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Michael Beasley Follows His Pops John Beasley as a TV-Film Actor, Son’s on a Roll with a String of Small and Big Screen Projects, including ‘Steel Magnolias’

October 4, 2012 1 comment

 

 

Actor John Beasley is by now a fixture in television, film, and theater.  What you  may not know is that his son Michael Beasley is charting a career path that may soon surpass his father’s, at least on the small and big screens.  I’ve been reporting and writing about the father for many years and now I see I’ll be doing the same with the son.  There’s another son, Tyrone Beasley, who’s also an immensely talented actor.  You can find my previous stories on John, his theater, and his family on this blog.

 

 

 

 

Michael Beasley Follows his Father John Beasley in Becomng a TV-Film Actor, The Son’s on a Roll with a String of Small Screen and Big Screen Projects

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Don’t look now but Michael Beasley is carving out a film-television career rivaling that of his powerhouse father John Beasley (Rudy, The Apostle).

The nearly 20 feature and made-for-TV pics he’s booked the last few years have him on the verge of being one of the industry’s next breakout character actors.

He’s doing it all too from his adopted home of Atlanta, Ga. and surrounding region, together known as Hollywood South for all the productions shooting there.

“It’s really happening here. A lot of work is moving down here,” he says. “I’ve just been blessed to be kind of the big fish in a small pond at the time when it’s starting to rise.

Papa John says, “He’s been doing quite well. I’m very proud of him.

Many of Beasley’s supporting roles have been in major Hollywood projects, including, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Contraband, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, I Love You Phillip B. Morris and The Great Debaters.

Smaller scale projects have included Mississippi Damned, American Violet, American Reunion and Hero.

Two of his biggest films, both helmed by name directors, have yet to be released. Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Denzel Washington, is due out in November. The Bay, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Kristen Connolly, is slated for an early 2013 release. Then there’s Arthur Newman, Golf Pro .

He has the lead in a new indie film, Mystic Rising, still in post-production..

He’s also guest starred in episodic TV, most recently in USA Network’s Necessary Roughness. He has a recurring role in the Starz Channel’s series Magic City.

Sunday, October 7 is the world premiere of a much anticipated Lifetime movie he’s in, the all-black version of Steel Magnolias. The super cast includes Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard. He plays Spud, the husband of Scott’s character Truvy. He and Scott have some scenes together. He’s also a presence in ensemble scenes. At 6-foot-5, he’s hard to miss.

“It was an amazing experience working with all these legends,” he says. “The energy on the set was awesome. I feel we made another classic.”

Trading lines with big names is nothing new for Beasley, who’s worked twice with both Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg and shared screen time with Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Colin Firth, Jennifer Garner, et cetera.

“Being able to work with these actors and hold my own with them has given me total confidence I can do it in any setting. I know i can because I’m putting in the work to do what it takes to be prepared for whatever the role is.”

Beasley, who came to acting after a pro basketball career overseas, looks at every set he’s on, whether a commercial (he’s done one with Shaquille O’Neal, TV show or feature, as “a learning experience.” He’s learned the truth behind the adage there’s no such thing as a small part. Every line, gesture, expression counts.

“It’s exciting to me to get on the set. It’s not like a, Oh-here-we-go-again type of thing. It’s basically a feeling of, ‘Hey, I’m getting paid to do this?’ I think every set is important because I’m learning and building relationships, and so every chance I can be on the set helps me hone my craft.”

Sometimes he talks shop, as he did with Michael Caine and Luis Guzman on Journey 2. Then there’s the fountain of experience he draws from his father, whose extensive film-TV credits are two decades long.

“I’ve always got my father to fall back on and ask, ‘What can I do?’ and with his wealth of knowledge he helps. I was able to see my father’s career and whatever he did, good or bad, and say, ‘I can do this and do it different.'”

Father-son have worked together a few times, mostly at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in South Omaha, where Michael’s brother, Tyrone, is artistic director.

Michael’s smart enough to know that when surrounded by serious, veteran talent it’s best to be a sponge.

“Yeah, it’s a blessing and I look at it as basically on-the-job training. As soon as I shoot my scenes I run to the monitor to see what these guys are doing. John Goodman is amazing. I mean, I knew his acting was amazing but when you see him do stuff in person, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s stuff you can’t really get in a classroom setting, I don’t think. These guys are actually doing it for real and it works for them.

“It’s seeing what their process is and how they pay attention to detail. They really bring a lot more to just the words on the page. Even working with my father it’s the same way. Unfortunately, I’m down here and he’s up in Omaha. We haven’t been on a set together as far as a movie (though that’s a goal of each).

 

Michael Beasley, head bowed, next to Jill Scott in a scene from Steel Magnolias 

 

 

 

Even when he’s not “working,” Beasley’s still working it.

“I’m always studying my craft. Even when I’m out in public I’m watching what people do and trying to take from that. I’ve always been like a student of the game.”

Steel Magnolias marked his second time acting with Woodard after American Violet, and his first with director Kenny Leon, who’s directed his father on stage in several August Wilson productions.

Leon says, “Michael’s a very talented young man, I guess it’s in the blood. He really delivered for me in the film. It’s a really honest portrayal. Everybody wants to know, ‘Who’s that guy? Where’d he come from?’” Leon says the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. “Both John and Michael are authentic. They both bring it from an organic place. They’re just being. There’s no tricks. They find a simplicity to the life of the people they portray. It’s honest, it’s real, and you can’t teach that.”

He sees big things ahead for the son. “Michael can do anything he wants.”

Every new relationship Beasley cultivates and every new credit he adds to his IMDB page only reinforces his reputation as the hardest working actor around. It’s been one project after another.

“That’s how it’s been. It’s been just like a major ride,” he says.

His goal’s to become a familiar face and name to TV-film viewers and an in-demand talent producers and directors seek out.

“I think I am on the radar. It only takes one movie for you to become famous.”

In no sense does he feel he’s arrived yet.

“Every year I’m like, OK, what can I do that I haven’t done to get me closer to my goal? Every day I try to figure out something I can do, even if I only have an hour to do it. I can read this book or I can workout to enhance my look or I can work on an accent. Whatever I need to I just  find a way to do it.”

He hopes to inspire other others to follow their dreams.

“I want people to know it’s a matter of deciding, whatever your dream is, to just go after it and don’t be afraid of failure. That’s what I’m doing, I’m going after my dream, I’m not changing, and I’m going to get it.

“I just have this drive. Whatever it is I do I try to be the best at it. Otherwise, I’m wasting my time in my opinion.”

 

 

John Beasley (actor)

John Beasley

John Beasley Has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’

June 3, 2012 7 comments

Film-television-stage actor John Beasley is someone I’ve been writing about for the better part of a decade or more, and I expect I’ll be writing about him some more as time goes by.  You may not know the name but you should definitely recognize his face and voice from films like Rudy and The Apostle and from dozens of episodic television guest star bits.  His already high profile is about to be enhanced because of his recurring role in the new Cedric the Entertainer sit-com, The Soul Man, for TVLand.  The show premieres June 20.  The following story, soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), has him talking about this project with the kind of enthusiasm that whets one’s appetite for the show.  It’s one of several irons in the fire he has at an age – almost 70 – when many actors are slowing down.  In addition to the series he has a feature film in development that he’s producing, a new theater he plans opening in North Omaha, and the possibility of making his New York stage debut in a new Athol Fugard play.  On this blog you’ll find several stories I’ve written over the years about the actor and his current theater in Omaha, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop.

John Beasley, far right, with his castmates from The Soul Man 

 

 

John Beasley has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In his notable screen acting career John Beasley has done his share of television both as a one-off guest star (Detroit 1-8-7, Boston Legal, CSI: Miami, NCIS) and recurring player (Everwood, Treme).

But in the new TVLand series The Soul Man (formerly Have Faith) he has his biggest featured role to date, and in a comedy no less starring Cedric the Entertainer. The original show from the producers of Hot in Cleveland and Grimm premieres June 20 at 9 p.m.

“I’m third on the cast list and I’m getting a lot of work on the series, so I’m definitely happy about that,” Beasley says. “It’s a quality show. It’s very funny. The writing is really very good. We have the writers from Hot in Cleveland, one of the hottest shows on cable. Phoef Sutton is the show runner. He won two Emmys with Cheers. Plus, Cedric has got a really good sense of comedic timing. What he brings to the table is tremendous.

“And then Stan Lathan, the director, has worked on a lot of the great four-camera shows, as far back as the Red Foxx show Sanford and Son. A very good director.

“So we’re in very good hands.”

This native son, who’s continued making Omaha home as a busy film-TV character actor, has his career in high gear pushing 70. Besides the show there’s his long-in-development Marlin Briscoe feature film, plans for a North Omaha theater and the possibility of making his New York theater debut.

Beasley, who raised a family and worked at everything from gypsy cab driver to longshoreman, before pursuing acting, plays another in a long line of authority figures as retired minister Barton Ballentine. After years leading the flock at his St. Louis church he’s stepped aside for the return of his prodigal son, Rev. Boyce “The Voice” Ballentine (Cedric). Boyce is a former R&B star turned Las Vegas entertainer who, heeding the call to preach, has quit show biz to minister to his father’s church. He returns to the fold with his wife Lolli (Niecy Nash) and daughter Lyric (Jazz Raycole), who’ve reluctantly left the glitter for a humble lifestyle.

As Barton, Beasley’s an “old school” man of God who disapproved of his son’s former high life and racy lyrics and now holding Boyce’s inflated ego in check with fatherly prodding and criticism.

Cedric and Niecy

 

 

Speaking to The Reader by phone from L.A. where he’s in production on the series through mid-summer at Studio City, Beasley says Cedric’s character “can never live up to his father’s expectations – the father is always going to put him down no matter what he does, but he’s got a hustler brother who’s even worse.”  Beasley adds, “In the pilot episode the parishioners are filing out after church, telling Boyce, ‘Great service, nice sermon,’ and then I come up to him and say, ‘I would have given it a C-minus. The bit near the end was decent but I would have approached it more from the Old Testament. But that’s just me. God’s way is the right way.’ That’s my character and that’s his relationship with his son.”

Praised by other actors for his ability to play the truth, Beasley says, “What I bring to the table is I kind of ground the show in reality. It allows the other actors to be able to go over the top a little bit, to play for the laughs. I don’t play for the laughs. I treat this character just like I would an August Wilson character. In fact one of the characters he’s patterned after is Old Joe from Gem of the Ocean.

“I was doing Gem of the Ocean at the theater (his John Beasley Theater in Omaha) when I got the call for this. Generally Tyrone (his son) and I will put my audition on tape and send it out to L.A. A lot of times it will take us five-six takes to get really what I want but with this character it was like one take and we both agreed that was it. We did another one for safety and sent it out, and the next day I got the call…”

A chemistry reading in L.A. sealed the deal.

For Beasley, who’s worked with Oprah Winfrey (Brewster Place), James Cromwell (Sum of All Fears), Kathy Bates (Harry’s Law) and Robert Duvall (The Apostle), working with Cedric marks another milestone.

Cedric and Beasley in a father-son moment

 

 

“We play off each other so well. The chemistry between us is really good. I’m seeing it in the writing. I’m getting a lot of stuff written for me. Cedric has a lot to do with the show and he’ll say, ‘John’s character needs this,’ or ‘We should give him this,’ so he’s really very giving and a great person to work with. As is Niecy Nash.

“We’ve only got five members in the cast and it just feels like family. I don’t think theres a weak link.”

Season one guest stars include Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster, Kim Coles, Tamar and Trina Braxton, Phelo and Sherri Shepherd.

Beasley’s adjusted well to the four-camera, live audience, sit-com format.

“Having a good theater background has prepared me for this because the camera is almost like a proscenium -–you gotta play to the cameras, you’ve got to know where you’re camera is so that you can open up to it.  But you also have the feedback from the audience. For instance, in the first episode we did I appeared and Cedric and I just stopped and looked at each other because of the situation and the audience went on and on, so we had to wait for the audience to finish. That kind of thing happens.

“Sometimes Cedric or somebody forgets their lines or he ad-libs and the audience is with you all the way. It’s a lot of fun. It’s really like doing stage and I’m having a great time with it.”

My 20111 cover story about John Beasley  for Metro Magazine

 

 

Beasley’s invigorated, too, by how the writers keep tweaking things.

“The writers continue to write right up until taping and if something doesn’t work then they huddle up and they come back with something else and by the time we finish with it it’s working.”

It’s his fondest desire Soul Man gets picked up for a second season but Beasley has something more pressing on his mind now and, ironically, the show may prove an obstacle. On March 23 at the University of North Carolina Beasley and Everwood star Treat Williams did a staged reading of famed South African playwright Athol Fugard‘s new drama, The Train Driver. Fugard was there and Beasley says the writer made it clear he wants them for the play’s August 14-Sept. 23 run at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, part of the fabled Signature Theatre, in New York.

Trouble is, Soul Man doesn’t wrap till July 29. “I told the play’s producers, ‘Listen, nobody can do this better than I can. I want to do this. And so whatever we can do to work it out let’s do that.’ That’s where we left it,” says Beasley.

Whether it happens or not, he’s convinced Soul Man is a career-changer.

“I really feel this is going to be a difference-maker just as The Apostle was because people aren’t used to seeing me do comedy, so it’ll give them a different look at me as a performer and that’s really all I can ask.”

“It’s been quite a journey” to come from Omaha and find the success he has and still be able to reside here. And the best may yet be ahead.

Nebraska Legislature Once Again Wrestles with the Film Tax Incentives Question; Alexander Payne and John Beasley Press the Case Home

February 18, 2012 3 comments

George Clooney in Up in the Air (some airport scenes shot at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield terminal)

 

 

Here we go again.  Nebraska media reported in mid-January that homegrown film stalwarts Alexander Payne and John Beasley appeared before the state legislature cajoling elected officials to adopt tax incentives for the film industry.  Nebraska is one of only 10 states without any film tax credits, which helps explain why so few features of any size or consequence are shot here.  Outside of Payne’s first three features made here, you can count on one two hands the number of feature-length, medium budget films shot in Nebraska since the mid-1990s.  The state actually used to see more features, TV movies, and mini-series work before because Nebraska’s right-to-work status gave it an advantage, but that advantage has been lost in the high stakes incentives market.  It’s not the first time prominent Nebraskans in Film have tried impressing upon legislators the fact that Nebraska is losing a potential income stream to other states, including neighboring states.  Three years ago Payne made obstensibly the same appeal he made four weeks ago.  Then, as now, he used his planned film Nebraska as a leverage point in telling state senators, “Gee, wouldn’t it be a shame if I had to make a film called Nebraska in Oklahoma.”  Only now he’s saying he might have to take the production to Kansas.  It’s not just politics either.  He reportedly told senators, “I’m being pressured to shoot in Kansas instead of Nebraska and I’m hard-pressed to offer resistance. What do our counterparts in Kansas see that we don’t see?”  Even conservative Kansas, he noted, has adopted a 30 percent film tax credit program, whereas he added, “We have zilch.  That goes over like a lead balloon.  We Nebraskans now enjoy sensational cultural opportunities in opera, symphony, ballet, theater and art.  Film remains the missing element.  It’s crucial to have something in place here – even something modest – or filmmaking both from outside and home-grown has no chance in Nebraska.”

Beasley laid out a similar scenario, saying that the $12.5 million film he’s developing on Omaha native son Marlin Briscoe may also shoot in Kansas instead of Nebraska for the same reasons. “The investors in question,” he said, “want to see their money to go as far as it can go.”

More or less the same cast of characters who pushed for tax credits here in 2009-2010, namely Sens. Heath Mello and Abby Cornett, are the same ones at it again. The same lobbyin group active then, the Nebraska Film Association headed by Mark Hoeger, is active again.  This time Lincoln Sen. Colby Cash is helping lead the charge in the legislature and advocate voices like Payne’s and Beasley’s are being pressed into service.  Cornett’s introduced Legislative Bill 863 to put incentives in place.  She has legislature allies in Mello, Cash, and others.  Previous efforts have not really gotten very far, presumably because the Unicameral is a highly conservative body.  This time, there seems to be more support for the proposition, no doubt due in large measure to record budget shortfalls and a lagging state economy that’s forcing lawmakers to find creative new ways to generate revenues.  How much an impact  Payne’s and Broscoe’s power plays make is anyone’s guess, but it would be awfully embarassing if Nebraska snubbed its collective nose at favorite sons like these and they ending up taking their projects to Kansas.  Why wouldn’t you do everything you can to court Payne, Beasley, and filmmakers like them in the same way the state courts Google or some other Fortune 500 company to do business here?

I wrote the following story more than two years ago, when the tax incentives push last had this kind of star power buzz behind it.  Nothing happened then in the way of credits being adopted.  I assume something will happen this time.  My story by the way was published in truncated form, and here I present it for the first time in its entirety.  The piece tries to get at why this has been such a tough nut to crack in Nebraska and lays out a vision for how it might finally happen.  It appears now as if the groundwork laid down then may be finally paying off.

 

 

Alexander Payne testifying before the Nebraska Legislature, ©photo by Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald

 

 

Nebraska Legislature Once Again Wrestles with the Film Tax Incentives Question; Alexander Payne and John Beasley Press the Case Home

©by Leo Adam Biga

A much shorter version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Over the years Nebraska lawmakers have steadfastly refused to entertain adopting incentives for the film industry, leaving the state among only a handful not offering them.

Nebraska film incentives proponents are mounting their argument in what may be the worst possible climate for garnering political traction on the issue. That’s because many look at incentives as giveaways, not exactly what a group of mostly conservative legislators want to enact amidst a lingering recession, a mammoth deficit and the likely chilling effect of Iowa’s mismanaged, now suspended film incentives program right next door.

Incentivising other industries in Nebraska, meanwhile, is fairly common. Since going into effect in 1988, LB 775, later retooled under the Nebraska Advantage Act, has been a business incentives engine for many industries in the state. Nebraska Department of Economic Development director Richard Baier said the state targets certain industries with incentives, including Information Technology, data centers, insurance, transportation-logistics and advanced manufacturing.

Historically, lawmakers’ resistance to film incentives has centered around why filmmakers should be given special tax credits for products that are risky investments. State funding for the arts is not new, but America has a tradition of private arts funding. The murky thing with film is that it is both a business and an art. The vast majority of projects of any size are purely commercial enterprises, including feature films, documentaries, made-for-TV movies, episodic TV series, reality shows, music videos, commercials and industrials.

Then there are the micro-budget films that are so small they add little to the economy, much less stand any real chance of getting seen.

Skeptics wonder if film incentives are a revenue neutral or net gain proposition or whether states stand to lose money. The mismanagement of Iowa’s overly broad film incentives program, whose lack of restraints and oversights saw up to 50 percent in tax credits awarded some projects and some producers purchasing luxury vehicles on the state’s dime, recently led Gov. Chet Culver to suspend the program pending investigations. The Iowa fiasco illustrates states can give out more than they get back. Earlier, Michigan and Louisiana confronted their own incentives program failures that forced reviews and reorganizations, but Iowa’s problems resonate more as they’re more recent and closer to home.

Some ask why states would even put themselves in the position of being taken advantage of by film sharks. Other simply ask why shouldn’t filmmakers and their investors pay their own way and bear all their own risks.

There’s also a suggestion that a film incubator be created that coalesces film artists, crafts people, technicians and investors in a collaborative space that also provides training classes or workshops, all in the spirit of nurturing film activity.

The real debate centers around whether or not film production would generate enough economic development to justify the state offering a stimulus package. Even a leader in the pro-incentives movement here, Mark Hoeger, puts it this way: “The question is, is this a business Nebraska wants to attract here, and that’s not a simple answer.” Hoeger, a veteran Omaha filmmaker and co-president of Oberon Entertainment, heads the Nebraska Film Association. A nonprofit advocacy group formed earlier this year, the NFA includes representatives from segments with the most to gain from incentives — area producers, directors, Teamsters, et cetera.

 

 

Legislative Bill 863

©photo by Chris Machian, OWH

 

 

Under Hoeger, the NFA’s retained former Nebraska Department of Economic Development deputy officer Stu Miller to research the incentives issue. A well circulated report by Miller suggests a film tax credit formula of 20 percent will return a dollar eight cents on every dollar the state spends on incentives. He used the budgeted expenditures on Hoeger’s film, Full Ride, in devising his figures.

Proponents like Hoeger say that incentives would grow — from within and from without — the state’s nascent, somewhat scatter shot film community as it’s currently comprised into a sustainable industry.

Trouble is, no one really knows how many Nebraska residents work in film. There are some small production companies for whom filmmaking is their stock-in-trade. They range from one-person operations to minimal staffs. Rather than features, however, they produce TV commercials, industrials and documentaries. With the exception of those businesses and the documentary film units at Nebraska Educational Television and UNO Television, almost everyone that works in film in Nebraska does it as part-time, independent contractors. On film projects these freelancers fill such roles as grips, gaffers, makeup artists, costumers, set dressers, assistant directors and production assistants.

Then there are small firms that offer as an adjunct of their business film services, including casting agencies and sound recording studios.

As far as how many gainfully employed folks there are now and how many there might be, said Baier, “that’s not a number I can give you a feel for. That’s been part of our discussion with the film industry — and this is where it gets very complicated.” He said with a Pay Pal operation, for example, “you’re able to measure and quantify all of those things. In the film industry it’s much looser and much more difficult to get your arms around actual numbers.”

State Sen. Abbie Cornett, a film incentives advocate, chairs the Legislature’s Revenue Committee. She said “the film industry’s like any other industry that we incentivise in the state of Nebraska and that’s what we have to start looking at it as, as an industry, not as a one time event. We incentivised Yahoo to come here. It’s incentives, it’s giving a business reasons to locate here.” She concedes it will take “a long educational process” to cultivate the needed support for a film incentives measure to pass.

Baier said that what makes film incentives a tough sell here is that film is in fact unlike any other industry. When it comes to gauging hard economic impact, a brick and mortar call center is one thing, he said, and the traveling circus that blows into town with a film is another.

A call center has x number of employees earning salaries and wages. Those workers pay income tax and buy homes and everything else. The business pays property tax, purchases supplies, maybe invests in expansion and perhaps becomes a good corporate neighbor who gives charitably to community organizations.

The impact a film has when it comes to injecting new capital or creating jobs is debatable. That’s because there’s a wide spectrum of filmmaking in terms of budget, length of shooting schedule, cast-crew size, et cetera. Film budgets run the gamut from millions to thousands, production schedules vary from a few days to several weeks, cast-crew members number from a dozen to several dozen.

Only a portion of any budget is spent in any given locale. Payouts to on-screen talent, principal crew or department heads and to producers/directors/writers may or may not trickle to the local economy depending on where these individuals reside. Cast-crew size and the percentage of residents and nonresidents varies greatly and is a huge factor in determining how much lodging, eating, purchasing taxable dollars a film generates in-state. Even when shot principally or entirely in Nebraska, post-production aspects may be done elsewhere.

Said Baier, “The challenge with in-state crews is that many of them already have other kinds of film activities working with ad agencies and such, and so are you really creating new jobs or are you simply giving them more activity? Those are the kinds of things you would have to balance in that debate. If you’ve got somebody already doing it, should you give him an incentive to do one more project a year? That really lessens the economic benefit because from an economics perspective those folks already live here, they’re already working here, they’re already paying taxes here, all you’re doing is simply putting some icing on top of the cake.”

Payne and Beasley, ©photo by Chris Machian, OWH

 

 

All these considerations go into the incentives deliberation.

“There would have to be a lot of thought into how do we measure the long-term economic impact of the film industry to our state,” said Baier. “Are we creating jobs? Are we keeping people here? Are we raising the salaries? Are we creating capital investment and wealth in our state? We have to evaluate to make sure that we are providing an appropriate level of incentives to stimulate behavior without having a race to the bottom in terms of incentive policy from a state perspective. I would argue some of this has happened in other states, where the thinking became, Well, state x is doing this so we have to do what they’re doing, plus more, and that cycle continues until there’s no economic benefit to the state.

“And so as you look at these incentives programs there’s a real delicate balance between how do you impact behavior without giving away the store? We do that ongoing with all of our incentives and we’re very careful about how we administer our programs in Nebraska to make sure they are performance-based, which basically means we’ve gotta have jobs creation, significant capital investment, and if and only then if you do those things do you get any kind of incentive.”

Indeed, the state does recapture incentives from companies that do not meet performance goals. Those companies either forfeit or refund any incentives not earned. Some states with film inventives only cut checks to filmmakers once the project is complete and it’s been verified that the stipulated goals have been met.

The latest Nebraska legislator among a tiny but vocal contingent to take up the incentives bandwagon is District 5 representative, Sen. Heath Mello, who introduced LB 282 earlier this year with a proposed tax credit of up to 25 percent tied to Nebraska film crew hires. The bill, which didn’t reach the legislature’s floor for debate, also proposed a fiscal note or financial guarantee that is a major sticking point for opponents.

Mello, along with colleagues Cornett and Tom White, argue that incentives will equate to jobs and careers in a burgeoning industry.

Doubters express what might be termed a parochial attitude that says, Hey, this is Nebraska, who do we think we are to try and get Hollywood to come? The truth is, as incentives supporters point out, for years now states just like Nebraska, notably Iowa, have attracted scores of film projects, large and small, studio and indie, while Nebraska’s settled for the crumbs.

Cornett said, “If we do anything here we’re looking at something that would just make Nebraska competitive to draw some films here, we’re not trying to open our flood gates and say Hollwood come to Nebraska. But if you’re making a film set in Nebraska we’d sure like it to be filmed here.”

There is the occasional mid-major film by native sons: Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt); Andrew Robinson (April Showers); Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still). But their made-in-Nebraska works might be considered exceptions as these filmmakers have a special motivation to shoot here, incentives or not. There’s no question though that these artists’ indigenous projects do add to the area film culture, infrastructure and industry. Just as the Omaha Film Festival, the Nebraska Independent Film Project, the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, Film Streams and the University of Nebraska School of Theatre, Film and Television do.

Some proponents of incentives point to Omaha’s nationally prominent indie music scene as a model for the kind of industry-generating, image enhancement benefits a vibrant film scene might foster. They don’t mention that the major catalyst behind Omaha’s music indie phenomena, Saddle Creek Records, has energized things through entirely private means, without any props from tax credits.

Mark Hoeger

 

 

So why should film be treated differently than music? Proponents cite that film production costs generally far outstrip those for music and the number of artists and technicians attached to films generally exceed those on music projects. But what we’re really talking about is a feel-good, cool-quotient cultural amenity.

“Film is sexy,” said Hoeger. “Film is the kind of thing that is about glamour and excitement and all those intangible benefits that are greater than the direct economic benefits, and you know that’s not nothing. When you look at why Iowa’s justified doing what they have they saw one of their biggest challenges, as Nebraska’s is, is an aged population and trouble retaining young labor, especially talented, creative young labor.”

He said filmmaking would be another draw to keep people here and to attract new people here in the same way the Qwest Center, the new downtown ballpark, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardens and the Henry Doorly Zoo do. It’s just that films are ephemeral things. They come, they go, the gypsies that work on them move on.

The idea of offering incentives to generate film production is nothing new. The allure of a film made in your own backyard has long been a powerful enticement. Filmmakers have long taken advantage of this vanity element to cut sweetheart deals with local-state government agencies, businesses and others eager to bask in the Hollywood limelight.

Several trends led filmmakers to ask for and get preferential treatment from state governments. Feature film production became increasingly untethered from its Hollywood base in the 1980s, in large part due to skyrocketing production costs. Filmmakers motivated to keep costs down headed to places like Canada, North Carolina and Texas, where film infrastructures took root. Once states realized the production pie was up for grabs, they began scrambling to offer more incentives. Bidding wars ensued. Together with these trends, independent cinema became the new model in the 1990s, leading to films being made wherever artists and investors could package financing and get the most bang for their buck.

The tech revolutions of cable and satellite television, VCRs, DVDs, personal computers cell phones, iPods, along with the phenomena of film festivals, social networking sites and services like Netflix, created new platforms for film/video viewing that expanded the demand for movies. A parallel revolution in home camcorders and digital editing put the tools of cinema production within the grasp of anyone, leading to an explosion in filmmaking. The age of garage films is upon us.

Even with all that, making the case for film incentives in Nebraska won’t be easy when elected officials must make hard social program cuts that affect people’s lives. On top of the budget woes, there’s the specter of Iowa’s film incentives scandal. The pro-incentives coalition acknowledges the Iowa situation hurts their chances to convince reluctant Nebraska lawmakers. Cornett called what happened in Iowa “a debacle” and “ridiculous.” “It’s going to negatively impact anything we do,” she said. “That’s something we’ll be battling.”

Hoeger and other incentives supporters believe Nebraska can learn from where Iowa and other states went wrong. One thing he and Cornett recommends is a deliberate program that ramps up slowly and carefully.

“If you’re just going to say, Here, come take whatever you want, we don’t care, then you’ll just be a sucker,” said Hoeger. “But if there’s a real strategy that says, Here’s what we’re trying to achieve and here’s what we’re willing to pay to get it, then I think it would be a smart move. Proper oversights are really important but I don’t think they’re the whole question either, although they’re an essential.

“The hope is and we shouldn’t proceed unless it’s more than a hope that you can show that we wrote a check for 20 percent  but we’re going to get back 25 percent, so you’re left with a net positive rather than a net negative out of this process. But if you can’t come up with a system that nets a return and achieves you’re objectives, then you walk away.”

He said any incentives would need to be tied to specific benchmarks, such as a minimum percentage of local crew used.

Iowa left the administration of an ever expanding and loophole-filled multi-million dollar incentives program in the hands of one overwhelmed film office employee. Nebraska Department of Economic Development director Richard Baier said Nebraska already has in place “a dedicated system” to administer incentives programs and this would be the logical mechanism to oversee film incentives.

“The Department of Revenue administers the actual auditing of our tax incentives programs for the State of Nebraska, which is great because that sort of puts a wall between what I would consider the sales team and the audit team,” he said. “Nebraska’s been very diligent and judicious about building a process in place to ensure compliance.”

Hoeger favors making any incentives program as transparent as possible, including a model like New Mexico’s that publishes on-line each film’s itemized budget.

Set of Nik Fackler’s Lovely, Still, a 2010 film shot in Omaha

 

 

Even though the Nebraska Film Office, which falls under Baier’s purview, would likely be only a liaison in the incentives process, it’s possible the office could be expanded. Presently, Lori Richards fills the film officer role on a contractural basis.

The Iowa program’s suspension has put several film projects in jeopardy or limbo, leading some producers to pull up stakes to shoot elsewhere. Nebraskans are prominently behind two of the affected projects. Writer-director-producer Steve Lustgarten’s feature My Own Blood was set to start shooting in Council Bluffs this fall when the plug was pulled on the Iowa program, forcing him to postpone the project, at least until the dust settles.

Alexander Payne is producing a film that was ready to roll when things blew up. Said Payne, “I’m involved in producing a film right now called Cedar Rapids, and where do you think that should be shooting? But its shooting in Michigan. We were all set to go in Des Moines and the incentives fell through, so we immediately high tailed it up to Michigan. There was something like a two or three million dollar difference” with Michigan incentives versus no incentives. The comedy starring Ed Helms (The Office) and John C. Reilly is directed by Miguel Arteta and is the first production of Payne’s company, Ad Hominem, which is also producing Payne’s adaptation of The Descendants, which begins shooting in February in Hawaii.

“As for my project,” said Lustgarten, “I’ll lose 100% of the funding without the Iowa deal. Will I sue? Wouldn’t want to tip my hand, though the Iowa attorney general says the state does have legal liability in regard to the contracts, so they’ll clearly be in breach.”

Incentives appear to be a Pandora’s Box that can’t be closed. They’re part of the film landscape now and all the wishful thinking or head-buried-in-the-sand grumbling will neither bring more films to Nebraska nor make incentives go away

Recently, Payne’s lent his clout to the NFA’s efforts. His public endorsement’s long been sought by advocates. This is the first time the writer-director of Sideways has participated. Where past film incentives efforts were reactionary, ad hoc blips, there’s now an ongoing apparatus to keep pressing home the message. All this made the filmmaker comfortable to put his name and his viewpoint out there.

“I think now they have a more concerted effort with a group and money behind it,” Payne said, referring to the NFA. Its president, Mark Hoeger, said the current pro-incentives camp is “by far” the most organized he’s seen it — “to the point that we’ve retained professional lobbyists to help us with getting organized and taking us through the (legislative) process.”

Payne directing Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt set in Omaha

 

 

Rich Lombardi is one of two lobbyists with Lincoln-based American Communications Group Inc. working with the NFA on what he calls “an uphill battle” in trying to persuade a majority of Nebraska legislators that film incentives are a good thing for the state. A longtime Nebraska legislature lobbyist, Lombardi said the question of film incentives “has been up and down the flag pole” before in the Unicameral and gotten nowhere. But he agrees with Hoeger that its supporters “never had this level of organization” in the past, adding they never “had a guy of Payne’s stature become like the unofficial cheerleader” for the cause.

On Oct. 12 Payne offered his perspective in meetings with Gov. Dave Heineman and other state lawmakers and policymakers. He also did a meet-and-greet with the film community at the elegant home of Thompson Rogers, a local film investor.

Admittedly “a show pony” in this effort, Payne neither exaggerates nor underestimates the value of his input. His pitch to the gov was short and sweet.

“I’m not a numbers guy, I’m not a film financier, I’m not a state economic development officer. I’m an artist,” said Payne. “So, Mark Hoeger was there to make part of the nuts and bolts case and lobbyist Rich Lombardi was also there to buttress the case and make points of his own, and I was there just to basically say two things:  ‘I make films in Nebraska, my next film after my Hawaii film is called Nebraska and I’m already getting pressured not to shoot it in Nebraska because there are no incentives here, and I would hate to have to retitle that film Iowa or Missouri or Kansas.”

Predictably, Nebraska incentives backers got a cool reception from Heineman, a fiscal conservative facing a huge state budget deficit in a tough economic climate.

“The governor has a lot on his plate and did not seem very interested at this point in pursuing it because it involves a certain degree of out of pocket expenses with the promise of some returned revenue in the future,” said Payne. “He just now can’t seem to justify anything out of pocket. But I’m confident and hopeful that he’ll start to understand more and not just the economic but the cultural benefits of doing such a thing.”

Payne said his argument for incentives is the same whoever he’s talking to.

“Look, I’m just there to say, I don’t know all the numbers but we have on our hands in Omaha, Neb. a blossoming cultural capital. It’s a world class city in miniature and fomenting film culture through such an act would be a super cool thing to do. I mean, the governor tends to look at just the numbers, which is his prerogative, but there are a whole host of cultural benefits to be had by doing such a thing. Sideways continues to unfurl millions of dollars into Santa Barbara county tourism. Granted that’s a very, very special case, but the economic benefits were not quantifiable at the time and they’ve been kind of infinite since then.”

Others use as examples Northern Exposure, Dances with Wolves, Field of Dreams and The Bridges of Madison County as shooting sites whose iconic locations have become popular tourist sites in states not generally thought of as meccas.

Hoeger said film “is the forum in which the world finds out who you are.” The inestimatable value of a state’s name or landmarks being featured in a film is something Stu Miller is trying to attach an advertising dollar equivalent to. Cornett calls it “a ripple effect.”

It should be noted Payne also got pressure not to shoot in Nebraska on his first three features but each time he managed to get his way. The state’s lack of financial incentives didn’t prevent those projects from being made here but he said a more competitive environment to attract the film industry has changed all the rules, and that’s another reason for him now speaking out.

“Yeah, it was different then, there weren’t that many (incentives programs). One of the only reasons I got to shoot Citizen Ruth here back in ‘95 was that it was a right to work state. That was the goal back then, there weren’t as many states with tax incentives back then, so back then you would think about Texas and North Carolina, they were states with some crew base where also you could shoot nonunion. Then it changed in the last eight years or so with these incentive programs that caught on.”

Hoeger conceded even without incentives Nebraska still “has some advantages and they’re some significant ones. For example, permits is a huge thing and Nebraska, permit-wise, scores highly. It’s very easy to get permission to shoot almost anywhere except Memorial Stadium. Even working with the highway patrol to close stretches of road or shooting in public places, you get a lot of cooperation.”

But, Hoeger added, “you can get a lot of that in places like Oklahoma and Iowa and get incentives, too, so if Nebraska wants to be in this game then it needs to do something, and if it doesn’t, if we cant put together a package that makes sense, then who cares, we just won’t have films get made here.” He said his own company, Oberon, is close to securing financing on two features, neither of which will be made here, in part because of a lack of incentives.

The fact is, films do continue to get made here. It’s just a question of how much is enough to stimulate something like a sustainable industry. Hoeger said where Payne “was able to get his Nebraska projects through on the labor part of it,” via largely nonunion shoots that kept the price down,” the trouble is now that, for better or worse, the incentives world has gotten so much more competitive that those advantages alone can’t get you over the hump.”

That’s not to say Payne still won’t or can’t make Nebraska here sans incentives. If he held out to shoot here, chances are someone with his standing — he’s an Oscar-winner, a critical darling and, most compellingly, a proven moneymaker — would get his way. He’s one of only a few filmmakers to enjoy final cut privileges.

It’s also important to note that in addition to or in lieu of tax credits, filmmakers use other ways to hold down costs, including getting talent to work for scale, eliminating perks and devising ultra tight shooting schedules. Also, producers routinely negotiate deals, such as reduced group rates at motels for cast-crew and volume discounts on transportation-equipment rental, supply purchases, catering services and other budget items.

But these are relatively nickel and dime considerations in comparison with the large savings, rebates, exemptions, even equity stakes, that filmmakers seek and get from taxpayer-fed, government-run incentives programs.

“There’s a lot of ways to bring the film industry here besides giving money and those I’m particularly researching,” said Cornett.

If and when Nebraska decides to enter the film incentives world, observers say you can expect a moderate, play-it-safe program that focuses on homegrown projects.

John Beasley, Actor – Journeyman Discusses Life in Film-Television-Theater and Striving for In-the-Moment Believability

February 1, 2012 2 comments

I have spun a lot of words about actor John Beasley and I expect I will be spinning many more as time goes by.  He’s one of those actors whose face if not his name you recognize from his numerous television and film roles.  He’s a steady presence on screen but he’s made an equally indelible impression on stage.  The following short profile for Metro Magazine mentions two projects close to his heart that have had new developments since going to press.  A new Cedric the Entertainer sitcom entitled Have Faith has been picked up by TV Land and Beasley, who appeared in the pilot, has a co-starring role as Cedric’s father.  The series begins airing in June.  A feature film about the NFL’s first black quarterback, Marlin Briscoe, is one that Beasley has been trying to get off the ground for some years.  It’s now inched closer to getting made with a name Hollwyood producer recently signing on to the project.  In the coming weeks or months look for a story I’m preparing on one of John’s sons, Michael Beasley, whose film-TV acting career is breaking big in 2012.

 

 

 

 

John Beasley, Actor – Journeyman Discusses Life in Film-Television-Theater and Striving for In-the-Moment Believability

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the January 2012 issue of Metro Magazine

 

Journeyman John Beasley has made a nice living for himself as a supporting character actor in film-television-theater, and he’s done it all without ever having to move from his hometown of Omaha. He admits being an in-demand actor without ever having to relocate is nothing short of “amazing,” adding, “I’ve just been blessed.”

Making his mark

After making his mark in regional theater, he became part of an acting brotherhood so identified with the canon of playwright August Wilson its members are dubbed Wilsonian Warriors. “Oh, yeah, I’m definitely that,” he says.

Beasley, who got to know the late Wilson, has made his John Beasley Theater & Workshop a showcase for Wilson’s exploration of the American black experience. A production of Radio Golf last fall completed the theater’s staging of the entire 10-play cycle Wilson set in his native Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

“I owe so much to August Wilson. He’s been a big part of my career,” says Beasley. “I credit August with getting me into Chicago theater and into that circle, because it is a nice fraternity.”

Theater led Beasley to his first screen roles: opposite Oprah Winfrey in TV’s, Brewster’s Place; co-starring with Olympia Dukakis and Amy Madigan in the TV movie Lucky Day; supporting characters in a string of sports movies, most notably Rudy.

A big break came when Robert Duvall cast him in the prestigious art film, The Apostle. That “life changer” project led to more film parts (The General’s Daughter, The Sum of All Fears) and TV guest roles (CSI, Judging Amy). Then came his recurring role in Everwood.

He’s gone on to appear in dramas, comedies, horror films, even a western. He’s played ministers, detectives, coaches, fathers, grandfathers and heavies. He’s often played older than his years, and now that his age has caught up with those senior parts he figures he should be busy all the time.

 

 

John Beasley (actor)

 

 

 

Foundations and directions

His journey of late has ranged from acclaimed performances in August Wilson’s 20th Century cycle at the Kennedy Center in 2008 to raising the roof at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2009 to TV guest starring gigs, in 2011 alone, in the highly praised Treme and in Harry’s Law, CSI: Miami and Detroit 1-8-7.

Now comes the pilot for a new TVLand series starring Cedric the Entertainer that Beasley terms “a great opportunity.” Beasley plays a retired preacher whose once wayward son, played by Cedric, has left a secular music career behind to minister at his father’s church. The son can never quite please his old man.

The untitled new show marks Beasley’s first foray into sit-coms. “It was a pretty interesting process. We rehearsed for about five days and then shot before a live audience. About 300 people,” he says. “The writers and producers were there and the network was there. We did several passes over some scenes and intermixed those together with prerecorded scenes. If we shot a take and they didn’t get the response or the laughs they wanted the writers would go back, huddle up and bring new lines, and we’d do it again.”

There was also location shooting at a church.

He says during a break TVLand president Larry W. Jones sought him out to compliment his comedic work. Beasley feels everything’s in place for a hit. “It’s a very funny show. The writing’s good. The cast is pretty solid. The acting is believable, not over the top. It turned out to be a really great experience. The audience loved the show. The producers are really excited about it.”

If anything’s made Beasley a go-to working actor it’s his rigor.

“I had some really good teachers who taught me to always go inside for my characters. I always try to be in the moment. Being in the moment — that’s when you find things. I’m always trying to get my actors to be believable and play in the moment, and when I catch them acting, I’ll tell them, ‘Get rid of the acting,’ and they know what that means.”

Along the way Beasley’s “worked with some of the best people in the business” and found he can not not only hang with them but bring something uniquely his.

He lived a full life before ever pursuing acting full-time — as athlete, gypsy cabbie, longshoreman, family man. “I’ve seen the rough side of life, too, where I thought maybe I might not make it out alive, but I always did, it always turned out, but you’ve got to stay the course…” He says his life experience works to his advantage as an actor: “All of it, every last bit of it.”

“Believability is what I’ve always searched for. People say, ‘You gotta be bigger on stage.’ I don’t buy that, and so far I’ve proven myself right because when I did Fences at the Huntington director Kenny Lyon saw what I was doing as something really brilliant and had the rest of the cast follow me — pick up the part of the song I knew. I just have a feeling for the rhythm. I know where the notes should be, I know where this song should be sung, I know where the pitch is.

“I worked with the great Lloyd Richards, in Two Trains Running at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The company had just come off Broadway. Even guys like Roscoe Lee Brown Lloyd still had to give direction. One day Roscoe asked me, ‘How does it feel to be the only one Lloyd doesn’t give directions to?’ Because I do my homework.”

 

 

 

 

Ripened with age

He feels if anything he’s improved with age.

“My concentration’s gotten even better. I’m even more aware of my presence on stage and I look more and more for the subtle, little things that make my characters more human, more interesting. It’s the same thing on camera. For me the excitement of doing a piece is finding things that maybe the writer wrote in-between the lines.”

Ultimately, he says, the theater is his foundation. “It’s still where I sharpen my craft.”

His own theater recently weathered hard times to launch its 12th season. He’s planning a new North Omaha theater. In March he joins Everwood star Treat Williams for a staged reading of a new Athol Fugard play at the University of North Carolina. And he still has faith his long-in-development Marlin Briscoe feature film project will happen.

Completely comfortable in his own skin, Beasley doesn’t wear success like a trophy. He prefers jeans and older model cars. “My work speaks for itself and I don’t have to impress anybody,” he says. His bucket list includes acting on Broadway. Whether he does or not, he says, “it’s been a really interesting journey.”

Follow the JBT at http://www.johnbeasleytheater.org.

Tired of Being Tired Leads to a New Start at the John Beasley Theater

September 30, 2011 8 comments

  • If you’re a return visitor to this blog, then you may recognize that the subject of this next story, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha, is one I’ve written about a number of times. If not the theater itself, then I’ve written about its productions, and if not productions then I’ve written about founder and president John Beasley. This time around I write about some recent financial woes the theater’s been experiencing and how with the help of friends and strangers the organization now has what it needs to go on with the 2011-2012 season, which was in jeapordy until John Beasley went public with the need. As a niche theater that largely but not exclusively produces work by African-American playwrights – with its current production of Radio Golf the theater’s now staged the entire 10-play cycle of African-American life that August Wilson wrote – the JBT presents a slate of work that otherwise might not be produced in Omaha. The theater is a labor of love for Beasley, a stage-film-television actor who views his enterprise as a way to bridge cultural differences and as a forum for black actors to learn their chops in a white majority city that has traditionally not embraced its black community and not provided many theater opportunities for aspiring, emerging or even established black theater artists.

 

 

Tired of Being Tired Leads to a New Start at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

John Beasley got tired of being tired.

By now, you’ve likely learned the John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s urgent appeal for funds to relieve its financial distress has been answered and the once endangered 2011-2012 season saved. But you probably don’t know the back story of its troubles or why founding namesake and president, John Beasley, is putting himself out there to share these travails and to make the case for the theater’s continued existence.

Ever since launching the theater in 2000 the stage-film-television actor has largely bankrolled the nonprofit himself. Year after year, with no real administrative staff and fronting a board short on resources and contacts, the theater’s only barely scraped by. This despite strongly reviewed work, some outright smash hits, including shows held over for extended runs. Its niche producing African-American plays, most notably the August Wilson repertoire, has distinguished it but not always helped it either.

The kindness of strangers, an occasional grant, meager season-ticket sales and box office receipts from a 100-seat house only go so far. It’s left Beasley holding the bag, writing personal checks to make-up the shortfall.

“I’ve underwritten most everything we’ve done, but it’s been at the point for a long time now that I thought the theater should be self-sustaining rather than to just keep going in my pocket,” he says. “I’m not getting anything financially out of the theater.”

There have been times, even quite recently, when there wasn’t enough in the theater’s coffers to pay his son, artistic director Tyrone Beasley, or directors’ fees, much less vendors. So he paid Tyrone and creditors himself.

Even the theater’s performing home in the LaFern Williams South Omaha YMCA at 3010 R Street, where the old Center Stage Theatre used to operate, was no sure thing.

“We were going through a period there where the oral contract we had with OHA (the Omaha Housing Authority agency that owned the building before the YMCA acquired it) had expired. Without that space being donated we wouldn’t have made it,” says Beasley “That was a big consideration at the end of that contract. It was up for renewal and the YMCA was saying, ‘What can you pay?’ and I told them we’re really in a situation where we can’t pay anything, They worked out a really nice arrangement for us and I’m really grateful to the YMCA for the use of that space.

“Without that, I think we would have closed.”

He acknowledges that in some ways he’s ill-prepared to run a theater, but he’s stuck it out because by his reckoning the whole venture is a calling.

“I didn’t set out to open a theater. I thought it was put on me for a reason. I believe things happen for a reason, so I’ve always talked to God in this way: ‘If you want me to be here, you’re going to have to provide the way.’”

Divine providence was necessary, he says, “because we came in here without any grants. OHA gave us the space but they didn’t give us any money to go with it, and not ever having a board that would raise funds for me, it’s been a struggle. The fact we’ve managed to stay here as long we have is a miracle in itself given I never had any experience in theater administration.

“But, you know, God has been good and has allowed us to be here 11 years and I don’t think He’s brought us this far to say, Ok, it’s over now. We haven’t completed our mission and we still have a ways to go, and I still have a vision for the theater.”

That vision, which encompasses a second theater he wants to build from the ground up in North Omaha as a regional attraction, has often seemed far off.

 

 

Rendering of the revitalized North 24th and Lake St. corridor where Beasley wants to build a new theater

 

 

“It’s always been a day to day thing. You can’t imagine what it’s like getting up every morning with this on your mind, wondering — how are we going to take care of this? how are we going pay these people?”

The recession hasn’t helped matters.

“Revenues have been flat and our expenses keep mounting. The box office only pays a little bit of the expenses. Our small house is not a big revenue source. It will pay some bills, but then you’re scrambling where you’re going to get the money for this and that. Attendance numbers are down because of the recession. These are entertainment dollars and with discretionary spending theater might not be at the top of the list.”

In noting that other theaters have dropped prices, he says, “we’ve looked at doing the same thing,” hastening to add, “But it wont necessarily guarantee our attendance will go up, and I’ve always felt that if people think it’s too cheap, they’ll assume its probably not worth it.” He’s heard grumbling in the black community his theater’s too pricey, an opinion he disputes. “We weren’t overcharging,” he says, noting that people don’t think twice about plopping down considerably more money to see touring gospel plays.

“Our work might not be as glitzy but the quality is as good as any that comes through as far as the acting is concerned, because I see what comes through and I don’t think there’s a lot of talent sometimes.”

The theater’s woes extended to marketing and publicity, which have been largely limited to post cards and print ads, leading Beasley to doubt it was even reaching its audience in this online social media age.

Approaching the start of the 2011-2012 season, kicking off with August Wilson’s Radio Golf, Beasley decided he’d had enough.

“I told the board that going into this season I needed $20,000 for the first show and I wouldn’t greenlight it until I received $10,000. And I asked the board, ‘Who’s going to lead this?’ I didn’t have any volunteers because my board is more of a working board. They’re willing to put in the work but they’re just not fundraisers, and that’s just the way it is. So out of frustration I said, ‘Well, alright, I’ll do it,’ and so I stepped out. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I believe when you step out in faith good things happen, they just happen. God or whatever provides a way.”

John Beasley

 

 

He laid out the precarious situation to friends of the theater with, “This is a crossroads for us. If this doesn’t happen I can’t just go along with this kind of pressure anymore…”

Then he went public Sept. 1, posting a Facebook appeal that spelled out in dire terms the make-or-break scenario confronting his South Omaha theater. His message stated flat out the JBT would close unless $10,000 was obtained. KETV, the Omaha World-Herald and other media picked up the story.

By mid-September $30,000 was either donated or pledged, meaning the season was on and the theater’s future, at least for now, secured. For Beasley, whose fierce demeanor and brickhouse physique belie a soft heart, the outpouring has taken him aback and given his theater mission a new lease on life.

 

 

“The best thing about going public is to receive the love from Omaha we received  from people we didn’t know. When I found out all you had to do was ask and people would respond…” he says, his voice trailing off in wonder.

“It’s put us in a place where I’m really optimistic about not only the season but about the future of the theater. This has given some breathing room we have never had before. It’s given us a budget, and that budget will take care of a lot of things. It will also help us pay off the vendors we owe.”

He says the community’s embrace has come from both long-time theater supporters and individuals with no connection to the organization. Support has come in amounts as small as $20 and as much as $5,000. The Myth bar in the Old Market threw a fund-raising party Sept. 20 that raised about $1,400.

 

Beyond the money collected, there’s new blood cultivated. As a result, he says the JBT now has a circle of volunteers with the skills to build a stable enterprise.

 

“I’ve put together a committee of people I’ve never had in place before,” says Beasley. “These people know what it’s all about.”

Development professional Jeff Leanna is the new executive director. He, along with management communications specialist Wendy Moore and her real estate executive husband Scott Moore are heading up marketing, solicitation, subscription campaigns and beefing up its online presence. Beasley’s in the process of “weeding out” some inactive board members and replacing them with energetic new members. Taken together, he says, the JBT has people in place to “take care of the administrative things and business part of it, and that’s such a relief. We’ve been really lacking in that end of it. My son and I are creative people.”

He expects fund-raisers, grant applications, membership programs and marketing-development campaigns to happen year-round. “That’s part of the plan,” he says. “We’re even reaching out to Oprah now,” he says, and hints that overtures may be made to actor-director Robert Duvall, whom he acted alongside in the The Apostle.

Now that the JBT is on more solid ground, he says, “I’m glad I went public with it. People now are aware of the need of the theater.” He says telling the theater’s story has also laid to rest some myths — like the city was funding the venue. “There was a misconception that we had everything we needed,” he says, and that he had limitless deep pockets.

“I think we had to hit bottom before we could have this turning point. I think this really was the catalyst to take us to that next level.”

For a proud man like Beasley airing his plight is not easy. But he sees it as the only way to explain why the theater is worth fighting for in the first place.

“At first I had some reservations, because you don’t want people to think you’re struggling or failing, but then I came to the realization we serve a purpose. Who else is going to do August Wilson or Suzan-Lori Parks or Eugene Lee or even Ted Lange? And where are the opportunities for up and coming black actors?

“Through the years we’ve touched a lot of lives. We’ve changed lives. We’ve got some good people we’ve brought along. Andre McGraw first came on the stage in our theater — now he’s going to school to study theater at UNO. TammyRa (Jackson) is an outstanding talent I’m going to lose soon — she’s talented enough to work out of town. I’m just so proud of her. Dayton Rogers is another fine actor coming up. Phyllis Mitchell-Butler is in a production at the Playhouse now. Where else would they have gotten this opportunity?”

The JBT’s also offered a window into the black experience that’s given white Omaha a perspective sorely lacking outside that prism.

“I guess I’m most proud of the exposure to black culture we’ve given Omaha,” he says, adding that “75 percent of our patrons come from West Omaha.”

Fear or loathing of other cultures, he says, is less likely when there’s communication and knowledge.

“The more you learn about something, the more you understand something — then you can’t hate it. I think we’re bridging gaps.”

He says the divides that stymie America plague the city as well, and the arts and theater, perhaps his theater especially, can serve to heal.

“The country can’t move forward because of politics and ideologies. Nobody’s trying to understand the other side, there’s no compromise. If you can understand the other side then you can create a dialogue. If you have a dialogue then things can happen. That’s true nationally and it’s true in this city. The disparity between blacks and whites in this city is the worst than any place in this country.”

Among the reasons he’s hung his theater on the back of August Wilson’s body of work is the playwright’s cycle of 10 plays revealing the arc of African-American life in the 20th century as seen through the eyes of Pittsburgh’s Hill District denizens.

 

 

August Wilson visiting Pittsburgh’s Hill District

 

 

“I love August Wilson’s work because it’s a true reflection,” says Beasley, whose extensive credits include productions of Wilson plays in major regional theaters. “I know these people. One of the goals when I opened the theater was to introduce Omaha to August Wilson, because he’s such an important part to my whole career and has created work that will keep middle aged black men working forever. I can do Wilson till I’m ready to die. It’s just a rich legacy he’s left black actors and the world for that matter. His stuff crosses all lines.

“You’ve known people like Troy Maxon (Fences). I’ve had people come up to me wherever I’ve done this and say, ‘That was my dad’ or ‘I knew that guy.’ You know these people and these situations, the relationships between sons and fathers. Life has passed them by and they haven’t dealt with it very well.”

With Radio Golf, the last in the cycle, the JBT’s now performed each of the 10 Wilson plays, including some (Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney) staged multiple times. Radio Golf’s look at gentrification efforts in a historical black neighborhood has particular resonance for Beasley and the new North Omaha theater he envisions. Leo A Daly is nearing final designs for the unfunded project, which would not replace the existing site, but rather complement it. It’s a project personal to Beasley on several levels.

“We’d like to put it between 25th and 24th Streets in that Lake Street corridor. It would be right off the Interstate. If you build up it, they’ll come. That would be my field of dreams. We want to be a destination and an anchor to the cultural revitalization of this district. I grew up in this neighborhood, it’s my neighborhood. I was here when they tore it down and burnt it down. I remember giving a little speech here to rioters — ‘Why you tearing down your own neighborhood? If you’re that angry, go downtown.’ It was opportunistic hoodlums that did that stuff and then you have that mob mentality.

“I just want to be a part of rebuilding the neighborhood. It’s changed. Regentrification is happening.”

Should the new theater come to pass, it would be another piece in the resurgent  arts-culture district slated for the area, where the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Great Plains Black History Museum already operate and where Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art is due to locate.

None of it means the JBT is out of the woods.

“I don’t want people to think we’re OK, we’re not OK,” says Beasley. The influx of funds, he says, “is a start, but I’m looking for a $200,000 budget for this season. We appreciate any donations.” As a thank you to the community the theater offered free admission for its season-opening, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, weekend.

Visit www.johnbeasleytheater.org for donation and season ticket info.

John Beasley and Sons Make Acting a Family Thing at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and Beyond

September 3, 2011 9 comments

John Beasley, the patriarch of Omaha’s First Family of Thespians, and his John Beasley Theater & Workshop, have been the subjects of many stories by me, all of which can be found on this blog. This particular story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at how Beasley’s two sons, Tyrone and Michael, haven’t fallen far from their father’s solid acting tree. John is an acclaimed television, film, and theater actor. Tyrone is a respected actor and director. Michael is emerging as a character actor force in television and in studio and independent films.

 

 

John Beasley

 

 

John Beasley and Sons Make Acting a Family Thing at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and Beyond

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

As time goes by, it’s clear acting is a birthright with the Beasleys, that talented clan of thespians fast-evolving into the first family of Omaha theater.

John Beasley long ago made his mark on the Omaha theater scene, scoring dramatic triumphs in the 1970s and ‘80s at the Center Stage, the Chanticleer, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the Nebraska Repertory Theatre, the Firehouse Dinner Theatre and the Omaha Community Playhouse, among other venues. Now, having done the regional theater circuit and built a nice screen acting career, he’s returned to the local dramatic arts fraternity with his own John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Sharing space with the South Omaha YMCA in the La Fern Williams Center at 3010 Q Street, the theater’s become a showcase for African-American plays and emerging talent, including Beasley’s sons, Tyrone and Michael, who’ve shown serious acting chops themselves. Tyrone comes from a professional theater background and Michael is transitioning back to acting after a long layoff.

In a June production of August Wilson’s Jitney, the proud papa and his progeny led a rich ensemble cast on the theater’s small stage. John, as the hot-headed Turnbo, inhabited his part with his usual veracity and found all the music in Wilson’s jazz-tinged words. Tyrone, as the emotionally-scarred Booster, hit just the right notes as a man desperate to salvage his misspent life. Michael, as the decent Youngblood, brought an unaffected gravity to his character.

In a reunion of sorts, Beasley recruited Broadway actor Anthony Chisholm, with whom he’d done Jitney at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, for the JBT show. The Alliance is one of many regional black theaters Beasley honed his skills in and serves as a model for what he’s trying to create in Omaha.

Jitney broke all box-office records in the short history of Beasley’s theater and now he and his sons are poised to build on that success. They’re opening the 2004-2005 season with a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun, whose revival on Broadway last season earned kudos. Raisin, which Tyrone will produce and play a small part in, runs September 17 through October 10.

 

 

Tyrone and John Beasley

 

 

A Shared Craft and Passion
Although Jitney was the first time all three Beasleys acted together, John and Tyrone collaborated as producer and director on the JBT’s rendering of Wilson’s Two Trains Running in 2003. Tyrone co-starred with Michael in Two Trains. Years earlier, Michael portrayed Biff opposite his father’s Willie Loman in a Center Stage mounting of Death of a Salesman. The trio’s eager to work together more, but it’s not easy making their busy schedules jive, much less finding pieces with the right parts. While taking vastly different paths to the craft they now share, each articulates a similar passion for acting and its sense of discovery.

For John, who comes from a family of storytellers, it’s all about expressing and exploring himself through drama. His working process is direct. “The first thing I try to do is commit the words to my memory so that I can make them mine,” he said. “I like to do that early on, especially in the rehearsal process. I prefer to jump right into the character and to find the energy, the emotional nuances and the relationships. As an actor, you have to be willing to give and receive with your fellow actors. That way, if we’re playing opposite each other, we have something to react to and build off of.” Character development, he said, never really stops. “Even by the end of the run, you’ll never really fully realize the potential of your character. You just continue to look for things and to look for ways to grow.”

For an extrovert like John, to “come in blasting away and still have a lot” left over is one method. Another, is the more studied method used by the more reserved Tyrone. “I have a slower process,” Tyrone said, “where I first have to work on the words until they’re really embedded. Then, once I know what’s happening in the scene, I start to explore. So, it takes me awhile to get the little nuances.” Once he’s up to speed, however, Tyrone likes to “play,” by which he means improvise.

“That’s when Tyrone gets up there and looks for something new every night,” John said of his son’s ability to riff, which is something Beasley prides himself in as well.

Tyrone loved the experience of working with professional actors in Jitney. “You feel a lot freer when you have people up there who really know what they’re doing and are really seasoned at it. People that you can play with and play off of, and not distract them. It’s fun to bring something new and different and exciting every night. It was a real enjoyable experience in that way,” he said.

Spontaneity in acting, John said, is sometimes misinterpreted by the uninitiated as discarding the script and just winging it. But that’s not the case. He said in early rehearsals for the JBT’s production ofFor Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow’s Enuf, the mostly newcomer cast “came in with a lot of wild stuff. They were even making up lines and things, and I’m like, No, that’s not what I’m talking about. Within the words on the page you can find a new and exciting reason every night for your performance.”

 

 

Michael Beasley

 

 

Making It Your Own
For someone as accomplished as John, tweaking his craft is, as Tyrone puts it, “a lot more subtle, because he’s been doing it so long. When you get to a certain level, there’s only so much that you can do as far as the technique of acting. But with each character it’s different, and you have to approach each character differently and hopefully learn about yourself and see the world from someone else’s point of view. That’s what we, as actors, are basically trying to do — to show this character’s point of view, which may not be the same point of view you have. So, growth on a certain level comes from that, and he does that all the time.”

It’s dredging your inner self to find the right emotional pitch to fit the character and the dynamics of the scene. “We’re all trying to find the character within our own reality,” John said, “to make it an honest presentation as opposed to just acting.” “To make it our own,” Tyrone added.

“You have to think about it and feel it first before you can express the truth about it. You don’t just rattle lines off. Method actors call it being in the moment. And this is what we instill in our people,” John said, referring to the JBT workshops he and Tyrone lead that train its many first-time actors. “The first thing we tell them is, Get out of your head. Get away from — I did it this way last night and the audience really loved me, so I’m going to repeat the same thing tonight. Then, you never grow. If you want to do that head thing, you can go someplace else because we’re trying to set a certain standard here with believability.”

Tyrone said the goal is to achieve the kind of unadorned truth his father finds in everything from a classic soliloquy to a modern rant. “We’re trying to make it seem conversational, so that as the audience you’re like eavesdropping in on people just talking, not acting. That’s what we’re trying to get to.” John added, “It doesn’t matter what the script is. It can be Shakespeare or whatever, but you still bring that honesty to it. Another thing we teach is to try to find the music and the rhythm of a piece. It wasn’t until I learned the music of Shakespeare’s writing that it really flowed for me.” A key to August Wilson’s work, he said, is its jazz quality.

For Tyrone, the appeal of drama is “storytelling and trying to portray stories truthfully. Drama’s like holding a mirror up to life. I like paying attention to the details and colors of life. My job is to explore that and, using my imagination, to take it to the fullest.”

No two actors work the same. Even widely varying styles can mesh. John recalls working with the great Roscoe Lee Browne. “You know, he’s got this great voice and he uses the voice as opposed to finding an emotional base. The way I normally work is, I’ll come in and listen and then I’ll give my line as a reaction to what I hear that night. One night, Roscoe and I were working on Two Trains in Chicago. We had this thing where we’d almost compete. I had this great speech and then he had a great speech after it. And if I was OK, he’d step up his game, you know, and the voice would get deeper and the audience would be like, Wow. Well, one night we were both really great and Roscoe came off stage and said, ‘I know that was wonderful, but I know you’re going to fuck around and change it.’ And I said, ‘That’s what I do, man.’ So, we all do different things.”

An acting novice compared to his father and brother, Michael Beasley sounds as if he’s been paying attention to them, when he says of his own approach, “I’m still learning the process, but I try to get the words down as quick as possible, so that in the rehearsal process I can play with it and try to find the character. Each night, I’m still searching for my character and looking to grow my character.”

Tyrone saw Michael’s growth in Jitney. “Something I noticed with this performance is when he moved, he really seemed like he belonged in the space of the jitney stand. It felt like he wasn’t on stage as an actor, but there as that character.” John agreed, saying, “Oh, yeah, he’s come a long way since Two Trains. He’s learning. He does his homework. That’s the most important thing.”

 

 

 

 

Like Father, Like Sons
As the sons follow in the shadow of their father, they’re treading some of the very ground he once trod. Like his father before him, Tyrone’s performed at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. And Michael’s been signed to his first film by the same producer and casting agent, Ruben Cannon, who inked John Beasley to his first national acting jobs — the ABC movie Amerika and the ABC-TV series Brewster Place. Michael has a speaking part in the indie project, Trust, now shooting in Atlanta, where he resides. In another Atlanta project, The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, he’s doubling gospel playwright, actor and director phenom Tyler Perry, who co-stars as Madea in this film adaptation of Perry’s smash stage show.

John, a veteran of the boards and the bright lights, is the mentor and role model whose strong, centered, accessible presence is something each of his sons, or for that matter, any actor, aspires to. Despite some formal training, he’s largely a self-taught actor. He draws on rich life experiences — he’s been everything from a jock and jitney driver to a radio-TV host to a longshoreman and janitor — to inform his real-as-rain portrayals. He is, as the saying goes, a natural.

It’s been 20 years since this family patriarch made the leap from acting on community and regional theater stages to character parts on television and in feature films. His film roles include small but telling turns in the feel-good Rudy and the intense The Apostle. Even with such successes, the realities of screen acting dictate being an itinerant artist — going wherever the next gig takes you. That is, until he landed the recurring role of Irv Turner on the WB series, Everwood. Now that he has “a regular job,” he’s devoting much of his time away from the Everwood set to the south Omaha theater that not only bears his name, but stirs fond memories and renews old ties. The theater is the site of the old Center Stage where Beasley first flexed his acting muscles. Just as it celebrated diversity in plays by and about minorities, the JBT is all about alternative voices and faces.

In addition to occasionally acting there, John serves as JBT executive director and artistic director, and has directed shows, most notably its inaugural production of August Wilson’s Fences (in which Beasley starred as Troy Maxson). He and Tyrone also teach the workshops that are part of the JBT’s mission of developing a pool of trained actors the theater can draw on for future shows. That pool is growing.

For Jitney, Beasley brought in ringers in the figures of professional actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, but the rest of the cast was local. An indication of the talent here, Beasley said, is something Chisholm told him. “He thought this was a better cast than we had in Atlanta, and in many instances he’s right. I thought with the people we put together, we could have played that show anywhere.”

According to John and Tyrone, an ever expanding base of minority talent is being identified and groomed through the JBT workshop program. “I see young people coming in who are going to do very well. When they come out of my theater, I want them to have that confidence they can work anywhere.” “That’s exactly why we have the workshop — to give them the confidence,” Tyrone said. One JBT “graduate,” Robinlyn Sayers, is pursuing regional theater opportunities in Houston.

An Omaha Benson High School grad, Tyrone earned an art degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He did some modeling. Then, after getting hooked on acting at the Center Stage, he took private drama lessons in Chicago. Following in the footsteps of his father, Tyrone scored a coup when cast by the legendary theater director Peter Sellars in The Merchant of Venice at the Goodman Theatre. Blissfully ignorant of Sellars’ world-class reputation as an enfant terrible genius, Tyrone found himself acting with future heavyweight Philip Seymour Hoffman in a production that eventually toured Europe. “I don’t know how my audition would have went if I knew who he (Sellars) was. I might have been more nervous.” After Chicago, he attended California State University, Long Beach, where he acted with the California Repertory Company. “I also worked out of Los Angeles doing readings and worked behind the scenes as a film production assistant. That was a great experience.” After his father launched the JBT, he was enlisted in 2003 to help get the fledgling theater on “a solid foundation.”

Aside from that one time on stage with his dad in Death of a Salesman, Michael Beasley was hell-bent on a career in athletics, not dramatics. After making all-state his senior season at Omaha Central, he earned Juco hoops honors at McCook Community College before playing for the University of Texas-Arlington. He played more than 10 years of pro ball in the States and abroad, mostly in Latin America. Off-seasons, he lived in Atlanta, where he still makes his home with his wife and kids. Then, the acting bug bit again. His first post-hoops gig came as a last minute replacement — not unlike getting called off the bench in a crucial game situation.

“The way that went down is I was deciding to get back into acting when some people fell out of the Two Trains cast and Tyrone called and said, ‘Can you come up here and do this play tomorrow?’ So, I came up, and it was a great experience. It whet my appetite to pursue it further,” Michael said.

He admits to some trepidation acting with his father in Jitney, in which their antagonist characters wage a fist fight. “Everybody said, ‘You better bring your ‘A’ game.’ But it was great,” Michael said. “I try to absorb everything like a sponge and feed off the the stuff my father does to prepare. I’ve been able to draw on the experience I had in the play and bring it to the film projects I’m in now.”

John found it “real enjoyable” working with Mike. “He knew what I expected,” John said. “We had real good eye contact and we were able to play off each other really well, which became really important when we had to replace our Becker, Ben Gray, especially in the fight scene, which moves along pretty fast.”

So, was a life in acting inevitable for his sons? “I feel like I was definitely influenced because my father did it, but I feel like it’s chosen me more than anything. It’s a calling,” Tyrone said. “Of course, my father was an influence,” Michael said. “A lot of people think I’m in acting now because my father’s really successful at it, but our father never pushed us. It’s just something I chose. When I said I wanted to do it, he said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ It fills a void after basketball. I can’t play anymore at a high level, but with acting — the sky’s the limit. It’s something else to be passionate about. Besides, I’m not a nine-to-five guy. And I love the challenge.”

In John Beasley’s opinion, no one chooses acting. “It chooses you,” he said. And how much acting shop talk is there when the Beasleys get together? “We talk about it a lot. It’s part of our lives,” he said.

Looking to build on the momentum of Jitney, John Beasley’s commissioned noted UNO Theatre director Doug Paterson to direct Raisin. Paterson and company will workshop the play six weeks before it opens. Beasley’s also working with his agent to help round out the cast with name actors. “That’s a really good connection to have for putting some really nice ensembles together,” Beasley said. “We have a lot of talent in Omaha, but sometimes it helps to bring in some professionals. I think it’s good for the theater, good for the audiences and good for our actors here.”

Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha

June 13, 2011 9 comments

For a six-seven year period I devoted much time and energy to reporting on Omaha native John Beasley, a respected film, television, and stage actor and the director of his own namesake theater in his hometown. You’ll find on this blog several of the stories I did about John and his theater, including productions mounted there, and various guest artists who performed there. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader,com) is about one of those guest artists, actor Anthony Chisholm.  My reporting about Beasley and his theater came to an abrupt end a few years ago when he took such strong exception to a review I wrote of one of his productions that it spoiled that particular beat for me. For all I know, he’s forgotten about the incident. But the verbal excoriation he gave me was so unsettling that I haven’t had the urge or the guts to contact him again, much less set foot in his theater. I did right by John and his theater for years, and he knows it, and so I do hope we can be friends again in the sense of my covering his work. The ironic thing is that that review was the only review I ever wrote – everything else was a feature or profile, and he never had any problem with those. Can’t we all just get along?

By the way, he’s picked up a recurring part in the HBO drama Treme and he hopes to have his recurring role in the NBC serio-comic series Harry’s Law continue.  He continues to develop a feature film on Marlin Briscoe, the NFL’s first black quarterback.

 

 

Anthony Chisholm

Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the john Beasley Theater in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Actor Anthony Chisholm, a great interpreter of the late August Wilson’s work, is in Omaha for the second time in three years at the invitation of the John Beasley Theater. Chisholm’s originated roles in several Wilson plays about the African-American experience. He was a close friend of the playwright.

Chisholm once played opposite JBT founder John Beasley in a regional theater production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running. A friendship was born. In 2004 Chisholm came here to be part of the ensemble cast for Wilson’s Jitney at the JBT. Now, fresh off a Tony nomination for his featured role in Wilson’s Radio Golf, Chisholm is back at the JBT in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold…and the Boys. The show opens October 26 and runs through November 18.

This marks the first time that Chisholm, a veteran of regional theater, off-Broadway, Broadway, television and film, has worked in a piece by the South African Fugard. Chisholm met Fugard through the late director and drama instructor Lloyd Richards, a key figure in each man’s life. Chisholm studied under Richards, who brought Fugard’s work to the States at the Yale School of Drama and on Broadway.

Chisholm, a resident of Montclair, N.J., was destined to be an actor from the time his mother, an unpublished poet and novelist, encouraged him to recite prose and verse as a child in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. A young Chisholm wowed family, friends and fellow congregants at East Mount Zion Baptist Church with his resonant bass voice and perfect diction.

“I remember my uncle Pete telling me that was my ‘calling.’ He said it in such a deep and placed way that that stuck somewhere back in me,” Chisholm said.

One of Chisholm’s favorite childhood haunts was the Karamu House, a social settlement offering arts and crafts, dance and theater. The Karamu House Theatre, whose notables have included Langston Hughes, Ruby Dee, Brock Peters, Ivan Dixon and Halle Berry, gained fame for its integrated productions.

Intent on an architectural career, Chisholm entered Case Western Reserve University. He waited tables at a posh Washington, D.C. nightclub, the Junkanoo, to earn enough so he could continue his studies. This was the mid-1960s. As the Vietnam War grew hotter and the draft loomed larger, Chisholm’s number came up and he landed in the U.S. Army. His commanding presence found him a drill sergeant — barking orders to a regiment of 1,500 old-timers.

While in uniform he won a dramatic reading contest that earned him a scholarship to Yale. He never used it. On a leave home he visited the Karamu and found himself shanghaied into a reading of Douglas Turner Ward’s A Day of Absence. Cast on the spot, he had to beg off due to his military commitment. But Chisholm recalled the director encouraging him by saying, “’When you get out of the Army you come back here — we’re going to get you started.’ And so it was.”

Not before Chisholm got his orders for Nam. He served as an M-60 gunner on an armored personnel carrier with the 4th Armored Calvary, 1st Infantry Division. He saw his share of firefights. He survived the shit and just six months after returning home he began doing rep at the Karamu. Things happened fast. Paramount Pictures came to Cleveland to shoot a feature, Up Tight!, and he was cast alongside Roscoe Lee Browne and Raymond St. Jacques. Seven more film roles came in short order, including a pair of cult classics — Putney Swope and Where’s Poppa?.

 

 

August Wilson

 

 

He’s continued to act on the small and big screen, including parts in Beloved and in the new Adam Sandler-Don Cheadle film, Reign Over Me, playing opposite Cicely Tyson. He’s also done many guest shots on episodic TV and played a recurring character, Burr Redding, in the acclaimed HBO series Oz. But he’s mainly a stage actor. As a young man he hooked up with the Negro Ensemble Company, where he studied under Richards in a master class. He’s gone on to act with such leading theaters as the Goodman and Steppenwolf in Chicago, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Seattle Repertory. Then there’s his association with August Wilson, whom he first met in 1990. He considers himself a disciple of Wilson’s.

“There was something very holy about him. He was a prophet-philosopher. He was just this very unusual individual. If you read his writing so many of the things he says in storyline, as characters speaking, are so philosophical and deep,” Chisholm said. Doing Wilson, he added, “has made me a beter actor without a doubt because working with well-written material brings out the best in you.”

An actor’s journey is all about discovery — about one’s self, one’s craft. It’s very much a life-long, self-taught process. “You teach yourself and you borrow from observation and every now and then you’re informed of something — an eye-opener,” Chisholm said. “So, yes, it’s always continuous.”

Arriving at the truth is the goal. It means being vulnerable and letting go.

“I know my own truth serum,” he said, “and if I don’t believe it, nobody else is going to believe it. Each role, as I move along, gets more truthful. You have to listen. I’ve been working on listening more. I don’t even think when I go out on stage or in front of the camera. I just throw myself out there. That’s a conditioning I’ve got to at this point, where I try to keep my head clear — a blank slate.

“I don’t care if I have a million lines, I don’t think about those words. As I observe and I feel, when it’s time to respond, it vomits out. The words will be there because I know the words back and forth. And that’s the way we are as people. Stuff comes out of us as we bounce things off one another.”

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