bigger than I was at that age. Still, today when I look back on it, after everything that I have done or accomplished, nothing feels quite as big as that first show did. We rehearsed on the back patio of Richard and Tommy’s house. Richard had rescued most of the original costumes from his previous production, which did nothing but add to my feelings of stress of stepping into this role. Also, at the time, I was 6 foot 3 inches and weighed about 170 pounds. Tom must have been about 5 foot 8inches and weighed like 145 pounds….Getting his old costumes on was a feat to say the least.
One thing that I remember so vividly was the conversation about character development that Richard had with me. He said, “These characters are larger than life, but they are real. If we try and make them over the top no one will believe them. Each of these characters are real people. We must be honest in our approach to make them as serious as possible. If we can change costumes quickly and run out onto the stage with very different, honest, and fully realized characters, then we will have the audience rolling in the aisles.” Boy was he right. Performing this show with Richard on stage and with an audience was some of the most fun I have ever had in theatre. We became good friends on and off the stage. With this show you must have someone you trust up there with you. When you are playing upwards of 10 characters a piece, with costume changes averaging less than 8 seconds, you have to be doing it with someone you are comfortable with.
There are so many reasons why this show is our company’s first production. If im completley honest with you, after Richard passed away I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do this show again. It had meant so much to me and was so closely linked to him. Then years passed and time “forged ahead.” When choosing a show for our first production, it seemed like a no-brainer that it had to be Greater Tuna. Lexie asked me who would play the other role, and I knew just the person. Without a doubt, Chris McDowell is one of the most generous and talented performers that I have had the pleasure of working with.
Chris came over for a drink one night, and I pulled out Greater Tuna and asked if he would like to do a read-through for fun. I knew after that first read that we had to do it. I, of course, started reading my old part without thinking that playing the other role would be necessary. It was a strange feeling to realize that I had gotten older, and the role which Richard had played before now made the most sense for me to play. Truth was, I was terrified of it. How could I play the role that I watched performed so brilliantly opposite me for so long… how could I do it justice? Could I say his lines and not be filled with this huge feeling of loss. Oddly enough, the first time I read his lines out loud it wasn’t loss or sadness I was filled with. I felt the joy of performing with my friend again. I was reminded with every word from the script of all of the great and hilarious times that I got to have with Richard. Each time we do the show it is like getting to hang out with my old friend again. Sure, there is nothing I wouldn’t give to have him walk through the door for rehearsal with two messenger bags, one Kroger tote bag, a zip up hoodie across one arm, and a cup of coffee spilling on his sleeve in the other. Since I can’t have that, this is the next best thing.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to have performed this show with not one but two of my best friends now. When Chris agreed to take this crazy two man show by the horns, he made it possible. I knew from the first time that we got to perform opposite each other that we had a rare connection. It is not often that you encounter a fellow actor that can read your mind while you are on stage. While on stage with Chris, I can just think of a possible bit, and without saying a word, he will pick up on it and take off. I can’t describe how rare and awesome that is. We absolutely couldn’t do this show without him. There have been so many other things that have happened through this rehearsal process that seem to mirror my previous experience with the play. In the beginning, we rehearsed at our house-much like when we rehearsed on the patio at Richard’s. Robert Harper was kind enough to let us use a lot of the original costumes which was a miracle! But, so far, my favorite thing is making new lasting memories with my wife and friends- all while getting to introduce them to an old friend that they did not get the pleasure to meet. I will always be thankful to Richard for taking me along on that first Greater Tuna adventure. Now, it’s time to make some bitter pills, let a smile be our umbrella, be the cream in Tuna’s coffee, fight fire with fire, and keep the home fires burning. Because it is time to go on with the show!